A/N: So, I know I said I'd update sooner, but this chapter has some action in it, so hopefully you'll forgive me?:) 3 word excuse: AP/Honors Homework. It's absolutely insane. Up until like, 10 everynight trying to finish it. BUT, I finally had time to finish this chapter, and ONLY because the wonderful katnisseverdeen4ever agreed to help me, by developing a loose plotline that I could play off of. So basically, all the credit for the second half of this chapter goes to YOU!:)
And honestly, my author's note chapter got more reviews than chapter 12. So seriously people, REVIEW:D
I'll try to update again within the next two weeks or so.
Peeta's eyes, glued to the screen, were huge, whites showing all around. Environmental change? What could that possibly mean? He was acutely aware of Katniss's sharp intake of breath as Gale was lifted, as if dead, in a hovercraft. But he was more focused on the huge cliffs, all over the arena, sinking right into the ground as if the natural laws of physics didn't apply.
The big screen moved to an aerial view, so they could see the whole arena. In the center, the cornucopia sank into the ground as well, and a puddle appeared in it's place, rapidly growing into a lake, swallowing the trees and earth around it. The lake expanded to about a mile wide, almost a perfect circle, but the trees beyond its reach still sank into the ground, and the sparse underbrush with them. Marshy grass sprouted in their places, with rocks every few feet. Gentle hills pushed up around the edges of the arena, covered in wild flowers.
"What is it?" Katniss whispered, confusion and suspicious awe evident in her voice.
"A marsh land, maybe. I'm not sure." Just then, as if everyone was wondering the same, a rock sailed through the air and landed on what appeared to be solid ground, but sank right through the earth with a splash.
"Definitely marsh. And that means bogs. Can Gale swim?"
"Yes. I taught him once, in the woods. But it was a while ago. I just hope he remembers." Her voice was steady, but her hand quavered slightly, hardly noticeable.
Just then, cornucopia reappeared on the edge of the visible lake, with fresh supplies in it, suitable for the new arena. The hovercrafts began depositing the tributes in a loose semi-circle around it. Weapons the tributes had had before the change were set a few feet from them, and then another message scrolled across the screen.
"Mentors, we advise you re-search the arena as soon as possible. The tributes will be woken momentarily. May the odds be ever in your favor."
This time, as Gale started stirring, Peeta didn't have to wrestle with whether or not to take Katniss's shaking hand. She reached for his own, almost reluctantly, but held on nevertheless. Despite the circumstances, Peeta couldn't help the warmth that spread through him.
Katniss looked briefly at her hand linked to Peeta's, a sight so familiar to her she never registered it. But this time was different somehow. She had instigated it, not because of cameras, or even to please him or Haymitch. Simply because she needed it. Wanted it. Wanted it from him, and no one else.
No one else? A small voice inside her taunted. Or no one else here? If Gale were here, would it still be "no one else"?
Just the fact that she wasn't sure of her answer caused her grip to loosen slightly on Peeta's hand. But if he noticed, he didn't show it. But then the frivolous thoughts were pushed from her mind, because Gale was rising from his slumber.
"Peeta. He won't know it's a marsh land. He'll fall right into the bogs! We have to do something!"
"Okay, okay... here." Peeta hit a few buttons, authorizing a gift. "I don't want to spend a lot of money right now, because he might need it later. I sent him the rock they threw. He's smart Katniss. He'll figure out what it means."
Gale opened his eyes, the ground cold and wet beneath him. He couldn't place his surroundings. He was in the arena, the woods, before he awoke. He couldn't make sense of the huge expanse of water before him, but he knew he was still in the Games. To his relief, he found his bow beside him, and snatched it up just as his opponents started waking.
His eyes landed on the Cornucopia, and though he didn't understand where he was, he knew there would be lifesaving items hidden within it. He sprinted forward, grabbing a large pack, and started running away.
Just before he would've fallen in an icy bog, a silver parachute fell right in front of his face. A quick look behind him showed no one pursuing him for once, so he opened it and found a wet rock.
Why would Katniss send him a rock? What do they usually do with rocks? It had to have something to do with their surroundings. A clue, maybe. He heard the sounds of angry tributes realizing their situation, and knew they would come for him any second. Frustrated, he tossed the rock ahead of him. When it landed, it sank straight through the ground.
"Bogs." He could sink straight through the ground too, if he didn't find another rock to test the areas ahead of him soon. He scooped up pebbles and threw them as he ran, hoping the others hadn't realized what was happening yet. District 4 would have a huge advantage here, being able to swim. He knew he shared that advantage, to some extent, thanks to hours in the woods with Katniss, soaking up the sun and swimming in the rivers...
No! He couldn't think about any of that now. Not until he was safe, maybe not even then. He didn't glance back again, or think about anything other than escaping to the sloping hills, miles away.
Mira rose slowly, her eyes landing for a moment on Gale's fleeing form, unknown emotions coursing through her. But then she pushed them down and grabbed the knife beside her, her eyes frantically searching the landscape. Gone were the trees that had given her protection, in their place was tall grass and rocks, with sloping hills miles away. There would be no hiding here. She looked back once more in time to see Gale throw a rock, and the rock appeared to sink. A trick of the light?
She tore her eyes away, focusing on the tributes all around her, awakening, and knew she had to run. She risked a few steps toward the Cornucopia, snatching a small pack off the wet ground, and turned to run in the same direction Gale had gone. After only a few feet though, the earth felt unstable, as if she would fall right through it, and she slowed her pace, suddenly wary of the solid appearance of the dirt.
Her suspicions were confirmed as when she heard a splash and scream, and the District 4 tribute fell straight through the ground into marshy water. Being from District 4 though, this only slowed him down, and he quickly swam out, cursing and shaking water off himself.
Panic flooded her before she could stop it. She was at an acute disadvantage here. She'd never had any reason or means to learn to swim back in District 12, and no way to learn in the Capitol. She continued at a slower pace, knowing no one would be sprinting here. She picked up a rock and tossed it in front of her, testing the solidity of the ground. What an awful way it would be, to die. Drowning in a bog.
Katniss watched Mira as she half walked-half ran for a few more minutes, passing scraggly trees on almost falling in the bogs a few times. Satisfied she wasn't going to be attacked right away, she turned to Peeta.
"Neither of them have had much confrontation since the Games began," she said.
"I know. But you can bet that's gonna change soon. The audience wants something from the District 12 tributes now. In a way this is our fault."
"Not just in a way. It is," Katniss said, guilt flooding through her as she thought of all the people she affected through her actions in the Hunger Games.
Sensing her angst, Peeta squeezed her hand. "We're alive Katniss. And keeping Gale alive. You can't regret that."
"I know." After a pause she said, "I hate this arena. There's no cover, anywhere. Except for the grass.
Her words hung in the air, no response offered to them. Katniss idly looked to the tally keeping track of the money sponsors had sent them. Enough to keep her entire district afloat for a week. Yet the gifts were so expensive, one meal would cost nearly a quarter of this immense amount.
Something on the screen caught her eye. A rustling in the grass near Mira. She'd spent enough time tracking animals to know this wasn't some stray mouse. It was much too large, much too clumsy. She rolled her chair closer to the controls, finally able to maneuver them herself. She changed the camera angles, and sure enough, the boy from 8 was sneaking behind Mira, a knife in his hand, obviously preparing to attack her, unaware as she was.
"Looks like I spoke too soon," she whispered, but Peeta's hands were already flying over the controls, taking in all the angles, all the possibilities.
"Where's Gale?" he suddenly asked.
"Close." she responded automatically. Over the three or so days he'd been in the arena, it was as if a separate part of her brain had begun to keep tabs on Gale. Like breathing, or blinking. She always knew where he was, what he was doing. And if she didn't, panic threatened to choke her. As it was beginning to do now.
"Do you think he'll hear her?" Peeta asked hesitantly. Neither of them were prepared to deal with the death of someone they were responsible for. Neither of them could even consider the possibility without fear and guilt and depression constricting their hearts.
"If she even has time to scream," Katniss said dryly. She pretended to ignore the sidelong glance Peeta threw her, focusing instead on Gale's screen. "And even then, why would he turn around?"
And then, as Mira hesitated in front of a sketchy piece of land, the boy from 8 saw his chance, took it, and the nightmare began to unfold.
Mira was about to take a step when her feet were knocked out from under her by some unseen force, sending her sprawling terrifyingly close to what she could now see was one of the deadly bogs. She screamed at the top of her lungs, not for any pragmatic reason, just some shrill hope that some sympathetic soul would save her. Yeah, that would happen.
Her hands searched frantically for the knife she'd been clutching, but came into contact with nothing but a rock. She clutched it as a face appeared in front of her, stopping her struggle to stand. An uncertain hand clutched a knife inches from her face. The face above her looked as scared as she, but what she lacked was the determination, bordering on insanity in those dull brown eyes above her.
She knew she was going to die. She prepared for the pain, closing her eyes. But it never came, because the boy suddenly fell on top of her, knife clattering onto the damp ground. Blood soaked her shirt, but it wasn't her own. An arrow protruded from the boy's back, blood pouring out of the wound. A new found fear pumped adrenaline through her veins, and she struggled under the weight of the boy, clutching the knife he'd dropped. She felt his heart beat stutter and stop against her chest, heard the cannon boom. The boy was dead, and she was trapped under him. She finally managed to roll him into the bog beside her, looking away as he sank into the depths.
She took two steps away only to have her heart leap into her throat again. Standing before her, towering over her, was Gale, his cold grey eyes glaring into her own green ones. His bow was strung, an arrow in place. She knew he'd killed the boy, and could only assume he would kill her too.
And the thought was too much for her brain to handle. After days of stress, but remaining under the radar, she'd been in two life threatening situations in the span of about a minute. Her breathing sped up for a moment, and then stopped completely as her eyes rolled back in her head and her body went limp, collapsing with a soft thud into the grass.
Gale looked at the limp girl lying below him. It would be easy to leave her like this. Just walk away; he'd already saved her from the boy, he doesn't owe her anything. But he doesn't feel right about leaving her completely defenseless. She isn't Katniss; she can't protect or feed herself.
But he would not form an alliance with this girl. He wasn't Katniss either, allowing little girls to play on his sympathies and worm their way inside her heart. He needed to make it home.
Still, he couldn't leave her completely defenseless this way. He checked her pack, taking out a canteen and filling it in the bog, dropping some iodine in it. He wasn't sure what else to do, but her eyes were beginning to flutter open, so, silent as a shadow, he disappeared into the grass, not looking back once.
Katniss watched as Gale walked away from the slowly rising Mira. She'd watched the events unfold in complete silence. It wasn't that hard to discern Gale's actions. He was used to protecting his siblings; he couldn't leave Mira defenseless. And he wasn't one to watch someone from his own district be killed, not when he could stop it. Especially without danger to himself.
Really, he'd played his actions very well. The Capitol audience would be enthralled, wondering about Katniss's mysterious, deadly "cousin", who would kill without blinking an eye, yet wouldn't leave the girl from his district defenseless even after saving her life. Whose expressive slate grey eyes could make you shiver under their icy glare, excite you as they danced in anticipation, melt your own hard exterior under their hidden warmth. Whose fiery, vindictive anger could burn you. Whose big, supple hands could shoot an arrow to within a centimeter of its target, set the most complex, delicate trap to catch any vermin, make you feel safe and whole when they wrapped around you...
Peeta's hand on her own brought her out of her thoughts. Thoughts she should not be having anyway. The worry in Peeta's crystalline blue eyes sent guilt punching through her stomach and a violent blush creeping into her cheeks. Oh, Peeta. Wonderful, good, brilliant Peeta. Why couldn't she be what he deserved? She looked down, in part to hide her blush, but mostly because she couldn't stand to see the sincerity in his eyes.
Peeta looked at her ducked head, hating the pain and confusion he knew he caused her. But he couldn't stop, no. He loved her too much. Not just loved, but needed. If he was able to live a day without thinking of her, wishing her beside him, then he knew he would be able to let her go, because his love for her was enough that he wanted her happiness above anything else. But since having her company constantly for the past few weeks, with no death threats looming over their heads, he had developed a dependency on her presence. He needed her beside him, needed to feel body next to his, to hear her voice every day. He hated himself for it.
He tears his eyes back to the screen, forcing himself to concentrate on the matter at hand. Another sponsor was coming tonight, so their act would have to be flawless again. They'd been contacted by other mentors asking about Gale's strategy and allies, but hadn't offered a response, deciding Gale wouldn't accept alliances made without his consent anyway. He focused on Mira, who had awakened a few moments before, just in time to catch a last glimpse of Gale's disappearing form.
Mira's head whirled as she recounted the moments before she'd lost consciousness. Gale had... saved her? And for what?
And then he'd left. She'd seen him disappearing into the long grass as she'd come to. Not only had he actively saved her life, he'd spared it for the second time. She couldn't wrap her head around it.
She stood, collected her knife and pack, and walked in the direction he'd disappeared. She hardly registered her surroundings as she trekked slowly through the grass. For some reason, her thoughts wandered between Gale and Spark, the small girl from District 1. She'd also spared Mira's life once, hinting at an alliance in the future as well. Mira realized that in some twisted ways, the odds were in her favor in these Games.
Lost in her thoughts, she'd forgotten the circumstances. The bogs, all around her. And now, as she took a step and shifted her weight onto her right foot, alertness shot back into her brain, but too late, because her foot was sinking through the ground, as if in slow motion. The icy water embraced her ankle, moving up her legs and splashing through her clothes. She was submerged before she even had a chance to take a breath or scream. She panicked, flailing in the water, trying to get her head out so she could breathe. She broke the surface momentarily, screaming and sucking in air, before her own weight pulled her back down. She flailed back up again, screaming and sucking in air, panic coursing through her body. She made no progress to getting out.
She was going to die.
What an awful way to die.
Her limbs seemed to made of lead, and she began to sink.
Gale heard the screams, heard them and at first ignored them. If someone died now, it was good for him. He needed to make it out.
And then he realized: that was how the Capitol wanted him to think. The death of other people was beneficiary to him. He should wish for it, hope for it, rejoice in it. Complete disregard for life; that was what was expected of him. And it was these thoughts that allowed him to give in to the protectiveness inside him, screaming at him to go save that poor girl once again.
He ran in the direction of her voice, though it had stopped by now. He saw her flailing about, then sinking. She seemed to have given up, accepting she would drown. She was wrong.
He flung his bow to the side, throwing his pack and shirt on top of it. He knew the disgusting women in the Capitol would get a thrill out of his sculpted chest and back. But he cast the thought from his mind as he dove in to the icy water, grabbing Mira's arm and pulling her to the surface. He practically threw her onto the ground, pulling himself out after. She coughed water out, staring at him.
"Well you just can't leave me alone, can you?" he smirked at her. She couldn't decipher his expression, just the ridiculousness of his statement.
"Like you can talk," she panted back, though the sarcasm was lost in her exhaustion. Their faces were inches apart, his breathe warming her icy skin. Then her brain seemed to stop working, or at least malfunctioned. How else could she possibly explain her actions? Because she leaned forward, eyes half-closed, lips extended.
Gale realized her intent and jumped up, grabbing his things along the way. "What are you doing?" he asked her, perplexed and upset at the sudden twist.
"I, I.." she stammered, her brain refusing to form coherent thoughts.
"Well don't!" He said coldly, glaring down at her. She was as foolish as Peeta. It must be a merchant thing. He strung his bow, and, with one final glance at the cowering, wet form on the ground, ran, heading toward the hills he'd seen earlier and away from the confused mess of a person he'd saved from dying, only to break her fragile heart.
Katniss watched Gale running, expertly avoiding the bogs. Night would be falling soon in the arena. She knew the whole of Panem had seen this dramatic turn of events, and she would probably be interviewed in the morning, so they could have insight into her reactions as well. How did the Girl on Fire feel about her cousin's cruel treatment of the girl he'd saved?
That was a very, very good question.