[AN: This is an "Everlark" AU story set during World War II. I have tried to make it as authentic as such a thing can be. I hope you like it. I have about four chapters written so far, and the writing is going well. Thanks for reading.]
Chapter 1: "Fire"
Aboard B-29 Bomber (June, 1944)
The plane bumps around so much that I drop the compass. It lands with a clang under my seat and begins bouncing around on the metal floor. After a minute or two I reclaim it by blindly reaching one hand under the sharp metal legs of the seat until my fingers touch it. A navigator's work is never done. Record this, record that. Check this map. Watch this flight path. Make sure we're on course. Check for any anomalies. What's the weather like? I'm good at it all because I'm meticulous by nature.
My eyes squeeze shut for protection from the bright sunlight that's streaming through my station's window. But as my eyes adjust to the sun I see that the propeller on one of the engines has stopped moving. My heart skips a beat or two before I see flames begin to lap at the edges of the engine from within its core.
"Engine fire," I whisper under my breath. Then I scream it.
"Engine fire! Engine Fire!"
I drop my compass and push my maps off my desk. Then I pick up the first heavy instrument on my desk that I can get my hand on and bang it against the metal wall as hard as I can, still yelling about the fire.
Record this, record that. Where's the fire? What's our altitude? Much too high for this, that's what our altitude is!
B-29's have not been in service that long, but my first impressions of them were all related to their tremendous size. The wings span 141 feet, and there are two engines on each wing. But at the moment the capacity of the fuel tanks comes hurling to the forefront of my mind. Thousands of gallons of fuel slosh around in the wing tanks alone. With open flames visible outside my window all I can think of is how that fuel threatens to explode at any moment.
"John!" I shout to the pilot. I can see his hands fumbling with the controls. He knows what's happening, and he'll try to set us down safely. Everything will be fine.
Suddenly, the propeller of the damaged engine snaps off and hits the side of the plane with a clatter. Flames shoot out from behind the wing. I push my whole body against the cold wall, as far from the window as I can get, as if that will save me. Denying the outcome of this flight any longer seems pointless. I grasp for anything solid to brace myself.
The plane pitches hard and begins the rapid descent that I knew to be inevitable. I'm still screaming about the fire every few seconds, hoping any other crew members who are not aware of the fire already can hear me over the noise of the trembling metal plates of the plane. But if they are also calling out to me or each other, I can't hear any of them.
Surely they all know by now.
I see the boots of the gunner stationed above me as he slides down to my level of the plane, his eyes wide with fear. The second engine on our side of the plane suddenly erupts into flame. The plane drops again, knocking me from my feet and onto the metal floor but not pulling me from the metal bar I'm holding.
No hope. We'll be a fireball in moments. I only hope we won't feel much.
I look back to the cockpit. John's still trying to regain control. He turns his head. He's moving his mouth, but I can't hear him. The gunner is pulling on my arm and starting to shimmy down to the opening of the pressurized tube that connects the front and back sections of our plane. Beside it is the unpressurized cargo area where the bombs are stored.
Out of the corner of my eye I can see John waving his hands at me, motioning for me to go with the gunner. John's a great pilot, highly dedicated. He won't bail out with any of us still onboard. But I'm afraid his devotion will only get him killed this time. If anyone gets out of this bomber alive, it's going to be by jumping. The gunner pulls my arm, and I follow him into the tube.
The next few moments run together. One second I'm on the plane, hoping it doesn't explode before we reach an altitude low enough for bailing out safely. The air's full of smoke, making knowing when to jump almost impossible. The next moment, I'm pulling my chute and sucking in a deep breath for what feels like the first time since I saw the flames lapping around the edges of the first damaged engine. My parachute catches the wind and violently pulls me back. My eyes dart from one section of sky to another, but I don't see a single other parachute even as the plane and I grow further apart and the smoke clears.
The inferno that is our plane grows larger with every second. Even though I'm well clear of the flames, my skin burns, making me writhe with pain as I hang from the parachute straps. I make noises like blowing out a candle and try to pull my legs upward without even thinking about how stupid that is. And even though I try not to look at the horror unfolding as the plane plummets into the open field below me, I hear it.
No parachutes. I'm the only one. How can I be the only one?
The very air shakes as the huge plane explodes where it burns on the ground. The fuel that spills into the water ignites, making the water glow unnaturally with flames. The fire ball rivals anything I've seen in more than two years as an airman. Debris and dark gray smoke shoot straight up into the sky several times as explosions continue to rip through the debris covered field. I twist my fingers around my parachute straps nervously as I realize the fire also serves as my entire crew's funeral pyre. They're gone. All of them. I'm alone. I'm the navigator, and I know for certain that we were much too far away to be picked up on radar or visualized by anybody who could readily help me.
My feet dangle over the shallow clear water of the rice paddy field I'm floating toward. I imagine the water splashing onto my boots and soaking through my uniform. What will I do after that? I know exactly where I am and could point it out on a map, but this is such a remote area. What will I do when I reach the ground? This part of rural China is controlled by the Japanese. Although Japan has not been able to conquer all of China they have captured and occupied much of the eastern side of the country. I'm nowhere near any allied base. Our missions are very long-range and bring us into enemy controlled territory often. My closest realistic help is probably hundreds of miles from here.
I continue to drift toward the ground, and when my feet finally touch the earth I hear a sickening crack and immediately fall into the shallow water. The parachute spreads out behind me, then on top of me. I flail my arms to push it off of my face before gathering it into my arms.
I wake with a searing pain shooting through my thigh. It hurt when I first fell, but not like this. I suspect I've been unconscious instead of asleep. My head throbs, and I seem to remember it hitting something metal during the fire on the plane. A metal bar, perhaps? My uniform snagged on something as well. I don't remember details. All the details blur, and perhaps they should if I'm to survive this.
My fingers dig into the mud and intermingle with the tangled roots of the water plants. Bending the leg that's not injured at the knee I try to get up from the water, but my head spins. I quickly drop back down. Muddy water splashes my face, and I instinctually pull my head up again and rip a few water plants out of the mud in response. The sudden movement sends my head spinning for a second time, and I gasp.
I'm not drowning. It's just a little water. I'm okay. Maybe not okay. But I'm not drowning.
That's when I see her. She looks like a shadow against the gray smoke billowing through the sky above us. Her shirt appears to be a dusty blue color, making her even harder to see. Her dark, piercing eyes stare at me with what I think is curiosity. Her hair is pinned back, but a few strands fall onto her forehead as she leans over me. Her eyes sit somewhat close to either side of the bridge of her small nose, which makes her look even more mysterious…and, well, beautiful. Though injured and frightened I can still appreciate a pretty face.
Just after my eyes meet hers she kneels and holds her hand briefly over my forehead before dropping it into the tangled curls of my hair. They must be matted together because as she begins pulling her fingers apart to free them from one another I feel a gentle pull on my scalp. Then she runs her fingers through easily. It feels oddly intimate because her touch is slow, tender, and methodical. And honestly, it's been a long time since any woman has so much as brushed against me much less purposely touched me. But I get the impression she's just curious. In rural China, and sometimes even in large cities, most people have never met a person with blonde hair. This isn't a sensual touch, at least not for her.
I wonder silently, when she tires of playing with my hair, will she finish me off? I mean, will she kill me? Or bring her father, husband, or brother back to kill me? Perhaps turn me over to authorities for money? I shudder.
The girl must feel it. She stills her hand on my forehead, and miraculously my head stops spinning. I exhale slowly. But something catches in my throat. Perhaps it is the smoke. I raise my head and cough violently, displacing her hand and causing her to lean away. Each cough is accompanied by a stabbing pain in my head, and I finally moan in frustration when the coughs subside. The girl watches, and she quickly places her hand in its former position on my forehead when I become still.
As the smoke clears I can see her other hand is streaked with blood as well as water, and it trembles against my side when she lays it on my shoulder. An earsplitting boom causes her to jerk her hands away from me. The plane. The fuel tanks. On fire. Everything ablaze, I'm sure. I wonder how many explosions there will be before the fire burns itself out in the shallow water of the rice paddy.
Suddenly, I feel the water splashing around me. The girl stands. As her clothes drip water and mud onto my face and arm I notice the fresh red blood stains on her sleeve. They must be my blood, but I don't know where I'm bleeding. Tiny lines form between the woman's thin eyebrows, as if she doesn't really want to do what she's thinking of doing. Then she turns and takes off running without a sound other than the splashing of her feet through the water.
I call to her, "Wait! Wait! Stop!" She doesn't stop or turn around to look at me.
In the minutes that follow I start to wonder if I actually saw or felt anyone at all. Maybe I simply wanted to believe that I did. Night begins to fall, and the air quickly chills. Heartsick, I start to think of John and my other crewmates. As the night wears on I try to keep myself from thinking about dying. I know too much about how people die. The war has taught me plenty, but my grandfather being a doctor made me more aware of death than the average young man even before the war. He wanted me to follow in his footsteps and be a doctor also, but I'd known for a long time that I didn't have the stomach for it. I never told him so, and now I probably never would. There were plenty of ways for a person's body to shut down out here in this rice paddy after a plane crash. Exposure, dehydration, internal bleeding and infection come to mind as reasons that I might be leaving this world shortly. I sigh and then feel warm tears run down my cheeks. Nobody minds, after all. Nobody's here.
Ultimately, focusing on dying when you're still alive makes no sense. So Instead I try to think about my family and friends. Silly things like shopping trips with my mother come to mind. She likes to cook and made the most of what money we had to make good meals for us. I used to watch her carefully count out the change for the grocer from her little coin purse. She never wasted a penny.
I can't bring myself to think about Delly. We could have gotten married before I left. Delly wanted that. We could have run away together for at least a little while. Delly and I both thought at the time that surely a brief amount of time together would be better than none at all, but our parents rightly warned us against that kind of thinking. We knew the reasons even if our parents wouldn't give voice to all of them. Delly would have a more difficult time losing me if we deepened our relationship and I subsequently became a casualty of the war. There would also have been the possibility of leaving Delly not only a very young widow but a mother to a fatherless child as well. My child. New tears suddenly roll down both of my cheeks.
"It would be better to wait until you get back home, son," my Dad had said gently. "Just until you're back home."
Thinking about my father is too much for me because it reminds me that I'll never be a father if I die in the middle of this rice paddy. But I do love my father. So much of who I am is wrapped up in who he is. He'll be proud of me, I think. I hope. All of these sad thoughts have to stop, though. They must.
I begin to whisper anxious versions of songs I learned as a child standing between my grandparents in church. I'd usually share a hymnal with my grandmother as I watched my father look over his sermon notes one last time. On the last chorus my father would stand before his congregation. My grandmother would give me a piece of paper sometimes and let me draw. Dad's voice, sounding full of emotion and strength, would fill the sanctuary while I drew pictures of my pet rabbits, our house, the church, and my brothers. That was my world back then, a relatively simple one.
The thought of not seeing my family again creeps into my mind, plunging me into despair once more. As a lump rises in my throat I find myself desperate. I whisper the words of a song I'd been remembering singing with my grandmother in church, but this time the phrases are broken and punctuated with tears. I suppose God understands.
"Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,
darkness be over me, my rest a stone;
yet in my dreams I'd be
nearer, my God, to thee…
There let the way appear, steps unto heaven;
all that thou sendest me, in mercy given;
angels to beckon me
nearer my God to thee…"
I stop and start to cry in earnest. "I'm not ready. Please. Please. I'm just not ready. Not yet."
My prayer becomes a silent one as I drift off into what I hope is only sleep.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 1932 (age 9)
"That's right, Peter. Just like that," Grandmother tells me while we paint in the garden. "She lets go of my hand and lets me try to paint the character on my own.
"Why do you like to write Chinese so much?" I ask her as she puts her paintbrush to paper again.
"I like to paint. I like art. Just like you do. The Chinese have the prettiest writing in the whole world, don't you think? It's art," Grandmother says. Her Chinese characters look so much better than mine. Chinese is written in "characters," which are not that much like the "letters" in English. My teacher insists on good cursive handwriting on our papers at school now that we are in third grade, but cursive is easy compared to Chinese characters. I don't understand how Grandmother can make hers so neat. She says Chinese people can make them look even better and that she's still learning.
"Well, I haven't seen much other writing except ours and theirs," I tell her.
Grandmother smiles. "I have, and Chinese is the most beautiful I've seen."
I hear the gentle sound of her paintbrush sweeping across the paper while I try to keep my own paintbrush steady.
"Why do you and Grandfather want me to learn Chinese?" I ask her. It's not that I mind learning, but none of my friends are learning Chinese or any other language.
"Oh, that's a good question, Peter. First of all, you're a smart boy. It's good for you to challenge yourself. Chinese is a hard language to learn. For English speakers, it's kind of like learning to do math."
"Yes, it is kind of like that," I agree with a smile. "I like math."
Grandmother laughs a little.
"And many more people in this world speak Chinese than speak English. Most people don't know that. And someday your Grandfather and I might get to go back to China. You might want to go with us, or you might go to China on your own someday," she explains. "It's a land close to our family's heart."
"Grandmother, why'd you leave China?" I ask.
Grandmother sighs. I knew she would be upset and shouldn't have asked the question at all. Still, I was curious.
"There were many reasons. Nobody has much money right now, Peter. The church couldn't afford to keep us working in China. They even had to close the hospital we helped to start, but I still hope that someday we will be able to go back."
She paused for just a moment.
"There were some other reasons as well, Peter, but I don't think you'll understand those until you are a little older."
The next time I wake up I'm not praying, I'm screaming. Someone is touching my injured thigh, but the touch feels like I'm being stabbed. My thoughts jumble together just like they did on the plane during the fire, but the next words I hear bring all my priorities back into focus.
"We should kill him and burn his body. He'll never live," I hear a voice say in Chinese. My eyes, which had previously been squeezed shut, fly open. The girl hovering over me seems about my age. I squint. She looks strangely familiar. Could she be the girl who visited me before? What she was saying didn't match the tenderness I'd felt before.
"Kill him? You don't even know who he is or why he's here," a younger Chinese girl answers. She's the one touching my leg, and I want to push her away. Since she's arguing against killing me at the moment, I manage to restrain myself.
"You know if they find him here they'll punish us, probably kill us," the older girls points out, her voice as melodic as her words are hateful. Then again, she might be right. In terms of their own safety, killing me might be their best option. Morality is another matter.
As if reading my mind the younger girl interrupts. "Killing him is not right."
"Maybe I don't mean kill him then. It would be better if he died and we burned his body. We don't have to kill him," the older girl points out.
"He's from that plane. Where do you think that plane was going?" The younger girl asks as if she knows the answer and expects the older girl to know it also.
"Japan," the older girl whispers, then pauses. "Or somewhere near Japan."
"And what do you think that big plane was going to do in Japan?" the younger girl asks.
The older girl looks down, thoughtful. She wrings her hands.
"Bombs," I choke out in Chinese. "Bring bombs." At least that's what I hope I'm saying. I would say "Bomb the Japanese munitions factories," but I didn't know how. I can understand much more Chinese than I can speak. My C.O. back in our base in India would probably say I shouldn't say anything, but these girls might be my only chance at survival. Plus, the way the older one said "Japan" makes me sure she views the Japanese as the enemy.
The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Do these girls believe that as well?
The younger of the two leans back and away from me, her jaw having dropped down in astonishment when I spoke. The older one stares, her eyes wide with wonder. They're no doubt shocked that a blonde man like me could speak a word of Chinese. I suppose if a Chinese person literally dropped out of the sky and started speaking English back in Pittsburgh I'd do the same. Then again, maybe I accidently said something offensive.
The younger girl quickly regains her composure and resumes her arguments against killing me. "How can you kill a man who flew a plane over your home to bomb China's enemy and still say you are loyal to China?" she asks indignantly. I'm relieved that I've judged their loyalties accurately.
"How does he know how to speak any Chinese? Who is he?" the older one asks in response. She eyes me suspiciously and starts examining my parachute and uniform with her deft fingers. I notice the straps of the parachute have been cut off of my shoulders unevenly, and my bomber jacket lies across my chest. I wonder if they've put it there to keep be warm or simply to look at it.
I attempt to move my leg away from the younger girl because she keeps touching it, but moving is definitely the wrong decision. I fist the few water plants I haven't already pulled from the mud and fight the urge to scream again. My hands continue to clench every time my heart-beat sends another painful throbbing sensation through me. I feel sick and turn my head to the side where the older girl is kneeling. Our eyes meet again, and hers all but glisten. But I turn my head further still because I don't want to look at her as I get sick, if I do. Connecting with these girls could save me, but a haze of pain, nausea, and fear make concentration difficult at best. Once the waves of physical misery dissipate a bit I start with an additional strategy.
"If you help me, the US government will…" I begin in broken Chinese while gesturing my hand to the fabric sign sewn onto the back of my bomber jacket that explains that I'm a US airman and that my government will offer protection to anyone who returns me safely. Every airman wears the same message on his jacket, and it's written in multiple languages, including Chinese.
"We aren't telling anybody about him!" the older girl states firmly to the younger one. She doesn't address me directly or even look at me again.
The younger girl nods. She does look at me, her eyes softening. She starts to reach her hand out, then stops when the older one tells her "no."
Both girls rise to their feet and start to walk away. I call to them in both English and Chinese, but they ignore me.
I lay still in the shallow water, trembling and hoping they'll come back.
[AN: Yes! If you are wondering - the "older girl" is Katniss, and the "younger girl" is Prim.]
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[Special thanks to: my awesome beta - Katnissinme, my eternally patient "plot advisor" – Loueze, and the amazingly talented Ro Nordmann for the banner/cover art for this story]