I'm back from hiatus! And I'm SO excited for you guys to read the next few chapters, you have no idea. :D :D
Thanks to all of you who waited patiently for this!
Leaf awoke without opening his eyes. The sun burned through is eyelids, setting everything reddish orange when it should have been black. He parted his lips, hot air baking his cheeks and throat, and ran his sticky tongue over plaque-coated teeth.
Water, was his first thought, and he began to open his eyes. An intense stinging along the line of his eyelashes made him wince, and he reached up, clumsy with sleep, to rub away the rheum that glued his lids together. They parted and light burst through, sharp and painful. He moaned.
The backpack was still lying behind him, pressed to his back, the way he'd fallen asleep, but the two other gallons of water were guarded closely by his curled-up form. The evening before, when dusk had fallen and Peeta suggested he pick a spot and get some sleep, he'd placed the two gallons that didn't fit in the backpack in front of him. His arms had curled over them, protecting his most vital source of life. Now, as he twisted off the cap of one, the last few tablespoons swirled at the bottom. Condensation made the plastic sides of the bottle glitter, dew-like in the scorching sun. It would evaporate within minutes. Leaf dragged his lips over the condensation, not willing to waste a single drop of water, before tipping the last bit of the bottle into his mouth.
One gallon gone. Three left.
You're doing very well, Peeta said, startling him so much he jerked. One gallon per day. That's how much you're supposed to drink. That gives us three more days to find them.
Leaf groaned and leaned back on the sand. In the sixty seconds since he sat up, the sun had heated it to a sizzling degree. "I don't," he tried to say, but phlegm clogged his voice and it came out a painful whisper. He cleared his throat, opened the second gallon bottle and took three generous swallows. He could have steeped tea in the liquid for how warm it was. "I don't know if I can make it another day," he croaked. "Let alone three."
Come on. It wasn't that bad yesterday.
Peeta showed Leaf images of him striding through the desert, eyes on the mountains in the distance, taking sips of water every once in a while. Peeta had strictly rationed the water, constantly warning, One gallon a day, that's all you get. You run out of water in this bottle, you don't get to open another until tomorrow. He barely noticed the weight of the two gallon bottles in the backpack, but the two that he carried pulled at his arms like anchors. His forearms, shoulders and back felt stretched, as if hefting the two gallon bottles had pulled his arms down to his feet.
Now, he stared at the used gallon bottle in his hand, debating whether or not to take it with him. He didn't see much sense in carrying an empty bottle, but Peeta's discomfort leaked through to his mind.
Bury it, he suggested. Then it can't be found. Not anytime soon, anyway.
Reluctantly, Leaf dug into the abrasive, crusty ground with the toe of one shoe, kicking away chunks until he had to stand to make the hole any bigger. When he lifted himself onto his feet, his vision blackened momentarily as the blood drained from his head. His sight came swimming back and he swayed, just managing to stay on his feet long enough to kick out a large enough hole and drop the bottle in. He stomped on it to crush it and covered it up with sprays of sand.
When he half-fell back onto the ground, Peeta soothed, It gets easier once you start moving again.
Here, he suggested, Why don't you eat something?
Leaf dragged the backpack around in front of him and fumbled with the zipper. He lifted out the two gallons in the backpack, counting the remaining bottles with deliberation – One, two, three – and rummaged inside the bag. The bottle of cherry Coke had been drained almost immediately the day before, along with most of the trail mix and a bag of dried apples. He frowned as he set out his remaining supplies on the sand between his crossed legs.
Two bags of beef jerky, one bag of dried apples, six granola bars. Toasted almonds, a box of crackers, a jar of peanut butter, Ghirardelli chocolate squares and marshmallows.
Were you planning on making s'mores? he asked dryly, stuffing the marshmallows back into the backpack. Some of them had already started to melt together.
Sugar, Peeta explained. For quick energy. The rest is for nutrients, though.
Then, as Leaf started to replace the peanut butter, Peeta said, Wait. Eat a few crackers with peanut butter on them. It's a good source of protein. You'll need it.
The peanut butter stuck in his teeth and on the roof of his mouth, making it feel even drier than before. He rubbed away at the sticky, nutty paste with his tongue as he began to walk. Searching out stubborn bits of peanut butter gave him something to distract himself with as he hiked. Peeta was right: it got easier once he started moving, but not by much. His joints and muscles hadn't enjoyed the night on the ground at all, and his stomach constantly twisted, expecting breakfast, snacks, lunch. All it got was five crackers smeared with peanut butter and a few mouthfuls of warm water.
Peeta showed him the lines one at a time, revealing a new one every time he spotted a familiar shape on the horizon. They played Twenty Questions for a while, until they tired of the game, then switched to riddles. This was an exercise in concentration as well as a twist of thought, since they had to focus on keeping the answer shielded from the other. Leaf was glad for the challenge, though. It held his thoughts away from his painfully growling stomach and dwindling water supply.
When the sun hovered directly above them, making the shadow-less landscape appear flat and shimmering with heat, Peeta gave the all-clear for lunch. Leaf plopped down, narrowly missing a low-growing cactus, and eagerly pulled out a square of chocolate. It had melted in its wrapper long ago, and he squeezed it onto his tongue, peeling apart the plastic to lick off the last bits of oozing sweetness. The sugary taste was nearly as much of a relief as the following sip of water. His mouth had tasted like grit and bile ever since that morning.
Fingerfuls of peanut butter, dried apple slices and beef jerky made up his lunch.
You're doing great, Peeta encouraged as he stood up wearily, stretching his arms above and behind him. Dry peanut butter crusted under his nails, and he rubbed them absentmindedly.
If stranded, dehydrated, insane, tired, lost and running out of supplies is 'great', he thought, already scanning for the next formation – a half-circle mound, slashed diagonally on one side. He took another swallow of water, then winced, waiting for a reprimand. Peeta was distracted, though, drifting with some memory.
No, thank you, Leaf thought to himself. He remembered all too clearly what happened last time he followed Peeta into a memory.
He took advantage of his absence to down another four mouthfuls of water without being scolded.
I told you, one gallon a day.
I told you not to open another one until the next day. Those were the rules.
Who knows more about surviving in the wild? You or me?
Then what should you have done?
Listened to you.
Leaf stared at his shoes as Peeta chastised him like a disobedient child.
So, why didn't you?
I was thirsty! Leaf scowled and kicked at the sand. And hot. And tired.
Listing his discomforts seemed to make them worse, but he went on anyway.
And hungry. And I want to go home.
Peeta let out a sharp bark of laughter in Leaf's head, and he recoiled at the silent noise. Home? he questioned. Where's that? The apartment?
The image was meant to make him agree with Peeta, but Leaf found himself longing for the old apartment building, smelling of coffee and stocked with plenty of snack food and drinks.
You've let us get soft with all that easy food, Peeta snorted. That's part of the reason you're having so much trouble now.
Leaf couldn't say he disagreed. Since the previous day, when Peeta slipped into a memory, Leaf had drank the rest of his gallon for the day and half of the next. By the time Peeta returned the next morning, he had only a bottle and a half of water left.
Oh, well, Peeta said, his voice softening. At least we have plenty of food left.
Plenty? Leaf mentally went over their stock of snacks. A bag of dried apples, three granola bars, some crackers, half a jar of peanut butter and marshmallows?
Geez, Leaf! Peeta exclaimed in alarm. What else did you do while I was gone, wander all the way to Alaska? Build a signal fire? Destroy a small town?
Leaf ducked his head, sucking in a dusty lungful of desert air. He coughed.
Well, Peeta sighed, We'll just have to be more careful from now on.
Leaf placed his feet one in front of the other, slowly, unwilling or unable to go any faster. After what felt like a long time, hours at least, he said, "I'm sorry."
The words burned his blistered throat.
Peeta stewed in his anger for a moment before relenting. It's all right. I know you're not used to this. It's probably pretty scary for you.
Leaf's steps faltered. Yeah.
Sensing his growing reluctance, Peeta said, But think about this: we've only got a few more landmarks left. We might even see Katniss and Prim by tonight.
"Really?" Leaf thought and spoke this, head snapping up, stride quickening. His gaze swung from left to right, already searching. Show me, he urged, and for the first time, Peeta gave him more than one image at once.
First, two mesas with a smooth U scooped out between them. Then a finger of rock, flanked by crooked knobs, pointing towards the sun. A blocky tower, leaning slightly. A shape like the profile of an eagle.
We just need to get to the eagle, and Bob's your uncle, Peeta thought happily, his enthusiasm adding to Leaf's.
I don't actually know a Bob, he thought, puzzled but no less eager. Is he your uncle?
Never mind, Peeta said, amused, and Leaf had the feeling that he had missed the meaning of another strange idiom.
His feet propelled him forward until dusk, when he pushed on, stepping on more than one cactus and tripping on rocks in the dark, until Peeta made him lie down.
You wouldn't be able to see the formations now, anyway, he reasoned, then saw the direction of Leaf's thoughts and said, I know. I miss them, too. We'll see them soon.
The next day left them with less than a gallon of water and nothing but two squashed granola bars and half an inch of peanut butter at the bottom of the jar. Leaf spent his time trying to fit his fist in the jar to reach it, then fashioned a sort of spoon from a stiff plastic bag. As he finished the last of it, Peeta said, Don't worry. We'll get there soon.
His tone was off, though, and Leaf knew there was an unspoken I hope tacked on to the end this time.
The water ran out during the hottest part of the day. The granola bars went soon after. The crumbs made him cough incessantly, his mouth unable to produce enough saliva to properly chew them.
He and Peeta no longer spoke. Talking aloud hurt too much and thinking distracted them from searching for landmarks.
Peeta held Katniss's face firmly in their minds, concentrating on it whenever Leaf slowed.
Leaf was near the end of his endurance, and he knew it. His skin, burnt fire-engine red and peppered with peeling blisters, stretched and stung over muscles that felt like limp rags. His head spun as if he had gotten onto the teacup ride at Disney world, an experience Peeta recalled with a shudder, and breathing pained him. The air seared past his cracked, bleeding lips, past his throat and into his lungs, where it did little to rejuvenate him.
He couldn't remember what the next landmark was. Peeta remembered it for him. A tall finger of rock.
The backpack, though lighter than it had been the entire trip, weighed down on his shoulders with swinging tugs every time he took a step. Part of him wanted to discard it – after all, all it held was empty bags and a crushed gallon bottle – but slowing to slide it off his shoulders would be bad. If he stopped at all, he might not start again.
Katniss's face swam in and out of his vision, lovely but tortured, eyes puffy with tears and eyebrows slanted down in a defiant frown. He didn't know why Peeta chose to remember her this way. Perhaps it was her most commonly worn expression, so recalling it was easiest.
Suddenly, something burbled up from his chest, popping past his lips like bubbles. The hiccupping started off a round of coughing, and then the burbling started again. He realized only after his lips peeled away from his teeth in a mad smile that he was laughing. Or, rather, Peeta was. It was Peeta's insane amusement that had set off the laughter.
Haymitch was just a crazy old man after all, he thought gleefully. There's nothing out here! Absolutely nothing! We haven't come across a landmark in a day!
Leaf's chest heaved with the laughter, and with exhaustion. "Crazy," he wheezed, agreeing. The pain in his throat didn't seem worth avoiding, anymore. Why stay silent? He was going to die anyway. "Nothing."
He gasped, morbid humor sending his lungs in painful fits of contracting and releasing. "Nothing's out here." His feet tripped over one another and he wove from side to side, no longer really going forward so much as just moving. "Nothing at all."
For a reason he could not comprehend, the fact was hilarious. "There's nothing out here," he repeated. A jolt sent shockwaves through his body and gravel cut into his knees. His legs jerked three times before he realized he'd fallen. Gruelingly, he pulled one leg forward until his foot rested on the sand, then pushed himself up. He ended up falling on his side, pain lacing through his ribs in a deep, dull ache. The world looped drunkenly around him and he giggled. "Nothing here!"
Peeta, caught up in his hysteria, cackled with him, then slammed into a sobering thought. Stop! he bellowed, and Leaf froze, eyes wide, wondering what had happened.
You don't think… I mean, you don't think that maybe they tried this?
For the first time in many days, Leaf's insides flooded with ice. Katniss and Prim. He could well imagine them, two small figures, one light and one dark, loping through the desert… Zigzagging back and forth between landmarks, as he had done… Running out of water, slowing as their muscles dried, finally collapsing, together, somewhere in the sand…
His black humor evaporated in an instant and he found himself on his feet, fueled by their combined horror.
No, Peeta said to himself. No, Katniss is smart. She would have taken the Jeep, and lots of extra gas, and plenty of water and food. She wouldn't have just walked out into the desert. She's smart. Not stupid like us. She would never have brought Prim here if there was any chance at all that… No. They're safe. They didn't die here. They didn't.
Leaf nodded along with his rant, needing it to be true just as badly as Peeta did. The girl with a dark braid and captivating eyes, nearly as silver as a soul's but without the reflective quality, called to him. In the memories he'd seen her in, she looked at him, beckoned, slipped off into the trees with her hunter's tread. And, in his mind, he followed her. With an intensity that would have startled him, had he not been so numb to the world, he longed for her. On top of all the aches in his body - the ache from sunburn, the ache from hunger, the ache from exhaustion and the ache of dehydration - there came another, sharper, sweeter ache. The ache that Peeta knew well. It started in his chest and flooded to his fingertips. His arms twitched forward, desperate to hold her close to him.
"We're going to die," he said, not sure why the words had passed his lips. Maybe as a warning, maybe as a lament, maybe just to state the facts.
Yes, Peeta agreed contentedly. He wasn't happy to die, Leaf knew, he was happy to have fulfilled his purpose. When Peeta ran onto the tracks, he had hoped to die so that he would never betray his loved ones to the Seekers. Now, it seemed, he was doing just that, be it in a roundabout way.
Are you sorry? Peeta asked.
Leaf contemplated the unexpected question. Maybe, he answered at last. He must have been walking, because the world tipped and jerked around him, but he couldn't feel his feet hit the ground. I don't know. I don't think so. Katniss and Prim safe… Mockingjay…
His thought trailed off nonsensically.
The sun descended until it burned in his eyes, but he stared into the brightness, not caring if he went blind from it. His vision fizzed dark at the edges. Was it night coming, or death? He wasn't sure.
He didn't mind dying. But before he did, there was a question that wouldn't be left unanswered. What are these? he whispered, hoping Peeta was lucid enough to understand him. The bird and the flower…? Saw them after the first memory… Last memory… Whatever…
Together, they brought forth the two images. The obsidian-black bird, patches of white spreading over the underside of its wings. The little, bright, top-heavy flower.
Hope, Peeta answered, and his contentment turned their lips up in a smile. They mean hope. The mockingjay… and the dandelion.
So the darkness was night, after all, and not death. Leaf and Peeta weren't particularly surprised to find themselves on the ground, one arm trapped beneath them. Their head twisted, seeking oxygen in the desert air, but it seemed to be made entirely of dust and heat. They let it fill their lungs. Their body coughed weakly, but couldn't dispel it.
A blackness that was not night bled into their vision, and the stars turned above them as they died.
Cold. Shockingly cold. Dripping down their face, into their eyes, filling their ears. Wet. Wet?
Something else in their ears. A noise. What noise? A voice. Talking. Yes, someone was talking. Not them.
Their mouth stretched open on its own, needing no direction from them, searching for the liquid with pathetic gasps. Another noise, low and breathy, and something pressed to their lip. Their weak hands came up to grasp at the source. It was heavy, cold and slick with moisture. Water poured into their mouth, down their throat, choking them, but they didn't stop guzzling, even while they coughed.
Or, at least, no longer quite as dark.
Their eyes opened into slits, and something moved above them. The heavy, cold, slick thing moved away and their fingers slipped off. They made a sound of protest, and it came out ghastly, like the wheeze of someone dying.
We're going to die.
Those words. Did they mean something? They had spoken them. Yes, they had. When? Why? Die. Death?
They were dying.
So, not death, after all.
The rim found their lips again and they drank until it was empty. Then another, not as cold but oh, just as heavenly, replaced it, and they drank this too.
Their open eyes began to clear of the indistinct, gray shapes that clouded them. One shape in particular stood out. It moved. They couldn't make sense of it. Then it moved again and resolved itself into the silhouette of a crouching man.
Just as soon as their vision cleared, it seemed, a piercing light swept across their eyes, blinding them again.
"Well then," the voice said – no, sneered. A nasty edge clung to the words. "Isn't this just a dandy little catastrophe."
The voice shattered their consciousness into two separate beings as Leaf recoiled and Peeta choked in shock.
"Haymitch," he gasped, and when he spoke the word his mind connected those two things: the voice of the speaker and Katniss's uncle. The one who had drawn the lines.
Now, they spoke with one voice, though their minds remained distinctly separate. "Katniss!" Peeta struggled to make their half-dead body sit up, scrabbling in the sand. "Katniss! Prim! Are they alive? Are they here?"
Haymitch turned the flashlight sideways, illuminating his own haggard, scruffy face. He rubbed his chin with one hand, studied them, then commented, "Turned centipede and he still hasn't changed much."
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