11: Stranger

I wake the instant Peeta sits up, his arms slipping away from me, the bed creaking underneath his weight. A hand shoots out and curls around his elbow on instinct. "Where.."

"The baby," he says, and I notice the sound of our scrawling daughter in the distance.

I sit up, wide awake. I don't know how Peeta does it; how he wakes the very moment at her first squeak of upset, how he hears her when he's sleeping, when he's two houses away, when he's at the bakery and I can't get her to calm for the life of myself. Part of me is envious, and the other is irritated at how perfect he is at the task of fathering, but most of all I'm grateful.

Leaning back on an elbow, I watch him pull on a shirt and fumble to attach his prosthetic leg, before standing and lumbering tiredly to the hall, yawning and stretching. Once, I might of followed him and stood uselessly behind his shoulder as he rocked and cooed at the bundle in his arms. Now, I know better. I sigh, flop against his side of the bed, and close my eyes; but I won't sleep. I can't sleep when he's not here with me. Especially not when Dani is crying.

So I wait.

I listen and twist futilely in the sheets to find some sort of comfort.

Dani has a strong set of lungs for a sixteen month old girl. In fact, her crying seems to blur into a scream, high and thin, and I sit up, ruffled and miffed by the sound. Usually she quiets instantly when he picks her up. Instead, there is a thud, and the shatter of glass, splintering through the air.

"Peeta?" I call out.

The screaming turns louder. I'm on my feet in an instant, uncaring of the lack of pants and the tangled mass of my hair as I slip out into the dark hallway, and stall in horror at the sight of Peeta slumped against the wood, clutching a bleeding scalp, a weak shoulder shoving against the closed door of Dani's room. "There's a man," Peeta says, hurriedly, almost slurred into incoherence. Glimmering dust litters his hair, shards of glass gathered at his feet and scattered around the hall. A lamp; he hit Peeta with a lamp.

I don't know what grips me worse; panic or anger. Either way, I throw myself completely into a mode of such frantics that I shove Peeta away, draw the knife I keep in the draw of the hallway table and wedge it between the door and the frame. The lock doesn't budge, no matter how much I rattle and pry. Turning, I search Peeta's face; he's awake, but bleary, still. "Don't let him leave this way," I snap, breathless, and I streak down the hall, blooding my feet in the glass, throwing myself down the stairs two at a time.

The knife is still in my hand, knuckles white with grip.

Outside the night is bitterly cold. The grass is damp and stiff beneath my slashed feet. Air bites the flesh of my thighs and nose, whipping hair into my face and around, as a wavering, slithering black veil. I know exactly which window is my daughter's, but I'm already too late. Because the man has already dropped to the ground, clutching the screaming child underneath his coat.

I don't even think about it. Perhaps its the Hunger Games that I have underneath my belt, or my experience in the war, or merely because that is my daughter he is taking and that was my husband whom he attacked and that is my house he has infiltrated. Doesn't matter that he's at least twice my size, a whole head taller, and broader in the shoulders than even Peeta; the knife still sinks through his flesh the same as Marvel's spear propelled through Rue's chest.

Dani is a storm of noise, sobbing and screaming and wailing as though she is the one who has been stabbed through a collarbone. The man nearly tosses her aside in his attempt to throw himself at me, into the knife, deeper and closer, his hands at my throat. I'm too preoccupied with trying to catch her, the blanket's edge grasped in my fingers momentarily, before it slips through as if water, and I hear Dani's huff as she hits the cold, hard ground and the sound of that knocks me breathless with hurt, with fury, with the want to cry. The splotched green, purple marks are already forming across her flawless downy skin, her screams turn from ones of fear and uncertainty, to pain.

My anger fuels my strength. The man drags us both to the ground, and I roll us away from Dani, choking for breath, his fingers tight on my throat. I think of Peeta, because he's done this to me, too, years and years ago, but there is something much more cruel about the way the stranger is jerking my face violently back and forth, whipping my hair into my cheeks and eyes.

Two hands grasp me tightly by the waist, lift me into the air, and set me down in the grass; I am gasping, eyes streaming. Vision blurry, the moonlight dim, I can hardly see the figures of Peeta and the man, all curled fists and knees and jerking movements for control.

Clutching my aching neck, I scramble to my daughter, still in the grass. I pull her to my chest and it is not close enough. Warm, wet tears soak into the skin of my neck. My hand fits around the back of her head, fingers sifting through her silky black tuft, my cheek pressed hard against her salty one. I stand, stumbling, and I watch frantically as Peeta grasps the stranger by the hair, underneath the black mask, and slams it back against the ground.

But the head wound takes its toll on Peeta; he is not so fast as he should be, not so clearheaded. The stranger elbows Peeta's face and he turns away, spitting blood. I search the area around us; the night is empty, obsolete, and I want to run, to place Dani somewhere safe, but I can't tear my eyes off Peeta, can't leave him here. What if he dies while I'm away? The thought is ice in my chest, tight in my throat. I want to scream with my daughter; fall to my knees and keen and lose it.

Except that is not me. I've been here before, in these situations. Where my loved ones are threatened and death is a presence close and promising. Backing away, to the porch, I find the cushioned chair, tugging the cushion off and onto the safer level of the ground, and for one heartbeat, I clutch Dani painfully close, before setting her gently on the soft green pillow, tangled in her wet blankets. I leave her there.

I find the bloodied knife a few feet away from the struggling figures of Peeta and the stranger. Its still warm, running crimson over my fingers. I pace closer to them. Back in the woods, safe inside a water-proof cover, is my bow. I wish for it. So simple, if I could merely draw an arrow, aim, and loose the point into the man's heart. I would not miss, no matter which way they struggled.

But I must make do with the knife.

I wait until the man has Peeta pinned against the earth to lunge forward and force the blade to the hilt into the stranger's back. He goes still, stiffens for a moment, twists away from the weight of me pressed into his spine. Then Peeta throws him to the side, the blood leaking down the man's sides and into Peeta's clothes. I rip the knife free, swinging it down again, into the man's abdomen. He groans and moves a feeble hand to my shoulder. Then I stab him again. And again, and again, until blood lashes up both my arms, drips from my nightshirt, and flecks my jaw.

Peeta waits behind me, cradling and soothing our daughter. He does not frown at my savage show, doesn't grab my shoulders and whisper mercy into my ear, does not disapprove. So I turn to him and the knife falls from my stiff and frozen fingers, and I throw myself into his chest, Dani safe between us.

I kiss her face, then his. The weight of his arm around me and of Dani resting on my chest is solid and real and I kiss Peeta deeply on the mouth, tasting the reality there. Until the few tears on my own face are whipped away by his shirt, the same as Dani's.

After moments of reveling in relief, I begin to breathe properly again. Start to feel just how cold it is outside, just how ridiculous we look; blood covered, bedraggled, a dead man in our front yard. At the remembrance of him, I hiss and turn back to the stranger. I eye him. In the night, he is just a slumped dark shape in my front yard, not the hateful man whom tried to steal my daughter. Who deserved his death. I don't pause for guilt, but skip right to a need to know who the man is.

"I'll get the porch light," Peeta whispers at my side. He staggers his way to the front door, that is hanging wide open, and flicks the switch. For a moment, I'm completely blinded, turning away, blinking rapidly.. then my vision clears.

I stoop to pick up the knife, then move skittishly forward. There is still a mask over the man's face. I crouch beside the corpse, working the fabric sticky with blood, slowly, inch by inch, off the man's face.

White blonde hair, loose and shaggy, with ghostly pale, blood-shot blue eyes. His face is boyish, young, no older than me or Peeta. I don't know him. Peeta shakes his head when I look up for his own assessment. We don't know him. I use the knife to rip open the man's thick clothing, and there are no signs of tattoos or designs that might suggest he is a Capitol citizen. He is extraordinarily plain. Pockets empty, wrists and fingers clear of watches and rings, and I can't think of any reason he would want to take Dani from us.

Was he payed to do it? Was it his own personal decision? Was it because of me? Because I was the Mockingjay? Of that, I feel certain. There is no other reason. It couldn't have been our house by coincidence; everyone knows where Katniss Mellark lives, where her baby and husband live, right beside her. It wasn't a baby he wanted, it was my baby.

But why? And I can't answer that.

I know there is a mess to clean up. I'm not sure entirely where to go to tell someone about this. The new Justice Building might be the first place to go, but I don't dare go too far, so late, and I know exactly who I want to turn to in this haphazard situation. Haymitch lives right across the street, which is a relief, and I wonder if he was too drunk to hear the screaming and the fighting.

Peeta and Dani stick close to me. I can't let them out of my sight so soon. I don't think I'll let him put her down again, ever, if I had a choice on that. Inside Haymitch's house, it's dark and cool, so I go around flicking on the lights, staining the flips with red. The knife is still in my fist and I place it carefully on the kitchen counter, before I fill up a nearby container with water in the sink. Peeta sits exhaustively at the table.

"How's your head?" I ask.

"Fine." Peeta strokes Dani's with infinite care. "I saw him drop her."

I wince. "Yes."

"Should we take her to the hospital?"

"Both of you are going." I haul the water in one hand and pick up the knife once more in the other. Haymitch is passed out on the coach. He wakes with a jerk at the dump of the water over his face, sputtering and swinging out his own knife. I block the blow easily.

Haymitch looks at first as though he wants to snap at me, but his eyes widen and darken in the instant he takes me in. The blood jumps out starkly on the white of my shirt. "Forgot your pants, did you?" he finally asks, pushing himself up into the sitting position.

I don't dwell on his sarcasm. Modesty is beyond me at this point. "He tried to take her."

Haymitch knows exactly which 'her' I'm speaking about. "Did he.."

"He didn't get far. He's in the yard now."

"And Dandelion?"

"With Peeta, in the kitchen. I'm taking them to the hospital. I just need you to take care of the Justice Building for me. I don't want to.." I don't want to deal with them, with the government. But I know I must. That it has to be reported. That they are the only ones who will be able to tell me who the man is.

"Alright." Haymitch sighs, rubs at his face, is hungover. He overlooks me again, lingering on the knife in my hand. "Clean yourself up before you go anywhere. Make this easier for me, yeah?"

Not a chance. But I do pull on some pants before I throw my father's ancient hunting jacket around my gory shirt and I tug my hair into a messy knot to the side. Dani and Peeta don't need to be changed. I rub at the blood dripping down his chin from his mouth as we walk out of the Victor's Village.

He kisses my fingers, uses his free hand to ghost over my neck. A look of remorse is there. "I'm sorry. I should have pulled you off him sooner." I wonder if he thinks I can only remember the time in which he'd been the one to choke me. His touch does remind me of Gale, afterward, in the hospital, though. I close my eyes. If I called Gale, would he help me find out who that man was, and whom he might of worked for?

"It's alright," I answer eventually. "I'm fine. You're fine. We'll all be fine."

Peeta opens his mouth, as though to speak, but stops himself at the last second.

I know exactly what he wanted to say. What if there's another one? What if it never ends? What if they kill her next time? We won't be fine then. Nothing will be fine after that. I bury my side against his, and touch my daughter's face gently. "We'll be fine," I say, again. "We'll survive."

Peeta whispers his reply; "We always do."