Crimson Fire and Black Smoke
Chapter Three - Sparks and Shadows
A/N: Sorry it's been too long, and thank you to everyone who reviewed while I was gone. You are the reason I'm back.
Also a big shout out to Salanderjade. Thanks for all your support, couldn't have got here without you!
Peeta sat quietly at a table in the back corner of the Neetrith local tavern. The town wasn't far from the smokejumper base and the bar was one he frequented. Although it didn't look it from the outside it was warm, friendly and always packed with people. Haymitch had dragged Finnick and he in one night and soon after it had become 'their place'. He hoped they wouldn't be too annoyed that he planned to meet her here. That's if she turns up' he thought.
The weeks had turned into months and he still didn't know what to do with Katniss Everdeen. He knew she was trying her hardest to avoid him but it wasn't working at all. They seemed to have every shift together and they were constantly running into each other around the base. Their meetings were so stressful. He spent the whole time talking about menial things and although she tried not to make it obvious, it was clear to him that she spent the whole time trying to escape.
It had been a spur of the moment decision to invite Katniss out for a friendly (he couldn't have made that more clear) drink when he had last ran into her on the base. At the time he had thought a different environment, some alcohol and a little bit of one-to-one time might be good for them. Of course he had thought better of it the moment he had met her eye but not a minute later, for a reason unknown to him, she had agreed.
Peeta stared down into his beer ignoring the hum of music, talk and laughter. He had spent the week thinking about what he would say and still couldn't find quite the right words,which was frustrating because it wasn't something he often struggled with. He sighed and took a sip of the dark ale. 'Maybe it's better if she doesn't turn up,' he thought quietly.
Of course it was at that very moment that she appeared out of nowhere carrying an orange drink and four shots of what he assumed was vodka on a small tray. She sat down opposite and passed him two of the smaller glasses. "If we're doing this, I'm not doing it sober" she stated and in one fluid movement she lifted one of the small glasses to her lips and tipped it down her throat. Peeta was stunned. In all the scenarios he had played out in his mind, not one of them started like this. Up until this very moment he had actually been pretty certain that she would stand him up and they would continue to go on as they were.
"Well" she said and she nodded towards the drinks in front of him. 'Well' Peeta repeated silently before he followed suit. The vodka burned but he ignored it, if this was the way she wanted to move forward then he wasn't going to fight her, he knew he would never get this opportunity again. He watched in awe as she downed the second vodka shot without blinking and then took hold of the orange drink and began stirring it absently. He was well aware that they weren't fifteen anymore but he never really imagined that she would be anything but perfect.
So, do you come here often?" she asked, interrupting his thoughts.
Peeta sighed inwardly. He didn't invite her out so they could partake in more of their usual awkward chit chat but he still hadn't worked out how to broach the elephant in the room, the fire and everything that came after. They could never expect to move forward without facing it but that's where the problems lay. He didn't know how to bring it up without dredging up an ocean of pain for both him and her. It was unfamiliar territory and it left him reeling.
"Haymitch, Finnick and I come here to unwind after a long shift or a particularly bad …" Peeta stopped mid-sentence unsure of whether he was breaking an unspoken rule by mentioning anything remotely related to their tainted history. He didn't want to make the rift between them any worse by saying the wrong thing five minutes into the night. "It's so close to the base we just come and have a couple before we go home." He continued, trying to find words to cover his stumble.
Katniss rolled her eyes and placed her drink on the table. "Look Peeta, you saved me. I know that. I can't keep pretending that it didn't happen. So maybe if we let the past go, we have a shot at being something like friends."
Peeta let out a breath that he hadn't realised he was holding. He smiled at her, "I'd like that."
She smiled at him, her silver eyes sparkling with the thanks she didn't need to say, and he marvelled at how much more beautiful she looked when she wasn't scowling at him. He didn't voice this observation, he didn't want to end up sporting a black eye. "So, clean slate and all, maybe we should get to know each other better? I think the last time I actually had a conversation with you we were in first grade."
Katniss raised an eyebrow, "what do you want to know?" she quizzed looking uneasy with the idea.
"Your favourite colour?" He responded with a smile. Not only was it safe but it brought a lightness to the conversation.
She shook her head at him seemingly amused by his choice of question. "Green, you?"
"Orange" Peeta replied, "Not fluro or the colour of carrots or anything you might find in a fifties kitchen - but soft orange, like the colour of the sky when the sun sets on a summer night."
She smiled at him. "So - favourite food?" She asked.
The simple questions were thrown back and forth for a couple of hours. He didn't mind, at least the topic wasn't the weather and it was all helping them move forward. Plus, it was important for them to get to know each other as who they were now. By the time the summer sun was going down the questions had become ridiculous and they were both in fits of laughter. "So frosting is our last resort?" He said incredulously after they ran through another silly scenario.
"It seems so" she said as she wiped a happy tear from eye. She let out a contented sigh and sat back in her seat. "So, last I heard was that your mother shipped you off to med school. How did you end up out here doing what you do?"
Peeta finished the beer he had long forgotten about and placed it on the table. "Mom did send me off to med school. It was never really my choice but, well, you've met her - she's mental - so I went. I did pretty well but I figured out pretty quickly that it wasn't what I wanted to do. I stuck at it though because I didn't really know what I wanted to do, until I started volunteering at the local fire station. From there I became a firefighter and then a friend convinced me to join the smokejumpers." He explained. What about you, what made you become a pilot?" he asked quickly, trying to shift the focus off his job. He wasn't ready to explain why he had chosen to volunteer at the station and he was quite sure that she wasn't ready to hear it.
The young smokejumper sat tensely as the woman regarded him quietly for a moment. He sensed that she had realised the significance of his clumsy redirection. Thankfully she chose not to mention it and launched into her own story instead.
"I didn't really know what to do with myself after... everything..." she started." I didn't do all that well at my new school, I was... lost and I couldn't find the strength to even pretend to be happy. It wasn't until after school finished that I started putting myself back together. Sae, my great aunt, knew someone who worked at a private chartering company in the next town. They took me on as an apprentice of sorts and taught me how to fly. I worked for them for years, well up until I started at the base." She said. "I love flying, I love the freedom it gives me. But I sometimes worry that it makes it too easy to run away."
Peeta regarded her quietly as she stared down into her drink that she also forgotten about. He had never heard her say so many words to anyone, but then he didn't really know anyone that knew her like he did. He wondered if that fact could help her, in some small way, put the final pieces of herself back together.
He was about to reply when a shrill, siren screamed out, deafening the occupants of the busy bar. Peeta recognised it as a fire alarm straight away and fell into autopilot. He stood and searched the room for exits and for any sign of where the fire was. At first it seemed as though it might be a false alarm, then the firefighters arrived. It wasn't until they started shouting out instructions that he looked at Katniss.
The smokejumper could tell that she was doing everything in her power to seem calm and composed, to seem as though she could handle it. He could also tell that underneath she was close to breaking down, she had paled and her hands were curled into fists and her whole body had a tenseness that he hadn't noticed earlier. He had often wondered how she dealt with flying over the giant wildfires, perhaps it was with this same farce composure, or perhaps it was different when she was safe in the air.
As the people in the bar began to rush to get out he offered her his hand. "So we don't get separated" he reasoned with her, but they both knew that the simple gesture meant a whole lot more than that. What he didn't realise was what it meant to him. The moment she slipped her hand into his, the moment her soft fingers brushed against his and some magical electricity shot through his body, he knew he was a goner.
The firefighters evacuated the building quickly and efficiently through a back exit, explaining that a car had exploded out the front and the fire had spread to the garden in front of the bar. Peeta frowned, 'surely that couldn't be possible' he thought to himself. A shiver ran down his spine as he watched the detectives from the arson squad pull up in their police car and he knew immediately that it was all connected. He had to talk to Paylor.
"Peeta" Katniss questioned as he fumbled through his pocket for his phone. It wasn't until he found it that he realised he was still holding her hand. Blue met grey and time seemed to stand still. For the first time since she had walked back into his life he could truly see the woman she had become, not the girl she had once been, and she was perfect.
A crash startled them both and the moment was over. He dropped her hand and she looked away. He just breathed for a minute wondering what had just happened, then he looked back down at the phone in his hand. "Sorry I just have to…" the smokejumper trailed off as it began to ring. He read the name that flashed happily on the screen in surprise - it was exactly the person he wanted to speak with.
"Hello?" He answered.
"How far are you from base?" She asked, her tone, and the fact that she had completely ignored pleasantries, put him on edge. He knew this was a call in, somewhere a fire had started and for some reason one or more of the smokejumpers rostered on couldn't attend.
"I'm in Neetrith. I can be there in about fifteen but I have been drinking," he said quickly.
"Can you drive?"
"Get here then, we'll test you when you arrive. You're not jumping if you're not sober." She told him coolly, clearly annoyed that he was (he assumed) the closest person to base but in a state that might make him ineligible for a jump. He ignored her attitude. He understood her frustration, just as she understood, underneath it all, that he wasn't on roster or even on call and he could do whatever he wanted in his free time.
"That's fine. I'll be there soon. After the fire I need to talk to you." He replied calmly.
"That's fine. Get moving Mellark"
Peeta hung up the phone and looked at Katniss. She looked better. Colour had returned to her cheeks and she seemed to be more puzzled than upset with what was going on around them, or between them.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
Katniss shifted uncomfortably, "I am, I just…" she trailed off. She really didn't have to explain and she knew it. "I'm fine now." she concluded, "do you have to go back to base?"
The handsome man nodded sombrely and, after he received a thumbs-up from the firefighter taking peoples details, he nodded towards the car park. It was unusually cool and he found himself wishing he had a jacket as the cold breeze nipped at his skin. "Do you want a lift home?" He asked.
"No, I'll be okay. You shouldn't waste any more time. From what I overheard Paylor is almost in melt down... I hope no one is hurt…." Katniss said. She looked at him for a long moment before adding, "If you do go, just, just stay alive, okay."
"I will." The words tumbled out of his mouth before he could stop them. He had been trying to put her at ease and in doing so he had made a promise that he might not be able to keep and the last thing she needed was for anyone else that she knew to die in a fire. He watched her with sad eyes as she got into her car praying to whatever god would listen that the odds were in his favour.
The shrill smokejumper base alarm roared around Peeta as he quickly, yet precisely, suited up in his jump gear. He was vaguely aware of the people rushing around the crowded locker room but he mostly ignored their urgent shouts and instructions, his mind elsewhere. He always used the time before he boarded the plane to collect his thoughts and find the calm and strength he needed to face the blazes he was drafted to fight. It was his way of dealing with the destruction and more importantly his way of ensuring he knew what was real. And after his evening, he needed this focus more than ever.
Peeta had only ever discussed the Everdeen fire once since he had left Cinder Point and that was with one of the fire services psychiatrists, Dr Aurelius. Determined to become a firefighter he had sought help after suffering from flashbacks while attending his first house fire early in his career. The man had suggested the calming exercise as a way of coping with what the young man had been through. The wise doctor had understood instantly that there was nothing he could say that would heal the invisible scars but he gave Peeta the ability to manage his trauma. Of course he hadn't given him any pointers on what to do if she walked back into his life and in a single evening rekindled whatever flame he had held for her during their school days together.
The handsome smokejumper expertly buckled his harness as he considered a trip back to the doctor. He was certain the man would be interested to hear that she had apologised, freed him from the guilt he had carried for years, and, in a single evening had somehow become someone that he needed to protect. But, he knew what the older man would tell him. He would say that no one could experience what she did without changing, that there was too much damage done; and if he really thought about it… she was simply just doing what she needed to survive. He would also suggest that the last thing she needed in her life was for someone so tied to the trauma in her past to get too close and make promises that he couldn't keep.
Peeta grabbed the rest of his equipment and followed his team to the planes. His eyes darted to the DC-3TP that Katniss usually piloted and was relieved to see someone else seated in the cockpit. He had a bad feeling about this fire and he wanted her to be as far away from it as possible. For a moment he wondered how he could protect her from whatever was happening, then he saw Cato who was sporting another black eye and remembered that she was more than strong enough to protect herself.
"How many hints do you need?" Peeta snorted. Johanna, who was standing behind the well-built monster of a man chuckled quietly. They all knew that Cato was quick to anger but for some reason he had always tolerated Peeta's teasing and the two got along reasonably well. A scowl appeared on Cato's face, "You said it - she's hot. But I won't be going there again. She's got this insane guy that she hangs around with who doesn't look it but has a decent punch. I offered to buy her a drink and he went nuts. Took me on... me!"
Peeta's brow furrowed as he processed this piece of information. 'I guess she has a boyfriend' he thought. Something inside of him twisted painfully but he couldn't dwell on it because right at that moment the plane's engines roared underneath him and the pilot shouted at him to take a seat. The blonde squeezed in between Clove, Cato's jump partner, and Johanna and took in a deep breath. The puzzle that was Katniss Everdeen would have to wait.
"WATCH OUT!" Peeta yelled as he dragged Johanna out of the path of a falling tree.
The blonde smokejumper heard the small woman curse as she stumbled out of his arms. He would have helped her regain her footing if he had not been so completely mesmerised by the fallen giant. The plant crackled and creaked as the flames tore through it, incinerating its leaves and charring its bark. It both beautiful and horrifying to watch and it brought home the frightening reality that Jo and he would already be dead if they had been trapped under it. He wondered if he jinxed himself when he had told Katniss he would stay alive.
Everything seemed to be going wrong. The fire had almost been contained when a change in the wind had become a game changer. All of a sudden the fire intensified, it jumped the firebreaks and before they knew it they had a huge uncontrollable fireball on their hands. Worse still, the team had been split into two groups by the fire and it had been hours since he had talked to anyone in the second group.
Peeta shook himself out of his thoughts and turned to look at Johanna. The woman was cradling her wrist. "Are you alright?" He asked as he moved to look at her arm. It was bruised and she was sporting a couple of nasty burns.
"We don't have time." She stated matter-of-factly.
He frowned but couldn't argue. She was right. He had already wasted too many precious seconds thinking. And it hadn't been useful thinking either. He could have at least put some time into working out a plan to contain the fire. So far their only plan had be stay ahead of the huge wall of flames until day break. At sunrise the air tankers would be able to give them the help that they desperately needed but dawn was still two hours away and they were exhausted.
"Drop your pack" He told her, "and don't argue with me about it," he added before she could chew his ear off about how much longer she had been doing this for and how many worse injuries she'd has in the past. "Bring your axe if you must but I don't want to see it in this hand." He stated as he secured her wrist in a piece of cloth that he carried for exactly this purpose.
"I have to admit, you're turning me on Mellark. I've heard about this Doctor Peeta persona you have, but I've never met him before… bet he's fun in the bedroom" she sniggered, her eyes daring him to respond.
Peeta rolled his eyes but a small smile played on his lips. He couldn't fault Jo, she always knew how to make the darkest hour just that little bit less bleak. But the moment came to an abrupt end when the other members of their group appeared in the clearing, moving fast.
"GO! GO! GO!" Cato and Clove roared as they bolted past him and Jo. Peeta didn't need to be told twice. He could see the wall of fire moving behind them. Quickly he fell into step behind Cato, running full pelt through the dense woods. It wasn't easy. The terrain was undulating and there were obstacles everywhere. Not to mention the combined weight of his suit and pack.
"YOU LET ME KNOW WHEN YOU NEED A BREAK - I'LL CARRY THE PACK" Cato yelled over the roar of the fire. Peeta had noticed that both Cato and Clove were no longer carrying anything but tools. It was protocol. People over supplies always, but that didn't mean they weren't handy to have. He nodded in thanks but wasn't really sure if the man noticed. After all if it wasn't for their helmet lights and the ominous red glow of the fire they wouldn't be able to see a thing.
A good amount of time passed before Cato felt they had put enough distance between them and the fire to take a short break. The small group fell to the ground, physically and emotionally exhausted. Peeta threw the pack to the larger man whose seniority meant he was their current leader. Cato handed out protein bars and water. "Don't get too comfortable" he warned.
"One hour till sunrise" Clove informed them sullenly. Peeta scrubbed his face with his hands. "Tick tock" she added quietly a sad look on her face.
"Fuck!" Johanna cursed again as she tried to open the bottle of water with her injured hand. Peeta gave her a pointed glare but she just winked back at him.
"Toss her some of the pain killers Cato" Peeta said but quickly realised that their leader was busy. The robust blonde had the satellite phone in his hand and a look of defeat in his eyes.
"You haven't heard from them either then?" He said quietly to the person on the other end of the line whom he assumed was Jessica. "No, I just tried. Not sure, we only have one pack left, so maybe they tossed everything…. Yes we're all accounted for… Jo has an injured wrist and we're almost out of water… I know Jess, we'll keep moving." The phone beeped as the blonde turned it off.
"No word from the others?" Peeta asked sombrely
Cato shook his head his eyes downcast. For the second time that evening Peeta felt something inside twist painfully, but this time it was so much worse. Somewhere in the wilderness the rest of their team was either dead, or alive with no way of contacting anyone which ultimately meant the same thing. He knew he had to put it out of his mind but it pulled at his heart. Blight, Enobaria, Wiress and Beetee had become part of his family since he had moved out here and none of them deserved this fate. He closed his eyes and pushed it aside. He couldn't help anyone if he couldn't keep himself alive.
"The plan is still to keep moving. She doesn't want us to create any fire breaks. So long as there isn't another change in the wind we need to keep heading north east. The clearing from the fire we mopped up last month will slow the fire down and we have a few breaks there that will hopefully keep it at bay until the tankers can get out here. Jessica has a new team ready to go too and you will be picked up by chopper Jo." Cato said
The woman glared in response but she didn't argue which spoke volumes about her current state. Peeta frowned. "Jo, you run in front of me and you don't leave my line of sight"
"Is that so you can check out my ass?" She quipped, with yet another suggestive wink.
"Of course" he replied and she snorted.
"We should get going then," Clove said. She pulled out an electronic compass which quickly found their path. "That's strange" she commented quietly as she looked into the thicket.
"What is?" Jo questioned.
"Just turn off the lamps for a minute," she replied. The team did as instructed and as soon as their eyes adjusted to the darkness her concerns became clear. The red glow that they thought they had left behind them was now in front of them.
"Go, West, Go!' Cato yelled.
Peeta ran faster than ever before, hot on the heels of Jo who he was certain must have been a track Olympian in a previous life. The woman was not only fast, she was agile. She weaved in out of the trees without pause and leapt over low-lying obstacles with ease. He felt clunky following her, but at least he was keeping up, and he hadn't fallen flat on his face, yet.
The fire caught up with them faster than he thought it would. The two fires had seemed to combine into one roaring inferno that was destroying everything in its path. Smouldering ash rained down on them making it difficult to both see and breathe. It was the worst-case-scenario and even though they had trained and trained for it, there was nothing that could have prepared him for it. He struggled to stay focused as thoughts of his impending death clouded his mind. "It serves me right" he thought quietly, 'I should have stopped playing with fire years ago.'
Peeta hadn't noticed that the gap between him and Jo had lengthened until the woman stopped dead in her tracks. She looked at him, her eyes widening, and then she ran full pelt towards him.
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!" He yelled. The roar of the fire was deafening and he didn't hear her reply, but he felt it when her body crashed into him with the force of a speeding truck. He could see the fire leap into the trees above him as he fell backwards and he felt time slow down. He was sure that he was going to die until he heard the slap of his back hitting something wet. His eyes met Jo's and he just had enough time to get in a breath of smoky air before they plunged into the water beneath them.
'What are the odds that a knee-deep muddy puddle would save us' he thought as he tried to figure out whether Johanna had gone up for air already. He knew he wouldn't be able to hold his breath for much longer but he wanted to give the fireball time to pass. They should be able to manage the spot fires it would leave behind but he didn't want to surface in the midst of the blaze.
Eventually his body gave up and he rushed to the surface. The air was sooty and warm but it felt good to fill his lungs again. The roar of the fire was now in the distance and all he could hear was Johanna who was laughing. He turned to look at her. Relieved, was the only way he could have described her in that moment, but it soon changed when she spotted him.
"I am a genius!" She proclaimed loudly.
Peeta sighed and pulled himself up, only to promptly fall down, intense pain shooting through his leg.
"Are you alright?" Johanna questioned and she splashed over to him.
He stood again, this time shifting all his weight to his good leg and looked down. There was a tear in the leg of his pants and a piece of wood protruded from his thigh. Blood seeped from the wound but from what he could tell it wasn't too deep. The worry was that it had severed an important artery. Peeta groaned inwardly, now that he knew it was there, and how bad it was, he was in agony.
"You're not going to die, are you?" Johanna asked as she passed him back the cloth he had used on her arm earlier.
"No," he replied, realising too late that it was the second time in twenty-four hours that he had made that call at a time when the odds were not in his favour.
"Then I had better genius a way out of here," she grunted as she dragged him to his feet.
"Thanks Jo" He said quietly. The two little words carried a lot of weight. She had saved his life back there, and she would probably do it again before the day was out.
The short-haired woman looked into the distance with a haunted look in her eyes. "Don't thank me, not yet" she whispered back before they began their journey towards the sunrise.