The crash was deafening. Somewhere high above their heads, steel and concrete cracked and protested. Walls shook. The dimmed emergency lights flickered. People cried out in fear.
Effie closed her eyes harder and curled up in a tighter ball on her bunk bed, swallowing back the shout that wanted to escape her throat. If she started screaming, she would never stop.
She forced herself to breathe in through her nose and out through her mouth, to stay calm and composed like a lady ought to in any situation. Even if she was about to get buried alive under a bomb downpour, in a stupid military District, for a rebellion she hadn’t meant to join in the first place.
She started counting again, not letting herself relax when she managed to reach ten without any other bomb falling on their heads.
At thirty-five, she opened her eyes long enough to realize soldiers were patrolling, offering help to the few injured people around. The lights were still flickering, a red flashing neon at the far end of the room indicated they were still under attack, the beams of several flashlights were dancing around…
She closed her eyes again. She didn’t want to see.
Had Katniss been in that bunker, she might have made an effort to seek her out, to dazzle the fear out of everyone with some cheerful foolish chatter… But Katniss was in another bunker, one she dearly hoped to be sturdier than this one, and so Effie had nobody to keep a pretence for.
Shutting her eyes didn’t do anything to cut off the sounds. Children were wailing, some wounded people were moaning, others had worked themselves into hysteria and didn’t seem to be able to stop yelling, fewer were crying, everyone was talking… The sounds were impossible to block, a constant buzz that made her head ache…
She was at one hundred and twenty-six when she felt someone slip behind her in her bed.
She startled, tried to sit up, opened her mouth to shout – all too aware nobody would hear her in the surrounding chaos…
“Easy.” Haymitch’s voice demanded, his strong arm coming to rest around her middle, preventing her from bolting away. “Just me, sweetheart. Just me.”
She relaxed with a long relieved sigh and immediately turned around to bury her face in his shoulder. He switched off the flashlight he had used to come find her and shifted until he found a comfortable position on his side, one arm under her head, the other one around her waist. She slipped one of her legs between his thighs and hooked the other one over his hip, effectively tangling their bodies so well he wouldn’t have been able to leave even if he had wanted to.
“Where were you?” she half-asked, half-recriminated.
She had thought he was with Katniss and Finnick in the other bunker, with the important people.
“In Special Defense for a while.” he answered, curling the arm she was using as a pillow around her head. His fingers tugged on her headscarf, undid the knot. She let him. Who was going to see in the semi-darkness anyway? “They don’t need me.”
Their loss, she mused, because she did.
“Will there be more bombs?” she whispered and while she tried to keep her tone detached, the terror slipped through.
She hadn’t realized she was bundling the back of his shirt in her fist until his thumb started drawing soothing circles under her shoulder blade.
“The real shit is about to go down.” he told her calmly. “The first wave was just… recon.”
She was breathing so hard she had no doubt he could feel the hot puffs against his shoulder through his grey cotton shirt. “Are we going to die?”
She wished she could have made the question sound less like a whine but there were few things Effie loved more than being alive.
“The bunker’s gonna hold.” he promised, pressing his chin against the top of her head in a way that wasn’t very reassuring.
Because if he had one hundred percent believed that, he wouldn’t have been there, in her bed, for everyone with a flashlight or good eyesight to see.
“Haymitch…” she begged just as Coin’s voice boomed out of the speakers, ordering them to brace themselves for impact.
She closed her eyes again, pressed her face harder against his shoulder, stopped breathing…
His arms tightened around her in anticipation…
She had been wrong earlier. The crash hadn’t been deafening. This was deafening.
As if the bomb had landed right on top of the ceiling. Plaster rained down, the whole place shook as if it couldn’t decide if it was going to crumble or not, someone shouted about a burst water pipe somewhere to the left, soldiers barked orders for everyone to remain were they where…
“One.” she muttered under her breath, trying to drown out the screams. “Two. Three. Four. Five. Six…”
“What’s that?” Haymitch asked, propping his cheek on her forehead so he could hear her better.
His voice was casual but his fingers were shaking badly against her back and the ones tangled in her hair kept clenching.
“Seven.” she kept going. “Eight. Nine. Ten. Eleven. Twelve.”
The next bomb dropped and, again, it felt as if they were about to be crushed under rubbles. This time, someone shouted about a crack on the ceiling, sending everyone around in a panic despite the soldiers denying it.
We’re going to die, she thought in a moment of gut-wrenching clarity. And, for a second, she was almost at peace with that because… There was nothing she could do, was there? It only lasted a second though. Then the terror was back.
“One.” she started again in a strangled voice. “Two. Three.”
“What are you counting?” Haymitch frowned.
“That’s what we used to do during thunderstorms when I was a child.” Her whisper was half muffled by his shoulder. “My sister… I used to be scared. My sister made it a game. We would count as long as we could after the lightning until…”
“Thunder.” he finished for her.
Thunder had nothing on the bombs that rained on Thirteen next.
Alarms started blaring again and she wondered how that was supposed to help. All she could hear now were people crying, people moaning in pain, people yelling that they needed to get out of there while they still could…
“Okay.” Haymitch said quickly, holding her even tighter. “Okay. Let’s count.”
She swallowed back the urge to cry but a few tears slipped through anyway. “We won’t survive this.”
“Sure, we’re gonna survive this.” he scoffed. “Come on. Count with me. Just… Close your eyes and pretend it’s a storm. One. Two. Come on, Effie. Three.”
But she couldn’t pretend now.
Not when she could hear a mother swearing to her child that everything would be fine on the bed next to theirs.
Not when she could hear the panicked soldiers asking their superior officers what they should do.
Not when Haymitch’s breathing was so loud in her ear.
“I love you.”
The words were almost foreign on her tongue.
She had said them before, several times, and she had even meant them but never quite like that. Haymitch was special. He had been special from the very beginning. She had loathed him and hated him and everything in between and yet she hadn’t been able to stop herself from falling in love with him. Against reason. Against common sense. Against her own self-preservation instinct.
His breath hitched but the way he tugged on her hair to force her head back wasn’t gentle at all. She caught a glimpse of his face in the flashing lights and it was angry.
“Don’t say that.” he spat. “Don’t you fucking dare say that as a goodbye. Don’t you fucking dare. We ain’t dying in this shithole, Princess. We ain’t.”
“Do you object to the sentiment or to the words being my farewell?” she frowned, briefly confused. She had expected him to reject her full point, like he always did when she ventured on the feelings path. But…
The next bomb swallowed his answer.
Pieces of concrete fell down this time and before she could understand what was going on, he had rolled on her, unnecessarily shielding her with his body. They stared at each other, breaths mingling, noses sometimes bumping against each other, waiting for the next bomb, waiting for oblivion or death or…
The siren stopped.
Coin’s voice came out of the speakers again, exhorting them to remain calm, explaining that while the Capitol had retreated for now it was probable it would be back soon… The President said more but Effie didn’t listen.
Haymitch was kissing her.
His mouth was hard, unyielding, almost punishing. Because of the words she wasn’t allowed to utter, she knew. Those words were forever taboo and she had broken the rules.
But they were at war and they could literally die in a couple of hours or days and she didn’t want to have any more regrets than she already did.
She didn’t want to die pretending she was six and hiding in her sister’s bed, counting the seconds between a bout of lightning and the roar of thunder.
If she had to die, this was how she wanted to go, with Haymitch’s tongue in her mouth, one of his hands under her shirt and her legs hooked around his thighs, blissfully unaware of what was happening because he had an uncanny gift to make her brain freeze.
If she had to die, she wanted to die in his arms.