Choose. The word sends a white hot spring of anger through my body. Live wire energy tethers me to the gun, hovering over Haymitch's temple. Urging me toward them, screaming: no, no, no.
"You have sixty seconds."
"Sixty – " I begin to snarl. Peeta silences me with a squeeze of his arms around my waist.
"There has to be another way. A deal we could make." Of course he would try that. Some civil exchange. But I know that's not going to work. These men are savage. They bring memories of Careers in the arena painfully to the surface of my memory. Cato, Marvel, Clove... Brutus.. Cashmere.. Gloss..
But worse. Much worse.
"Already made a deal, no time for another. Choose."
Dani's face is pressed into the man's chest, oblivious. Pulsing in my stomach is my anger, my disgust at the idea.. I remember her mere months of life. Her first days. Constant crying. Small, hot lips suckling at my breast. Downy skin, hair black as a raven, Peeta's eyes.
I must be staring desperately at her, because it's Haymitch who speaks next. "Me. They'll choose me."
"No," Peeta says hastily. "No, we won't."
"Then the baby," the boy amends, reaching for her.
I make a sound without meaning to. Some strangled cry, anguished and angry. "No!" Eyes fly to me. Each pair leaves a different impression on my skin, burning their marks; scornful, disappointed, pleading. Worst is Haymitch's stare, that I hold, that if I blink I'm sure that the attention I've gained will slip through my fingers like wet sand in the tide. I grip handfuls of my shirt. To keep them from shaking. To keep them off the strange men's throats. To keep them from reaching out impulsively to the person I know I will choose.
How can I choose? How can I choose between my daughter or my mentor? But that's false. I know how. Real question is: by what right do they get to make me choose?
Stuck in my throat is a ball of heat, bulbous and sticky, making it difficult to swallow. Resignation is written across Haymitch's expression. He's accepted it, the reality. He knows me too well. He's lived a long life. Not so happy as a person could hope, but a life nonetheless. More than Dandelion has had the chance to.
Dandelion or Haymitch. A choice I never thought I'd have to make. Ever.
"You seem to be at a crossroad," the man says, amused. He passes the gun over Haymitch's forehead, pushing back a fringe of hair. Still smiling. "I'll give you an extra minute."
Peeta lets me go and makes forward, clearing his throat. "What if – "
"Absolutely not," Haymitch and I say in union. I grab Peeta by the wrist and try to tug him back but he won't budge. Haymitch continues on to say, "Look boy, I've lived long enough. Who knows how long I even have left. Two? Five years? I'm old, fat, and a drunk." An undercurrent of slurring is in his voice, by drink or pain, I'm unsure. "Don't be idiots. Choose me and walk away from this."
"He's right," I find myself saying. Later, I'll feel the guilt. When I die I'll go knowing Haymitch's blood is partially on my hands. Him being willing or not won't matter. It'll be there. This will always be partial my fault – it will be my decision. But later is when I'll pause to grieve, to remorse at his loss, to find his face in nightmares with all the others I've killed in my life. Right now.. "I choose him. Give me my daughter."
Peeta is appalled, and looks at me as if he doesn't know who – or what – I am.
The boy laughs. "You hear this woman?"
"Unfortunately," replies the man.
Neither move. None meet my glare, or the hands I reach out with to receive Dandelion. Realization hits me, knocks me breathless. They won't let me choose. It's not my answer they want.
I turn to Peeta, beseeching. "You're going to let Dandelion die?" Anger wells in me, at him, at the way his eyes dance from me and the men, uncertain. Frightened. "You're going to make me watch my child die when it was you I had her for in the first place? When I caved into your begging for this? When all my life you know I feared having children and watching them die?" My voice rises, and my hands ball so tight in my shirt I'm afraid it'll rip. Or I'll let go and actually strike him.
Peeta moves a hand out to rest on my shoulder, but I lean away. Something shifts in his face. The blood across it is starting to crust, and the wind brushes a red-tinged piece of hair over his forehead. Do I imagine it? A waving in his eyes. A shadow. For a moment I believe he'll have a hi-jacking moment. It hasn't happened in years, not in a violent burst – usually it is a sparse few seconds after he wakes up from a nightmare and doesn't know where he is. Before he sees me or Dani and he pulls himself away from the undertow of insanity.
"What happens depending on who we choose?" Peeta asks, voice strained. He turns to the men, shouldering me behind his back. Dismissed. I'm stung, still angry, and my eyes dance down to the stranger I had killed. The one with a perfectly useful knife sticking out of his neck.
"Well, if you choose the old man, we shoot him here and now. Then give you back your kid."
"And if I choose Dani?"
"Then the man is yours to have, and we take the kid with us."
Jolting upright, I scan the men's faces, looking for falseness. "Why?" I ask. "What do you want with her?" Why not kill her, like Haymitch? "Where would you go? Who are you?"
"Katniss," Peeta says, a warning.
Indignation drives me forward, shoving Peeta's shoulder aside. "Answer me."
"We don't take orders from women," the boy spits.
Haymitch bursts out a hoarse laugh. "They don't even know who we are."
"Shut your trap," the man says, shoving the gun hard against Haymitch's cheek. It'll bruise. "We know enough. Now, because I'm generous, I'll count to five and then let you decide. Starting now. One." A flash of heat falls over my body, pinpointing in my shoulders and stomach. I feel sick, panicked. "Two." I can't choose. It's not my word they wait on. I swivel around and find Peeta's gaze. "Three."
"What are you thinking?" I demand.
"That we can save both."
"No." I step forward, shaking my head. "No. No. They could be lying."
"You want both to live? So you're going to send our daughter off with these brutes? Somewhere unknown? To make what life you have chosen for her something horrible?" There's a chance we won't find her afterward. Even if we search Panem for years, they could hide her well. They could never be found again after they walk away this night.
Peeta speaks quickly. "I choose Haymitch. He lives." They live.
I lunge at the men, stopped by Peeta's grip on my shirt, ripping me back. He takes my wrists in one hand, tight, and pins me against his side, and I struggle, kicking out, shimmying. Haymitch is shouting. "Don't listen to the lad! He's an idiot. Unfit. I'm the superior male, I'm older. I say her. Kill me. Leave the babe." They pay just as much attention to him as they do me. Kicking him over in the grass, the gunshot wounded shoulder jars the ground and Haymitch lets out a howl of pain.
Ignorant to my screaming, and my fingernails catching on Peeta's arm, the men tuck their guns in the waistbands of their pants. Smiles are passed, briefly. "Thanks for doing business with us." They turn away, begin to walk down the street, carrying Dani with them.
I can't.. "Let me go!" I elbow back, catching Peeta's gut, but aside a winded breath, he doesn't let go.
I'm screaming. Haymitch is cursing. Dani starts to cry again, hearing my distress.
And low in my ear, I hear Peeta's voice. "Do you trust me?"
After this? I want to shout. Except I'm abruptly taken aback to another time. Another place; the arena. We are standing alone near the lake. Gamemakers have just revoked the chance for both of us to live. There are poisonous berries hanging from my belt, an idea in my head that is dangerous and possibly idiotic. Peeta's hand is warm in mine – I can't kill him, I can't kill him – and I lean in to him and murmur, "Do you trust me?"
He did. He'd taken the berries in his hand and hadn't hesitated.
I go still, I stop fighting him and he releases me. I breathe heavily to keep my head from spinning, to keep my thoughts clear. A hundred feet away the men walk, slipping into shadows. I can barely make them out and my heart ticks faster, harder. If I go, I need to go now.
"I trust you." The words are rushed.
"Good. Then let them go."
Go? With our daughter? "I can't.. What if they kill her?"
"They won't. They wouldn't have gone through this whole trouble to take her alive just to kill her." His faith in that is almost disturbing. I am trying to decide who he is, eying him, fighting wave after wave of anger and irrational urges to throw a fit, to grieve a daughter that could be lost to me forever. "We'll get her back," he promises, as though reading my thoughts.
"How do you know? We don't even know who they are, or where they are going!"
"No," Peeta agrees, gravely. "But there is someone who will be able to help us figure that out."
"Someone high up. An old friend in government."
Haymitch snorts from where he is, staggering to his feet. In the moonlight he looks older, hair stained silvery white, shadow of a beard clinging to sagging jowls, eye sunken and shadowed, everything haggard by pain. "That was your plan? Ask the government for help?" He shakes his head, is distracted by his gunshot, and fingers the wound for a second. He cringes when he looks back up. "Should have just let me die."
"After all the times you didn't do that to us? After twice in the arena you did everything in your power not to let us" – he says us, but gestures to me, and I wince, knowing why – "'just die?'" Peeta folds his arms over his chest. "I wouldn't be able to live with myself."
"You wouldn't. You have to live with me, without your daughter now," I say. I reach for Haymitch's arm and pretend not to feel him shaking, letting him put his weight on me. "We have to get him to the hospital." My eyes dance over Peeta's bruised, bloody form. "And you, too."
Then I remember the thud of Dandelion hitting the ground, the silence, the fragile underside of her head. Dinner heaves in my stomach and I want to vomit. Questions infiltrate my mind, too many, scattered: Who will take her to the hospital? Will they take care of her? Feed her? Press burning cigarettes into her skin? Toss her around like a doll? Treat her as they treated me, as a woman with no authority or respect?
"Katniss," Peeta is saying. "Katniss. Look at me." His hands cup my face. I'm forced to look up in his eyes. A surge of hatred runs in my blood. I want to shove him away. To shout. To blame him, because he chose this. "Katniss, we'll get her back. Trust me. Trust me." He kisses the side of my chin, my lips, my nose. I don't move or respond. I blink back at him.
"We'll see," I say, expressionless, turning away with Haymitch in tow. "We'll see what Gale can do." More than you, I think, an undercurrent of bitterness rising underneath the words. Gale would have let Haymitch die without batting eye. He wouldn't put me through this. "Buy the tickets. I'll make the call." We both glance at the corpse the other two left behind. The one I killed. "Take him inside. I'll search him for clues once Haymitch is checked in."
Peeta nods, unable to object. I'm in charge now. Now the men are gone. Like I'm used to.
Yet, still, as I hobble away, I feel like a girl. A child. Whose worst fear has just been fulfilled.