The next thing I know I'm moving. I'm not sure how. My head is throbbing, I try to open my eyes, but the world flashes before me and I can't focus on a thing. I think I see light though. I'm being jostled around. I try and open my eyes again and slowly make out the forest floor beneath me. The forest? How did I get here? I try to look around again. I see trees flashing by. Maybe I hear leaves crunching beneath my feet. Wait. Not my feet. My legs don't seem to be moving. But the forest is rushing past me. The forest again. That doesn't seem right. How did I get into the forest? Details are colliding in my brain as I try to piece together the morning. Waking up, walking to town, seeing Cinna, the mine interview, the elevator. And the explosion.
The explosion! I remember a loud crash, flames, screaming. Gale! I know I have to find out what happened to him. I start to thrash, trying to find my own feet. I realize for the first time that someone must be carrying me. My hands feel a body beneath me and I start to kick and punch. The person was unprepared for my attack and we both stumble to the ground. Free, I try to make my escape. My head spins as I try to get up, but I'm not willing to lose the brief advantage I have.
"Gale!" I scream, sprinting off in the opposite direction. "Gale!" Panic floods my brain and my vision blackens. I have to lean against a tree to steady myself. My ears are still ringing, but I hear someone call my name.
"Katniss!" It's Gale.
"Gale!" I scream frantically. I can't tell where his voice is coming from with the ringing in my ears. Someone grabs me from behind. I spin around, ready to swing but stop myself when I see it's Gale. "Oh! Gale!" I throw myself into his arms. He embraces me. "Gale, I don't know what's happened. But something's wrong!" I don't even know how or where to start explaining, and it doesn't occur to me that I shouldn't have to as he was there the whole time with me. "Someone's after me, we have to go quickly."
"What?" Gale seems confused. I grab his hand, pulling him back towards town. "Katniss, no." He stops, I cannot move him.
"Gale!" there's a terrible urgency in my voice. Why doesn't he realize the danger we're in? "We have to go!"
"No Katniss, not that way, follow me," he tries to lead me in the opposite direction.
I suddenly hear my heart pounding in my ear and blink to try and clear my vision, but I can't stop the first few details from clicking together. I remember Gale's shirt is the same one I saw on the man trying to run off with me.
"Gale?" My voice drips with confusion and betrayal. I jerk my head from his and try to make sense of it all.
"There isn't time, Katniss, we have to go!" He grabs for me again, but I wriggle free. I start running from him. I don't know what's going on, and my head is too fuzzy to try and make sense of it all. But I know something horrible happened back at home. I hear the explosion, smell the smoke, see the flames. I don't know what, but I have to get back and see if everything is all right. An image of Prim flashes before my eyes and I panic. I have to make sure she's safe. It's the only thing I know right now.
It takes only moments for Gale to catch up with me. He reaches for my shoulders, but I swing around and stop him, hitting him square in the nose. We're going to fight if he wants to stop me. Red gushes and chokes his mouth. I hear him swear as his spits the blood away. I only gained a few yards, however, and Gale is again on top of me. He dodges my next blow and swiftly snatches me up. He's strong and serious, and I think back to some of the moves I learned in the Games. I claw at his face, drawing blood. He tries to throw me over his shoulder again, but I thrust my elbow in his face and wrench his thumb. This brings him to his knees in tears. I kick him hard in the chest and hear him gasp for air. I sprint off again. I think I might have a good start this time when he suddenly crashes into me. He must have lunged for me. He's on top of me and has pinned me to the ground. He holds my arms immobile above my head. I try to wriggle free but can't. He's too strong for me. But, I'm in battle mode. If Gale wants to fight me, I'm going to take him down. I knee him in the groin. He grunts painfully and falls to the side. He grabs my leg and I fall painfully to the ground. The twists me around and swallows me in an inescapable bear hold. I kick, but cannot do much damage from this position. He easily lifts me and starts to carry me off. I can't make my arms move, and his hold is so tight, it's slightly painful. I keep trying to wriggle for minutes, but it's no use. Gale is just too strong. With no other option, I start to scream. "Prim!" I yell, "Prim! I'm coming!" Gale moves one of his hands over his mouth to stop me. Just what I wanted. I clamp down on his flesh and taste the salt of blood. He tries to resist the pain and holds for a few moments. But I see the anguish in his eyes. Gale curses and finally lets me lose. He's on his knees, but I've underestimated his capabilities. He anticipates my next blow, and deftly grabs my leg and spins me to the ground. My face smacks into the earth. I try to get up, but I think he's angry now. He was apparently going easy on me before and I feel his full fury. He takes my one arm and painfully twists it behind me. I'm nearly paralyzed in pain. He's got his full wait on my legs, preventing me from getting up. I open my mouth to scream again, but he quickly reacts and pushes his other hand over my face. I can barely breathe.
"Don't you dare bite me again," he seethes. "Now, I'm going to tell you something and you're going to listen." I have no choice but to obey. "Your sister is safe, so is your mom. The Capitol wants your dead, and we have to go. Fast and far. So they can't find you." I try hard to process his words. I search Gale's face and know he is speaking the truth. I look up at him and see the scratches near his eye, the blood around his mouth, a gash on his temple. I try to understand all the information, but my brain is over come with adrenaline. My muscles twitch to keep fighting and my instincts tell me to keep calling for Prim. My heart, however, calms a bit, and it tells me to trust Gale. I look deep into his eyes to reaffirm this feeling, and I see the same friend looking down at me as I always have. I take a few deep breaths and nod. "Good," he says confidently, "now, are we going to do this the easy way or the hard way, because frankly, right now, either is fine with me." He slowly takes his hand off my mouth. I don't scream. Then he loosens the grip he has on my arm. I slowly pull it to my front and cradle my injured wrist. Gale releases some of his weight, which is considerable, off my thighs and onto his feet. I don't move, to prove I'm compliant and wait for him to rise. He watches me for a few moments, and when he's decided to trust me, he gets up and offers me a hand. I glance back in the direction of home and then back to Gale. I tentatively outstretch my good hand and he helps me up.
We run. I've no idea what I'm getting myself into.
. . .
We run for what seems like hours. I struggle to keep up with Gale. There are stitches in my side and I feel like air isn't reaching my lungs. I gasp for air and start to stumble a few times and we flee over large logs and rocks. We get deep into the forest and soon I don't even know where we are. Just when I think I can't keep going, Gale signals to stop. I stumble and fall as I brake. Gale catches me before I hit the ground. He gently lowers me to my knees and slides down beside me. We are both covered in sweat and blood. I unzip my jacket, trying to escape the heat and pain I'm in, drinking in the air. Gale's breathing is far steadier than mine. He takes out a water bottle and offers it to me.
"You…first…" I pant, "I need…air first…."
Gale smiles and takes a sip. "We can stop here for the night," he begins in a remarkably even tone. "I think there's a pond nearby for water."
"How do you know this part of the woods?" My eyes narrow at him. He only smiles and takes another sip before passing it to me. I try to drink, but mostly choke.
"Come on," he offers his hand to help me up again. "I think the pond is this way." My legs are like jelly, and I have trouble steadying myself to walk. Gale helps me. I try to refuse it, but cannot manage without him. I hate feeling inferior and weak. I can hardly believe it, but it's less than a five minute walk to a small pond. "Not a bad place for camp," he says, surveying the area. "We can put the tent over there, catch some fish for dinner…" He takes off his backpack and sets it on a rock. "We can get cleaned up and then – "
"No," I repeat forcefully. "Before I help you, you tell me everything." I meet Gale's eyes and do not flinch. He measures me up to see how serious I am, and I can tell he realizes the answer is deadly. I sit down on a rock near the pond and look at another one as if to tell him to do the same. He complies.
We stare at each other for a few moments before I decide to break the silence. "What the hell is going on, Gale?"
He chuckles at my language. He's usually the one to use the swear words. It takes him a few minutes, and I let him compose himself. The smile slowly fades from his face. He cups some of the water from the pond and runs it down his face and through his hair, washing away some of the blood that's dried around his nose. My eyes do not leave him for a moment.
"I'm about out of patience, Hawthorne." My voice is steely.
Gale takes a deep breath and I brace myself. I know I am not going to like what he tells me. "We didn't have any other choice."
"Who is we and what do you mean?" I interject.
"I guess Haymitch and Cinna, mostly. It was their plan."
I'm not surprised that those two were involved. "What plan? To kidnap me?"
"To rescues you."
"What?" I don't like to think that I need to be rescued.
"Snow wanted you dead."
"That's nothing new. But if he was going to do that, he'd have done it already. Snow can't kill me now," I dismiss him almost with a laugh, "I'm too important. Too popular."
"He was going to send you into the next Games." Gale averts his eyes when he tells me this.
My heart sinks and I try to process what he's said. It doesn't make any sense. My first reaction is denial. "He can't do that!" I try to keep my voice from sounding like a shriek. "The rules don't allow it!"
"The rules can be changed, Katniss," Gale says gravely, "especially for a Quell." I'd completely forgotten that the Games were going to be a Quarter Quell. They were especially creative and violent Games held once every twenty five years. My jaw drops when he tells me this and I think I might be sick. I suddenly remember my conversation with Snow at the Capitol. "The plan was to send previous victors in, either together, or to pick one victor and send them in with a family member. I'm not sure if they decided which yet…"
I think my insides turn to mush. I feel the blood leave my body and am afraid I'll spasm. I must look horribly ill because Gale rushes over to support me. I feel physical pain as his words sink in. I was going back into the Games. Either with another victor, like Peeta or Haymitch, or with a family member, which I guess means Gale or Prim. I throw up as soon as I think her name. I push Gale off of me and wobble away. My hands clamp to my sides and I'm afraid I'll start hyperventilating. I fall down near the tree line and start to sob. I've tried my best to forget about the horror of the Games as much as possible this past year, push it to some back corner of my mind, but it all comes racing back and hits me full force. Tears come falling down my eyes and I can't catch my breath.
I scream when Gale touches me. He meant the gesture to be comforting, but it scared me half to death. I look down. I've dug my fingers in the earth, ripping away at rocks and roots in hopes of destroying something. I'm not sure how much time has passed, but I can see I'd been at it for some time. Gale looks at me frightened. He never watched the Games; I did my best to shield him from my pain. For the first time he seems how truly they devastated me. "Katniss," he says softly, leaning down to touch me. His voice slowly brings me back, "you're safe now. Don't worry. This is why we did it, to keep you safe." He gently brushes the hair from my face, wiping away a few tears in the process. He takes my hands in his, stopping me from grinding them in the dirt.
My eyes meet his and I say, "Continue." He searches my face to see if I'm ready for more of the truth, and I look strong to tell him I am.
He clears his throat and sits next to me, still holding my hands. "It turns out Cinna is pretty deeply involved in some Capitol based resistance group. When they heard about Snow's plan for the Quell, he knew he had to protect you and went to Haymitch. Haymitch told Cinna about your revolutionary desires, and problems with Peeta, but they knew that if pursued them, it would just cause bigger problems, and they needed as little attention drawn to you as possible if they were going to make this work. That's why Cinna planned the engagement. He knew it would be just the distraction they needed." A flame of anger burns in my chest when I hear that Cinna was behind that stunt. Even if I know it was done to protect me, I can't help but be angry. "Haymitch found me one afternoon and filled me in one everything. He told me that you were in immediate danger, and I of course agreed to help." I try and smile at him when he says this. When all the world falls to pieces, how is it I can always count on my friend Gale? "That's when he told me about Cinna's elevator plan. He designed it himself. Made from some special fireproof material. The design was pretty good, too, from what I could tell. They made me pretend it was mine and had me show the boss. I think it might have actually worked, too. My boss loved it. And we worked to build that prototype over the past week. Vivica then insisted filming it at Cinna's request. The whole thing was rigged. The elevator was designed to stop at one of the abandoned tunnels, and its material protected us from the fire that engulfed the camera and destroyed it after the explosion. I was ready for the explosion, but you were knocked unconscious. I'm truly sorry about that." I nod, of course, believing him, "I picked you up and ran out the tunnel, which came to ground out in the forest. Turns out there are quite a few of the old tunnels that come up to the ground. People used to use them as escape routes during the first war."
I never knew this before. I try to absorb all the information. It's so much I'm not sure what I think or feel. It's an elaborate plan, for sure, and it certainly worked as a good enough distraction to get us out in the woods. But I'm not naïve enough to think that means we're safe.
"And?" I finally ask him. He looks at me quizzically, and I realize my question might have been too general.
"Katniss, we escaped."
"Yeah, but that doesn't mean we're safe! They'll come looking for us."
"No they won't, Katniss. Not for long."
"And why not? The Capitol isn't stupid. They'll comb this forest until they find us. Snow isn't just going to let his number one rebel disappear."
"You're right." Gale avoids my look as he says this.
"What? What do you mean?" I press him angrily. He's not making any sense.
"Katniss, they won't keep looking for us because they think we're dead."
“What?" I scream at him. "They'll never believe it!"
"Yes they will." He is speaking calm and evenly, but it does not sooth me or make what he's saying easier. "Cinna arranged for them to find out bodies. Matching clothes and DNA..." I'm sick as I think of it. Where did Cinna get the bodies? "Katniss, it was the only way…"
"I don't care!" I storm. "You killed me!"
"Katniss –” He thinks I'm being dramatic.
"I should have been told about this! I should have had a say!"
"You'd never have agreed to it!"
"You're right! That probably should have been your first clue not to do it!" I'm trembling as I think of what's happened, hardly able to contain my rage. They had no right to make this decision for me. “I’m not doing this. Running off like some coward, leaving my family." I choke as I think of them. I didn't get to say good bye! They must be so worried. Gale tries to comfort me, but I push him away. "No! Don't you dare touch me! You lied to me! Betrayed me! How could you do this to me, Gale?! How could you do this to my family!?" He looks hurt as I say this, but I don't care.
"Katniss, believe me, I understand how you feel!" If only my eyes could shoot fire. "It was an impossible decision to make, but it was the only way to protect you. And your family!" He adds, hoping to reason with me, but it doesn't work. I start to pace like a caged animal. I don't know what to do. "You can't go back. You'll endanger everyone involved!" My mind is racing and I think I might vomit again. "Katniss, please, just listen to me…" But Gale sounds like he's speaking from another world. I hear him beg me to understand, realize the danger I was in, see how it was the only way…but I try to block his voice from my head. I feel sick and am shaking.
"No," I sob as he reaches out to comfort me. "No!" Gale approaches again and I sink into his chest. He folds me in his arms. I cry, trying to process all the information. The horror of learning I'd go back in the Games, again with someone I care about…Haymitch and Cinna and Gale all conspiring behind my back…planning my death without telling me…The tears burn down my face. The more I think about it, the less I understand and the angrier I get. "I didn't get to say good bye," I cry.
"I'm sorry. I know, I know." Gale tries to comfort me, but it only makes me mad.
"No you don't!" I wail, shoving him. I start beating on his chest. Gale doesn't fight it. I hit him until my fists hurt and fall to the ground. Gale follows me down, and scoops me into his arms. He rocks me gently back and forth, and I try to sort out my thoughts. I think back on the day, and put everything I know in order. I understand now what was happening. I finally see Haymitch's big picture, and I even know he was right. I wouldn't have been able to keep up the charade with Peeta, and I probably would have gone crazy if I had to go back in the Games. I was useless as the face of the rebellion. Now, as a martyr, the people in the districts can believe that the Capitol conspired to kill me because I was a true revolutionary danger for whatever creative reason they choose. They can weep for me and be inspired by me. I certainly am more powerful dead. And that only leaves one more question left to ask.
"Why?" I finally ask.
"Why didn't you guys just let Snow really kill me?"
"Katniss!" Gale is shocked. "Because we had to save you!"
"Yeah, I got that part. Why?"
"I don't understand what you mean." He looks at me confused.
"You pretended to kill me because I'm more important to the rebellion dead. I see that. But if you were just going to rip me from my family, you might as well have just let me go back into the Games and die. At least the people from the Capitol let me say goodbye." I see something break in Gale's eyes as the full force of my words hit him. I essentially just told him he was worse than the Capitol. And the worst part is that part of him thinks I'm right. "So let me ask you again. Why did you bother to save me?"