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[personal profile] anythingbutgrey
The Softest Bullet Ever Shot (1/2)
The Hunger Games. Katniss. Katniss/Gale, Katniss/Peeta.
Catching Fire AU: For the 75th hunger games, Tributes will be reaped from the ages of 18 to 25.
Note: All the thanks in the world to Statler, who has some sort of editing witchcraft we should bottle and sell to science. Title is from The Flaming Lips' "The Spark That Bled (The Softest Bullet Ever Shot)". Many thanks to Harlan also, for putting this idea in my head in the first place. Also, as a trigger warning, there is one particular reference of Katniss scratching herself up (unconsciously, but), and one scene where she has a nightmare and scratches up a table, so her hands bleed quite a bit. If these could be triggering for you, I am happy to pass along an alternative copy of this fic with those scenes edited out. Just let me know.

“I’ll burn them to the ground,” she finds herself saying, albeit without an ounce of fire in her. It’s just a cold dead fact in the world. They are going to take Gale from her and she’ll put an arrow through Snow’s throat for it.

My choices are simple. I can die like quarry in the woods or I can die here beside Gale.

“I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to stay right here and cause all kinds of trouble.”

“Me too,” Gale says.

- Catching Fire

After Gale does not die in the kitchen, Katniss can’t sleep. Her mother moves Gale from the table to the bed in the spare room across from Katniss’ and she sits at the edge of the bed, imagining the what ifs of things: if she had run when Peeta told her to, if she had been five minutes late, if her mother hadn’t been able to help him. No matter. No one could have held her back, and she was not late, and there are many things to say about her mother but she is skilled with wounded things.

All the same, Katniss can picture it: the long expanse of her life empty of Gale. She stares at the torn up skin, the blood seeping through his bandages. It’s amazing, the closeness of losing him. The long gashes on his back seem to burn her skin too, and Katniss finds herself scratching at the base of her spine.

“Shouldn’t you be asleep, Catnip?” he asks, words muddled against the pillow. Katniss jumps and has a sudden burst of empathy for the animals caught in his snares. She thought he was out for the night.

“I’m not tired,” she says, putting on a pretty decent nonchalance. “Not all of us are drugged beyond belief.”

He tries to shrug, but then winces at the movement of his shoulders. She grimaces with him. “You should try it sometime. Very soothing.”

Especially after 30-odd lashes. “Mm,” she says. “I can see the appeal.”

Gale unfolds his hand on the bed, palm up, reaching for her. When she moves up the bed to take his hand she finds his skin is warm, maybe too warm, though her mother has been keeping tabs on any possible fevers. Then again, Katniss has been freezing for hours. She still feels like she has snow in her hands.

“I’m glad you’re here,” he says, eyes closed. There’s something gentle about him now. She misses that. Misses the days they used to spend in the woods, misses how easy things once were, misses him. She used to be able to hear his heartbeat in her head. And this—this feels like her fault somehow, even though Gale is the idiot who hunted down a giant turkey with a hundred peacekeepers in town. He knows better than that. He wouldn’t have done it if she hadn’t upset him.

“I did this,” she says in a voice that sounds like the quiet cries Buttercup makes at five in the morning.

Gale’s eyes flicker open at that, with more life and fire in him than she’s seen since their fight in the woods. “You didn’t do anything. The Capitol did this.”

Katniss studies the look on his face for a moment. Even through the pain and exhaustion, he looks at her the way Gale does when he’s sure of something. She knows all of Gale’s expressions, the tiny tics of a frown or set of his jaw. Gale has this look about him a lot, actually, so it’s familiar. It’s how she knows to believe him, to trust that he is right about the woods or the Games or what rules to break or how to stay alive. She’s lived her life based on that. She’s had a life to live at all based on that.

“The Capitol did this,” she echoes, almost sure.

He nods. “Just keep your head down for a while,” he says, speaking so softly that she wouldn’t hear him at all if she weren’t lying so close to him, “and then we’ll figure out this whole rebellion thing.”

She laughs, though it’s dirty and full of the tears still in her eyes. “Whole rebellion thing.”

He smirks. “Nothing big.”

“Small affair,” she agrees as he closes his eyes again and smiles against the pillow.

“I’m glad you’re here,” he says again, syllables beginning to blur. Katniss, possessed by the same strange force that has overtaken her since he was lying in the kitchen, runs her fingers along his jawline before he drifts off again.

“Me too,” she says, but his breathing has changed to the way he sounds when asleep. He probably didn’t hear her. Still, she keeps her thumb against his steady pulse until the first specks of dawn appear the sky.

After Gale recovers, it’s hard to see him. He has to work in the mines six, sometimes seven days a week now. When Katniss was a child, after her father died, she used to get so anxious about school trips to the mines she got sick; now, she watches Gale disappear back into the mines and feels much the same. She stares out the living room window in the direction of the mines and imagines the sound of a cave-in.

He still comes around to the house on his free Sundays to get treatment from her mother. Frankly, not that she’d say it, it’s the only way she’d agree to see him right now. If Snow comes knocking, at least Katniss has a decent explanation for him while she resists the urge to tear his eyes out.

After a few Sundays, though, her mother announces the cuts on his back have closed. This is, purportedly, a good thing. Without open wounds, the dirt and dust of the mines pose little to no risk of infection. It also means he won’t have the easy excuse of coming to Katniss’ house anymore, and Katniss stares into her tea for a long time after her mother goes upstairs.

Gale sits across from her at the kitchen table. She tries to avoid being in this room. One day, maybe, she will see this space as family dinners and fighting with Prim about ingredients. For now, every time she looks toward the kitchen she remembers how her terror turned to conviction, how she screamed when he screamed, how Haymitch and Peeta had to carry her out of the room and pin her down. She had never felt such extreme emotion beyond the confines of the Games, not ever. Not until the Capitol made a rebel out of her after all. Gale is hers. They will never touch him again.

“I can still come here,” Gale says. He doesn’t touch the table, doesn’t even rest his own ignored cup of tea on the counter.

Katniss stirs her tea just once, even though there’s nothing in it. “It seems risky. Snow is just waiting for—”

“I want to see you,” he interjects. When she looks up from her tea, she finds him staring at her again. It is so hard to say no to him sometimes, especially when he looks at her like he does now, all wide eyes and parted lips. There are, though, more important things than what she wants. Like keeping him alive, for example.

Katniss shakes her head. “You will see me. We just need to be smart.”

Gale frowns and turns his head toward the window, so Katniss perches her toes on the rail of her seat to lean across the table and press her palm to his cheek. He turns back from the window.

“You will see me,” she says. Her promises to Gale she always keeps.

It’s two weeks later that she has to try on those ridiculous wedding dresses, smile for cameras, and not think about Gale. Prim comes home to report there’s a mandatory viewing from the Capitol tonight, and Katniss prays it’s not the vote for the wedding dress, because she hasn’t talked to Gale, and Gale, no matter his promises, is always on the verge of doing something stupid. Especially, it seems, when she gets involved.

But it’s not the wedding dress vote. It’s the announcement of the Quarter Quell, which isn’t any better since it reminds her that her sister is once more up for the Games. Once the program starts, Prim gets very still beside her.

“And now we honor our third Quarter Quell,” President Snow announces from the television. Katniss listens to the sharp tear of the envelope opening and thinks of the slice of swords against skin. It’s not as loud as she once thought it would be. Humans are soft.

“On the seventy-fifth anniversary,” the President reads, and Katniss briefly wonders if she’ll ever stop hearing his voice in her sleep, “as a gesture of our mercy, this year’s tributes will not be reaped from under the age of 18. Instead, as a reminder to the rebels that time does not make the Capitol any weaker our tributes this Quarter Quell will be reaped from those between 18 and 25 years of age.”

Two things happen at once. First, her mother grabs Prim by the wrist, holds her close, and laughs a sigh of relief. One less year for her youngest daughter’s odds to backfire once more, and the other daughter is safe and sound. But while she does that, Katniss is thinking about the blood in Snow’s mouth, the smell of it when he said, “I know about the kiss.”

And then Katniss knows exactly who will be going to the Games this year. The Capitol owns everything: lives, homes, Gale. Katniss figures this out before her mother does, which is why the second thing that happens catches both Prim and her mother by surprise: Katniss screams.

Her sister pulls away from her; her mother, able to withstand the shrieks of dying men, shudders. She doesn’t know how long it lasts, this single, high-pitched, impossible sound, but as it curbs into a sob she realizes she shouldn’t have screamed in here. Not where Snow can hear her and know he’s gotten in a solid shot. Katniss immediately bites her tongue to keep from crying. She won’t give him any more victories tonight, but that doesn’t keep her entire body from shaking. She presses her forehead to her knees. Small hands, Prim’s hands, rub circles on her back. Prim does this a lot these days, to fight the nightmares. But Katniss isn’t dreaming, and she can do something other than sit on her plush living room couch and shake like a child in a thunderstorm.

“Katniss—” Prim starts as Katniss lifts her head, but her mother hushes her.

“Let’s get you some tea,” her mother tries to say, but Katniss is already on her feet. A faint buzzing runs through her head where thoughts should be, and even her hands feel far away somehow, like they belong to someone else. No one tries to stop her when she slips out the door without a coat. They know where she’ll be.

When she gets to the Hawthornes’ she bangs on the door too loudly. It echoes down the street; somewhere in the distance, a cat hisses. The door so opens quickly that Katniss jumps. Gale’s the one to open it. He doesn’t say anything when he sees her there, just steps aside and allows her into the house. It’s too quiet, and too early for anyone to be asleep. But Gale had his name in the reaping bowl, what, 42 times last time? That’s sure to carry over, even if no one in this house has realized that Gale’s name could be in there just once and he would still be chosen. Because this is about him. This is all about him. She led the Capitol to him and now the Capitol will tear his body down.

She sits on the couch. It was leather once, but now it’s patchwork. Still, it’s soft, worn, familiar. It holds afternoon naps taken under the sun spilling in from the window, evenings of quiet discussion while everyone else went to sleep, or nights where neither of them felt the need to say anything at all. Gale sits next to her, careful to keep an inch or two between their knees. She’s grateful for this; every inch of her body, inside and out, is screaming for her to touch him, but she can’t. Once she touches him it’s real, and it’s over, and she’ll never be able to let go again.

“You heard?” she asks, a stupid question. Even if it weren’t a mandatory viewing, the answer is all over the pallor in his face. Still, he only nods. This worries her most of all. Gale should be angry, sarcastic, loud, his usual manner when dealing with the Capitol. It takes him a long time to say anything at all. Normally Katniss doesn’t mind the quiet with him, but tonight she’d beg him to say something just to silence the buzz in her head. She bites her tongue, though, and waits. This isn’t about her. Well, it is, politically, but it’s not just about her, and Gale can be silent as a ghost if he chooses.

“At least the kids are safe,” he says when he finally speaks, eyes ticking toward the staircase in the back of the house. Upstairs, his siblings might even be resting a little easier. Probably not. A sibling is a cheap offering to throw into the fire, especially one as protective and caring as Gale. This family would have died out without him a long time ago.

Katniss breathes in as best her lungs will let her. A few stray tears race out of her before she can stop herself, and she brushes them away while Gale still has his head turned.

“Gale,” she says, her voice shaking over his name. He turns back to her and doesn’t quite look her in the eye. “You need to run.”

His eyes tick up to hers as he tries to figure out just how serious she is. Then, he shakes his head. “You know I can’t do that.”

A sound escapes her mouth, something short and sharp. “I know that you have to. They’ll rig the reaping. This is to get to you. To get to me and you.”

“I know, but I can’t leave here. And I’m not leaving without them,” he says, nodding toward the stairs again. “Or you.”

She’s glad that her sigh sounds just as exasperated as she feels; some things change, but Gale still pisses her off all the same. There’s little comfort in her world, but she’ll take that. “I am not part of this equation, Gale. You can come back after the reaping and —”

He rolls his eyes. “We both know that if I cross that fence I’ll never be able to come back, Catnip.”

She moves to protest, but almost as soon as her mouth opens it clamps shut again, teeth clacking together. He’s right, of course, but it doesn’t matter. “At least you’ll be alive,” she says, though it’s a weak argument and they both know it. Gale shoots her a look that says Barely. He takes her hand and Katniss shivers. She had wished he wouldn’t touch her tonight.

“I know what I’m doing,” Gale says, trying to catch her eye, but she’s staring at the twisting together of their fingers. “I’ll fight. I can do this.”

She tries to shake her head, but she doesn’t think her body is listening to her commands. “The Games will kill you. They’ll drown you or poison you or burn you down. It’s not a matter of fighting. You can’t fight a firestorm, Gale.”

His head tilts. “You did.”

She pulls her hand away from his and pushes herself away from him on the couch, hands against the cushions and her short nails digging into the wearing leather. He’d never make it out of the Games because Gale doesn’t know how to play by anyone’s rules, not even rules to keep him alive. He’s impossible and infuriating and she thinks in his moment she hates him more than she’s ever hated anyone or anything. Her hands won’t stop shaking.

“I didn’t fight. I ran. Do you even know how to run, Gale?” She speaks too loudly before remembering that there are people asleep upstairs. While she struggles to get her tone under control, he doesn’t even flinch. He just watches her. Quieter, like a hiss, she continues, “You’ll fight a war you can’t win because you’re so obsessed with this idea that things can be better. But you know what, Gale? It will never be fucking better. You’ll just be dead.”

He doesn’t say anything or move. He just waits for her to say something or walk out the door. But she doesn’t do either of those things. She shifts forward on her hands and pulls her legs up underneath her, grabs him by the neck and kisses him. It’s messy and with too much teeth, and his name tumbles out of her mouth and it’s too loud, someone will hear her, but neither of them seem to care. The calluses of his hands brush against the bare skin of her spine. She wraps her legs around him, drifts her hands under his shirt and presses their bodies so close together that Katniss finds it difficult to breathe.

Then, her fingers catch the scars along his back. She gasps, her lips now against his jaw, and pulls back. Now, it is her turn to try and catch his eye, and his turn to try and look away. Her finger traces up and down a single scar that stretches down the entire length of his back.

“Katniss,” Gale tries to say but she shushes him, leans her forehead against his shoulder and presses her hand flat against his back so that every inch of her Capitol-designed smooth skin feels the tangible proof of what the Capitol has done. This is what she feels like inside, a long series of interlocking scars from a Capitol whip. That Gale physically carries that which she has to keep under the skin seems appropriate, somehow. His body is physical evidence of defiance. Gale has always been this way.

Then, there’s a small voice from the staircase saying Gale’s name. Posy, Katniss recognizes immediately, though she can’t quite bring herself to lift her head from Gale’s shoulder. She doesn’t think she should have to. To a child, this just looks like two best friends hugging on the living room couch. Posy doesn’t know what it means to be so desperate for a body that you fear what will happen when you move away. Posy is young. Posy does not know what Katniss knows.

“I’ll be up in a minute,” Gale is saying, and then Katniss hears the creak of feet going back up the stairs. When the sound fades, Gale says, “I need to go tuck her back in.” Katniss doesn’t move, though. She doesn’t tighten her grip on him—she’s not quite that petty, not yet—but she also doesn’t loosen it. She just breathes him in until Gale gives a sort of breathy chuckle and unlocks her arms from around him.

“It’s late,” Gale says when he’s finally free of her, his hands holding both of hers against his chest. She stretches out her fingertips to rest on the cotton of his shirt. “You should get some rest too. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“I’m not going to be able to sleep,” she says, but he’s already standing and pulling her up alongside.

“Give it a shot,” he says, and then he kisses her once more. It’s a slower kiss this time, and reminds her of that first kiss in the woods that got them into all this trouble in the first place. Like savoring something. Like he doesn’t know when he’ll get to kiss her again. Like he has to do this at least once. Nothing like her desperate, ravenous ones.

Her eyes stay closed long after he moves away, but she opens them to watch him disappear up the stairs. He pauses before he turns the corner and his head turns just a bit to the left to look at her before continuing to ascend. Katniss stays frozen in the living room until the light in the hallway switches off. Then, she sees herself out.

She finds Haymitch in her kitchen.

It’s late by now, too late. She somehow got lost on her way back. She’s sure it must have been on purpose, but she can’t remember. All she knows is that it took her too long to walk through her front door again, and when she does Haymitch is in her kitchen with a bottle of white liquor. She doesn’t ask what he’s doing here, just takes the bottle from his hands. He doesn’t stop her.

“Your mom called me,” Haymitch offers in explanation, but since Katniss doesn’t care why he’s there she ignores him and pours herself a too-large glass of alcohol. She just wants something to make the shaking stop. She’s so selfish. If she had just loved Peeta, kept playing the Game, not insisted on seeing Gale in the woods, not needed that part of her that had been cut out since she last saw him, none of this would be happening.

She should have known better. She should have known, and she didn’t think, and she let him kiss her in the woods and she let him fall in love with her and now he is going to die.

There’s not much any drug can do for that, but the alcohol does push the world just an inch away from her. It’s not much, but it lets her catch her breath.

“I did this,” she says to her hands, the shaking fingers. That Haymitch is in the room and overhears is no excuse for him to interrupt.

“Funny thing about actions, sweetheart,” he says, fingers circling his glass. “The consequence is the half you don’t get to decide.”

Katniss has another drink. “Can’t you say something helpful,” she says, tripping over her words. She’s not sure the last time she ate, and the alcohol seems to be taking quick effect because of it. “Can’t you be kind for once in your life?”

Haymitch might laugh. If she were sober, she’d throw something at him.

“You don’t need nice right now, princess,” Haymitch says. “You need facts. You need to learn how to win.”

Katniss cackles. It really is a cackle, short and sharp. She turns toward him, leans forward across the table and taps against the wood. “He’s not going to win,” she spits. She doesn’t even sound like herself, though maybe that’s the alcohol changing her perception. Still, to her own ears she sounds venomous. “Don’t you get it? They’re doing this to kill him.”

Haymitch doesn’t say anything to that. Maybe he was hoping she hadn’t figured that out yet; maybe that was his type of kindness. But Katniss wouldn’t miss the mark on a move this blatant. She’s kind of offended he thought she would.

“They’re doing this to get to me,” she says, trying to pour herself another glass and spilling half of it onto the floor. “They want me to suffer. They want to remind me what they can do to the people I—”

She bites her tongue. That’s not a word she’s going to say. Of course she loves Gale, but that word means a lot of things and she doesn’t know how she means it about Gale. Either way, she won’t say it. She won’t give any listening ears the pleasure of that.

“The people in my life,” she fumbles.

“You never struck me as the type to give up on a fight,” he says, and for that she takes a swing at him—a poor swing, all limbs and no power and one that doesn’t even get to his side of the table, but a swing nonetheless.

She sits back down in her chair, hard. “Fuck you,” she says, but Haymitch just stands and pats her shoulder.

“We’ll strategize in the morning,” he says, and Katniss, mostly despite herself, tilts her head back and falls asleep.

Of course, it’s Gale in her nightmares now. Alcohol-swirled terrors of muttations and fire, Gale feverish and inaccessible, calling her name in the dark. Gale dying, Gale dead, Gale with his head torn off and put on a pike. Her dreams are getting more creative. She still wakes up screaming, this time with nail marks carved into the table. She’s been scratching in her sleep, trying to get at him through the wood, and her hands are bleeding. Haymitch isn’t in her kitchen anymore. He must have gone home before she started tearing the table apart.

Prim wades into the room, takes one look at Katniss’ hands and turns without a sound to the cabinet where they keep their household medical supplies. She doesn’t speak as she dabs at and wraps Katniss’ bleeding hands. Katniss tries to say something, anything, to be the big sister she’s always been but she doesn’t know how. Her throat’s dried out; swallowing feels like breathing knives. Prim seems to notice this, and brings a glass of water that Katniss then holds in one shaking, bandaged hand. Katniss heals quickly. Her fingers will clot by morning. The table will be here long after that.

Prim tapes up the bandages on her fingers and brushes Katniss’ hair off her shoulder. This shouldn’t be her job, whispers a voice somewhere in the back of Katniss’ head. But it’s a tiny, breathy voice, and there’s not much it can do to spur her when she’s this tired. These days, she is always tired.

“You’ll teach him how to stay alive,” Prim says, and it almost sounds like a promise. “You know how to do that. You always have.”

She kisses Katniss on the forehead. Before Katniss can protest any number of things—that she can’t do this, that she’s the reason for this, that the Games will kill him because the Quarter Quell is happening this way just to get to him, to get to her, that she can feel his mouth against hers when she closes her eyes and it doesn’t take like oranges anymore, instead of blood in her mouth—Prim is gone. Katniss rests her head on her hands, fingers brushing along the carved up wood. She can’t feel it on her skin; the bandages just skip along the cracks. Before long, she’s asleep again, this time restless but solid until morning.

She wakes to Peeta across the table, a basket of bread and a glass of water between them. Her head pounds like she had a concussion, only worse. She might be sick. That would be a great way to greet her fiancé this morning, throwing up from alcohol mixed with the loss of another man.

“You want some water?” Peeta asks. She thinks he’s angry with her. He has that look he gives Haymitch whenever he acts like Katniss is this morning.

“I want to throw up,” Katniss says, approximately five seconds before she does, in the wastebasket someone—Peeta, probably—has conveniently placed beside her. He disappears with it into the kitchen and comes back with a warm cloth a moment later.

“Feel better?” he asks, crouching in front of her and wiping at the corners of her mouth. She looks toward the ceiling, away from those awful blue eyes of his. He shouldn’t see her like this, and he certainly shouldn’t be kind.

“A little,” she admits, but it’s not much. Peeta stands and hands her the glass of water before running his hand along her hair. Katniss feels flush, and tries to hide her cheeks behind quick sips from the glass.

“You should eat something too,” he says softly, finally moving away from her and nudging the bread basket toward her. “It’ll help.”

The mere notion of eating makes her want to throw up again. Katniss wrinkles her nose, then leans forward to rest her pounding head down on the table.

Somewhere above her, Peeta gives that aggravated sigh of his. She hears his feet on the floor and the next time he speaks his voice comes from right next to her. When she cracks open one protesting eye she sees he has returned to crouching in front of her again.

“I talked to Haymitch,” he says, resting a hand on her knee. Katniss opens her eyes and gives a half-hearted wave of her leg to shoo him, but he doesn’t let go. She doesn’t say anything, either, not even as the silence beats on too long. Peeta likes to talk, so let him talk. She expects some wise word, some tale about how he knows how she feels because he loves her and he thought she could die in the Games and he understands, he understands, but all he says is, “Gale?”

Katniss shivers. Gale indeed. She closes her eyes again, forehead down against the table. Some small, deluded part of her had hoped all of yesterday was some strange fever dream.

Then, Peeta takes his hand off her knee. Katniss, for reasons she doesn’t understand, feels about four degrees colder than she did before. “You need to eat,” he says again, this time from above her.

“I’m not hungry,” she says, and she’s not, because of the hangover and because Gale is going to die.

There’s that irritated noise again, and Peeta says, “You can’t help Gale if you’re hung over, and you can’t help Gale if you’re weak. So eat. And I don’t want Haymitch coming over to tell me you’ve been skipping meals. I know how you get.”

Katniss lifts her head and gives her best scowl. Peeta doesn’t know shit. But she nibbles on a slice of bread anyway, and while she does Peeta tells her about his brother’s class project, the science of pie-making, how his paintings are going, and after a while the sunlight hurts a little less.

For a few days, Katniss wonders if maybe 12 will have its own revolution. It’s not children being commanded to put their lives on the line this time. It’s adults, people who thought they escaped from the Games, who tried not to cry as they walked away from their final reapings but did as soon as they were behind closed doors. Certainly, Gale must be up to something down in the mines. Gale is always up to something.

The Games announcement is on a Tuesday, and she doesn’t see Gale again until Sunday. They sit in her new backyard and eat sandwiches. It’s not the same as the hush of the woods, but it will have to do.

“You could be wrong, you know,” he says, as she nibbles at the corner of her sandwich. “About the Games. They have to know it would be difficult for you to be convincingly in love with Peeta if you’re busy worrying about my life too.”

Gale hasn’t tried to kiss her again, but that doesn’t mean the other night didn’t happen. And while she isn’t in love with him and they both know it, it doesn’t make him any less right. So, Katniss shrugs. “Maybe. Hopefully. Or things have gotten worse and they’re throwing in the towel on that plan.”

He nods beside her, leaning on his elbow so that he sits more angled toward her. It’s still not particularly close—Gale has been careful to keep distance between them, probably to see what she’ll do, much like after their first kiss in the woods—but Katniss can’t help but feel aware of him once he crosses a certain distance threshold. She shuffles over a bit on the grass and hopes he doesn’t see. He does. He turns his head away and closes his eyes in the sun, but Katniss can see it in the slope of his shoulders. It’s not just his face that gives Gale away. She probably doesn’t have to worry about that when the Games start, though. No one would notice but her.

“I’ve been talking to some of the guys in the mines,” he says, picking at the grass. “Trying to see if they’ll start something, but no one wants to risk it.”

Katniss isn’t surprised. Gale forgets that other people aren’t like him, or even like her. “It’s hard to get people to step out of line,” she says. “I mean, how else do you think the Capitol has lasted for so long?”

Gale sighs, pushes himself up to sitting and turns toward her. “The Capitol is going to kill everyone in those mines just like they killed our fathers.” Katniss grimaces. She wishes he wouldn’t talk like that, especially not when people might be able to hear. He lowers his voice and leans in close to her, crossing that threshold again. Katniss lets him for now, just so she can hear what he says.

“Everyone down there now thinks if they just make it through the reaping it will all be okay again,” Gale says. “But that mine is going to collapse again one day and even if it doesn’t? The Capitol doesn’t just kill people, Katniss. It makes us its slaves. Our bodies are the means of their production. I shouldn’t have to convince people to fight; I should have more people than I know what to do with.”

Katniss shivers again, looking around the backyard. It’s warm out and the birds are chirping. There’s no convenient place to install listening devices except for in the ground, which Katniss finds improbable given how bad the weather can get in District 12. So, they might be seen, but they probably aren’t being heard.

“Some men in a mine don’t make an army,” she whispers back, “and you’re definitely not a commander. Stop acting like it before you get yourself killed.”

His lips curl over his teeth. It may be a smile, but it looks more like a snarl. “We’re all dead anyway, Katniss. That’s what you don’t get. We’re just waiting for the Capitol to pull the trigger or for the next mine collapse. I’m tired of waiting for them to make a move.”

She curls her knees into her chest and looks away. “I wish you wouldn’t talk like that. They can kill you very slowly if they want to. It won’t be glorious, Gale. It will just be you in a little room and no one will ever know.”

When she looks back at Gale, his smile has turned sad. His fingers reach out along the grass as though he’d like to touch her, but he knows it’s not his first move to make.

“That’s the way revolutions work, Catnip,” he says, gentle and quiet as the afternoon sun. It can sometimes startle her, the way he will move from fire to calm in an instant. “There are a lot of nameless, faceless people who will die fighting for something. I’m willing to do it.”

Moments like this, Katniss doesn’t know if Gale scares or angers her more. Right now, fear seems to be winning, making her stomach twist. Still, when she speaks, it sounds like anger. “You can be so selfish. You’ll just throw your life away for some doomed hope and you don’t care who gets burned. Do you think the Capitol will just leave the rest of us be?”

He flinches at that. Maybe he’d never considered it, or maybe he just wishes she hadn’t said it. Probably the latter, knowing Gale, but he shrinks away from her either way, too far. Now there’s a good three feet between them, and Katniss wants to beckon him back. She doesn’t.

“I’d do it for the people I love,” Gale says, making surprisingly little attempt to mask the hurt in his voice. “It’s not selfish to want to make sure Posy never has to put her name in that bowl. Or that you get to live your own life without Snow telling you who you can—”

Katniss breathes, short and sharp. It burns her lungs, as though she were running in winter. They don’t talk about Peeta. It’s one of the rules.

“If you go to the Games you can’t talk like this,” Katniss says. It rushes out of her as she looks toward the skyline above the trees. “You’re no help to anyone dead and you going down in a blaze of stupid isn’t going to win any revolutions.”

She looks back to Gale and covers his hand with her own. Her fingers reach over his wrist and she presses down, digging the heel of his palm into the dirt. If the earth is their hallowed ground then he is going to swear on it.

“Promise me,” Katniss says. “When you get out of the Games you can have your revolution but do not die in that arena. I couldn’t—I don’t know how to fight this without you.”

“You know I can’t promise that,” he whispers, and not because he has to.

She shakes her head. “I don’t care. You promise me. And then you try not to be an idiot.”

Gale sighs. “Fine,” he says, and then crosses the distance barrier completely to kiss her on the cheek. “I promise.”

“Good,” she says, standing and brushing invisible dirt off her hands. “Let’s get to work.”

It may be presumptuous to start training Gale early, but they do. All of them: Katniss, Haymitch, Peeta, even Prim. Katniss hones his already adept fighting skills; Haymitch and Peeta teach him the politics, which Gale clearly can’t stand; and Prim teaches him herbs and flowers to heal and hurt. Katniss catches up with Peeta during one of these herbology sessions while he sits in her living room and draws a vase in his sketchbook.

“Thanks for helping with this,” she says, though she’s barely spoken to Peeta since he brought her the breadbasket and it’s borderline cruel to be speaking to him now.

But Peeta is kind, Peeta is gentle, Peeta is the inverse of the inferno in her and says, “I would never sit this out. I want him to win. For you.”

Katniss winces. She can never be everything to everyone and yet she wants to be. She wants Peeta to guard her from the nightmares he’s lived through and Gale to see through to her bones when she’s awake. She wants to keep the country at peace and spark a revolution to bring tyranny to the ground. She wants to keep Prim safe from the world and she wants Prim to make sure Gale survives these godforsaken games. She wants to run, she wants to stay, she wants to cry, she wants to fight, she wants to sleep.

“I’m sorry,” she says, and wants to say something else, like I wish things were different which is cruel to Gale or I care about you too which is cruel to Peeta or I don’t know how I feel about him either which remains true but becomes increasingly stale these days, even to her. So, sorry will have to do.

Peeta closes the sketchbook and looks at her with those open blue eyes of his, eyes she does miss. “I’m sorry too.”

Then, like a blessing, Prim and Gale move from the kitchen back into the living room, disrupting the conversation Katniss is glad never to have started. Gale looks between them for a couple seconds, and lingers on the guilty slope of Katniss’ shoulders. Jealousy is a common color on him, though not his best.

“Gale has trouble with berries,” Prim says, poking him in the ribcage. Gale laughs and ruffles her hair a bit. Prim isn’t a child anymore, not since the Games, but she’s nearly as much Gale’s sister as Katniss’. Besides, Gale has always been affectionate with his actual siblings, and that tends to carry over to Prim. Katniss has been particularly grateful for this lately, when she’s sometimes too tired to do all the proper sister things she’d like to do.

“Not all of us can be weird plant geniuses like you,” Gale says, shrugging on his coat. It’s the end of the session for the day, and he clearly wants to be out of the way of whatever conversation he wasn’t interrupting with her and Peeta. Katniss shifts on the couch for a moment, then stands to walk him to the door. Well, more like follow him. He’s already halfway there, but she trots to catch up and reaches around him to open the door awkwardly, so the doorknob slams into his hip and she sort of trips into his elbow.

“Graceful,” he says, not laughing. Katniss isn’t apologizing for this one; she’s done enough of that today. Instead, she just rolls her eyes. That’s the best she can muster and, frankly, the choice has been made. Gale can pull it together on his own time.

“Just make it to the reaping in one piece and don’t beat anyone up if you get called,” she says.

Gale does chuckle at that, though. “Don’t worry, I got the politics down. Peeta’s a good teacher. And, unfortunately, pretty cool.”

She smiles. “It is pretty unfortunate. If he hadn’t turned out super decent, I probably would have just left him in the Games and we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

Gale shakes his head. “It’s annoying when people are good.”

“Very true. They should just be assholes all the time.”

“Like you and me,” he says, gesturing between them.

“Exactly,” she says, laughing again. “It would really be better for everyone.”

“The truly decent thing to do,” he says, and then waves behind her toward the living room and strolls out the door.

Gale does make it to the reaping. He wears his best collared shirt, which still isn’t much. She stands on stage, stares at him, and clings to some small, desperate part of her that thinks these Games will at the very least be honest. That the odds may not be in his favor but at least they are true odds, not hundreds of papers all reading Gale’s name. And maybe they are. She’ll never know. But Effie still pulls his name out of the bowl and Katniss takes in one sharp, quiet inhale only Peeta can hear. She doesn’t flinch. Peeta takes her hand and it makes sense for the cameras; Gale is, after all, her cousin.

Gale doesn’t look at her as he climbs to the stage. He does nod at Peeta. Then, Gale turns to the cameras and raises one solemn, open hand to the sky.

part two


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November 2014

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