I wake the instant Peeta sits up. A chill crawls up my legs where his is no longer pressed into mine and his arms slip from my waist. Springs creak underneath his weight. Though groggy, my hand shoots out and curls around his elbow on instinct.
"The baby," he says, and I notice the sound of our scrawling daughter across the hall.
I sit up, wide awake. I don't know how Peeta does it. How he wakes the very moment she gives her first squeak of discontent. How he hears her when he's dead asleep, or 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, to be so assured in what he is doing, and the other is irritated at how natural it seems to come to him. But most of all I'm grateful. I would be lying if I said I could have shouldered the parenting burden all on my own.
Leaning back on an elbow, I watch Peeta pull on a shirt and fumble to attach his prosthetic leg. After much yawning and stretching, he stands and lumbers tiredly to the hall. Once, I might of followed him and stood uselessly behind his shoulder as he rocked and cooed at the distraught bundle in his arms. Now I know better. Neither need me.
I sigh, flop against his side of the bed, and close my eyes. Except dream isn't there to greet me. I won't sleep. I can't sleep when he's not here with me. Especially not when Dandelion 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 as the minutes drag by her crying seems to blur into a scream, high and thin, and I sit up again, ruffled and disturbed by the sound. Most nights she quiets moments after Peeta picks her up. Instead of the sound of my husband's soft voice and my daughter's gurgled reply, there is a slam, a yelp, and the shatter of glass piercing the air.
"Peeta!" I call out. The screaming peaks. I'm on my feet in an instant, uncaring of my lack of pants and the tangled mass of my hair as I slip out into the dark hallway.
I stall in horror at the sight of Peeta slumped against the door of Dani's bedroom, attempting to barge it open with his shoulder. "There was a man," Peeta says, hurriedly, almost slurred into incoherency. Blood beads down his face. Glimmering white dust litters his hair and shoulders, shards of glass gathered at his feet and scattered around the hall. At my feet sits a slightly crumpled lampshade. A lamp; he hit Peeta with a lamp.
I don't know what grips me worse; panic or anger. Either way, I throw myself into a mode of such frantics that I shove Peeta out of my way, 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 the blow to his head has left him bleary. "Don't let him out this way," I snap, and then I streak down the hall, ravishing 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 bare 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. I'm not too late. The man is just recovering from the drop he took off the front porch's overhang.
In the dim moonlight, he's painted silver, and I can scarcely see the shape of my screaming daughter tucked underneath his coat.
I don't even think about it. Perhaps it's the two 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 it was my husband whom he attacked and it was my house he has infiltrated. No means of peace or negotiation ever float to the surface of my mind. It 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.
Dandelion is a storm of noise, sobbing and screaming and wailing as though she is the one who has been stabbed through a collarbone. In the confusion of the fight, the man tosses her aside and lunges himself at me, diving further into the knife. Hot blood sprays upward and across my face, and his hands are slick when they find my throat. I'm too preoccupied with trying to catch my daughter to resist him or wriggle my way free. I'm frantic to reach out to her. The blanket's edge just grazes my fingertips, before the fabric slips through them as if water, and I hear Dani's huff of breath as she hits the cold, hard ground.
And the sound of that knocks me breathless as well. Fury roars up inside me, quelled by the fear filling my chest, the dread closing my throat, that twang in my heart that tells me I have just failed.
A silence settles over the yard after she falls.
Is she breathing? Did she land on her neck? The thoughts make me want to heave. They fill me with anger and the emotion fuels my strength. The man throws us both to the ground, and I take the impact, hard. I roll us away from the tangle of blankets that is my daughter, choking for breath, his fingers tight on my throat. Pain brings the shadow of other hands back to the surface. I think of Peeta. He's done this to me, too, years and years ago, but there is something much more cruel about the way this stranger is jerking my face violently back and forth, whipping my hair into my mouth and eyes. Each time my head clips the ground a lightning bolt of pain jolts through my temples.
Still, I fight. I take the term 'fighting tooth and nail' literally. My fingers latch onto his face – no. He's wearing a mask. My hands slip uselessly across the fabric. He presses so close my arms are pinned between our chests. His entire form swallows mine. Wildly, my legs flail underneath him, hoping to find the sweet spot all men have. Panic swells in my mouth, open now, but soundless. There's no sliver of oxygen, no scream to flow out. As soundless as my daughter..
Then motion out the corner of my eye catches my attention. Peeta's foot swings out to kick the stranger in the ribcage so hard that I swear I hear ribs crack. He grabs the man by the neck, twisting fast and hard, and the stranger turns to look up at him in time to catch a fist full in the face.
The man's grip on my windpipe loosens. Sucking in a shard of air, I take the opportunity, pushing my leg between the man's, planting my knee, then flipping us. Two hands grasp me by the hips as soon as I'm upright, and lift me into the air, tear me free of the hands, and set me down in the grass. I gulp in the air, eyes streaming. With my vision blurry and the night dark, I can hardly decipher which limb is whose as Peeta and the stranger roll around in the grass, all curled fists and knees and jerking movements for control.
Then, I hear a gasp. Struggling. A fluttering inhale that barely stirs the blanket swathe around her.
Clutching my aching neck, I scramble toward my daughter. I pull her to my chest and it is not close enough. Warm, wet tears soak into the skin of my neck, joining the blood. A bellowing so loud pushes out of her on the exhale it should have made me concerned. But even though her screaming conveys she is in pain, now, not just frightened, relief washes over me. My hand cradles her head, fingers sifting through her silky black tuft, my cheek pressed hard against her salty one. There is no obvious signs of broken bones as I fumble my hands across every piece of her. No blood. No scrapes. Nothing but the high-pitched keening pouring from her mouth, that will break her voice, surely.
Or wake Haymitch.
I see the lights flick on across the street.
I stand, stumbling, and I watch frantically as Peeta grasps the stranger by the mask and slams his head against the ground repeatedly. But the previous lamp-head collision takes its toll on Peeta. He is not so fast as he should be, not so clearheaded. The stranger surges against Peeta, flinging out an elbow that catches his face and he turns away, spitting blood. And a tooth, I think. This allows the man to get a punch in and Peeta groans, lilting into the grass.
My feet move as if to put me back into the fray. The weight of my daughter reminds me I can't.
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 water spreading through my veins.
Across the way I see a figure coming from Haymitch's front door. He doesn't seem hurried. Does he think this is some marital disagreement that by misfortune brought us to the front yard? A trivial argument between his 'kid' star-crossed lovers? Anger churns in me, and I want to scream now, with my daughter. Not in incoherent terror, but directed at the lazily approaching shadow with a few choice words thrown in.
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. I swallow the urge. Backing away to the front porch of my Victor's house I find a cushioned chair. I place the pillow underneath a table, a safe distance from any ledge or fall. I clutch Dani painfully close before setting her gently on the soft green bed, tangled in her wet blankets, still screeching. I leave her there.
I find the bloodied knife I'd dropped a few feet away from the struggling figures of Peeta and the stranger. Its still warm. I circle around them. Back in the woods, safe inside a water-proof cover, is my bow. I wish for it. With my weapon of choice I could merely draw an arrow, aim effortlessly, and loose the sharp metal point straight into the man's heart. I would not miss, no matter which way they struggled. But it would take too much time to get the bow. I must make do with the knife, no matter how less accurate, or ineffective, it proved to be.
The silhouette of a tall, thick man falls across the wrestling pair. I look up, expecting Haymitch. The barrel of a gun greets me. I freeze. The man holding the gun wears a mask identical to the stranger who tried to smuggle my baby out the window. Cowards. An initial wave of unease flows through me for being so under-armed in the face of a automated weapon.
Then my eyes flicker to the front door of Haymitch's house, left wide open, swinging in the breeze.
Where this man just came from.
"No," I breathe.
At my word the two wrestling roll apart. Peeta glances my way. I'm surprised he heard me over the sound of Dani. He sees the stillness in my face and instantly pivots to the man with the gun, eyes widening at the sight. The stranger beside Peeta sees him at the same time, and lurches to his feet to stand beside him. I'm satisfied to note the blood still falling from his collarbone, and the limp in his step. If we could see it I'm certain his face is as equally battered as Peeta's.
"Who are you?" Peeta asks. Slowly, hands raised, he gets to his feet and stands near my side, a few steps ahead of me. As if readying to jump in front of me if the odds decided so. I hold fast to the blade.
"Tell your woman there to drop that knife, and maybe we'll talk."
Indignation sparks in my chest at the term 'your woman'. At not being addressed directly.
Peeta meets my gaze. "Drop it." I don't know what he's thinking, but I know that the man who spoke doesn't have a Capitol accent. It's jarring, because I was expecting one. "Katniss," he warns when I make no move to obey.
Why? Giving in now won't help us. Then Peeta taps his leg. The fake one. Right where...
I let my fingers unclench. The knife falls at my feet and I kick it their way.
Satisfied, the armed man nods the other toward the porch, toward my daughter, and I lurch forward, forgetting my earlier resolve. Peeta grasps my arm before I can reach or even stop him. I struggle with my husband as the stranger who dropped her picks up our daughter again and makes back toward us.
"Turn around." No! Somewhere in my gut I know if I turn away a bullet will find its way into the back of my head. Or worse. Dandelion's. But Peeta bodily pulls me around, his front morphed into my back. No one would shoot me that way. Still... "Get on your knees." Again, as my hands ball at my side and I grind my teeth to hold back my snarls, Peeta forces me down with heavy hands on my shoulders. "Close your eyes."
I do that myself. Darkness swims behind my eyelids. I see the yard in my mind. With all the effort I possess I focus on the sight that we would be to someone far off. Two victors kneeling in the grass, one hunched around the other as if a shell. A bawling child in the arms of two masked men. One pointing a gun at their heads.
I feel Peeta's hand span across my upper back. Five fingers drum. A second passes. Four fingers drum this time. I hear the men behind us murmuring to each other. Their words are lost to Dani's static. Three fingers drum on my back. Peeta's breath feathers my neck, urging, and my hand finds Peeta's prosthetic leg. My fingers close around the ankle, then slide against the smooth metal up his pant leg. Until I reach a small leather pouch. Two fingers skate across my neck. We both tense, readying. I screw my eyes shut tighter, holding onto the image, pinpointing where I last saw the men and where I hear them to be at that exact moment.
One finger taps my shoulder, and in an instant, Peeta is leaping aside. I stand, turn, and throw the knife I drew from his leg as straight on target as I can hope. The blade sticks with a wet audible sound.
Shock gawps the man's mouth open. He sputters blood. A cough comes with no sound, just a heave of his chest and a jump of his adam's apple that looks agonizing with the handle of the knife protruding from just above his sternum.
"Anger helps my aim," I spit, stepping forward and ripping the gun from fingers already weak.
Without a working windpipe, or lungs, the man can't answer any of the questions batting around in my mind. So, after deliberating, weighing my anger, and the fact that killing him will make the other stranger unable to call my threats bluffs.. I raise my arm, press the barrel into the man's forehead, and shoot. He collapses in a heap.
The one holding my daughter doesn't move to prevent or even blink at the loss. I point the gun between his eyes.
"Hand her over," I say. He does so, and Peeta instantly envelopes her. He is cooing. In front of our enemy. I frown, but am still glad to hear him quiet Dandelion to more human sounding sobs.
While he gets to melt into a nurturing father again, I steel myself. I force the stranger to meet my gaze, hopefully hard. "Who are you?" My voice breaks, and broaches no patience. "Answer honestly, or you'll join your friend."
"Just a boy."
"Your name," I clarify.
'The boy' pursues his lips. I take a step forward, clicking a bullet into place. Except he is unconcerned and turns his head listlessly to the side.
Two figures are exiting Haymitch's house. One dragging the other. I know for certain the limping form scrambling over the pavement is my old mentor's. In my moment of distraction, the boy lunges at me. He grasps me by the elbow, twists, and forces the gun from my hand.
Peeta is at my shoulder suddenly, grave, and we both stare blankly at the weapon.
"Should have just shot you," I mutter.
"Silence, woman!" He seems irritated. As if the fact that I dared ask him questions and demand answers to them was crossing a line.
A third masked man steps up to the corpse of the one I shot. He kicks it over, still holding Haymitch by the hair. He tuts. "Pathetic."
"It was the woman," the boy supplies.
On Haymitch's shoulder I can see where someone shot him. His face is screwed into a grimace of pain and anger. I catch his eye, hoping maybe in this dire moment he could offer advice or explanation. They're dazed. Of course.
"What do you want?" Peeta asks, exasperated. He holds Dani pressed against my back, hidden. And the effort is fruitless. The third man lets go of Haymitch's hair, to slump against the grass, and then circles us.
I feel like an animal on display. I have no pants still. Blood from the boy's stabbing crusts on my face, neck, and in my hopelessly tangled hair. A strand twists in the breeze against my cheek and the man comes closer to my side, so close I can smell his rank breath. Inhaling deeply, the man leans toward my face and tugs the strand loose. I don't imagine the way he drags the end of my hair over his lips. The mask leaves them bare, I realize, and I identify that they are chapped and his teeth rotten or missing (once more not something any normal Capitolite would possess), but full despite that and a light carmel color.
"This one is small. Too skinny." Disgust bubbles in my stomach, at his closeness, at his words. Peeta stiffens behind me. "But I'd still have her. What do you think, boy?" His words are crude.
The boy licks his own pale lips. "Yes."
Peeta's hand snakes around my side. I glimpse his bruised face with streaks of blood falling from his glass-cut scalp, and his left eye is beginning to swell. But no longer grave, it's hard and his jaw is clenched so tight it should snap.
An uproarious laughter breaks passed the third man's lips, spraying spit on my cheek. He drops my hair, and shoves into Peeta's shoulder, taking the baby. I strike out to grab her back -
Peeta rips me down, bent at the waist and pulls me underneath him, tucked like a chick in a mother bird's wing. I barely have time to register a gun has gone off. Again, presumably directed at Peeta's reaction, gruff laughter rings out. Dandelion begins bawling, both because she is no longer with her father and the gunfire startled her
"Stand up," the boy snaps, and we do. He has the gun raised over his head, pointed to the stars. "One more move out of line and the next shot won't miss."
The third man paces back to the front, standing next to Haymitch. By that time our mentor has managed to push himself somewhat upright. Dani's cries turn to whimpers as the man begins stroking her face. "Ah, looks just like your woman." He's talking to Peeta now. Not once have any of them talked to me, except when I forced the boy, and he seemed upset afterward. In fact, a little embarrassed. "Shame that it's a girl. Can't get a boy on her, can you?"
Peeta doesn't dignify that with an answer.
"No matter. You'll have time." The third man looks up from Dandelion to smile at us, flashing gums and brown teeth. "We're not here to kill you."
"Then what do you want?" I hiss.
His eyes flick to me and he frowns. I wait to be admonished for speaking out. Before that can happen Peeta pulls me in at the waist and asks, voice strenuously calm, "Why are you here?"
Both men share a smile. Unease rises in my gut like butterflies with drooping, heavy wings, filling my chest, making it both unbearably tight and warm. If they are not here for us, that leaves only two others.
Cradling Dandelion in one arm, the man's other unfurls with the gun, aimed directly at Haymitch's head.
This time, he does look at me.