January 6th, 2014
A/N: FINALLY! I can't tell you how long I've been trying to get this out of me. But it finally happened, and if by any chance, dear readers, you have found the patience in yourselves that I can only beg you for, I am forever in your debt. Hopefully, the next few will be far less painful and faster coming. Also, if you have read Something Like Danger 2, this update is the exact same version, only it's finally posted where it needs to be. As always, reviews are appreciated!
I'm almost to the Victor's Village when Gale catches my arm. When I whirl to face him, he lets go and steps back, his hands raised defensively. His gray eyes search me, startled and worried, and it is only then I feel my chest heaving in deep ragged breaths.
I must look as out of control as I feel.
The adrenaline and panic in me starts to subside when I close my eyes to gather myself. But the despair that slides into its place is not as supportive. I feel weak and deflated. While it isn't yet warm by any stretch of the imagination, it is far from cold, so the shudder that ripples through me stems from something other than a chill. But fear is a kind of chill, I think.
Though my head is starting to pound with beginnings of a headache, I open my eyes. Gale's face hovers before mine and his closeness makes the world lose focus and spin dangerously. I blink rapidly, trying to orient myself, relying on the warm feel of his hands on my shoulders to keep me from falling.
"Maybe you should sit down?"
I shake my head, the fury still pounding like an unfaltering metronome.
"No, Gale! I don't need to sit down!" I spit the words like venom, and though Gale always has had a thick skin, I see him flinch at my tone. A part of my heart wrenches and tells me to apologize immediately, but a larger part still beats wildly in self-driven panic.
"What I need is for you to not keep me in the dark. I don't need your protection! I don't need anyone's protection!"
"Is there a problem here?"
A Peacekeeper approaches us, his rifle held at the ready in his left hand, while his right pulls up the visor of his helmet. Despite the hardness in his eyes, he looks young. Maybe not much older than Gale, and he tries to hide that by standing a little straighter when he is close enough to appreciate Gale's height.
"Is he bothering you, Miss?" he asks me specifically.
"No, no," I stammer.
"Can I escort you to your final destination, then?"
He ends this question with a pointed look at Gale. I'm not sure the Peacekeeper sees the fingers clench threateningly into a fist, but I do, and I start walking again, tugging Gale's arm behind me and out of sight.
"No, it's okay," I say, forcing a smile and shoving Gale awkwardly through the gated entrance to the Victor's Village. "We are here anyway."
I can feel his eyes on my back as I turn and follow Gale up the stairs to my house. Gale steps aside and lets me fumble with the key. It takes everything in me not to look back at our audience of one. Eventually, the deadbolt clicks and I stroll as casually as I can into the house. Gale shuts the door with a tense carefulness, sliding the lock before turning back to face me. The muscles of his jaw flex a few times and then we're at it again, all fire and fury and tempers.
"It's my job to protect you! It always has been and always will be!" he says, trying to keep his voice down and failing.
"I never asked you to!" I snap back. "And I don't appreciate not being included!"
"I was trying to surprise you, take some of the burden off your back. That's all!"
"What is going on here?"
Hazelle stands in the hallway entrance to the kitchen, her floured hands on her hips as if she caught two children arguing over something trivial. Prim and my mother are quick to appear just behind her, Prim's wide eyes staring at me with a hint of alarm.
Quickly, Gale and I glance at each other, silently agreeing to put our disagreement on hold.
"We need to go for a walk," I say.
"All of us," Gale adds.
Hazelle frowns, her eyes focused on her eldest son for what seems like an insatiable amount of time. It is only the terse nod that gives away her agreement. She looks to my mother with a determined expression, one that is probably not needed by the way my mother looks as if she is a lost lamb in need of shepherding.
"All right," Hazelle agrees. "We'll grab our coats…"
"Layer up," Gale interrupts. "It's still very cold outside."
Our two families separate into their respective rooms within the house. Soon the sound of shutting closet doors and shuffling drawers fills the almost quiet. Rory and Vick seem to think this adventure is exciting and badger Gale for an indication of what this surprise walk might entail.
"You'll see when we get there," Gale says, though I'm sure only I can hear the subdued strain in his voice.
I'm helping Prim zip up over the layers and layers I handed her to wear. She silently, trustingly, forced each additional shirt over her head, never questioning my insane demands. When she reaches for her hairbrush on the dresser's top, I hesitate. Only essentials need to come, I think instinctually. But Prim hands it to me, bidding me to look closer and see what it really is she is trying to ask.
It's Town-made, that much is clear as soon as the sanded and polished wood hits my hand. The dark chestnut stain is that of mahogany, its smooth satiny surface only interrupted by an intricate design on inlaid ivory winged birds in flight. My mother's wedding present, one of the few gifts given to her by my father.
I swallow hard.
"Tuck it in somewhere safe, little duck."
We are the last two to arrive back in the foyer. Everyone looks stuffed to the gills, like linen and cotton marshmallows. The picture would be humorous if the "walk" we were about to take didn't entail running for our lives.
"Where are we going, Gale?" Posy chirps, her cheeks already bright pink from being overdressed.
"Downtown," he lies. Then he looks to me, the smile disappearing. "Ready?"
People are too worried about violating the many rules the new Peacekeepers have brought with them to notice us. I didn't think there would ever be a time that I would be thankful for the Capitol and its overbearing ways, but this does let us get to the edges of the Seam without any trouble.
Along the way, Gale and I have managed to whisper the bullet points of this trek to our mothers. Having them understand and on our side makes it far easier to keep our siblings close in tow.
We pass the Hawthorne's small house when Posy senses something is up. Vick, Rory, and Prim have started to catch on to the anxious atmosphere and have thought better than to ask. But Posy is just five and can't possibly be expected to grip the gravity of our situation.
"We went the wrong way," she laughs. "That was our house back there!"
Gale and I flinch, her squeals of delight carrying in the dead silence. He opens his mouth in response, but we both turn to the faint sound of boots crunching over gravel.
In an instant, we're flattened to the house walls, Gale shoving our families into the shadows before coming to crouch next to me. Prim buries her face into my mother's shoulder and I have to look away from the utter terror on her face. I hear Gale's breath even out and force mine to do the same. Soft, shallow inhales. Our eyes meet briefly before locking on the direction of the approaching sound. There's little cover for him and us to hide behind with everyone else squirreled away in the recesses and when the lone Peacekeeper steps around one of abandoned buildings, I can only hope that my father's hunting jacket and Gale's worn flannel blend us into the winter weary ground. We are both too afraid to move.
The Peacekeeper strides a little closer, only occasionally throwing glances to the woods beyond the fence. He seems much more preoccupied with who might be following him by the way he stares back towards the center of the Seam. After a moment, he props his gun against the wall of an old mining home and pulls a cigarette box from his pocket. He flips the shield of his helmet and lights up and turns away from us. But not before I get a good look at his face.
Almost in unison, Gale and I risk a glance at each other. Our eyes practically shout the same question.
Who is he?
It's clear neither of us recognize him. My own ignorance of the Peacekeepers doesn't alarm me as much as Gale's confusion. As a Victor, I had taken advantage of my celebrity status by not having to worry about the armed guard around District 12. Barring an overt crime, I was pretty much a privileged citizen in their eyes and to some, was even ranked above them in terms of community hierarchy. Peacekeepers were rotated through the mines so Gale's exposure to them was a lot more intimate than my own experience. But if Gale didn't at least recognize him, that had me worried.
And here we were. Pressed to the dilapidated wall of a rundown house on the outskirts of the Seam with two families hiding in the shadows. Not even my victor status could save us if we were caught.
As the Peacekeeper blows smoke into the infantile spring air, Gale gently bumps my arm for my attention. He doesn't take his eyes off the armed guard when he talks, his voice barely a whisper.
"Stay here," he says, "I'm going to circle around."
"What?" I hiss. "Gale, that's cr—"
My voice rises without my consent because I'm already ten steps ahead in this conversation and I don't like what Gale's suggesting one bit. Gale's hand clamps down over my mouth hard enough that I think I might have bruises on my cheeks.
"Katniss, listen." He unleashes the full weight of his gray eyes on me and I know I'm going to agree to his plan before he says it. "I'm going to the mill…" I nod. The old flour mill two blocks down has been empty for decades, a leftover relic from when District 12 had enough of a population to sustain two bakeries. Gale and I had used it many times when we had a plentiful hunt and needed two trips to haul our catch to the Hob. It provided an excellent vantage point of the fence and nearby houses. "Stay right here until I draw him away. Then get them under the fence and into the forest. Get to Peeta and Haymitch."
I narrow my eyes at him, silently asking a question I'm sure he can easily see.
"If I'm not there in five minutes, leave."
He misunderstood me. Frustration wells up in my eyes. It takes Gale less than a second to realize his mistake.
"I'll be right behind you," he says softly. "Like always."
Gale lifts his hand from my mouth, raising a warning finger against me speaking. It's effective at keeping me from arguing, because I know I have no ability to keep my voice down when my throat clenches and my chest tightens like this.
Glancing once in the direction of our unwanted friend and seeing his back still towards us, I turn and pull Gale against me in a long lingering kiss. When I release him, I hold his face in my gloved hands for a moment. I won't let myself think it may be for the last time.
"You better," I whisper fiercely.
Gale smiles grimly, kisses my forehead, and then backs out of my embrace. His boots are silent on the chipped gravel path as he slides into the cover of the house next to us. Then he disappears and I hear and see nothing.
The next few minutes feel agonizingly slow. It seems with every passing second, my breath grows louder, the shuffles and whimpers of my scared family heightened in the stillness. If this continues for much longer, I'm certain the Peacekeeper will turn and find us.
But then a loud crash reverberates throughout the quiet and all of us jump almost out of our skin.
The Peacekeeper growls some vulgar expression, quickly smashing his burning cigarette beneath his boot and shouldering his rifle. He stalks away towards the sound and I know I have to move.
"Come on," I say, edging forward to the street and peering up and down. There's no sign of law enforcement anywhere but I'm not about to lead my family across the open ground and let them get caught like sitting ducks.
"Wait here, and when I signal you, one at a time, cross over to me. Understand?"
Wide-eyes and set mouths all nod understanding. I turn one more time to make sure I'm clear and then I sprint for the fence, falling to my knees in a muted slide and coming to rest pressed close to the ground just next to it. It gently sways in a beautiful quiet, no hum evident all along the chainlinks.
I wave the okay, and Rory shoots across the street like a dart. His large gray eyes fix on me like a terrified fawn.
"Slide under and get to the tree line. Do not go into the forest," I whisper.
He nods, his expression changing to one of grim determination and then I'm watching him scamper across the meadow. I can barely make out his thumbs up when he's hidden at the edge of the forest. I wave my hand for the next.
One by one, I send over Prim, my mother, and Vick. Hazelle holds tightly to Posy and makes it across the street when another crash sounds from the direction of the mill. This time, it's followed with shouts and my ears can discern between more than one voice. Hazelle and I exchange one look of panic, but I shake my head and push her towards the fence.
"Get going," I say through clenched teeth. "I'll be right behind you."
She sends Posy underneath first, then slides under herself before scooping her youngest and running all out for the woods. I turn back to the noise of the skirmish and reach for the bow on my back as I stand and start forward. Except my fingers find nothing but air.
Unarmed and helpless, I curse silently. My body leans forward, anxious to run to Gale's aid, but my mind whispers harshly against that endeavor. It's pointless, I'd be of no use without my bow.
I do the only thing I can. Grit my teeth and run.
I don't let myself stop until I'm past the woodline. Everyone is gathered together, clearly unnerved to be beyond the district fences. I would reflect on the irony of their fear, except my attention is called back to the warehouse. There's shouting now, but I can't make out the words. Or the voices.
"Everything's going to be fine," I say. I tell them because it is easier for me to convince that they, not me, are the ones that need the reassurance.
Prim is the only one to nod, and I clutch to her unwavering belief in me like a lifeline.
"What next, Katniss?" she asks.
We need to wait for Gale. We need to WAIT!
"We need to get to Haymitch and Peeta," I say. "They are waiting for us."
Inexplicably , Posy picks this moment to decide today's adventure have been too much. I see her quivering lower lip signal the impending breakdown. And there is nothing I can do to stop it.
"What about Gale? Where's Gale!"
I have no words to the echoing screams of my heart. I feel like I'm being pulled in two different directions, and because of the equal and opposing forces cannot move an inch one way or the other. The roaring in my head sounds like a freight train barreling down the tracks to squash me beneath the chaos and fury of this situation.
Fingers pry open my clenched fist and a tiny hand quiets the whirling of the world. Prim's blue eyes look at me with authority I didn't know she possessed.
"He will be right behind us, Katniss. Won't he?"
The resolution in her voice is so final that even I believe her. It gives me the strength to nod and walk forward, leading our families into the shadows of the trees.
It is not strong enough to keep me from looking back.