10 – Target

"Transport full tonight. First open is 0545 tomorrow. Booked. See you tomorrow morning, Sunshine! Monzo"

Gale sat heavily on his unmade bed. As soon as he'd read the message on his communicuff the adrenaline had drained out of him and now he felt too exhausted to move. He flopped back and stared at the ceiling.

The plaster was pristine, empty. In his old room, back at home, many years ago, he'd looked for shapes in the grain of the wood. It was almost like finding constellations. He'd even had this thing, this theory that he could see his father's profile, complete with some darker wood that looked like a spot of dirt from the mines. How could he miss their lousy, drafty little shack? How could that house feel so alive, with its own warmth, even in the dark dawn of winter?

He wasn't sure how long he'd been lying there. He'd been in such a rush to get to the Capitol, to see if this investigation could actually go somewhere. Arlene was so competent that he'd never considered the possibility that she couldn't get them out tonight. The other side of that was that if she couldn't, then he was sure that it couldn't be done.

So now what?

He could just grab some dinner and go to bed early, but even though he felt too tired to move he wouldn't be able to sleep. It wasn't that kind of tired. At least, not yet.

Maybe he should head out to his firing range. Last night he'd rushed out there without even bringing a gun. He should go back. He hadn't taken target practice for several days now. He couldn't afford to get rusty.

Madge wanted to learn to shoot. Maybe, maybe he could take Madge - Maggie with him. She couldn't shoot yet. It was too soon for her injured hand. She was right handed, wasn't she? She could watch though. He could teach her the basic gun safety rules, show her how to load a gun, how to hold it, how to fire it. She might be disappointed that she couldn't fire it yet, but . . . there was no better way to find out if she'd like that than to ask her.

Her friends were still in the kitchen, so he went ahead and took a shower. That'd save time in the morning. He put on a sweater. It would get colder when the sun went down. He chose two weapons from his gun safe – his favorite pistol and another one, almost identical, so that she could mimic his actions. It was so good to have these back. He slipped on his old army holster belt. He never wore his shoulder holster when he wasn't at work. It just didn't feel as natural as his belt. He put his own pistol into his holster, then grabbed some ammo and dropped it into his bag. He did want to get in some target practice. He pulled his sweater down over the holster. No point making Maggie's friends nervous.

They were all still in the kitchen. He couldn't think of a way to check to see how long before they'd be leaving without seeming to be a jerk. So he headed into the living room instead. It was close enough that he could hear if they were leaving, but meanwhile he could look through the boxes of papers.

Irene looked up abruptly as he came in. She glanced down at her watch, then stood up.

"Oh, I'm sorry. I lost track of the time. I need to get Maggie her dinner then I should be off. Arlene will be waiting for me."

Gale smiled. He was so used to Arlene that it was funny to talk to Irene. Irene had shoulder length red hair which she wore down, where Arlene's metallic grey hair was perpetually up in a neat bun. Still, their smiles were similar, their eyes exactly the same.

"No rush. I was just going to browse through some of these."

"It's some hard reading. Hard to remember how dark things were for a while there." She stared at the papers, a grim set to her jaw and seemed to be re-seeing something from the war. She shook her head as though she could shake the memories out. "Maggie must be hungry," she said and hurried out.

Gale tried to feel bad for chasing her off, but couldn't help hoping that maybe she'd chase some of the others off in turn. Of course, she was so kindly she'd probably offer them dinner. That'd blow his plans altogether, well, almost. He could still go out to the range by himself, but that wouldn't be nearly as fun.

No way he wanted to read any of the Capitol trash papers, but he could try one of the District 13 Gazettes. Not too early, too close to the destruction of District 12. Something a bit later. A year later would work. "Bodies Found in Grave Under Capitol Prison: ID Experts Say Most Were Capitol Residents Accused of Spying."

Gale set the paper down. Maybe not. He remembered that too well. Once again feeling that all they could do was be too late, once again unable to keep up with the voracious Capitol killing machine.

He heard something from the kitchen, sounded like a lot of shuffling. Sure enough, it wasn't long before he heard the front door open.

He waited until it was quiet and went into the kitchen. Maggie was humming as she washed dishes. He stood in the door, watching for a minute. She was amazingly quick with the glasses, even with her right hand injured. She must have had a lot of practice. Had she been assigned to wash dishes or did all the avoxes do that? Should he ask her, or would that only bring back bad memories? Not tonight.

"Maggie?"

She carefully finished the glass in her hands, then took a dry towel and dried her wet hands, before turning. Of course, she needed her hands dry before she could sign.

"CAN I HELP YOU?"

The signs came so easily to her. That was something she had signed to many people, many times before. He hated that it was addressed to him now.

"NO. NO. NOT LIKE THAT." Great. She looked down. He'd embarrassed her. Who knows what she thought he meant by that. He took a deep breath and started again. "YOU WANTED TO SHOOT? DO YOU HAVE TIME? NOW?"

Her answer was in her eyes immediately. "NOW? I CAN CLEAN LATER. SHOULD I . . . DO I NEED DIFFERENT CLOTHES?"

Now she seemed flustered. Maybe she didn't think he was a jerk. "NO. CLOTHES ARE FINE. MAYBE A SWEATER. IT MIGHT BE COLD LATER."

She bit her lip. "I DON'T HAVE A SWEATER."

That's right. He'd noticed it last night. She didn't have any clothes that weren't basically hospital issue. "SORRY. IRENE CAN GET YOU SOME CLOTHES TOMORROW." He ducked into his laundry room and grabbed one of his sweaters off of the drying rack. Monzo never failed to rib him about how carefully he treated his clothes, but too many years helping his mother take meticulous care of laundry had left him with habits he couldn't shake. Habits he was happy to have tonight as he handed Maggie the sweater and saw her run her hands over the thick soft knit, even as she pulled it on.

"DID YOU EAT?" he signed quickly, hoping the answer would be 'yes' so they could go.

"IRENE MADE SURE OF IT. I'M GETTING SOME REAL FOOD NOW AT LEAST." Even though one side of her face couldn't move quite right because of the wires holding her teeth, her smile was still fantastic. It still showed some real happiness at last. It was probably seeing her friends more than the food. Maybe, maybe, some of it was getting to go shooting. Hopefully, she would understand that she couldn't do any of the shooting yet.

The walk wasn't too far. He'd chosen this house because of its location. There was a large clearing behind it, then the shooting range was just at the edge of the forest. Gale could hear Maggie's steps just behind him, but he glanced over his shoulder and caught her gazing with large eyes around the meadow. It was beautiful. He'd gotten used to see things like a soldier. He had to consciously stop his brain from evaluating the cover and really see the meadow, the colors, the flowers. Back in 12 the forest had been the most amazing place – not just green and gorgeous, but freedom, not to mention food. Here he'd never seen it that way, but Maggie did. It must seem even better to her after so long in the Capitol. Had she ever gotten a chance to even go outside? Probably not.

They were almost there, when he felt her hand on his shoulder, stopping him. He turned to see her pointing across the meadow. Just on the edge there was a small herd of deer. He could see four, but there were probably more in the trees. He'd seen deer before in 12 when they meant abundant food. Maggie wouldn't have gotten a chance to see the deer in 12. Gale looked at her again.

"HAVE YOU EVER SEEN THEM BEFORE?" he signed.

She hardly moved as she shook her head, transfixed. A larger deer stepped forward, coming just out of the treeline – the buck. No wonder she couldn't take her eyes off of them. He was magnificent. He took another few steps forward and Gale could swear that he was staring right at them, sizing them up, deciding whether they could be trusted. The whole herd was standing still, smelling, waiting.

Then suddenly the buck must have given some signal. They all disappeared with quick bounds back into the trees. Gale let his breath out. It was just as well. They weren't going to stick around during target practice.

Maggie looked at him. "HAVE YOU SEEN THEM BEFORE? THEY WERE . . . AMAZING."

He smiled, feeling almost like they were his herd. "YES. THEY ARE OUT HERE A LOT. LOOK FOR THEM AT DAWN AND AT DUSK. YOU CAN SEE THEM FROM THE PORCH."

She glanced back at the house and nodded.

"COME ON. THE TARGETS ARE OVER HERE." Gale went over and pulled the dusky green tarp off of the big bullseye. That was the one he used the most. He had some smaller cans set up along the fence, but this would be better for tonight. Tonight was mainly about showing Maggie the basics.

He handed her one pair of the protective glasses he'd brought and she slipped them on, then he handed her a pair of headphones.

"TO PROTECT YOUR EARS." Funny that, with Maggie, he could let her put on the headphones now, even before he'd started her lesson. The headphones wouldn't interfere with their conversation as long as he was signing too.

"MAGGIE, YOU WON'T BE ABLE TO SHOOT TONIGHT. YOUR HAND IS STILL HEALING. IT ISN'T SAFE." Her face fell. "THERE'S A LOT YOU CAN STILL LEARN. THAT WAY YOU'LL BE ALL READY WHEN YOU ARE HEALED."

"CAN I TRY WITH MY LEFT HAND?"

"YOU'RE RIGHT HANDED? YOU WON'T BE VERY ACCURATE WITH YOUR LEFT. PLUS, IT IS BEST TO USE BOTH HANDS. MORE STEADY, BETTER AIM."

She looked disappointed, and not completely convinced that she shouldn't try with her left hand. He couldn't help but admire her desire to be able to defend herself. Of course, she wouldn't want to be helpless and vulnerable any more. Still, that could make her reckless. He couldn't give her something that would hurt her more, especially if she was seeking security.

Maggie wished she could be as calm as Gale was. It was more than obvious that he was not only comfortable around the guns, but was experienced teaching others how to use them.

"THE FIRST RULE OF GUN SAFETY IS ALWAYS POINT YOUR WEAPON IN A SAFE DIRECTION. WHEN YOU ARE SURE YOUR GUN IS UNLOADED, WHEN YOU ARE ALONE, WHEN YOU ARE FOCUSED ON SOMETHING ELSE, ALWAYS BE AWARE OF WHERE YOUR GUN IS POINTED. NEVER AIM A GUN AT ANYONE, NEVER AIM A GUN ANY WHERE NEAR ANYONE UNLESS YOU ARE INTENDING TO SHOOT THEM."

Maggie's eyebrows raised. He'd never seemed like the sort for such caution.

"THIS RULE IS SERIOUS. WHEN I'M TEACHING ARMY RECRUITS I REQUIRE 50 PUSHUPS THE FIRST TIME THEY VIOLATE THIS RULE. THE SECOND TIME THEY ARE OUT OF THE CLASS. NO EXCEPTIONS. NO EXCUSES."

"I CAN'T DO PUSH-UPS. MY HAND IS STILL HEALING," she signed with a smirk, throwing his own words back at him.

He laughed, then looked at her more seriously. "BETTER FOLLOW THE RULES THEN SINCE I'LL HAVE TO THROW YOU OUT OF CLASS THE FIRST TIME YOU BREAK THEM."

What she wanted was to reach out and touch the gun, as though it had magical powers which would seep into her flesh and make her invincible. She needed to focus so that he'd see she could be trusted with such power. She looked steadily at him and signed "OKAY. DON'T POINT THE GUN AT ANYONE EVER UNLESS I'M GOING TO SHOOT THEM."

She reached out toward him, heart pumping. She'd never actually touched a gun before, never held a weapon more lethal than a carving knife or piece of broken glass. He shook his head slightly as though he'd expected her reach then launched into a lecture about the proper stance. Again, she forced herself to concentrate. She was small and not very strong. She'd need to use her whole body to get the most of out of this gun.

Finally, Gale turned the gun so that its barrel faced the ground, but its grip reached toward her, then he pulled it back. Was he toying with her? Wouldn't he let her hold it?

"I'M GOING TO SHOW YOU HOW TO HOLD YOUR GUN, WHERE TO POINT IT IN A SAFE MANNER. DO YOU MIND IF I SPEAK, WHILE THE GUN IS IN MY HAND?"

He'd done this before, this asking if he could speak. It always threw her off. Did he really think she'd say 'no'?

"SURE. THAT'S FINE." She slipped her headphones off her head and let them rest on her neck. This time she wouldn't hold her hand out. He probably had something else planned to delay just letting her have a gun, but he pulled a second weapon out of his bag and held both of them up.

"Both of these are D3 9mm striker-fired, semi-automatic pistols. D3 is because they were made in the District 3. Nine millimeter is the caliber, technically the size of the inside diameter of the barrel, basically the size of the cartridges. Striker-fired means . . . " He looked up at her and seemed, for the first time in the lesson, a bit embarrassed. "Sorry. Do you want to hear all of the technical stuff? I'm used to teaching the basic class for new recruits."

She couldn't seem too eager. She did need to know as much as possible. She wanted to be as easy with the pistols as he was. Or maybe, maybe, she was a little afraid of cold metal that could destroy and kill. Either way, she would play it cool.

"WHAT'S GOOD ENOUGH FOR A NEW RECRUIT IS GOOD ENOUGH FOR ME," she signed. "JUST DO YOUR REGULAR LECTURE."

"Okay, Soldier." He gave her a smirk of his own. She looked down. She wanted to impress him. Was it just so he would give her a gun? She forced herself to look up, hoping that he wouldn't see any blush. "So, like I was saying strider-fired means . . . ."

She listened intently and even forgot her impatience as she watched everything he did as he showed her the parts of the gun and the basic rules for handling and loading.

"Any questions? You won't be able to sign once you're holding a gun." She shook her head. Was it really time? He held the pistol out to her, upside down so that she could use what she'd been taught and confirm that the magazine wasn't in it.

She nodded quickly as she reached for the gun. Her hand dropped as she took it, surprised by how heavy it was. She needed her left hand to hold it securely. It wasn't cold, as she'd expected. The grip was rubber and still warm from Gale's hands. Her right hand ached as she tightened her fingers around it, but she ignored the pain. It was so solid. She'd need to do some exercises to strengthen her hand. Might as well start now.

"Now, copy me and I'll show you how to load it."

Maggie had always been good with her hands, long ago on the delicate piano, the last few years with chopping and washing and a thousand other chores. There would be no weakness for him to see as his eyes followed to make sure she was doing it right. Maybe he'd decide she was strong enough to fire it.

After the pistol was loaded, they practiced the proper stance again. This time it was more exciting. Holding the heavy gun made it real. He went over the basics of aiming. Every chance she could, she compared her movements to his, adjusting whenever she was even slightly off. It wasn't long before her shoulder and forearm began to feel tired from the unusual activity. The ache built across the back of her hand as unused muscles screamed at the repetition. She saw a tremble in her wrist and hoped he hadn't seen it.

No such luck. He holstered his own pistol. "I think that's enough for tonight."

If she protested he'd think she wasn't disciplined enough. Obviously, she was going to need more lessons. At least he let her unload it herself before she handed it back to him.

If she couldn't hold the gun, she could still learn as much as possible. Now that her hands were free she could ask the questions that had been building up. "WILL YOU SHOW ME HOW TO CLEAN IT?" "HOW MANY GUNS DO YOU OWN?" "WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THAT ONE FOR ME?" "HOW LONG UNTIL I CAN SHOOT FOR REAL?" "HOW OFTEN DO YOU PRACTICE?" "DO YOU ALWAYS CARRY A GUN?" "IS IT ALWAYS LOADED?"

He looked at her, a smile on his face that reminded her of her long ago piano teacher, who'd been pleased with Maggie's eagerness. "Whoa. How about if you save the questions for later? I need to do my target practice."

"HOW OFTEN DO YOU DO TARGET . . . SORRY. LATER." She bit her lip and was embarrassed at her lack of control. His gaze seemed to linger. Was he looking at her lips? Her heart had already been quickened with excitement, but it seemed to give a little jump. Maybe she could focus better with a less attractive teacher. He was probably just wondering why she was so hyper, why she asked so many questions.

He put on his headphones and she did too. He walked over to the target and put up a paper outline of a human, then he came back and moved into his shooting stance. He seemed to relax and slip into a familiar routine, as he aimed, then the first - very loud - shot rang out. To her surprise his first shot missed the target completely. Apparently he was human. His next shot hit though, and the next, and the next. His hand leaped back a bit with each shot. Maybe he was right that she wasn't ready for that kickback. By the time he had reloaded he was getting into a rhythm, finally hitting the target torso every time. He seemed to have forgotten that she was there.

At last he shook out the muscles in his shoulders to loosen the tension, then turned. She'd been mimicking his shooting stance, almost without thinking about it.

"Not bad," he said with a smirk. He seemed to expect her to be embarrassed that he'd caught her copying him, so she met him with a level stare. He looked her over and said "Good stance. Move your right foot up a bit so your hips are square towards the target." He was the one who seemed to flush then, maybe because he'd been examining her so closely.

She shifted her feet and quirked her head at him.

Gale didn't back off, but nodded and said "That's better."

"MY LEFT HAND IS STRONG. ARE YOU SURE I CAN'T TRY?" She knew it would hurt, but she wanted to feel it.

He shook his head though. "No tonight. Let those bones heal up and then we'll come back out."

"PROMISE?"

"I promise," he said, with commitment in his tone.

"QUESTIONS NOW?" she asked and was glad to see him laugh.

"Give me a minute to put these away and then I'll answer whatever I can." Before long he had packed everything into its proper place in his bag, and they were both sitting up against a tree, facing out over the meadow towards his house. The sun was almost gone.

"IT'S GETTING COLD. ARE YOU OKAY?"

She just smiled. "I HAVE A NICE WARM SWEATER. SO HOW OFTEN DO YOU COME OUT HERE?"

"I TRY TO PRACTICE AT LEAST THREE TIMES A WEEK. WHEN I'M TEACHING A CLASS ON THE BASE I GET MY TARGET PRACTICE IN THERE. WHEN I'M NOT, I USUALLY SHOOT AT THE FIRING RANGE ON BASE AT LEAST ONCE A WEEK AND MAKE UP THE REST OUT HERE."

"WHEN DID YOU LEARN TO SHOOT?"

"A GUN?" He looked at her with a smile. They both knew he'd been shooting a bow and arrow since he was a kid. She nodded.

"MY FIRST TRAINING WAS IN 12."

"WAS IT EASIER BECAUSE YOU KNEW HOW TO AIM ALREADY?"

"I DON'T KNOW. MAYBE."

"WERE YOU ALWAYS AIMING AT THE CHEST?" She'd thought it was strange that he didn't seem to want to shoot the target in the head.

"YOU SHOULD ALWAYS SHOOT TO KILL AND ALWAYS AIM AT THE TORSO. IT'S AN EASIER TARGET THAN A HEAD." She couldn't believe how easily they were discussing such a gruesome subject, but if he didn't mind, she didn't.

The questions popped into her head, all about how to shoot, how to handle guns. He never held back, but patiently shared all he knew. She hardly noticed the sky becoming darker, hardly noticed the cold, although she felt his warmth as she leaned in to see his signing.

"DO YOU THINK . . . ." She paused. She seemed nervous all of a sudden. "DO YOU THINK, IF I LEARN HOW TO HANDLE IT, IF I KNOW HOW TO BE SAFE, DO YOU THINK I COULD HAVE MY OWN GUN?"

Should she have asked? What if he said no, laughed at her?

"SURE. THEY'RE KIND OF EXPENSIVE, BUT . . . ." She hadn't even thought of that. She had no money, nothing, not even clothes of her own. "WE CAN COME UP WITH SOME WAY FOR YOU, FOR ALL OF YOU IF THE OTHERS ARE INTERESTED, TO BE ARMED."

She couldn't hold back the joy in her smile, even though her wired teeth held half her face back. He looked happy too, more relaxed, even when his face became more serious. He was staring into her eyes and she couldn't even tell exactly what color his eyes were in the dark.

He looked down and began to trace patterns in the dirt, flustered from their closeness. Could his hunter's senses tell that her heart was racing?

"YOU ARE SO LUCKY. IT IS BEAUTIFUL HERE." Her eyes searched the tree line for the herd of deer they'd seen earlier, but she couldn't find them in the near darkness. She looked back at him to find that Gale was looking past the meadow up to his house with a thoughtful frown on his face. She let the silence settle over them, not wanting to disturb his thoughts.

When he replied, his voice was soft, just above a whisper. "I guess it is. I haven't really seen it that way." He paused again, then looked at her. "It isn't home."

Her chest constricted at that word. A pain she hadn't allowed herself to feel for years gripped her and her eyes filled with unshed tears.

"HOME," she signed, glad for once to be able to sign since she wouldn't be able to speak. "NOTHING WILL EVER BE HOME."

"I know. I'm sorry."

And he did know, at least he knew what it was like to have your home completely and utterly destroyed. He reached over and took her hand and they sat in silence for a while.

A breeze caused the evergreen boughs above them to shudder and she shivered.

"You're cold. We need to head back." He stood and held out a hand to help her up. When she straightened up they were closer than she had expected. She looked up, into his face, wondering why he hadn't let go of her hand. His eyes met hers and he reached up with his other hand to brush away the tears she hadn't even realized were sliding down her cheek. His fingers were warm and amazingly gentle.

"Maggie," he whispered and she smiled. He'd finally gotten her new name right. He was leaning in close. Was he going to whisper something to her?

Then his lips met hers and her mind froze. What was he doing? No one kisses an avox. Did he forget what she was?

He pulled back and looked abashed at her shocked face.

"I'm sorry," he said and he had grabbed his bag and was moving up the path before she could pull her mind back together.

She hurried after him. Why did he say he was sorry? Did he think she was mad? Didn't he know? How could he even want to kiss an avox? Everyone else found her maimed mouth disgusting. Didn't he?

She stumbled on the uneven path and stopped. She needed to slow down. Wouldn't he wait for her? Her eyes moved up to the house, still far across the meadow.

There was someone there, someone crouched on the porch. A movement and she saw that there were two of them.

He was still hurrying forward. He hadn't seen them. She had to stop him, had to let him know.

She rushed after him, still clumsy, tripping in the dark. Now she longed for a voice. She needed to tell him.

He paused, still not turning, but finally waiting for her. As she finally reached him he started to go again, but she reached out and grabbed his shoulder, pulling hard so he would turn.

He did turn, now angry.

"What?" he asked harshly, and she reached out and put her hand on his lips to silence him.

"SOMEONE IS THERE," she signed, but he frowned, unable to make out her signs in the dark. She grabbed his hand and signed again, slower, into his fingers, "SOMEONE IS THERE."

"Someone is . . . where?" He was whispering now, finally catching her fear.

"AT YOUR HOUSE. ON THE . . . ." What was the sign he'd used for porch? It didn't matter. He was turning, looking. She couldn't see them now. Would he believe her? Where were they? Were they coming this way?

He pulled his gun out and she heard him hit the slide release, locking all the pieces into place for use. He must be taking her seriously then.

He crouched down and motioned for her to do the same. They were still pretty far across the meadow. Had they been seen? Who was it? What would whoever it was do if they did see them?

Her mouth was dry. She wanted to reach out and grab his shirt, make sure he wouldn't leave her, but she shouldn't. She couldn't distract him.

There was a motion by the side of the house. Someone moved near the dark bushes.

"Shit." He'd seen it too.

He used his pistol hand to pull up the sleeve on his left arm, his gun aimed down now. He had one of the newer, smaller communicuffs on. She hadn't even noticed it before. He must wear it all the time. He tapped silently on it, then turned to her.

"Someone's coming to check that. We're going back this way."

She just nodded. He couldn't see her signs anyway.

"Head back to the tree line." He wanted her to go. He was going to follow her. Was he doing that on purpose to stay between her and the house? She tried to go quickly, but she couldn't see. Every time she stumbled, she flinched, hoping he didn't think she was a clumsy oaf, hoping no one heard her noise.

Once they were at the tree line, he glanced at his communicuff again. "They'll be here soon. I'm taking you around back to the road this way. There will be a ride for us there."

She grabbed his free hand so that she could sign into it. She hoped he couldn't feel the tremble in her fingers. "WHERE WILL WE GO?" He couldn't leave her. This was Thrax, or someone sent by Thrax more likely. He was coming for her. She knew it was.

"I'm taking you to Arlene's. The base isn't safe enough." She nodded. He knew what he was doing. She'd have to trust him.

How could she have been so foolish? How could she have felt safe and forgotten? Of course, Thrax would find her.

AN – First of all, I'm not a gun expert, even if Gale is, but the pistols they used were loosely based on the Glock 26. I'm assuming that the passage of time and technology means they would have been changed a bit. Sometime Gale might get into the geeky details re why the D3s were better than the D2s.

Next – this has taken forever. Sorry. The holidays and various health issues held me up. This chapter is longer than average. Hope that helps.

However – alternating between this fic and my other fic (Dramione) is proving harder than I expected. I'm going to focus on my other fic for a while since it only has a few chapters left. I will be back to this one. I promise.

Thanks for sticking with me. As always – I love reviews, con crit included. Or just let me know you're out there and what you thought.