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Twenty miles outside of Chapel Hill is Route 12, a road forgotten almost as soon as it was paved. Having survived the sinister wet of forty North Carolina winters mostly intact, it finally became the chosen road of the truckers of Paradigm Shipping, whose routes took them up and down the eastern seaboard from New York City to the Port of Miami. Paradigm’s warehouses, nestled squarely between I-95 and Route 12 in a lot that stretched five miles square, was the only stopover in-between, and as the company grew so did their share of the lot. At its height Paradigm was using all but a few of these warehouses, and Route 12 was a-hum with the fearsome power of the almighty V-8.

 

But what goes up must come down, and it wasn’t long after the market crashed that an employee of the warehouse lot was sent with a cherry picker to pull Paradigm’s logo from one warehouse after another until only one was left. In a flurry of casually cancelled middle-class dreams and a few slammed doors, the truckers were laid off, and Route 12 grew quiet and then still. Days passed without a single truck blowing by the pines and poplars that edged the road, and finally, just when it seemed like it had seen its last shipment, a pair of headlights flashed in the dark from the on-ramp.

 

They belonged not to a Kenworth or a Peterbilt, but a Corolla almost as old as its driver who, like so many of Paradigm’s now unemployed truckers, was carrying both precious cargo and a dream.

 

At nineteen, Gale Hawthorne was already too big for the car he drove. His knees skimmed the bottom of the steering wheel even when he leaned back as far as he could in his seat. But there was no money for anything better than the same heap of junk that his mother had been driving as long as he could remember, and even with a future four grand’s worth of weight in his backpack, there still wouldn’t be. For five years, his baby sister Posy had  earned straight A’s, and as far as Gale was concerned, that meant college. So when Madge Undersee, the unrepentantly lovely snow queen of UNC called and asked him to bring her something fun and new, he grit his teeth and asked where to meet her. He didn’t like fun, and he didn’t do ‘new’. But for Madge? Anything.

 

“At Unit Nine,” she drawled. Her voice, even through the phone, somehow managed to meet in an uneasy apex of hesitant and silken. The kind of voice that asked an empty house if anyone was home, as if feminine charm alone could wring love from stone.

 

And Gale wasn’t stone in the least.

 

“I’ll be there,” he promised. He hadn’t let her down yet, and it was a hard-fought battle in his head as to whether or not he even could. A girl like that lived from line to line, and he had no business getting involved with a client, even his best one. Still, he found himself knuckle deep and aching for more each time she called and asked where he was in that ragged, breathless way she had whenever her demons grew too loud to be drowned out. So he would be there.

 

Even if it meant driving all the way out to Unit Nine, a warehouse that once belonged to Paradigm Shipping but was currently the newest location in UNC’s underground rave scene- the kind of place known only by name, with no listed address and a text sent twenty-four hours in advance with what password to give the bouncers posted out front. Gale, not on the guest list and definitely not ‘in the know’, spent a good ten minutes arguing with said bouncers before Madge emerged through the steel doors.

 

She is lovely, floating on impossible heels and already high, rubbing her pink nose with an index finger decorated in chipped black nail polish. She smiles when she sees him- an expression full of ‘pleases’ and ‘thank you’s’- and taps a light kiss on his cheek. His skin warms as he feels her fingers in his pocket, fishing for the tiny plastic baggy. Judging by the thickness of the wad of cash brushing against his thigh, she has again given him more than street value in exchange.

 

“Come inside,” she breathes, her eyelids heavy as she stares up at him. “Just for a little while.”

 

He swallows and brushes a lock of blonde hair back behind her ear.

 

“I’ve gotta go babe,” he says, just loud enough for the bouncers to hear. "You know that."

 

“Stay,” she murmurs. “Please?”

 

There had to be a word for the exact place she made him weak. These gatherings of daddy’s little technicolor brats were a nightmare world that brushed the tangent of his own. Balmain, Diplo, i-D, ASOS, Kali Uchis- words he knew because Madge’s friends had a fetish for all the tragedy and poverty they’d never understand- though Christ did they just love to play dress up- and he was their sure and steady supply. He prefered women, and they prefered him. The reality of the world beyond him was much stranger than the glossy images they were used to, and he liked his clients rich and unlikely to invite him inside. Still, he wouldn’t care if this entire warehouse went up in flames and took them with it… Except for the sullen eyed princess who had somehow been grabbed and knocked around by the ugly hands beyond the safety of her luxury SUV, and never quite managed to get the bruises to heal. To beg him like this… she must be crawling out of her own skin. His thumbs trace the soft swathes of flesh under her eyes, oily and cold with sweat.

 

“Yeah,” he says. “Ok. An hour.”

 

The double-doors open for them, and frenetic lights and bass spill out into the still Carolina night, before swallowing them whole. Madge drags him to the middle of the floor, her arms raising above her head as her hips sway and her head hangs back against his shoulder. He can feel the heat of her against his chest and his hands wrap around her hips, dragging them backward to come flush with his. She slips a hand into her bra and spins in his arms, an inch or so of pink tongue extended. A blue tab rests on its tip.

 

As a rule, he doesn’t partake. It’s just not smart business. But as her eyes bore into his from under a sharp, heavy rim of black eyeliner, he tilts her face upward with sure hands. To anyone else it would have looked like an offering, but Gale knows a plea when he sees one, and he finally has the answer he’s been looking for.

 

No. It’s not possible for him to refuse her anything.

 

A storm of light dances across the wet surface of her eyes as he presses his lips against hers hard. Does she know? How dangerous she is to him? His breath sticks to his throat as the tab passes between their mouths. For months he has been teetering on an edge he can’t name. Now, as her fingers curl in his hair and the rabbit hole yawns wide open, he understands. This thing that she does to his heart- where it squeezes and shudders underneath the gentle brush of her fingertips… It might be love.

 

Time slices and divides itself into chords - gestures - individual notes. He feels her with everything in him that can feel- the dew of her skin, the thunder underneath it, the crash of her breath against his neck- like waves against rock. The cradle of her hips sways the ground beneath his feet and pumps the blood in his veins as something- either his heartbeat or the bass or both- laps against the inside of his ribcage. His hands have long since memorized her shape, but it’s something new now that each inch of skin is magnified underneath the pads of his fingers. Electricity crackles between them as he learns her all over again in the endless space between where he was and where he is soon-to-be.

 

She exhales long and slow in his ear, a thunderous brush of fuzz and reverb- and suddenly-

 

Darkness, cold and fresh, washes over him. His shirt is wet. The light is out. Something smells like smoke.

 

Madge is a limp doll in his arms as he leans his throbbing head up and looks over a sea of twisting, bouncing heads. A single light at the far end of the warehouse illuminates the edge of the crowd. People are shoving each other, climbing over one another toward the back of the warehouse where he and Madge now are. Three bodies converge on another one and all four go down. His blood freezes in his veins as his brain struggles to catch up with what is happening. Two other heads disappear down into the shadows. Suddenly. As if yanked. But then one raises up, and his eyes catch on the face.

 

Twisted- mouth torn open in a primal howl- splattered with something glittering and dark. In the fraction of a second it takes him to understand that something is very fucking wrong, the sea of bodies that had been rolling in time to the music starts to writhe with a frantic new rhythm, and Madge, limp and unconscious to it all, falters in his arms.

 

And that’s when the music cuts out, and the screaming starts.

 

The crowd rushes suddenly- a crush of bodies rife with the stench of sickly rich perfume and cold sweat- and he yanks Madge up against him. They need to leave- right fucking now - before the tide of panic sucks them under. His eyes light on a flashing exit sign and he shoves his way toward it blindly. The screams swell in the darkness as anonymous hands grab at him and the eternity between himself and the door grows. He pushes harder, using one hand to cut the mass in front of them and the other to grip the limp girl in his arms. She is still rolling, entirely ignorant to the nightmare that has interrupted reality, and he knows if he doesn’t hold on tight she will be sucked away from him and disappear forever.

 

They make it to the door- impossibly, incredibly. He shoves his way through and they burst into the cool air beyond;and he is sure to force the door shut behind them. In the silence of the pre-dawn dark his heart thunders impossibly loud. Beyond the metal walls of the warehouse and the horror unfolding within, the quiet is worse than anything he has experienced before; underneath its icy surface something discordant is seething, bubbling up from below.

 

“Gale?”

 

Madge is slurring, her eyes glassy.

 

“Hey- Hey-”

 

He brushes hair out of her face.

 

“Can you hear me?”

 

“M’course.”

 

“Ok. Listen then. This is very important- can you run?”

 

Her brow tightens.

 

“Why’ere?”

 

“It’s time to go, ok Madge? Now listen. Can you run?”

 

“Think so.”

 

“Ok then. We’re gonna run ok? And, listen to me- don’t look anywhere but straight ahead. Can you do that for me?”

 

“Mhmm.”

 

“Ok- let’s go.”

 

To her credit, she kicks her heels off. But Madge is loud and slow, completely ignorant to the muffled sounds behind them- and they are still too far from his car for him to carry her.

 

“Faster Madge,” he whispers.

 

“What’s going on?”

 

“Just run, ok? We just gotta run.”

 

Footsteps echo around them. His heart kicks in his chest.

 

A snarl echoes somewhere in the distance, and a scream shatters the silence.

 

“Gale- what-?”

 

“Don’t look. Just run.”

 

He grabs her hand and pulls her along- her bare feet slapping the earth as the echoes of footsteps build, and another scream rings out. They make it out of the maze of buildings as a horrific chorus erupts behind them and he drags her into the darkness of the forest.

 

“Ow- fuck- Gale- Please tell me wha’s goin’ on.”

 

“Here. On my back. Let’s go.”

 

“What-”

 

“Just do it!”

 

She wraps her arms around his neck and he jogs as silently as he can through the trees, but they must have been seen because he can hear something crashing through the brush behind him. The air in his lungs screams with every step he takes and it finally becomes clear that he has to put her down or they’re both fucked.

 

“Come on, you have to run-,” he yells.

 

There are more behind them now- and shit they’re fast. Too fast. He can hear their rasping howls all around them- see their dark silhouettes flashing in between the trees just a scarce few feet away. They’re fucked- so fucked-

 

The trees break suddenly and they spill into a clearing of tall grass. Lit by the low, hot glare of the rising sun is a shadowy building topped with a spire that’s impossible to mistake. A church- an old one. It’s leaning perilously and dotted with dark moss, but it’s their only chance. Madge is a few feet behind him, breathing heavily and stumbling. Just steps behind her is one of the people from the warehouse, his face and shirt splattered with dark, glistening fluid.

 

It’s too late. Maybe it always had been. Whatever was happening- how many would survive? And what would be left of them? He slows abruptly. Madge outstrips him, stumbling forward and then beyond into the soft, dewy grass without looking back. It’s better this way, though. He doesn’t want her to see. Something swipes his back and he bolts forward, then slows again. Madge is closing in on the church. She is so close. He wills her not to turn around. A snarl in his ear- Something yanks his arm-

 

If he can distract them long enough for her to get inside-


A body flies into his out of nowhere- hands grasp his arm and neck as teeth sink into his back. He whirls- his fist connecting solidly with a jaw- but there are two more that rush him and spots erupt in his vision as one finds his cheek and tears. His heart beats erratically as he shoves it away. Pain flares at the base of his head and ricochets toward the front of his skull, searing a fiery line through his face and down his right arm. He cradles the gushing wound on his cheek and stumbles forward as the sky tilts dizzyingly and blares white hot in his skull. More people pile on him- a tangle of limbs and teeth ensnare him as the world blurs. Over their heads, he can just make out Madge’s silver-blonde head in the distance. She’s made it. She’s at the church. It grows wet and shadowy in his eyes- like he’s sinking deep into murky water. She tugs on the doors and as they swing open, he begs her not to turn around. She does- of course she does- and as blackness swallows him, a shape hurtles out of the church and collides with her, dragging them both into the dark.

Chapter Text

It is 4:38am when Howard Pugget roars down Route 12 to deliver Paradigm Shipping’s last truckload of cargo, having departed the smoky, stagnant docks of New York City six hours ago. The cargo itself was loaded by Paradigm’s skeleton crew- the last of the last in a dynasty of longshoremen that had been working for the company since it was founded in the early 1920’s. For generations their families had loaded carts, horses, wagons, ships and trucks headed around the world, and the night it all ended the lonely few remnants of their reign smoked a last cigarette together, then got to work loading a truck headed for North Carolina.

 

It’s quick work between the six of them and a forklift, one of the few remaining assets Paradigm had yet to liquidate. They even have time for a break while Howard Pugget treats himself, unknowingly, to a last meal at the Waffle House across the street. While he is gone they sit on the edge of the truck and wonder what will become of them as Paradigm prepares to shutter its doors for good. They have children, back problems they nurse like children, car payments, mortgages, credit card debts to pay off- that endless stack of red ink in the mail swallowing their paychecks whole. Life had become a broken promise on the docks that their fathers once worked to support a family of eight, but which now couldn’t support three people even with overtime. In their bubble of collective and competing miseries, they never see the woman limping towards them from the end of the docks- her bloody teeth clicking as her jaw snaps open and shut wildly. By the time they do, it is already too late. Her teeth have sunk into flesh, and in a scarce two minutes, the reign of the longshoremen of Paradigm Shipping comes to an abrupt and bloody end.

 

When Howard Pugget returns, the dock is clear.

 

This is unusual, but the door to the back of his truck is shut, and the forklift is on and idling nearby, so he climbs into his cab and starts toward 1-95. The insistent rattling from inside the truck is drowned out by his radio the entire distance from New York to Chapel Hill. He does find the steady slam of something solid against steel odd when he jumps out of the cab in front of Warehouse Unit 8, but he assumes it’s from the party in the warehouse next door, and goes inside the office. It’s then that he flips open his cell phone and orders a meal from the local 24-hour diner for delivery that he will never eat.

 

It is delivered, though.

 

A girl in tight, rolled up jeans and a thick braid made up of tinier braids knocks on the office door thirty minutes later.

 

When no one answers, she huffs, rolls her eyes and walks inside.

 

“Sae’s Delivery!,” she calls out as she places the steaming containers in her hands on the front desk. Her voice carries deep into the warehouse and echoes back at her. There is no one here. She decides to wait for a few minutes to see if anyone would turn up and plops into the chair next to the door, propping it open with her boot so she can enjoy the fresh morning air. The screams and thudding bass from the party in the warehouse next door pollute the otherwise quiet pre-dawn darkness. She ignores the noise. The cool air is gentle on her heated cheeks, and as the music cuts off and a stream of people pour into the night, she watches them placidly as they run by. The police must have shown up. That’s usually how these things go.

 

The watch on her wrist says 5:32am, and she is half an hour away from going home for the night. This shady Howard Pugget guy still had to sign his receipt though, and if she left without it her boss would never stop nagging her about making sure she was dotting all her i’s. But as the screams from the rave die out, the back of her neck starts to prickle and her skin crawls.

 

“Hello?” she calls into the warehouse.

 

The silence that follows feels heavy and strange . She stands suddenly and heads for the doors at the back of the warehouse. It’s mostly empty and completely still- but from here she can catch the wisps of a few muted voices from outside. That must be where Mr. Pugget is- loading a truck, or smoking a cigarette on the back dock. With a hard shove the back door opens and the voices fade into the morning. It’s nearly silent now- only the echoes of footsteps off in the distance toward the trees beyond the warehouse yard.

 

She looks around, chewing distractedly on the edge of her thumb as her brow knits together. Something isn’t right about the air. It feels pregnant. Loud. Acrid. The scent of smoke and something metallic coats the back of her throat, and the dock is too still. There is no sign of anyone, let alone the man who placed the order, and there is no truck here except the one that has been out front since she got here. The sound of approaching footsteps makes her pulse jump. She jerks her head towards them as they grow louder, and someone clears the corner of one of the warehouses to her right. Their head twitches oddly as they run past her with unseeing eyes.

 

Her stomach twists as they stumble over a pair of abandoned heels and scramble back to their feet with a snarl, and sweat prickles the palms of her hands. Gingerly, she steps back into the warehouse, but the door squeals on its hinge as she closes it and she winces. At the end of the dock, another door slams open and boots pound the cement towards her. Against her better instinct, she turns her head to see who it is.

 

It’s a man she doesn’t recognize, covered in blood, his face twisted in a violent snarl. She jerks the door shut and as soon as the tumbler clicks, something batters against it from the other side, but she doesn’t wait to find out what. With the echoes of the door squealing and rattling chasing her through the empty space, she sprints headlong for the other door. The food sits forgotten on the desk as she races past it and bursts out the other side of the warehouse, not so much as slowing down until she has thrown herself into her car.

 

Her hands shake as she jams the key in the ignition and turns hard. The engine of her ancient Volvo roars to life and she slams on the gas and peels out. In her rearview mirror, the rough silhouette of a group of hulking shapes appears in the dust.

 

“Jesus Christ!” she cries. “Fuck fuck- What the fuck-”

 

She turns down an alley toward the exit of the warehouse lot but has to hit her brakes. Ahead of her, a crowd converges on another person. Her breath catches in her throat and her hand rips the clutch into reverse. Heads twist her way- faces and clothes splattered with dark blood- Two of them break away from the pack and hurtle towards her- She spins her wheel into a pin-tight turn and her engine bucks then roars as she slams on the gas. The next alley is clear and she hits eighty gunning past the empty security booth and out onto the Route 12- a road she’s never used before, but knows like only someone who has lived somewhere their whole life could, that it will be a straight shot back toward the university and the diner. Route 12 turned into Ridgeway Park, then Main, and then the city, but she has no intention of going back to work.

 

In fact, just like the late Howard Pugget, Katniss Everdeen has just made her last delivery.

 

As her eyes lock on a tower of smoke spiraling into the sky over the tree, she thinks of Prim, who is at home, probably still asleep, and definitely completely unaware of the nightmare unfolding just a few miles away. Her knuckles pale as she clenches the steering wheel with sweaty hands. In the basement of her house is a black bag. It has sat in the same place for eight years- ever since the man who owned it died. Katniss has known (and lied) about the presence of this bag her entire life to all but one person, and she had never thought to use what was inside until now.

 

She clenches her teeth and shakes her head to force herself to focus. The trees that dot the side of the road peter out, and the smell of smoke blows through her car. Up ahead is the source of the smoke that is spiraling into the sky. It’s a church- an old one- completely engulfed in flames. A figure stands unmoving in front of it, tall and lean, its head cocked to the side. She slows as she passes, her heart thudding heavily as her breath freezes in her chest. She could almost mistake the shape for a scarecrow, except that it jerks around suddenly, weaves through the tall grass for a few steps, then tears off after her as she passes. Katniss jams hard on the gas, her tires squealing on the tar and leans forward in her seat, refusing to look back in her rearview mirror.

 

But the image of the church in flames, and the figure standing in front of it are impossible to shake as she speeds home. Neither Prim nor her mother are picking up their phones, and though she scans the radio, there is no mention of anything like what she saw in the warehouses. The people in the other cars around her- do they have any idea what is happening? The minivans full of young children on their way to school, the people in sedans heading to an office? She pulls alongside a woman fixing her lipstick in the mirror at a redlight and stares.

 

Did someone call the police yet? She didn’t, but someone must have. Reports must be flooding in, overwhelming the emergency call center operators. The muscles in her back soften and she sinks back into her seat and closes her eyes. The soothing drone of suburbia buzzes in her head. The lawn sprinklers are flickering their heads at the auto dealership, a line of cars rumble impatiently at the McDonald’s drive through. Was it real? What she saw?

 

The hospital is probably overwhelmed this morning with victims from the attacks, and that would be why her mother didn’t answer her phone. The nursing staff would be struggling to keep the waiting room calm, with pens tucked behind their ears as they hurry down halls with clipboards in hand. Her mother would be distracted, pushing wisps of her limp blonde hair back with both hands and muttering silently beneath her breath, and if anything could be counted on this (or any) morning, it was her mother’s near pathological negligence of her cell phone.

 

A horn blares behind her. The light has changed and the woman beside her has flipped her visor up and is pulling away with newly lacquered lips. Katniss pumps the gas and jerks forward just as her phone vibrates in her lap.

 

“Shit,” she mutters, fumbling with the ancient Nokia as its screen flashes Prim’s name. Another horn blares- louder this time. She whips her head up, phone halfway to her ear, as an ambulance plows through the intersection and straight into the side of her car.

 

-

 

GET UP.

 

A sliver of light breaks through the darkness as her eyes flutter. Something hot and wet is leaking down the side of her face. It slips over the crest of her brow and drips into her eye. Instinctively the eye shutters itself with a tight wince and her hand comes up to wipe her head. It comes back red and slick.

 

MOVE.

 

She jerks her head up and has to muffle a cry at the stiffness in her neck as she fumbles with her seatbelt with weak, shaking fingers. How long had it been since she passed out? Ten minutes? Twenty? An hour? The street is empty and still except for the slight sway of the traffic lights and the american flag flapping over the auto dealer. Her phone lies at her feet and she struggles to retrieve it without moving her head, but ends up slamming her forehead on the steering wheel anyway. By some miracle, the phone itself survived without so much as a scratch. The screen flashes on and there is one missed call from Prim and a voicemail waiting for her, but she has no bars and a warning that says ‘Emergency Calls Only’ blinks back at her when she tries to call her inbox.

 

And the clock is missing entirely from her home screen.

 

She swallows and shoves the phone in her pocket before pushing a slender braid out of her face and tucking it behind her ear. The sun is high overhead, obscured behind a fast moving milky-gray cover of clouds that made it impossible to pinpoint the time. There’s no option left but to pull herself- gingerly, slowly- out of her car. As she lurches into the road a bolt of pain shoots from the back of her neck and ricochets through her head. It’s a little more than a mile from this intersection to her house, but there’s no doubt in her mind that the steaming wreck that used to be her car isn’t drivable. The entire left side of it is crumpled up like it’s made of nothing more than construction paper, with the passenger side door lying some feet away in the middle of the road.

 

There’s no sign of the ambulance, but as she hobbles down the road she sees the car of the woman with the red lipstick and she slows instinctively. It’s turned backward, the front of the car facing her, and steaming gently at the end of a semi-circle of burnt rubber on the road.


As she gets closer she can see the shattered remains of the driver’s side window, a long splatter of blood dripping down the driver’s side door, and the woman, still strapped into her seat belt, bent forward over her steering wheel and unmoving. Katniss stops, her heart thundering in her chest. Was she dead? She goes to pull her phone out of her pocket- this definitely qualified as an emergency, didn’t it?- but she’s shaking too hard and it slips out of her hand and falls with a clatter onto the tarmac. The woman’s head jerks up, her face and neck splashed with a drying film of blood and her eyes flashing wildly until they light on Katniss. Then she is screaming, lunging against her seatbelt as spittle and foam fly from her mouth.

 

The hair on the back of Katniss’ neck stands on end as she scrambles for her phone and takes off down the road. Footsteps echo behind her- fading into the distance as she clears one intersection and the next, but not truly dying until she turns suddenly and slides herself into an alley. A figure runs past her- dark and fast- and she shoves her palm into her mouth and bites down hard to stop the sudden wave of dizzying, breathless nausea that washes over her.

 

Where is Prim? And her mother? Do they know what’s happening? Are they wondering where she is? Her heart hammers against her ribs as a cold shot of fear pierces it.

 

As soon as she is sure what was chasing her is gone, she races toward home, flashing between shadows and hugging the sides of buildings, avoiding the main road and all other cars. Several times she sees a figure in the distance and has to change routes, or she hears the distant patter of feet behind her and has to hide until they pass or fade away. Just a block from her house she decides to cut through her neighbor’s yard. She scales the cement wall that encircles it with the help of a tree and stays hidden in the branches as she observes her backyard and house. Her eyes bounce from window to window, but there’s no movement inside.

 

For another moment she waits perched on the wall before she drops down to her hands and knees on the other side. Keeping low, she slides in the back door and waits with her hand on the doorknob. But inside she finds nothing but dead silence, and when she softly calls Prim’s name, no one answers. No sound, no movement, no sign of life. Her sister’s bed is neatly made, as if she had never slept in it, and her backpack and shoes are gone. It isn’t until she makes it to the kitchen that she gets her first clue. A cabinet door has been left open and cleared of everything inside. Katniss shuts the door slowly, her eye caught by a note on the table.

 

It’s Prim’s handwriting, hurried and sloppy. All it says is- ‘The School - I love you.’ Katniss swallows and sinks into a chair at the kitchen table- her heart squeezing so hard she can see spots blooming in her eyes. It was years ago now that Fran, a merciless Category 3 Hurricane, had barreled up the east coast having whet its appetite on Haiti and South Miami and left both in water-logged ruin. Prim had been nothing but a wide eyed little thing back then, too young to understand what a hurricane was but wise enough to know that they were in danger. Her dad had kissed both of their heads as he dropped them and their mother off in front of a school just a few miles from here where they spent two terrifying nights locked in the cafeteria as Fran’s furious wind and rain battered Chapel Hill.

 

On the morning of the third day her father had come back red-eyed and exhausted, his soaked Guard uniform plastered to his skin and torn across the chest. But Katniss didn’t care if he was wet, cold and covered in mud- he was back. Safe and whole. She launched herself at him the moment he was let in through the double doors, a rain-bearing gust of wind blowing in with him, tugging on the hem of her shirt and brushing past her bare ankles.

 

Prim was smart- so much smarter than anyone really noticed because she was so quiet and kind. But Katniss had always known it, and a rush of pride and ecstatic relief fills her as she picks up her note and folds it up neatly before stuffing it into her pocket. The school was a few miles from here at the center of four converging main roads, a stately old brick building with white columns that was large enough to shelter more people than anyone would ever guess. Whether or not her mother was with Prim she didn’t know. Prim would have said something, wouldn’t she? With only had a few more hours until sunset, she heads for her room, finds her green Jansport and jams the essentials inside- everything she remembered packing all those years ago during the hurricane, and stocking up on any extras Prim may have forgotten like bars of soap, toothpaste, their passports and the extra cash she’s been stowing beneath her mattress. It’s a last minute decision to stuff the ham radio that’s been sitting in their basement for years on top of everything else, and it’s casing nearly bursts through her zipper. As she struggles with it, she pauses and gazes back at the black bag she had thought of as she sped away from the warehouses.

 

Had that only been this morning? It felt like a lifetime ago. She walks back toward the shelf where the bag sits and purses her lips. No one had touched this bag for years. Not even her mother, who Katniss suspected never even knew it was there. She sets her backpack down and pulls it off the shelf. It’s lighter than she remembers- smaller too- but apart from that, the rifle inside is the same as had it had been on those mist soaked mornings her father drove her out to the woods to practice aiming at tin cans. God forbid you ever need to know how, he had said. Instinctively, she checks the scope and barrel. After all these years, she still remembers how to load it.

 

When she finally jumps back over her neighbor’s fence, her Jansport is tucked inside the black bag with the rest of the pieces of the rifle, but the gun itself she straps around her body so it knocks against her hip. It isn’t very good for climbing, but the scope proves itself useful immediately as she peers through it at the top of the fence. The school isn’t far, but there is a burning car on the road that leads to it, surrounded by a mob of people. She can’t see what they’re doing, but she isn’t taking any chances. The back way- a winding route through the neighborhood that required she cut through several more yards- seemed clear, but there were plenty of bushes that could be hiding anything.

 

Still, that’s her best option, even if it takes longer. The main streets would be teeming with people now, and no matter how she cut it she would inevitably encounter someone if she took any other route to the old school. Whether they would attack her or not, it was better that she avoid them entirely. It takes the entire evening to make it to the school. She has to change her route frequently, sticking with her old strategy of moving between the shadows and hugging buildings and houses. Any yard or street that is noisy she is extra cautious crossing- and only once did she have to tuck herself away in a garden shed to avoid being seen. This proves useful though, as she walks out in a pair of steel-toed boots, a hunting knife and an oil stained green bandana she ties around the bottom half of her face.

 

By the time the sun is setting she is a block from the school. Echoes of screams, distant crashes and gunfire are heavy in the air, as are other sounds she can only describe as movement - hoards of people running en masse’.

 

But where they’re going, and why-

 

She boosts herself into a tree, wriggling up the trunk and out over a branch before dropping easily onto the roof of a house just underneath. Using the scope, she surveils the school. The windows on the first floor have been bolted shut- a good sign- and the lights in windows on the second floor are lit. The schoolyard, however, is swarmed with people running- their clothes splattered with blood or torn near clean off. Most of them are at the front doors of the school- crawling over one another and slamming themselves against the heavy steel over and over, while others criss-cross the yard- darting from one side to another as fast as shadows.

 

A sound below her makes her flinch suddenly and she tears her eyes from the scope. A figure has just barreled through the yard chased by another. Her eyes follow them as they disappear around the side of the house. A scream rents the air, and then silence. But even with the scope she can’t see through concrete, and the two figures never reemerge. The gun is tilted downward, the lens magnifying the yard below, where standing stock still in her sights is a man whose face is torn clear away on one side. He gazes up at her with eyes that flick rapidly from left to right, his teeth gnashing slowly. His head tilts slowly, coming to rest on his shoulder, and she swallows dryly.

 

Can he see her? She’s flattened against the roof, her dark clothes and the matte of the gun should be nearly invisible from his vantage point. She shifts backward just in case, and as she does his head jerks again, his vacant eyes finding her even in the oncoming darkness of twilight. His mouth drops open and he snarls, hurling himself forward and disappearing underneath her sightline from the roof. She can hear him pounding the walls below her- slamming himself against the siding over and over.

 

She pulls back further from the edge of the roof, tugging her gun with her. The lens flashes in the light of the setting sun and her stomach clenches uneasily. A crash comes from the other side of the house and she crawls back over to the edge. A few of them have torn through a chainlink fence and are spilling into the yard, their heads twisting left and right as their jaws snap. They race by the one still slamming himself against the wall of the house, frantically chasing an unknown something when a loud crash from inside the house echoes in the yard. Their heads snap toward it in synchronicity and they charge forward. Katniss rips herself away from the edge of the house, hugging her gun to her chest as screams spill out of the house into the air.

 

With her heart hammering against her chest, she squeezes her eyes shut tight and rests her finger on the trigger of her gun, her teeth grinding down hard. It’s over in minutes, but the sounds have attracted more and the yard is teeming with them- crawling over each other, howling, bashing themselves against walls or windows. Her pulse stays fast and heavy in her ears as she switches the nightvision on on her scope.

 

It may have just been the darkness, but they seem faster, nearly manically so, in the twilight. She doesn’t dare risk approaching the edge of the roof again- she is trapped, stuck here at least until morning. There is no way she’ll make it to the school tonight. Not alive, in any case. She adjusts her sights and balances the gun on the roof, peering through the streets toward the school. The doors are still shuttered and the schoolyard is clear. The muscles in her back relax. She may be stuck up here for the night, but Prim is still safe.

 

As the final dregs of dusky light dissolve, she slowly pulls her things to the center of the roof and changes into a sweatshirt. The water bottle she brought with her is still full, and she forces herself to drink as much as she can before bunkering down. She risks drawing attention to herself by checking her phone. The screen flashes on and she hides the light beneath a trembling hand. The only thing on the home screen is the Nokia logo and her voicemail notification. No bars. No warnings about emergency calls. Nothing. As a last minute precaution, she gathers her mass of tiny braids behind her neck and twists them into a bun on the top of her head, tying them off with a rubberband.

 

She closes her eyes, fully expecting that sleep won’t come tonight. The night air is punctured over and over by screams and crashes, some of them just feet away, and though she is relatively sure she is safe on the roof, it is impossible not to imagine the horror unfolding below. She presses her hands over her ears and grinds her teeth down, but the screaming is too loud, too close. Her heart in her throat, she digs around in her pack for the ham radio and jams the headphones on, clapping her hands over them.

 

And that’s when she hears it.

 

A boy’s voice.

 

“-lo? Is anyone listening?”

 

Her breath catches.

 

“Hello? Is anyone out there? If you’re listening to this, I’m in Saxapahaw. It’s quiet here so far, but there’s no cell phones and our internet went out hours ago. If you have any information, anything at all, please respond.”

 

Even after a brush of fuzz and a click signals he’s off the air she holds the headphones close to her ears. She waits in the dark, hardly daring to breath for a few seconds. Then she presses the comm button twice- slowly. Almost as soon as her fingers lift away from the comm button his breathless voice crackles to life her headphones.


“Hello? Hi. Please, my name is Peter. I’m on a farm out west- our nearest neighbor is five miles away and without our cell phones we have nothing but this radio. What is your name? Is there anything you know? Anything at all you can tell me?”

 

The line goes silent. Heart in her throat, Katniss weighs her options carefully. Noise isn’t something she can afford, but she needs him to stay on this channel- to keep talking- to drown out the storm of howls that rages around her. She curls onto her side, dragging her knees up to her chest and holds the speaker close to her mouth.

 

“My name is Katniss,” she breathes, and lets the line die under her finger.

 

She drags one of the headphones off her ear and listens. The yard is quiet. The headphone in her other ear bursts to life with a voice that manages to be both desperate and warm. It doesn’t bear thinking about that she hasn’t heard a voice all day that hasn’t snarled at her, that this is her first human contact since the hell opened it’s gates and flooded the world.

 

“Katniss. It’s-” he laughs humorlessly, and she can hear him swallow anxiously ”-it’s nice to meet you. I’m sorry it was like this. Where are you?”

 

“Chapel Hill,” she whispers, clenching the headset so tightly her fingers prickle and the plastic creaks.

 

“Are… home? Are there shelters? Who’s with you?”

 

“I’m on a roof.”

 

“Outside?,” he sounds confused, and pauses before- “Are there people?”

 

She can tell by the way he says it that he means the people who are… sick.

 

“Yes,” she breathes and she squeezes her eyes tighter. “Everywhere.”

 

As she does, she can hear something in the yard. She can’t tell what it is, or if it’s heard her- but she lets the line die and holds her breath.

 

“How many are there? Are there other survivors with you?”

 

Something slams against the wall of the house and she slides the other half of the headset on and presses it tight over her ears. It doesn’t matter though- she can hear it’s ragged howls, feel the house groan and shudder as it rams itself against the walls over and over again.

 

“Katniss?”

 

More are coming. The remains of the fence clang under their manic footfalls as they stumble into the yard- and then the house is trembling underneath her again.

 

“Katniss are you there?”

 

She squeezes the headset tighter as her heart slams against her ribcage. Using the speaker is out of the question, but the thought of being left in the endless sea of howling dark is unendurable. She hits the comm and leaves it on, letting the sounds around her filter into the headset as they rise to a crescendo. When it starts to die down, she releases the button and curls in tighter on herself.

 

It’s quiet, and then-

 

“Katniss? Are you ok?”

 

It’s tremulous. Afraid. His voices washes through her, wrapping itself around the twitching muscles of her heart. What kind of question was that? How could she possibly hope to answer? How could anyone? Lost for words and too afraid to speak, she taps the comm button twice, just as she had earlier.

 

“Oh god,” he chokes out. “I thought- Katniss, listen. Get out of the city. Take I-54 to Bethlehem Road, and there’s a white farmhouse with a red camaro out front, if you make it here, I-”

 

But what Peter was going to promise she never gets to hear.

 

The star freckled the sky above her flashes, then disappears in a flood of light. Her eyes flicker up but quickly clench shut. The quiet the follows squeezes the air from her lungs, and the house beneath her sways and groans. Her eyes squeak open when it eases to a stop- the light is gone- but then a deafening blast devours the silence and rattles the teeth in her skull. She grips the headset on her ears and struggles to her feet as she gazes up at the billowing tower of fire and smoke blooming over the treeline.

 

That was east- north east. The muscles in her legs feel weak and loose, and her saliva sticks in her throat like a dewy spiderweb when she tries to her swallow. Her brain is the last part of her to understand. That was Raleigh.

 

All those people.

 

Now just ash.

 

-

 

It burns for hours.

 

Great swathes of smoke and flame blot out the stars and reach out overhead in long, twisting trails, like tears in the curtain of the night sky. Numb and shaking, Katniss watches as long as her body will stay upright, and then she curls onto her side, pulls the hood her sweatshirt over her face and lingers in that twilight between sleeping and waking that offers no rest, no escape, and no dreams. It just passes time.

 

Her eyes peel open as the radioactive sunrise gnaws on the horizon. As pink light leaks over the earth the ringing in her ears ebbs away. She uses the sight on her rifle to check the yard below and the streets beyond. They are empty and still, shrouded in smoke and sickly shadow. A fine dusting of white ash has started to descend- like gentle snowflakes, like flour, like talc. She douses her bandana in water, then ties it around her nose and mouth. Behind the wet cloth, her breath feels like a roar. How much of the silence that she heard before this had actually been polluted by sounds she had learned to ignore? The world without them now seemed louder for all that this new silence implied.

 

She packs quickly, shoving the radio and her clothes in the black bag and shouldering her rifle. It was time to move- to take advantage of her clear shot to the school before her window disappeared. Prim is just yards away, and if what Peter said is true, they’d be safe outside the city. Somewhere secluded- so far into farmland or the woods that there would be no reason for the infected to go there.

 

She climbs down the tree and bolts for the back fence, making quick work of scaling it and leaping into the next yard. Nothing moves. Even the leaves don’t so much as flutter as she dashes through the yard and toward the now deserted schoolyard. The empty guardhouse out front provides the perfect cover for a second precautionary scope of the yard. The doors to the school are covered in dark handprints and splatters of fluid, but the chains threaded through the handles have held and all of the plywood shutters are intact.

 

It occurs to her that she has no idea how to contact the people inside, or even if they would let her in, or Prim out. Past getting to Prim, she hadn’t thought too much about what to do next. For a few minutes she considers the problem, then, after a quick glance around her, she risks dashing for the door and raps on it quickly, whipping her head around as she checks for movement. There’s nothing. Not from inside the school. Not from the yard. Even the swings hanging in the playground are completely still. She slams her fist on the door, rattling the lumber and the chain that keep her out. But then sound freezes the blood in her veins, a rasping, broken-

 

“DON’T!”

 

It’s too late though.

 

A chorus of moans and pounding feet echo from inside the school, and from the side of the school yard she sees a girl with a thick halo of curls- Prim’s friend, Rue- drop out of a tree. Her eyes are wide with terror, her feet flying out behind her as a second girl rounds the corner of the school. Katniss’ heart squeezes tight at the sight of an untucked blouse, thin, pale legs and twin blonde braids bouncing with every step.

 

Prim!

 

“KATNISS NO!” Rue screams. The chains on the door rattle violently and Katniss stumbles back as the wood on the doors groan and snap, and hand bursts through, swiping at the air. She looks back at Prim- What’s that stain on her clothes? - and stumbles down the last few stairs, landing on her side on the ground.

 

“SHE’S ONE OF THEM!”

 

The breath in her chest leaks out and doesn’t return. Pressure builds in her head and light dances in her eyes- as if she is peering up at the world from underwater, and sinking fast. Only distantly does she hear Rue screaming- RUN! Katniss raises herself to her feet and lifts her gun. More of them are spilling into the school yard now, all of them children. Twitching, rolling eyes and blood soaked mouths flash in her scope.

 

How stupid of her- to think a single loop of chain could keep hell at bay.

 

“DO IT KATNISS!”

 

Her heart slams against her breastbone and her finger rattles against the trigger as she locks her scope on Prim’s snarling face, her blood-blackened eyes.

 

But it’s no good. No good at all.

 

She can’t do it. The gun drops away from her face. Her arms fall leaden and numb at her sides. Prim closes the distance between them, launches herself at Katniss, and locks her pale fingers in a vice around her neck.


-

Chapter Text

“We need to get you a pair of yoga pants,” his brother grunts as Peeta slows to a stop and stoops to repin the bottom of his shorts. It’s come loose again, flapping audibly after each click of his crutches on the tile. Peeta snorts in response, but heat stings his cheeks.


“Very funny,” he mutters.

 

“Wait- hear me out,” Rye laughs. “Assets like ones we inherited, you want to do justice to. No one’ll be looking at your leg if they’re too busy with your-”

 

Peeta shoves his brother hard with one hand. Rye falls back against the wall for support as he doubles over with laughter.

 

“Shut up,” Peeta hisses as a passing nurse eyes them sternly. His cheeks burn hotter as he finishes tucking up the bottom of his shorts and straightens, shooting his older brother a furious glare. “Dude, we’re in a hospital. I’m pretty sure everyone here has seen more of the human body than they ever wanted to.”

 

“But not your body,” Rye snickers. “That nurse sure seemed interested.”

 

“I think you're confusing angry with flirting again.”

 

“Oh she was definitely ticked at me.” Rye grins. “But you ...”

 

Even as Peeta rolls his eyes at his brother’s exaggerated wink, he has to firmly tuck the corners of his mouth in to keep them from rising. The Rye he had grown up with was like this- totally shameless. Peeta swallows tightly. It was nice have him back, after all these years, even if it was a little disorienting how little anything had really changed between them. Rye teased, Peeta snapped but had to stop himself from laughing. If it weren’t for the dark swathes of skin under his brother’s bulging eyes and his still too-pale complexion, it would almost be like Rye Mellark never slid a needle into his arm, then took three long years to drag it back out.

 

Peeta was long gone when Rye hit bottom- a freshman in college, in a new city, with new friends, and a new life. It was a whole new world, one he was supposed to have followed his brother into. But he went there first and alone, never sure if Rye knew he was even gone, or where Rye was either. Or if he was even alive.

 

It wasn’t until the end of his first semester that he received a phone call from an unknown number, and a part of him knew. It was Rye, one way or the other, and something was wrong. He was drunk, at a house party out in Cambridge for a girl he didn’t know, who went to a school that wasn’t his, but a friend of a friend had mentioned she was pretty. Peeta stared at the number on his screen until the shape of the numbers slipped away from familiarity. Then he pressed ‘receive’, plugged a finger into one ear and held his breath as a familiar voice crackled in the other.

 

“Peet. Peeta- It’s me.”

 

Peeta swallowed, his eyes stinging as he stared at the floor.

 

“Rye?”

 

“Do you remember who I-”

 

“Of course I remember who you are,” he snapped, but as the words left his mouth, they tasted bitter and false. That word. Remember . It was a red-hot needle sinking deep into the flinching muscle of his heart. How could he forget his own brother? But it was true- he had no idea who the person on the phone was, only who he had been, and as Rye proceeded to try wheedling money out of him, the world took on a shimmering, unreal quality.

 

Rye had had his number this whole time.

 

He’d always known how to find him.

 

It was Peeta who had been left to wonder.

 

It was then that he knew. Rye might get clean or he might not, but the rest of them would always be stained by doubt and mistrust. Trouble didn’t even begin to cover what Rye had put them through. Peeta pulled the phone away from his ear, his brother’s thin voice ringing in his ears as he hung up on him. The phone felt hot in his hand, like it was burning. He slid it in his pocket, and proceeded to disappear down the neck of a bottle of Black Label, and then, in a decision that would change forever the course of his life, he got into his car.

 

Fifteen minutes later that car was wrapped around the base of a light pole on an ancient stone bridge in Jamaica Plain. The stillness afterward was complete. It was night in a Boston suburb- in winter, no less. Everyone was safely tucked away in their apartments. Even Peeta wasn’t there- not really. He had blacked out long ago, dead to the snow falling softly on the steaming wreck, melting away almost as soon as it touched the metal. If it weren’t for the cold, he would have lost much more than his leg. He almost did anyway. It was twenty-five minutes before he was discovered, and en route to Tuft’s Medical Center his heart, after years of breaking for a brother he couldn’t save, finally came to a complete stop. For those fatal few seconds, Peeta was nothing and nowhere. It was nice. Quiet. But something was pulling him back. Something stronger than the quiet. Something undeniable.

 

When he woke up, he was alone in a small hospital room. Outside his window, fresh, white snow drifted by in gusts and flurries. His first thought was that he’d never seen snow like that- falling in huge, wooly clumps. Like cotton balls. Like flakes of ice cream. Pure and white. What had Dad said about it? That snow is cleanest when it’s falling? But it never stayed that way. Peeta felt heat streak down his face. Rye might have been the addict, but his taste for chemicals had infected Peeta too. He said it best when he arrived in Boston up a few days later- “I’m supposed to be in that bed. Not you.”

 

His eyes were glassy, his words a mouthful of chewed out syllables.

 

“Who let you in?” Peeta rasped.

 

Rye swallowed and opened his mouth to answer, but Peeta cut him off.

 

“It doesn’t matter. They shouldn’t have.”

 

“Peet-”

 

“Get out. I can’t stand you like this. Either get clean or I don’t want to know you.”

 

To everyone’s surprise, that’s exactly what Rye did, and almost a year later he was still going strong. It was like they were in high school again- like the last three years had never happened- and in spite of everything, Peeta couldn't deny that the accident had changed the course of his life in ways he wasn’t entirely prepared to call bad. There was some bad, of course. The piling hospital bills stamped with red ink that gave Dad heart palpitations, the pain meds that he hated because they reminded him of Rye’s hypodermic diet and made him tired enough to hallucinate but too restless to actually sleep. Bad was also the people who walked totally out of his life once it was clear he wasn't going back to Boston. That particular lesson in friendship was the hardest yet.

 

But the good was so good: Rye riffing on him easily, his face full and his eyes close to losing that dark, hungry look that Peeta couldn’t recognize.

 

When they reach the end of the hallway, Rye holds the door open as Peeta maneuvers himself through, his crutch echoing in the quiet waiting room beyond. Faces pop up from behind magazines as he enters, and a few eyes linger. He ducks his head so he doesn't have to see them stare. It’s one of the many things he’s had to get used to- the pity, the curiosity, or, worse of all, the shaking heads. He knew when he saw those that the shaker had made the kind of monumentally embarrassing assumption about him that he would end up having to politely debunk. A one legged young man? Even without dogtags hanging around, everyone thought military. Peeta sighs as he presses the doorbell next to the frosted admissions window. It slides open with a squeal.

 

“Hi Darla,” he says, flashing her a dazzling smile as his eyes catch on the long hand of the clock behind her that rests solidly on the three. “Bet you wish you could get rid of me already.”

 

The older woman behind the desk tucks a short strand of salt-and-pepper hair behind her ear and waves a hand at him.

 

“Honey, you’ll have to do a lot worse than show up late for that. Here-”

 

She passes him a clipboard and a pen.

 

“You know the drill.”

 

“Thanks Darla. You’re the best.”

 

She levels a flat stare at him and he knows he’s been caught. He tucks his tail and slinks away to the seat Rye has saved for him. Even though Peeta chose one of their earliest appointment times, he and Rye still have to wait for close to an hour to get in to see the orthopedic surgeon. There’s some kind of traffic hold up between Chapel Hill and here, which Rye morbidly speculates is a ten car pile up.

 

“It's the only excuse that doctor has to be this late,” he grumbles, crossing his arms and turning his attention to the rerun of Maury playing on the waiting room television. “At this rate we’ll be here all day.”

 

A nurse eventually comes to get them, but there’s another long wait in the appointment room before Dr. Chaudry, a balding man with the kind of brusque, clinical manner that had put Peeta on edge when he had first met him a few months ago, walks in. Over the long course of Peeta’s physical therapy he had come to appreciate his no nonsense approach to pain management, especially now that he was starting to train with his new prosthetic. So many of his doctors had tried to soothe him (it was a tragic story, after all- nineteen year old MIT student loses leg in drunk driving accident- the newspaper headlines practically wrote themselves) but Dr. Chaudry had told him the truth. His life wasn’t over, but he would never be the same.

 

Which is why Peeta is shocked as he walks into the appointment room with glassy, unfocused eyes and mops a sweaty forehead with a paper towel. He apologizes, sits down, and stares at Peeta’s file for a long time. Rye arcs an eyebrow at him, but all Peeta can do is shake his head slightly. Something is wrong. He can tell by the way the doctor is frowning, but his eyes aren’t skimming the page. They’re burning a hole through the paper, staring somewhere far, far beneath their feet, and even the nurse who bursts suddenly into their room and calls the doctor away doesn’t seem to shake him back to reality.

 

“What’s the hell is going on?” Rye asks, jumping to his feet. “We’ve been here since nine.”

 

“I’m very sorry, sir,” the nurse says. “We’re going to have to schedule you another appointment.”

 

Peeta’s heart sinks.

 

“Wait,” he says. “I was supposed to start physical therapy with my prosthetic today. I have to stay on schedule- I’m going back to school in a month.”

 

The nurse sighs heavily, her shoulders tight with tension as she glances at her watch. Dr. Chaudry has disappeared down the end of the hall and back into the hospital.

 

“Again. I’m very sorry, but right now we’ve got an emergency situation.”

 

“I understand that,” Peeta says. “But I’ve been more than patient, and I’m willing to wait a little longer if it means someone will see me today. Is there anything you can do?”

 

The speaker above them crackles to life and blares a dizzying series of codes. The nurse pales, her eyes widening.

 

“Unfortunately, there’s not,” she says. “I have to go. You can speak to the admitting nurses to make another appointment.”

 

The ride home is quiet. Rye grips the steering wheel with white knuckles and mutters under his breath about the state of the American health system. Something about Obamacare. Politics was all Rye’s business. If he had stuck around in school he might have actually made something of it. Ran for office even. He had that way about him, even when he was being a dick you still loved him for it.

 

He sighs heavily.

 

“I’m so sorry, Peeta.”

 

Peeta shrugs and looks out the window. North Carolina summers had a habit of sticking to your skin like kitchen grease, but summer in Boston was extraordinary. Trees flowering all over Cambridge, the road and sky clear as far as you could see. The air even somehow managed to smell like sunlight- bright and crisp with every lungful you took in.

 

“We’ll be back next week,” he says, watching the bone dry stalks of dead grass fly past. “I’ve waited almost a year. I can wait another week.”

 

Rye shakes his head.

 

“You’re too patient,” he grunts. “You’re already enrolled in classes. They promised you’d be ready to go back to school. What happens if you’re not?”

 

“Then I go back anyway with a suitcase full of yoga pants and hope you’re right,” Peeta says.

 

Rye chokes, then leans over and punches his arm.

 

“There he is!” he cries. “That’s my brother!”

 

Peeta laughs, knocking Rye’s hand away and rolling his eyes.

 

“And anyway,” he says, “it’s not like they had a choice. If it’s a life or death situation, I’d rather they go help the people who really need it.”

 

“You really are too good for this world,” Rye sighs, fluttering his eyes at him.

 

“Ugh. Shut up.”

 

But as they roll up to the house and Rye helps him back inside, he has to swallow down the tightness in his throat. It was just another week. In the great scheme of things, what did it matter? Today- Tomorrow- After they pulled him out of all that twisted, smoking metal he should be grateful to just be alive. The moleskine in his pocket had today circled and his appointment with Dr. Chaudry written in big, naive letters. He bites the side of his cheek as he sits down and crosses it out quickly, flipping to the next week to scribble his new appointment. In pencil, this time.

 

“So how’d it go?”

 

He looks up as his dad wanders into the kitchen, red cheeked and sweating, his white t-shirt plastered to his back. Peeta shrugs.

 

“Bumped him to next week,” Rye says. “Some kind of huge medical emergency.”

 

Their dad turns away quickly and opens up the fridge, staring at the shelves of food.

 

“Is that so? Seems like one of those is happening everyday now,” he hums. “Anyway boys, it’s just us for lunch.”

 

Dad says it like it isn’t an uncommon thing for Mom to hole up in her room and ignore their existence. It is the unspoken weight that hangs on every conversation they have had with their Dad since the time they realized their mom wasn’t like the others. Artfully sidestepping the elephant in the room, the three men make sandwiches on the counter as the dryer in the basement thumps loudly against the wall- so loud that Rye rolls his eyes.

 

“Is she washing a herd of elephants?” he grunts. Peeta’s eyes unfocus as Rye slides a sandwich in front of him. There were so many memories he had of his mother- things he couldn’t explain- things he didn’t want to- things the therapist he’d started to see back in Boston had names for.

 

“Well. You know your mother,” Dad says, staring down at his plate determinedly. It was a phrase Peeta knew well. Dad had been using it for years to brush off anything they ever told him about her. Rye shoots him a look, his eyes narrowed, but that just makes it worse. It wasn’t as if Rye had been around for the worst of it. That happened after he discovered heroin.

 

They eat in silence with the television on, doing everything they’d never dare to if Mrs. Mellark were around- soda with lunch, elbows splayed out on the table, picking their teeth with their fingernails. Some old episode of a sitcom is playing. A dysfunctional family that you never doubt loves each other goes on another adventure. No one screams when the kitchen is messy, and no one ever leaves for school with a fat lip.

 

Happy, white-toothed smiles.

 

Big hug.

 

Roll credits.

 

Peeta’s eyes are wet and heavy as they slide over to his brother’s. They’re glazed over, the credits flashing blankly on their surface. A twinge in his leg tells him it’s time for round two of his painkillers- and the inevitable nap that follows. But drowsy was a state of being when fall was just around the corner. Even in the dead heat of the North Carolina summer he could feel it in the air- that slight shift in the mornings with humidity so thick you could cut it with a knife to its gentler cold-sweat-on-hot-skin cousin. He was weeks away from the start of the semester and there was still so much to do. Finding an apartment, for starters. But all of it now hung in the balance- a long list of unanswerable questions that had been fermenting in his head for months already. Now there was nothing he could do about it until at least next week. He was useless until then.

 

“Wanna grab some beers tonight?,” Rye asks, then belches loudly. “Me, Sim and some other guys from recovery are going.”

 

“Are you supposed to be drinking?”

 

Rye shrugs.

 

“It’s not drinking. It’s beer . Carpe noctem, Peeta. Live a little.”

 

Peeta grabs the crutch leaning against the wall and rolls his eyes.

 

“Living is for people who haven't died already,” he grunts. “The rest of us are on doctor’s orders not to mix painkillers and booze.”

 

-

 

It’s dark by the time the thick, sludgey tide of oxycodone ebbs away and his eyes ease open. The only light in his room is what sneaks in through the crack between his door and the floorboards, and it takes him a few minutes to break fully through the last lapping waves of drowsiness. The dryer is still going, rapping insistently against the back wall, but besides that, the house is dead quiet. Rye must have already left or the television would be blaring the latest episode of the Daily Show, and Mom would be loudly banging around in the kitchen in a passive aggressive attempt to convince Rye that the Grand Old Party was the only thing keeping this country from falling apart at the seams.

 

Peeta sits up in bed and reaches for the crutch set against the wall next to his bed with a grunt. The sore muscles in his shoulder tweak painfully, and it takes him extra time to tug a shirt on over his bare chest and slide the window over his bed shut. Mom would be furious if she found out he had it open, but he couldn't stand how stuffy the house got in the summer. The window creaks and groans, the ancient wood sticking as Peeta rolls his eyes and pushes hard. The pane slips out of his hands and slams down, rattling the entire frame and the wall. In the basement the dryer kicks into a frenzy, slamming itself against the walls until something creaks, groans, then gives way in a storm of clanging metal and cracking wood.

 

Peeta stumbles out of his room, leaning heavily on his crutch as he limps through the dark hallway and into the kitchen. Except for the quiet creaking of his crutch, the house is silent in a way it’s never been before. Still, too airless, the heat of the night creeping in through the old wood walls and smothering everything in a blanket of sticky humidity.

 

“Dad?” he calls. “Rye?”

 

There’s no answer, but the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end as he hears something stumbling up the basement stairs. The basement door jolts then rattles violently, and Peeta’s heart skips several beats as he slips and falls backwards onto the kitchen floor, catching his head just before it smacks against the hardwood. He wheezes as his palms slip on something thick and wet coating the floor while he tries to pull himself up on his crutch. In the dim light from the stove’s hood, the floor around him glitters wet and dark. The air is pregnant with a scent that’s viscid and metallic; he has to swallow hard as it hits the back of his throat and his stomach lurches.

 

“Rye?” Peeta gasps. “Rye!”

 

The pounding on the basement door is his only answer as he staggers upright and lurches away from the slick floor, wiping his hands on his pants as he does so. Long trails of dark fluid stain his clothes, and as his brain struggles to congeal his scattered, racing thoughts, a crack of something like thunder explodes from his parent’s bedroom. He limps quickly back down the hall, past his own room and toward the back of the house- his parent’s bedroom. He rips the door open and there’s Rye, standing over the the bed, the gun in his hand pointed at a struggling, twisting something tied to the bedposts. He jolts around, his tear-soaked cheeks glistening in the moonlight filtering in through the open window. He wipes at them distractedly, his hands shaking so bad he nearly catches his eye with his thumb.

 

“I found him like this in the kitchen,” he says. “Peet- That banging. It’s not the dryer. It’s Mom.

 

The bed rattles and Peeta’s brain works sluggishly to understand who is there.

 

“He came after me, tried to bite me , and I didn’t know what else to do-”

 

With a sickening crunch, the figure tears their arm out of its socket as they lurch up, a garbled, rasping cry working itself out from around a wad of rags stuffed in their mouth. Rye jerks back instinctively, throwing himself against the wall, but Peeta steps forward, his eyes flickering over the face in disbelief.

 

“Rye-?,” he whispers. “Is that-”

 

The dark puddles in the kitchen- the viscous, sticky fluid all over Peeta’s clothes- It’s leaking out from the figure’s eyes, dribbling down its chin and staining long trails down the front of its sweat stained white t-shirt, but there is no mistaking who it is. The figure wrenches up, its other arm cracking backward as its pale face contorts in a grotesque mask and it slips completely out of the ropes tying it to the bedpost.

 

Rye jerks the gun up and before Peeta can blink, shoots twice.

 

“NO!”

 

“IT’S NOT HIM ANYMORE!,” Rye thunders back, spittle flecking out from his mouth as tears slip down his face. “THAT WASN’T HIM- HE-”

 

Rye presses his face into his hands and shakes his head, his shoulders trembling hard as he steps back toward the wall.

 

“Fuck,” he whines. “Fuck fuck-”

 

“Rye,” Peeta moans. “What have you done?”

 

“I didn’t want to,” he sobs. “I did it for you. On the news- They said to do it on the news- I can’t. I-”

 

He raises the gun to his own temple.

 

“DON’T-”

 

“I’m sorry, Peet.”

 

-

 

Statistically speaking, by the time Rye Mellark pulls the trigger his death will mean nothing.

 

He will be just a single infinitesimally small digit rounding out the unspeakable number of dead in those first few hours of what would come to be called The End. Mass extinction events aren’t rare in the course of history. As Peeta is speckled by his brother’s blood, there sits in his mind a complete education in their inevitability, taught to him by a professor who spoke about The End as if it was always waiting just around the corner.

 

But to Peeta there had always been a kind of banal film coating the very concept of The End . It was something humorously flippant, tacked onto the end of words in a cynical mockery of a news media trend or in reference to a suicide cult. He had even once attended an ‘apocalypse party’ thrown at a dance club in Cambridge. A girl with blue hair and PVC boots had met his eyes from across the room, her dress just short enough to flash the heart shaped clasps on the stocking suspenders pressed against the skin of her thighs. Later, as his hands came to wrap around her small waist, and her scent- malt liquor, menthol, sweat- filled his nose, he remembers wondering what it would be like to fall in love with her.

 

Did she smoke in bed, or just at parties? Who was this stranger whose hands were winding in his hair? Whose mouth tasted like sour mint and hops?

 

As her head came to rest on his shoulder, her hips swaying ever closer to his, he realized her hair was a wig. The plastic tendrils brushed his face as the lights flashed and he guided her flush against him. The truth of the matter was, he didn’t love her. Even as his lips found her neck, he knew he didn’t, and couldn’t ever hope to. But he took her home anyway- because he was bored- because he was lonely- because he had never been in love, and he desperately wanted to be. And when it was all over and she tugged her dress back on and disappeared into the wind and snow without a backward glance, she left Peeta’s skin stained by the lipstick, guilt and sweat of having used a woman he hardly knew for selfish gratification, and even in the sobering light of dawn it never once occurred to him that she had done the same to him.

 

That night, The End - they were the same punchline in an empty, cynical joke. A toneless laugh echoing against brick in the cold air, a tucking of the hands deeper in the pockets, strands of blue plastic hair on his pillowcase. A daily thing passed around an office in an email chain. A pithy status update on social media. Speculated about, as if something that cataclysmic could ever be understood in its truth, especially before it had even started.

 

In those first blank moments following the crack of the gun, as he stares at his brother’s crumpled body blinking rapidly, a part of him recognizes what is happening.

 

The joke is over.

 

The End is very fucking nigh.

 

The world shrinks to the single room he’s standing in, even as he realizes that this same scene is playing itself all over North Carolina- perhaps even the whole country. His heart beats loudly in his ears. His father- the man who had cried when Peeta woke up in that hospital with one less leg than he had last seen him with- lies still in the bed, a single bullet hole piercing his forehead, a second sunk into the mattress underneath his head.

 

And Rye-

 

Rye is-

 

The blood roars in his head as the world disassembles and floats away.

 

-

 

The basement door.

 

It’s still rattling.

 

He wipes his face and wanders into the hallway, the lonely click of his crutch echoing loudly against the long polished floors of the hall. He pauses there, listening to the frenzied pounding as it grows louder. Then he turns around and closes the door to his parent’s bedroom, leaving Rye, his father and the gun locked inside.

 

He goes for his phone first, opening Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and the NPR homesite all at once. Nothing loads. He refreshes everything once, then twice. He toggles airplane mode, then restarts the phone. It boots with a message on his homescreen- Emergency Service Only. His heart beats heavily in his chest as he wanders into the living room. The television is dead. Nothing broadcasting on any channel, even when he switches their satellite connection off and checks the local stations. There’s only one channel that even has a picture, and all he sees is a dead green screen in a silent, motionless studio. Something about this picture is worse than anything yet, and he stands mesmerized by horror at its unflinching stillness until it too turns to static, and the rattling from the basement door rings more loudly than ever in his ears.

 

Should he do something else to brace it? He wanders into the kitchen, chewing his thumb. As if his mother knows he is there, a rasping snarl issues from behind the door and something heavy beats against the wood. He tucks a chair underneath the ornate antique door handle and limps quickly back to his room, closing and locking the door behind him. For the next few hours, Peeta alternates between electronic devices in an attempt to get any information he can, with little luck. He does manage a brief internet connection and downloads an Al Jazeera article detailing an unfolding story of violent mobs in New York City, but that’s the last thing he sees before he loses all connection and his many different apps sit serene and dormant on his homescreen.

 

Cold sweat prickles at the back of his neck. There’s so little he knows about what’s happening, and so little anyone else seems to know either. It had never occurred to him that an unfolding disaster wouldn’t be reported on, or that it could happen quickly enough that there’d be no time to watch it. In an act of utter desperation, he reaches for the ham radio he built during the summer before college and flips it on, buzzing endlessly between the channels, hoping to catch a snippet of conversation, a quickly uttered personal report, a brief glimpse of anything beyond the miles that separated his farm from the rest of the world.

 

For an hour there’s nothing but static, and then he catches a channel with a blast of stereo, something that sounds like rustling, but more rhythmic. Almost like bouncing. It might be cloth brushing against the speaker, or maybe a hand, but either way it is most definitely an accident. Still, it’s something , and Peeta plugs in a set of headphones and presses them tight over his ears to hear better, and that’s when, almost indistinguishable, he hears a car alarm going off. The rhythmic fuzz stops and his breath catches in his throat.

 

“Hello?” he says. When his finger lifts off the comm button, he’s greeted by silence.

 

His heart drops through the cavity of his chest and he has to press his fingers to his eyes to stop the dots dancing in his vision. He was fifteen the summer Rye vanished the first time. There were calls to his friends, their parents, the police. No one had seen him, they didn’t know where he was, who he was with, or what he was doing… Until they did. Rye was at a condemned house just outside Chapel Hill, and Peeta insisted on going with his father to find him. But when they pulled up outside the windowless, leaning house, his father took one look at the place and made Peeta promise to wait in the car. The way Rye looked in his father’s arms as he carried him out of the house- limp as a ragdoll, eyes dark and bulging- it never left him.

 

He sits motionlessly at his desk, pressing the headset tight around his ears, and after twenty grueling minutes where there’s nothing but static, he flips the radio off and stares at it for a long while. The blood on his clothes has dried and crusted over and it’s been hours since he last ate. He attends to both problems in a trance, grabbing a jar of peanut butter, a banana and a loaf of bread in the now silent kitchen and sneaking back to his room. With the door shut, he ventures into the shower and changes his clothes. But he leaves the radio on, full volume, just in case.

 

He is just stepping out of the shower when he hears it- that same rhythmic swish from before, only louder. He struggles over to his desk and grabs the speaker, jamming his thumb down on the comm button.

 

“Hello? Can anyone hear me? Is there anyone there? Hello? Can you hear me?”

 

Static rushes in his speakers- once- twice- Breathing. Breathing! It cuts out abruptly, submerging his room in dead silence.

 

“Hello? Can anyone hear me? Hello? Is anyone listening?”

 

Nothing.

 

“Hello? Is anyone out there? If you’re listening to this, I’m in Saxapahaw. It’s quiet here so far, but there’s no cell phones and our internet went out hours ago. If you have any information, anything at all, please respond.”

 

Two taps of static, in quick succession. His heart leaps into his throat and he runs a hand through his wet hair before picking up the speaker again.


“Hello? Hi. Please, my name is Peeta. I’m on a farm out west- our nearest neighbor is five miles away and without our cell phones we have nothing but this radio. What is your name? Is there anything you know? Anything at all you can tell me?”

 

There’s a beat of silence- he can almost feel their hesitation- and then-

 

“My name is Katniss,” a voice breathes, and the line goes dead. His heart hammers wildly against his chest at the sound of her voice and he can scarcely draw enough air into his lungs as he replies.

 

“Katniss. It’s nice to meet you. I’m sorry it was like this. Where are you?”

 

It’s another moment before she answers, more hesitantly this time.

 

“Chapel Hill,” the speaker crackles.

 

“Are you… home? Are there shelters? Who’s with you?”

 

“On a roof.”

 

“Outside? Are there… people?”

 

“Yes,” she chokes. “ Everywhere.”

 

As her radio cuts, he can hear movement in the background, a staccato burst of metallic clanging.  His chest squeezes as he leans his head down and presses his forehead against the smooth surface of his desk, wondering distantly if he is the only one who will ever know how she died.

 

“How many are there?” he tries. He needs to keep her talking. Needs to keep her from disappearing into the silence. “Are there other survivors with you?”

 

Nothing. Fifteen seconds. Twenty. A stab of fear pierces his heart. He tries to imagine the woman behind the voice and comes up blank. All he knows is her name, but he could hear her breathless fear, could feel the tremble in her vocal chords even through the static of the radio.

 

He could almost taste the metallic tinge of her terror.

 

“Katniss?”

 

He swallows down the sudden ache in his throat.

 

“Katniss are you there?”

 

Almost immediately, his headset fuzzes to life- and he hears them . Their sounds come from every direction- snarling, screaming, pounding, the rasp of their howls piercing his eardrums as his pulse roars to life and his heart beats a frantic rhythm against the inside of his ribcage. He doesn’t know how long it lasts, just that it feels endless, and he is helpless to do anything but bear witness. That doesn’t stop him from trying to break through her broadcast- he does, several times- but when her radio finally dies and she hasn’t uttered a sound, all he can do is sit in the empty silence afterward as his mind paints the picture of a death he hasn’t seen.

 

“Katniss?!” he tries desperately.

 

What he doesn’t expect is her answer, two quick bursts of static that release the hold on his chest and he fairly wheezes as air rushes back into his lungs.

 

“Oh god,” he chokes out. “I thought- Katniss, listen. Get out of the city. Take I-54 to Bethlehem Road, there’s a white farmhouse with a red camaro out front, if you make it here, I have food, plenty of it, and we still have power. You’ll be safe here. Bored even. I mean-”

 

He chokes out laugh.

 

“-there’s more cows than humans, but maybe that’s something you’d-”

 

His eyes flicker to the field where his family grazes their cows, and that’s when he sees it. Over the dark crown of trees, a flash of light.

 

Was that-?

 

He swallows.

 

Cold sweat prickles the palms of his hands as his eyes flicker back to the radio. It starts to smoke, long black tendrils leaking out of the speaker and curling into the air over his head.The smell of burning plastic fills his nose. He stumbles upright, fumbling with his crutch to back away from his desk before the casing of the radio breaks open, and something molten and firey leaks out. A series of pops echo through the house as the lights flicker, then die.

 

The only sound in the darkness is his mother, who is back to beating away at the basement door.

 

-

 

Katniss is gone.

 

He understands that.

 

But that doesn’t stop him from dreaming about her. She’s the girl in the blue wig, the one from Boston, and is back in his bed, all soft, warm skin, the spicy dew of her menthol soaked breath pooling in the hollow of his collarbone. She rolls over, her soft breasts bobbing. He can’t see her face, but he can hear her voice-

 

Everywhere.

 

As he leans forward to kiss her, her lips peel back from her teeth.

 

They are coated in blood.

 

-

 

“That’s mahogany,” Peeta mumbles at the basement door as he scrapes peanut butter out of the bottom of the jar with a spoon. “You’re never getting through.”

 

That doesn’t stop the banging. He turns to put the peanut butter back in the cabinet and takes stock of what’s left. The food has lasted longer than he expected. Having started with what would go bad first- the bread, of course, and the meat- he had since moved on to clearing out the canned food. He lost the stove for a few days after the electricity went out, but he rigged up a solar cooker he could use on the top deck where he’d taken to sleeping. It was a simple wood box lined with aluminum foil, and the lid could be adjusted to reflect extra sunlight inside. A thermometer in whatever was inside could be used to monitor the temperature, which became much more important once meat in the freezer started to defrost. But the tendency of the cooker to lose twenty degrees or so almost as soon as the sun disappeared behind a cloud meant that Peeta spent most of his time on the upper deck. This had the added benefit of putting the most doors between himself and his mother, who had a tendency to bang all night long if he had had a particularly productive day.

 

There are more of those now than those first few days.

 

It has been three weeks and four days since Rye and Dad passed. On a cloudy morning sometime around the third day (or was it the fourth? He was losing track) he started the arduous task of putting their bodies in the ground himself- under the apple tree in front of the house, the one his dad had once hung a swing from. It took all day, almost nine hours, but by the time the sun set that night, he was no longer sleeping amongst the dead. From the kitchen he can see their graves out of the corner of the window, the dirt fresh and red against the vibrant jewel green of the rest of the pasture. The roaming cows dot the field, their tails swishing in the late afternoon heat as they graze. He had had to set them free, and though the herd has thinned somewhat, most of them didn’t go far.

 

Neither does he.

 

The longer he stays here, the more he realizes he knows nothing about all the ways the world must have changed. He hasn’t encountered any more of the infected. At night, sometimes, he hears them. The road that passed in front of his house saw few cars, but when they traveled at night they were almost always chased by a few of them, their snarls echoing empty and loud in the dark abyss beyond the upstairs porch. They never even realized he was there above them, holding his breath as they rushed by. In the daylight they were few and far between. Once he saw one in the field, just standing there, swaying forward and backward as if moved by an invisible force. Like grass in the wind. Half of its face had been torn clean off, and the blood had dried black and crusted over. It stood there for hours, its head cocked on its injured side, finally moving only after a car blew by and it raced after it, blood leaking out of its half snarl of a mouth.

He never saw it again, but he was more cautious than ever in his movements through the house.

 

A howl from the behind the basement door startles him out of his trance in front of the pantry.

 

“Shut up,” he mutters as he limps out of the kitchen and back up the stairs to the top deck. The fact of the matter is, he’s running out of time. There is only so much longer he can hide out in the house, running through the remainder of the stockpiled food. If it weren’t for the fact that the farm ran on well water he would have already been in deep trouble. He closes and locks the deck door behind him, watching an approaching battalion of rain clouds with a sinking heart.

 

Spending the night inside means that he will get little to no sleep, but the prospect of spending the night out in the rain isn’t any better. The basement door rattled all night, and without fail, nightmares would steal the breath right out of his chest. Sometimes he dreamed Katniss’s voice was coming from there. She begged him to open the door and let her out, but he steadfastly refused, sure that she wasn’t to be trusted. Eventually, his mother would find her and he’d wake trembling, his heart galloping in his throat.

 

It has been clear for a while that he is going to have to leave, but he can’t just leave his mother. Not like this. A smattering of fat raindrops roll down his upturned face, and he makes up his mind. Tonight is the night. He has a plan roughly sketched out of how to do it, but planning to kill someone had never been something that exactly interested him, and since Rye had dealt with Dad, he had no practice. Peeta isn’t sure exactly how, except that whatever path he chooses, he has to puncture her skull. Perhaps pierce the brain. That’s what Rye had implied, anyway.

 

This proved to be easier said than done, as it turned out, and Peeta had the misfortune of learning how grossly Hollywood had mischaracterized potatoes. The one he attached to the front of the gun Rye had used had done nothing at all to muffle the shot he fired through the basement door at a height he approximated would be where his mother’s head was. As a result, the entire kitchen was splattered by chunks of singed raw potato, a bullet lodged itself in the wood, sending a splintering crack through it, and his mother was slamming herself against the basement door like a wild animal. To be fair, she was probably just as mad as she would have been if she was alive to see the mess Peeta had made of her kitchen.

 

Hypothesis: Potatoes make effective silencers.

 

Conclusion: False.

 

But now the very thing he has been trying to avoid, exciting his mother, has already happened.

 

Peeta takes a shaky breath to refocus, winces, pulls his head back and fires again. A loud crack and gunsmoke fills the kitchen, searing the insides of Peeta’s ears and nose respectively. He sneezes, covers his nose with his arm and fires again. This time the wood of the door splinters completely, and out steps a gruesome shade of the woman he remembered as the very stereotype of the pinch-mouthed, scrubbed-pink and lacquered southern housewife- dress shirt collars as stiff as starch could manage, hair as tall as God and Aquanet allowed. He stumbles backward, watching her teeth gnash as she throws herself through the wreckage of the door and launches herself at him. Peeta’s crutch slips and falls over backward, landing hard enough to knock the air from his lungs. He scrambles away from the body that lands on the tile next to him as it claws its way toward him with a ragged hiss.

 

Her fingers are broken stubs, flopping or blunt as she reaches for him, the nails long since torn away and embedded on the other side of the basement door. He fumbles with the gun, but she manages to knock him down underneath her. Her teeth snap at him- they’re broken too, the front ones chipped and lined with blood, and he twists away from them as her stomach buckles, realizing what she is going to do just seconds before it happens. Her torso heaves, her mouth bowing open, but before anything escapes he slides his gun inside and pulls the trigger twice.

 

A sluicey deluge of viscera and blood gurgle out of her throat as her body falls limp and heavy next to him.

 

He sits up, peering around at the blood soaked tiles of the kitchen floor, the countertops covered in drying chunks of potato, the basement door laying in splinters and hanging off its hinges. He reaches for his crutch and stands clumsily, tucking his gun into the waistband of his pants and limping back to wash the blood off in the shower, his own teeth chattering from everything but the frigid well water that bursts out of his showerhead. That night he sleeps in fits and starts in his own bed, a chair propped under the doorknob and his gun in his hand. If any of the infected in the area had heard the commotion in his house today, they would certainly be coming. But he hears nothing that night except his own breathing, his heart beating dull and leaden in his chest.

 

The house is a quiet shell of the place he used to live. The pantry is empty. The fridge dark and bare. The stove is cool. The TV is a serene panel- a shining reminder of all the banal, precious noise he had taken so for granted. In his parent’s bedroom, the mattress is stripped, stained with blood, pierced with bullet holes.

 

When the sun rises, he carries his mother’s body outside and buries it under the apple tree- right next to Rye and Dad. On each grave, in lieu of a grave marker, he picks a bundle of flowers and leaves them tied in neat bouquets on each mound of dirt, then pulls back the weeds that had started to grow around Dad and Rye’s graves.

 

It had only been a few days since he’d last cleared the graves and already nature was creeping back to reclaim her earth.

 

But she deserved these rents on her surface. The bodies below had been people, once. They had hopes, and dreams, and fears. Their bones once cradled souls that had failed and triumphed, had hurt and felt pain, and nothing, not even death, could erase that. With soil underneath his fingernails and the hot sun beaming down on his neck, he feels sweat building on his skin. It awakens something that had fallen silent within him these past few weeks, and he finds himself ripping back grass and stones from the graves furiously, stubborn tears streaking down his cheeks.

 

All this time, he had imagined that humanity had winked out of existence that afternoon so long ago when he slipped a pain pill into his mouth and fell asleep. He had imagined a cataclysmic shift as he slept, something unseen and unfelt that radically shifted the world’s axis as it spun in the unseeing black vacuum of space, forever sealing the human race behind a wall of deafening silence. His wipes his face, smearing dirt along his cheekbones as he raises himself on his crutch and breathes hard. He had been wrong. There was something he had forgotten to take into account. Something more vital to humanity than food, clothing and shelter combined. Something that had catapulted man forward through time, protected it, even from itself. War, famine, death and plague- only one thing had ever stood between man and annihilation, and that was his determination to survive.

 

At all costs.

 

The graves were clear, the red soil an ugly, weeping gash in the otherwise still plain of green farmland that disappeared into the surviving forests. He limps inside, drags his wheelchair out of his room, down the front steps and into the road. It is the last time Peeta Mellark will ever see his childhood home.

 

He doesn’t look back.


-

Chapter Text

For many days the quiet creak of his chair is Peeta’s only company.

 

He passes the other farmhouses- still and dark as they drift in vacant fields that fade from green to gold in the bleaching glare of the sun. It scorches the black tar underneath his wheels and sear the tops of his hands and the back of his neck. Somehow he never expected the end of the world would be this bright - it never even struck him to pack sunscreen. He did bring the gun, as much food as he could carry, his pain medication, hand sanitizer from his mother’s purse, his utility knife and a beta model of his friends water-purifying straw. In a separate bag he strapped to the first he packed his father’s tool box and bear traps, but he’d gladly have traded them for aloe.

 

Eventually the peeling and itching stops, and his once smooth skin scales over. By then the palms of his hands blister from pushing his chair, and his shoulders ache so horribly he can’t move them come nighttime. But he schedules his breaks sparingly, never sure just how long he could hope to stay in one place unseen.

 

Bethlehem Road is long and winding, but he starts out each morning making as much progress as he can before the afternoon. Bethlehem turns into Morrow Mill, which creeps toward I-54 if you’re not careful to turn onto Orange Chapel Road. He’s avoiding the highway as long as possible, unsure of what he’d find but unwilling to chance drawing attention to himself. There are plenty of fields to raid along the way- corn, green beans, fat leaves of kale he pairs with a spoonful or two of his last jar of peanut butter from home. He even ventures into a tiny feed store, snatching a few cans of cat food he tears into with gusto, so desperate at that point for anything that wouldn’t leave him hungry.

 

Once the sun starts to inch lower in the sky, he rolls himself off the road and into the grass to find somewhere to hide for the night. In those first few days he lifted and swung himself onto the lower branches of the sturdiest oaks he could find. It was an arduous, ungainly process that involved him swinging his only leg like a pendulum until he gathered enough force to yank his chest up and over the branch. It required so much energy he had to rest for several long minutes before he could even consider climbing higher, and he always took this time to silently thank Katniss. She was the reason he knew to do this. Though she probably hadn’t meant to, she had given him far more information than he first thought, and long hours under the sun had given him plenty of time to replay her words for more clues.

 

She knew, maybe just instinctually, something critical about the infected. He needed to figure out what it was, but until he did, he had to come to terms with the fact that he stood no chance of surviving on his own. Not for long, anyway. He wasn’t like her. He didn’t have those kinds of instincts. His solution was spending far too long setting up a series of strategically placed bear traps to catch anything that might wander too close to his tree during the night, and it wasn’t until something actually stumbled into one of those traps that he realized he had no idea what to do with it afterward.

 

On his third night on the road, the click and snap of the metal jaw wakes him sometime just before dawn. Whimpers and squeals follow, carrying across the field and echoing in the otherwise dead silence until they’re joined by the distant telltale snarls that meant the infected were near. For the rest of the night Peeta sits, heart in his throat, listening as a group of them descend on whatever poor creature wandered into his trap, and it isn’t until the blazing sunrise chases the infected away that silence returns.

 

But Peeta’s eyes burn too badly to close, and he couldn’t hope to sleep if he tried anyway. He waits until he’s sure the infected are gone before he unties himself and swings down from the branch, his stomach straining from the effort. Repacking is hard. The remaining bear traps refuse to be disabled without being triggered, and each snap makes him flinch. Then the knots in the rope he uses to anchor himself to the tree are too tight to tug loose. His fingers are swollen, numb and shaking so bad he can’t so much as open the wrapper of his power bar. He gives up. Shoves everything haphazardly back in his bags and drops himself into his chair. His crutch slides out of his hand and onto the grass.

 

The sounds of the morning fill his head- crickets and mice scuttling in the brush. Wrens calling throatily to one another- Ta-wee-wip! Wee-wip! Whatever is in the trap is quiet now- but not dead. It’s breathing- quietly, quickly. He thinks back to his hospital bed in Boston and the morphine drip he reached out for when he woke up soaked in sweat, his head pounding fit to burst wide open.

 

He jerks his head up and gathers his crutch, limping through the tall grass to a narrow dirt road dotted by blackberry bushes. In the center is his trap, and in it are the remains of a large black and white dog. As he approaches it’s brown eyes are wide, the whites flashing like headlights. They snap to him and as the dog raises its head, the red collar around its neck jingles. The name written on it glints at him.

 

Chips .

 

The dog’s lip curls back half-heartedly, a weak snarl rising in its throat. The leg caught in the teeth of the trap is snapped near in half, but the blood has long since crusted over and stopped leaking out. It’s too late, of course. The air is soaked with it, and in the weak morning light the surrounding ground looks like oil spill. Viscous and black, dotted with slick organs ripped out from the cavernous wound on the dog’s side.

 

“Hey Chips,” Peeta says weakly. “Hey buddy.”

 

The dog’s ears twitch, and it’s tail picks up and thumps the ground. Peeta pulls his gun out of his pocket, presses it against the thick fur of the dog’s head, right between his ears.

 

It whines. Peeta swallows tightly.

 

“I’m sorry buddy. I’m so sorry.”

 

He peels back the safety.

 

“Good boy, Chips.”

 

-

 

He doesn’t set traps anymore.

 

He’s quieter now anyway. Aware of each creak of his chair, each snap of a twig, every crunch of a leaf beneath his tires. That’s what quiet does, he decides. It makes the world louder. He can hear the roar of an engine miles away, and he has plenty of time to tuck himself to safely into the tall grass or dense brush that edges the road. As long as he is still and quiet the infected that chased after the cars pass him right by.

 

He’s pieced together enough information about them to understand that noise, light and motion is what catches their attention, and they’re most active in the darkness. During daylight they’re nowhere to be seen, the odd car notwithstanding. Where they went he didn’t know, but there was plenty of time to speculate as he made his way along the back country roads to the outskirts of Chapel Hill. He guessed they hid out in darkened buildings, as farmhouses seemed the most violent places to camp in front of- especially ones with lamps out front running on solar batteries. They darted in and out of these clouds of light all night long, snarling and snapping at thin air. If they had bothered to look up, they would have seen him.

 

But they never did, and as the frequency of signs for Chapel Hill increased, so did the infected. They started moving in packs, whipping through the grass after some poor animal, or tearing down the road in hordes. He knows their presence is a bad sign. He knows he’s putting himself further in danger the closer he gets to the city. He know what will happen if the infected ever thought to glance to their right, or left, or just over their heads.

 

But he doesn’t care.

 

Even if all he finds is the bombed out crater of what once was a small city, at least he’d have answers. And the closer he gets to the city, the more chances he has of finding other survivors. Others, like him, who had managed to escape infection for long enough to keep on living. Always when he thought of these people, he imagines, maybe stupidly, that Katniss is somehow among them. He has redrawn her image over and over in his head, playing her words exactly as he remembers them, trying to scry from them some sort of image of the woman who had so easily and so effortlessly wormed her way into his head.

 

On those long days under the glare of the sun, this was his favorite game. He drew dark, sleepy eyes to match the smoke in her voice. A wide, honest smile to counteract her fear. At night she dominated his dreams. Sometimes he was back in Boston, tucked away in his comforter as a woman with blue hair slept in his arms. It was Katniss- he was sure of that- but every time he went to turn her over and see her face a drop of blood would splash on his pillowcase and he knew instinctively it was hers. It was leaking from her eyes, rolling over the bridge of her nose and staining the white cotton just inches from her head. With dawning horror, he would realize she was infected and the resultant flood of fear yanked him out of the dream and launched him into the sober heat of another Carolina dawn.

He’s prepared for her to be dead, but he’s not prepared for her to be gone. Though surely, she is. If the bomb didn’t get her, the radiation did. Which is another thing he’ll have to face sooner or later- how close could he get without risking radiation poisoning? He didn’t have a Geiger counter, had no earthly idea where he could find one, and though he had working knowledge of how it actually functioned, he had no clue where to start with building his own. There is an impulse in him to reach for his phone when he stumbles on a problem like this. He catches himself mumbling things like ‘how many miles from Saxapahaw to Chapel Hill’, ‘quarts to liters conversion’, and ‘rebel heart lyrics’ as he did so, and more often than not he finds his hand digging in his pocket for the slim device that died, never to be recharged, over a month ago. It is a stunning thing to discover about himself. He had been to one of the best educational institutions in the country, but the best of what he remembers from it is how to ask someone else the right questions to get the answers he needed.

 

At night, he wonders how many of the lights overhead are stars, and how many were floating piles of junk- doomed to wink out and disappear forever in the coming years. What is it that they are seeing, so many miles away, locked in their serene orbits? What do they think of all this? Or is it just business as usual in their unblinking glass gaze? Thoughts like this bubble up in his brain more often, now that the only voice he can hear is his own. He’s more aware of the world around him too, and more awake than he’s ever felt. Part of that is his dwindling supply of extra Tramadol, which he’s had to ration the rest of. They seemed like they might become more precious someday, of more use in an anxiously imagined future where his need is greater. His Lyrica, Wellbutrin and Cymbalta were on their way toward empty as well, but he continued to take everything but the Tramadol regularly in the hopes that he’d be able to find more later. This meant, of course, that those ghostly pains that had been dulled by months of pain killers were back, and even massaging the stump where his leg used to be didn’t ease the pain come nighttime.

 

But it was better than running out completely. He wasn’t sure what would happen if it ever came down to an empty bottle. It was a stupid, stupid question he should already have the answer for. He should have asked when he had the chance. Why hadn’t he? It seems so obvious now- the kind of thing he should have known to ask in the first place. He had had this idea that trusting the doctors was the best route- they are ( were, he reminds himself) the professionals.

 

Of course they knew what they were doing.

 

The problem with all this, of course, is that he never knew what they were doing. He had assumed so much then. Taken so much for granted.

 

No more.

 

As he rolls past a green sign warning I-54 is less than a mile away, he pauses to study the rest of the information on it and makes a note in his moleskine. He is just tucking the tiny notebook back in his pocket when he hears in the distance the sputtering roar of an engine tearing down the road, a quick rhythmic thumping and screams. He spins his chair around in time for a Chevy Suburban with a flat tire to fly past him and skid to a stop, and three people to jump out. One throws a jack under the car and begins to pump, while another attempts to screw the lug nuts of the hubcap off.

 

“Righty tighty, lefty loosey,” he calls, before he can think better.

 

The people jolt around, as if just realizing he is there.

 

“What?,” says the man working on the tire.

 

Peeta clears his throat. Besides from his distracted mumbling, these are the first words he’s spoken in days. His voice is feels strange and new- so much different than he remembered, but still so familiar.

 

“You’re uh- turning them the wrong way. You wanna go counter-clockwise. Left.”

 

“Son,” says a man in a tan leather jacket as he rounds the other side of the car. “Can you change a tire? ‘Cuz if you can, there’s a free ride right the hell out of dodge in it for you.”

 

“Yeah,” Peeta says. “Sure.”

 

The man in the suede jacket cocks a sawed off shotgun and nods at the back tire.

 

“Well. We got a pack hot on our tail. Think you ‘kin get it done quick?”

 

Peeta can hear them. Maybe a mile or two back down the road, running fast and hard. How many were there that they could be heard this far out? And, more importantly, was changing a tire something he could figure out how to do again? It’d been almost a year since he had been behind the wheel of a car, let alone since he’d needed to do maintenance on one. His memories of changing tires were muddled and disjointed, and he couldn’t organize all the steps in the right order. This was another change after the accident- his memory was never the same. He was sure he had changed a tire. Sure his father had taught him how. He’d been driving since he was old enough to reach the pedals on the tractor floor, and changing a tire couldn’t possibly be something he hadn’t done. Still, a cold sweat prickles on his hands as he listens to the approaching footsteps and snarls of the pack and his efforts to drag up a memory of changing a tire turn up nothing.

 

“Yeah,” he says. “No problem.”

 

He eases himself down in front of the tire and starts spinning the lugnuts, careful to keep them in hand to prevent them from rolling away. But a blast from the shotgun startles him and they spill everywhere anyway when he flinches. He goes to reach for them, but a woman with short grey hair knocks his hand.

 

“Just finish,” she snaps, diving after one as it rolls under the car.

 

Peeta wrenches the hubcap off as a second shotgun blast explodes in the still afternoon air. He throws it down, yanks the tire off and hands it to the woman, who throws it behind them. She drops down next to him, and Peeta can smell days’ worth of sour sweat built up on her clothes as she helps him push the new tire on.

 

“How we doin’ back there?,” the man in the leather jacket calls.

 

“We’re close,” Peeta mumbles as he fits the hubcap back on.

 

“Well get fuckin’ going,” the man snaps. “We’re out of time.”

 

“Here,” the woman murmurs, as she presses a few of the nuts in his hand and the man who had been screwing the lug nuts off wrong starts decompressing the jack. “We gotta move.”

 

“Incoming from the right,” says the man working the jack. The shotgun explodes over Peeta’s head as something crashes through the woods behind him.

 

“Close now,” he mumbles, his fingers fumbling to screw faster as the car sinks lower and lower.

 

“We’re cooked,” the man with the shotgun yells. The jack is ripped out from under the car and it bounces uneasily. There’s one nut left in Peeta’s hand, but the woman lifts him up by his arm.

 

“Leave it for now,” she says, as she rips open the back door and shoves him, his bags and one of his crutches inside.

 

“Wait, my cha-”

 

The door slams shut and the woman climbs in the front just as something hits the back window. Peeta jerks around in time to see a bloody face, a set of gnashing teeth, and then the car peels out, the engine kicking as it accelerates.

 

“Fuck, Haymitch!” the man who had been working the jack cries. “Fuck!”

 

He punches the back of the driver’s seat.

 

“What the fuck was that!”

 

“We didn’t have a choice,” the driver growls. “Either we changed it or they caught us.”

 

“We should have stayed in fucking Atlanta!”

 

“Do you even listen to yourself?,” the woman snaps.

 

“It would’ve worked out! YOU could have made it work if you weren’t so fucking selfis-!”

 

“Stop the car,” the woman says to Haymitch. Haymitch looks at her. “I SAID STOP THE FUCKING CAR.”

 

Haymitch slams on the breaks and Peeta slides forward, his head knocking against the back of the passenger’s seat- hard. The woman spins around in her seat, her face so dark it's nearly purple, a thin two-pronged vein visible on her forehead.

 

“OUT! GET THE FUCK OUT-”

 

“GODDAMMIT MAISY YOU-”

 

Haymitch cocks the shotgun and levels it at the man next to Peeta, and they both scramble back against the seat. The horde which disappeared behind them is still within earshot and Peeta eyes the road warily.

 

“You heard her,” Haymitch says.

 

“You’re actually gonna listen to her? You know we could have stayed. It was a small price to pay-”

 

“Out.”

 

“ONCE A YEAR! ONLY ONCE A YEAR! AND WE ALL WOULD HAVE BEEN SAFE!”

 

The safety clicks and Haymitch squints.

 

“I’m right. You know I’m right,” he says, his tone suddenly shallow and tight. “Don’t do this. I’m the one who got us out, and I can get us all back in.”

 

“I warned you when you got in my car. All she had to do was say the word.”

 

Haymitch finger presses down on the trigger, and the man scrambles out into the road, still screaming and pleading, fingers gripping the door handle, but Haymitch doesn’t so much as wait for him to let go before he slams on the gas again. The man tries to run alongside the car, but he’s too slow and the door slips out of his fingers as they jolt forward a few yards, then Haymitch brakes fast and the door swings shut. Peeta twists to look out the back window as the figure of the man running after the car grows smaller and smaller. On the horizon behind him, dogged as ever, are the infected. Peeta watches the man slow to stop and look behind him at the approaching horde, then turns back around quickly.

 

In the front seat, Maisy wipes her cheeks.

 

“Aw darlin’,” Haymitch mumbles gruffly. “He ain’t worth none of that.”

 

Peeta catches his eye in the rearview mirror as he eases a cigarette into the side of his mouth and lights it with one hand. The other is clenched around the top of the steering wheel, his cracked, dry knuckles slowly paling from the pressure.

 

“You mind, boy?”

 

“No sir.”

 

“Good.”

 

Haymitch cracks the driver side window and the sweet, white smoke is pulled out in the air beyond.

 

“So what’s your name?,” he asks. In the passenger seat, Maisy sniffles quietly and leans her head against the window. Haymitch puts his hand on her bare knee in between drags, leaving the cigarette hanging dangerously out of the side of his mouth.

 

“Peter. But, ah, everybody calls me Peeta.”

 

Haymitch makes a face which Peeta catches in the rearview mirror.

 

“It started as a joke,” he explains, shrugging one shoulder. “And then it just stuck.”

 

“Uh huh,” Haymitch says distractedly. “What’s your story then Peter- ah, Peeta?”

 

They breeze past an exit advertising Chapel Hill, and Peeta’s head yanks around.

 

“Wait,” he says. “I thought you were going to Chapel Hill?”

 

“Why in the hell would we be doing that?”

 

“You were heading that direction, I just thought-”

 

“You gotta be shittin’ me. Those things’ll be all over us.”

 

“But what about the bomb?”

 

“You mean the nuke they dropped on Raleigh? Fall out drifts pretty far, but I don’t think it’s reached Chapel Hill yet.”

 

“So Chapel Hill is still standing?”

 

Haymitch snorts, his eyebrows cinching together.

 

“Good christ. You have no idea, do you?”

 

“Listen- I’m looking for someone from Chapel Hill. Her name is Katniss, and she was-”

 

“Chapel Hill is the hottest Dead Zone west of New York City, kid. That bomb they dropped on Raleigh? Dragged every infected for a hundred miles there, and then they chased the all those survivors who tucked tail and bolted west. You want me to pull over and leave you here to get there on your own? I will. But whatever happened to that girl-”

 

Haymitch shakes his head slowly.

 

“‘Might be better if you never know.”

 

-

 

They drive in circles for weeks, meandering their way north. According to Maisy, rumor had it that were some places up in the Catskills that were untouched by infection still. They had electricity, running water, and, most importantly, supermarkets . She goes on at length about fresh pineapple, and the first thing that breaks through Peeta’s malaise is his mouth watering for the sweet and sour burst of fruit on his tongue. This is unexpected, as he never cared for pineapple before it was gone, but there were plenty of other things that he missed, plenty of other things he faintly groaned with even the pleasure of remembrance. Being clean was always nice, but after multiple baths in the frigid, slender streams of the Appalachians, hot showers were, in memory, something mind-numbingly extravagant. The luxury of hot water- and fresh from a tap!- Each new icy handful of water he brushed over his pebbling skin in the open woods made him ache for the blissful days he spent standing in the fragrant steam of a shower.

 

He missed the morning news updates on his phone, clean socks, falling asleep in front of the television. He missed parties on rooftops where he could see the whole city beneath him, as he sipped a beer under a string of christmas lights and talked about all the things that made up his world before- classes and coffeemakers and long, sleepy waits for the train on snowy mornings. Maisy loves these stories of the Before, and Haymitch entertains anything that keeps Maisy happy, so Peeta keeps on talking.

 

Maisy props her slender feet on the dashboard and paints her toenails as Peeta tells them about his impromptu trips to New York City on a bus that weaved and jerked, and abandoned all its passengers in the middle of Chinatown unexpectedly. He tells them about July Fourth on a bridge over the Boston River, watching a smoky black sky blooming into a field of red and white and gold. He tells them about his friends, his classes, his brother.

 

The important parts, anyway. What was worth remembering.

 

There are other memories though too. Memories that sit like silt at the bottom of his brain, only to rise to the surface when he’s at his lowest. He tries to keep them to himself, but they crawl out of him to gnaw on his waking hours, then slide easily into his sleep as nightmares, greedily draining every last ounce of him. He knows they make him sullen. He can hear the roar of his own bitter silences. But all this awareness does is draw him further into his own head, where he replays the list of all he’s lost until someone needs him to be useful.

 

Whenever they see a gas station, they raid it for supplies. Haymitch pulls up next to the pump and he and Peeta take turns siphoning gas and keeping watch. Gasoline tastes exactly like it smells, and it burns the inside of his nose for so long afterward that Peeta comes to dread sitting next to the pump to the point of nausea. Inside the gas stations they grab whatever’s worth taking- bandaids, tylenol, warm Coca Cola, vodka, Vanity Fair, Sudoku, peanuts, toilet paper- The day comes that Peeta finally does find a can of pineapple chunks. It’s not fresh- it’s not even a name brand- but it feels like such an incredibly luxury to split it with Maisy as they sit on a moldering wooden fence watching Haymitch glare over the plastic tube of the siphon. They greedily fish the chunks out with sticky, slippery fingers, but Maisy makes Peeta drink the juice that’s leftover in the can on his own- down to the last tangy drop. They make tongue in cheek plans to pace themselves next time- but Peeta knows there’s no chance that’ll happen.

 

Best of all, the fruit is so tangy and acidic he can’t smell anything else for hours.

 

When they encounter other people, they trade as much as they can. Food isn’t initially a problem, except that all the food that’s left is in a can, bag or dipped in chocolate. He’s sick to death of it- freeze dried blueberries, mealy cans of beans, rubbery ravioli that sticks to his stomach like glue, fried pork rinds, beef jerky, Snickers, Cheez-Its...

 

Most of all, however, he’s just plain sick.

 

He’s down to his last few tramadol, but parsing them out according to pain flare ups wasn’t as good an idea as he thought it would be. It’s only when he’s beyond his threshold for misery that he takes something for it, and even then it’s only to sleep through the night. During the daylight hours he rides in the back seat of the car, his head bumping against the headrest as he drifts in and out of consciousness. If they are camping, as they sometimes do at night so they can stretch their legs and get some fresh air, Peeta limps to the foot of a tree and sleeps there on a bed of moldering leaves, relishing the sweet, gentle warmth of decay and the cool moisture of moss underneath his head. The sweat stains on his clothes have long since become permanent, but it’s worse now that his skin is constantly covered in a thin sheen of cold sweat. He’s always stuck between too hot and too cold, shivering in the glaring sunlight or throwing up more than he’s holding down.

 

Then the day comes that the pills are gone.

 

All that’s left is his thinning supply of Tylenol, which does fuck all to dull the electrifying pains in what’s left of his leg. He’d never noticed the full spectrum that pain could come in, but now that it’s a feeling as familiar as breathing he’s learned every debilitating hue, and soon it becomes obvious that he cannot continue with Haymitch and Maisy. He’s tired- so tired- all the time now, and utterly useless. Unable to keep watch. Unable to so much as smell gas without heaving. Unable to hobble down into the trees to piss without needing to rest.

 

The night Peeta makes up his mind to tell Haymitch to leave him behind, Haymitch does what he always does when they stop- pops the hood off the engine and tinkers around inside, a cigarette hanging loosely out of the corner of his mouth. Normally Peeta would be at his side, cracking jokes as they check the oil and the coolant, or test the charge on the battery, which Haymitch insists they do religiously. Peeta had surprised himself by knowing more about cars and maintenance than he thought he did, and Haymitch seemed to appreciate the help. But tonight, Peeta is shaking so hard his knee buckles anytime he tries to stand, and as the evening wears on he is more and more distracted, staring glassy eyed at the sky as it melts from a blazing cerulean into blackness. After refusing a dinner of wild blueberries and a Milkyway, he collapses into an unmoving heap by the fire Maisy had built, and slips instantly to sleep.

 

Sometime later, he wakes up breathing hard, moisture peppering skin and his heart beating erratically. It’s another disjointed nightmare- bloody teeth in cloth, a house made of unfinished wood, a table overloaded with moldering bread, blanketed by flies-

 

“Got an awful lot of bear traps for a man with one leg,” a voice grunts. Peeta sits up quickly to find Haymitch across the fire, his backpack open at his feet. He holds up one of Peeta’s empty pill bottles and shakes it. In the silence that follows, Peeta can only stare.

 

“This isn’t a cold, is it? Got Maisy worried, you know. Thought you might be...”

 

“Turning into one of them?”

 

“Are you?”

 

“I don’t think so.”

 

“So you’re not one of the living dead- you just look like it.”

 

Haymitch stands and kicks some dirt over the tiny fire, extinguishing it.

 

“Withdrawal is a bitch. Try to get some rest, kiddo,” he says.

 

Peeta’s eyes slide shut and he lists backward into a sleep that just whispers against waking. He is back at the table of rotten bread, listening to Haymitch and Maisy’s hushed whispers as flies swarm around them.

 

How many miles?

 

Not far from here. Can’t be.

 

Can we lift him together?

 

The world is moving, shifting and rolling, and the table drifts away on a sea of reaching hands. The hands grab at him but he swims to the backseat of Haymitch’s car and the door closes behind him.

 

The headlights Haymitch, they’ll see them for miles.

 

They’ll be chasing us for the sound anyway, if there are any this deep in.

 

But there is one- right behind them- blood rolling out of his eyes and dripping onto the cracked leather of the backseat, and next to him, Katniss. Fire licking her skin as she turns around and her mouth drops open-

 

-his mouth and I’ll sit him up-

 

Swallow kid. That’s right. You’re ok. One more-

 

Darkness.

 

-

 

They’re driving again.

 

He sits up, his head jumbled and fuzzy and his mouth full of cotton.

 

“You’re up,” Haymitch says. Peeta looks at his face in the rearview mirror. Haymitch’s eyes flicker to his. “How you feeling?”

 

“Tired,” Peeta slurs.

 

“Couldn’t find you any oxycontin. Druggies musta’ got those. If it were me that’s what you’d be on, but I adjusted your dose and got you set up on something better than what your last doctor had you on. How long ago did you lose it?”

 

“Lose wha’?”

 

“The leg.”

 

“A year ago,” Peeta says, adjusting himself into a fully seated position and running a hand through his hair to brush it out of his face. He forgot that the anniversary of his accident had come and gone. He had meant to commemorate it in some way- had hoped that that way would a triumphant return to Boston- but that was a lifetime ago. The world was a different place then, he was a different person. He hadn’t meant to let the accident change him and he never wanted The End to make him into something he wasn’t.

 

But even the uninfected aren’t immune.

 

At some point, a dark, exhaustive somethin g had wrapped itself around his head and started whispering toxicity into his ear. He couldn’t go back to that night and undo his decision to get behind the wheel of a car, he was just lucky he was the only person who had gotten hurt as a result. Still, the moment he had woken up in that hospital he knew that the only way to go on was to look forward- to always be thinking about the next step- to get right back up and keep on going. But what was the point, in a world like this?

 

“Wait- what did you give me?”

 

“Relax. In another life, I was a doctor. Seen a lot of guys like you. Hiding the pain too well, or maybe you don’t even notice it anymore, it’s just so constant. But you can’t cold turkey a cocktail of pain drugs. Every junky knows that- and they’re stupider’n hell.”

 

“Stop saying that,” Peeta snaps.

 

“Woah there. Touched a nerve. I’m not accusing you of anything, but I do think you have a deathwish. You should’ve have said something. We would have found another way than raiding a RiteAid at the asscrack of dawn.”

 

Guilt burns in his stomach. That kind of a risk wasn’t something they had taken more than once or twice. Pharmacies tended to be in areas that were more densely populated, and the reward they held, if any at all, usually wasn’t worth awakening a small horde that might be camped out inside.

 

“Were there any… you know.”

 

“Yeah. But Maisy was driving around in the parking lot honking the horn and they never so much as looked my way.”

 

But that makes it so much worse, because it’s then that Peeta realizes he had long since given up on himself. Quietly. Easily. Almost with a sense of relief. What happened to all his determination to survive? Had it blown away in the soft Appalachian midnight air? Melted into nothing like fresh snow on steaming train tracks? He gave up again. Everyday he hadn’t actively chosen to live, he had chosen to die, and Haymitch and Maisy almost paid the price with their own lives.

 

“I’m so-”

 

Haymitch slams on the brakes, but it’s too late- the front tires pop and blow out and the car swerves and tilts on its side. The back wheels explode next, first one and then the other, and then they are grinding along the tar on nothing more than the rims and the flapping rubber remains of their tires. Without his seatbelt on, Peeta flies forward against the door head first, and the car skids to violent stop as the headlights of an 18-car tow truck flip on and drench the surrounding forest in bright, golden light.


-

Chapter Text

“GET OUT OF THE CAR!”

 

Haymitch looks back at Peeta, his eyes grave. Sweat beads on Peeta’s forehead, and a lone drop makes a break for his neck and trickles down his temple.

 

“What do we do?” Maisy whispers.

 

“I think we oughta’ do what the nice people say,” Haymitch grunts as he jerks his head at the figures silhouetted by the light. One is small, carrying a gun roughly the size of her torso and the other, tall, clearly male, carrying a gun with some kind of spear on the end, like a small harpoon. “What do you think, kiddo?”

 

Peeta swallows. What would happen if they didn’t get out of the car? What would happen if they did?

 

“I don’t think we have a choice.”

He reaches for his crutch on the car floor, but Haymitch holds up his hand.

 

“Let an old man go first,” he says.

 

He exits slowly, his arms in the air. Maisy follows, copying his actions, but twisting back to look at Peeta as she slinks out. Peeta is the last, wobbling out on his crutch and weaving dizzily in the bright light as he comes to stand next to Haymitch.

 

“Search ‘em,” the smaller figure says, jerking her gun at the car. Their voice is gravelly, artificially low. The larger figure dashes ahead and climbs into the car, opening the console first as he begins to strip it of things Peeta can’t see, but is sure they need.

 

“Now. You hear that?”

 

Rustling leaves- movement.

 

Pounding feet.

 

Muted howls-

 

Haymitch said Maisy had been circling the parking lot honking, and the headlights would have attracted every infected for- Peeta swallows.

 

It’s a horde- and by the sounds of it, a big one.

 

“By my estimation,” the person with the gun continues- “We’ve got about four minutes before they’re-”

 

She pauses, her eyes locked on the trees just to the left of Peeta. He spins, his heart lurching into his throat as an infected woman bursts out of the darkness and charges for him. She makes it two steps before a spray of bullets bring her down.

 

“Never mind. I was wrong. It’ll make all our lives a whole lot easier if you told me where your valuables are, so we can be on our way, and let you go on yours. Hell, I’ll even let you have your car back.”

 

Maisy’s eyes narrow furiously. They hadn’t been able to find more spare tires. The car is useless. They’re stuck and everyone here knows it.

 

“We don’t have any money, if that’s what you’re looking for,” Haymitch says.

 

“We’ve got enough toilet paper!” the smaller figure calls.

 

“What are you looking for?!” Peeta yells.

 

“Water, gas, food, meds-”

 

“And post-its!” calls the voice in the car.

 

“Godammit. I told you to cut that shit out!”

 

The man in the car pops his out of the driver’s side window, his harpoon-gun clutched loosely in his hand.

 

“It’s a good plan and you know it,” he says defensively. “How will they know?”

 

Cracking branches- rapid, heavy footfalls-

 

“To your right, Jo!”

 

Four infected fly out of the trees and only to fall in a cloud of bullets, but a fifth escapes, making it just feet from Haymitch before it a bullet finds its mark in its head.

 

Peeta’s heart, already hammering despite the malaise of the drugs pumping in his veins, kicks erratically.

 

“I have post-its!” he blurts desperately.

 

“See what you did?!” the smaller figure says. “Now Abercrombie over here thinks we’re gonna fuck off happy with a pad of sticky paper. Grab the shit we need and let’s get the fuck out.”

 

“Wait!” Peeta cries. “We have food! Lots of it! We’ll give it you, no problems. And the post it notes. But you have to take us with you!”

 

“No! We-,” Maisy starts, but Haymitch cuts her off.

 

“They’re coming, Maisy.”

 

She spins on him, talking fast and low, and Peeta can only catch certain words, but ‘Atlanta’ and ‘Rick’ are definitely among them. A screech echoes some feet away in the forest, and Peeta starts toward the man leaning out of their car.

 

“Please. You want to take us with you.”

 

The man in the car looks toward the smaller figure.

 

“And why would we want to do that?”

 

Peeta stands as straight as he can while leaning heavily on his crutch.

 

“Haymitch is a doctor,” he says. “He knows all kinds of stuff about cars, too. And he’s a dead shot. Maisy can cook anything, and she’s great at foraging. And I- I’m an engineer. I can fix anything you put in front of me- engines, motors, and I can build radios out of-”

 

A chorus of snarls echo just beyond the trees.

 

“Good enough for me!” says the man in the car. “Jo, let’s get this loaded and haul out!”

 

The smaller figure pinches the bridge of their nose in aggravation as they lurch forward, hooking a chain Peeta hadn’t seen them holding underneath the front axle as Finnick motions them back toward the car with his gun.

 

“Hop in,” he says. “And buckle up. It’s gonna be a bumpy ride.”

 

As Peeta goes to climb back in, Finnick reaches a hand out to help him, their eyes meeting briefly. One is a shocking bright green, crinkling kindly at the corner. The other is milky white, a long scar stretching from his forehead to under his jaw.

 

“I’ll take the post-its now,” he says, as Peeta settles in his seat. Peeta scrambles to dig his moleskine out of a pile of his food on the floor, and his heart sinks as his hand brushes over a familiar shape.

 

“And those meds too,” Finnick says.

 

He hesitates, his eyes meeting Finnick’s again slowly.

 

Finnick reaches his hand out.

 

“Chop chop,” he says warmly. “Unless you’d like to wait for our guests to join us?”

 

Peeta shoves the bottles over as Finnick’s good eye blinks blandly at him, Haymitch’s sawed off shotgun and Peeta’s revolver tucked underneath his other arm. Finnick hums as he shoves the pills and guns in the pocket of utility belt strapped around his slender hips, his own harpoon-gun gripped loosely in his other hand.

 

‘Now, I’m real sorry about this but-”

 

He swings the gun, slamming the butt on Peeta’s temple hard. For a moment, the lights of the cab and the tow-truck spike into blurry nettles, and Haymitch’s angry yelling infiltrates his consciousness in piercing jabs. Then, the back seat raises up to catch him as Maisy starts to scream.

 

-

 

Throbbing darkness. Then-

 

Something cold and wet brushes against his head.

 

“Why did you have to bleed?” a voice murmurs. It’s almost silent, as if the speaker mouthed the words and was unaware of that their voice was escaping through their lips. A soft wave of clean, warm breath rolls over his cheeks. Spearmint. Pine, maybe? Dove soap. And after weeks of his own fetid, sour breath he’d recognize the scent of toothpaste anywhere.

 

“Sorry,” he mumbles, his voice cracking. “You want me to stop?”

 

The hands at his temple jerk back.

 

“I didn’t know you were awake.”

 

The fingers return, but the cold, wet material pressing against his wound starts to sting sharply. Peeta hisses, resisting the urge to lurch away, and his eyes flutter as he tries to open them. Something has been wrapped over them- a cotton cloth- and panic wells in his chest as he reaches up for it.

 

“Don’t,” the person- a woman- says. “The light will hurt.”

 

Some of his anxiety wanes, but not much.

 

“Where am I?” he blurts. “The people I was with- Haymitch, Maisy-”

 

A hand tugs at his shoulder and he obligingly sits up. A pillow slides behind his back and he leans back against it.

 

“-where are they? How-”

 

“Here, take these.”

 

It’s said matter of factly and brooks no argument as the woman places a few pills in one of his hands, and a plastic cup in the other, pointedly ignoring his questions as she adjusts the bandage on his head.

 

“Please,” he says, an edge of desperation in his voice. “Who are you? What is this place?”

 

She hesitates, and Peeta feels the tension rolling off her in pulsing waves as she retreats to the other side of the room, leaving him cold and confused on his cot.

 

“You’re in Sanctuary,” she says carefully. “It’s a military compound. Free of infection. Your pills are behind your pillow. Don’t let anyone else know that you have them.”

 

There’s a nearly inaudible click, then a whining hinge alerts him that a door is being opened.

 

“Thank you. And you? What’s your name?”

 

There’s another long, indecisive pause and Peeta can almost feel her shifting her weight uneasily from foot to foot as she stands in the doorway, desperate to escape somewhere safe from one-legged men with too many questions.

 

“You should take those soon.”

 

Peeta drops the pills in his lap and reaches up to yank off his blindfold, but he’s too late.

 

She’s already gone.

 

-

 

Oh holy fuck-

 

The nurse was right.

 

The light hits his brain like brick and his eyes flinch shut. He should have listened. It’s impossible to dry swallow his pills now- they stick to the back of his throat and his stomach rolls. He coughs it up, then chokes it back down with a gulp of water. The cup is empty before he realizes something crucial.

 

The water had come from a faucet. He heard her turn it on, heard it running, and never made the connection. Sanctuary had running water, and where there was running water, there was a well. The luxury of it stuns him for a moment. A military compound, free from infection, sitting on an aquifer of clean, cold water. He eyes the shining tap with jealousy, but his crutch is nowhere to be seen. He is plotting a dangerous, one-legged journey to the sink when his door swings back open.

 

“Hey could you help me get-”

 

He stops. It’s not his runaway nurse but a man who enters the room, short, sweaty and wan, his eyes deep set in his skull and underlined with dark circles. The tip of his long nose is bulbous in a way nothing else on his face was- even his lips were thin and jagged.

 

“Peeta Mell- ahk ,” he says, a twang lengthening the end of Peeta’s last name. “Just the man I wanted to see.”

 

Peeta sits up a little straighter.

 

“What did you need?” the man asks, eyeing the cup in Peeta’s hand. “Some water?”

 

“Yes,” Peeta says. “Thank you.”

 

The man strides forward and refills Peeta’s cup. Peeta can’t help but stare at the water as it pours from the faucet. How long had it been since he left home now? Two months- Three? Maybe even more. It had been that many months since he’d last seen a working faucet.

 

“There ya’ are son,” the man says. “No one goes thirsty in Sanctuary. Especially not our guests. We sure are glad you’re here.”

 

“Well sir, I had just about no other choice.”

 

The man laughs, his eyes crinkling kindly around the corners as he drags a chair from the corner of the room and sets it next to Peeta’s cot, pushing his rolled up sleeves over his elbows.

 

“Heard about that. I am so sorry for what happened.”

 

He extends a hand to Peeta.

 

“Senator Ted Wilson,” he says. “I assure you that those kinds of things aren’t tolerated here. Our Runners have been under more pressure lately. Still- that’s no excuse. It shouldn’t have happened, that’s the long and short of it, and I am deeply sorry.”

 

Peeta looks up from his once again empty cup. Senator Wilson meets his eyes earnestly.

 

“You can rest assured,” Wilson continues, “that those responsible have been punished.”

 

Peeta finally reaches out his hand and the older man shakes it firmly.

 

“Nice to meet you, sir,” Peeta says. “What happened to the people I was with?”

 

“Oh they’re fine- just down the hall. That Maisy- boy. She’s a spitfire. Wouldn’t so much as sit down before we got you settled. You’re lucky, young man, to be traveling in the company of such good people.”

 

Wilson sighs deeply and smiles.

 

“After we’ve talked, y’all are welcome are hang around here until you’re back on your feet. The Lord has been gracious to us, and so Sanctuary’s got plenty to give. But- and I know this may be a bit much right now- there’s something I’d love to throw by you, just see what you think of it. When you’re up for it, of course.”

 

The Senator goes to rise out of his chair, but Peeta stops him.

 

“Well- wait.”

 

He pulls himself further upright against his backrest of pillows.

 

“What did you want to tell me?”

 

Wilson’s smile broadens.

 

“You’re a trooper, aren’t you? We could sure you use someone like you around here. We’ve been making it ok, but no one’s really an expert- in anything. Half of us are military- boots on the ground types- and the other half is civilian- secretaries, librarians, CFO’s- and this just ain’t their kind of world.”

 

“Are you asking me to stay?”

 

“Mr. Odair did say you offered.”

 

Offer was a funny way of putting it.

 

“What would you need me for?”

“We got plenty of need for any soul who can build a radio from nothin’!” the Senator laughs as he reaches behind Peeta’s cot and drags out his missing crutch, “How about I take you on a quick tour?”

 

Unlike Rye, Peeta had never been one for politics. Election years were unlivable in his house- Rye baiting his mother just to snigger at her canned responses, and his mother growing more and more irritated until she snapped and went after him. But Rye had been that age where he had learned that his mother could be outrun, and once she was she was nearly powerless to do anything but rant. He’d slide into his car and peel away, laughing uproariously as Mom burst out of the front door, her face the shade of a new brick as she hollered at him from across the lawn.

 

Usually, Peeta was lucky enough to find a place to disappear himself to. He wasn’t like Rye- fifteen, angry at the world and uncaring of who knew it. Rye had said so many things over the years about different politicians, and Peeta was always confusing them and forgetting who did what and when- but he did remember what his brother had said about Senator Wilson.

 

The only conservative worth the air he breathes.

 

It’s as high a compliment as Rye had ever paid anyone who couldn’t play a bass guitar, and it’s good enough for Peeta.

 

He follows Wilson on an impromptu tour of the base, and what’s immediately obvious is that Sanctuary wasn’t a name they adopted lightly. The base itself is a squat concrete building that housed some of the survivors and the medical wing he had woken up in, and it’s surrounded by an encampment of tents and a separate dining hall. The dining hall served as a laundry between meals, and had a damp, sudsy scent that Peeta caught just from glancing through its doors. To his surprise, not only did the camp have running water, but indoor plumbing, and bursts of electricity powered by ancient solar cells positioned at the eastern outskirts. An athletic training course is at its western side, and even nearing sunset it bustles with men and women in knee pads, backpacks and scrap metal encrusted leather jackets, running from one fixture to the next with practiced ease.

 

Encircling the entire base, the Senator boasts, are three foot thick concrete walls with reinforced steel beams, and a secondary chain link fence topped with razor wire around that. But what the Senator seemed the most eager to show him lay at the south side of the base- an arsenal of vehicles both military and civilian he called The Boneyard. He quizzes Peeta on a few of them, and on his knowledge of engines and maintenance and his eyes glint eagerly as Peeta explains the finer points of his education in mechanical engineering.

 

“Well son,” the Senator says with a half smile and a shake of his head. “I sure am impressed. We’re blessed to have you here. Truly. You a religious man, Mr. Mellark?”

 

Peeta shrugs. Officially? He was Catholic. It was his automatic answer. But he had lost his crucifix some time ago in the ancient, gaping floorboards of his Cambridge apartment and hadn’t ever bothered to look for it. Truthfully, like politics, it just wasn’t something he ever thought about. Over Senator Wilson’s shoulder, shadowed by a freshly setting sun, Peeta spies Finnick hopping out of the cab of a familiar looking 18-wheel tow truck. The smaller person who had joined him that night, Jo, is nowhere to be seen, but her voice drifts on the breeze from somewhere in the yard.

 

“Yes sir,” he says. “Catholic. Born and raised.”

 

“Then you know,” the Senator says. “Like I do, that the Lord helps those who help themselves. I think he means for us to survive this- and I think you’re proof of that. I’m working real hard to keep this place together- but I could sure use some help. What d’ya say?”

 

In the darkness the lines on Wilson’s face become deep rifts, as if they were hollowed by wind and sand instead of worry. His cheeks are smooth planes, but the skin is as shallow as paper, and sits too tightly over his cheekbones. He’s been hungry. Recently. Despite this, his eyes are steely, alert and focused. For the first time in weeks, Peeta thinks of his family, buried in three scars of earth he dug himself armed only with a shovel and his bare hands. Those hours under the hot Carolina sun- that dirt under his nails- they still felt as real now as they had then. But now, months later, he understood the full implications of what he had decided then.

 

Survival by any means necessary? It meant everyone would have to pay the ferryman at some point.

 

Peeta puts out his hand.

 

“Sir, I’d be happy to help however I can.”

 

The Senator shakes it vigorously.

 

“Bless you, Mr. Mellark. You’re doing us a great favor.”

 

His eyes drift back to the boneyard, tracing the dark line of silhouetted vehicles. Finnick is watching them, his face impassive. A shock of anger sears its way through Peeta. The bruise on his temple is still seething, he can feel it pulse underneath the wrapping the nurse had put on it, and his vision still swam a little when he moved too fast. But then Finnick melts into the shadows and the Senator is escorting him back to the hospital wing, explaining something he calls a Direct Initiatives Meeting. Peeta barely listens, but promises to attend the one happening that evening anyway.

 

The Senator leaves him at the hospital wing where he rushes to find Haymitch and Maisy. The older woman is pale and wide-eyed, her gaze bouncing from left to right around the room, while all of Haymitch’s attempts to soothe her fall flat. They have already been assigned a room here- one close to the medical wing- but Peeta knows that it won’t be enough to make Maisy stay.

 

Atlanta hangs around her neck like an invisible noose- one only she could feel tightening.

 

But Peeta knew firsthand you couldn’t unknow the feeling of a tightening noose.

 

It was weakness, in a world like this.

 

A world that changed overnight, and the impossible nightmares of yesterday were the first thing illuminated by dawn’s light.

 

Nothing was guaranteed anymore- except death. It was the all-consumer, and it never stopped biting at their heels, never slept, never ended. More than once Maisy had gotten them lost in trying to avoid areas she suspected would be overrun, and the extra time and gas they spent wandering around the rural back highways of South Carolina had felt endless to Peeta- especially as they started to run low on clean water. One afternoon, miles away from civilization and running on fumes and their last dregs of water they had been forced to stop at a gas station at dusk. Haymitch had gone inside alone as Peeta siphoned gas from their pump. Haymitch returned long after they had fueled up with four gallons of water, blood staining his clothes and shotgun.

 

He climbed into the car and sat for a long time, silently staring at the building he emerged from before he said-

 

“Man ain’t supposed to kill a child.”

 

Then he put the car into gear and they roared away.

 

So Peeta isn’t surprised when Maisy refuses point blank to attend the Direct Initiatives Meeting.

 

“Why does it matter?” she snaps. “We’re leaving, aren’t we?”

 

A noise in the doorway startles them all, and even though they had kept their voices low, they jolt around.

 

“Time to go.”

 

It’s Jo- the small woman from last night, but the only way Peeta’s sure is her voice, which is big no matter how big the room she’s in is. In daylight, without armor and a gun almost her size, she’s particularly thin, her elbows thick knots on her otherwise slender arms and her shirt hanging off her shoulders like a dress. She’s leaning on the handlebars of a wheelchair and chewing mindlessly on a straw.

 

“Your chariot awaits,” she says, and Peeta flushes angrily.

 

He wants to outright refuse to get in the chair, but something tells him Jo isn’t here on her own. Someone told her to come here- and that same someone told her to bring a chair. Haymitch stays with Maisy, but Peeta lets himself be wheeled off to the Direct Initiatives Meeting, following a stream of people out of the concrete building, past the shanty-town of tents and toward the dining hall.

 

“Just your luck, Abercrombie,” Jo snorts. “Your first day, and it’s a Reaping.”

 

Peeta’s jaw clenches.

 

“Luck is a little rich,” he says, not so much as turning his head to look at her.

 

“Oh. Still a little bitter.”

 

“Head trauma will do that to a guy.”

 

“You haven’t figured it out yet then.”

 

He finally turns to her as she slides him into a space at a table with no chair, and slumps into a seat next to him, her eyes sweeping the front of the room disdainfully.

 

“Figured out what?”

 

She snorts, shaking her head and laughing humorlessly as she slides further down in her chair, and before she can answer, a man walks to the front of the room, a fishbowl full of paper in his arms. Senator Wilson follows him, waving shortly at the gathered crowd. He smiles as he steps into the middle of the room and stuffs one hand in his pocket.

 

“Good Evening, Sanctuary,” he says, his voice booming in a room oddly silent for the amount of people gathered there. “It’s good to be alive!”

 

There’s a smattering of applause that dies down quickly.

 

“It’s good to be here, and it’s good to have new faces in staring back at me. I hope you’ll join me in welcoming Peeta, Haymitch and Maisy to our little group. Guys? Why don’t you stand on up.”

 

With some difficulty, Peeta stands, a friendly half-smile plastered on his face. His heart thumps anxiously in his chest as the Senator looks around the room in anticipation.

 

“Happy to be here, sir,” Peeta says. “And Haymitch and Maisy apologize, but they couldn’t join us tonight. Maisy isn’t feeling well.”

 

Senator Wilson’s smile strains, then melts back to easiness in the blink of an eye. Heat prickles on the back of Peeta’s neck and he can feel every eye in the room drift his way.

 

“Well, thanks Mr.Mellark. Glad to have you here.”

 

As Peeta drops heavily back into his chair, Wilson continues on smoothly, explaining in a practiced fashion the mission of Sanctuary- to keep hope alive in the darkest of times. To be the shining city on the hill, a bright beacon of democracy in the chaotic darkness for all others to flock to. Jo snorts.

 

“That’s us. A real den of virtue,” Jo mumbles.

 

“And to that end,” Wilson continues, “we have the Direct Initiatives. Every time we reach a critical point in our survival, we select a brave tribute to risk life and limb in the cause of our survival as a group. These tributes to the mission of Sanctuary return the victors of our righteous cause, or… They are remembered as fallen heroes. And today, with medical supplies running low, we are looking for a brave soul to journey to the Grady Memorial Hospital.”

 

He nods meaningfully, looking out around the crowd, and then walks towards the fishbowl, reaching his hand in and fishing around. Next to Peeta, Jo’s lips purse angrily.

 

Wilson closes his eyes and pulls a slip out. Peeta swallows as he looks out around the room at the blank faces, sensing something more than anticipation in them- something more than fear. It’s electric, almost a tremor, a roiling, writhing something, starting with Jo and rippling outwards. It leaks into his very bones, and the power is tremendous. Does Wilson feel it? Peeta watches his sallow impassive face carefully, but the Senator is as unreadably calm as ever- and the hairs on Peeta’s neck stand on end at the practiced ease with which the older man studiously ignores the mounting tension in the room. He clears his throat and reads out the name on the tiny slip of paper.

 

“Rue Goodall.”

 

A hush falls over the cafeteria as a tiny girl, no older than fifteen at the most, stands up mechanically, looking around the room with wide eyes. This couldn’t be right. Rue is hardly taller than a twelve year old, her eyes big and dark under a curtain of tight, frizzy curls. Peeta knew the hospital they were talking about. In fact, he was intimately acquainted with most of physical therapy rooms. This is a mistake. It had to be. There were rumors about the infected there- rumors that the infection spread as ERs in Chapel Hill and Greensboro filled up, and patients were shipped further and further east. It was an unspoken truth that hospitals were to be avoided at all costs.

 

Peeta waits for the Senator to double check the name on the slip he just read, but he doesn’t. Instead he stands patiently at the front of the room, his small eyes impassive and dark.

 

“No!”

 

The voice that cries out is familiar, but he can’t place where or how he knows it. He looks up to scan the crowd to see where it came from, but he can’t pinpoint it. There’s frantic, hurried movement near the front, a bobbing head of dark hair tied back in a thick rope of a braid, and then the owner walks into the center aisle- a small woman in big boots, her pants held up on her narrow shoulders by suspenders. She is lithe and dark, slender but not in any way fragile, and too unwitting to be anything like pretty.

 

He thinks it anyway. Pretty.

 

“I’ll do it!” she says, her voice tight and thick. Her shoulders square and she comes to stand in front of Rue. “I’ll go. Send me instead.”

 

Senator Wilson blinks, his face darkening as Rue stands weak-kneed and dazed in the middle of the aisle. Peeta’s heart lurches as the woman turns around to look at Rue with unfocused eyes as round and fathomless as a well, and Peeta knows that she is looking past the younger girl to the ghost of someone else. His heart splinters at the devastation on her face as awareness bursts her dam of memory and floods onto her face.

 

“She’s gonna get herself killed,” Johanna whispers disdainfully. “Our best Runner, too.”

 

“Who is?”


Without turning around, Johanna mumbles a name that stops his heart.

Chapter Text

Katniss Everdeen stares at the clock hanging over the body on the cot next to her. It reads 10:38, and has for the past hour. She’s been checking it anyway- not out of reflex, but because she can hear it. The gears inside are whirring, just faintly, but she can hear them clear as a bell, and if she’s right-

 

The minute hand ticks backward. Her lips twitch. The clock isn’t dead, it’s just broken.

 

Rue shifts on her cot in tiny, slow movements until she has rolled onto her side- an agonizing process that makes Katniss’s fingers twitch. But it’s hard to tell if she needs another blanket, more tylenol or both. Rue’s forehead is blaring heat, and her breathing is shallow and slow, but at least it's been even for the past four hours or so she's been asleep. Katniss slips out of the girl’s room, tucking her hands in her apron’s pockets. Better to let Rue sleep for now. That's what she really needed, after all. It was the only thing that seemed to work.

 

The sun can't have risen more than an hour ago and the hospital wing beyond Rue’s room is already sweltering. The only window in the place has been thrown wide open, but the air is too still to save them from the swampy heat. It could rain by early afternoon though. That wasn’t hope talking- the air is fecund with ozone, crackling along her skin and teasing out precious sweat to pool in the crevices of her armpits, the slick planes of her neck and the tender skin between her breasts. She shoves her nose down the neck of her shirt and sniffs.

 

Her sweat is oily and rich. It will rain.

 

What a shame. All that salt wasted on an afternoon shower when they hardly had enough to eat in the first place. But living at all is a debt in salt. Tides of sweat that leave sticky shorelines on drying skin. Briny tears that burn as they well over the reef of the lower lashes. Blood- all the hot, rich blood it takes to move the muscles that must be moved in the defense of the heart. It’s no wonder people confuse it for the organ that loves- the brain may make the chemicals, but it’s the heart that breaks for it.

 

Katniss jerks around, weaving toward the last room in the hall. The patient inside is an Outsider, newly arrived. You never knew what to expect with those. Her nostrils flare as she takes a short, quick breath then bustles into the room, her eyes set on the clock above his bed. It is eleven am. The patient is still, either knocked out or faking, and she hopes it’s the former because Finnick is already miserable enough having made a mess of the poor man’s temple. Katniss steps closer cautiously. The hairs on her arms prickle and rise slowly and her heart beats in her throat. He is broad and sun-drenched, his thick forearms laced with spidery scars. How had he gotten them? She could imagine any number of ways, but what concerns her more are the deep arcs of dark skin under his eyes.

 

He had a fever. Recently.

 

She spins to the cabinet, snapping on a pair of rubber gloves. She starts with his hair, matted ashen curls that feel fine and soft, even through the gloves. Well washed and brushed, they’d spring to life, probably even be a little unruly. The back of his neck is next, then his arms. The palms of his large hands are clear, and so is his chest. She straightens her gloves, her face heating as she moves the sheet around his waist down, then decides to abandon procedure and simply press his clothes against his torso. No blood leaks through, and the hand she sends searching along his back comes back clean as well.

 

All that’s left are the legs.

 

The first one is clear- no teeth marks around the ankles, no flesh missing from his finely haired calf. The second one she ignores. She’s wasted enough time on this stupid procedure anyway. If he was infected they’d know already. For now, she cleans the wound on his temple, then it’s back to Rue’s room for another check-in. The girl is sleeping still, but her fever is much better, and her breathing is deeper and stronger too. They’re all good signs- the first ones they’ve had in the week since Rue took another turn for worse.

 

But somehow, again, Rue has survived.


Katniss can only feel relief. This is The End, and the odds are in no one’s favor. The brave, the meek, the calculating, the tempestuous- they all fall the same: with teeth in their soft necks, cool poisoned water slipping down their unwitting throats, or pinned under a frothy spray of blood and bile. Rich or poor, clever or not, beautiful, dull, capable, dissociated-

 

Death wasn’t picky.

 

But that didn’t mean you had to make it easy.

 

Friendly fire, unfriendly fire, real flames- licking up buildings and leaving black scars in their wake. Boston disappears this way- something Katniss learned by accident as she flipped through the radio channels and caught the cellophane crackle of another human voice- something she hadn’t heard in weeks since the radio went quiet.  Her heart jumped madly into her throat, but it wasn’t a voice she recognized, and most of it was unintelligible static anyway.

 

Before she shuts it off, she catches ‘Boston’, ‘grid failure’ and ‘fire’.

 

After that it doesn’t matter.

 

She’s not in Boston, and she can’t save anyone. No one can. There’s also no way to verify if what she’s heard is true. New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburg, Detroit, San Francisco- in all likelihood, she’d die never knowing what happened to any of them. And did she even want to? What good did it do, to know what happened in Atlanta? To learn that Washington had gone dark not long ago? To know that everything was well and truly over.

 

That this was it.

 

All there was.

 

All there ever would be.

 

Numb and shaking, she flipped the radio’s power off and stuck the headset back in her bag.

 

In spite of herself, night after night alone in the howling dark with only Rue’s fever and the still humid air for company, she never stopped scanning the airwaves. For what, she wasn’t sure. Other human voices, news- even for angry pleas to God, of which she had heard many. Whether or not He ever answered she had yet to see, but she wasn’t about to hold her breath.

 

What never failed her was what her father had left behind- the radio, his gun, and everything he had taught her. Scrying the radio waves nightly should have long ago drained the radio’s battery, but it lasted far longer than she ever thought it could, and once she discovered its weird casing had solar cells hidden underneath, she could spend all day charging it on top of her bag as she and Rue made their way towards Saxapahaw, slipping through the trees along the side of the road. You never knew what could happen, walking out there in the open. What could be waiting for you in the long lines of cars, or who could be watching. The scope on her gun let her see for miles, even in the dark, but if she didn’t know where to point it, that didn’t matter at all.

 

They passed through many small towns on their way. The houses and shops were dark and still, and from the safety of the rooftops, Katniss watched the wilds creep back. Greedy tendrils of green choked bannisters and buildings, burst through cracks in the pavement and leaked moldering trails down white farmhouses. The fields grew unchecked in the blistering heat, voraciously unfurling themselves in the sunlight and dripping a heady, jeweled harvest. Katniss snatched ears of sweet golden corn and headfuls of velvety dark kale, which she nibbled on in between meals. Rue was harder. She had to be coaxed out of her fevered malaise to eat, but wild raspberries seem to do the trick and the further out from the city they got the more berries there were.

 

Each sunrise brought a world slightly wilder than the last, and soon all that was left to guide her were the signs along the narrow strip of leaf littered tar. The countdown started to Saxapahaw- thirty-eight miles, twenty-five, eleven, two. They skirted more farmhouses, but she never dared get close, never dared to see if anyone is inside, especially after, during a raid on a farm’s apple tree, she stumbled onto two graves side by side. The dirt was red and sun-baked- but still moist- and there was a ground entrance to a basement where someone has spray painted- DON’T OPEN.

 

As she rubbed the rusty grains of soil between pinched fingers, she looked up slowly, her eyes darting to the farmhouse, but its windows were shuttered and dark. Her pulse beat in her neck and she wiped sweat from her cheek, and the deep, suffocating silence tightened around her. Her mind was playing tricks on her. There was no one here. She melted back into the forest beyond the field where she left Rue, and they hurry on.

 

They found a sign later that day- You Are Now Leaving Saxapahaw - Come back real soon!

 

Rue came to stand beside her in front of the sign, her head listing onto her shoulder drowsily. The patchwork farmland behind them was verdant and still. No sign of other people. No sign of life. Just green and gold for miles.

 

“Rue,” she said, her tongue sticking heavily to the bottom of her mouth. “Are you tired?”

The girl was silent.

“Just a little further then.”

 

-

 

That night, she anchored Rue to a branch high in an old oak.

 

The sturdy limbs didn’t so much as creak underneath her as she slipped onto a branch of her own, slid the headset of her ham radio on and flipped through the channels until she reached the one she broadcasted on the First Night. As she scanned the darkness with the scope of her gun, the soft static in her ears was both a lullaby and a desperate plea. Where are you? Her heartbeat is tired and heavy in her chest as she watches an infected some length behind them standing in the center of the road, his mouth open and dark fluid leaking out of the corners. He’s wearing a white lab coat that blooms bright green in her scope, and an ID badge pinned to the front.

 

Dr. Chaudry.

 

She ripped the scope away. By now, faces were easy. You almost didn’t have to try to lose those, they would lose themselves after too many blurred, hollow days in a row. Even the faces you wanted to hold on to would slip away in the end, like wet sand through your fingers. The details might float back to haunt you on occasion- a gap-toothed grin, a slow blink, the curve of a narrow jaw- but in time even the faces you loved the most broke apart, rearranged themselves into someone else, or crumbled away entirely, leaving you with the anxious, chalky residue of missing something with no way of knowing what, or how to recover it. The feeling couldn’t be washed away with the usual antiseptics- sunrise, sleep, some new crisis- but it would fade some.

 

But names? They stuck around in those strange, secret hollows of the mouth, always read to slip out wrapped around someone else. Names refused silence. Refused forgetting.

 

With a deep swallow she let her head fall back against the tree and raised the scope back up. Dr. Chaudry was shuffling quicker- something caught his attention. A rabbit maybe, or a deer. The infected would chase anything that crossed their paths once it was dark. In sunlight they curled into themselves, hiding their bloodied eyes behind mottled fingers as they rocked and shuddered. She’d seen them, their sticky, pale bodies huddled in dark hollows in the ground, dug into the roots of trees or tucked away in the crevices under bridges and, of course, swarming in dark, abandoned buildings, their blood tipped fingers wrapped like spider legs around their eyes as they moaned.

 

A flash of something in the man’s pocket caught her attention. It was slender, curved and bright, and her heart leapt as she recognized what it was. She shifted forward, drawing a knee up to rest the barrel of her rifle on it. He was sixty yards away. Maybe seventy. She exhaled long and slow. Waited three heartbeats. Depressed the trigger. Inhaled, then closed her eyes, the whisper of static following her as she slept.

 

In the morning she raided the stethoscope from the doctor’s pocket and pressed it urgently to Rue’s chest, her fingers shaking as the younger girl’s sour, metallic breath fanned out on her face. The thump in her ears is heavy but slow, steady except for a sharp crackle. Katniss stares at the body of the doctor at her feet, her mind racing to piece together anything she could remember about hearts and lungs and how they were supposed to sound.

 

Ba-bump. Ba-bump. KUSHT. Ba-bump.

 

Prim would have known what it meant. She pulled the stethoscope away from Rue’s chest. There was no time to bury the body of the doctor. She covered it in a blanket of dead leaves and baby’s breath instead, humming as loud as she dared to drown out the rising swell of the blood thundering in her head.

 

-

 

When she returns to the one-legged man’s room, blood is trickling down his jaw.

 

She rushes to stem the flow, her stomach flipping as she splashes hydrogen peroxide on a cotton ball. In this heat it was better to let a wound air-dry than fester underneath a bandage, but if it kept bleeding then the flies would find him, and he’d be in worse trouble than ever. Finnick had been right- he had a concussion. There were no fingernail marks by the wound, which meant all she did when she cleaned it the first time was remove the clotted blood that had sealed over it. She wraps his eyes, then begins to work on the wound, cleaning it as gently as she dared. What would she tell Finnick? She wasn’t good at lying, and it would be the first thing he asked her about when he saw her again.

 

Why did you have to bleed?

 

“Sorry,” a voice says. “Would you like me to stop?”

 

She jerks back.

 

“I didn’t know you were awake.”

 

The man’s lips twitch up and she rips her eyes away from his face, focusing intently on bandaging his now clean wound. A sharp sound seethes out of him. She’s being sloppy, and the sting of her incompetence is so much worse for the glassy indifference she was used to getting from Rue, who never so much as blinked under Katniss’ care. Then again, Rue spent much of her time locked in her head, and Katniss was never sure how much she was aware of. It was worse at night, after a day’s worth of stumbling through the woods just parallel to the roads. The unblinking glare of the sun sapped the strength right out of her, until all she could do was standing swaying under the weight of her own pack. Then there was nothing to do but rest. They had spent their nights sleeping underneath an unfathomably placid sky, curled up on the roofs of houses, or in the boughs of trees whose roots were infested with the twitching, trembling bodies of the infected by midday.

 

The trick was to slip out in the early dawn, while they were blinded by the glare of the rising sun.

These mornings Katniss woke first and alone. Heart racing, skin slick with sweat and the last tentacles of her dreams wrapped tightly around her chest. A pale blonde braid. Blue eyes that blink, and open up coated in blood. Loose teeth laying in red dirt, like glittering white seeds.

 

These nightmares sucked the marrow from her bones. Days passed in a gray fog. Rue got paler, her lips bloodless and her eyes swollen and pink. Gradually, Katniss had to ply her into moving. We can rest tonight. Wouldn’t you like that? To rest all at once for hours? Just a little bit further now. Not long until we get there.

 

At night Katniss crushed tylenol with the butt of her gun and rubbed the power on the back of Rue’s tongue, willing her to swallow small mouthfuls of water, but too afraid that Rue in her weakness would choke on a full pill. Soon she was carrying Rue on her back, and they moved slowly, sometimes not even making a full mile. But then fever took Rue completely, her skin so hot it burned, and even Katniss’s begging couldn't bring the girl to respond.

 

Her eyes were glassy and wet, leaking moisture down the single crease at the corner, and her sour breath came in short, rattling gasps. Katniss lifted her thin frame into her arms and carried her to a river, where she waded slowly into the center of the rushing water.

 

Rue was so light in her arms.

 

Almost nothing at all.

 

As the water frothed and spit around them, she gripped the girl closer, ignoring the fevered heat that rolled off her in waves. Somewhere up the river, a tree must have been flowering. The tiny white flowers skated on the water around them,caught in the halo of Rue’s hair and gathered on their shoulders, the untamed mass of Katniss’ hair, Rue’s eyelids-

 

Their clothes, which clung to their dirt and sweat soaked skin, sprung loose and released all heat trapped close to their bodies. Katniss ground her teeth down, but exactly she was refusing she doesn’t know. Weakness? Exhaustion? As her muscles stiffened in response to the violent cold, Rue remained unmoving in her arms, her lips fading from white to blue.

 

Her breath came hot and slow, but the air against Katniss’s cheek is soft. Her own pulse throbbed in her chest. Someone was crying, their shaking, weak sobs echoing in the trees. The sounds came from her, but she couldn’t understand herself making them.

 

But something else did.

 

One of the infected appeared soundlessly, on the bank of the river, his bloodied mouth snapping in the air. His dark eyes fell on them, and Katniss stared uncomprehendingly at his twitching fingers, unable to fit the pieces the situation together in any sort of logical formation.

 

The infected lunged forward, blood leaking out of his mouth and down his shirt as his dead eyes locked on them, and then he stumbled down the muddy riverbank, falling into the river with a throaty hiss. The movement electrified Katniss’s instincts and a flood of panic pulsed through her. She stumbled backward and the swift undercurrent caught her, yanking her suddenly off her feet.

 

As the water closed over her head, her hold on Rue loosened, and the current tore her away.

 

-

 

The one-legged man is asking for her name.

 

Katniss blinks.

 

A well of other names spring up readily under her tongue, and she has to swallow them down before they spring free. The girl in the mirror had her sister’s eyes and her father’ nose, but she was a hollow-eyed stranger. She says nothing as she lurches back from him, her face and neck heating furiously. He isn’t infected- why is he so aware of her? Worse- why does she feel that awareness so acutely?

 

It was like a layer of static that pulsed around them- tugging and nipping her skin. She had warned him to keep his eyes wrapped because of the light, but the truth was she didn't want to see him. She didn't want to know what he looked like, didn't want to have the crumbled dust of another face lying at her feet once he was dead.

 

And he would die.

 

In a world like this, they all would, eventually.  

 

“You should take those soon,” she blurts, and snaps the door shut behind her.

 

“He’s awake,” she says to the man standing just outside as she tears at the ties on her apron, ripping the top down around her waist. “You can talk to him.”

 

The Senator nods, the thumbs he has tucked in his belt loops slipping out as he goes to brush past Katniss.

 

“That’s enough for today, Ms. Everdeen,” he says. “We’ll see you at the meeting.”

 

Katniss hurries away to the front desk, dropping her hand out in front of a stern woman in pink scrubs sitting behind it.

 

“I’m done,” she says as she unties the apron at her waist with one hand and rips it away from her body.

 

“Says who?”

 

“The Senator,” she says, and tosses the apron in the hamper next to the desk. The woman frowns but reaches for the ring of keys hanging at her waist anyway, a frustrated rush of air escaping her nose as she jaw tightens. Inside the desk drawer is locked metal box with a thin slit on the top- a relic of an age long past where it was lugged to farmer’s markets and elementary school bake sales to safely tuck bills away from the too-greedy eyes of eleven year olds experimenting with social boundaries for the first time. The woman unlocks that box and removes a single blue post-it, placing it in Katniss’ upturned hand.

 

“You owe me two,” Katniss says.

 

The woman had remembered this, but was waiting to see if Katniss would. Sixteen hours was usually enough to distract someone from the amount they were owed for their shifts, and by the time they remembered they were owed more, it was too late. The books were totalled, balanced and reconciled with the Senator, and there was no way to prove one way or the other that they had been cheated. It made for a pretty good racket. Afterall, it wasn’t the eleven year olds the school should have been worried about.

 

It was their mothers.

 

She places the second slip of blue paper in Katniss’ hand and watches her walk out of the hospital wing with a backward glance that said too much and nothing at all about what she was thinking. The truth was, Katniss knew her secret. Everyone did. No one could prove it- not yet- but Finnick kept insisting he was close.

 

Close or not, it wouldn’t come in time. Katniss’ brow tightens as she turns first down one corridor, and then another. The narrow windowless lengths were lined with solid steel doors and housed an ten by eight room with a single barred window nine feet from the floor. There are many names this place had- many things it had been called in the outside world- the Base, Compound 13, Sanctuary….

 

But Katniss had her own name for it.

 

The Shoebox.

 

As she turns down a final corridor, another woman in pink scrubs is leaning against a wall, her long legs crossed one in front of the other. She looks up as Katniss approaches.

 

“You’re late,” she says. “Is Abby at it again?”

 

Katniss shrugs and tugs a key on a long lanyard out of her pocket and jams it into one of the many non-descript steel doors.

 

“Finnick asked me for a favor,” she mumbles, as she leans heavily against the door and kicks the bottom. It rattles, groans, then squeals open on indignant hinges.

 

“Hmm-hm,” the older woman says. “Heard about the newbies. What’s the story?”

 

Katniss leads the woman into a room with a military issue blue cot, a disaster blanket hanging off the end and sweeping the bare concrete floor. The handle of a black canvas bag peeks out from underneath the cot, and Katniss kicks it back under as she heads for a wooden chair sitting in the corner.

 

The legs groan as she drags it to the middle of the room.

 

“Didn’t ask.”

 

“Georgia license plate on their vehicle,” the older woman says. “Word is, they’re from Atlanta.”

 

Katniss pauses in the middle of kicking her shoes off, her stomach clenching at the memory of the one-legged man.

 

“I don’t know anything about it,” she says, and shrugs out of a patched black sweatshirt. Her feet and legs are so sore they’re nearly numb from standing for nearly sixteen hours straight, but Abby was a hawk for any reason to confiscate a blue slip, and being caught taking a break was a good way to do just that. If there was anything Katniss wasn’t interested in doing, it was making that woman’s life even the slightest bit easier. With a grunt Katniss grabs the blanket off the bed and tosses it on the floor in front of the chair, before easing herself down onto it.

 

“Thanks again,” she says, her eyes fluttering shut as the woman sits behind her.

 

“Oh baby, don’t you even worry about it,” the other woman says as she starts separating Katniss’ hair with a long-tailed comb. The words hang between them with something unsaid underneath- something that was halfway between an apology and tired acceptance. Katniss had heard subtle variations of both from Seeder already, but there was nothing to be done. Tonight was the Reaping, and the hospital was running low on everything. Katniss had to be ready. Anyone in Sanctuary could be Reaped, in theory, but there were plenty who never were. There were over twenty career Runners in Sanctuary ranging in age and ability who could take care of small runs, but it wasn’t unusual for their names to be called, even though that was supposed to be statistically impossible.

 

Seeder works fast, separating her dreads into four sections from top to bottom. Then she tightens them, using a tiny crochet hook to pull  loose hairs back in and forming the hair that had grown in since last time. She worked her way from the bottom up, finishing each dread by rubbing it vigorously between the palms of her hands. When she was done she twined them together in a simple braid.

 

The process never failed to make Katniss’s scalp sore, but she had developed a skill for sleeping through anything, and she was long asleep by the time Seeder pats her shoulder and goes to stand up. Her eyes pop open and Seeder is none-the-wiser as she fetches a small hand mirror out of her bag and hands it to Katniss.The braid would fit under a helmet, just barely. She hands the mirror back to Seeder and stands up as the woman heads for the door.

 

“Good luck,” the older woman says simply. Katniss’s cheeks lift mechanically, a crude drawing of a smile carved into dry cement with a rusty nail.

 

It was like this now when she moved her face.

 

All memory, no feeling.

 

-

 

When she managed to struggle back to her feet in the river, Rue was nowhere to be found. She screamed for her, but she knew better than to expect an answer. The infected was sloshing his way toward her, blood rushing away from him in swift eddies that swirl around Katniss’ shoulders. She turned and swam for a muddy bank held together by a web of tree roots.

 

In the tangle of roots she spots a peppering of white- the flowers, caught in Rue’s hair.

 

The infected snarled but when Katniss whirled around to see why, he was gone.

 

Panic welled in her chest, spiking her heart’s rhythm into a frantic drumbeat, but the current gripped her so jealously as she swam for Rue, even as she stood in shallows and sprinted for her, that she was too weak to lift her when she got there- too cold and breathless to even close her fingers around Rue’s clothes to drag her away.

 

In her struggle to pull the girl away from the water she fumbled in the mud and fell to her side. Grit and soil splashed her face, making its way inside her mouth and one of her eyes, and then something yanked her ankle and the infected fell on her, its teeth snapping by her left ear as its fingers dig into cheeks.

 

A scream tore itself out of her as she bucked her legs up and kicked it away, and her breath came in ragged gasps as she wrenched her gun up from behind her and smashed the butt against its skull.

 

Once.

 

Twice.

 

The bone caves. The infected is still, but Katniss brings the gun over her head over and over again, screaming as she battered the skull into a bone studded pulp. Eventually, she collapsed in exhaustion, her shivering, frigid body wedged between the scalding heat glowing from Rue and the infected, and blood- hers, the infected’s- stained the fragile white flowers washing downriver. She laid there for several minutes, breathing harshly into the pungent mud as the warmth slowly returned to her limbs, then hair on her arms prickled as wave of unease coursed through her.

 

She was being watched.

 

She looked up and across the river, standing as still as stone, was a second infected, half his face torn clean away. How long he had been there she didn't know, but she never heard him coming, so it must have been her screams and the splashing that drew him. She ripped her gun off out of the mud, positioned the scope in front of her eye and took aim.

 

His eyes met hers in the scope, steady and dark and-

 

Lucid.

 

She ripped the scope away and scrambled to stand, the gun still pointed defensively, but the infected stood completely still except for his head, which arched to his shoulder. Bloodied saliva dripped out of the corner of his mouth, stretching pendulously toward his chest. She raised the scope to her eye again, and when she trained the sights on his skull his eyes were flickering from left to right, as if he was reading.

 

She breathed deep, exhaled on the count of three and positioned her finger on the trigger. For a long time she waited, unmoving, hardly breathing, as the infected swayed on his feet across the river. The spittle that hung from his mouth reached his shirt and soaked through, then dried. He still hadn't moved. Katniss lowered the gun, swallowing hard. She gathered their things, fumbling as she lifted Rue into her arms.

 

The infected remained still as she backed away slowly and ran.

 

-

 

There were many days after that.

 

Some she remembers.

 

Others are lost.

 

The infected from the riverbank followed them back to the road at a safe distance, plodding along behind them or disappearing for hours only to reappear suddenly. Without ever making the decision to, she called him Two-Face, and the mottled, moldering mess that was half his face became welcome sight in her scope at night as he prowled the foot of their tree or the yard of the house they were perched on.

 

With him around, less infected seemed to find them. She suspected Two-Face was doing it, maybe not consciously, but the sickly scent of iron and bile hung around him like a curtain and masked their own heady sweat-soaked clothes. At night she recognized his jagged snarls echoing through the woods, sometimes miles away from where they were hidden. The half of his face that remained was handsome, she guessed. Or it would have been. Sometimes she wonders what his real name was, or what his voice had sounded like. Sometimes he slammed himself against the base of their tree for hours, snarling and rasping until Katniss shot him somewhere he couldn't ignore.

 

Day by day Rue grew stronger, but it was a long time before she responded to anything Katniss said. By then, Katniss had near forgotten what it was like to talk. At least, that’s how it felt when Finnick Odair found them, thin and wild and silent, two girls and the infected that trailed unerringly behind them. He was scouting for a place called Sanctuary, looking for people who were fast and experienced in what he called The Outside . In exchange, Sanctuary would provide safety for her, and medicine for Rue.

 

It was impossible to say no.

 

Even after that Two-Face stuck around. He followed her on her first Run, when she had been tasked to bring back meat- whatever she could find. He had been waiting outside the walls when the gate was opened and she slipped out, veering quickly into the woods. As she hunted he darted behind her, always a few yards back, never close enough to worry her. After a month in Sanctuary, she stopped scanning the radio waves at night. It was dangerous to remember. Stupidly so. That’s what she had learned when she emerged from that river. Only the dead of the dead had the luxury of memory. The rest of them had to forget. If you wanted to live, if you wanted to keep someone else alive, you had to burn yourself clean of every moment that came before the one you were living in.

 

Death was getting caught in the current of memories that would never let you go on their own.

 

Death was letting them pull you under.

 

Death was on every river bank waiting for you, with flowers for your hair.

 

-

It’s Rue’s name they call at the Reaping.

 

She is trembling and frail as she stands, her eyes bulging out of her skull as she grabs onto the back of her chair. Katniss stands too- following her toward the center aisle, brushing past others as their heads turn to her curiously. She doesn’t feel her body moving, doesn’t feel her heart beating. She hears its stubborn ba-bump ba-bump in her head, but nothing else. Rue’s name rings in her ears like a wailing siren.

 

Is it fear she feels? Is it anything at all?

 

“No!”

 

It must be, because the voice that’s speaking is hers.

 

“I’ll do it!” it says. “I’ll go. Send me instead.”

 

It’s the Grady Memorial Hospital they’re trying to send her to, the place they called The Arena . The dead there swarmed like starlings, darting in and out of its broken halls and enormous lawn, weaving through the trees and bushes of the lawn in a writhing, synchronised cloud. She’d only ever heard about it- you had to be dropped off onto the roof by helicopter, and climb your way down, floor by floor. The only way up or down was the fire escape, which hadn’t been infiltrated by the infected yet, but there was always the chance that they had managed to remember how door handles worked. As she shook the Senator’s hand and looked out at the clapping crowd, her eyes fly to find Johanna and Finnick. They were the only two other Runners who had been to The Arena and back and survived.

 

Neither of them will meet her eyes.

 

That night she slept in winks, Rue on a cot next to hers, her hot dry lips parted as she snores softly. When dawn comes and tugs her forward into another day, and she brushes a strand of Rue’s soft hair back from her face before she gets ready. She tugs on her jacket- she had hand altered it herself with cone studs and scrap metal lining every inch. It’s heavy but bite-proof, as is the leather collar she fashioned for her neck out of a wide man’s belt. Wrist cuffs made from the same belt guard the veins below the fragile skin of her wrists, and a pair of suspenders hold up black denim pants that are several sizes too large, perfect for running. A thigh pouch with extra ammunition and her father’s rifle are the last items she straps on before she slips out of the room.

 

The morning air is cool against her skin, but fragile too. Underneath the surface chill, heat is welling up.

 

Her pilot is waiting for her in the comm tent, his helmet under his arm as he chats with the radio crew, who look like they’ve been sitting in the same positions for months, always waiting on the next Runner’s departure. There’s some talk of wind conditions, but the sky looks calm enough and the treetops waver only once every few minutes or so. No one is worried. The tech crew is nearly done with the take off procedure, and Katniss watches the two of them gathered around the front of the engine as they bicker tensely. The wind picks up and everyone watches the sky. Will it rain? It gets darker. It seems like it will. And then a cloud shifts, somewhere above the milky grey cloud cover over their heads, and then everything calms. The tech crew shout to the pilot and finally Katniss is given a helmet.

 

“Wait!,” a voice says. “Was that checked?”

 

Katniss has already started jamming the helmet on and doesn’t turn around to see who’s spoken.

 

“Checked for what?” Zeke, the radio operator, asks.

 

“That it’s functioning.”

 

“Am I all set?” she asks Zeke. He rolls his eyes and nods. Good enough for her.

 

In spite of the doubts about wind conditions, they rise into the air without so much as being buffeted. From above the base looks like a minimalist painting. Gray rectangle buildings, white plains of cement, mottled green all around. She turns her attention back to the endless gray ahead of them, pierced by the spiking tops of firs and the brush of yellow poplars. The hospital is just fifty or so miles from here, just a short flight. Once she has completed her pickup, she would detour back to the highway a few miles away- somewhere out in the open and far away from the infected. If she made it home tonight, there were a hundred blue slips waiting for her.

 

Plenty to keep her and Rue paid up for their room and her medicine for a good, long whi-

 

The helicopter shudders and her blood runs cold.

 

“What was that?” she yells. The pilot either doesn’t hear her, or he’s ignoring her. Either way, he’s screaming into his radio as the dashboard flashes ominously, and then they’re falling, falling, falling-

Chapter Text

When she finally pulls herself free of the smoking wreckage she realizes several things at once: she's in the middle of the hottest Dead zone in the Appalachians, her gun is gone, and her ankle is broken.

 

Very broken.

 

When she tries to yank it out from underneath a piece of the steering well it catches, and a bolt of electric pain laces up her leg. Black spots dance in her eyes as she collapses back into her seat. lt takes a few more tries- wiggling the debris a fraction of an inch at a time- to slip her leg out. But her knee was holding up a large piece of metal, and as she moves her leg, the metal slides away. And that's when she discovers that the pilot is not only dead but crushed, his body lying in a pool of spilled viscera underneath the helicopter, his helmet the only part of him still intact. The helicopter’s control panel is smashed, smoking and dark. Sanctuary would be radioing them- they would have seen the smoke spiralling out of the crash- but they had no way of receiving their broadcasts. Would they come looking for survivors? This far out, she wasn’t sure. According to her mental map, the field they went down in is the empty trench between I-74 and South I-77. But it wouldn't stay empty for long.

 

They’re coming.

 

She can hear their low snarls from the sparsely wooded areas surrounding the still smoking wreckage of the helicopter as they carry cross the field, raising the hairs on the back of her neck and making her palms itch. She wipes her hands on her pants. There’s a lot of them, she can tell by how much noise they’re making as they crash through the underbrush. They could be a splinter group of the hospital swarm- in which case, there’d be tens of them. Maybe a hundred.

 

Her fingers fumble with the switch on the side of her helmet and relief fills her when the radio crackles to life.

 

"Firebird to Sanctuary, do you copy?"

 

The fuzz of her radio fading out fills her helmet. As she waits for Sanctuary to respond, she staggers along the side of the copter, scavenging the remains for something, anything , she can use as a weapon. Except for the meager hunting knife she had shoved in her pack she comes up empty handed. Her father’s gun is nowhere to be found. It could be anywhere, she realizes dizzily. She’d have no way of knowing where it could have landed. No way of finding it again. A cold wave of fear washes over her. No weapon. No way to run. Infected already on their way.

 

“This is Firebird,” she snaps into her radio. “Come in Sanctuary. Repeat: Firebird to Sanctuary, come in.”

 

Silence.

 

She limps forward and scans the waving grass, hoping for some sort of clue as to where the gun could be. What she’s looking for she doesn’t know- a bald section of earth, maybe. The flash of tell tale dark steel in the pale field. She sees nothing though- not even a trail of broken blades of grass that might lead her to it. She swallows the hard lump in her throat. There are more pressing things to worry about- things that would kill her faster than a missing weapon. But-

 

“...Hello?”

 

Her breath catches and she starts back to the wreck. In her hurry, she forgets her ankle, stepping on it suddenly with all her weight. Black spots explode behind her eyes as she whimpers in pain. She fumbles with the radio in her helmet, pressing the comm button with a shaking finger as she breathes raggedly.

 

“Sanctuary,” she gasps. “This is volunteer runner Firebird reporting from Southbound 77. I am grounded, repeat, grounded on Southbound 77. Do you copy?”

 

Her radio buzzes to life again and she sags against the hot metal of what’s left of the helicopter.

 

“Uh- Yes. I mean, ten-four Firebird. Are you ok?”

 

She only vaguely recognized the voice coming through her headset, but it wasn’t any of the comm crew. She knew all of them, maybe not by name, but certainly by voice. None of them were soft spoken, and none of them had that drawl. She wracks her memory for the names of the helicopter maintenance crew, but she comes up blank.

 

“Who am I speaking to?”

 

There’s silence for a moment on the other end, and then-

 

“Copy that Firebird. Grounded on I-77. Do you need a pick up?”

 

He was avoiding her question, but time isn’t a luxury she has.

 

“Please and thank you,” she says shakily. “Got what sounds like a swarm on my tail. Requesting an emergency lift.”

 

“Ten four Firebird. I’m passing it on. Repeat: Are you ok?”

 

“I’m fine,” she snaps.

 

A piercing crackle bursts in her ear. Her eyes dart up as the first of the oncoming swarm of infected breaks the treeline, stumbling forward with its bloodied eyes fixed directly on her. There was nothing to scavenge from the helicopter. Sanctuary was tight with weapons- it was unlikely the pilot had one, and even less likely there would be one hanging around the helicopter anyway. In desperation she turns back to the cab, wondering wildly if any of it could be used as a melee weapon. Steaming metal, none of it splintered, winked back at her through scraped and scorched paint. Plenty of it could be put to use- if she could get it free, which she couldn’t do before the infected caught up with her. Besides from that, all she had was her water canteen, the now pointless extra ammunition, and her leather jacket. Nothing even remotely close to a being useful for a weapon.

 

“Uhm, what?”

 

The voice is timid now, unsure. Who let this guy on the airwaves? Where was Zeke?

 

“I said fine, Sanctuary. ETA on my lift?”

 

“We got you in two hours at the top of 74.”

 

A bead of sweat drips down her neck despite the chill in the air.

 

“Are you serious?”

 

Three more dead break into the open on her left, one surging forward to the front of the pack, his jaw snapping wildly.

 

“I tried- I told them-” her radio buzzes. He sounds desperate. “They said two hours. Top of 74 is maybe three miles away. You have time. You can make it.”

 

The infected at the front makes a strangled, guttural howl as it stumbles forward and collapses in the grass. The sound echoes in the spacious clearing and raises the small hairs on her arms. It’s tripped on something, and she has an idea what it might be. She grips her knife harder and leans back against the helicopter, her eyes sliding closed for just a moment as pain races up her leg and explodes in her brain. She flinches and slams on her comm button.

 

“Listen Sanctuary,” she says, breathing out slowly through her nose. “I don’t have two hours, and I can’t do 74. Requesting immediate pick up at Southbound I-77.”

 

At the very least, they could reach down a ladder and she could grab on. But would her ankle hold on the swaying strip of wood and rope?

 

“No can do Firebird. There’s too many infec- Uhm. It’s too hot .

 

She breathes hard. She could make it if she had that gun. Should she try for the area the infected fell? That close to the treeline she was easy prey, but she had nothing left to lose. She was nothing out here without it- helpless- a sitting duck waiting on the generosity of Sanctuary. And she knew better than that. Knew better than to expect special treatment. No volunteer had ever returned from a run. It was known. It was why no one volunteered for family members. It meant sacrificing your own life for someone else’s, especially if you were poorer than some of the other families. The more slips you had, the more equipment you could rent from the Senator. Guns, masks, SWAT shields- t hey made a difference when they stood between you and a set of rotten teeth sinking into your neck.

 

There’s silence for a moment over the line, and she wrenches her eyes open. There’s fifteen infected now. Maybe twenty. Leaning some weight down on her ankle, she tries to take a step forward and cries out.

 

“Firebird? Firebird are you ok? Talk to me. Whats going on? Are there infected? How many?”

 

“I’m not,” she gasps. “I’m not ok.”

 

“What’s happened?”

 

“My ankle. I can’t walk on it.”

 

“And infected?”

 

She wipes her nose with the back of her hand.

 

“Everywhere,” she whispers, her eyes darting around the clearing. There are thirty now- more, maybe. She’s running out of time. A sharp rush of static fuzzes through the radio, and it occurs to her that she should tell them to call off the pick up. It wasn’t worth it- she wasn’t going to make it, and even if she did, she’d be tailed too closely. The two highways that stretch around her are packed with abandoned cars, and even if she made it to the top of 74, those cars are full of even more infected. And that’s assuming she made it through the marshy forest between the clearing and the highway to begin with. The small knife in her hand trembles against her thigh.

 

“Listen Firebird. You can get to 74. If you can take one step forward, you can take two. And then three. And there’ll be a copter waiting for you, and I’ll- I’ll be here too. For every step.”

 

She tries to put more weight on her foot, and takes a few hobbled steps forward, tilting all her weight forward as much as possible onto her toes and the ball of her foot, and ignoring the shooting pain that races up her leg.

 

“Who are you?” she says. She’s heading in the direction of the fallen infected- weaving through the tall grass, knife at the ready in her steely grip. The grass doesn’t hide the other infected- she can see the tops of their heads and their darkly bloodied eyes as they hurry to follow her progress.

 

“You don’t remember me?” he says, and she can hear he’s joking through the tight strain in his voice. “Because I never forgot you.”

 

She stops, her heart caught in her throat. Her mouth drops open to respond, but something crashes into her and she drops to the ground hard as a face slams against the visor of her helmet, and teeth gnash against the clear plexiglass. She swings her knife up and impales the back of the infected’s head, feverishly hot blood splattering against her fingers and hand. She shoves the body off and rolls to her knees, breathing hard. She crawls back through the grass and props her back against a rock as another infected races past, completely oblivious to her as his jaw snaps hungrily, a long tail of drooling blood hanging off his bottom lip.

 

“Firebird?”

 

Clutching the knife hard against her chest, she taps her comm button twice, then stumbles up and forward, racing further toward the trees. All around her she can hear snarls, howls, jagged breathing that isn’t hers. They’re here- they’ve found her- they’re gathering- she stumbles and trips, falling forward onto her hands and knees. Her leg is shaking, the muscles a hot and tight mass of pain, both from the injury and the awkward way she’s been forced to walk on it. When she tries to stand the leg feels weak and instead of rising she falls flat.

 

“What’s happening?” her speaker crackles.

 

Breathing roughly, she tries again to stand, but her foot catches on something- a root, maybe- and spots burst behind her eyes. Her fingers scramble for the visor just in time for bile to spill out of her mouth. Heat creeps up her neck- she’s thirsty, so thirsty- and her stomach turns again.

 

“Come on Firebird. Talk to me here.”

 

She whimpers.

 

“What’s going on?”

 

His voice sounds tight. Anxious.

 

“I fell,” she croaks, too nauseous to remember to be ashamed. Another mouthful of bile burns the back of her throat as it bursts out of her mouth. Her leg feels wrong . The pain spins the thoughts in her head and tilts the ground underneath her. She needs to get up. She needs to run. She can’t make herself move though- she’s too numb, floating somewhere just above her body as blackness eats away at her vision.

 

The voice in her helmet is talking, then drains away as the world goes dim and dies.

 

-

 

“-KATNISS- KATNISS GODDAMMIT-”

 

Something wet splatters against her throat and chest. The smell of it fills her nose- metallic, heavy, hot . Her eyes fly open- her visor is painted red and fingers scrape through the film and leave long trails in their wake.

 

“GO! GO! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?-”

 

Her fingers fumble with the knife, then grip it hard. She slams it into the infected’s head and it screeches, jerking back. She swallows weakly and her eyes flit back to her useless leg and widen when they light on what’s wrapped around her ankle- a black strap. She jolts up, her head spinning and her fingers fumbling as they light on the familiar cold steel of her father’s M24. The scope is intact, and the safety clicks off without a problem. When it fell from the helicopter she isn’t sure of, and she isn’t sure it would still shoot, but it had survived so much- come so far- that she couldn’t imagine it giving in now. As she attempts to maneuver the strap around her jacket, a snarl snaps in the air and a heavy body falls on top of her. She slams the butt of her gun against the infected’s head, then uses it to knock up her visor, takes aim and blows out the side of its head. Relief floods her as she struggles dizzily to her feet.

 

“ ‘M’okay,” she mumbles in her speaker. “Infected found me. I got ‘em.”

 

There are more coming, she can hear them shuffling excited circles around her. She starts limping toward the woods as fast as she can, gun raised and ready. Another rush of air against the speaker as the person on the other end sighs. She can picture them- sort of- knocking the speaker away from their mouth as they rub the bridge of their nose and squeeze their eyes shut.

 

“You scared me there for a minute,” he says. “Don’t do that. Don’t stop talking, ok? That’s how I’ll lose you.”

 

“You know my name,” she blurts. “You’re not in the comm crew, are you? You said it. Not just Firebird. My real name.”

 

She clears the treeline and the soil beneath her boots grows softer, loamier, covered in rotting pine needles and a thin film of pale sludge. It was unseasonably wet for summer this year- rainy and humid and stagnant. Every step she takes depresses a little into the earth.

 

“I did,” he says. “I mean, I do. I remember everything about you.”

 

She pauses, her heart thundering in her chest.

“Your name is Katniss,” he continues. “You’re from Chapel Hill. And when this all started, you were on a rooftop with the radio on. You’d do anything to help that girl Rue, and-”

 

He laughs a little.

 

“You’re a great nurse.”

 

“How do you know all that?” she says thickly. Her feet are sinking into the earth now, and the further she travels into the gulley between the two highways, the worse it gets. A few feet away, she hears a rasping snarl. One of the infected is trapped beneath a dead, fallen tree, its legs pinned by the trunk. It reaches a hand out for her, its jaw snapping as the fingers of the other hand dig frantically at the sandy dirt. Katniss limps past hurriedly. Where there was one, there was more. There were always more.

 

“I pay attention,” he says simply.

 

Behind her the infected trapped underneath the tree lets out a furious, rasping howl. If there weren’t any more infected in the area before, there will be soon. A bullet silences the bleating infected, but she knows she messed up. It’s too late. The infected she managed to lose in the tall grass will have heard it, and they’ll be coming.

 

“Sanctuary,” she says, as she starts to jog. “How much time do I have?”

 

The radio bursts with a sudden crackle, and she can hear the person on the other end shuffling around. A few other voices burst in- but the only one she recognizes is Finnick’s.

 

“Hang on there, Katniss.”

 

With no way to tell where exactly she is, it’s hard to know just how far she is from the pick up site, but she hazards to guess that she’s somewhere around the center of the basin that separates the two highways that run alongside the hospital. If she remembers correctly, I-74 arches upward just a mile north of the hospital’s exit. This must have been what the guy on the radio was talking about, though he obviously didn’t know that it had a name.

 

The Crest.

 

Emergency pick-ups weren’t uncommon for Runners who ventured into the hot zones. The Senator had a fleet of helicopters, and more fuel than he knew what to do with. Part of the Runner system was to keep their best runners alive, and part of it was to let other survivors in the area know that there was still somewhere that was functioning. Free advertising, in other words.

 

“Ok. Update- the copter is leaving now. We have you in forty minutes.”

 

She stumbles.

 

“Sanctuary- please repeat,” she says. “Did not copy.”

 

The voice at the other end clears his throat.

 

“Ten-four Firebird. Your pick up is in forty minutes at the top of I-74. Do you copy?”

 

Cold sweat gathers on her neck as the sounds of the snarls behind her send her heart racing.

 

“I won’t make it,” she says, and the high tremble in her voice infuriates her. “You told me two hours. Now you say forty minutes- So which one is it?”

 

“You can make it. You will.”

 

“I’m losing ground here!” she snaps, hating the way her voice sounds so tight and panicked. “Where is Zeke? Where is my comm crew? Do they know what’s going on?”

 

“Katniss,” the voice is strained. “They know. They’ve known this whole time.”

 

Coldness seeps into her veins, but she doesn’t understand what he’s saying. If her comm crew knew she was downed, where were they? Who is this person she’s talking to? Something tells her not to ask about Zeke again- if he knew, he should be here. There was only one reason why he wouldn’t be, and that’s-

 

“I’m sorry,” the voice in her radio says. “I’m all you’ve got right now.”

 

They left her for dead.

 

She rips her helmet off, breathing fast and hard as she stumbles- again- and her feet sink deeper into the marshy earth. It was slowing her down- every step took that much more time. The infected that have been chasing her since the crash were gaining on her, and she was going to have to do something about it sooner or later. They would catch up. They always caught up.

 

She ignores the panicked buzz of her radio in her helmet as she slips it back on.


“Who are you?” she snaps into the speaker, interrupting him. “How do you know my name?”

 

“Do you remember the night the world ended?”

 

She did.

 

How could anyone possibly forget?

 

Her heart is beating so fast it’s nearly numb, and the only way she knows it’s still working is the pulsing pressure fluttering underneath the skin of her throat. His voice sounded familiar… She refuses to believe it could be-

 

It was too impossible. Too incredible.  

 

“You were on a roof, in the eye of the storm,” he says. “I heard them- the infected- through the radio, as they swarmed around you, and I heard your breathing, but the moment I heard your voice, I knew I had to-”

 

The line dies and clicks back, losing him long enough to miss what he’s said. She doesn’t dare ask, doesn’t dare so much as wonder what it was that he had possessed him to go that far. He remembered her name, and it wasn’t a barb sinking into the flesh of his heart? Who could afford that kind of thing anymore?

 

Names invited ghosts. Practically let them in the door. And she had enough of those now- so many, on some nights, she could hardly find room between them to breathe. She feels her legs growing weaker as she pulls them out of the sucking mud and stumbles forward. Doesn’t he know how close she is to death? How easily this could all be over? The infected are feet away her now, she can’t even afford to turn back and start shooting or they’d grab her gun and yank her off her feet. All she has is the squelching path ahead of her, and the weak promise of a bottleneck when she reaches the highway on-ramp.

 

“Peter- from the radio,” she breathes. “How-?”

 

He laughs thickly.

 

“Call me Peeta . When you’re back, I’ll tell you everything. I promise.”

 

She swallows. When . Not if.

 

“So what’s your ETA, Firebird? We’re thirty out from touchdown.”

 

He was dangling the information in front of her, teasing her with it. He probably meant it to help her, but all it did was highlight how hopeless it was. Would she allow the infected overtake her? Or could she find a way to sink a bullet into her brain? The barrel of her gun was too long for that to be easy, but she was creative. She could find a way, if she needed to.

 

“Just cleared 500 yards from the on-ramp.”

 

“And your tail?”

 

One of the infected leaps forward, she can feel the vibrations on the ground as its body lands, and it’s hand grazes her ankles.

 

“Close,” she chokes. Then, softly- “I want to come home.”

 

“I know. I know you do,” the panicked voice in her helmet says. “And you’re going to, I promise you can do it. Come on. Just a little further. You’re so close now.”

 

She whips around, tucking her gun under her arm and splattering the line of infected immediately behind her with a spray of bullets. The avante garde falls and entangles the infected just behind them, but she miscalculates her movements and before she can turn back, the world falls out of focus and a wet fog fills her ears. Something happened to her ankle- she twisted it again, maybe, or overestimated how much weight it could take. She’s floating out of her body again, heat and nausea rolling through her as her legs disappear and her breath starts coming weak and slow.

 

The man on the radio asks her something, but she can’t bring herself to respond. Her chest is too heavy, and she can’t gather the energy to coordinate her finger to press the comm button. Mud wells up under her feet. A few steps later and it swallows her ankles. She stumbles another few feet, ignoring the chorus of snarls and the dull thunder of plodding feet behind her, before she sinks suddenly and completely into sludge, the mud rising under her leather jacket and chilling her to the bone. The pale tar burps as it engulfs her, and then it rears up, rasping and howling as if it-

 

Not as if.

 

It was.

 

Arms and heads surge above the surface of the mudpit, black eyes blinking open between rivulets of leaking silt, blood welling up and tearing down faces twisted into snarls. Fingers tear at her ankles, then hook on. She kicks out and her leg slips free, but another grasps onto her bad ankle and a scream rips itself from her mouth. The hand yanks and pain explodes in her leg, racing up her spine to knock the air out of her lungs before it sears her brain.

 

“-COME IN. REPEAT- GODDAMMIT KATNISS TALK TO ME-”

 

Her mouth is too full of mud to respond. She uses her good leg to kick away what’s grasping her bad ankle, but in the process she kicks herself. Mud closes over her nose and gushes down her throat.

 

KATNISS!

 

That voice. Clear and bright as a bell. It can’t be real. She’s hallucinating. Lack of oxygen, probably, or pain.

 

GET UP!

 

But it sounds so real. It even feels real- the way it reverberates in her ears, the way it kick starts all the muscles in her good leg to flutter.

 

“-TWO TAPS, COME ON KATNISS PLEASE-”

 

The boy from the radio interrupts the voice and she could cry she’s so angry. She can’t hear it anymore- it faded out, but it was real- she could swear it was.

 

KATNISS!

 

She swings the butt of her gun over her head blindly and it knocks against something, catches onto it, and then it is pulling her up and out. Her eyes blink open and she coughs out a mouthful of mud. She swings at the infected grabbing her gun and it goes down.

 

RUN!

 

She claws the mud in front of her, trying to pull herself up and away, but a body falls heavily on top of her, and then another. Her visor is coated in mud- useless, and now cracked- but she doesn't need to look to know she’s been swarmed. More weight piles on top of her and she is sinking back into the earth as teeth press uselessly into her jacket. But the mud is as viscous as it is entrapping, and she manages to slither free, gritting her teeth against the shocks of pain in her ankle and looking around desperately for the source of the voice.

 

GET U-

 

“-SANCTUARY TO FIREBIRD. COME IN FIREBIRD- REPEAT-”

 

She rips the helmet off, uses it to bash the head of an infected who lunges at her. The mud sloshes noisily as both infected and helmet fall into it, and several more infected dive after them. More follow out of confusion, and as Katniss looks on in shock, the infected descend on one of their own in a slow swarm. She jerks away from the blood and mud coated mass, and several heads twitch in her direction. But what do they matter? The flash of a pale braid has just disappeared behind a tree on the other shore of the pit.

 

“PRIM!”

 

Her scream rattles her vocal chords to pain.

 

Katniss blows down a line of infected with a spray of bullets. More keep coming. More and more and more- They rise out of the mud or barrel out from the trees. The newest ones, the runners, are fast. The ones who have been infected longer plod along behind, sporting bloated stomachs and missing limbs or trailing their organs like abandoned leashes. But Katniss slips free from their grasping hands and snapping mouths, desperately sloshing for the shore, and then to the trees.

 

A flash of pale gold disappears into the line of cars on the road beyond the sparse woods, and dizzy with terror, disbelief and longing all at once, Katniss staggers after it. The cars stretch for miles ahead and the infected inside reach their hands from the cars as she stumbles by, nails broken or ripped clean off, skin bloodied, pale and bruised. They close around and above her as she stumbles on, grasping onto her jacket, scraping the leather as blood froths on the windows and an orchestra of howls swells in the still air. They catch the other infected trailing behind her, but they never manage to hold onto her long.

 

“PRIM!” she yells as nails scrape her cheek and she fights her way out. Something grabs the back of her jacket and she slips free easily, the leather still slick with mud. She sees her, just ahead at the crest of the highway, ghosting between the cars and waving for Katniss to follow. Katniss tears forward, her screams lost in the rising wind. Prim reaches up to grab something and holds onto it, turning to Katniss with panic on her face.

 

HURRY!

 

Katniss staggers the last few feet then wraps herself around Prim, sobbing into her shoulder. The air leaves her chest as bodies slam into her, mouths boring into the thick leather collar around her neck and the leather of her jacket. Hands tear at her clothes, yanking on her arms and glove covered hands. The pressure bores the light from her eyes and a scream tears itself from her throat as her injured leg gives up and she and Prim drop. Weak and dizzy, she curls herself around her sister, trying to protect her from the mass of teeth and jagged nails.

 

Let go, Katniss.

 

But she can’t. She can’t let go. She won’t. An airless sob shudders through her as she tucks Prim’s small body tighter against hers. She clings to her so tightly she can’t breathe, can’t think, can’t do anything but endure the pressure. Then she is rising, up and up and up-

 

Let me go!

 

She has no choice- Prim slips from her arms as she climbs above the reaching hands. In the vacuum she leaves behind Prim crumples on the road, covered in smears of pale, glittering mud. She curls up as the infected close around her, her blackened eyes sinking shut and her purple fingers wrapping protectively around them.

 

“PRIM! PRIM!”

 

Her sister disappears underneath a sea of waving hands. Katniss struggles against what’s lifting her, but a sharp pain in her ankle knocks the air out of her. She looks down to see one of the infected has caught it. It snarls at her, reaching for her injured limb with it’s other hand, tugging ferociously on the joint until it snaps completely.

 

Sound disappears.

 

Then light.

 

And then, blessedly, there is nothing.


-

Chapter Text

“Are you out of your mind?” Haymitch hisses as he bursts into the Comm tent.

 

The way he throws his hands up is something halfway between disappointment and disbelief, and Peeta’s jaw tightens. It isn’t worth dignifying that with a response. All he did is bring a Runner home, nothing more, nothing less. Hadn’t that been what the Senator wanted anyway? Someone with a little more expertise to help their odds? Well. Peeta had applied his expertise, and he had results no one could argue with.

 

Katniss- safe. Alive.

 

“What about her ankle?” Peeta asks. “Can it be fixed?” Haymitch pinches the bridge of his nose and turns away. When he turns back around, his eyes are loosely closed.

 

“I won’t know until I look at it, though it probably won’t ever be the way it was, but- Listen. There's a pecking order here. This isn't a free for all. You heard her- that headset was working just fine. What do you think that means? It means they cut off her broadcast, and whatever reason they had, you don't want to get invol-”

 

“All I did was get back their best Runner. Even Jo said it. They're not going to care about anything but that.”

 

Even as he says the words, they feel wrong. Peeta swallows, then sets his jaw.

 

“They’re not.”

 

Haymitch shakes his head, his thinning gray hair whipping in the rising wind. The choppy drone of an engine echoes from over the dark trees edging the base, and Peeta has to cup a hand over his eyes to keep his hair out of his eyes as he searches the horizon.

 

“There they are,” he mutters, his fingers fumbling to find the rims of his chair’s wheels. Haymitch hurries to follow him out of the tent as he rolls himself into the yard.

Hanging below the rising shape of the helicopter is a small, still figure, and his heart is pressing too tightly against his vocal chords to say anything else. It was her, and with a sick twist in his stomach he realizes he knows without needing to ask why she was suspended midair- in case of infection. What would they do, if she was infected? Shoot her down mid air? Let her land and then see what she did while the helicopter hovered? Or cut her free and let her plummet to her death? He’s glad he never needs to find out. As they descend, Katniss crumples to the ground below, unmoving.

 

“That’s not good,” Haymitch mutters.

 

Peeta says nothing as he rolls himself hurriedly out of the tent. Convincing Darius to fly out and get her, going against the Senator’s orders and behind the Comm crew’s back after they told him to drop it- it might have been stupid. It might even be as bad as Haymitch thinks. But he can’t bring himself to care.

 

He knew next to nothing about Katniss Everdeen, except that the minute he gave up on her, he gave up on himself too.

 

The helicopter hovers some twenty or thirty feet from the ground. Haymitch rushes past Peeta to disentangle Katniss from her rigging, and a moment later, he has her in his arms.

 

“I’ll take her!” Peeta calls as Haymitch jogs out of the way of the landing helicopter. People are trickling out of the cafeteria and compound, pointing and talking to each other as curious heads in the Boneyard are begin to twist their way, and it’s only a matter of time before one of them was the Senator’s. They were lucky enough to sneak a helicopter out while he was in the compound. They weren’t going to slip past him this time. Peeta’s arms burn as he rushes to push himself forward to meet Haymitch, and then a mud encrusted body is thrust onto his lap.

 

His heart fumbles stupidly. He tries to make himself say something, but words have deserted him as cleanly and as coldly as if they packed their bags while he slept and flipped him off as the door shut behind them. She’s smaller than she looks. Lighter too. There are teeth prints embedded in the leather of her jacket- some teeth as well, caught between the metal cone studs that have been sewn on- and he’s never loved a jacket more than he loves this one. Not even the one that stood between and the full fury of a Boston winter.the one that stood between him and the fuery of a Boston winter. His eyes sweep to her face, checking for any signs of injury. The leather collar on her neck has more tooth prints, but her skin remains blessedly unbroken. Tears of dried blood and chalky soul streak down her neck, but none of the blood is hers. He moves on to her face and clips his tongue with his teeth as bites back the only words he’s managed to string together.

 

She’s not just pretty.

 

She’s excruciating. .

 

“Wake up, Peter!”

 

“Huh?”

 

“The knife. Her knife! In her side pouch!”

 

Peeta fumbles along her hip, and Haymitch wrenches the blade out of his hands before he can pass it to him.

 

“What’s wrong?” he asks Haymitch.

 

“She’s in shock,” he snaps as he shrugs out of his jacket and tosses it at him. “Wrap her in this.”

 

Haymitch positions the knife between Katniss’ boot and her leg, and then he rips outward with it, splitting the leather instantly.

 

“What are you-”

 

“She’s gonna lose the foot, kid. Her damn ankle is swelling like a balloon.”

 

He slices the laces in a smooth stroke and is peeling the tongue outward when Peeta feels Katniss shiver.

 

“Her lips are white,” Peeta says, panic edging his voice. “What does that mean?”

 

“It means you hold her still.”

 

He grips Katniss’s leg with one hand, then starts to maneuver the boot off her foot. Katniss goes rigid and her jaw twitches.

 

“She’s waking up,” Peeta says.

 

“Crap,” Haymitch grunts, his brow furrowed as his eyes fly to Katniss’s twitching face. “Hang in there sweetheart. This is going to hurt.”

 

He jerks the boot off quickly, and Katniss’s eyes fly open. She breathes fast and hard through her nose, staring up at Peeta with huge, glassy eyes.

 

“Hey, hey- it’s alright,” he soothes. “You’re safe now- you’re home.”

 

He smiles a little- he hopes it looks encouraging- and brushes some of the mud off her cheek.

 

Then Katniss opens her mouth and starts to scream.

 

-

 

“I’m sure you believed you were doing the right thing.”

 

“The right thing,” Peeta repeats mechanically. He swallows, his gaze finding the pockmarked cement under his shoes. “Yeah.”

 

Wilson pats Peeta on the arm. On the other side of the door they stand in front of, Katniss’s screams have finally quieted to low whimpers that Peeta suspects have more to do with the lack of painkillers strong enough to knock her out while Haymitch works on her. It was stop and go for a while- Haymitch hadn’t been sure if she’d keep the foot at all, and then it looked like she definitely wouldn’t if they couldn’t relieve the pressure in her foot, but finally her luck turned around, and now it just a matter of setting the break.

 

“I thought-” Peeta starts. A sharp clatter from behind the door interrupts him. He pauses to listen to the bickering voices through the door but doesn’t continue once silence resumes. What was it, really, that he thought? Was he thinking at all? Peeta shifts the crutch under his arm and feels the blood flow back into his fingers. It all happened so fast. First Katniss was screaming, and he was trying to hold her, trying to tell her that she was safe, and then she was struggling,launching herself away from him and howling. Believing her to be infected, the people who had been trickling out of the buildings to observe started to scream, and were pushed aside by the guards from the walls, who ran at them, guns drawn.

 

They were all just lucky that Finnick got there first.

 

Heat spikes in Peeta’s chest and his jaw tightens against it. The minute Finnick showed up, everything changed. Katniss started babbling about someone being out there and begging Finnick to help her get back out. Finnick caught Katniss’s face in his hands (Peeta’s molars grind just at the memory) and he spoke to her low and fast.

 

It’s not real- not real-” was all Peeta caught before Katniss went limp and started sobbing onto Finnick’s shoulder.

 

Peeta clears his throat.

 

“You said this happened before with Katniss,” Peeta says to Wilson. “That she got… sick.”

 

Peeta gestures vaguely, unwilling to repeat what Wilson had actually said.

 

“How long did it take until she was better?”

 

The Senator smiles encouragingly at him.

 

“Have faith,” he says. “Surely Ms. Everdeen didn’t go through all the trouble of getting back here only to give up now.”

 

He tucks his hands in his pockets.

 

“Now, we have plenty to talk about, you and me. I have to admit I’m impressed, Mr. Mellark, and look forward to seeing what else you can do. It doesn’t look like there’s much good you can do here, so why don’t you and I take a trip down to the Boneyard so I can pick your brain a bit…”

 

The hand that falls on his shoulder brooks no argument, and it is hours until Peeta can finally slip away, but when he gets to back the front desk of the hospital wing they tell him that Katniss is sleeping, and he can come back later. He swallows down his disappointment and limps back to his room. He understood she needed her rest, but that didn’t stop him from selfishly wondering why he was going to be the last person to get to talk to her. He was the one who brought her home, afterall. He deserved, more than anyone, to see her clean and whole.

 

This happens twice more over the following days. He would show up at the front desk, ask about Katniss, and be let down by the same nurse. Was she avoiding him? He ends up cornering Haymitch, who has played it off as coincidence that he’s started spending large chunks of time in the hospital wing.

 

The older man sighs and slides a suspicious gaze his way.

 

“Give her time, kid. She’s in no shape for your little crush.”

 

His stomach turned uneasily at the older man’s words. What did he mean? He didn’t have a crush . That was impossible. He hardly knew anything about Katniss at all except that she was exceptionally talented at staying alive. Crushes were the kind of thing that happened when you met girls at school you knew right away were untouchable for one reason or another, not listening helplessly to a girl as she fought for her life . That was just sick. What kind of person would get off on that kind of thing? Anyway, he couldn’t rightly say what it was that he felt, only that the night he heard her voice, he knew he’d never forget it. That he’d spend his life searching for her, even after she was gone. It wasn’t so much a feeling as it was an instinct. As much as he knew he’d always flinch at the smell of alcohol or the sound of a wailing dog, he knew he’d be looking for her. She just moved something fundamental in him. That was all. Whatever it was that he felt was real, that much was true, but that didn’t make it a crush.

 

Katniss, however, obviously doesn’t feel the same.

 

She turns him away everyday he comes to visit her, and eventually even Haymitch just shakes his head when he turns up at the door. Maisy, who thus far refused to unpack in the room she and Haymitch had been provided, has another take on it- one that feels closer to the truth than what Haymitch has been feeding him.

 

“Some people do that,” Maisy hums quietly as Peeta helps her fold clothes on the end of her cot. “They just go away for a little while.”

 

“Must be nice,” he mutters. “Last vacation I had turned into the apocalypse.”

 

Peeta knows she doesn’t find this funny because she doesn’t throw a sock at him. He feels heat prickle on his neck at the silence that follows.

 

As Peeta leaves Maisy that night and limps back to his own room, he feels the first spark of anger rising out of his frustration. Common decency dictated at least that he get a conversation out of it, let alone a measly thanks. He didn’t have to go against the Senator’s orders to cut off the Comm tent’s batteries. He didn’t have to sneak back out while the Senator was busy. He didn’t have to track down her broadcast frequency, or convince Darius, the spare pilot, to fly out and get her. He’d only put his own life, and someone else’s too, on the line for her.

 

All he’d done is save her life.

 

It’s not like it was a big deal or anything.

 

-

 

“Nicely done,” Finnick oozes as he slides up next to Peeta in the cafeteria line. It’d been a week since he dragged Katniss back kicking and screaming, and he’d already gotten used to the idea that he was a total idiot.

 

“What are you talking about?” Peeta says, squinting at the slop on his tray. Stew? Mashed potatoes? Some horrible combination of both? Time would only tell. It was a mystery he couldn’t be less excited to solve.

 

“A doomed girl and her knight in shining armor- the tragic lovers of the apocalypse! She’s so guarded, so afraid to love, and you’re just a boy who can’t-”

 

He grits his teeth and tunes Finnick out as he balances the tray single-handed and limps for a seat at the back of the cafeteria.

 

“You need a hobby,” Peeta says as his tray clatters down on the speckled formalite table, spraying flecks of food everywhere. He drops awkwardly into a chair as Finnick snorts and drapes himself over the chair next to him.

 

“Everybody’s business is everybody else’s here,” Finnick says. “No such thing as a secret in these walls.”

 

Peeta sighs heavily. Its neither stew nor potatoes, but mashed parsnips with chunks of deer thickened with white flour, and with a pang he realizes he desperately missed his days of cheez-its and beef jerky. Truly you never knew what you have until it’s gone.

 

“And if you think you’re the only one the Senator ever gave that I know you believed you were doing the right thing speech...”

 

Finnick wags his finger at his lunch tray. Peeta isn’t laughing.

 

“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” Peeta mumbles, resting his spoon on the edge of his tray. His stomach is turning but it has nothing to do with the gamey meat or overripe vegetable mash.

 

“Everybody wants something, Peeta Mellark. But not all of us are open books. Look at her.”

 

Peeta would be lying if he said he didn’t know exactly who Finnick was talking about, or if he said he didn’t know exactly where she was sitting. It’s Katniss’s first day out of the hospital wing and of course, that meant his heart had been thrumming in his neck since he heard a crutch pass right in front of his door.

 

“What do you think she wants, really?”

 

A flash of orange in the corner of Peeta’s eye makes his heart drop. He snatches the bottle Finnick is spinning slowly between his long fingers.

 

“Stealing isn’t very Christian of you,” he snaps as he shoves the bottle back into his pocket. “Especially from people who are infirm.

 

He sneers that last word, and Finnick rolls his eyes.

 

“You’re not infirm. You’re gullible. Check your left pocket,” Finnick says blithely. He leans back in his chair and shoves a spoonful of the mash into his mouth, swallowing with a grimace.

 

“Oh jesus,” he mutters and reaches immediately for his glass of water.

 

Sure enough, a second bottle, half full, is in Peeta’s other pocket.

 

“Where did you get this?” he whispers quickly. “This stuff isn’t just-”

 

Finnick’s eyes drift to Katniss, who is shoveling food in her face mechanically, completely ignorant to everything else going on around her. She stops only to reach for her glass, her eyes glazed and far away.

 

“She’s hurt,” Peeta says. “It’s only-”

 

“Haymitch took them away from her.”

 

“What? Why?”


Finnick takes another long drink of water, his eyebrow arching up.

 

“This is completely inedible. Come on. I know where we get something better.”

 

He stands, grabbing his own tray in one hand and stacking Peeta’s on top, nodding at the door. Peeta frowns, rising unsteadily as he tucks his crutch beneath his arm. But Finnick takes off before he can say anything else, and he’s forced to follow or risk going hungry. He leads him out to the boneyard, slowly meandering toward the back of the yard where the rusting hulk of an 18 wheeler branded with a peeling logo that reads “ Parad  m  hipp  g” in big blue Helvetica sits empty and alone. Finnick reaches into a pocket on his belt, fishing out a set of keys and jamming one into the back door of the truck. He shoves the rolling door up with a loud rattle.

 

“Much better.”

 

Inside the truck is a treasure trove of food that Peeta denies vehemently is making his mouth water. Blue boxes of oreos, an unopened, pristine white box of Fruit Roll-ups, packets of Gushers, Rice Krispy treats and there, at the very back-

 

“Ah. No. I’m saving that one,” Finnick says, snatching the lone package of Chips Ahoy and tucking it underneath a pile of M&M’s bags. “Special occasions only. Sorry.”

 

He winks, and tosses Peeta a Snickers bar.

 

“You like peanuts? You seem like a peanut guy.”

 

They sit together on the bumper of the truck sharing Finnick’s dubious feast, completely unaware of the significance of their picnic table.

 

“How do you keep this a secret?” Peeta says in awe, halfway through the Snickers and already jealously eyeing a bag of pretzels.

 

“I don’t,” Finnick says. “Remember? No secrets here.”

 

Peeta eyes the older man carefully, chewing slowly on a mouthful of chocolate and peanuts.

 

“You’re a smart guy,” Finnick says. “Why do you think you’re here?”


“You want something,” Peeta says, swallowing thickly around his suddenly dry mouth, the chocolate sticking to his throat as it goes down. “And you don’t want anyone else to know about it.”

 

“Not a ‘thing’,” Finnick corrects easily. “Information. You know something about something. And I want to know it too.”

 

Peeta snorts.

 

“Didn’t you just say there were no secrets in Sanctuary?”

 

Finnick smiles blithely, licking the corner of his mouth as his eyes sparkle.

 

“Don’t forget. We’re not the biggest fish in this pond.”

 

Peeta sits up a little straighter, tucking the rest of the chocolate back into the wrapper.

 

“You don’t trust him. Wilson.”

 

Finnick’s bland smile is immoveable. Concrete. Ersatz. The hairs on the back of Peeta’s neck stand on end at his lack of answer. Were they being watched?

 

“Did you know I was the one who found her?” Finnick says, “She had been roaming the woods for god knows how long, but it was long enough that she had forgotten how to talk. Wouldn’t make eye contact. All skin and bones. Did you know she sneaks out to sit on the wall every night? She just stares. What do you think she’s looking at?

 

Peeta swallows, setting the chocolate bar on his knee. Finnick smiles a little wider.

 

“Ah. You don’t see it. I’m sorry to say the only thing separating Katniss Everdeen from one of the things beyond it is that wall. That’s why Haymitch took those pills. He knows one of the living dead when he sees one.”

 

Peeta’s heart clenches violently and the blood drains from his face. He couldn’t hear this. Didn’t want to have to try to find sleep tonight though a storm of images of Katniss- half-dead, covered in blood, foaming at the mouth-

 

“What is it that you want from me?” he says. “Why are you telling me all this?”

 

Finnick’s grin fades, his white teeth flashing in the late afternoon sunlight as they disappear behind his lips. His expression is molting into something new- something entirely unlike a smile. He reaches into his sidepack, drawing out a can with a pull tab on top. The label is blue and yellow, with a brand name that was familiar, but the image on the front was ripped and faded. He couldn’t make out what it was advertising, but as he squints, the faded outline of a single word becomes apparent.

 

Pineapple.

 

“People can disappear so easily, Peeta. Don’t give up on her. She needs you.”

 

-

 

When he arrives at his door, he’s not surprised to find Johanna waiting for him, sitting in the wheelchair he knew meant the Senator had asked her to go fetch him. She spins one of the front wheels with the heel of her foot as he sets his backpack down and reaches for the key to his door.

 

“That’s not necessary,” he grunts. “If the Senator wants me, I’ll walk.”

 

Johanna shrugs.

 

“Ooh. A rebel with a cause,” she smirks. “Suit yourself. It’s not like you could tick Wilson off any worse than you already have.”

 

Peeta narrows his eyes. She obviously had no idea what she was talking about.

 

“Yeah, well. I’m not feeling too great about any of it myself.”

 

He shoves the door open and swings his bag inside, before closing it once again with a grunt.

 

“Where to?”

 

Johanna pushes herself out of the chair.

 

“Just do it,” she says. “I’ll split my two slips with you.”

 

Peeta’s eyebrows raise. He hadn’t been exempted from this system. Each day, a blue slip was owed for your room, and extra food, medicine or rental equipment could be obtained with a pink slip. Blue could be earned by eight hours of work, pink with extra hours of service- like doing a Run. So far, he was behind and had no hope of catching up anytime soon.

 

“Blue or pink?” he asks.

 

Johanna smirks. He sits immediately. He wasn't about to turn up his nose at a pink slip if all he had to do is sit for it.

 

She rolls him out of the barracks and into the yard, back to the dining hall where the Reaping had taken place just over a week ago, Peeta feels unsettlingly like he understands what will happen next. Something had to be done about Katniss. She was a problem now, and because of it, so was he. 

 

“Ah. Mr. Mellark,” Senator Wilson smiles as Johanna rolls him in and up to the table where the Senator is eating with a few members of the Comm crew. “Just the man I wanted to see. Thank you, Ms. Mason.”

 

On cue, he shakes Johanna’s hand, which comes away with a blue slip inside. She smiles like she’s swallowed cardboard, thanks him, and hurries away. Peeta's jaw tightens. She lied. There were no pink slips.

  

The Senator wipes the corners of his mouth with a napkin, a quick, sharp movement.

 

“You heard the woman you arrived with- Maysilee- has left us, I assume.”

 

Peeta swallows.


“No, sir,” he says. “I hadn’t. But I am sorry to hear that.”

 

The Senator gives him a fathomless look.

 

“Yes. We had hoped she’d stay. She didn’t tell anyone. Not even her husband.”

 

Peeta doesn’t bother to correct him. He had had a feeling something like this would happen, but it felt so sudden.

 

“Any ideas why that might be, Mr. Mellark?”

 

Peeta shakes his head, and as he does he remembers the first day he met her, and the talk about Atlanta. Whatever she had seen there, was it bad enough for her to leave Haymitch? And Haymitch had promised to protect her, hadn’t he?

 

“No sir,” he repeats. “None.”

 

The Senator hums out a single ‘hm’ as he dips his fork in what looks like the remains of dinner that night- stew and potatoes. He brings another mouthful of food to his lips as the few gathered members of the Comm crew stare at Peeta openly.

 

“You surprised me, you know,” Wilson continues. “That first day- well. I thought you, of all people, understood what we were trying to do here. What I was trying to build- My vision for us to keep living God’s plan, even in all this darkness. So tell me- just when did you realize that she didn’t give a lick about you?”

 

Peeta swallows again, his cheeks broiling with something between shame and anger.

 

“Mighty high of her to be refusing your visitations, considering all you went through to get her back here safe and sound. I thank you for that, by the way. I knew you were special when I brought you in. Didn’t I tell you that then? That we needed you? Problem is… That Ms. Everdeen’s got things around here moving in bad directions. Directions that aren’t good for us as a community. You see. Some people think you were going against my orders when you brought that girl home. Some people think I sent her out there to die- on purpose- and you brought her back in spite of that. But son, I think you know better than that.”

 

The Senator wipes his mouth a final time, his plate scraped down to bone-white porcelain.

 

“It’s a man eat man world out there, and Sanctuary is so much more than safety in the raging storm. We’re living out God’s plan here- doing things according to the way they ought to be done. Caring for each other. Helping each other. Our love for each other is strong, but the system we’ve built here is still new and fragile, and if we’re going to survive, we have to stick together. One plan, one people. You understand what I’m getting at here, Mr. Mellark?”

 

Peeta shifts in the chair, suddenly glad he let Johanna talk him into it.

 

“I think so, sir.”

 

“Now hold on there, son. Because I don’t think you do.”

 

The Senator stands, hands tucked loosely in his pockets.

 

“Because if’n you did, we wouldn’t be here like this, you and me. I don’t want to talk to you like this. We’re on the same side, for heaven’s sake! Fighting for the same things. Food. Warmth. Safety. Survival. It’s all here, and available to anyone who wants it. The hungry, the sick. The huddled masses.”

 

He smiles at his own joke.

 

“But I can’t do it alone. I need you, Peeta. I need you behind me.”

 

“Sir, I can promise you that-”

 

Wilson laughs kindly, holding his hands up.


“Let me finish here! You haven’t even heard me out yet!”

 

Peeta catches his tongue, his cheeks burning harder as the Comm crew around the table laughs.

 

“What I’m trying to say here, Peeta, is that that little stunt Katniss pulled, well. It’s done a lot of harm. Now I have no doubt that you meant the best, but Katniss is just a girl- and she’s not all right in the head. She was out there a long time, you know. Alone. Near forgotten how to talk when we tried to take her in. That girl she volunteered for, Rue? She was near dead. Took Mr. Odair weeks before she’d let us near her, and by then it was almost too late. That girl’s no hero. She’s a loon. But people are people, and they get to talking, and pretty soon crazy is a looking a whole lot like sense.”

 

The Senator laughs, but Peeta stays silent.

 

“But one thing is for sure. People do love a good love story. And you, Mr. Mellark, are in love.”

 

Peeta opens his mouth to protest, but the Senator holds his hands up again and he closes his mouth.

 

“No explanations necessary. We all understand. She’s a mysterious young woman- and so pretty too. Have you seen her eyes yet? I mean up close.”

 

Wilson whistles low and the Comm crew exchange smiles.

 

“Beautiful. Just beautiful. Nothing like a pretty woman to make us do stuff we later regret. Have I told you about my late wife? Beautiful woman. Smart as a whip and crazy as a fox. Did some pretty regrettable things just to get her to look at me, I’ll tell you what. But that’s just it, Mr. Mellark. We all do things we regret. We’re all sinners here, you and me and every man at this table. But God is merciful, and because I walk with Him, so am I. Now I know Ms. Everdeen didn’t mean no harm, and you didn’t neither. So I want to give her a second chance. Hell. I want to give you both a chance you’d probably never take otherwise. I want her settled, Mr. Mellark. Taken care of. Looked after, if you will. So far as I see it, the best way to do that is to settle her down with a good man. Are you a good man, Mr. Mellark?”

 

“Sir, I’m just not-”

 

“Yes or no, Mr. Mellark.”

 

Peeta clenches his jaw.

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“Good. I do like getting to a conclusion everybody can be happy with.”

 

“I’m not sure I understand,” Peeta says, laying his hands across his lap. “What do you want me to do, exactly? She won’t talk to me. She won’t even see me.”

 

“Son,” Wilson says, peering down his nose. “You want to protect that woman, am I right? You’d do anything for her? Anything at all?”

 

He straightens up to his full height.

 

“Well. Give her a reason to stay home. No more Runs.”

 

Something sick and hot twists in his stomach as Peeta stares up at the older man’s bulbous nose, his reddened, doughy cheeks and dark, fathomless eyes. He feels his handle on the situation unraveling, fraying between his fingers, and he realizes for the first time why the world of politics was Rye’s arena. He had a knack for cutting through the bullshit, finding the truth of any situation, bad or good. Senator Wilson has said nothing that should have sent Peeta’s blood racing the way it was, but every instinct in him was screaming that he was too far out of his league, too inexperienced and far too clumsy to see what exactly was happening.

 

“Like what?” he says, and as he swallows.

 

The Senator smiles- an easy, practiced movement.

 

“You’re a smart young man,” he says. “I’m sure you can think of something.”

 

The way the Comm crew laughs tells Peeta everything he needs to know.

 

-

 

“HAYMITCH!”

 

Peeta presses his forehead against the cold steel of Haymitch’s door, adjacent the hospital wing. The silence that greets him from the other side isn’t surprising. Maisy is gone, and from everything of the man that Peeta had seen, he couldn’t imagine Haymitch taking being left very well at all.

 

“C’mon, Haymitch. Open up. We need to talk.”

 

Peeta presses his ear against the crack between the door and the wall, listening intently for any sign of life from inside. Sure enough, there’s a loud creak and something drops to the floor and rolls along the polished cement. Peeta rolls his eyes.

 

“I can hear you, you know,” he calls. The movement behind the door stops abruptly, and silence reigns for several heartbeats. “Alright. That’s it. I’m coming in.”

 

He presses hard on the door handle, well aware of Haymitch’s absent-minded tendency to drop everything and sleep when he was tired, and it swings open.


“You can’t hide out here-”

 

A dark shape, too lithe and too small to be Haymitch’s paunchy, slumped form, darts to the center to the room, its ungainly movements highlighting a pronounced limp.

 

“Who-”

 

He stops mid-sentence as the light falls across her face. Katniss Everdeen tucks a dread behind her ear, which strains beneath the weight. Her arm falls around her chest and she grips the crutch under her arm with white knuckles.

 

“What are you doing here?” he blurts.

 

“Looking for something,” she says, meeting his eyes in sudden defiance, as if she had every right to be rooting around Haymitch’s room in the middle of the night. Peeta snorts.

 

“Well. Do you know where he is?” Peeta says. “I need to talk to him.”

 

“I heard. But no. Check the Wall.”

 

“Why would he-? Nevermind. Hope you find… whatever it is.”

 

“Wait,” she says. Peeta stops mid-turn back to the door, and he brings his gaze to her face, his heart hammering in his throat.

 

She looks as if she’d step forward, if it didn’t require such a conscious movement of limbs. He recognized that half movement, that muscle twitch, then sudden stop. How many times when he had first lost his leg had he fallen in the shower? Suddenly all he could think of was how hard it had been at first after the accident, and how ashamed he had been to admit he needed special help doing the same everyday things he had once taken so for granted. Like standing up in the shower, or running up a flight of stairs. How long had he struggled with the memory of the crash? Flinching through intersections, hoping Rye didn’t notice? But Rye always noticed. Rye knew, and he had dropped everything to be there for Peeta. Even without Peeta ever asking. Where he would have been without his brother he didn’t know.

 

Or maybe he did. Nowhere good, that’s for sure.

 

“He’s probably still drinking on the wall,” Katniss says suddenly. “Haymitch, I mean. He’s been there all day.”

 

Peeta chokes on his own spit.

 

“And no one thought to drag him away?!”

 

Katniss shrugs, her eyes darting around the room.

 

“Goddammit,” Peeta mutters as he swings back to the door and limps out. The click of a second crutch behind him alerts him that Katniss is following, but instead of slowing down, he picks up his pace, letting her flounder uneasily behind him.

“You’re going the wrong way,” she says.

 

“I don’t need your help,” he snaps.

 

“Sure you don’t.”

 

He spins and watches as she slips into the shadows of the hall, the long cascade of her hair hanging over her shoulders and swaying gently with every hobbled step. He sighs in frustration as he closes his eyes and lets his head drop back against his neck. He races to catch up to her, but it isn’t very hard. With another pang of something like pity, he realizes her crutch is way too big for her- and much too heavy. But it wasn’t like there were many choices around here. As much as some in Sanctuary believed the hospital runs were invented to kill off Runners, Peeta genuinely suspected it had more to do with the fact that there were rare medical supplies only a hospital could be reliably counted on to stock- lightweight crutches, for one.

 

Katniss turns over her shoulder, her face smooth as marble. The Senator hadn’t been exaggerating with what he said about her eyes. Peeta looks away quickly.

 

“It’s faster through the back stairwell,” she says. “Leads directly out back, instead of taking you through the yard.”

 

She’s right. Even though between the two of them they only have two working legs, they are at the wall in record time, scuttling between the husks of old cars and planes.

 

“Anything?” he calls to Katniss anxiously.

 

“We’ll smell him before we see him at this rate,” she answers.

 

He frowns at her through the darkness, but before he can say anything, a yelp rips through the darkness. Lights click on along the wall, and Peeta rushes forward a few steps to where Katniss is standing.

 

“Nevermind,” she mumbles. “I think he’s saved us the trouble. C’mon.”

 

It’s worse than Rye- though that could be because Rye had always protected him from the darkest parts of his addiction. Haymitch is weaving precariously along the top of the wall, screaming obscenities at the world beyond and gripping his sawed off shotgun tightly as he waves it at the sky. What he’s screaming at, or about, Peeta doesn’t know, but for a single, wild moment, part of Peeta wants to join in. Katniss meets his eyes and smirks, as if she knows exactly what he’s thinking.

 

Haymitch might be drunk, but what he’s doing made more sense than anything else had in a long, long time.

 

“We have to get him down,” she says. “Before every infected in a ten mile radius shows up on our doorstep.”

 

“The walls will hold,” Peeta says. “Only paper beats rock, and rock definitely beats dead people.”

 

Katniss smiles so suddenly it takes his breath away.

 

She turns away to start up a set of narrow stairs up the to the top of the wall. Lights flash around them- Sanctuary’s posted night watch was on their way too, but Peeta had a feeling it was better if they took care of Haymitch themselves.

 

It was to Haymitch’s credit that Peeta was able to eventually talk him back from the edge of the wall, but not before the grounds outside the wall were teeming with infected darting in and out of the spotlights that flashed around them. The older man collapsed on Peeta, his sour, hot breath filling Peeta’s nose before his body shudders, and he vomits down Peeta’s back.

 

“Ugh. Oh god, this is gross,” he mutters.

 

Katniss’s lip twitches in disgust, and Peeta wonders if it’s normal to wish he was dead as earnestly as he had at so many different points throughout the past week. Her hand comes up to cover her mouth, and she closes her eyes tight. For a moment, it looks as though her own vomit would be joining Haymitch’s dripping down the side of the wall, but a few breaths later, she straightens up.

 

“You ok?” he says, grunting a little under Haymitch’s weight. “I can take him from here. Trust me, this only gets uglier. You don’t have to be here for that.”

 

She nods, but then looks out at the yard. He follows her line of sight arching over the swarm of infected below to a lone figure at the edge of the treeline. To Peeta’s shock, the figure’s gaze seems to be directed at them, and his blood spikes and freezes in his veins as its head tilts slowly to its shoulder. Was it an infected? He swallows. It had to be. But then- he had never seen one actually look at something. His mind races with possibilities as Katniss rips her gaze reluctantly away and shuffles toward the stairs, leaving Haymitch draped precariously over Peeta.

 

“There’s no way you’ll get him back on your own,” she says, as Peeta’s eyes stay locked on the figure beyond the wall. “Let the night guard take him down, and we’ll make sure he gets back to his room.”

 

Peeta doesn’t bother to correct her as he looks reluctantly back to Katniss. He could certainly carry Haymitch, but her concern is a nice change. By the time he turns back, the infected that had been staring up is gone.

 

“Alright.”

 

Haymitch is a big man, but the guard manages to get him back with minimal knocks to his head, and before Peeta goes to shed his vomit soaked shirt, he makes sure the man is turned on his side and covered in a blanket. Katniss flits uncertainly by the door, and while Peeta is sure it’s because the scent of vomit still hangs in the air, a part of him senses that there is a good reason she hasn’t left yet.

 

“You really should let me finish up here,” he says. “It’s ok. I got it.”

 

“No, I-”

 

She swallows and shifts uneasily from foot to foot as Peeta stands up fully, leaning heavily on his crutch as he shrugs his jacket off, tucking it into a ball and shoving it deep under Haymitch’s bed. He’d get it tomorrow. Or never.

 

“Oh. That thing you were looking for. What was it? There’s not much here, it’s probably around here somewhere.”

 

For the first time tonight Katniss looks like she was the one wishing the ground would swallow her, and Peeta wonders what she could possibly need from Haymitch so badly.

 

“It’s not important,” she mumbles. “I’ll get it in the morning.”

 

She ghosts toward the door, her feet unsure, and for a moment, Peeta thinks she’s about to dart away without another word. But she steadies herself, her fingers tight around the bottom rung of her crutch as she tucks that same errant dread behind her ear. While Peeta is sure that it’s stupid to be jealous of a dread, he can’t deny that he is anyway.

 

“I need to thank you,” she says softly. “I owe you my life.”

 

Peeta shakes his head.

 

“You don’t owe me anything,” he says. “I mean. I appreciate it. But that’s not why I did what I did.”

 

“Then why?”

 

It’s not a whisper, but it still sounds choked. Like the word ate its way out of her throat, and it strikes him suddenly that there was so much he didn’t know about her- so much he had assumed, so much more to her truth than whatever he had conjured in those months he spent on the road. Here she was, suddenly real, and all he was doing was comparing her to the fantasies that had kept on his feet for so long, and none of that was her fault.

 

She was just a girl, and this was just the end of the world.

 

To his surprise, he realizes he means it. She really doesn’t owe him anything.

 

“I couldn’t forget you,” he manages finally. “I don’t think I ever will.”

 

He shrugs and the muscles between his shoulder blades loosen as his shoulders drop, like someone suddenly lifted off a weight he hadn’t known he’d been carrying. She teeters toward him, her lips parted and her eyes wet and full. The air between them pulses with something that raises the hair on his arms and his heart hammers violently in his chest. The impulse to close that gap- to touch her the way he’s dreamed, to see if she was the source of the electric warmth licking his skin- thrums in his hands. Her face tilts toward his. Haymitch was wrong. This isn’t a crush. This is something much, much worse.

 

She jerks back suddenly, her eyes getting that same wild look they had when Peeta dragged her home. Desperate. Trapped. Afraid.

 

“You should try,” Katniss says.

 

And then she’s gone.


-

Chapter Text

-

Finnick’s voice.

“It wasn’t real. Not real. Remember? Prim is dead. Remember Rue. She needs you. Which one of them is dead and which one is alive? Come on baby- Breathe- Look at me- That’s it. Which one of them is still alive? Which one of them can you still save?”

-

She presses her forehead against the green tiled wall of the shower. The flesh on her arms pebbles, the hairs creeping up in a wave from shoulder to wrist, but the feeling of it stretches all the way to her fingertips. The frigid sputter of water from the rusted showerhead washes blood contaminated soap suds, sticky sweat and clumps of pale mud down her neck and stomach. The soft patter of water on tile is the only sound in the small hospital wing bathroom, but her own breathing is a roar that drowns it out entirely. It’s this moment that it creeps up on her- when she’s too exhausted to fight it- when giving up is easier than giving in. That’s how it works when you’re trying to outrun something.

It always finds you when you’re at your weakest.

She’s balancing on one foot while she rests her knee on a stack of cinder blocks. Her injured leg throbs furiously- this position is making her ankle swell, but it was the only way she could get in the shower. She was just lucky they didn’t have enough plaster for a proper cast and stuck her in some plastic contraption held together with a metal brace. Her back teeth grind, her jaw locked so tight she can feel the pressure lacing up to the top of her skull, and she can’t even blame it on the chill of the water. No. This has nothing to do with the cold. The constant soreness of her jaw, the throbbing pain that danced in her head, the constricted aching of her chest. It heaved instead of respired, caging the tired, flinching muscle of her heart and forcing blood to surge through it long after she wished it would all just stop. She dips her face into the freezing spray and blows air between her lips to keep the soapy liquid dripping around her nose from sneaking in her mouth.

It’s Peeta’s fault. His fault she’s here. His fault she feels at all. His fault she’s alive.

In the low light she examines the cuts, the scrapes, the black blooms of bruised flesh that paint her skin. Toothy crescents dot her arms. Stinging pink cuts band her hands. They’re healing just to spite her, and she wants to rip them clean open again. It’s infuriating the way the body insists on stitching itself back together. It never lets you keep your wounds- even the ones you inflict yourself. It never lets you just be- everything must always be made whole and seamless again, as if the pain, the wound and the trauma that started it all were a clock that could be wound backward to an unbroken zero hour. Even scars, as furious and as puckered as they could be, were just poorly erased wounds. There’s nothing you can do to stop your skin from closing- eventually even scabs heal over and glint with defiant pink newness. A smug reminder that none of this was ever your choice.

Her fingers are numb as she peels them away from her skin. They crack in protest as she flexes them, and guilt stings in her chest. A body couldn’t be smug. It was just a self-correcting machine. It didn’t know what was happening, it just did what it had always done. What it was programmed to do. How could it possibly know the end of the world had come and gone? It was build to survive- nothing less, nothing more- pointlessly, endlessly, until the wounds it bore killed it faster than it could heal. She pities it so intensely, so suddenly, that her eyes burn as they well up and she’s forced wipe them clear with the side of her hand.

It’s too late for any of that now.

“How’s it going in there?”

She starts and presses her fist into her teeth, her heart jumping into her throat. She’s running out of time.

“Yes,” she calls shakily. “Few more minutes.”

“Katniss- I’m supposed to help you get-”

“I’m almost done,” she says.

The door to the bathroom swings open.

“You’ve been in here for nearly twenty minutes.”

“Just five more.”

“Turn the water off, baby. I’m coming in to help you. You’re gonna catch a cold.”

The pill bottle on the soap shelf stares back at her placidly, dark rust against the old mint tile.

She wipes her face with her hands. It’s now or never. She reaches for it, but her fingers are still slippery with soap and it falls to the floor with an echoing clatter. She dives after it, overbalancing on her stack of cinder blocks in her pursuit. Her fingers grasp for purchase on the slick tile, but it’s no use. She crumples to the shower floor as Seeder swings the door open and the bottle of pills rolls out from underneath the toppled stack of cinderblocks, knocking against the toe of her shoes with a soft rattle.

And just like that, Katniss loses her chance to die.

-

“The kids back.”

Katniss’s eyes roll in her skull to the older man in the doorway to her room. She blinks. Haymitch is one of the Outsiders- a doctor in the Before- and he’s the one who moved all the pills out of the hospital wing for her own good. She turns over on her cot to face the wall, leaving her injured ankle, now weighed down by jerry-rigged splint and plaster combination, where it is.

No more showers for her.

“You could pretend to be just a little grateful, you know.”

Her eyes trace a fissure in the tile. It spiderwebs out like a cracked windshield. Could she dig a piece of it out?

“He did save your life.”

Her chest catches.

“I never asked him to,” she whispers. Her voice cracks. It’s the only thing she’s said in two days.

“Jesus christ,” Haymitch swears. “You’re a real piece of work, you know that?”

The words sting her skin, chewing their way from her cheeks down her neck. She let’s them travel without response- not even so much as a twitch- and eventually the door slams shut and she’s alone again. For hours she wanders in and out of sleep, toeing the twilight waters of actual dreaming. Everytime she let’s herself wade out, hands rise out of the placid water to caress her chilled arms, enticing her to go deeper, and dark, glinting eyes follow her progress.

“The fox chases the rabbit around and around and around the tree.”

She whips around at the sound of her sister’s voice. Prim is standing just behind her, long blonde hair swirling like gasoline on top of the water.

“Then she follows her down the hole.”

Prim smiles, and blood foams out of her mouth.

Katniss screams herself into waking and throws herself out of bed, crawling over to the cabinet on her hands and knees. She tears through it, tossing bandages, gauze and gloves over her shoulder as she rips open boxes and empties them on the floor. But there’s nothing that will help her stop the hurt- no pills, nothing sharp, not even dental floss. With a howl she throws a container of tongue depressors at the door. Several tense heartbeats of silence follow before she staggers over to it, her ankle throbbing its protest at all the blood rushing into it, but the door is locked, solid on its hinges, and utterly immovable. Her heart races in her chest as she slides down in front of it. She’s trapped, and no matter how loud she screams, no one comes.

Her fists fly at the steel but it absorbs her blows without so much as a rattle. More silence. She’s been left alone to rot. If Sanctuary were overrun during the night she could look forward to starving to death in utter safety. The crawl back to bed passes like a dream, and the starched sheets on her cot feel like spider’s silk. Light. Like they’re nothing at all. Her fingers crawl along her ribs as she wraps her arms around herself. She rocks herself gently as she sobs, but soon she’s too exhausted to even do that and she stares hot-eyed, and motionless, at the crack in the wall.

-

Prim is dead.

Yes, she remembers now.

-

“How’s she doing?”

A voice penetrates the door to her room and the fog of sleep that hangs around her head. She recognizes it immediately- it was the same voice she spent weeks- months- hoping for, and you never forget the last thing in the world that gave you hope. She sits up so quickly her head spins and she scrambles out of bed to crawl back over to the door.

“The same,” Haymitch answers. “Nothing’s changed in the ten hours since you were last here.”

“Has she said anything?” Peeta says. She strains to see if he goes on, but the long silence that follows his question has to be Haymitch’s fault.

“Not yet,” he says finally.

“Ok. I’ll try back tonight. Could you... could you tell her I was here?”

Haymitch sighs.

“Give her time, kid. She’s-”

Haymitch’s voice drops so low it’s only a murmur. She moves her ear to the door jamb, her hands twisting in the starchy material of her hospital gown. How much was Haymitch telling Peeta? Sick heat flares to life in her gut and laps her skin in rolling waves. She never asked for this- not any of it. Not Peeta’s help, not his kindness, not his visits. Now she owed him her life, and she couldn’t ever hope to repay something like that. Especially not after she went and tried to undo all his hard work, and couldn’t promise she wouldn’t try again.

Make him go away, she thinks. Make him hate me. Make him wish he left me to die. Make him leave and never come back.

Anything that would make it easier.

But for whom- Peeta or herself- she doesn’t know.

-

They start to leave her door open. Maybe they think she’s learned her lesson.

She waits until she can breathe again.

When it doesn’t hurt as much.

When the compound has been silent for hours already.

The halls are so dark and still by then that as she limps through them the tap of her crutch is her only shadow. Outside, the yard is empty, the moon is full and the air is cool. In the space of a week she’s missed the change of autumn. It hangs now in the air- an energy she can’t define but feels deep in her bones- especially the broken ones. She has to stop several times when the pain in her ankle is too much. The odd contraption on her leg is too heavy to hold up for very long, but her leg still won’t hold any weight. This journey is also the longest one she takes with her crutch, and her arm is so sore that it’s numb by the time she reaches the stairs, and they’re the hardest part. You really do need two legs to navigate stairs, and they’re that much worse to climb by moonlight.

Still, her nightly visits to the wall are the only think she looks forward to. She almost counts down the hours, the minutes until she can go back, and the night guard must think she’s no threat because they leave her mostly alone. Maybe they’re used to her now. Her visits here were so frequent when she first arrived at Sanctuary, though they dropped off entirely by the time the Outsiders came. But she’s been here every night so far this week, always long after darkness settled, always alone. Lowering herself to a seated position is the riskiest part of this venture, and even with all her wobbling their heads never turn. She squints her eyes at them, her nose twitching as she sniffs the air.

Human stink. Crisp air. The smart of fermented yeast as it brushed the back of her throat.

They were drunk.

A bawdy laugh echoing in the yard behind her confirms it. Finnick’s been hard at work again, but how did he manage it this time? Liquor is a precious commodity, one of the first things to be looted to nothingness when The End began. It was that and pills, canned food, bottled water, toilet paper, Parmalat, and coffee. The true sinnew that held lives together were always the same- the things you couldn’t wake up in the morning without, the things that sat invisible underneath the skin of the day to day, taken so for granted while you had them that you were surprised how miserably they were missed when they were gone.

She leans her head against the piling next to her, but she doesn’t have long to wait. It’s almost like Two-Face can sense her eyelids drooping and knows exactly when to step out of the shadows. His mouth falls open and his head lolls toward his shoulder, but his eyes look clear and watchful. She slumps a little, her cheek pressing into the rough cement. She could do it now. That would give Two-Face plenty of time.

She adjusts herself, leaning back up and inching closer to the edge, the bright white her plaster cast swinging freely in the darkness. Two-Face’s shadowed gaze intensifies- she can feel his eyes velcroed to her movements as his head jerks up and twitches. He shuffles forward, his jaw moving mechanically, but then the blast of a gunshot bursts through the stillness and laughter explodes twenty feet or so down the wall. The bottom of her stomach drops out and her hands prickle with cold sweat. She presses her hand to her mouth and squeezes her eyes shut, teetering on the edge of the wall.

Two-Face is gone by the time her eyes open again.

She’s so furious she has to swallow the scream building in her chest and it settles like molten lead in her stomach. She scans the lawn, the trees beyond, and the edges of the chain link fence just below her. Were the guard shooting at him? They did that sometimes, picked off infected for fun. It was a game. Shine a spotlight on the lawn and watch the infected gather, then snipe at them as they dart through it. If the guard was in a betting mood, they circled the light around and around, picking off the infected as they chased it and placing wagers on who could get the higher kill count. In the morning, the still-twitching bodies would litter the lawn like worms in mud and Runners would be commissioned to drag them into a pile and burn them.

A second gunshot splits the night air and an argument breaks out. The sounds magnetize infected from the woods. They barrel toward Sanctuary and entangle themselves in the chain link fence that surrounds the wall, snarling, snapping and rasping at the air. As they gather the noise grows and soon the snarling chorus entices a full flood of infected to pool at Sanctuary’s doorstep. In the melee just feet below her feet, Katniss’s gaze is drawn to something that sends a virulent chill through her. In a sea of twitching heads faced forward, only one is tilted up.

Two-Face’s eyes are flickering- she can see the whites rattling back and forth in his skull, but the rest of him is still.

And even though it’s impossible- even though she knows she has to be imagining it-

She could swear he knows what she plans to do.

-

She ferments in heavy-tongued silence for three days, then she and Rue switch places. Katniss hears the commotion as she’s changing, and she shrugs into the enormous tunic dress Seeder left out for her. The neck swims around her shoulders and the hem floats at her knees- it’s too large and leaves her feeling entirely too naked. As she limps into the hall the loose fabric catches in the pinch between her underarm and her crutch and drags the neck over her shoulder. She tugs it up while she watches Abby guide Rue to her usual room. Haymitch is leaning his back against the front desk, his eyes narrowed at the younger girl.

Katniss limps hurriedly past him, digging the Tylenol out of the cabinet in Rue’s room and crushing it with the underside of a pyrex sample container. She cuts in front of Abby to lift up Rue’s lip and rubs the dust on her gums. They’re pale but not any worse than usual and at the very least not bleeding, but when she looks up at Rue’s eyes she sees something that steals the air right out of her chest.

They’re flickering.

Back and forth. Gently. As if she were just reading.

Katniss brushes away the fevered tear that slips out of the side of Rue’s eye.

Which one of them can you still save?

Neither.

-

Everything in her room is just as she left it, even the lump of her wool emergency blanket on the end of her cot. She stands in the doorway for a moment, confused at the impossible sameness of it, then shuffles inside. Her pants won’t fit over her cast so she has to leave the giant tunic on- though she does tug a hooded henley over it, and slips on one of her boots.

She goes to put on show of eating in the cafeteria, mostly for Haymitch’s benefit, but the sound of other human voices is an ever-swelling crescendo that crushes the air out of her chest, and it’s all she can do to mechanically put something in her stomach before she has to flee back to her room. She gasps in the quiet outside, her heart rolling as she stumbles back toward the compound. On her way the voices seem to be chasing her until she realizes they’re echoing from the walls- and worse, Haymitch’s is one of them. It was all a waste. He’s on the wall arguing loudly with a member of the guard, his words slurring together like his mouth is full of wet sand. She ducks her head and hurries away to collapse on her cot. Time passes in numb heartbeats- endless and stale- but she’s long past being able to add them up into any kind of discernible pattern, except from one ba-bump to the next, the air changes from squalid to crisp.

When the hairs rise on her arms, she knows it’s time.

Haymitch’s room is still empty, and the door is unlocked. She slips inside the dark box and eases the door shut behind her, using the meager moonlight that streamed in through his window the navigate the clothing strewn floor. She maneuvers the majority of the clothes into a pile in the corner using her crutch- eliminating each by their silence. She’s checking for a tell-tale rattle. There’s only one place beside the hospital wing he’d hide those pills, and it had to be here.

But they’re not in the clothes, nor under either cot, and nudging his pack with her crutch doesn’t give her any clues. Then it strikes her that he may be entirely more crafty than she’d given him credit for and stuffed the bottle in a pair of socks or something, so she lifts the pack up and upends it on the cot, just in time for a voice to interrupt her hunt.

“HAYMITCH!”

She freezes, clutching the bag in her hand tight.

“C’mon, Haymitch. Open up. We need to talk.”

Oh no.

Oh no.

Not him.

There’s a loud creak from the cot before something drops to the floor and rolls across the floor.

“I can hear you, you know!” he calls. Katniss stays perfectly still, twisting the bag in her hands and willing him to leave. But of course, she’s never been lucky that way. “Alright. That’s it. I’m coming in.”

The door opens.

“You can’t hide out here-”

What is it, exactly, that he does to her? She wished she knew the name of it so she could defend herself properly from it. Was she reacting to the sound of his voice because she had searched for it for so long, or because it always came to her when she needed it most? Whatever it was, she knew instinctively that nothing good could ever come of it. Not a in a world like this- where there was no more room in hell, and the dead walked the earth. Those eyes of his are widening at a corpse.

She’d marked the body herself, and dead people can’t love you back.

“What are you doing here?” he blurts.

Her cheeks flame, and she shifts the crutch tighter against her chest, her chin lifting a little against the weight of his suspicion.

“Looking for something,” she snaps.

“Well. Do you know where he is?” he asks. “I need to talk to him.”

“I heard. But no. Check the Wall.”

 

“Why would he-? Nevermind. Hope you find… whatever it is.”

 

“Wait,” she says. Peeta stops mid-turn back to the door, and as he brings his gaze back to her face her heart hammers in her throat. Haymitch had come in to Sanctuary with Peeta- she couldn’t let him find the older man like that without some kind of warning. She knew what it was like to watch someone disappear down the neck of a bottle. She knew what it could do, to know there was nothing you could do to stop them, nothing you could say to convince them that they would drown themselves, eventually, and there was nothing you could say to bring back the person they were before they found their poison. She swallows. What could she say? Peeta probably already knew anyway.

“He’s probably still drinking on the wall,” she settles for. “Haymitch, I mean. He’s been there all day.”

“And no one thought to drag him away?!”

She shrugs, that heat creeping back into her cheeks. No one in Sanctuary messed with the Guard- another thing she owed Peeta for. He had made powerful enemies- though whether or not he’s even aware of it is a different matter altogether.

“Goddammit,” Peeta mutters as he swings back to the door and limps out. Her heart surges, and she can only wait three seconds before she tears after him. Try as she might she can’t match his pace though, and every awkward limp leaves her further and further behind. It strikes her that Peeta is more than skilled at walking with his crutch- he moves naturally, instinctually- and she can’t help but admire the strength that kind of grace must require.

“You’re going the wrong way,” she blurts.

 

“I don’t need your help,” he shoots back.

“Sure you don’t,” she says.

With a pin tight turn, she starts off in the opposite direction back toward her room. Let Peeta find out just how long it takes to limp out to the wall, especially when you had to circle your way to the back of the building on top of getting out of it in the first place. It’s not like this place was designed with the differently abled in mind- there weren’t any ramps or elevators. Just stairs, and god only knew how he managed those.

She hears him change direction, and senses his eyes on her.

“It’s faster through the back stairwell,” she sniffs. “Leads directly out back, instead of taking you through the yard.”

Of course, the back stairwell is also the service entrance. Heavy doors, and a wide concrete staircase without a handrail, but if it bothers Peeta at all, he doesn’t show it. He matches her pace and it’s so infuriating she lets the door to the grounds swing shut on him. There are many things she deserves but his pity isn’t one of them. She isn’t weak, she isn’t stupid and she doesn’t need his help. She made it this far on her own- and kept Rue alive too.

 

“Anything?” Peeta calls.

 

“We’ll smell him before we see him at this rate,” she answers. Lights click on along the wall, illuminating a weaving figure stumbling along the top. For a moment, it looks like- she shakes her head, her heart thudding in her chest. It was impossible for someone to climb a wall like that- especially an infected.

“Nevermind,” she says. “I think he’s saved us the trouble. C’mon.”

It’s Haymitch alright- and he’s blind stinking drunk, waving a gun at a sky so still and cold she has to catch herself from laughing. No one up there is listening anymore, but if they were, Katniss has a thing or two she’d like to say herself. Peeta must be thinking along the same lines, because he’s biting back a smile too.

“We have to get him down,” she says. “Before every infected in a ten mile radius shows up on our doorstep.”

 

“The walls will hold,” Peeta says confidently, then- “Only paper beats rock, and rock definitely beats dead people.”

She has to turn away before she does something stupid- like laugh- and she realizes this is the first normal conversation they’ve ever had. Her heart is doing that thing again. Skipping around, leaping into her throat whenever their eyes met. She tries to swallow it down but it’s no use. She’s feels every glance, every place her body is closest to his, her skin buzzing with that electric, instinctual awareness that she’s only ever felt when he’s around.

She jerks away and fumbles to start up a set of narrow stairs up the to the top of the wall. Flashlights dance in the yard and along the wall, and Katniss’s heart sinks. The guard is sober tonight- sober enough at least to realize that there are people on the wall who shouldn’t be. She could try back later- closer to dawn maybe- when the guard was overtired, or between shifts. Her gaze is magnetized toward the trees, searching for the familiar bulk of Two-Face’s slumped form. Infected flash out of the trees, chasing the lights and sounds that echo in the long yard, but Two-Face isn’t among them.

With the guard rounding on them, Peeta manages to talk Haymitch into handing over his gun and stepping back from the edge of the wall. He’d done enough damage tonight- the grounds are teeming with enraged infected for the second night in a row, and tomorrow there’d need to be a clean up of the bodies. The older man wraps his arms around Peeta, his bitter laughter turning into a sudden spew of vomit. Peeta’s eyebrows pinch together and his eyes close gently.

 

“Ugh. Oh god,” he says, his pained expression deepening as the sting of vomit reaches their noses. “This is gross.”

 

Her lip twitches in disgust. For everything, she’s never been good with all the different fluids a body could make, puke least of all. But there’s a particular oily, acridity to alcohol infused vomit that always makes her think of her childhood. She clamps a hand over her mouth and counts backward from ten, memories of scrubbing her mother’s puke out of the bathroom floor before Prim could find it flooding her.

 

“You ok?” Peeta says, his voice tight under Haymitch’s weight. “I can take him from here. Trust me, this only gets uglier. You don’t have to be here for that.”

Yes Peeta. Yes it does.

Another smile is tugging on her lips. Before it breaks onto her face something familiar beyond the wall catches her eye. At the edge of the trees is a dark shape flashing through the shadows. He bursts onto the lawn and comes to a sudden stop, his head angled right up at her. His head jerks- or is his jaw snapping?- it’s too dark to tell- But there’s no mistaking who it is.

Two-Face is back.

An eerie feeling of having been dropped into frigid water closes over her head and sends a prickling shiver through her. The world takes on an unreal, shimmering quality- Prim would have called it ‘someone walking over her future grave.’ Somehow Peeta and Two-Face aren’t mixing well in her head- like slick, black oil and winter’s blue ocean, but the worst part of it is that she can’t tell which one of them burn her alive, and which one would drag her down into the darkness. As if he can hear her thoughts, Two-Face’s head tilts slowly to his shoulder. She shakes her head and it clears.

Tonight.

 

“There’s no way you’ll get him back on your own,” she says distantly, her eyes locked on the figure beyond the wall. “Let the night guard take him down, and we’ll make sure he gets back to his room.”

“All right.”

Peeta limps back from the edge of the wall to wave the guard over, and her heart takes off at a gallop as air rushes back into her lungs. Her eyes skim the edges of the yard beyond the wall, darting from shadow to shadow, searching for a familiar shape. But Two-Face is nowhere- not in the trees, and not in the swarm of infected entangled in the fence. As suddenly as he had appeared he has disappeared again. The disappointment is so sudden it stings all the way down her throat before it curdles in her stomach.

The guard relieves Peeta of Haymitch’s weight and the group of them navigate his bulk back down the stairs. She flounders behind them, easing herself quietly out of their range of vision, her gazing flickering back over the wall, hoping- searching-

But Two-Face doesn’t reappear by the time Peeta and the Guard reach the bottom of the stairs, and Peeta isn’t nearly as distracted as she hoped he’d be by Haymitch’s drunken rambling. Her heart beats wooden and slow in her chest when she sees him waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs, that same pitying warmth on his face, and then there’s nothing to do but wander behind him back to Haymitch’s room. She ghosts in the doorway, shifting her weight entirely onto her crutch. The position cuts off the circulation to her arm, and she watches her fingers go pale and bloodless, then completely numb. She looks up in time to see Peeta unzipping his soiled jacket and unbuttoning his flannel, revealing the grey tank top underneath. A sloppy scrawl of writing across the front catches her eye. The hand-drawn letters shift in the low light as he moves Haymitch’s legs into a more natural position on the cot.

Bite Me- it reads.

Her face flames. That’s not fucking funny. But maybe it wasn’t meant to be. Maybe it’s not a joke at all.

Maybe it’s a dare.

 

“You really should let me finish up here,” he says. “It’s ok. I got it.”

 

“No, I-”

 

She shifts her weight back onto her foot as Peeta stands up fully, leaning heavily on his crutch as he shrugs his jacket off and flannel off, balling them up and tossing them under Haymitch’s cot with a grunt.

 

“Oh. That thing you were looking for,” he says as he stands up. “What was it? There’s not much here, it’s probably around here somewhere.”

 

“It’s not important,” she mumbles, her cheeks throbbing and hot. “I’ll get it in the morning.”

Her head is spins as she steps backward, her fingers gripping onto her crutch as if it’s the last thing anchoring her to the ground. Her fingernails sink into the plush grip, her brain working uselessly to name the hammering in her chest, the weakness in her legs, the thing that drives her tongue out to wet her chapped lips, and that’s when she realizes she’s spoken more to Peeta in the past hour than she has to anyone in over a week. She swallows.

“I need to thank you. I owe you my life.”

The words feel like hers, but she can’t remember ever deciding to speak- and especially not to say something this. But it’s true- she owes him her life, maybe even more- and she realizes the words have been burning under her tongue, probably because they need to be said, if she’s going to die. Maybe that’s why she hasn’t been able to make it down the wall yet.

This goodbye, at least, she needs. Peeta is, afterall, the last person left she can let down.

He shakes his head.

 

“You don’t owe me anything,” he says. “I mean. I appreciate it. But that’s not why I did what I did.”

 

Then why? The word chokes her, but more bewildering, her eyes start to sting. She swallows down the strange tightness in her throat and blinks quickly.

“I couldn’t forget you,” he says simply. “I don’t think I ever will.”

And finally she is too selfish to stop herself to stop herself from moving into him. Static energy crackles in the air between them and laps at the salt on her skin- the thin sheen on her neck, the wash of it on the span of skin hiding her battered, flinching heart, the whisper of it that lead through valley of her breasts and trailed in an ombre gradiation to-

She is trembling- not from cold, but in an attempt to cage the secret heat that burst to life so suddenly inside her. But she knows, even as she leans toward him, how wrong it is. There’s no future for her- none at all- and to love anyone at all is to give them a piece of yourself in the hopes that they’ll protect it.

But she can’t.

She can’t protect anything, and especially not the things that matter.

“You should try,” she chokes.

And then, before she has to bear knowing that she’s hurt him, she staggers away.

-

It’s good advice.

She said it herself, after all, and there’s plenty she can distract herself with as she waits for another chance. The guard is more careful now, but eventually they’d give up and go back to the way things were. These spurts of efficiency of theirs never lasted too long. Until then, she could sit and scrub laundry with the other women on the laundry brigade. It was good, hard work that kept her from wanting to chew her leg out of it’s cast or digging the scrabs off her arms. By the end of the day she’s so exhausted she can crawl back to bed and there’s no time between her head hitting the pillow and her eyes closing. No time to think, let alone remember.

But not remembering isn’t the same as forgetting, and being exhausted isn’t the same as numb, and none of it all stops the aching in her chest in the slightest. Not even Finnick can distract her from that, and if anyone could possibly know what she felt, it was him.

“How do you live with it?” she asks him, a gallon of gas tucked under her arm as they make their way toward the back of the compound.

He shrugs, a sad smile tugging on his lips.

“It helps not to think about it too much.”

“Does it?”

The smile on his face becomes unreadable.

“Sometimes.”

They pass between the trucks in the Boneyard, their rotting hulls blooming red around the bullet holes that mark them. The impulse to run her fingers over the glinting hide beneath their chipped paint runs through her, but she doesn’t dare. You never knew what was being stashed away in the Boneyard.

“You can’t change the past, and you can’t see the future,” Finnick says, “All you can really do is focus on the exact moment you’re living in. On what you can confirm is real. Because you can’t do anything about the rest of it.”

He pauses to fish his keys out of his pocket. A squeak from the truck next to them makes his eyes jerk up and worry tightens the muscles on his forehead.

“She’s awake,” he mumbles. “You can leave, if you want to.”

Katniss swallows.

“No. It’s nothing I haven’t seen before.”

“She’s not-”

“I said I’d help,” she insists.

“You don’t owe me this.”

Katniss notches her chin up, her eyes narrowing. Finnick sighs and jams his keys into the lock on the back of the truck, then rolls the back door up with a loud rattle.

“You have a visitor today, Annie,” he says brightly. Like he’s talking to a elderly person, or a young child. “Isn’t that nice?”

The dark-haired woman handcuffed to the bed makes a garbled sound.

“I had to gag her.”

Finnick says it like an apology, but Katniss just hands him the gas can without a word. Annie had nearly bitten her own tongue off two weeks ago, and it set Finnick back five pink slips to get her antibiotics and percocet. He had to stitch the tongue back together himself too, wearing a gas mask and rubber gloves while Katniss stood outside the locked truck. For two hours she listened to Annie’s yowls before she slipped into one of her comatose episodes where she did nothing on her own but breathe. Finnick even had to keep blinking her eyes for her.

“Watch her, ok? This should only take a minute.”

He seemed brighter, now that she was awake.

He reaches up and pushes away the blue tarp that guards a hole out onto the roof of the truck. Rainwater showers down the side of the truck as Finnick pulls himself up and through the hole, with the gas cans hooked to his waist with oversized carabiners. Katniss’s eyes slowly find the dark haired woman. She lunges up and Katniss flinches, even though the handcuffs that chain Annie to the bed hold fast.

“Tell her the one about the tissue,” Finnick shouts down.

“What?”

“The one you told me, remember!”

“Oh- right,” she says, then swallows. “How do you make a tissue dance?”

Annie snarls around her gag.

“You put a little boogie in it.”

“Isn’t that funny babe? A little boogie!”

Katniss’s chest squeezes as Annie thrashes, her head tilted toward the side of the truck Finnick’s voice kept echoing from. She goes still as the generator on the roof roars to life, and then she sinks back into the bed, her eyes vacant and glossy. One gas can and then the other drop back through the hole, and then so does Finnick. The machines around Annie’s bed blink to life, and Finnick messes with one of the monitors. He pauses to brush some of the hair out of Annie’s face, but she doesn’t respond. Katniss has to tear her eyes away from them. Looking at Finnick, you’d never doubt what he felt for Annie. That he believes her life is still worth something. That underneath the madness of infection, some part of the woman that he married is still in there, and no matter how small that part is, he still loved it.

You never doubted for a moment he believed she deserved feeding, deserved mending, deserved keeping alive.

Deserved to be loved.

“I’m gonna keep her company while she eats,” he says. “But it takes a while, so you should go on. Just lock the door behind you.”

“Ok, yeah,” Katniss says. Finnick lowers the door until she can reach it, then she tugs it the rest of the way down and locks both of them inside.

That night, no matter how she tries, she can’t sleep. Her thoughts race and crash into each other, and even deliberately slowing her breathing doesn’t work. Nothing does, in fact, until she reaches into her pack and pulls out her radio in frustration. But it’s been locked away from the sun for too long, and after three faithful months, it’s finally dead. She snaps the headset on anyway, the familiar feel of the soft, old plastic engulfing her ears. Curling up around the block of machinery, she lets herself take comfort in its familiar shape, even in the silence.

The buttons are smooth and worn under the pads of her fingers, and she wonders what she’d hear now if she could turn it on. Her pulse jumps a little as a crackle fills her ears, but it’s just her blanket brushing the outside of the headset. Her chest aches- a sharp, breathless squeeze that’s familiar enough by now that she knows she can sleep through it, if she really tries.

So she does.

-

She dreams of Peeta. He is behind her, his nose gently brushing the back of her head, sifting through her dreads in the hunt for her scalp. A whimper leaks out of her parted lips as she makes the heady realization that he is sniffing her. The arm around her waist tightens and she squeezes her thighs together. Soft breath races over the unprotected skin of her throat- Lips follow- then the sudden wet heat of a tongue tears a groan from her throat.

The throb between her legs quickens-

The room spins lazily-

She tries to speak, but she’s so lightheaded she can’t bring her mouth to move except to mumble his name breathily-

Her pulse surges underneath the tender skin of her neck and shudders against the butterfly touch of Peeta’s tongue. Another arm rises out of the darkness and a hand settles heavily on her hip. She starts to lift her head up to see who it belongs to, but a rattling snarl freezes her in place. For a few tense heartbeats, she remains perfectly still and the lips exploring her neck move to whisper along her hairline. The new hand trails down her thigh, hooking itself underneath her knee and lifting. For an obscene moment, her delirious thrill is greater than her fear, and her teeth tug on her lip as her eyes flutter shut.

But then those fingers are too rough- too fast- and her hips buck mindlessly against them as she cries out. A throaty snarl splits the air, this time not by her ear but at the softest part of her belly. Her eyes fly open. A pair of familiar eyes are looking up at her, flickering quickly back and forth in their sockets, and all the air in her lungs turns into lead.

Two-Face grins- all bloodied teeth and torn lips- as Peeta sinks his teeth deep into her neck.

-

The howl of the air raid alarm swallows her screams as she wakes. Her blood beats hard and fast as she trips out of bed, her bad ankle failing her as soon as she puts weight on it. She scrambles to her, grabs her gun and crutch and swings her door open to limp out into the hall. It’s empty by the time she gets there, bursts light from the alarm illuminating the still space in rapid pulses. Where is everyone? She races down the back staircase to the hospital wing, her grip shaking on her crutch as the blaring siren throbs in her ears. Rue is there, her eyes closed and a vein in her neck fluttering in the moonlight streaming in through her window. But Abby is missing, and so is Haymitch, and there are other patients who have wandered to their doors, mute fear on their faces.

 

And that’s when she hears them- the gunshots ripping through the air outside- and she scrambles to drag a chair to the open window and climb up onto it. Her eyes just peek over the window ledge as something fifty feet away or so darts through the shadows on the lawn. Its head jerks around as she pushes the window up and the heavy frame squeals on it’s hinges. A flash of light from the alarm illuminates the yard and a wide pair of blood blackened eyes stare up at her. In the deafening blackness that follows, a chorus of snarls rises high into the night.

 

It's happened. What they had all feared for so long.

 

The infected have breached the wall.

-

Chapter Text

 

See Thing.

 

See Thing dig.

 

Dig Thing, dig.

 

See Thing reach its nails into the green skin of the Soft Earth and peel it back, one leg, then the other, and over again.

 

See the Soft Earth.

 

See the red dirt underneath.

 

See them fly up behind Thing and collect in mounds, like Gatherers in the dark.

 

See the hot eye of the Hurt Glare.

 

It searches the night, leading Gatherers in wild dances, then dropping them in pools of broken, twitching bodies.

 

It comes from the Up Ground, beyond the Hard Lace, where Her and The Others collect. See the Hard Lace glint in the Hot Eye. The Other that holds it is a black shape in the dark.

 

See The Other.

 

It is not Her.

 

See the Hot Eye.

 

It finds Thing.

 

Hard Sound next.

 

See Thing.

 

See Thing run.

 

Run Thing, run.

 

-



See the Hard Lace.

 

It is always forward and never gives.

 

See the Gatherers.

 

They press into it. They bite and claw like they do not know it never gives.

 

See the Hurt Glare find them.

 

See them fall.

 

-

 

See Thing.

 

See Thing run.

 

Run Thing, run.

 

See Thing sniff. See Thing dig.

 

See Thing slip beneath the Hard Lace.

 

Only for Thing will the Hard Lace give.

 

-

 

See the Up Ground.

 

It is tall and white.

 

See the Hard Lace.

 

At it pool the Gatherers, who claw and howl.

 

Underneath them the ground flesh is peeling back, and the wound bleeds red WetSoft dirt. Like Thing, their legs dig the Soft Earth and kick it back. But unlike Thing, they do not squeeze underneath the Hard Lace. They do not leave the Hard Lace behind to gather at the Up Ground. They stay to scratch and bite and pull.

 

See the Gatherers.

 

See them dig.

 

See the Hurt Glare find them.

 

See them fall.

 

See above where they mound, broken and still and silent.

 

See- there on the Up Ground.

 

It’s one of The Others.

 

It is Her.

 

-

 

See Her.

 

See Her Seeing:

 

The Gatherers- the cool dark- the Hard Lace.

 

Then, see Her seeing back.

 

Want.

 

Want Her.

 

-

 

See Her.

 

On the Up Ground, sometimes beyond, but always too far.

 

-

 

Want Her.

 

Sometimes just to See.

 

-

 

Want Her.

 

See Thing.

 

See Thing dig.

 

Thing digs beneath the Hard Lace and slides under to the breadth of Soft Earth in front of the Up Ground. Thing digs there too. First a small hollow, then wider and bigger as the WetSoft stains the ground. Thing digs always where it finds the WetSoft,  wearing it like skin on its fur and legs and twitching snout.

 

See the hollow Thing leaves.

 

Follow Thing through.

 

-

 

Want Her.

 

Sometimes not just to See.

 

Sometimes to peel Her flesh back like Soft Earth, like dirt flesh, like white teeth of Thing in pink bones it pulls through the Hard Lace, like red-mouthed Gatherers at a feast of The Others.

 

See Her.

 

See Her run.

 

Run Her , run.


-

Chapter Text

It takes an hour- long after his allotment of water runs dry and he has to limp out of the shower stall with frigid, prickling skin- for the words to stop pounding in his head.

 

You should try.

 

The trek back to his room feels like it happens to someone else. It’s not like she’s the first girl who didn’t feel the same things he did, it’s just the first time it felt like this. Like he wasn’t sure just how badly his next breath would hurt to take, like he was anxiously awaiting the moment the pain of it would end, all while knowing it wouldn’t. It would be with him- sometimes a quiet bruise, sometimes a howling ache- for the rest of his life.

 

He’d meant what he’d said. He would never forget her. He couldn’t hope to even if he wanted to in the first place, which he didn’t. He wanted everything he remembered of her, even the hurt, and maybe especially that because-

 

Because-

 

He swallows as he swings open the door to his room, the squeak of the hinges echoing in hollow greeting.

 

Because he knew whatever it was he felt for her, it was different . New and excruciating and so tender. There’s nothing to do now but admit that she had cut her way deep into him. There were newly carved rivers running through his heart that he could only name for her, helpless to dam them with anything but the knowledge that all she’d ever be is the girl from the radio. And what a thin comfort that was- he hadn’t known it then but he sure as hell knows it now- she saved him. Gave him a reason believe surviving The End was not only something he could do, but something worth doing in the first place.

 

As he unpins his pants and slides them down over hips he pauses to massage his stump and his stomach burns miserably. A part of him always knew it would be like this. That women would see him differently. He’d be a pity fuck, someone to play to nurse for, or, worse still, nothing more than a potential burden. He flops backward on his cot and stares up at the darkness that obscured the ceiling over his creaking cot. Before The End he was so busy trying to prove everyone wrong, trying to prove he could go back to school, trying to prove that the mistakes he made wouldn’t keep him from his future, that he never let himself so much as think about women. A relationship, even a casual one, was something he had just assumed would never happen again, so he cut off the pain before it could start and decided to just not think about it.

 

But that was before he’d met Katniss Everdeen, and now-

 

He swallows.

 

Now there’s nothing he wouldn’t give to even pretend that she could want him too.

 

The Comm crew needs someone trained in the more technical aspects of maintenance and repair so Peeta joins on as a mechanic, working between the Comm tent and the Boneyard on the equipment rented to Runners on their various missions. Senator Wilson hadn’t been exaggerating when he said they needed someone with his skillset- their equipment is kept outside in the Comm tent and it’s in sorry shape. Three of the eleven car batteries they’ve been using as power sources overheated when they were stacked on top of one another in the middle of July and now they only stayed on so long as half their power was diverted to a miniature fan to diffuse the heat. Two others were damaged when they were left out in the rain, and now one only stays on for five minutes at time, and the other is completely useless. It’s a loss Peeta knows is serious by the way Zeke grows pale when Peeta lifts the top off the battery pack to reveal insides totally choked with rust. They’re in his room when he gets back later that night with half of a pink slip that says-

 

What can you salvage?

 

It’s from Wilson, he’s sure, and Peeta barks out a humorless laugh. He tries anyway and manages to save one battery, only to regret it a few days later when more and more equipment starts to show up in his room. Laptops with blown out logic boards, untune-able radios, headsets with faulty wires and a plastic bin of cell phones- nearly a hundred of them- some with lithium batteries that have exploded, shattering their screens totally, and others that are in miraculously good shape except for dead batteries. Someone must have let slip that he was messing around with the tech skeletons of the Old World because people start asking him questions he can’t answer. Can he print off the pictures from their phone somehow? Can they have just five minutes of internet? Would three blue slips change his mind? Four? He didn’t know how to burn an itunes library without a disk drive, let alone CD’s, and no, he didn’t have any double A batteries to share, and he wasn’t sure why that particular request had to be whispered.

 

The best he can do is shake his head sadly and promise he’ll try.

 

“Everyone’s got something they left behind,” Finnick says around a Rice Krispy after they sneak out of the cafeteria for the third time that week. “Something they didn’t know they’d miss until it was gone.”

 

Peeta waves his hand at Finnick’s stash.

 

“Is that why you call this your treasure chest ?”

 

Finnick laughs shortly.

 

“Worth its weight in gold, man.”

 

Peeta snorts.

 

“You know what I saw out there once?”

 

Finnick takes a sip of coke and smacks his lips.

 

“What?”

 

“A garbage bag full of money, lying right there in the middle of the road. Like it just blew out of the back of someone’s flat bed and instead of stopping, they just said ‘screw it’. It was all in hundreds.”

 

“What did you do?” Finnick says.

 

Peeta reaches into his backpack a pulls out a bound stack of hundreds as thick as a porterhouse. He tugs a few out and tosses them at Finnick. They flutter in the air before floating into the small pile of shining wrappers that sits between them.

 

“Lunch is on me,” Peeta smirks.

 

“You know what I’ve always wanted to do?” Finnick mumbles as he snatches one of the hundreds and digs around in his pocket for a moment before fishing out a lighter. Flames bursts out of the small plastic tube and leap onto the bill dangling from Finnick’s fingers, happily eating their way through Benjamin Franklin’s placid stare.

 

“The things we used to do for these,” Finnick says tonelessly, his eyes glued to the flames. “And look where it got us.”

 

Black smoke creeps around the bill, reaching a curious tendril out to tickle Peeta’s nose.

 

“No one knew this would happen,” Peeta says, but even as his lips form the words he knows they’re not true. Maybe no one predicted it would happen quite this way, but it wasn’t like they weren’t warned. It wasn’t like they hadn’t known their climate was changing, it wasn’t like they hadn’t known sea levels were rising, carbon emissions were burning through their ozone shield, viruses were mutating to be drug resistant. He swallows as the flames burning the bill edge toward Finnick’s fingers.

 

“I never had a job,” Peeta says suddenly. “Never had to work in high school, besides from community service- and all I did was wash dishes at an old folks home. Then I only had one semester of college before-”

 

He gestures at his leg.

 

Finnick glances at him.

 

“-and then everyone was so sure I’d never even be able to get back to school, let alone work. Everyone but my brother.”

 

“And what did he think?”

 

Peeta looks Finnick dead in the eye.

 

“He thought I should be a stripper.”

 

As Finnick laughs, Peeta’s chest tightens sharply and he swallows in a vain attempt to relieve the pressure building there. Pictures, music, emails- how ephemeral that constellation of memory was in the end- and how unimaginably precious. Of all the things that turned out to be a luxury, cynicism of technology was the last he’d ever expected, but here he was, suddenly unable to remember which side his brother’s twice broken nose listed to and wishing desperately he had some way to jog his memory. What was the last picture he’d taken? The last text he’d sent? The last person he’d emailed? The last website he’d visited just because he wanted to? He’d give anything now to follow that breadcrumb trail of digital history back to the place he was before.

 

Back to that person who lived in a house. That person who went to college and had a shirt that said ‘Death Before Decaf’ he bought in an open air art fair on a sunny Saturday morning. It all seemed so impossible now, to be someone with a brother. Someone with a future. Someone who woke up in the morning with something to do , something to move toward, to hope and plan for. Long after his mother had given up on him, long after his father had quietly done the same, Rye believed he would get back to school. “You’ll be complaining about the snow before you know it,” he’d say with a smirk. Rye believed in the future Peeta had taken so for granted he had nearly thrown it all away, and because Rye believed, so had Peeta.

 

But Rye is gone now, and so is every other fucking thing Peeta had ever wanted.

 

There would be no house in Lexington. No job to commute to. No wife standing at the kitchen counter adjusting her back as he walked in the door at night, no cheek to kiss, no pregnancy bump to kiss next. No birthday parties in backyards. No more movies. No more television. No more new books, no christmas lights, no fireworks on the river.

 

All he had was this.

 

Working for each moldering, scant meal.

 

A windowless room full of dead screens, rusted engines and empty pill bottles.

 

An empty cot. An aching chest.

 

Candy bars in the back of a truck.

 

“Peeta,” Finnick says, his tone suddenly very serious. “There’s something you need to understand.”

 

“What?”

 

“The whole world is a rotten sack of shit,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean it’s over. You can still make your brother proud.”

 

He puts his hands on Peeta’s shoulders and squeezes lightly.

 

“What I’m saying is, you can still strip, if that’s what you really want to do.”

 

-

 

Peeta leans back in his chair and wipes a few sweat slickened curls off his forehead. His hair is past the point of shagginess and to the point of needing to be tied back, and although at first he quite liked having the kind of hair his mother would have hated , it’s gotten to the point that he’s fantasizing about the crew cut he was forced to wear through high school.

 

“Hey- how do you get a haircut around here?” he says to the man in the chair next to him.

 

Zeke pops an eye open just so he can glare at Peeta.

 

“Maribel,” he grunts, then closes his eye again, sighing as he shifts in his seat and leans back.

 

“Please repeat Sanctuary,” the radio in Peeta’s ear crackles.

 

Peeta leans in close to the microphone on the table in front of him.

 

“Nothing, Corsair. You and the Cabbage Patch Kids staying out of trouble?”

 

Runs in Sanctuary are scheduled two or three times a week, and nearly all of them have to do with food. Scheduling them require a flurry of last minute consulting of maps, finding of equipment, waiting on various people to do show up for their duties, and boredom during the actual run itself.

 

“Sure are, Sanctuary,” Finnick quips back. “We lost Granville for a minute, but he bagged us a buck so we’re coming in early tonight.”

 

“Ten-four. I’ll pass it on.”

 

No more than one runner at a time on these trips is given a radio, usually Finnick, and the most that ever happened was an infected or two were stumbled on in a heavily shaded patch of dirt, too incapacitated by hunger, sunlight, madness or all three to do anything but wail and jerk until someone sank a bullet into their skulls. There are runs to the various farms in the area to harvest summer ready produce- tomatoes, lettuce, carrots and potatoes- as well as whatever fruit could be foraged in the woods.

 

Meat is always in high demand too, and a special hunting run each week supplied wild deer, confused, wandering cow and any pigs they can find roaming around that the infected haven’t gone after yet. More often than not now, these runs are unsuccessful at best, and at worst they wasted precious fuel on a stupid, meandering day trips through the woods that ended in a desperate highway robbery. Peeta knew it was necessary that the runners come back with whatever they could grab- a hundred people ate a lot more than Peeta ever expected- but he had to walk away once it started. No one was ever killed, Finnick made sure of that, but neither was anyone else brought back.

 

“We’re really hurting out here without Firebird,” a new voice crackles in Peeta’s ear. “You better not be wearing her out, Abercrombie. A girl needs her rest, you know.”

 

Peeta’s face burns as Zeke jolts up and rips the microphone out of his hands.

 

“Hatchback,” Zeke snaps. “This frequency is for important communication only. I’m not your goddamn therapist and I don’t give a flying fuck about your personal failures so if it ain’t about food, shut the fuck up .”

 

Zeke’s yellowed eyes are narrowed at Peeta as he slams the microphone back on the table with wordless fury. Peeta stays carefuly silent. Zeke never wanted people to comment on these kinds of situations- in fact, it was Peeta’s impression that he hated every word that didn’t come from his own mouth. The only person Zeke didn’t completely ignore was Katniss, but Peeta really wished he would. The way Zeke didn’t ignore her made his skin crawl.

 

“T minus 30 minutes, Sanctuary,” the radio buzzes. Before Peeta can answer Zeke swipes the microphone, this time not even bothering to glance Peeta’s way.

 

“Bull shit, Corsair.”

 

“Turns out a pack followed Granville back- Monroeville Farm is crawling.”

 

“Then you go to Evan’s Field!”

 

“Negative, Sanctuary. Slow and sure, but they’re still after us. T minus 30 minutes.”

 

Zeke’s face boils red up to the tips of his ears.

 

“LISTEN UP YOU BUNCH OF FUCKING PUS-”

 

With a heavy sigh Peeta reaches for his crutch and limps out of the tent, taking a deep breath of stagnant, sun-soaked noon air as soon as he it outside. It’s about this point where things take a turn for the worst, and Finnick will have to take the kind of drastic measures Peeta didn’t like to watch. He lets his head drop until his chin is resting on his chest, sighing through his nose as he circles his head to release the tension in his neck. The days he got stuck working with Zeke on the radios were the worst, but at least he had a reasonable excuse to be miserable at the end of the day. A reason why when he slumps back to his room at night he can’t think about anything except how badly he wished he was already asleep. A reason he dreaded getting up in the morning. It was all the other days- the ones he worked alone in the boneyard or tinkered with the all the broken machines that had been piled in his room that he had no excuse for, except that being alone made it so easy to remember all the things he’d wished so badly he could just forget.

 

He sees her everywhere.

 

Whether it’s by accident or the Senator’s design, he didn’t know. Either way, his neck burns every time Katniss catches his eyes on her in the cafeteria, in the yard, or passing each other in the hall. Is she angry at him? Or worse, disgusted? It’s impossible to tell, beyond her blank affect, what’s going on in her head, and to make matters worse she had an uncanny talent for vanishing as soon as his eyes find her. His heart plummeted into his guts every time, but he was learning to expect it.

 

Katniss didn’t feel anything for him. That was plain as day, and he didn’t need any further explanation. Once was more than enough. But he couldn’t keep going on this way- as if he didn’t feel anything himself. It was impossible to live like this- he didn’t see a way around it, and he couldn’t keep on pretending it wasn’t affecting him. It was torture to see her. Torture to want so badly to talk to her, but to restrain himself from so much as hoping she looked his way. Worse still, he was starting to understand Haymitch more than he had ever wanted to, and that’s how he knew this had to end.

 

But after the day was done, he ineffably found his eyes straying to the wall, where a small silhouette sat facing the world beyond. He knew what she was looking for- it was that infected that he had seen staring up at them the night Maisy left and Haymitch had gone off the deep end. Rumor has it that the infected had shown up shortly after Katniss had joined Sanctuary, and had skulked the edges of the walls ever since. Some people thought he was Katniss’s boyfriend before infection, others thought it he was the reason she returned back to Sanctuary after the helicopter crash. Others think it’s the other way around- that Katniss fell in love with him after he was infected, and has been feeding him people this whole time.

 

The facts, as Peeta’s been able to piece together, are these: strange things happened when he was around, the infected were more active, and people inside the compound disappeared, only to reappear in the yard, bloody eyed and torn to shreds. Some of the stories Peeta heard made it seem like he wasn’t just violent, he was vicious. Creative , even.

 

The only person besides from Katniss who can confirm or deny any of this is Rue, but Peeta’s not banking on getting answers from her anytime soon. She has this blankness to her, like he’s looking at a surprisingly mobile marble statue, and he gets the feeling that she wouldn’t know how to answer his questions even if he managed to find her at a time when she wasn’t holed up in the hospital wing with another bout of fever. He wasn’t even sure it was worth it- according to Haymitch whatever Rue had was serious, and only getting worse.

 

“Can’t see what’s wrong,” he says on one of his now frighteningly rare sober nights. “No labs for tests. No surgeons. Nothing. All we can do is make her comfortable and hope she sticks it out.”

 

With those dire words, Peeta understands Sanctuary in a whole new light. His suspicions of the Senator notwithstanding, this place, and Katniss, are the only things keeping Rue breathing. At his most selfish- those nights he sees Katniss on the top of the wall as gazing out at what he’s sure is her undead (maybe?) boyfriend- he’s thankful that at least something is tethering her here. Because if it weren’t for Rue, he has no doubt Katniss would have slipped away from this place long ago without so much as a backward glance.

 

And in the darkest part of his heart, he’s jealous of her too.

 

He is wildly- deeply- spitefully jealous of a dying little girl. The realization is just another throbbing poison in his head, and he can hardly look at himself in the eroded, rusted mirror in Sanctuary’s public bathrooms after that. It was never a pleasant experience to begin with, trying to recognize the face of someone who looked so much like himself but had the haunted eyes of someone with more ghosts than friends- but after understanding the weird heat that burned in his chest whenever Haymitch hung his head and mumbled his usual mantra about it not being right for an adult to bury a child, even the sight of his own eyes made the blood pound in his head until his nails buried half moons into the grease-stained skin on the palms of his hands. Haymitch’s newfound love of skulking around the wall with the watch soon became only one of the reasons Peeta couldn’t be around the aging man.

 

“Mellark!” a voice from the tent shouts. Peeta turns back to the tent to find the Senator is now inside and leaning over Zeke’s shoulder.

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Get the Watch on the wall. The runners are on their way back.”

 

“Yes sir.”

 

He makes the mistake of looking back into the tent. Wilson is staring openly at him from under a wrinkled brow, and Peeta gets the fleeting impression that he is looking up at someone from the wrong side of a magnifying glass.

 

-

 

It’s sitting there innocently enough when he returns to his room that night, looking for all the world as if it had always had been exactly in that spot.

 

He looks around the hallway, horrified for a moment that someone else may have seen it and taken note. It had to be a mistake. It couldn’t be just anyone in Sanctuary who had an actual mattress. He had been issued a cot with his room, but it was low and easily shiftable- certainly not easy for him to get into, let alone sleep on. But a mattress? How would someone here even get something like that? It strikes him suddenly to laugh at himself. Of course it was possible to get a mattress here. He’s now sure the Senator has one, and every member of the Comm crew as well. Certainly it was something one earned, he thinks, as his stomach sinks. He steps fully into his room, a little wary of approaching the gift he wasn’t entirely sure how he’d earned, closing and locking the door immediately behind him.

 

As soon as it is, however, he simultaneously is engulfed with guilt and groan-worthy relief as he sinks onto the mattress’ plush, silken surface. The bones his back and neck sigh in comfort, and he notices suddenly how badly every muscle in his arms ache from shoulders to fingertips. He holds them up over his head- wondering at the difference in their shape in color. Months ago the skin was smooth, pale enough to appear bright in the right lighting and just slightly freckled. They hadn’t ever been slender- he had always been a little stockier than thin- but they were nothing like they are now. He makes a fist with both arms, watching his sun-soaked, scarred flesh shifting as a thick rope of muscle twitches underneath. Even his hands, always broad, always a little rough, were different. Weeks of pushing his chair had left his palms thick and calloused, and his fingers were thicker, wider, and the nails embedded with the stain of engine grease that never seemed to wash clean.

 

He lets his arms fall over his eyes and the mattress bounces. He couldn't keep this. It was dangerous. Stupid. More than that, it was admitting that he was willing to play ball with the Senator. Even if he did keep it, no one could know about it. Ever. But after a long day of leaning on his crutch as he stooped over a grit and grease soaked engine in the glaring eye of the sun, he couldn’t help the delirious moan that escapes his mouth as he relaxes his spine and his eyes sink shut. In fact, it’s the mattress’s fault he misses dinner entirely, and he ends up sleeping well into the night, awakening only after the squeal of a door swinging shut somewhere down the hall echoes loudly in his room. His eyes pop open in the darkness, and for a minute, he has no idea where he is. But it comes back to him by his next heart beat, and he becomes aware of several other things as well.

 

As soft as the mattress is, the stump where his leg used to be is tingling unpleasantly. He’d left his wrapping on and missed his nightly dose of medication, and now he’s paying the price. This discomfort, however, is nothing compared to the insistent throb of the erection agonizingly tenting the stiff zipper of his pants. With a soft grunt he unbuttons the top of his jeans and carefully tugs the fly down, his heated fleshed springing free and arching upward toward his stomach. He ignores it as he reaches into his pocket and fishes out his pill, placing it between his teeth as he screws the lid back on the bottle and drops it to the floor. It had been a while since his body had demanded attention like this- one of the many things that changed after his accident. But especially while he was on the road with Haymitch and Maisy he had lost any interest in taking care of the issue himself, especially since things like this were short-lived, and tended to go away on their own if he waited long enough.

 

This time, he has a feeling that won't be the case.

 

He reaches his hand down and wraps it loosely around his cock, rubbing the head with the flat of his thumb as he loosens his bite on the pill and dry swallows it easily. His throat clenches around the flat, dry disk in a surprised groan as a desperate throb of heated pleasure creeps through him. He tilts his head back and sucks a quick breath as he tightens his fist, moving it slowly down until his wrist is flat against his lower belly. His hips twitch in agony. The last time he was with anyone was well over a year ago, a quick excursion into a girl’s room during the party her roommate was throwing. He draws back the memory of her thick pink thighs- spread wide and stamped with angry handprints as she hiked them into the air and flattened her torso against the girlish floral print of her sheets. His hands had greedily swept over the curve of her ass, sliding down the pinch of her waist and back up again, relishing the throaty, satisfied mewl she made as he sank deep and quick inside of her.

 

He pushes all thoughts of where she is now out of his head as he tightens his fist around his cock, sweeping the now glistening head with his thumb with each quick jerk of his hand. Spanking wasn’t a favorite of his because of the impact of flesh on flesh that invariably brought out a flinch, a cry or a squeak. Those sounds meant pain and distress, and his anxious hesitation after each stroke seemed only to broadcast that he was waiting instead of checking for the mumble of a safeword. He stuck it out if they did, though, because of what came afterward- the delirious flutterings of her pulse, the breathy cry as his fingers found the slick inner seam of her legs, the needy moans as he whispered his fingertip over that soaked bud at the apex of her thighs that would-

 

Unbidden, the image twists. The pale skin and short, pink hair has been replaced by a body that is lithe, dark, and delicately muscled, a long rope of thick, braided hair falling over her neck and twisting into the bed. His heart rattles in his chest and the blood in his temples starts to pump furiously. It was Katniss who was leaning over, raising the generous swell of her ass proudly as she looks back at him with delirious eyes and wet, parted lips. His eyes pop open and his ears burn horribly. Ever since his first time, it was memory that had served him over fantasy, mostly because he never wanted to trust himself to keep what wasn’t real from leaking into his daily interactions. Girls had come and go, but first and foremost, he enjoyed them as people, even the ones he had slept with the night he met them. It didn’t feel right, fantasizing about something he wasn’t being offered in the first place. Like taking something that wasn't his. Still, he couldn’t help his dreams- many of which she had already been the star of.

 

This was happening, one way or the other, so he closes his eyes and allows his favorite leading lady to change positions, looping her slender legs over his shoulders as he bears down on her, pressing her knees to her ears easily, spreading her thighs wide and leaving her vulnerable and squirming under the greedy sweep of his gaze- and then his tongue. It’s over embarrassingly quickly after that, and he is almost bewildered by the splatter of hot, sticky fluid on his stomach and the choked whimper that leaves his mouth. His heart is pounding so fast he can barely hear over it, and his arms fall bonelessly to his side.

 

He should be relieved, but he is only exhausted and empty, aching for a combination of sleep and a nameless thing he could only guess at. Human skin? The musk of sweat and satisfaction? Warmth? He wasn’t cold. Just numb. His shirt comes off. He wipes himself down with it, then unpins his pant leg, removes the wrappings from around his stump and shimmies the shorts off, kicking them unceremoniously to the floor and leaving his sweat speckled skin to dry in the cool air.

 

Fucking a girl gently from behind- another thing he’d never do again. At least, not without the dubious help of a squeaking crutch. He rolls his eyes in the darkness. How sexy. Nothing like a creaking piece of metal to set the mood. With a grunt, he rolls onto his side and stares at what he knows is the wall. If the person he saw in the mirror wasn't familiar, than neither was the person who played him in this fantasies. That person had two legs and died the snowy morning he wrapped his car around a light pole. That person never had to guess how many of his friends were still alive. How many of the girls he’d been with were still alive. How many had been bitten. How many had starved. How many had been alone, and afraid, when they died.

 

He swallows down the ominous swelling in his throat, but he’s long past being able to cry anyway.

 

-

 

“Aren’t you a brave one, sneaking around a girl with a gun like that.”

 

Peeta jumps, swinging around to find Finnick behind him.

 

“I wasn’t sneaking ,” Peeta blurts, gripping the arm of his crutch a little tighter than necessary. “I just finished replacing the coolant on your rig.”

 

It just so happened that Katniss was practicing shooting bottles off a metal drum at the edge of the boneyard, and he just happened to pause in between trucks. Truthfully it was because the sound of shattering glass had startled him, but when he jerked around to see where it it had come from, there she was, motionless and silent behind her gun. Finnick points at Katniss and continues as if Peeta hadn’t said anything.

 

“That’s an M40-A1 bolt action sniper rifle. Military grade. Not her usual M24, but I don’t think she’ll need too much more practice with this one, do you?”

 

Another bottle shatters and Katniss is still motionless. Peeta swallows.

 

“I heard she can shoot a deer through the eye,” he says.

 

“It’s true,” Finnick says. “She’s so quiet out there even the deer don’t hear her, let alone the infected. We’ll make it without her for a little while, but I doubt we could’ve survived winter if you hadn’t brought her back.”

 

“Is that why I found a mattress in my room last night?” Peeta says.

 

Finnick smiles humorlessly.

 

“So, you’re one of them now.”

 

“One of who?”

 

“Wilson’s chosen ones. You must have done something right. No wonder Zeke’s been such a pain in the ass.”

 

“I didn’t do anything,” Peeta protests. “And does that guy even need a reason?”

 

Finnick snorts.

 

“You don’t have to make any excuses to me,” he says, his voice a little strange. “Whatever you did, I’m sure you had your reasons. The bottom line is, they want you badly enough to try to convert you, so let them. It’s good politics. There has to be something you want.”

 

Peeta shoves his hand in his pocket and glares up at the molting sky. The sun would set soon, a blaze of golden light winking out beneath a leaden blue dusk, and another day would be gone. The funny thing about time is that it only ever passes too fast or too slow, with no in-between.

 

“No. Not really.”

 

Finnick smiles sadly at him.

 

“Yes you do,” he says, and before Peeta can respond he barrels right on. “I’m sorry, but it’s so obvious. She’s your reason, isn’t she? Why you’re still here, even after Maisy left. It can’t be Haymitch, and it certainly isn’t the food.”

 

“I don’t-”

 

“I’m not saying you’re in love or anything,” Finnick says. “Maybe you are. Maybe you’re not. All I’m saying is that a world without her isn’t one worth living in, as far as you’re concerned.”

 

That flinching organ inside him throbs painfully, and Peeta’s eyebrows cinch together.

 

“It’s nothing,” he mumbles. “She won’t even stay in the same room as me.”

 

Finnick lands a heavy hand on his shoulder.

 

“It’s not nothing. But I think I can help distract you anyway.”

 

Beer. That’s Finnick’s solution. It’s not cold and it’s not good, but it is beer , which Peeta hasn’t so much as sniffed in close to a year. He only has a sip or two- he’s still on pain medication, after all- but it doesn’t matter. It’s still the best thing that’s happened to him in weeks. He and Finnick sit on stacks of tires at the back of the Boneyard, chatting and passing a can of Miller Hi-Life back and forth as the sun sets. It’s nice to just talk to someone- like he used to with Maisy- about nothing and everything all at once. More slips out about Rye than Peeta really means to say, but Finnick doesn’t seem to mind. In fact he even asks more about him, and Peeta finds himself telling him stories about what Rye used to get away with high school- rearranging the letters in the school’s sign to ask a girl out, showing up to Prom on a horse he borrowed from the neighbors, joining the church youth group to go to the Dominican Republic on their annual service mission, then spending the week drinking and playing dominoes at the bar next to his host family’s house.

 

It’s the most he’s ever talked about Rye with anyone, and even without bringing up his brother’s addiction it feels almost like he’s divulging some kind of secret . He’d nearly forgotten these things had actually happened- that the world they happened in was a real place, and that Rye was a person before he was an addict. He knew his brother in three distinct parts- Before the Needle, During, and After- and at some point he’d forgotten entirely there was a time when Rye had just been a kid. Everyone’s favorite pain in the ass. The brother who used to sneak him candy bars after dinner. Who made blanket forts in the living room using the ceiling fan and their mom’s best sheets. Who went to school with his teeth covered in tinfoil when Peeta got braces and was too embarrassed to open his mouth without covering it with his hand.

 

“He’d get a real kick out of us talking about him like this,” Peeta laughs, then glances up at the sky. Stars pierced the sunset long before the sky was the dark, like pinholes in a changing canvas, but in the freshly black sky there were so many of them they were like splatters of brilliant paint.

 

“Well,” Finnick says, clearing his throat a little. “To Rye, then.”

 

He takes a last swig from his can of beer, then tips it upside down. The liquid glints in the starlight as it flows over the lip then splashes on dirt, beading up in a glittering puddle that snakes its way across to ground toward the boneyard.

 

“To Rye,” Peeta repeats, his throat a little tighter than it had been a moment before and a half-smile teases the corners of his mouth upward. The beer pools around the flat tire of a beaten up old Corolla, and starts to sink into the soil. A lump of a shadow bleeds out towards the puddle and Peeta stares at it, momentarily confused as to what part of the car it is. A broken muffler? A chunk of of the bumper?

 

And then a pair of bright green eyes flash in the darkness, and he knows it’s not a part of the car at all.

 

Peeta’s heart throbs in his throat.

 

“Finnick,” he breaths. “Animals can’t get infected, can they?”

 

The shadow races out from underneath the car and flies at Finnick as a rasping snarl shatters the stillness, and Peeta scrambles for his crutch and the screwdriver in his pocket. But the shadow misses Finnick entirely and keeps going, darting past them and out into the yard as Peeta and Finnick both rise to their feet at the same time.

 

“What was that?” Peeta gasps.

 

“A bad sign,” Finnick says as he tears his gun out of its holster and tugs the bandana around his neck up over his nose to the bottom edge of his eye patch. “A very, very bad sign.”

 

His words are muted by the fabric as he scans the cars and tires that surround them. Peeta follows his gaze, his stomach twisting in knots. The yard is deathly still, not so much as a breath of wind rustling the first of the autumn leaves to fall, but underneath the silence Peeta can feel something pulsing in the air. Finnick must feel it too, because he tenses, his gun rising, as he spins and aims at the empty air behind them.

 

“We have to go,” he whispers. “ Now!

 

He backs them into the boneyard, and they take off as fast as Peeta can manage through the narrow alleys between cars, only pausing once so he can tap on the door or a small truck. When silence answers, Finnick veers left suddenly, then throws his arm out, catching Peeta across the chest. In the distance another shadow darts between the cars. Finnick turns slowly, his eyes finding Peeta’s as he raises his gun in front of him. Peeta’s blood races as Finnick leans back against the truck he had knocked on and motions for Peeta to do the same. The rhythmic thud of light footsteps catches Peeta’s ears, first moving further south into the boneyard, then pausing and racing toward them at a breakneck pace.

 

The safety on Finnick’s gun clicks off and a second lighter click laces the silence as Finnick engages the trigger. The footsteps grow louder and Peeta can feel air moving in and out of his chest rapidly as Finnick inches toward the edge of the truck, and Peeta doesn’t dare follow him- first, because his crutch is loud , creaking and clicking with every step, but also because he’s only ever killed one infected, his mother, and he isn’t even sure that counted in the first place, she was in such bad shape. All he’s got is a screwdriver, and he’s not sure what he could possibly hope to do with that.

 

The footsteps pause somewhere close enough that Peeta can hear labored breathing, and he imagines black eyes darting around in the darkness. Then they take off again, racing back toward the center of the boneyard. Finnick relaxes his arms, then passes the gun to Peeta.

 

“Wait until you can’t see the whites of their eyes,” he says, then boosts himself up onto the bumper of the truck.

 

“Finnick, where-?”

 

“Shh. I’ll be right back.”

 

He pulls himself onto the roof and disappears. Peeta hears rustling and footsteps inside the van, a heavy clunk, and a soft grunt. A moment later Finnick is jumping off the bumper landing beside him, his arms loaded down.

 

“Here,” he whispers, tossing a jacket covered in glinting metal to Peeta. “Put that on.”

 

As soon as Peeta shrugs into the heavy material, Finnick is tying a bandana around his face.

 

“The studs break their teeth,” he explains. “Can’t bite without teeth, now can you? The bandana should protect your mouth from blood. Not by much, but it’ll buy you some time. And this-”

 

He shoves something cool into Peeta’s hands, where it glints in the sharp starlight.

 

“That’s yours,” Finnick says. “Wilson doesn’t know about it, so don’t ever let on that you have it.”

 

“You saved it?” Peeta blurts in shock as he stares down at his- Rye’s- gun, he looks up sharply at Finnick, but before the man can answer, a siren pierces the silence, breaking open at a whine and rising higher and higher in a ear-splitting howl. The truck next to them thuds- once, twice- and the dirt a few feet from Peeta explodes into a cloud of dust. They were being shot at, but from where Peeta can only guess. Finnick starts to pull Peeta toward the other side of the truck only to stop suddenly in front of a figure standing directly in their path.

 

It’s so still Peeta can’t even tell if it’s breathing.

 

It may well not be- it’s head is bent all the way over to perch on it’s shoulder, the dried moisture on it’s face caked on it’s skin like mud, but strangely smooth and flat, almost as if- A seething rattle escapes it, and Peeta at the brush of the fetid, sulfuric exhalation on his cheeks his heart slams violently against the confines of his chest.

 

“Peeta,” Finnick breathes. “Run.”

 

He jerks his gun up and fires twice, but it’s too late.

 

The infected’s head snaps up and he launches himself at Finnick, and the two of them fall back into Peeta. The air flies out of Peeta’s chest as the two men land on top of him, and for a few dizzyingly breathless seconds, he is too leaden to move. Spots dance in his eyes- he can feel Finnick and the infected struggling on top of him, and someone’s elbow slams into his gut, but he has no breath to wheeze with. He grasps at the dirt and kicks his leg numbly, and then Finnick’s face is in his, and he’s yanking him to his feet.

 

“Peeta? Peeta? Look at me- in the eye- can you hear me?”

 

Finnick slaps him lightly on the cheek, forcing Peeta’s eyes to meet his.

 

“Look at me- look at me- say something.”

 

“ ‘m fine,” he chokes out, as air rushes back into his lungs. Finnick’s shoulders drop and he breathes out a heavy sigh.

 

“I thought-” he says, but stops suddenly.

 

“Where is the-?” Peeta finally wheezes out a breath as his stomach clenches.

 

“Gone,” Finnick says.

 

“He- what?”

 

Finnick is breathing hard as he looks around and his eyes catch on the compound beyond the labyrinth of vehicles.

 

“I don’t know. He was here, and then-”

 

He shakes his head.

 

“We have to move. There will be more.”

 

The siren echoes around them as they pick their way toward the compound, gunfire splattering the grounds in the distance, but always close enough that Peeta’s heart takes off at a bone rattling gallop. They reach the outskirts of the rusted out shells of four-door sedans and 18-wheelers as a group of shadows illuminated by the emergency lights on the walls race toward the cafeteria and disappear inside.

 

Shit,” Finnick bites, and cocks his gun. “They found the tents. Shit. SHIT!”

 

“They’re inside the compound too,” Peeta says. “Look.”

 

He points at the door on the back of the compound that lead to the back staircase as it slammed open and two figures jerked inside.

 

“How?” Finnick breathes. “There’s no way. Not unless-”

 

He stares blankly at the building, his lips moving soundlessly.

 

“Unless what?”

 

“Someone opened the door for them.”

 

“She wouldn’t. She didn’t. There’s no way-

 

“No- I know. Of course she wouldn’t. But someone di-”

 

More screaming erupts, this time from inside the compound, and Peeta’s heart drops.

 

“She couldn’t have,” Peeta says as he jerks forward. “Because Rue’s in there. She’s at the hospital wing, and the guard is out here, which means she’s alone .”

 

They dart headlong for the building, Finnick pulling ahead at a light jog as he scans the ground in front of them, while Peeta follows a few feet behind, on guard for any infected that may be following them. The back stairwell is empty, but as soon as they enter the building three infected collapsed on the stairs whip around and scramble for them, snarling and crying as they trip over each other. Finnick empties his clip into them, and Peeta finishes the last one off as Finnick reloads. The stairs are clear after that- but screams and snarls echo from behind them as they climb and Peeta makes the mistake of looking back at the writhing mass of limbs and dark eyes flashing in the bursts of florescent light from the alarm. The infected are fighting to climb over one another, unable to do anything but crawl their way up the stairs, and something like vertigo creeps through him.

 

“Leave them!” Finnick yells. “More might have already made it up!”

 

Peeta rushes up the last few stairs, his leg and arm aching to the point of numbness as he and Finnick burst into the hallway on the second floor, and for a moment, he thinks Finnick was wrong, and they are alone. It’s dark so long as the alarm isn’t flashing, and at first she’s too still to catch his eye. But there’s no mistaking the figure with their back against the closed hospital door, her gun raised to her shoulder, the scope pressed against her eye. In the next flash of light, her face raises from the scope, and in the next, the gun has slid from her shoulder. He fumbles forward, and for the first time that night, Finnick outstrips him without looking back, racing forward at full speed. One flash- he is five feet in from Peeta, but by the next, ten, then twenty. The gun continues to falter out of Katniss’s hands toward the ground, and then she is collapsing to her knees as a shadow flies at her from the opposite side of the hall, only to collide with Finnick.

 

A part of him knows- a part of him feels it even as it’s happening- that Finnick’s luck won’t hold this time- and Peeta stares in total disbelief as the infected jerks up from his body, a mask of blood coating his chin and neck as he turns his eyes on Peeta, snarls, and in the next flash of light, is gone.

 

Finnick staggers to his feet, a hand cupped over his neck.

 

“Do it,” he gurgles at Katniss. She stares at him, her gun hanging from her fingers as her face takes on that blank, distant look Peeta has seen so many times on her face. He moves forward, understanding, finally, what it means.

 

“DO-” Finnick spews. “-IT!”

 

Blood dangles from his lower lips and the veins in his forehead bulge out like ropes, lacing dark and thick up from the gaping wound on his neck. Katniss blinks, her lips twitching as she raises her gun, her fingers fumbling for the trigger. Finnick’s head twists, and his eyes lock on Peeta’s, wide and desperate as he blinks and trickle of blood streaks down his face from his eyes.

 

Peeta raises his gun and fires twice.


-

Chapter Text

The air in Peeta’s lungs drags itself out, long and slow, like a chain of silk scarves, and his chest buckles on the trailing end as it slips out of him. Trapped in that airless eternity between breaths, he watches Finnick’s eyes unfocus, then grow vacant and dull.

 

A cocoon of fuzzy unreality blurs the edges between Peeta’s body and the rest of the world. His clothes will have to be washed before he can wear them again. Katniss’s too- they’re all black and it’s impossible to know how much of Finnick’s blood ended up on them. He can already see smoky columns of red blossoming from the dark cloth as it’s submerged below the surface of gently steaming water.

 

Katniss scrambles up. Her bloodless lips move, but he can’t hear her over the roar of his own breath in his head. She hefts her gun onto her shoulder, propping herself against the wall as she takes aim somewhere behind him. He turns as an infected slams into the wall opposite the staircase and scrambles up, careening towards them with his mouth torn open in a howl. All at once, he comes back to his body. Cement explodes along the walls in a spray of rock and dust, but none of it stops the infected. Katniss scream s Peeta’s name a s she drops her gun and jerks him back by the hood of his jacket. He nearly falls backwards on top of her, but catches himself at the last minute as they throw themselves behind the swinging double doors of the hospital wing.

 

“There’s no lock!” Katniss cries as she braces her weight against the doors. They jolt suddenly and through the plexiglass portholes Peeta catches a glimpse of the infected as it slams its forehead into the door over and over. His heart leaps into his throat- he recognized that infected- it was Samson, an ex-contractor from Amherst, a big guy with a blonde beard, and one of their Runners. Peeta staggers over to the front desk- an old, metal thing with chipping green paint- and heaves it across the polished cement floor.

 

“Move,” he yells, and as soon as she clears the way, he slams the desk against the doors just as Samson rams himself into them again. Peeta leans on it heavily, letting the impact travel through the desk to rattle in his bones.

 

“Are you ok?” he gasps. She doesn’t answer. The doors jolt again, and Peeta feels himself slide backward a quarter of an inch. Through the blood smeared plexiglass porthole Samson’s face is wild- his eyes big and black, and he’s already missing half of a front tooth. Katniss tugs a drawer of the desk open and pulls out a coil of electric wire. She ties one end around a pipe next to the doors, secures it to the desk by slipping underneath it to wrap the wire around the legs closest the doors, and ties it off by looping the wire through a hook embedded in the cement floor. Peeta cautiously lifts his weight from the desk and Samson slams against the window. The desk slides back enough that Samson’s head bursts through the doors and his snarls become desperate howls.

 

“Shit!” Peeta grunts as he throws his weight back behind the desk and the sharp edge digs into his ribs. Katniss wordlessly climbs over him onto the desk, balancing on her good leg while propping the knee of her bad one on the desk. Her guns explodes- just once- but it seems to ring forever in the silence after Samson’s howls stop.

 

“Is he…” Peeta trails off with a nervous swallow, suddenly unable to confront the word he was going to say. There’s a thump, the desk rattles, and then Katniss’s boots land next to him. He looks up, watching her as she fishes a small bottle out of her pocket and the sting of astringent burns in his nose.

 

“What now?” he asks.

 

Katniss blinks, limping to the bare wall opposite the door and sliding down to sit in front of it, her good leg bent up and her cast stretched in front of her. She’s shaking- badly- and she must know because she flattens her spine against the wall as she props the long barrel of her rifle on top of her bent knee.

 

“We wait.”

 

Her eye finds the scope in a movement that is both so practiced it’s both natural and inhuman at once. He can’t tell which of them disappears into the other- whether Katniss becomes part of the rifle, or it becomes part of her. Still, his mind runs on ahead of him, admiring both the craftsmanship of the weapon and wondering if there were upgrades that could be made to make it more effective for disabling infected- trying to imagine an upgrade that could end unnecessary loss of human life, and if any of this could have prevented what happened just minutes ago.

 

“What about Finnick?” he asks. “We just leave him out there?”

 

“They don’t eat people, you know,” Katniss says quietly, a strange look on her face. “If you’re still, and quiet... you disappear.”

 

“Is that what you were doing? Disappearing ?”

 

The words trip out of him before he can stop them, and a deathly stillness fills the room. The muscles in her jaw work.

 

“Does it matter now?” she snaps.

 

“Yes it matters!” says Peeta. “Survival is a choice, and if you’re not fighting for it-”

 

Katniss snorts, but Peeta continues as if he doesn’t hear her.

 

“-if you’re not fighting to live, then you’re choosing to die .”

 

“And just who is it that’s living ?,” she mocks. With one hand she pulls her coat tighter around herself, her hands disappearing into her sleeves just until the very tips of her fingers. “Is it us, inside the walls? Because we talk? Because we brush our teeth? Because hunger still hurts us? Is that what it means to be alive now?”

 

Peeta swallows.

 

“All that separates us from them is a wall,” she spits. “And sometimes not even that.”

 

A stony silence follows. Katniss won’t look at him. She had always seemed so much bigger than she looks now, huddled behind her gun, her teeth chattering softly and her knees pulled up against her chest. The darkness doesn’t help. The hospital wing is lit by a dying gas camping lantern hung from the ceiling, and as it sways in the breeze rushing in through the window, shadows cloak her eyes. Nothing about the dark figure opposite him is familiar.

 

“You’re wrong,” he says, straightening his back against the desk.

 

Her eyes roll toward him.

 

“We imagine. We dream. We remember…”

 

He rises pulls himself up with his crutch.

 

“We’re all constellations of memories and hopes. A pulse doesn’t make you alive. Those things do.”

 

Peeta limps toward Katniss, shrugging out of his jacket as he goes.

 

“Lean forward.”

 

She stares at him.

 

“You’re shaking,” he coaxes. “I can see it from across the room.”

 

“Cold is good,” she says, tilting her jaw stubbornly. “It’ll keep me awake.”

 

“Cold is just cold. There are two of us here,” he says. “We can take turns keeping watch.”

 

She tightens her grip on her gun, her eyes bouncing from him to the blood smeared portholes on the doors. Finally her eyes find his and she peels her back away from the wall. Peeta slides the jacket around her shoulders, then lowers himself down next to her, using the wall as a guide.

 

“I’ll take the first watch,” he offers. “Get some sleep.”

 

“Why are you like this?” she blurts, and her cheeks color as she stares at him with guarded eyes.

 

“Like what?”

 

“I thought you must be this way because you haven’t seen what’s happening- or at least, not really. But- even now- you’re this way.”

 

“What way?”

 

She shrugs and picks a thread on the sleeve of his jacket.

 

“Good.”

 

It’s Peeta’s turn to stare as his throat tightens and his heart takes off at a gallop. It’s a trick of light and shadow- it must be- the way she looks up at him. Like she can’t believe he’s real.

 

“Katniss,” he says, a sad smile tugging on his lips. “I’m- I’m not. There are things I’ve done. Things I’ve seen-”

 

His eyes prickle suddenly and he swallows hard.

 

“It’s not possible to be good anymore.”

 

The rifle slides off Katniss’s knee and a heated shock rolls through him as it clatters to the floor. Will there ever be a time when his heart doesn’t stumble at the sight of her eyes? They’ve ensnared the sugared, golden glow of the new dawn as it consecrates the hospital wing, painting her eyes in a wash of dusky, luminous light.

 

“Then you’re impossible,” she whispers.

 

Her lips are chapped but soft as they press urgently against his, and his heart batters itself against the confines of his chest. He is aware of every inch of his skin, the way it heats wherever she is touching him, the way it seems to spark something entirely too new inside of him. Something like hunger, but wilder, more immediate. Her eyelashes flutter in a delicate whisper against his cheeks, but it he isn’t ready for it to be over just yet. He reaches up to catch her face with his hands to stop her retreat, and pulls her closer.

 

She shudders against his palms and he gets the impression of sticky, woolen petals pulling back to allow him shy access to the fragile thing hidden away inside them. His heart constricts tenderly and he tangles his fingers in the loose tumble of her dreads. And it’s then that he knows. Everything he’d felt for her before was only ever a flickering candle compared to the inferno that rages in him now.

 

-

 

By sunrise it’s over.

 

The remaining infected are immobilized by the light. Peeta watches through the hospital wing window as Zeke puts them down, aiming his gun at the backs of their heads as they press their faces into the dirt and scream. Each gunshot rents the quiet morning air and sends birds spiralling into the sky from the yard, and from across the room he can feel Katniss through each spell of silence in anticipation of the next bullet.

 

Eight are dead at the end of it. They’re laid out in the yard, wrapped in white sheets and lined up like tally marks. Finnick, Samson, Ana, Kenneth, Michael, Steve, Monica and Andre. All Runners. Peeta makes himself repeat their names as he digs his shovel into the earth, carving them into the list of the others he’d lost. It’s hard not to dwell on the wordless heaviness that seems to have infected everyone but the Senator. It’s harder still to ignore the gnawing dread that reminds him how easily Katniss could be one of the sheet-wrapped bodies that lie on the mist-softened soil, completely ignorant to the newly cold wind that buffets the volunteer grave diggers.

Katniss melted away some time ago after catching sight of the bodies that dotted the lawn. Where she disappeared herself to he doesn’t know, but he suspects she’s with Rue- someone she might actually stand a chance of helping. He’s glad she isn’t there to see Samson’s wife Delly, a slight blonde woman with dark eyes, when she sees his body. Before anyone can stop her she throws herself on his body, clinging to him soundlessly as her body heaves. Samson’s brother David tries to peel her away, but she wraps herself tighter around her husband’s body- still eerily silent. He backtracks, speaking to her softly for a few moments, and is eventually persuaded to let the gravediggers do their work. Wiping her eyes with her hand, Delly steps into David’s arms and sobs into his shoulder until she goes limp. David smoothes a hand over her hair, whispering to her softly for a few moments.

 

Peeta turns back to his digging, swallowing down the memory of Samson as he’d seen him last night, covered in blood and howling as his teeth gnashed against the plexiglass portholes of the hospital doors. The infected weren’t the people they had once been. All they shared was the same face.


“Holy fuck!” David shouts. “Fuck FUCK!”

 

Peeta looks up as Delly rears back from him, her nails scraping down his face, her mouth a rubine gash that bows open in a guttural snarl. Screams erupt- a gun misfires and earth sprays into the air- someone pushes past Peeta forcefully and sends him crashing down in a half dug grave. Peeta scrambles to his feet, blinking mud out of his eyes and he trying to haul himself out of the grave as a chaos of stained denim legs rush past him. The soil is too loose and wet to get any purchase, and his crutch sinks deep into the mud.  He looks up in time to watch through a forest of stained denim as Delly and David both drop, their bloody eyes blank and staring.

 

The Senator himself presides over the funeral of the (now) ten dead. They hold it as soon as the last grave is dug, just as the sun finally sears its way through the rolling clouds and morning fog to bake the chilled air. With everyone gathered altogether, the losses among the runners is tangible and shocking. Peeta lets his gaze drift to the guard as the Senator starts to speak-

 

Blessed are the dead , Revelations tells us, who die in the Lord. And blessed they are indeed, and so are we, to be a part of this project. Sanctuary is the Eden of The End, our refuge from the plagues that blight this Earth, and it could only have been God who brought us together in this place, as God has delivered us from evil so many times before.”

 

The people gathered by the graves are motionless, their heads bowed as they listen. Only Peeta is looking around, his eyes bouncing from the look of fevered concentration on the Senator’s face to the wall behind him. The top of it frames the milky sky from every direction, it’s containment pierced only by furry juts of a pine.

 

“I tell you, we alone from the entirety of the human race have been chosen. We alone have been judged worthy of His vision, worthy of saving, worthy of Ascension, as we surely will, when at last those among us who have slandered and claimed themselves Christians- when they were not- have succumbed.”

 

Peeta’s head jerks back to the Senator. Trails of sweat leak from his hairline down his temple, and roll down the shining plane of his neck into his shirt. In the gray light the Senator’s sallow skin appears waxen, melting with the heat of his own vehemence. But underneath the humidity something is crackling in the air- that same energy he felt rippling the night Rue was reaped. He hadn’t known then, what it meant, but now the lick of it raises the hairs on his arms, jumpstarting the pulse of blood in his neck and tightening the muscles in his jaw until his teeth are grinding into each other with enough pressure to spider up skull.

 

“Among groups of men there will always be those who do not follow a righteous path, we know this to be true. There will be those who are weak, and they will allow themselves to be penetrated- and yes, possessed- by Satan. But John writes to the angel at Smyrna- ‘Do not fear what you are about to suffer! Behold, the devil will put some among you in a prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution! But be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.’ ”

 

Silence reigns. A few drops of water fall from the sky and speckle the fresh dirt.

 

“We who live- we are victorious because we know not to be afraid, for the fire of the Lord lives within us, and when we walk with Him in our hearts we are pure. So let us mourn our fallen, but let our love for God burn brighter than our sorrow, for in that we are righteous, will be granted the Kingdom of Heaven.”

 

The rain starts in earnest, but no one moves. The energy in the gathered crowd rises to a roaring crescendo that Peeta feels roll through him like feedback reverb from a speaker.

 

“And let us be vigilant,” the Senator seethes through his teeth as his eyes pop open and lock on Peeta’s, “for those among us already entranced by evil.”

 

-

 

The door closes behind Peeta, locking him inside his room.

 

With the back of his neck prickling, he stands inert in front of it, his nostrils flared as he breathes slowly. His jaw locks. His eyes roll up into his head and close. He dig his nails into his palms.

 

One hundred.

 

Ninety-nine.

 

Air rushes out of his nose.

 

Ninety-eight.

 

He inhales slow. Someone’s broken watch is ticking an erratic pattern in the pile of items he still has left to fix.

 

Ninety-seven.

 

The watch snicks twice rapidly, then a third time as the hand bolts back to it’s original position. With a bellow his fist collides with the whitewashed concrete wall, and bolts of pain from the impact lace up his arm and collide in a white hot throb in his brain. He leans over and sends everything on his desk crashing to the floor, laptops, clocks, cell phones with cancerous grows of lithium shattering their screens. Next are the plastic tubs full of even more electronics, which crack open as they collide with the wall and spill everything inside them on the floor. The desk itself follows, his soldering iron and toolbox flying off the top shelf as he flips the hastily crafted wooden structure over and sends it careening into the opposite wall. The effort destabilizes him and he over balances, leaning heavily on his crutch as he struggles to stay upright.

 

Something grabs his arm and he jerks around in shock.

 

“I heard you through the door,” Katniss says breathlessly. “I thought-”

 

She stops abruptly and makes no pretension she’ll continue. Peeta’s cheeks flare under her steady gaze.

 

“Sorry,” he mumbles. He straightens up, but can’t look her in the eye. He couldn’t believe he let himself lose control like that. Or, worse still, that she had seen him. Humiliation seethes in his stomach.

 

“It’s ok,” she says, then a small smirk tugs on her lips as she nudges a broken CD with the toe of her boot. “Five months without internet? Who could blame you. Let he without sin cast the first phone.”

 

She surprises him for the second time that night, and he can’t help the laughter that jumps out of him, even as his gut twists with shame. He becomes acutely aware of her hand drawing away from his shoulder- and the sudden pang in his chest that follows. He swallows as she leans on her crutch and bad foot to kick a path through the debris to his mattress.

 

“You don’t have to-”

 

He winces as she knocks a Lenovo and leaves a dent in its case.

 

“Come on,” she says. “I need to look at your hand.”

 

“My- oh.”

 

He flushes again as he looks down at his purpling knuckles. He didn’t even feel it before now, but it throbs furiously as he inspects the broken skin. He navigates the narrow trail Katniss kicked free and lowers himself onto his bed, watching in fascination as Katniss dives into her coat pockets and pulls out various small containers. There’s a sewing kit (which he hopes she decides she has no use for), a bottle of purell, a baby food jar that looks like it’s full of water, a plastic bag full of bandaids, q-tips and travel size packets of neosporin, and a small bottle of aspirin.

 

“Where did you get all this?,” he asks in awe. “The hospital wing? The gas stations ran out of this stuff like right away.”

 

She rubs her hands down with Purell and shrugs.

 

“Around,” she says vaguely, and then, after a moment- “Cars… houses.”

 

She’s too busy screwing off the lid of the baby food jar to see him gape at her. Houses were so dangerous- night or day- that Haymitch refused point blank to drive through neighborhoods. Wouldn’t even discuss it. Infected could be anywhere in a house- under beds, in closets, bathtubs, behind doors- there were a thousand places to die in a house, and the infected crawled all over some neighborhoods. It was a swarm waiting to happen.

 

The sharp sting of something chemical pierces his sinuses. The baby food jar, as it turns out, is not full of water, but hydrogen peroxide. She carefully dabs it on his wound then applies the neosporin and bandages, a wrinkle of concentration between her brows. His neck flushes uncomfortably, and the heat creeps up to his ears. Her steady breath is a soft brush against his wrist- a heady combination of too much and not nearly enough.

 

“Could you stay?” he says. “After you’re done.”

 

She freezes.

 

“I could use your help cleaning up,” he quickly amends. She sneaks a look at him- just a peek of grey through her dark lashes- and purses her lips.

 

“Yeah,” she says finally. “Sure.”

 

He’s not sure why he asks- he immediately feels bad for asking her. It isn’t her mess, afterall. He did this. He tries to backtrack, to give her an out, if she really wants one, but she ignores him and starts gathering cell phones in a broken plastic tub. But what starts out at as a quiet clean up devolves into an investigation of the bricked technology- everything from the cell phones to the radios, but especially the cell phones. Some of the ones in better shape still turned on, though their batteries were low. People had kept them charged somehow, all this time, just in case. Katniss chews on her bottom lip as she examines a ten year old MotoX, it’s screen having just a single crack, though it’s battery hang out of the case like trailing viscera.

 

“What if you called the voicemail?” she asks. “What would happen?”

 

Peeta looks down at the bin of laptops he is organizing to fit another in- a white MacBook that didn’t survive the fall from his desk in good condition. He frowns.

 

“Nothing. Not unless the device can pick up a signal.”

 

“But those voicemails are stored… somewhere, right?”

 

“A server. Why? Did you pick up a signal?”

 

“No, I-” Katniss swallows and powers down the phone. Her fingers sweep the buttons as the screen goes black. “I was just curious.”

 

Peeta straightens up.

 

“It’s possible to access voicemail still if you can get a signal,” he says. “But the servers have to be up too. Which means they have to have power. Which means the power supply also has to be functioning, and without interruption. All of this is assuming both the localised servers and the device survived the EMP blast in the first place.”

 

Katniss blinks.

 

“EMP?”

 

“Electromagnetic pulse,” Peeta provides. “You, uh, might remember it. From that first night. It happened right before… the explosion.”

 

“Maybe,” she says. “I don’t know.”

 

“It fries electronics,” he continues. “Anything with a lithium battery will explode- that includes cell phones and computers.”

 

“All cell phones?” Katniss asks sharply.

 

He looks at her.

 

“Well. Yeah. Pretty much.”

 

“What if-”

 

She cuts herself off abruptly- again- and spins back to stack her bucket, now full of phones, against the wall. To Peeta’s curiosity, she makes no indication she’s going to continue her thought.

 

“What if what?” he prompts.

 

“What if it didn’t explode?”

 

Peeta looks at her thoughtfully.

 

“Well. Most electronics would fry. There’s just- there’s no good way to put this. A blast of electromagnetic energy of that scale would destroy everything in it’s path. Everything.

 

Katniss’s bottom lip is back between her teeth.

 

“My phone was fine,” she says quietly. “And my radio too.”

 

Peeta’s eyebrows knit together.

 

“I don’t suppose you have either on you?”

 

Katniss shakes her head, but her eyes flit down to her lap. She is a monumentally terrible liar.

 

“Well,” he says, one corner of his lips tugging upward. “Bring them to me sometime. I’ll see what I can find out for you. Anyway, I think this is enough- the cleaning. The rest will have to wait. I’ll see you tomorrow?”

 

They’ve made a good dent in the mess- most of what’s left are the debris. Small pieces of plastic and plexi that would need to be swept up. Katniss nods, but makes no move to leave. He stares as she fiddles with the zipper on her pocket, and then her eyes rise to meet his.

 

“Or...” he says. “You could go get them now.”

 

-

 

Someone loved Katniss Everdeen very much. That’s all Peeta can conclude as he looks over her HAM radio set- a beautifully built machine housed in a Farraday cage panelled with twenty year old solar cells, the kinds sold out of old classroom surplus catalogues and used by kids in science fair projects. She couldn’t possibly know the kind of thinking that would have to go into something like this, or she would know without him needing to explain to her why this radio out of thousands- maybe millions- of devices didn’t fry.

 

“It still works,” Katniss insists. She fidgets, her hand finally diving into the pocket she’s been fiddling with.

 

“I believe you,” Peeta says in awe. “You see this cover it’s in? It protected your radio. It was built specially to do just that, by someone who knew what a bomb could do. May I?”

 

He gestures toward the on button. She pushes her lip back between her teeth and nods.

 

The radio flips on, and Peeta tugs the headset on, trying his best not to think too hard about how this machine was how he met her- and how easily it could have been that it never happened at all. He resists the sudden urge to touch her hand, which sits on her knee just a scant few inches from his own. It’s disconcerting having her this near, and yet still fearing for her so badly. It’s like fearing his own death, and he has to breath deep and slow to remind himself where he is.

 

“It’s just white noise,” he says as he pulls the headset off. “Probably because we’re inside these walls.”

 

Katniss eyes widen.

 

“So it won’t work inside?”

 

“Doesn’t look like it. Have you tried?”

 

“Sometimes. Before I go to sleep. I got used to it, in the Beyond. But ever since I’ve been here-” She shrugs again, but in a way that makes Peeta believe that what she said next was much more important than she’d like to admit. “It’s been quiet. I dunno.”

 

She swallows.

 

“Makes it- makes it hard to sleep.”

 

She chokes on the last word, a look of surprise and dismay crossing her face.

 

“It must have been hard,” Peeta says.

 

She nods, her eyes wide as her eyelids flutter rapidly.

 

“Is it the white noise you miss?”

 

She shakes her head.

 

“Just voices,” she croaks.

 

Peeta’s heart clenches.

 

“Would it help if I talked to you?” he asks.

 

Her eyes shut and her lip quivers. It’s a long time before she nods. Just once. He pulls himself to the back of the bed, clearing plenty of space for her to lie down. The lights in Sanctuary will be shut off soon- someone from the Guard comes to turn off the generator after eight o’clock- but Katniss pauses as she looks at the empty space next to him. Unsure, maybe. Nervous. Or- a little voice sneers at the back of his mind- disgusted.

 

He’d understand if she was. Infection creeped in everywhere it could, and if it couldn’t get into your blood then it crawled into your brain and hijacked every image you had of other people. There was always that niggling fear, a high-pitched anxiety of being too close to someone else, of your skin brushing theirs, even accidentally. If he’s honest with himself, there was revulsion too. A nauseous, clenching anxiety over all the scents, sounds and fluids the human body could produce.

 

But that’s not at all what he feels when Katniss’s fingers reach up for her coat’s zipper and tug it down. Her cheeks burn as she shrugs it off, her movements stiff and jerky. As the garment slides off her shoulders it strikes him again how much more petite she appeared without it on, how much more vulnerable. He looks away quickly, before he does something stupid like tell her how beautiful she is, and busies himself with the question of what to do about his pants. He doesn’t have much time to decide, and he’s not sure if it would be a good idea to ask Katniss, so he decides to leave it them- and the cap of bandages around his stump- on. He doesn’t dare forgo his nightly dose of painkillers though, and manages to surreptitiously swallow them down dry as Katniss strips out of her boots.

 

They hit the cement heavily one after another and Katniss gingerly curls up with her back to him at the edge of his mattress, her arms sneaking around her waist. Her fingers dig stiffly into her sides as her spine relaxes vertebra by vertebra, and Peeta’s heart is hammering so hard he’s sure she can feel it through the mattress. Light headed, he clears his throat weakly.

 

“In the Before… did you used to fall asleep with the TV on?”

 

The pooling cascade of her dreads shiver as she shakes her head.

 

“I did,” he says, “I loved that one show- on Adult Swim- the one about the lawyer-”


“I didn’t have cable,” she says shortly.

 

“Oh. Then I bet you remember this- Give me some more time in a dream- give me the hope to run out of steam-

 

Katniss’s back stiffens and she whirls around.

 

“Just how good is your memory?”

 

“For television? Excellent. For books? Less so. I was kinda banking on you falling asleep faster than this.”

 

He leaves out the detail that most of his television watching happened in a hospital while he oscillated between boredom, existential depression and being too heavily medicated to move. Katniss snorts.

 

“Let me guess,” he says. “You were more of a book girl.”

 

She bites her lip.

 

“That silence is definitely a yes, so I’m guessing you were also a Harry Potter girl.”

 

She frowns.

 

“You did not memorize that entire se-”

 

He laughs and holds his hands up.

 

“Ok, ok, I didn’t. But I can summarize the first thirty percent of the Prisoner of Azkaban.”

 

She rolls her eyes.

 

“What? I fell asleep twenty minutes into the movie,” Peeta laughs.

 

“So let me get this straight. You were going to summarize - badly, I might add- a series of books I have read no less than forty times? And you thought I wasn’t going to notice?”

 

“So you are a Potterhead,” he teases. “What house are you in?”

 

She flushes and presses her lips together- a look that knocks the air right out of his lungs- but he only gets a glimpse as the power in the building cuts off and Katniss is swallowed by blackness. The unreality of discussing the internet in a powerless concrete block surrounded by miles of the walking dead isn’t lost on Peeta, but the mattress shifts as she moves into a more comfortable position and he can’t bring himself to care.

 

“That’s none of your business,” Katniss says haughtily, ignoring the sudden darkness.

 

“So. Hufflepuff then.”

 

He can’t see her scowl, but he can certainly feel it.

 

“No, a Hufflepuff could never master that murder-gaze thing you got going on. Must be… Gryffindor.”

 

“What are you, the Sorting Hat?” she snarks.

 

“I knew you were a dork,” Peeta laughs, but it trails off awkwardly when he realizes she’s gone totally stiff again. As his eyes adjust to the moonlight streaming in through the window, he can see why and mute horror burns in his stomach. At some point, he’s not sure when, he had captured one of her dreads between his forefinger and thumb and was playing with it. His heart stutters stupidly and he clears his throat as he carefully draws his hand back. His eyes meet hers through the darkness.

 

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t even realize-”

 

She shivers.

 

“It’s ok. You can.”

 

The air in his throat catches and he blinks, refocusing his eyes on her in the all but absent light. He reaches out for her again, but this time he slides his fingers along her jaw and into her hair, until his thumb sweeps the high ridge of her cheek bone. The heat of her skin underneath his hand sends a shock through him .

 

“I can’t believe you’re here,” he croaks. “After that first night, every time I was afraid- I thought of you. You have no idea, the effect you had.”

 

She shivers again, the skin on her forearms pebbling in the moonlight.

 

“You’re cold,” he says. He leans up and reaches over her for her coat.

 

“Peeta- don’t,” she says. “That has blood on it. And… a lot of other things.”

 

She squirms, her fingers digging tighter into her sides.

 

“I’ll just-”

 

She scoots closer to him, practically flush against his chest, her eyes meeting his slowly. He clears his throat and unzips his hoodie, then drapes it over both of them. Katniss is so small it envelopes them easily, with plenty of room for her to curl her legs up.

 

“Thank you,” she murmurs.

 

“You’re welcome,” he says, his voice cracking.

 

She drifts off a moment later, her breath a whisper of heat leaking through the worn cotton of his shirt. Each puff of air sends a shock of electricity racing through him, making it impossible to slow the racing of his heart, let alone join her in sleeping . Katniss was here- alive and safe. It was all he had hoped for for months, but now that it was happening it felt so impossible. Deep in his marrow, he always knew what Finnick had tried to tell him about Katniss. It could happen so easily, that he’d lose her. And he didn’t want to miss one moment, just in case this was all he got.

 

He curls an arm around her waist gingerly, and runs the tips of his fingers down her spine until his eyes dry out, burn, then close. Even then he sleeps fitfully, skirting the edge of consciousness, too aware that the body tucked in his arms is Katniss . He’s sure he even says something to her, but he can’t remember what, only that it slips dreamily off the tip of his tongue. After that, he sinks deeper into a restless darkness, and finally, real sleep.

 

-

 

It’s hours before he’s aware of something again.

 

A sudden lack of warmth. Shuffling.

 

It’s quiet again for a while, and then-

 

“You’ve got mail!”

 

Peeta’s eyes fly open.


-

Chapter Text

Holy sh...

 

Peeta’s voice dies off as he stares in open disbelief at the glowing screen. He runs a hand through his hair and turns to look at her, his eyes wide. Blue white light pools in their corners and spills out in a sticky sheen that catches on his impossibly pale eyelashes.

 

“You did it again,” he says, a wide grin creeping across his face. “You’re a genius, you know that?”

 

Those eyelashes tangle as he blinks, a thin line of electric blue bisecting the dusky plum of his shadowed eyes. She looks quickly back to the AOL Welcome! screen and tucks her bottom lip between her teeth. Genius wasn’t the same thing as being too poor for wireless internet, but Peeta didn’t need to know that.

 

“Did what?”

 

“You found an ace to sneak up our sleeves. Just like how you climbed up onto that roof on that first night.”

 

She didn’t do either on purpose. They were just ideas, and she couldn’t take credit for something she didn’t really even try to think up in the first place. Still, her cheeks flush and her heart throbs warm and heavy in her chest. She shifts the computer screen toward herself again and fiddles with the connection between the modem port and the cord to distract herself from that look on his face.

 

The one where he seems to be uncertain whether or not she’s actually real.

 

“Think of all the things we could find out- all the th ings we can do now that we have- well, there will some websites that will be down, of course. Anything hosted in servers on the east coast, there’s no question, but anything hosted in Europe, or across multiple backup servers like-”

 

The computer screen shudders then dies, a thin whine following it as the internal fan powers down and the room is plunged back into dark silence.

 

Shit! Oh don’t do that, come on!”

 

Peeta’s voice echoes too loud in the void the glowing screen leaves behind.

 

“It’s just the battery,” Katniss says quickly. “We’ll only have a few minutes of internet a day, and it’ll take a while to charge.”

 

“It’s one of those Macs, huh?” Peeta murmurs as he spins the computer over and presses a palm to its buckling under-case with a frown. “This is real hot too. The battery needs to be replaced, but that’s an easy fix. I’m sure there’s something laying around here I can use.”

 

“And will that-?” she swallows. “Will that affect its memory?”

 

“No,” he says carefully. Through the darkness she can see him eyeing her as she allows a curtain of dreads to fall across her face. “I mean. There’s no reason why it should. Why?”

 

The air in her lungs thickens, and she twines her arms around herself, rubbing the chill out of her skin with her hands.

 

“Just curious, I guess,” she says.

 

Peeta’s silence afterward stretches long enough for her to know that he knows she’s lying. He clears his throat carefully.

 

“This computer is- It’s yours?”

 

Heat prickles on her neck. She’d pissed out in the open forest and on roadsides, where cars full of sweat-soaked, glassy-eyed survivors stared blankly at her as they passed, like she was nothing more than a wild animal. She’d stripped naked on mosquito-clouded riverbanks to bathe, only to fight off walking corpses with nothing but rocks, slick and naked and, of all things, fucking itchy . There wasn’t much left to be said for her modesty anymore, but whatever is left of it sits in Peeta’s lap, whining as power drains from its circuits.

 

“I’ll, ah- be extra careful. But, I’ve done this before. With my own computer. Everything was fine.”

 

Of course it will. Peeta is so good with all this stuff- much better than she’s ever been, anyway. But that doesn’t change the fact that he’s using her computer. She swallows, tugging her bottom lip between her teeth again.

 

There was a time, right after the playground, where everything had gone numb . There’s not much she remembers of those first few weeks, and what she does are disjointed flashes interrupted by vast spaces of darkness. She knows that she and Rue skimmed the edge of I-54. That they were headed west. Toward Peeta, and- she had believed- toward safety. They wouldn’t find either until Sanctuary, but she didn’t know that then. All she knew was that she had to keep going. That anything that didn’t immediately pertain to safety or food wasn’t something she could afford to think about.

 

Her memory gets spottier still after they’d passed through Saxapahaw. There are long spaces of nothing. Brief flashes of Rue standing in the middle of the road, or sleeping beside it. Two-Face, standing below her tree, looking up. And the radio, at night, buzzing in her ears as she flipped between channels. Searching. Listening. Wondering if maybe, just maybe-

 

She swallows.

 

She had been looking for something, but what she can’t say except that she never really managed to give up on finding Peeta Mellark. Even when couldn’t bring herself to feel or believe in anything. Even when she had every reason to believe him dead. Every reason to forget him altogether. She didn’t. She couldn’t. Not his voice. Not his promise of safety. Not his kindness towards that girl on the roof whose whole world was screaming and dying and burning to white ash.

 

She might not be that same girl anymore, but Peeta didn’t have to know that either. In the end, he’d kept her going long after she stopped understanding why she kept getting up in the morning. Peeta may think she had given him some secret trick to survival by telling him about climbing up, but he had given her something far more important.

 

Hope.

 

Hope that somewhere out there, safety was waiting for her. Far away from monsters who chased her. From the bodies that lay rotting at her feet. From the rivers of blood that tugged at her ankles wherever she went. And the worst part was that he was right. There was somewhere left in the world she felt safe. The problem was, it was nestled in his arms, and now that she’d found it, all that could ever happen is that she’d lose it again.

 

She’d lose him.

 

Her eyes flit up to his and her mouth opens, only to have all her words die on her tongue. It was madness. Completely. Utterly. One of them would die, or both of them would, but if it was him alone, then where would she be? Insane, probably. Insane with the wanting of something that was lost forever.

 

Just like Prim.

 

Blood pounds in her head. The numbness in those first weeks protected her, but that’s long gone now. If last night proved anything it’s that all the parts of her she thought were dead and buried have clawed their way back out. Her eyes flit to Peeta. If only she had never come here. If only Peeta hadn’t. If only she could pack up Rue and run. Run long and far and hard until she was too tired to remember why the name Peeta Mellark knocked the air right out of her lungs.

 

She gets unsteadily to her feet and limps over to her abandoned crutch, the weight of his confused stare following her as she slides on her only boot.

 

“I, um,” she says. “Have to go check on Rue.”

 

“Sure,” Peeta says, then swallows. “You’ll be back later, right?”

 

She nods but doesn’t look up from zipping her jacket. Her feet carry her forward on their own through the dark hallways back to her room. She rummages around in the dark until her hands land on a familiar long shape in a canvas bag. Strapping it around her chest, she continues on, heading down the back staircase, through the heavy doors to the yard, around the placid black faces of the solar panels and toward the wall. She scales the stairs with practiced caution, and limps south, toward the gate.

 

Voices carry behind her- the guard, no doubt. She chews on the side of her thumb as a sick heat builds in her stomach. Is it hunger, or nausea? Since they cut rations, she’s alternated constantly between the two, and now she can’t tell the difference. They’ve been watching her lately. Ever since Two-Face’s breakin, their eyes track her movements wherever she goes, and she’s encountered enough wolves to know that they’re calculating as a pack what to do with her. They’re not just military men by chance- they’re careers- and they know tricky prey when they see it.

 

Or easy prey, a nasty voice in the back of her head sneers.

 

And she would be, with her ankle like this.

 

Peeta might stand a chance against them- no matter how many legs he’s missing, he’s powerful. That desk he moved was solid steel, an olive green relic from the 60’s that was a hundred pounds at least, maybe more, but Peeta had sent it skating across the floor as if it were on wheels. His hands alone are a threat, broad and thick, the bones of his knuckles as big as small stones. One solid blow from him could put someone down, and maybe for good, if they were unlucky enough to leave their head undefended.

 

But all she’s got is her gun, and if someone got close enough, she was a goner.

 

She continues a little unsteadily, padding her way back north toward the staircase she came up on, scanning the dark treeline for any sign of movement. The skin on her neck prickles, and she knows without having to turn around that she’s been spotted. They’d watch her now. Make sure to catch her if she did anything they could pin on her. She knows what people have been saying. That Two-Face is her boyfriend. That she loves him, even now, and she’s slowly feeding him people.

 

A shiver rattles through her and she sets her jaw against it, pulling the strap of the canvas bag tighter around herself. Nothing good ever comes of being watched, and if she weren’t so sure it’d be a death sentence for Rue, she’d have skipped out of this place long ago. But leaving wasn’t an option before Haymitch. Rue needs a doctor, someone who can watch over her full-time, and even one drinking himself into an early grave is better than nothing at all.

 

There is also the small matter of Two-Face. He is out there somewhere, maybe even waiting for her, and if she left now it’d only be a matter of time before he caught up to her. Ten were dead because of him in the last week alone, not to mention all the others that had somehow ended up on the other side of the gate.  If she didn’t know better, she’d say he was hunting them. But she does know better. It isn’t them he is interested in.

 

It’s her.

 

And that’s why she has to be the one to kill him.

 

She unslings her gun from around her torso and checks the sites. It’s an older model of rifle, and the sites needed to be adjusted for the darkness- something she’d forgotten had to be done regularly since losing her father’s M-65- but her fingers are shaking too badly, and then she’s back to wondering if she’s hungry or nauseous. Could be either. Could be both.

 

Or it could be fear.

 

Her brow tightens as she sets the scope against her right eye and squeezes the left shut. Two-Face wasn’t like the other infected. He didn’t work the way they did, and couldn’t be predicted. When she first encountered him, she thought- maybe - there was something human left in him. Something of the man he used to be, in the Before. There was a spectrum, afterall, of how infection worked, she had seen it herself.

 

But she’s sure that’s not the case now.

 

The only thing that makes Two-Face different from the others is that he plays with his food.

 

She pauses to sneak a look behind her.

 

Something shimmers just behind her in the shadows cast by the encroaching darkness. Adjusting the crutch beneath her arm, she turns around and takes a few steps toward it. The shape is shifting and blurry- like a swarm of flies on something putrid, or a murmuration of starlings, twisting and shuddering in a static, spiraling trail. She squints. It has the general shape of a man: broad shoulders, tall, long legs. Something flits off it and floats dreamily up.

 

Ash maybe. Or a feather. As it flutters toward her she jerks back from it instinctively, and a disconcerting chill rolls its way down her spine. It brushes past her cheek, black and light as a breath of air. Heart in her throat, she brings the scope to her eye and manages to focus it. The viewfinder swings from the trees to the tall grass as she she searches for the figure, and it takes further adjustments and focusing before she finds it. The sunlight shimmers on whatever part of it it touches, but as the figure’s head drifts down to its shoulder, she notices half its face is bare.

 

A familiar eye catches hers and blinks.

 

Two-Face.

 

She wants to jerk the gun away from her face, but her muscles are stiff and cold with fear. Her legs tremble with the need to run- far and fast and never return. It’s too much, too soon after Finnick, and with how human Two-Face looks now, his cheeks naturally flushed and bare of bloody tear trails. Something crawls over his chin and up his cheek, shimmering black as it eclipses his eye and pauses, its wings fluttering delicately as it-

 

Her breath catches.

 

Butterflies.

 

Hundreds of them, black wings swaying and shivering as they crawl all over his clothes, his hands, masking the shredded part of his- No . Not masking.

 

Consuming him.

 

They were eating him alive.

 

The gun finally slips from her face as a violent chill passes through her. She swallows hard and breathes hard out her nose, but it’s no use.

 

Her back bows and she vomits over the side of the wall.

 

-

 

The new gold of autumn melts away almost as soon as it blooms, and November first dawns bitter and cold. The sun has only just cracked over the wall, dripping sticky, yellow light on the red scars the Runner’s graves have left in the earth. On tiptoes, and over the tops of several heads, Katniss watches Senator Ted Wilson mop his forehead with a light blue bandana. It comes away dark and limp, flopping over the back of his hand as he attempts to stuff it in the pocket of his straining jeans.

 

Funny that. Everyone else was wearing belts these days.

 

“Guys- guys ,” Wilson says, an All-American apology in his voice. “I hear your concerns. I do. But it’s only until we get back on our feet.”

 

Katniss shifts, tucking her nose below the collar of her coat and shoving her hands deep in her pockets. From across the crowd her eyes catch on Johanna’s. They’re sharp, burning furiously under a dark brow. She must be thinking the same thing Katniss is.

 

Liar, liar.

 

“The Guard has been working on this night and day,” the Senator says. “And as soon as they can guarantee our safety, we’ll start doing Runs again. Until then, we have to be careful with the resources we have left.”

 

He shifts, a too-easy look of concern on his face, and that’s how Katniss knows he’s full of it. No one could be that sympathetic when they were hungry. No one. But as much as she hates to admit it, Wilson is right. Nob ody knew the farm fields like Finnick, except possibly for Johanna, who no one wanted in charge of a run anyway. On top of that, it was impossible to hunt anywhere close to the base because the infected had chased all the game away. Without Finnick’s knowledge of the surr ounding land there’s no one that can be trusted to lead a run that won’t end in more deaths- something they can’t afford at this point.

 

“We can’t keep doing this,” a woman with a shaved head says. “We can’t survive on canned tomatoes and saltines.”

 

The Senator nods his head as he listens to her.

 

“I hear you, Katherine. You’re right. And that’s why this is the last time.”

 

And by last time he means there’s not much left they can cut from the rations without outright starving people. Food was never easy to come by around here. In the beginning she heard they had tried growing food, but nothing took. Even dandelions wouldn’t grow. Eventually the Senator decided nothing would ever grow except crabgrass, and to keep trying was a waste of water. But half the runners are dead now, and winter is nearly here. They were going to have to do something. And soon.

 

“I know you’re hungry,” Wilson booms over the voices of the crowd growing louder. “Believe me, I am too. But we have to be strong. We’ve been hungry before, but we pulled through because our convictions- our faith was strong! Where is that faith now? It was Jesus who said ‘I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.’ In the past the Lord blessed us with food because we had faith in Him.”

 

Wilson scowls, gathering himself up as his face darkens.

“The hungrier we are,” he spits. “The stronger our faith should be that He will feed us.”

 

His tone implies the meeting is over, but no one disperses immediately. He stares out at the gathered people. The haggard Runners. The Guard, armed and anxious. The Kitchen crew. The laundry brigade. Muted voices ripple through the crowd, never loud enough that words can be made out, but clear enough to be heard. No else speaks up, and after a few seconds Wilson stalks away, followed by the Guard.

 

She had expected this meeting to be a reaping, but somehow this was even worse. At the very least a Reaping would have meant they’d get to eat something more than stale saltines soon. But now they’re stuck, at least until the Guard could guarantee the Runner’s safety- whatever that means. Probably that they’re afraid Two-Face is coming back, and they don’t want to chance fighting him on their own.

 

Katniss squeezes her way out of the crowd, wobbling on her crutch as she tries not to step on anyone’s toes. She hardly needs it anymore- it has been over two months since the helicopter crash and, apart from the occasional weak twinge, her ankle hasn’t hurt in weeks. Though Haymitch has repeatedly warned her not to, she’s even been putting weight on it, and other than her foot shifting slightly in the tight plaster, she hasn’t had any problems. She wiggles her toes in between steps as she limps toward the Boneyard, and with a lurch of excitement she realizes that for the first time in weeks the only thing she feels is their movement.

 

Spots dance in her eyes and a odd weightlessness washes over her. She pauses, wavering in the middle of the field between the training field and the compound. This has been happening more, and there is nothing to do but wait it out. This isn’t the first time rations at Sanctuary have been cut, and Katniss knows how to handle her hunger. As the world comes back into focus, her teeth chatter, and she yanks the zipper on her coat up to her throat. This is temporary, she reminds herself. Just until Rue is eating on her own again.

 

Her fever had gotten bad, much worse than it ever had been before. Cold baths and Tylenol did nothing at all to control it, and she wasn’t eating on her own. Even before Sanctuary, Rue had trouble with food, but at least she could get it to her own mouth. Now Katniss couldn’t be sure how much Rue was actually aware of, let alone convince her to move a spool full of mashed parsnip from her plate into her mouth. There’s a flatness in her eyes that wasn’t there until two weeks ago.

 

Whatever had happened, hunger certainly wouldn’t help, so Katniss had been saving half of her own rations back, hoping that a little extra nutrition might make a difference. It always had in the past, at least. But this time nothing changed. In fact, Rue had taken a turn for the worse right after the break-in, and Katniss had all but abandoned her duties as Runner to sit by her bed and keep the rags on her forehead cool and wet.

 

Those hours were the longest she had ever lived. Rue’s rattling breath followed her in and out of sleep, until finally she couldn’t sleep for the fear it would stop entirely. But she couldn’t leave either- she’d never find sleep in her own cot, and if she left she knew she’d only go to Peeta. Instead she sank deep into the chair next to Rue’s bed, trying her best not to think about how it’d been a week since Peeta’s fingertips ghosted down her spine, his voice thick with sleep and something else she didn’t dare name, and she hadn’t managed to exorcise herself of the memory of either. Did he know? How wicked it was, what he did to her? She felt the heat of him all around her, even when they were a room apart- even when she was completely alone- even while she slept.

 

It was misery.

 

But it’d be nothing compared to what would happen if she had to stare down the barrel of a gun at those same blue eyes clouded over with blood.

 

Rue rallied, finally. Her fever broke, and her eyes even glistened with recognition a few times. Haymitch had still insisted Rue get started on a diet she was less likely to choke on, but Katniss was dead sure he was being overly cautious. Rue would be fine. The day before she had even moved her mouth. She just opened it and shut it on her own- but there was no denying that was an improvement.

 

“You look like shit,” a voice says.

 

Katniss whips around frowns at the girl leaning against the truck behind her.

 

“Fuck off, Johanna.”

 

She grins- chipped eye tooth on full, wolfish display- and shoves her hands in pockets as she pushes off the truck and lopes past her, forcing Katniss to hurry to catch up to her as they make their way south through the Boneyard.

 

“That’s right. You finally got yourself a dick with a pulse,” Johanna says. “Too bad. I thought you might finally get desperate enough to broaden your horizons.”

 

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Katniss bites.

 

Johanna rolls her eyes.

 

“Oh my god . You can’t really be that naïve, can you?”

 

Katniss blinks, then her face darkens.

 

“Sorry to disappoint,” she seethes.

 

Johanna is unfazed.

 

“Plenty of fish in the sea,” she shrugs, her eyes twinkling.

 

“You’re foul,” Katniss says.

 

“And you’re brainless,” Johanna spits back. “See? We’d be great together.”

 

Katniss grinds her teeth together and hoists herself onto the hood of a truck, ditching her crutch and putting her full weight on her cast with barely a wince.

 

“You’re gonna get yourself killed,” Johanna says with a frown. “Let me do it.”

 

“No- you’ll wake her up. You walk like your feet are made of concrete.”

 

Johanna snorts.

 

“You don’t see the irony in that at all, do you?”

 

Katniss doesn’t answer, busy crawling up the windshield and across the makeshift plywood bridge Finnick placed between the cab of the truck and the container. Her only acknowledgement is a strategic flip of the bird as she slips into the hole on the roof.

 

“What are you, twelve?” Johanna calls, but it’s muted by the steel walls of the container, for which Katniss is grateful. Annie is dormant, her eyes closed as she breathes shallow and slow. Katniss puts the back of her hand to the woman’s forehead. Her skin is cool but oily, and up close it has a greyish pallor that couldn’t be anything but not good. Something bangs on the truck’s hood, and then, with a quick series of thuds across the roof of the container, Johanna drops herself through the hole in the roof and lands thunderously next to Katniss.

 

Annie doesn’t so much as twitch, and Katniss sighs.

 

“Is she-?” Johanna trails off.

 

Katniss shakes her head.

 

“No. She’s just... sleeping.”

 

It’s funny, the way Johanna is around Annie. Like she can’t look at her. Like she’s already dead. Like it hurt to be away from her anyway, and it hurts to be with her now in the same way. Katniss looks away hurriedly before she sees something else she’d have to try to forget, unhooking the gravity bag from the stand over Annie’s bed and slipping another one out of her coat pocket. The tricky part would be getting the bolus connected to the feeding tube port. She’d seen Finnick do it plenty of times, but she’d never done anything like it herself. Her mother would’ve known how to do it right. Prim too, maybe. She’d heard them talking about stuff like this. Hopefully she remembered enough.

 

“She likes jokes,” Katniss supplies after a moment of silence.

 

Bull shit.”

 

Johanna’s eyes flash.

 

“You and Finnick,” she sneers. “You’re both fucking delusional. Look at her. Look at her! Her eyes are bleeding and you’re telling her jokes?”

 

“You’re right,” Katniss says. “We should definitely ignore her and hope someone else picks up the slack.”

 

Johanna whirls on her, nostrils flared, face red.

 

“You don’t know anything about me , ” she hisses. “Gimme that. You’re gonna give her an infection.”

 

Johanna rips the tube out of Katniss’s hands and lifts the hem of Annie’s shirt up. Her movements are practiced and quick as she slips the tube into the port just below Annie’s ribs, her fingers not so much as brushing either. She inspects the connection with a critical eye before she spins to flick the gravity feeding bag to get the flow of nutrients going. Shocked into silence, Katniss steps back and swallows, crossing her arms over her chest as she surveys the stash of supplies in the container, trying not to think too hard about all it meant to the man who gathered them. There was a stash of women’s clothes in a floral weekend bag that sat open and disorganized next to the bed. A cranberry cardigan draped over the opening and spilled onto the bare steel floor. The impulse to fold it is strong, but something stops her.

 

This was Finnick’s place. Everything in here was something he had touched, and that made it untouchable. Sacred. Or, at the very least, it meant she couldn’t touch it.

 

Not when it was her fault he was dead in the first place.

 

-

 

She’s wandering through the shining aisles of a grocery store, bright and cheerful under a battalion of fluorescent lights. It’s quiet- she’s alone- and all the shelves are perniciously stocked, as if she had somehow wandered onto the abandoned set of a television commercial. She runs her fingers along technicolor cereal boxes as she floats alongside them, their names sticking to the back of her tongue. Lucky Charms. Frosted Flakes. Her stomach moans piteously.

 

Or- does it?

 

A puff of warm air feathers the fine hairs on the back of her neck.

 

She whirls around, but the aisle behind her is empty and still. Her heart gallops in her chest as she stands staring at the blackness beyond the front windows of the grocery store. She lifts her foot to step forward and a rattling, fetid breath fans across her neck, followed by the slow click of chattering teeth. Something warm and wet drips onto her shoulder and her heart leaps into her throat. The fluid trails across her clavicle and rolls down between her breasts, and she can do nothing to stop it.

 

Her arms are too heavy to lift, her legs glued in place by weakness.

 

Teeth drag across the tender skin underneath her ear, and her breath leaves her in halting gasps as hot air cascades down her shoulder and over her chest. Fingers creep along her hips- she can feel them brushing along the skin between the top of her jeans and the bottom of her shirt, but when she looks down at them, she only catches a flash of blood-rimmed nails and broad knuckles before the hands disappear underneath her shirt, sliding a fevered trail upward until-

 

She wakes dry-mouthed and shaking, wiping moisture off her chin as she struggles to her feet.

 

“You’re late,” Haymitch gripes when she walks into the hospital wing. His eyes look like they spent the night soaking in the ocean, but she supposes that’s what he gets for sneaking shots of isopropyl alcohol when he thought no one was looking.

 

“I overslept,” she croaks as she hurries past him and into Rue’s room.

 

“No you didn’t,” he laughs. “You spent the night on the wall again.”

 

“How is she?,” Katniss asks breezily, ignoring his statement as she tightens her bag’s strap around her body and sends a searching hand deep into her coat pocket.

 

“Her pupils aren’t dilating.”

 

Katniss fumbles her little bottle of hand sanitizer as she squeezes it into her hand. A chilly glob of alcohol slips through her fingers and splats on the floor.

 

“What does that mean?”

 

Haymitch scrubs his face with a gnarled hand, the AA82 inscribed in bleeding ink in the webbing between his forefinger and thumb somehow darker in the flickering fluorescent light.

 

“I don’t know,” he says, exhaustion lacing his voice. “I’m flying blind here. It could be the fever, or it could be something new.”

 

Katniss spins away, reaching into her coat to pull out a second gravity bag and hanging it on the stand next to Rue’s bed. So her pupils weren’t dialating. That didn’t mean anything. At least her eyes had stopped bleeding, and the fever seemed to be at bay. Haymitch shuffles over to slide the tube into the side of Rue’s mouth. The girl draws a slow, shallow breath but doesn’t acknowledge the invasion of the plastic tube outside of swallowing reflexively.

 

“She’s been worse,” Katniss dismisses, busying herself with wetting a cotton rag under the tap and wiping down Rue’s face. The burnished glow of the girls dark skin has faded to a oddly ashen pallor, and Katniss blinks in shock as she pulls back her lips and finds that her gums are sticky and pale.

 

“Sweetheart,” Haymitch says gruffly. His hand lands on her shoulder, but Katniss shrugs it off, pursing her lips as she shoves the rag she used on Rue’s face into a plastic bag hanging from the room’s doorknob.

 

“She was always fine before. Even when I had nothing to stop the fever.”

 

She glowers pointedly at Haymitch as she re-sanitizes her hands, but the older man doesn't see it. He's busy looking at Rue, his eyes appraising. Distant. Sad. It’s the second time today she's seen that look, like someone who is very much alive and breathing is already dead.

 

Haymitch wipes his nose with the broad flat of his thumb.

 

“Be ready,” he says.

 

Then he shuffles away.

 

The room sways gauzily around Katniss, like a curtain in the breeze. She swallows and pushes some of the delicate loose hairs at her hairline out of her face, finding a seat next to Rue’s bed and gingerly lowering herself into it. The muscles below her lips tense and push her bottom lip between her teeth.

 

Last night two infected had dropped in front of the compound gates. Zeke claimed they were very much alive hours before, railing against the chainlink fence that surrounded the wall, and no one had shot at them. They just…

 

Crumpled.

 

And never got up again.

 

A black cloud had descended on them by morning- more butterflies, their wings shimmering in the predawn darkness. Two Runners had been conscripted to drag the bodies toward the trees and burn them downwind of the compound, but the flames attracted a rogue infected who dashed from the trees, a snarl carved on its face, only to be taken down by a well-aimed bullet to the chest. It was added to the pyre, which burned until after sunset, cottony billows of smoke drifting over the trees until the black night swallowed it all up.

 

A sharp pain pricks her bottom lip. She’s bitten it again. The tip of her tongue sneaks out to explore the damage and comes away tasting of salt. Instantly her stomach responds with a cavernous cry.

 

But it should know better than that by now.

 

In the following days the infected start dropping. They do it together, in clusters of two or three, and if they’re not moved away and burned within a few hours they bloat like overripe fruit and burst open, leaking viscera and infected blood into the surrounding soil- right over the aquifer their well draws its water from. Or so the Senator claimed, anyway, ignoring Peeta when he dutifully tried to explain how wells work.

 

A skeleton crew of Runners, Katniss included, are put to work clearing the bodies away under the heavily armed watch of the Guard, and two weeks of not enough food turns easily into three as the rations are cut a second time.

 

After that she’s too exhausted to feel much of anything at all, not even excitement the night Haymitch finally cuts her cast off. All she can do is stare at her pale, still oddly swollen limb and blink in blurry surprise at the wiggling toes that seem to belong to her.

 

“Well?” Peeta says, a grin creeping across his face.

 

She stands up and gingerly shifts her weight onto the foot.

 

“How does it feel?” Haymitch asks.

 

Truthfully, not great. There’s a lingering soreness that’s sharper now that it’s not off-set by the cast, and the pain laces up her leg. She takes a step, lifting her foot gingerly off the ground, only to collapse with a sharp cry in Haymitch’s arms.

 

“Well, that can’t be good,” he mumbles.

 

Katniss lets him guide her back to her chair, and he props her calf on his knee as he seats himself in front of her. He manipulates her foot, first this way, then that, turning it gently and bending it back, finally deciding that she’d need something of a transitional device between a cast and a shoe. He and Peeta discuss options for getting the supplies to build one, but Katniss tunes them out. That strange weightlessness she first felt a week ago is back, and it’s making it difficult to focus on what they’re saying anyway, even if she could bring herself to care. Spots bloom and crawl across her vision, and then, as if someone stuffed cotton into her ears, sound fades away.

 

It only last for a few seconds, but that’s long enough. The world comes back into focus with twin sets of expectant stares on the men across from her. Peeta raises his eyebrows, but they cinch together just as quickly. Something is showing on her face, but she doesn’t know what. All she’s aware of is the sudden, stifling heat underneath her skin, the unbearable dryness of her mouth.

 

“What do you think, sweetheart?” Haymitch says.

 

Katniss rubs her tongue on the roof of her mouth as she swallows thickly.

 

“What’s the point?” she says finally. Deafening silence cinches the air out of the room. “I’ll never run again, will I?”

 

-

 

[-]PMellarky89 Fri 11/3/2016 8:12am @infectionboard.readit.com:

>

>

> Hello my name is Peter. I am in North Carolina, USA.

>

>I managed to get online using an old g4 powerbook from 2007 with an internal modem and a LAN connection.

>

>No news from US gov’t or the military, and we haven’t heard from the UN at all.

>

>Can anyone tell me anything at all about the rest of the world?

>




[-]MankyMan69 Fri 11/3/2016 8:13am @infectionboard.readit.com:

>

>Woah this dude is from the US @W_re55 @infectiontracker @infectioninfo

> @bluebutts4 @kryp2n8

>

>Hello from australia m8. We’re infection free.

>




[-]Infectiontracker Fri 11/3/2016 8:15am @infectionboard.readit.com:

>

>HOLY CRAP

>what can you tell us about the infected?

>AUS too. Sydney is on lockdown.

>First case in Malaysia last night.

>




[-] W_re55 Fri 11/3/2016 8:15am @infectionboard.readit.com :

>

>Hello Peter I am BT from Minsk RF

>

>No inf3ction in RF yet but we have media black out

> inf3ction searches firewalled in RF, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt,

>Thailand & more

>UN study of inf3ction brings it to EU some weeks ago

>France Italy have no more. Germany is barely.

>all borders locked down

>China reports first case one week ago

>Shanghai have no more

>




[-]krap2n8 Fri 11/3/2016 8:15am @infectionboard.readit.com:

>

>Whats happening where you are? Anythign you can tell us?

>I am in Japan, we are infection free.

>




[-]infectioninfo Fri 11/3/2016 8:15am @infectionboard.readit.com:

>

>We have a lot of followers anything we can tell them about infection?

>

>So happy to hear frm someone in the US- BBC said you guys were toast.

>

>Oystein, Rekjavik Iceland

>

>Iceland is infection free, but a radiation cloud fucked us bad.

>

>Essential personnel only left in Rekjavik.

>




[-]PMellarky89 Sat 11/4/2016 8:10am @infectionboard.readit.com:

>

>Hi! Nice to meet everyone!

>

>I am glad you all responded. As far as I know, North Carolina in the US is gone.

>

>I don’t really know what’s happening anywhere else, it all happened so fast.

>

>They dropped a low yield nuclear bomb on Raleigh, but there were >survivors.

>We’re holed up in a military base out west, safe for now. Got food,

>water and sometimes  power.

>

>The infected are most active at night. Don’t let them bite you, that’s >how it’s passed.

>The higher up you are off the ground, the safer you are.

>

>And turn your lights out.

>

>




[-]kryp2n8 Sat 11/4/2016 8:11am @infectionboard.readit.com:

>

>Holy crap man. I don’t know what but is there anything we can do?

>




[-]PMellarky89 Sat 11/4/2016 8:12am @infectionboard.readit.com:

>

>Actually... there is.

>

>I need a voicemail.

>

 

-

 

[-] chat@infectionboard.readit.com ( PMellarky89, W_re55 ) Fri 11/6/2016 :

 

PMellarky89 8:20am: Hey! Kryp2n8 says you know how to get into telcom servers, is that right?

 

W_re55 8:21am: Yes. American?

 

PMellarky89 8:21am: AT&T

 

W_re55 8:23am: do you know if the servers are on East coast?

 

PMellarky89 8:23am: North Carolina, so definitely. In Raleigh maybe?

 

PMellarky89 8:28am: I have BTC

 

PMellarky89 8:29am: USD

 

PMellarky89 8:30am: Not much

 

PMellarky89 8:32am: but I can pay you

 

W_re55 8:35am: Server is down I can do nothing. Server is ok, maybe I can see.

 

-

 

[-] chat@infectionboard.readit.com (W_re55, PMellarky89) Fri 11/8/2016 :

 

W_re55 8:35am: You are a lucky man. Server is up. What you need?

 

PMellarky89 8:35am: The voicemail from 919-206-7922.

 

W_re55 8:43am: Yours?

 

PMellarky89 8:43am: No.

 

W_re55 8:43am: Are you kidding? If I am found I will be in jail when inf3ction comes here. Why should I risk that kind of thing?

 

PMellarky89 8:45am: . I wouldn’t ask unless it was important.

 

PMellarky89 8:48am: Please. It’s for my wife.

 

PMellarky89 8:49am: There’s something important waiting in her voicemail. About her family.

 

PMellarky89 8:55am: It’s all she has left man. When this thing gets to you, no one will care what you did before, or who you were. All that’s gonna matter is surviving for the next hour. The next day. The next week. Everyone I know is dead, I know that. But my wife doesn’t. She doesn’t know anything at all about the people she loves. Please.

 

W_re55 9:01am: specs?

 

PMellarky89 9:01am: T H A N K   Y O U.

 

PMellarky89 9:01am: Lossy mp3, small as you can get it.

 

W_re55 8:49am: 24 hours.

 

-

 

[-] chat@infectionboard.readit.com ( W_re55, PMellarky89) Sun 11/9/2016 :

 

W_re55 8:01am: vm19192067922.mp3


W_re55 8:05am: if I were you. I would not let her listen.

Chapter Text

-

 

It is 1957.

 

A man clutching a cardboard tube to his chest lowers himself into a wooden chair in the barren Chapel Hill office of the esteemed US Military Major General Ezekiel Roberts. His name is Odaleigh Mellark Jr., but he prefers Odie. His journey to this place started out at Penn Station in New York City the previous morning, and he’d been traveling nonstop since then, watching the towers and tunnels of New York City materializing out of the fog and darkness as the sun rose, sleeping through the plush green of the Appalachian forests, and waking to the brilliant gold of the sun setting behind verdant North Carolinian farmland. His train pulled into Durham at 7pm, and he hadn’t even had time to buy a replacement for his now coffee-stained, white button-down shirt before he had to step into a cab bound for Chapel Hill.

 

This is something that is causing him great anxiety as he unbuttons his jacket and settles against the unforgiving wooden back of the chair.

 

He reaches up to run his fingers through the clipped, ashen slick of his hair, but his hand stops mid-air, hovering for a fraction of a second before deliberately nudging his horn-rimmed glasses up the straight bridge of his nose. His hair had once been precisely parted and cemented straight back- a style that has by now long been considered unfashionably old-fashioned- but a thin strand of gold has since fallen loose and breathes along the angular cheek topping his square jaw. He is unaware of this, too aware instead of the dark-eyed veteran of both the first and second World Wars seated at the desk across from him. His eyes dart up to the major general as he fumbles with the lid of the tube, apologizing profusely for the lateness of their meeting for the third time in as many minutes.

 

“Son,” the major general says, “you look like cold shit.”

 

Odie Mellark laughs weakly.

 

“I’d uh- I’d feel better if the train hadn’t rattled like bombs were dropping along the Atlantic Coast.”

 

The major general stares at him through narrowed eyes.

 

“You some kind of pussy?” he barks.

 

“Sir, no sir,” Odie chokes out. “Just a joke, sir.”

 

The major general’s frown only deepens. Odie swallows.

 

“So- so- anyway, here are the plans. And can I just say, sir, Mellark and Patterson are honored to be doing business with the US government. We are proud to serve our country this way.”

 

The major general tucks a cigarette in the side of his teeth, where it juts stiffly out of his molars.

 

“Serve your country, huh?” he grunts. He traps the bottom right corner of the plans under a paperweight as the man across from him scrambles to hold down the top two corners.

 

“Yes- Yes, sir.”

 

Odie nods so hard his teeth rattle, and as if he can hear them, the major general raises an eyebrow and looks up. Odie wets his dry lips and makes a show of smoothing the blueprint completely flat on the desk.

 

“So- so, these are the full plans,” he stutters, “and we’re just waiting on your finalization to start hunting for local rebar and concrete vendors.”

 

The major general flips open his Imco as he straightens up, his spine cracking loudly as the throaty sting of naphtha fills the room and he brings the flame to his cigarette. He sucks hard, the flame flickering as his cheeks cave in.

 

“Tell me what I’m looking at,” he says as he scratches his cheek with a tobacco-stained middle finger and tucks his lighter away. He plucks his cigarette away pinched between the knuckles of his middle and index fingers and exhales a stream of smoke.

 

“This is, uh, the plans for the training base you commissioned-”

 

“Well of course they are!” he barks. “But what’s what here? You got squares and scribbles and all kindsa shit all over the place.”

 

He swings his arm open over the plans, narrowly missing Odie’s face with the lit end of his cigarette.

 

“Uh, well,” Odie says as he ducks away, releasing a corner of the plans to push his glasses up his nose and pointing at the center of the plans. “Here you have the main building, complete with a medical wing for the training of combat medics, an armory and barracks for the trainees. Out across here-”

 

He traces his finger to the left.

 

“-We have plans for a functional well system and off-site septic tank, as well as-”

 

“Now just hold up there, son. Where the fuck is the wall?”

 

“The- the wall?”

 

“Yeah, the wall! This is a military base, not a goddamn county fair.”

 

“Sir, you never requested-”

 

“Never requested!”

 

The major general slaps his open palm on the desk, hulking over it to shove his face into Odie’s. As he leans back, Odie watches a vein below his eye twitch and wonders how in the world it was always him that got talked into meeting with these military types. It never went well- there was something about him that agitated them, and even though he always managed to get the contract, he was left downing a stiff drink to calm his fraying nerves at the end of it all. The major general’s eyes flash, and Odie’s blood runs cold.

 

“We got the Commies, the Koreans, and those goddamn Nazi cowards sneaking into this country from every border, shore, and inch of sky, and you didn’t think to plan on building a goddamn wall around a military base?”

 

Smoke bellows out of the major general’s nostrils and mouth to sting Odie’s eyes, which water instantly. Maybe that’s why the flush creeping along the major general’s face escapes his notice, but there’s nothing that can excuse the fact Odie misses entirely the way the major general’s eyes flit to his swollen lips, which Odie has been unconsciously chewing on.

 

He also misses the subtle shift of the officer’s hips right to left, and the flex of his thighs under the pressed taupe linen-poly blend of his pants. If he had, he would have realized instantly that the major general was concealing his painfully swollen cock in the waistband of his pants.

 

“Well- well- sir, it won’t be a big alteration to add it secondarily,” he stutters, “and, since it isn’t in the plans, no one will know how truly protected the base is. Think about it- the base’s defense won’t be a matter of record, even to us.”

 

The major general’s eyes burn bright and hot as they narrow again.

 

“And your estimate won’t change,” Odie gulps. “I’ll oversee it all. Personally.

 

The cherry at the end of the officer’s cigarette glows as he sucks on it hungrily.

 

“Personally, huh?”

 

Odie nods emphatically.

 

Neither man notices when the cherry on the end of the major general’s cigarette grows pendulous, nor do either of them see it fall onto the plans. They are busy staring into each other’s eyes- wondering in the way men who perceive themselves as vulnerable do when they’re considering what the other could possibly be thinking. Odie licks his lips. The major general grits his teeth, his cock twitching achingly against the tight silk nylon stockings he’s wearing beneath his uniform. He’s not worried about his pants. Silk, he’d discovered, is amazingly absorbent.

 

Neither of the men see the cherry fall off the end of the major general’s cigarette and drop on the paper beneath their faces, where it seethes for a moment before grazing a smoking path through a portion of Odie’s painstakingly drawn blueprints.

 

When Odie leaves the base that night, contract in hand, he will travel to the only diner left open in North Carolina. A waitress there named Wilhemina White will turn around as he opens the diner door, and her heart will flutter. She will serve him coffee and a slice of cherry pie, which Odie will thank her for without looking up. By the time the plate of pie is set in front of him, he will have unrolled the plans and discovered the singe mark from the Major General’s cigarette, and it will be the straw that breaks poor, dutiful Odie’s back.

 

He will hang his head, face in his hands, and gaze with such absolute misery down at the formalyte diner table that when Wilhemina White sees him, she will do something a good, practical Lutheran girl never should.

 

She will leave work early. Bring Odie back to her apartment.  Push him onto her couch and ride him so tenderly, so slowly, that when color bursts finally behind her eyes, she will be shocked by just how alive she feels in that moment, with her thighs hooked on either side of a stranger’s hips, and her white cotton underwear dangling at the t-strap ankle of her patent leather shoes.

 

And Odie will also be surprised, because as Wilhemina breathes heavily against his chest and he stares up at the painting of a vase of flowers hanging over his head, the answer to all his woes will come to him.

 

This engineer thing. Maybe it wasn’t for him. He could quit. He could finish this last project, and then he’d never have to face down another general. He could lead a nice, simple life- maybe even right here, in Chapel Hill! He could buy a plot of land- be a farmer- They had easy lives, didn’t they? Farmers did? Hands deep in the red soil, sweat on their brows- but they answered to no one but God and the wind.

 

A sense of quiet will come over him. Part of that will be because Wilhemina’s breathing becomes shallow and soft- she falls asleep on top of him- and part of that will be because, for the first time in his life, Odie Mellark will see a future for himself that doesn’t drive him to the edge of existential terror.

 

And all he will have to do to acheive it is finish this last project- and figure out how to build a hollow, unmoored wall without anyone noticing.

 

-

 

Odie keeps his word to Major General Ezekiel Roberts. The wall around Sanctuary is built at no extra cost to the US government, and it never becomes a matter of record, either public or private. The singe mark from the Major General’s cigarette becomes the southeast side of Sanctuary’s wall, directly over the sewage pipeline that leads far out into the woods, and Wilhemina White, three months pregnant the next time he sees her, becomes his wife.

 

And years later, a slender young woman with a riotous mass of dreads will stare out at the biggest lie of Odie Mellark’s life with unseeing eyes. But she will feel, underneath her only sturdy foot, the beginnings of his betrayal.

 

-

 

Katniss stares at her foot in confusion. Was that-? The night is silent, too still for anything extraordinary to have happened, especially the trembling of the earth. She swallows, her eyes tracing the wall’s path as it skirts the edge of the forest, dipping into the slightest inward bow before righting itself and arching north.

 

If Katniss Everdeen had had an engineer’s education, she would have spotted the problem immediately. But after Katniss’s father died and her mother disappeared into the church, a great many things took a backseat to her family’s survival. School was the first to go after their TANF ran out. She lost her friends when their food stamp allowance ran out, her pride when the church’s food pantry went dry, and the last remnants of her childhood when her grandparents’ already meager generosity evaporated. So at fifteen years old, Katniss Everdeen got a job at Sae’s (formerly White’s) Diner working nights, where she worked up until The End, rain or shine, for better or worse, even after-

 

She blinks, her eyes adjusting to the light as the clouds part to reveal the moon, heavy and swollen- too heavy to lift itself safe of the sawtooth jaw of pines of the forest. Below, caught in the sticky, oozing light, a swarm of shadows congeals- writhes- throbs- grows . The only static piece is him, Two-Face, at the center, staring up at her as she stares back. Katniss swallows. Her finger hangs over the trigger of her rifle. If she shoots and misses, he’ll disappear, and the synchronized chaos of infected surrounding him will crush into the gate. There’s more of them now- more than ever before- and the way the gate groans under their collective force…

 

The infected have been following the cars driving west, away from the nuclear wasteland of the coast and toward the mountains. She sometimes hears these cars in the night, passing along the highway through the trees. The roar of the engines growing and fading, the headlights a distant flicker through the trees, and chasing them, the howls of the dead.

 

Distant. Furious. But coming.

 

When she first came to Sanctuary, there were ten or so infected that showed up at the fence in a night. Their faces were those of the freshly turned- covered in crackling, dried blood, their eyes alert and focused. But now-

 

Now there’s hundreds. Any sound will draw them to the gate- a gunshot, a laugh, a sneeze- and there they pool, growing as if they were all separate cells in the same pulsing mutation.

 

That’s what they are, in the end. Human, and not. Alive, but not in the way they were before. Dead without having died. It’s infection itself she’s looking at. The way it changes the brain. That’s what makes them move the way they do. Chase the way they do. Kill the way they do.

 

The scope is sharp and cold against the heated skin of her face, and the world shudders as a shiver gnaws its way down her spine. Katniss presses her lips together and refocuses her breathing. It’s worth taking the shot- and risking a swarm- to take Two-Face down. If the infected are mutations, then he’s a further permutation, and so much more malignant for it.

 

As if he can hear what she’s thinking, Two-Face blinks, blood oozing down his cheeks, then whips his head around and disappears into the gathering horde. She drops to her good knee, quickly adjusting the scope and tracing a path back north as a figure darts in and out of the trees, its long legs flying as it careens through the brush. She catches its back in her crosshairs, and her finger lights on the trigger. He flies through a shadow, then disappears into the trees. For several seconds she waits, her breath locked in her chest. But he’s gone.

 

She sighs, preparing to stand, when the figure bursts out from the trees. She curses and locks in on it again, her finger shaking on the trigger as it-

 

“Sweetheart.”

 

She startles and he’s gone.

 

But it doesn’t matter.

 

The eye pressed to her scope sinks shut, and her heart beats heavy and numb in her chest. The man behind her shifts on his feet. She knows why he’s here. Knows why he’s sought her out now, and she knows what will happen when she lowers the gun away from her face and turns around to face him. She can almost hear him saying the words she’s dreaded every second of the day for weeks.

 

It’s Rue. You should be there with her, when she-

 

She swallows.

 

“He’s back, huh?”

 

Her brows cinch together as the rush of adrenaline filling her falters suddenly.

 

“What-” she mumbles, adjusting her sights and tucking her dreads back behind her burning ears as her temples throb. “Who?”

 

“You know who.”

 

She drops the gun and struggles to her feet, her jaw tight. Haymitch wipes his dribbling nose and points at the forest beyond the wall. His fatigued eyes never leave the cigarette he’s rolling one-handed as he grunts-

 

“Your boyfriend.”

 

She stiffens.

 

“Put your claws away,” he drawls as he lights up. He turns back to lean on the piling, and smoke curls out of his nose, blowing past her in an odd, sweet cloud. Her heart slows as irritation starts to gnaw at her again. This was a social visit, then. A particularly unwelcome one. She narrows her eyes at the nauseating smoke leaking out of his mouth.

 

There’s no tobacco left and hasn’t been for some time now, but that hasn’t stopped Haymitch from trying to smoke any plant he could get his yellowed fingers on. Some doctor. In the Before, Haymitch  probably was a smoker. And a drinker. And, she guesses, a 'doer’ of many other things as well, though she never asked. He just had that look to him. Like he’d seen some stuff, even before the world went to hell in a handbasket.

 

Her nose wrinkles at the odd familiarity of the smoke. It almost smelled like-

 

She groans. That fucker got into the last of their tea.

 

“S'not me that said it. But everyone’s thinking it.”

 

He looks at her pointedly and ashes over the edge of the wall. The live cherry that falls from his cigarette carries on the breeze until it bursts against the matted, blood-encrusted head of an infected beyond the gate. It glows for a moment and dies. The infected’s head whips back and forth, and then it runs off down the fence with a howl.

 

“Everyone,” Haymitch intones. “If you know what I mean.

 

Katniss snorts and leans on her elbows on the wall next to him. The wind picks up again and tugs at the small hairs growing along her hairline. Her eyes scan the dark silhouettes of the forest, but not out of habit. She can’t see Two-Face, but she can feel his eyes on her anyway, as if he knew she was there. Knew the whole time her scope had been trained on him, even.

 

He was playing with her again.

 

She shivers, her stomach twisting violently.

 

“It’s too cold out here. You should go inside.” Haymitch says it without looking over. “Unless you think that infected is gonna bring you flowers.”

 

Katniss snorts, but it’s weak. “Somehow, I don’t think that’ll be happening.”

 

“Fair enough...” Haymitch says slyly, “...but what if it’s that blond kid from the Comm crew you’ve been spending so much time with?”

 

“Then he and my boyfriend can exchange bouquets.”

 

Haymitch chokes, his cigarette falling out of his mouth and over the side of the wall.

 

“Shit!,” he wheezes. The dim light spins over and over before bursting in a shower of sparks on the mud. “Oh goddammit!”

 

Haymitch scrubs a hand across his face as he looks up at the sky in exasperation. He’s saying something else to her- something about heading back inside- but she isn’t paying attention. She’s too busy staring down at the ground below them- beyond the wall, but inside the gate- at Haymitch’s fallen cigarette.

 

It’s burning low.

 

Dark.

 

Dim.

 

But, clearly illuminated on either side of it, is a pair of legs.

 

“He’s inside,” she chokes.

 

The cigarette flashes bright- a face looks up- as if its owner heard her- and white teeth glow for just a fraction of a second before the cigarette dies. Her heart kicks hard as she whips the gun to her face, her scope trailing the deadzone between the wall and the fence.

 

“What?” Haymitch says. “What are you-”

 

“He’s inside. Inside the gate. I just saw him!”

 

“Who? Who is?”

 

Katniss fumbles in her coat pocket for a flashlight and flips it on, the beam cutting across the ground below them.

 

“He was just- He-”

 

She swallows.

 

The ground below the wall is empty and still, the air too frigid for even the grass to flutter.

 

“What are you on about?” Haymitch snaps.

 

“I thought-,” she swallows. “I thought I saw…”

 

She doesn't finish.

 

Haymitch tugs the corner of his mouth back as he sucks his teeth. Katniss sets her jaw.

 

“I know what I-”

 

A blaring siren interrupts her, and Katniss swings her gun inside the compound, her flashlight searing across Haymitch’s shocked face to illuminate the grounds behind him. The grass is a black-green carpet frozen in time- not so much as the shadow of a rat flits through her field of sight. She cuts left to the cafeteria, then right to the Boneyard. But nothing moves except the hairs rising on the back of her neck. Voices echo- a shrill wall of sound that Katniss parses into individual components: screaming, shouted instructions, and... laughter?

 

She drops her gun and squints north along the wall at the two members of the guard. They’re shoving each other- shouting- and blind stinking drunk .

 

“Sorry!” one calls to her. “Thought I heard you say your boyfriend was looking for you again!”

 

The siren cuts off. Haymitch catches her shoulder.

 

“Don’t,” he warns. “Not for this. You know what they’ll do. It’s not worth- Hey! Listen! It’s not worth it.”

 

He’s right, of course. What they’d do, if she retaliated- it would be a much higher price than she could afford to pay. And maybe it wouldn’t stop at her, either. She had to remember that there was someone else who depended on her. Still, her heart beats fast and faster as she retreats back across the lawn and into her room. A dull thudding has taken root in her head, but it’s not a headache. It’s some kind of drumbeat, a pulsing voice that’s growing louder and louder with every passing minute-

 

He can see you.

 

Even with her door shut. Even with her flashlight illuminating the dark corners of her room. Even with the hall outside still and silent. He was behind her every step, waiting beyond every door and in every creak, and she was just as hopelessly caught inside the walls of Sanctuary as she was protected by them.

 

This place.

 

It was a trap all along.

 

-

 

It all happens so fast after that.

 

Rue’s lips chap, split, then bleed. Her skin fades to a blanched, sallow sort of pale that makes Katniss’s stomach flip, and fragile, tiny coils of her hair collect on her pillow like fallen flower petals. They drift down the wrinkles in the soft cotton that ripple out from Rue’s head to pool at her shoulders, and eddies of them find their way down her motionless arms.

 

But the hair is nothing- nothing at all- compared to the change in Rue’s eyes. Haymitch gently rests a hand on Katniss’s shoulder as she stares down at the milky orbs in mute disbelief.

 

“You did what you could,” he says.

 

His voice is tired and quiet, and though she understands his tone and each of the words he uses, the meaning of it all together doesn’t make any sense. Katniss’s lip twitches. She steps back, away from the bed and what’s on it, her chest numb as Haymitch slides Rue’s eyes shut with two fat, calloused fingers. She takes another step back. Then two. Her legs are shaking as her back collides with the doorjamb and she swallows. Then she bolts, grasping her crutch with white knuckles as she limps down the hall as fast as she can manage.

 

She can’t breathe- can’t think- not in the suffocating fluorescence of the generator-fueled hospital wing, not in the sharp, frigid darkness of the hall beyond, and especially not in the black bowels of the back stairwell.

 

She stumbles down the last few stairs, losing her balance and nearly falling as she bursts out into the night. Her nostrils flare and her lungs burn as she gasps for air. The world outside the compound is too sudden- too real- the stars overhead a cold mural of pin-sharp lights that waver and collide in a dizzying swarm.

 

Her eyes flinch shut. Haymitch had tried to warn her. Had tried to tell her to get ready. But how could you ever be ready to watch someone-

 

What?

 

Die?

 

Is that what’s happening to Rue?

 

She shakes her head and twists her fingers into her dreads at the scalp, tugging on them painfully as her nails dig into the soft skin. It’s true Rue has never been this bad, but how could he be sure what was happening? Or, for that matter, how could she? It’d been so long since she spent the night in the chair next to Rue’s bed. When had she stopped doing that? Her stomach tightens. Weeks . It’s been two, maybe three. And she noticed last night she had locked Rue inside. She’d even waited, listening carefully for the tumbler to click into place. She knew firsthand that once the door closed there was no opening it from the inside. Why had she done that? And why had there been a moment this morning where she was afraid to reopen it? Why was she so unsure of what she’d find?

 

She shakes her head. Haymitch was wrong. He had to be. He’d been wrong about her ankle- what’s to say this would be any different? After all, Rue had been sick for so long now, but she’d always pulled through fine. Haymitch wasn’t there, so he hadn’t seen it. But Katniss had. How much could she really trust the opinion of a drunk anyway?

 

Her eyes open and drift up. Impassive as always, the sky stares back. She’d never believed in God- it was hard to believe in anything after her father died- but she was finding it harder and harder to believe anything at all about The Before could possibly have been true either.

 

Had she really gone grocery shopping once a week? Walked colorful aisles of fresh fruit and neatly packaged corn derivative snacks? Had she really chosen between six or seven kinds of meat? Had she really spent hours at a mall trying on different pairs of pants, critiquing the fit of each one in a mirror? Fretting over two- or three-dollar differences in price and rhinestone detailing? Had she really waited in traffic, blasting her car’s air conditioner as she sipped hot tea from an insulated mug? Had she really wasted time shaving her legs? Choosing between three or four different TV channels? And why had it been so important that she do those things? She can’t remember. Can’t understand. Can’t even imagine anymore what had been the reasoning behind any of it. Had any of it really happened?

 

She blinks, heat spilling over the edge of her eyes and streaking unchecked down her cheeks. What had they done to deserve this? If there was a God, he had known what would happen to her. To Prim. To all of them. He had been planning to take Prim from her, to leave her lost and sick and cold somewhere out in the North Carolinian wilderness, and to take Katniss far, far away from her and trap her in this concrete pigpen.

 

“... how long?”

 

“Five minutes.”

 

The voices freeze her blood in her veins.

 

“After boot up and connection, you have about two to load Readit and post. But there’s a lot you can do in two minutes if you plan ahead.”

 

“It’s a hell of a lot better than nothing at all.”

 

Katniss melts away along the wall as the beam of a flashlight cuts across the lawn and lands on the door she had been standing in front of seconds ago.


“Right. And once I switch the batteries, we’ll have six hours. Maybe seven.”

 

“Holy fuck, Mellark.”

 

Katniss’s eyes widen, and she bites her lip.

 

“Who else knows?”

 

“No one. Yet.”

 

Two figures pause in front of the door.

 

“So. What’s your plan?”


“Not sure yet,” Peeta says. “But I thought, you know. You might want in.”

 

“You did, huh?”

 

“Sure, man,” he shrugs. “Thought you might have some… ideas .”

 

The door creaks open, and a sliver of faint light falls across a sharp-featured face. They take a step farther into the light, and Katniss’s heart plummets. It’s Zeke, who turns around to look at Peeta, his incisors flashing in the weak light as a grin tugs his lips up and away.

 

“I do. And I think you’ll like them.”

 

“I’m sure I will,” Peeta says. “But in the meantime-”

 

Zeke waves him off.

 

“I know exactly what you want, and where to get it. This place is ancient. All kinds of weird shit lying around.”

 

“Then let’s keep each other in the loop,” Peeta says, thrusting a hand toward Zeke. The dark-haired man grasps his hand and shakes once.

 

“You surprised me, Mellark,” Zeke says. He shakes his head. “I didn’t think you had the balls for this kind of thing.”

 

Peeta’s answering smile is cold and unreadable, and Katniss inches away from the door. Zeke slips inside, and she stops, watching the sliver of light gliding shut on Peeta’s impassive face. In the last split second of illumination, his jaw flexes tightly as the smile melts away. The tendons dance under his cheeks, then disappear in the inky blackness.

 

She breathes quickly, waiting for him to move, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t even shift his weight on his crutch, or scratch his arm. She’d hear it, with how quiet it is, but Peeta is completely still, and breathing steadily. As she listens, her heart clenches in her chest. It’s been days since she last saw him. This time, though, it’s not her fault. Not entirely, at least.

 

Johanna told her that Peeta had been summoned to another meeting with the Senator, and it hadn’t gone well. Peeta had stormed out, and everyone in the dining hall heard what happened next.

 

“Sanctuary is the only reason you’re alive, Mellark. And you know it.”

 

As the Senator said it, his eyes had tracked down Peeta’s crutch and lingered on the rolled up fold of his pants on his missing leg. Peeta hadn’t turned around, but he had stopped walking, his face too expressionless for the way he was gripping his crutch. She watched his lips twitch, then his eyes found hers. He looked her in the eye for a long time, and then his lips sealed in a tight line across his face. Peeta had stayed locked up in his room since then, leaving only long enough for meals and not much else.

 

Except, apparently, to become best friends with Zeke.

 

She looks out into the darkness, where she knows Peeta lingers, and bites her lip. Then she is limping toward him, her crutch sinking into the soft earth, furious words burning hot on the tip of her tongue. Peeta startles, and his flashlight bursts to life, burning a trail through the darkness to her face.

 

“Jesus! Katniss!” he says in surprise. “I didn’t even hear you.”

 

She falters under his gaze, suddenly unable to remember what had driven her toward him to begin with. Her lips twitch into a weak smile, but she can tell he doesn’t buy it.

 

“What are you doing out here?” he asks.

 

“I was hungry,” her mouth supplies.

 

Peeta blinks.

 

“The cafeteria is closed.”

 

“I-” She pauses. “I know.”

 

His brows inch together, and he steps closer. The warmth of his fingertips brushes down her cheek, and she swallows, her gaze fixed on his. The skin is still wet, and she knows he can feel it, but her mouth is too dry to offer up an excuse. The way he’s looking at her though, like her skin is nothing but tissue paper and he’s accidentally seen all the brightly bruised organs underneath it, she’s not sure anything she’d say would matter. She squirms, wrapping her arms around herself and tucking her hands into her armpits.

 

“What?” she snaps.

 

The meeting with the Senator. The way he’s looking at her. Something happened. It must have, to drag him out of his room in the middle of the night. He’s hiding something.

 

Peeta swallows, his jaw flexing again as his head tilts and his lips tighten against whatever is in his head. There’s a beat of silence, and then he draws a deep breath, his mouth opening just in time for her stomach to rumble in aggravation. Her cheeks burn as Peeta chuckles and shakes his head.

 

“Did you hear that?” he whispers conspiratorially, fighting hard against the smile tugging on the corners of his lips. “Do you think- do you think it came from inside the walls?”

 

She frowns.

 

“Peeta-”

 

“It sounded like a monster,” he interrupts. “A hungry one.”

 

“Of course it’s fucking hungr-!”

 

“Then we better feed it,” he says. “Before it decides to eat us.”

 

He leans his weight on his crutch as he claps his hands to his cheeks in mock horror, then starts toward the back stairway. Her brow tightens furiously, and she stalks after him.

 

“Maybe it just wants you dead,” she hisses when she catches up. “And hunger has nothing to do with it.”

 

He shoots her a smirk over his shoulder and disappears around the door.

 

“Sweetheart,” he calls from inside. “You can finish me off anytime.”

 

She’s alone for a moment, standing outside in the frozen darkness before Peeta realizes she isn’t following him and pops his head back out. A smile is on his face, and a blush too, dark and happy even in the dim light of his flashlight. It fades as he catches sight of her face, and his brow tightens immediately.

 

“You’re making fun of me,” she says.

 

“I’d never,” he promises.

 

Her knees weaken as he limps his way back to her.

 

“It’s not funny,” she blurts.

 

“It’s not a joke.”

 

“You-”

 

He grabs her hand and places it over his heart.

 

“It’s not ,” he emphasizes gently, “a joke.”

 

Underneath her palm his heartbeat is a wild thing, rattling against his ribs at a supernatural pace.

 

“Do you understand now, Katniss?” he murmurs.

 

Her eyes lift slowly to meet his as he takes her hand and molds her pinky and ring finger back, leaving her just index and middle fingers pointed at his heart.


“How about now?”

 

But she doesn’t understand- not at all, and he must see that because he continues-

 

“If I’m going to die… I want to be me . And...”

 

He drops his voice as he leans his head toward her.

 

“...and I would rather be dead a hundred times over than look at you with eyes that aren’t mine anymore.”

 

As he speaks she can feel the air escaping his lips on her own.

 

“You can’t-,” she says.

 

He presses toward her, into the fingers he has shaped into a gun and pointed directly at his heart, until their foreheads are a breadth apart.

 

“I’m not afraid,” he says. “The sun will still rise. The world will still spin.”

 

“No,” she chokes. “They won’t!”

 

Peeta stiffens. She glares up at him as she breathes fast and hard through her nose.

 

“They won’t. Not for me.”

 

“Katniss,” he croaks. “Every step I have taken from the moment I heard you on that radio has been to bring myself closer to you.”

 

The words do something sudden and so strange to her heart, like it’s constricting in the sweetest, most painful way, and she’s breathless and too warm as her eyes blur wetly and flutter shut.

 

“And now that I’ve found you- I’m going to fight like hell for you.”

 

She peels her eyes open.

 

“Just-”

 

He swallows. Catches her face in his hand and brushes away the moisture that’s swelling over the rims of her eyes.

 

“I’m not going anywhere, Katniss. Not if I can help it. Trust me.”

 

He leans up swiftly and presses his lips to her forehead.

 

Trust me, ” he whispers against her skin so urgently it’s almost a plea. His lips are chapped, but soft and so warm, and she clutches the stiff leather of his jacket in a desperate attempt to keep them where they are.

 

Blinking quickly at the ground, her brain races to piece together some kind of response. The truth is, for better or worse, she already does trust him. They’re in this together, and they were from the very start. Even when she was alone, she wasn’t really. Peeta had been searching for her this whole time, like she’d been searching for him.

 

But did he really believe that he could just try not to die and that alone would keep him alive? No- Peeta was too smart for that. He’s not one of the Sanctuary guards. He’s from the Beyond. He’s seen things. He knows what it’s like out there. So why is he so sure determination is the difference between life and death?

 

Did he not understand what an apocalypse was?

 

And could she kill him, the way he wanted her to, if it came down to it? He all but promised her that it wouldn’t, but what if it did?

 

Without needing to think about it she knows the answer.

 

“Ok,” she whispers. And even though it’s true, it still tastes like a lie.

 

“Let’s go inside,” he says finally. “I have something much better than mashed parsnips in store for you.”

 

A breath of laughter escapes her.

 

“Oh boy ,” she deadpans, her voice cracking only a little as she rolls her eyes. Peeta yanks the door open and holds it for her.

 

“You’re gonna regret that,” he sings as he follows her inside.

 

“But- what could possibly be better than mashed parsnips?” she asks innocently. “Particle board? Wet cement? Candle wax?”

 

His smile grows, and light dances in his eyes.

 

“Cement can be an excellent source of nutrition, you know. Think about all the minerals in it.”

 

“Peeta. Those are actual rocks.”

 

“Tom- ay -to, tom- ah -to,” he shrugs, a smile tugging on his lips.

 

With a slight shove the door groans open, and Peeta hobbles in ahead of her to switch on the kerosene camping lantern he has next to his bed. When light fills the room, her jaw drops. The floor is littered with snippets of wire, broken electronics casings and clothes, and she has to knock the shredded remains of a laptop bag out of the way with her crutch as she follows him in.

 

Peeta winces and rubs a spot behind his neck.

 

“It’s a little bit of a mess in here- sorry.”

 

But mess barely does it justice, and even then it only covers the floor. His desk is another story entirely, an explosion of circuit boards, plastic casings, and a full panel of different screens tangled up in a rat’s nest of rainbow wires.

 

“Don’t be. I heard that you’ve been... busy,” she says.

 

He flushes as he motions at her to sit on his bed as he opens up the back of an old manilla computer monitor. She climbs up to sit on his desk instead, swinging her feet as she watches him rummage around inside the monitor casing.

 

“I had an idea about- well. It doesn’t matter now.”

 

He trails off and leaves the words hanging odd and heavy in the air, his voice tight. She frowns and is about to ask about it when he turns around, his free arm loaded with brightly colored packages. She must make some kind of face, because he smirks as he drops them next to her on the desk.

 

“Dinner is served,” he smirks. “Tonight we have a white corn and aged cheddar reduction, accompanied by a toasted and ground peanut crostini-”

 

“So. Cheetos and peanut butter cracker sandwiches.”

 

Peeta smirks as he drops in front of her in his chair.

 

“Exactly.”

“I’m not sure you understand what a reduction is.”

 

He shrugs and peels open a bag of miniature chocolate chip cookies.

 

“Well, since the only thing I’ve never managed to burn is ice cream, I’d say I’m still doing pretty good.”

 

He waves at the pile of food.

 

“Dig in.”

 

She doesn’t need to be told twice. The peanut butter cracker sandwiches are the best thing she’s eaten in her whole life, and near the end of the package she slows down so she can enjoy the last bites, tracking down the crumbs she lost on the way in the folds of her pants. Peeta wordlessly hands her another pack before she’s even finished her first, an odd look on his face.

 

“So. Um. You didn’t know? About Finnick’s stash?”

 

“His what?”

 

Peeta swallows.

 

“You didn’t. All this time.”

 

Katniss looks at him hard.

 

“What are you talking about?”

 

Peeta stands abruptly and limps back to his desk.

 

“What’s the real reason, you think, that the Senator won’t send Runners out? You’ve known him longer.”

 

Katniss snorts.

 

“You know how the Guard patrols the walls? And the Runners- well. Run? Neither the Guard nor the Senator has ever seen an infected up close. They haven’t left Sanctuary since this whole thing started.”

 

Peeta turns back around.

 

“Really?”

 

Katniss nods, cracker hanging out of her mouth as she digs around inside the bag for another.

 

“Never?”

 

“The Senator never leaves Sanctuary,” she mumbles around the cracker. “The Guard never leaves the walls. Only the Runners do those things. And only people from The Beyond have ever become Runners.”

 

Peeta limps back to the bed and drops heavily beside her.

 

“So he’s scared. Really scared.”

 

Wrinkles line Katniss’s forehead as her brow tightens.

 

“Two-Face is still a person,” she says, her voice odd.

 

Peeta stiffens.

 

“Who is Two-Face?”

 

“The infected. The one that breaks in.”

 

“The one who bit-”

 

“Yes. That’s what I-” she swallows, “that’s what I call him.”

 

“Ok… And what do you mean ‘ still a person’ ?”

 

She fiddles with the plastic packaging, folding it neatly in half a few times over.

 

“The infected are people,” she says, her voice tight. “Two-Face is just- he’s just an infected person.”

 

She looks up, her chin raised.

 

“Guns kill people,” she states firmly. “Two-Face can be killed.”

 

She’s quiet for a moment, her mouth opening and closing as words congeal in her head. As if he senses there is more coming, Peeta stays silent.

 

“You have to separate yourself,” she starts up again. “When you get behind a gun, I mean. Breathe in. Breathe out. Clear your mind. Wait until you’re totally empty of everything, then fire. You can’t be afraid. You can’t feel anything at all. If you’re afraid, you’re someone . If you’re afraid, then Two-Face is in your head, and he’s won and you’re already dead.”

 

She pauses, squaring her shoulders.

 

“You have to be no one,” she says slowly. “No one, and nothing. That’s why the Guard keeps missing him. That’s why they don’t leave the compound. That’s why the Senator won’t let anyone leave. Two-Face is in his head.”

 

“And how do you come back?”


Katniss stares.

 

“To being a someone again?” Peeta continues. “You’re still a someone, even when you’re trying to be no one . You still feel fear, even if it’s just fear of being afraid. So how do you get back to being a person?

 

“Why does that matter?”  

 

He stares at her. Stands. Puts his palms on either side of her knees.

 

The blue of his eyes in the long shadows of the room shines as though lit from behind, and his irises contract sharply, then focus on her and balloon out, fat and glossy black. His hand is bigger than she expected as it slides along her cheek to cup her jaw. His thumb alone spans the distance between her jaw and her ear, and the whisper of its calloused pad over her cheekbone sends blood racing to her head. It never struck her how much he dwarfs her, but it’s all she can think about now, and she can hardly breathe when he leans forward to press his lips to hers.

 

It feels different, this kiss from the last, and she wishes she could deny why that was. One time could have been a momentary weakness, a mistake, and she’s already made plenty of those, so what was one more? But twice? Twice was a pattern. Twice was a bad habit. Twice was once more than once, but a hundred times over for all it implied.

 

There’s no way this could ever end well. Not for either of them. Not when death paces nightly outside their front door. But she’d already tried to outrun this and had failed miserably, because here she was, with Peeta Mellark’s hand sliding down her shoulder to her waist, and all the alarm bells warning her that when this was all over she’d lose more than just him weren’t enough to keep her away.

 

Food and shelter weren’t enough to survive anymore.

 

She needed him too.

 

“That’s why it matters,” Peeta murmurs against her lips, and it’s a miracle she hears him over the hammering of her own heart in her chest. A pulsing warmth blooms underneath her skin, and suddenly the inch of space between them seems cruel and strange. She’s left with no choice but to draw him back- back between her opened legs, back to her mouth, back to where she can arch upward as her fingers clutch the soft material of his hoodie.

 

It’s like she’s drunk- the room is spinning, the air is thick, and she can’t be sure of what she’ll do next. Especially since nothing will stop the heat building beneath her skin, glowing outward from her chest until even her fingers are shaking from it and a throbbing ache has bloomed between her thighs. No matter how Peeta touches her it only gets worse, and white hot shivers roll up her spine with every new place his fingertips travel: down her arms, to her bare wrists, skating over her knees, over the rough fabric covering her thighs, brushing the bare skin between her shirt and pants- Her mouth drops open when his lips find their way to her jaw and then down, gently laying kisses along the thick leather of her collar. His finger hooks in the buckle behind her neck, and all at once she can’t breathe.

 

“Can I?” he murmurs, and she must nod, because with a shock of unreality, her collar grows loose, then falls away from her neck. Her heart is pounding against her chest so hard she is sure Peeta can feel it because he looks up to her eyes, as if checking that he understood her. Whatever he finds there drives him forward, but cautiously, and there is an eternity where she is sure he is going to kiss newly exposed skin but doesn’t. He sees them then. The deep scars her sister’s fingernails left. As soon as she thinks it his lips are there, tracing the fresh pink skin with kisses so light they’re hardly more than air. They’re hardly anything at all, really.

 

But he may as well have lit her on fire.

 

Her head drops back, a pathetic whimper tearing itself out of her throat as her chest heaves rapidly in an attempt to catch her breath. But it’s no use. Peeta’s kisses are a muddy hue of all her nightmares and fever dreams at once- a mouth at her neck, teeth brushing its oh-so-breakable prisoner skin, and instead of terror she feels that tender violence igniting her every nerve.

 

Of all the things she’s feared in her life, there’s been no fear like this one. Nothing as primal. Nothing as immediate. It’s grinned at her from the shadowed corners of her every moment, waking or otherwise, ever since her father’s death, but it wasn’t until now that she could define it.

 

Maybe infection wasn’t a virus at all.

 

Maybe it was simply a truth no one wanted to hear.

 

Behind their polite veneers, their ties and their handshakes and their knowing, predatory smiles, maybe men were like this all along- their eyes wide and hungry, their teeth bared for the kill- and all infection had done is strip their self-consciousness away. The Before had been nothing but a simulacra, and this, The End…

 

It’s what is real.

 

Blood and teeth and salt and fire. Death clawing at your front door. It wasn’t a virus at all that made the infected hunt the living. They were born with that already in their blood.

 

Monsters. Every one.

-

 

It is December 20th, 2012.

 

Katniss Everdeen is eighteen years old and far, far away from home, alone in a city she’s never been to before, staring up at a milk-white sky.

 

One year from now, the world will end. Shops will turn their lights out for the last time. Houses will grow still and dark, then choked with vines, only to finally collapse in piles of rotten wood and plaster. Blood will run dark and thick in the gutters, mother and child alike will turn with teeth bared upon one another, and it will be said that God blinked, and during the fraction of a second where his eyes were blind to his creation, it had fallen into the sulfuric jaw of the Leviathan.

 

But this morning, traffic lights still change. Water still pours from faucets, cell phones still politely remind you to update your software, and Katniss Everdeen is looking at something she’s never seen before.

 

Real snow.

 

It collects on her eyelashes, then tumbles to the ridge of her cheeks, which still burn with the shameful heat of all the things she’s done in the dark to soothe a wound that she knew would never heal.

 

She swallows, her chin tightening as her trembling legs finally fail her, and she collapses at the bottom of a rickety wooden stairwell in the parking lot of an old brick apartment building. Her hand tightens around the post of the handrail, chipping paint and splinters digging deep into her palm. It’s not that that does it, but it’s the pinch of the raw, rotted wood that directly precedes the air rushing out of her suddenly, her shoulders folding in as her head falls back.

 

Her eyes roll up- searching for the sun- but there is nothing there but white.

 

On her lips, the beginning of a prayer forms, but it’s a compulsion- a memory- an empty movement. Fury rises in her, but she cannot put words or reason to it. It simply is, and it is simply agony. Something lands in the snow behind her. Despite the silence of her sobs, she doesn’t hear it.

 

How long she stays there, she doesn’t know. Snow collects on her clothes, on her shoulders, and her bare neck. It burns whatever skin it touches and drips down the plunging neck of her dress. Her tights are soaked to the skin already, and the metal, heart-shaped clips holding up them up dig into her flesh.

 

When the door opens behind her she goes still, but she needn’t have worried. It’s not who she’s dreading it is. A boy a few years older than her descends the stairs, his eyes too furious for him to be fully handsome, but his dark hair and dusting of freckles are certainly striking enough to shame her even further. She ducks her head and fishes her phone out of her pocket, pretending to text her sister.

 

The boy thumps down the stairs without a backward glance , his empty backpack whuffing against his coat. He takes a few steps, and Katniss looks up from her phone in relief. But then he pauses, turns back, and looks her up and down.

 

“You, uh…”

 

He clears his throat.

 

“You ok?”

 

Refusing to look at him, she grunts- “Yes.”

 

He stands there a minute longer anyway, as if considering whether or not he should push the issue, and not for one moment does Katniss believe that he believes her. So she narrows her eyes and glares up at the boy whose face is half-shadowed by the apartment’s awning, one eye bathed in weak sunlight, the other hidden entirely by shadow.

 

“You sure?”

 

Katniss thinks of Sae’s Diner. She thinks of the grocery store next store. She thinks of the long, dark alley in between them, with long-armed shadows waiting within darker shadows for someone to walk by. She had been through that alley just once. A winter’s night just after her father passed. Their fridge at home was empty and dark, and Prim was so hungry she had taken to chewing straws to stop the hunger pains. Her shift was over, and with the seven dollars she had earned in tips she was going to buy bread and peanut butter.

 

Katniss thinks of the bruises that healed, and everything else that never did. Her aching stomach. Endless nights of her fist shoved into her mouth so Prim wouldn’t hear. She thinks of shadows and smiles and arms and the voice that said-

 

‘Where ya goin’?’

 

Her heart beats heavy and hard in her chest as every muscle in her back contracts. Her lips tug upward in a fleeting, empty gesture approximating a smile.

 

“Fine.”

 

He shifts on his feet, then reaches toward her. She jerks back, shock and anger on her face as she shoves herself against the creaking handrail. He pauses, his eyes cold and bitterly dark.

 

“Relax,” he mutters. “You dropped this. I’m leaving now, ok?”

 

He shoves something at her before throwing his hands up and stalking off, a smokestack’s worth of steamed breath trailing after him. She clutches the thing with shaking hands, watching his loping step until he rounds the corner and disappears. Then she swallows hard, her pulse slowing. It was time to go anyway. She was going to be late to grab Prim before they started their long drive back home. She frowns, looking down at the blue wig in her hands, then shoves it in her coat pocket and disappears into the snow.


-

Chapter Text

-

 

Every light in the cafeteria is out except the one over the last table. It’s the first thing Peeta notices as Johanna wheels him through the cafeteria doors and pulls to a stop twenty feet from the figures hunched over that table, shrouded both in light and shadow all at once. What Peeta notices next is the smell. Heady and smoky and sweet. Like a barbeque. His stomach gurgles in response, but he hardly thinks the Senator is going to offer him a seat at the table. No. Peeta is sure he knows why Wilson wants to see him, and it has nothing at all to do with food.

 

As his eyes adjust to the dim light the figures become the Comm crew and the wall guard, the shadowed hollows of their eyes locked at their plates as they wolf down what's on them to a chorus of squeals of steel against porcelain.

 

“Mr. Mellark,” an easy voice says. “So good of you to join us.”

 

Behind him he feels- rather than sees- Johanna melt away back through the doors to the yard with a muttered-

 

“Good luck Abercrombie.”

 

“Good evening, Sir,” Peeta says, one of his hands dropping to the handrim of his chair while the other rests on the crutch he brought with him. “What can I do for you?”

 

A hulk of a figure with it's back to Peeta straightens up and wipes his mouth with a light blue bandana before spinning his chair around to face him.

 

“What are you doing out there in the dark? Come in, son. Come into the light.”

 

Peeta jerks forward through the dark cafeteria, the creaking of his axles echoing in the cavernous space. This chair wasn't like the one he left behind on the side of the road. It was old- old enough to have been used by a veteran of one of the world wars- and anywhere the paint wasn’t peeling, the metal beneath it was spotted with rust. He wasn't sure why the Senator insisted on sending it with Johanna every time he wanted to speak to him. It wasn't like the Senator hadn't seen that he favored his crutch.

 

“Much better,” he says as Peeta pulls to stop just inside the amber wash of the light. “Now then. Tell me. How's your little assignment going?”

 

Peeta’s stomach twists.

 

“Sorry, sir, my... assignment?”

 

The Senator blinks placidly, then his lips stretch into an indulgent smile.

 

“Last time we met like this, son, I asked you for a little favor having to do with a pair of pretty eyes. Do you remember now?”

 

He did. Of course, he had always known why the Senator wanted to see him tonight. He thought maybe- Maybe if he let it go long enough, Wilson would forget this whole thing with Katniss and move onto something else. Peeta’s throat sticks as he swallows.

 

“I understand, I just- don’t know, exactly, what kind of information you're looking for.”

 

The Senator sits motionless for a moment, his eyes dull and expressionless underneath his heavy brow. Then he straightens up and claps the shoulder of the man next to him.

 

“Boys!” he chuckles. “What we got us here is a true gentleman. Take notes!”

 

The words are plain enough, but there's a frigid undertow in Wilson’s voice that Peeta has never heard before. And he’s not the only one who’s learned to sense rip currents. The clamor of utensils dies out as eyes raise from plates. The Senator’s smile is bland but his eyes are too bright, too flinty, and though an expectant silence strains the air fit to combustion, Peeta can’t make his mouth obey his mind’s plea to say something clever enough to break the mood. He can’t read Wilson’s expressions, doesn’t know what’s below his placid mask, can’t find the tectonic plates driving Wilson’s mood. Peeta looks at his hands gripping the rim of his wheels. They’re white and bloodless.

 

How many times had Rye stepped in in situations like this for him? He tries to remember if there were any he had faced on his own before Rye disappeared, but the memories are all tangled up with others. Ones of Rye like a bulging eyed ghost at his bedside in the hospital after he lost his leg. Ones of Rye’s high school girlfriend, a blonde girl his age who was so pretty she made Peeta blush. Rye hiding Peeta in his room when Mom came looking for him. The first time Rye seemed not to feel it when Mom hit him, and instead of falling into a stunned silence, he laughed.

 

Rye had made it look so easy, to stare her down.

 

“Sir, I- No.”

 

His mouth forms the words, but they don't seem to come from him.

 

“No?,” the Senator asks. “No? I’m not sure I understand you, boy.”

 

The legs of Wilson’s chair claw the bare concrete as he stands.

 

“No as in- no progress has been made? Or no as in- you won’t tell me what’s happened?”

 

“Sir, I meant-”

 

“Because it sounds like,” the Senator says, speaking pointedly over him. “It sounds like, either way, you just refused to do something that was asked of you. And I know your mama raised you better than that.”

 

The Senator takes a few steps toward him, his shadow engulfing Peeta as he towers over him. The lines on his face are deeply shadowed by the dim light- so much so that his eyes are nothing but dark slits in his otherwise swollen, shapeless face.

 

“Now I’ve been kind. I’ve been patient. I’ll go so far as to say I’ve been downright understanding. So Peeta. Tell me. Did you fuck the girl, or do I have to?”

 

A sudden heat ignites in Peeta’s cheeks and before he knows what he’s doing he’s standing up out of his chair and breathing hard out of his nose.

 

“Oh you didn’t like that,” Wilson laughs. “But see, we wouldn’t be here, you and me, having this kind of conversation, if you had just done what I asked.”

 

He sucks at his cuspid with his tongue, narrowing his eyes at Peeta as he clasps his hands behind his back.

 

“Now I’m a reasonable man.”

 

He steps toward Peeta.

 

“But what happens to reasonable men living in an unreasonable time? Should they succumb to chaos? Let the world sink into bloody hell?”

 

Peeta’s blood pounds in his temples, his neck, his wrists. He feels it surging through him as if he were entirely hollow apart from those palpitating, spidery branches- as if the muscle twitching in his jaw, the crushing grip he has on his crutch, the banding of muscles in his back growing more and more tense all belonged to someone else entirely.

 

“Reasonable men,” Wilson oozes, “Understand that reason has its time and place. And sometimes, as reasonable men, we need to do unreasonable things to protect the ones we love. For their own good. For the future of humanity. For Sanctuary.”

 

Peeta stares at Wilson, sure that the ground below him was shifting even if he couldn’t feel it. Blood throbs in his ears. In his cheeks. In his fingertips. He is aware of nothing else except the silence and the surge of his own pulse, and even though it couldn’t have been more than a few seconds of dead air, it feels like hours pass before he can unglue his tongue from the roof of his mouth to say-

 

“For Sanctuary.”

 

He’s at and then through the cafeteria doors before he realizes he’s even started limping away. Outside the air is cool and light in the approaching darkness. People dot the yard as they trail inside. In the distance he can hear the infected starting to crowd at the gate, their screeches joining the rising nocturnal chorus of crickets, mockingbirds and whippoorwills. Peeta pauses as the breeze picks up and cools the blaze of heat in his cheeks. He goes to tug the zipper of his hoodie up, but his hand is shaking too bad.

 

“Sanctuary is the reason you’re alive, Mellark,” Wilson’s voice echoes from behind him. “Remember that.”

 

Heat blazes to life at the back of Peeta’s neck. It rushes up to the tips of his ears and down his back, and for a single breathless moment, he’s not sure what he’ll do next. Black mists the edge of his vision and suddenly the murky golden light of the sunset seems both too bright and too dark at the same time. A vein in his neck throbs as he grips his crutch, and impossibly, that’s when he realizes what he’s staring at.

 

Or, more precisely, who.

 

Katniss.  

 

She’s staring right back at him like a deer in headlights- big, dark doe eyes and all- the cascade of her dreads braided into a long rope and draped over her shoulder. She blinks mutely at him and a jolt of fear electrifies every nerve ending in his body because he realizes, suddenly and terribly, that she has no idea- no idea at all- the danger she's in.

 

Something primal roars at him to wrap his arms around her small frame and hide her from Wilson’s view. He wants to beg Katniss to run- to run now- to go as fast and as far as she can before she hits water on the other side of the country and then he wants to beg her to keep going in spite of that. To make her way to an island, somewhere completely surrounded by miles of water- where the dead didn't walk the earth and the rivers didn't run red with tainted blood. But even as half cocked plans of a midnight escape whirl in his mind, he knows he’s being selfish. He knows Rue can't travel, and Katniss would never leave her, and he could never leave Katniss, and round and round and round it would go, and at the end of it none of them were leaving Sanctuary. At least, not alive. And all of them would be dead anyway if he lost the game he and Wilson were playing.

 

Could he fool the Senator? Convince him the deed had been done? Weasel his way back into his good graces and distract him with something shinier than Katniss's notoriety?

 

His stomach twists miserably. Wilson hated her. The way he looks at her- like there was nothing he’d like more than to crush her underneath his shoe- like Katniss wasn’t even human- he’d never seen anyone look at someone else like that. He’s fixated on her. There’s nothing he can say, nothing he can do, that would stop him from trying to eliminate Katniss.

 

Peeta rips his eyes from Katniss and stumbles backward quickly, his foot and crutch taking him, as if by instinct, away from her.

 

-

 

The outside of the compound in the center of Sanctuary is ringed by an encampment of makeshift tents and trailers. They belong to some of the survivors from around North Carolina who had landed here by chance or choice- civilians, in other words, not Wilson loyalists. The compound may be the safest structure inside Sanctuary, but the tents were far more comfortable. They had fresh air in the putrid heat, and somehow also held a remarkable amount of warmth now that winter was approaching. That, and you didn’t necessarily need three foot thick concrete walls to be safe from the infected. Tents were bite proof enough to withstand a stray infected or two if they managed to stumble on you blind in the dark. Recently, in light of the infected who kept wriggling his way inside the gate, the encampment had been further fortified by a fence of barbed wire, which had already managed to ensnare a racoon and several rats.

 

It isn’t until Peeta has made his way through the only entrance in this wire fence that he slows, still breathing hard, his pulse galloping in the veins in his neck. Katniss had watched him walk away from her- he’d felt her eyes on his back the entire way here- and he can’t tell if the violent twisting in his stomach has more to do with her or Wilson. He pauses, leaning hard on his crutch as he pinches the fabric of his shirt and fans it.

 

The problem with Katniss Everdeen is that she’s a totally open book.

 

Written in another language.

 

And that language is dead.

 

She could be thinking anything about what she’d seen happen between him and Wilson and he’d never know. Even if he managed to get his wits around her for long enough to focus on anything but the way the downy curls at the nape of her neck and hairline framed her ear, or the way the sea-spray of freckles that dot her nose and cheeks could only be seen if you were in the right light, and inches away from her face, or the way she curled her legs under herself when she sat down, or the way her spine curved when she tried to gather all her dreads into a ponytail with both hands, her chest and breasts lifting as she frowned at the wall, or the-

 

He has to resist the urge to look back over his shoulder. The only thing that could make all this worse is if Katniss believed he intentionally turned his back on her. His heart kicks again in his chest and he pinches the bridge of nose, willing away the dull throbbing in the still sensitive amputation site of his left leg. If he looked back and saw her upset he’d lose every wit he had left and beg her to leave with him right then and there. He could hear Katniss now- “We’ll never make it.”

 

Worse still, she’d be right.

 

Unless her ankle magically healed overnight, they’d be sitting ducks out there, surrounded by an ocean of the dead.

 

He scrubs his face with his hand, unsurprised to feel the muscles of his jaw stiff and sore. He’s going to be lucky if he makes it to fifty with his molars. He shifts his weight out of his shoulder and off his crutch before continuing toward the tent at the center of the encampment. There was only one person he’d ever seen truly stand up to Wilson, and even though that took the form of constant eye rolling and blatant disrespect, he still got away with it, and that was more than Peeta could manage.

 

Peeta comes to a stop in front of the tent at the very center of the encampment, a patchwork structure that more closely resembles a lopsided yurt than the traditional camping gear it had been rigged from, surrounded on all sides by a series of rebar that had been wedged deep into the red dirt and topped with broken 40 ounce bottles of liquor, their jagged glass edges pointing directly up.

 

“Zeke?,” he calls.

 

The wind blows through the encampment, cooling Peeta’s cheeks as the window flaps of the tent flutter, then float back down.

 

“You there, Zeke?,” he tries again. But there’s no answer. The hairs on the back of his neck raise.

 

Zeke hadn’t been at the meeting with the Senator, and he hadn’t seen him outside afterward. In fact, he hadn’t seen Zeke yet today. Peeta’s brows draw together and he ducks through the open door of the tent. But he miscalculates the placement of his crutch, and he over-balances, twisting around and falling backwards onto his back, his head connecting with the ground with a muffled thump. He wheezes, spots of color bursting in front of his eyes as he reaches his left arm out and searches blindly for his crutch. But as soon as his fingers close around the cool metal a sudden weight lands on his chest and a face comes into focus inches from his own.


“What are you doing here?,” Johanna Mason hisses, leaning more of her weight onto the booted foot she’s using to pin him to the ground.

 

“Where’s... Zeke?,” Peeta wheezes.

 

Johanna frowns.

 

“Doing whippets on the roof of the compound,” she says.

 

Peeta shoves her boot off his chest and rolls onto his side with a cough.

 

“What are you doing here?,” he says, scowling up at her as he balances himself on his foot and uses his crutch to push him unsteadily back up.

 

Johanna narrows her eyes.

 

“I’m trying to fuck him,” she says.

 

Peeta stares at her without blinking until she rolls her eyes in defeat.

 

“Fine. I’m stealing one of his stupid protein bars, I’m hungry.” She crosses her arms over her chest. “So. What do you want?”

 

“What?,” he asks.

 

“Don’t play dumb. Just name your price.”

 

Peeta sets his jaw and grips his crutch.

 

“I’m not for sale.”

 

He turns back toward the door of the tent, but Johanna catches him by his shoulder.

 

“I know what you asked Zeke for. And I also know he’s holding out on you,” she says.

 

It’s Peeta’s turn to roll his eyes and he turns back around.

 

“That makes two of us then,” he says.

 

Johanna brushes her hood off her head and huffs.

 

“What if I told you I knew where they were, and that I could get them for you?”

 

Peeta scowls.

 

“Goodbye Johanna.”

 

He spins around and ducks out of the tent, his crutch rattling with the force that he’s using to slam it into the ground.

 

“I’m not kidding,” Johanna says as she pulls up alongside him.

 

“Look-,” Peeta says, not bothering to look over at her- “Let me be clear. I don’t know what you were doing in Zeke’s tent and, frankly, I don’t care.”

 

“Now let me be clear,” Johanna says. “I know what you need, why you need them, and I can get them for you.”

 

Peeta stops short, finally turning to look at her, skepticism etched into his brow.

 

“Why would a military base have-”

 

“Does it matter?,” Johanna cuts him off. “I’ve seen them. I know where they are. You’ll have them by tomorrow.”

 

“You were spying on Zeke,” Peeta says, blank faced. “What do you have on him, and who wants to know?”

 

Johanna’s nostrils flare.

 

“That isn’t part of this bargai-”

 

“It’s not Wilson,” Peeta says, “He loves Zeke, and Zeke loves anyone who will let him maintain that false air of superiority. So maybe the bigger question is- who’s plotting against-”

 

Johanna lunges forward and claps a hand over his mouth. She’s surprisingly strong for her size, and Peeta kicks himself for making the mistake of underestimating her- again.

 

“Are you out of your mind?!,” she hisses. “Zeke’s gunning for you, and you’d have to be the dumbest asshole in this dump not to know it. Not everyone is impressed by your wonderboy act, so whatever I’m doing can only help your situation. So mind your business, and I’ll mind mine.”

 

Johanna rips her hand away and steps back, a look of disgust on her face. Peeta blinks, then a slow, easy smile twitches his lips upward.

 

“You know,” he says. “You’re right. So how about I make you a counter offer? You bring me what I asked Zeke for, but instead of forgetting what I saw you doing in Zeke’s tent, how about you tell me everything you know, and I’ll sweeten the pot for you with something I know that you need?”

 

Johanna narrows her eyes at him.

 

“What do you think I need?”

 

Peeta smiles blandly.

 

“When was the last time you had chocolate?”

 

“Finnick O-fucking-dair,” Johanna curses, spinning away from Peeta and running a hand through her short hair, her eyes bouncing along the horizon of the tents. “Wipe that smirk off your face, Abercrombie. You look demented.”

 

Peeta laughs.

 

“What’s mine is yours, Johanna.”

 

“I better be the proud new owner of at least one Snickers bar.”

 

Peeta sticks his hand out in front of him.

 

“Do we have a deal?”

 

Johanna eyes his hand, her face molting into an expression he could only describe as grim before grasping his hand.

 

“This game you think we’re playing?,” she says. “We’re not. I will not hesitate to throw you under the bus if even a breath of this reaches Zeke or Wilson.”

 

The smile finally melts from Peeta’s face.

 

“Let me help you,” he says earnestly. “We’re stronger together. The more of us who band together, the better chance we have of-”

 

Johanna laughs.

 

“There is no chance,” she says. “Wilson will kill anyone who threatens his hold on this place. And that means the less I’m seen with you, the better.”

 

She rips her hand away from him, spins on her heels, and slips into the shadowy alley behind Zeke’s tent.

 

-

 

“Can I?”

 

The words hang heavy in the still air, and Peeta hardly dares to breathe. Can she see? Does she know what it is that she’s done to him? Her breath is nothing but a feather-light brush of air on his cheeks, but it rolls across his skin like a hurricane’s worth of fury and thunder, lifting the hairs on his arms and sending a shock of pure electricity straight to his heart.



Fine wisps of hair that escaped the bindings of Katniss’s dreads curl like young ivy along her jaw. He wants to trace their paths with his lips. He wants to follow them across the plains and hollows of her neck, to taste the salt on her skin and mark every place he finds it. He wants to know her like a map even with his eyes closed, and then he wants to make her cum so hard on his tongue that her pussy is still clenching when he slides his cock inside her.



Katniss’s eyes meet his.

 

She nods, slowly. Just once.

 

It’s somber, even for Katniss. And maybe that’s why he hesitates as his fingers smooth over the collar around her neck. Her ragged breathing- the glowing warmth of her skin- the way she seemed to unfurl like new leaves in sunlight at his touch- He didn’t imagine that. But her eyes are unreadable, dark and too still in a way he knew meant there was a storm raging behind them. It didn’t matter that his lips were close enough to brush hers. Katniss is as unreachable as ever.

 

She stares up into his eyes- watching, waiting. His heart beats faster. He reaches for the buckle. The leather collar opens easily for him, gaping wide before slithering down to the floor, and a single heartbeat passes where neither of them move. And then Peeta’s eyes flicker down, and all the air in his chest turns to lead.

 

He’d never wondered- not even once- why Katniss wore that old belt around her neck. So many other survivors wore something similar to protect them from the teeth of the infected that it had never even occurred to him that there might be another reason. But Katniss Everdeen is too clever by far to do something as stupid as hide her secrets. She put them in plain view, betting the house that you would mistake what you were looking at. But there’s no mistaking what he sees now: twin sets of wide, jagged tears running down either side of the slender column of her neck, long healed over into blanched, pink scar tissue.

 

He tries to swallow away the sudden tightness in his throat, but it’s no use. In the low light her eyes are glossy, and it’s doing something to him, the way they harden with a defiance too brittle to leave her anything but vulnerable.

 

“Katniss-,” he chokes.

 

His hand jerks toward her to try to... do what, exactly? To ease the pain those wounds must have caused? What would it matter now that they’re already healed? It wouldn't, and if he said anything now… she might take it the wrong way. What if she thought he was calling her weak? Katniss had such a brutally utilitarian way of seeing the world. She hadn't even blinked when Finnick died, and she'd known him for much longer than Peeta had. In fact, the only time he’d ever even seen her cry was when she came back from her failed run to the hospital, and he was pretty sure it had nothing to do with facing down her own death or running on a broken ankle for hours on end.

 

What was it she had said?

 

“She's still out there !”

 

His heart bucks in his chest, his head spinning dizzily as another piece of the puzzle that is Katniss Everdeen locks into place, and all at once, he understands.

 

Those scars on her neck… Nails made them.

 

Human fingernails.

 

He swallows.

 

The last person to get this close to an unguarded Katniss Everdeen caught her by her neck. And when she tried to get away...

 

They tore her wide open.

 

He reaches for her.

 

The impulse is hardwired into him- it’s what he’d done as long as he could remember. Try to fix what’s broken.

 

He presses his lips gently to hers, his hands cradling her jaw and drawing her closer. She’s warm- smells of sweat- tastes like salt and mint and hurt . It’s her lip- it’s bleeding, and underneath the copper tang he can taste the bruised flesh. But her lips are so soft, and they bloom open so sweetly for him, and the taste of her pain becomes so hopelessly tangled in the taste of her that he can’t understand which is which- nor bring himself to pull away.

 

He kisses the corner of her mouth- trails the sweep of her jaw- lays tribute on the sacred hollow below her ear. His left hand steadies himself against the desk, but his right flattens against her back, urging her closer as his lips finally come to press against the so bitterly wounded skin of her neck. Beneath his lips her scars are tender and new, and he feels, rather than hears, a broken whimper work its way up her throat.

 

But to his brutal disappointment it dies at the back of her tongue, and he shudders at the blow of his need to draw another from her. To coax it passed her lips this time, and to discover what shape her mouth took when she lost control. It’s this last impulse that commands his pulse to rise into battering wardrum, and he is neither turncoat nor coward.

 

His hand on her back ascends to cradle her occipital ridge as his lips whisper down her neck to the skin just above the neck of the her shirt. Her breath hitches, catching high in the her throat, and Peeta senses that either he will come to a dizzying victory or bitter defeat on the proud crest of her collarbone.

 

So Peeta does what any soldier would: he raises his flag on that dewey hill and darts his tongue out to taste her before suckling gently at the skin. Her nails dig into the back of his head, streak down his arms, tangle in the bottom of his shirt and pull him closer between her legs, which curl around his waist as her spine bows. He feels something against his chest- a fluttering, tender thing, like moth wings against his skin, and it takes him a few seconds before he understands what it is. Her heart.

 

Wires and faceless electronics tumble to the floor unnoticed. His henley falls in a lump on top of them. Katniss’s coat slips off her shoulders and pools around her waist, followed by her sweatshirt. She’s so small underneath all that material that his heart aches all over again. There was something about her that made him feel as though she was taller- broader- but his hands hardly even span the width of her ribcage before his fingers are curving around her back.

 

And her skin, it’s a shock of velvet and  heat, and its softness bewilders him. He didn’t know skin could feel like this, and he’s heady all over again from it, and then again with each new curve, dip and valley he discovers: the sharp pinch of her waist, the sudden and stupefying bloom of her hips, and, fuck , the dizzying heat cradled between them.

 

He groans, his teeth pressed at the base of Katniss’s throat, as his eyes slide shut. His cock aches against the stiff zipper of his jeans, swollen and throbbing almost painfully. He should be worried about whether Katniss could feel him, or embarrassed at his body’s reaction to what, in the end, may just be kissing to her. He isn’t in high school anymore, he’s got no excuse to be this hard from kissing . But it’s been so long since he last had sex that he isn’t even sure he could remember if there was anyone after the girl with the blue wig, and if he's really honest with himself... He never thought it would happen again after losing his leg, let alone that it’d be with someone who made him feel like this .

 

His heart gallops hard and fast in his chest, and every beat is branded with her name. Katniss, Katniss, Katniss. He slants his mouth over hers, one of his hands bracing his weight on the outside of Katniss’s thigh, the other gliding up her back, pressing her ever so closer. He wants more- so much more- but he’s too afraid. The way he’s straining against his jeans, it might scare her. She seemed so… naive isn’t the right word, but neither is prude, and she is nothing like shy. Inexperienced, maybe. Not innocent, so much as she’s... Pure. Truthfully, she sort of kissed like a virgin. Halting and sweet, then hungry, as if she’d discovered it for the first time. But there’s no way he’d ever tell her any of this. For one, he doesn't care. It’s actually devastatingly charming, and he doesn't want her to stop. And two, what she lacks in experience she more than makes up for in how incredibly Katniss it is. There is no pretense or performance to it: she simply did what she wanted to. He groans brokenly against her lips at the sudden and dizzying rush of blood to his cock as he realizes right now, what she wants is him.

 

She skates her hands underneath his t-shirt, trailing her fingertips over his stomach, and he sucks in a sharp, surprised breath. There’s no way she didn’t see the effect she was having on him. As if she could hear his thoughts, Katniss jerks away from him, panting , and just as an apology forms at the tip of his tongue, she grabs his hand and rolls her chest into his palm. He can feel the warmth of her skin through her t-shirt- the softness of her breast- Fuck. Fuck. His heart slams against his ribcage as her eyes flutter shut, and for a split second he wonders what he’s supposed to do now.

 

So much for Katniss being the virgin here.

 

In almost utter disbelief he palms her breast, and has to bury his face in her shoulder to muffle the sound that escapes him when he realizes the small, taut thing he feels through the cotton of her shirt is her nipple. Before he can stop himself he's rolling his hips against the cradle of her thighs, and even through four layers of clothing the heat of her licks his cock, and it’s all he can do not to lose himself right then and there.

 

But then Katniss freezes, and Peeta hardly dares to breathe as the hands clutching his shoulders push him away. Her kiss-stung lips are parted and swollen, her eyes glassy and heavy lidded. It’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. But she won’t hold his gaze. Her eyes dart down his chest and then quickly away as her cheeks darken, and he could kill himself for being so completely stupid and self-centered. Not only did he rut against her like a fifteen year old at homecoming, she both felt and saw how embarrassingly hard he is. Her eyes dart back, uncharacteristically demure. Her hand fumbles to find his, then places it on the bottom hem of her shirt. He stares at her blankly. Katniss’s mouth opens then snaps shut, and his brain struggles to piece together what she is trying to say. He continues to struggle even as she guides his other hand off the table and to the hem of her shirt.

 

And then, finally, she meets his eyes.

 

Oh.

 

Oh.

 

He swallows, his heart kicking like a wild thing trapped in his chest. She wanted him to- to… His thumb eases under the hem of her shirt, and he whispers it against the skin of her hip. He doesn’t dare look away from her eyes as her eyelids sink shut and she shivers. Slowly, he peels the cotton away from her, easing it over her hips, up the pinch of her waist and over the delicate skin stretched over her ribs , several of his fingers trailing her skin in wonder. Its so soft. How is it possible for skin to be this soft? It isn’t until her shirt is over her head and sits atop the growing pile of their discarded clothing that's he realizes she is completely covered in tattoos.

 

In the darkness of the room he can’t see them all against her rich brown skin, but he can just make out the cursive script in black ink on her chest that says “To Awake and Avenge the-”, though he can’t read the rest. Below that there are what look like the tops of feathers peeking out of... dear lord ... the thin, black fabric of her bra and wrapping the inside curvature of her small breasts. His mouth dries as he watches her chest rise and fall in sync with her breathing, her breasts stretching the material rhythmically.

 

Impossibly, his eyes are drawn away, distracted by the large, black line illustrations of heavy-headed flowers that curve around her sides. The red ink haloing them makes them almost look like wounds, except that they’re too delicate, too precise, too detailed: they were dripping in dew, dotted with wasps and praying mantises, their veined, delicate wings exquisitely rendered. His eyes dart to the center of her midriff, the only expanse of bare skin on her stomach, except for a medieval serpent in a crown twisting itself around in the form of a knot just below the bottom band of her bra, its fanged mouth dripping with poison as it lunges for its own tail. Inked just below it are the words “Thank You For The Venom.”

 

His eyes fly up to hers. He wants to ask her what it all means, but he doesn't want to give her a reason to lie to him. It would be so much worse now, when he's this close to her. And anyway, he has a sinking feeling he already knows. Katniss didn't hide her secrets, afterall.

 

The ink that's been sewn into her skin… there’s no deeper meaning. They’re scars too.

 

“It’s beautiful,” he murmurs, brushing an errant dread behind her ear. “You’re beautiful.”

 

He’s wrong of course, she’s exquisite, but all his skill with words has utterly abandoned him. How do you love a body that has been made into altar to its own suffering? His stomach twists as he realizes, again, that he already knows the answer to his own question. Afterall, wasn't that how he lost his leg? Drinking to forget the brother he was sure was dead?

 

“It buckles in the front,” Katniss says quietly, and for a moment he’s not sure why she said it. Then a laugh bubbles out of him, because she’s so utterly graceless that his heart aches with how unwittingly cute it is.

 

And then his brain catches up to what she’s just said, and he chokes.

 

“I was staring, huh?”

 

Katniss blushes horribly and bites her lip. He's sure she's not doing it to be cute because she's actually worrying it with her teeth, but the effect it has on him is just as potent. He groans, laughing a little as he presses his forehead to hers.

 

“You're going to kill me,” he murmurs as he kisses her abused bottom lip, his heart fluttering at the way her breath hitches. The question remained, however, how do you love a body so devoted to its scars? How should he touch those holy spaces? Gently, maybe? Tenderly? He wants to roll his eyes. Human sexuality is never as linear as that.

 

“How can I touch you? What do you like?”

 

Her mouth opens, then she frowns and it snaps shut.

 

“I don’t-”, she tries. “I’ve never- I-”

 

Her bottom lip disappears behind her teeth again and she blushes.

 

“I haven’t...”

 

She leans forward and slants her mouth over his mid-sentence. It’s impossible to argue with something as persuasive as Katniss Everdeen slipping her tongue inside your mouth, and he groans pitifully as she hooks a leg over his hip, pressing him flush to the heated juncture of her legs and trapping him there with an exquisite flex of her thigh. It’s the sweetest torture, to be this close, to feel her through what remained of their clothes, and to imagine that he could be even closer still. But he needed her to say it. That she wanted him like he wanted her. He needed to hear her say those words.

 

He pulls back and presses his forehead into hers, breathing raggedly, but before he can speak, Katniss does.

“The only time I forget is when I’m with you,” she says, her hands rising to frame his face.

 

“Forget what?,” he asks, heart pounding.

 

Her eyes slide shut and she shakes her head.

 

“Touch me, Peeta,” she says, her eyes opening slowly. “Make me forget.”

 

The crutch he’d been using to balance himself crashes to the floor as he reaches up to cradle her face with both of his hands. There would come a time when he would remember those words and understand what Katniss meant when she said them- when they would twist something deep inside of him and he would become consumed by reforging her pain into something beautiful . But that time isn’t now, and he is not yet the man he will become. For now, he is still just a boy. For now, he still just needs to be needed. For now, something in the way Katniss says it, something in the way she is so serious...

 

He hears all the things she won’t- or can’t- say out loud.

 

It happens so fast after that. All he can think about is how badly he needs to be closer to her. How even after he tears his shirt up over his head and Katniss’s warm hands come to rest agonizingly shyly on his bare chest, it’s not enough. It’s not enough when his fingers fumble their way through unlatching her bra and the straps float down her shoulders. It isn’t enough to feel the shock of heat that is her skin against his. It isn’t enough to feel that stubborn flutter of her heartbeat through the cage of her ribs in his own palm- or to finally see the entirety of the tattoo nestled between her breasts, an anatomical heart, pierced by three arrows- or to hear the sound she makes when he brushes the rough pad of his thumb over her nipple- or to feel the way her thighs clench reflexively, as if to close, were he not keeping them spread. All they do is stoke his hunger.

 

And that’s what this is, isn’t it?

 

What else could explain the way his mouth watered as he kissed his way down her neck? He groans as he realizes his mouth instinctually knew it’s destination long before he did, and he sinks his teeth into her shoulder with a groan of frustration as he wrestles with the button on her pants. He is so lost in the gauzy world of future satiation that he doesn’t feel the way Katniss melts with his teeth in her skin. Maybe if he had, he would have also noticed the violent shiver that rolls down her spine and the high pitched whimper that escapes her lips. But he is too busy ripping down the fly of her pants and yanking her pants down over her hips to sense her reactions, let alone try to dissect what they all could mean. Katniss doesn’t even have time to try to lift her hips to help him. Before she can react he has her splayed open on his work table, with one of her legs draped over his shoulder, her underwear pushed unceremoniously to the side as his tongue finally sinks triumphantly inside her.

 

Her fingernails dig into his scalp as her back arches upward suddenly, a surprised cry tearing itself from her throat, and he can’t help but gloat with a long, slow lick of her clit. How long had he waited to feel her shudder under his tongue like this? It was worth every second to feel her buck helplessly against him, and though he has every intention of making her see stars, he also intends to enjoy himself thoroughly along the way. He deserves it, doesn’t he?

 

What he definitely deserves is the way his name falls in desperate whispers from Katniss’s lips, and he takes absolute delight in the clatter of tools hitting the floor as they roll off his table. He hasn’t even gotten to the good part yet and he’s already lost at least one soldering iron. Jesus Christ , the way she shivers as he runs a finger up the inside of her thigh, he knows she’s realized it too, and she draws a sharp, quick breath as he slips just a single finger inside her. Fuck, fuck, fuck. S he’s so tight he has to close his eyes to keep himself from losing it. Her muscles grip him like a wet, velvet vice, fluttering beautifully with each pass of his tongue over her clit. He can’t help but imagine what it’d be like to feel her tremble like that around his cock. He sucks the bud of her clit between his lips, maybe a little harder than he really meant to, and Katniss cries out, her fingers twisting in his hair as her back bows up, and he sneaks a look up her body.

 

And God, what a terrible mistake that is. She’s so beautiful like this, with her skin flushed and glowing, hair clinging to her dark cheeks, dreads framing her small, round breasts, her eyes squeezed tight as she bites the palm of one of her hands, trying, unsuccessfully, to muffle her whimper, completely and utterly lost in the designs he is drawing on her clit with his tongue. The leg draped over his shoulder is quaking, and he can feel the whisper of those trembling muscles against his ear, and it’s unbearable , how close he is just knowing how close she is. He rips the button of his fly open with one hand, tears down the zipper and envelopes his cock with his hand as he slides a second finger inside her. She tries to muffle her sobs, but it’s no use, there’s no mistaking what kind of sounds she’s making. A part of him is almost dizzyingly self-satisfied knowing the kind of effect he was having on her , and that, by morning, the rest of Sanctuary would know too.

 

He curls his fingers, pumping them in and out of her agonizingly slowly, delighting in each twitch of her leg and each poorly muffled, desperate sound he can draw from her. Could she feel him grinning? He picks up the pace so slowly she tries to grind down against his tongue, but he doesn’t want this to be over. Not yet. Something molten hot is pumping through his veins, throbbing and thrashing in his chest like a caged, broken-winged bird, and he doesn’t know if it’s because he finally, finally felt close to her, or if he has just been so starved for human touch. But it dawns on him that he is riding the crest of a wave he never even saw coming and can’t rightly define.

 

Katniss stiffens, no longer bothering to hide her cries as her hips buck against his face and her muscles begin to flutter rhythmically. He pops one eye open and catches a glimpse of her face. She’s radiant, flushed, her eyes screwed shut as her mouth drops open in helpless rapture. He groans deeply as she clamps down on his fingers, but he isn’t done with her just yet. He keeps working his fingers in and out of her, drawing out her orgasm as long as he can, before standing up and leaning over her on the desk, pressing his forehead to hers and kissing her deeply as her legs almost instinctively encircle his waist. All he has to do is pump his cock a few times and he is spilling himself on her stomach, his cock twitching against her heaving stomach, and that wave of something unnameable he had been riding crashes as he does. It’s like he can’t breathe- like he’ll never breathe again- like the last thing he’ll ever feel is how close he feels to her in this moment. Hot tears escape between the seal of his closed eyelids and splash against her cheeks as a single sob escapes him. He cradles her face in his hands and squeezes his eyes tight, but it does nothing to soothe the tight, heavy ache in his chest.

 

When he thinks about the time before he knew Katniss, he can only see it as rain drops on a windshield: unremarkable, streaking unmissed toward oblivion and blurring the fundamental truth that lay just beyond them. He had been waiting for her his whole life. Now that he’s thought it, it seems so obviously true. He’d felt it for so long, afterall- the frustrated, constant awareness that there was something he was looking for but couldn’t describe, lonely for but couldn’t name, anxiously anticipating without knowing why. It was Katniss. All along, it was her.

 

He loves her.

 

He loves her, he loves her, he loves her-

 

And Wilson is going to kill her.

 

-

 

It’s only later- with Katniss in his arms, asleep- that it hits him. His eyes widen in the dark, silent room.

 

“Finnick O-fucking-dair,” he whispers.

 

-

Chapter Text

The toes that stretch into the night are dusted with glitter and dry, white clay. Strapped though they are in a precariously high pair of heels, they never waver as they land on the gravel that serves as the parking lot for a windowless building graced with only a single neon sign, flashing pink and blue against the deep black of the sky above. The Landing Strip, it proclaims to mostly no one, anymore. Girls, Girls, Girls!

If the creature stalking through the parking lot is a girl, she has long since forgotten it. There are some of the statistically relevant parts- bare breasts bouncing in the flashing glow of the sign, long hair swinging just above the curve of her ass, a childhood filled with dolls, ballet and an aspirin clutched between her knees- but there is an unnerving blankness in her eyes and a strange energy hiding in the reeds of her muscles that can’t be explained away as excitement.

And then there’s the blood.

It glitters darkly around her mouth, trailing down her chin and obscuring the ink embroidered on her neck so all that can be read is Atl--ta, before it traces lurid, curving paths over her breasts and streaks down her soft belly and thick thighs. That blood belongs to the man crawling away from her, dragging legs rendered useless by a single shotgun blast to each of his kneecaps behind him, and holding his intestines inside himself with one hand. He holds up a hand to her, mucus dribbling down his chin as he sputters out a plea that does nothing whatsoever to stop her advance.

He will die where he lies, the thin stem of the girls stiletto piercing the gaping hole in one of his kneecaps, his lips around the barrel of the same shotgun that made that hole in the first place. In the last instant before the trigger is pulled, the girl will notice something gold winking at her from the pocket of his shirt, something he has carried close to his heart since the beginning of The End, something more precious to him than anything else, something he will now lose to this monstrous facsimile of a girl.

“Oh shit,” she’ll rasp. “A Twix.”

And then her finger will close on the trigger.

Close curtain, fade to black.

She will straighten up, chocolate clutched between her bloody teeth, fully unaware that her own time is running out. Fully unaware that in the process of dying she too will lose something she has carried close to her own heart, something more precious to her anything else. The last piece of connective tissue tying her to anything she’d recognize as human, let alone girl: a boy.

She doesn’t know- can’t know, before her own death- that girl hasn’t described her for a long, long time.

Only mother does.

Chapter Text

 

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. 

 

Here. 

 

Real.

 

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.

 

“Tonight.” 

 

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.

 

“Like?”

 

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.”

 

“Why?”

 

“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-?”

 

“Eventually.”

 

“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.

 

-