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The Softest Bullet Ever Shot (2/2)
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)". 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.

part one

She actually makes it through most of the day pretty well. She sits calmly with Peeta and Haymitch while Gale and a female tribute—Marcia, a merchant girl who hasn’t stopped alternating between screaming and crying—say their goodbyes. They get to the train and she makes it through dinner and dessert. Then, Gale leaves to go god knows where and when she goes to look for him she can’t find him. She wanders up and down the train, and Peeta doesn’t say a word when she power walks past his open door.

By the time she Gale him in the very first car of the train, she has already started to unspool into imagining her life like this: looking for Gale and not finding him anywhere. Turns out she isn’t doing as well as she thought. The second she sees him, she bursts into tears.

“What’s wrong?” he says, climbing to his feet to pull her into a hug. “Did something happen?”

“I couldn’t find you, asshole,” she says. Gale pulls back to look at her and promptly starts cracking up. She hits him on the arm with as much strength as she can muster, which, since she actually eats these days, is pretty solid.

“Sorry,” he says, taking a step back and rubbing his arm where she hit him. “What did you think I did, leaped off a high speed train?”

She wipes at her nose, but then she is laughing with him. “I don’t know. It’s been a stressful day.”

He raises his eyebrows. “Really?”

That hushes both of them. The defrosting fields of Panem whiz by around them as Gale turns to sit on the couch by the window. She follows, of course, curling her knees against her chest. She seems to remember doing this on her first train ride to the Games too.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers, staring out the window. Better to look at the earth than at him. Better to look anywhere than at him.

Gale has her hand. It takes her a moment to realize he touched her, and when she does she stares at their hands, the same coloring, the similar patterns of calluses across the flesh. That’s the way things have always been with Gale. Another half. She can see it, anyone can; it's in the skin.

“You didn’t do this,” he says, ducking his head to look her in the eye and not flinching. It makes her sick, seeing him be the brave one while she wants to run to open windows and pray she won’t vomit.

She shakes her head. “I did. I kissed you and I did this.”

He might laugh. “I kissed you if you’ll remember. That you kissed me back doesn’t make it your responsibility.”

“I should have known better,” she insists. “People could have been watching. People were. And now we’re here.”

The kiss wasn’t the only problem either. Going to meet with him in the first place was the problem, roused suspicions, and she did that. The kiss he did. She kissed him back, she will admit to that, but he kissed her first. But, truth be told, it’s so goddamn fitting that they’d bring the wrath of the world down on their own heads, each playing their own part.

She looks toward the window. She’s trying to imagine a world without Gale in it and there she goes again, feeling sick. Her head ducks between her knees and he rubs small circles on her back. She wants to scream at him, to tell him to stop being so fucking nice to her, that she should be comforting him and this is bullshit, Gale, but she doesn’t. She’ll take whatever she can have of him now.

“Catnip,” Gale says, nudging her shoulder until she reluctantly sits back up again. He leans in close to her like imparting a secret, and Katniss almost jumps. Her eyes don’t look like this, she doesn’t think. Same color, sure, but none of this, none of that fire beneath. She can turn away from her own reflection, and others can lean from her gaze, but she doesn’t think she can look away from Gale. Not when he’s looking at her like this, one hand on her knee, the other on her shoulder, his lips this close to hers.

Gale’s mouth lifts. Maybe she was staring; she’s done it before. But then he grows somber.

“Listen to me,” he says. “The Capitol works by convincing us we’re responsible for the violence they enact against us. Don’t believe them. You didn’t do this. They did.”

She looks at him. He has that look about him again, like he has no doubts about the truth he speaks. He seems to have had this look even more than usual since the whipping, and an air of conviction she too understands. It’s about the true sort of knowledge that you can feel down to your bones, something even deeper than faith or fact. Katniss knows how that feels. It’s the way she feels about Gale.

Her chin lifts, then her shoulders, then her spine. He’s right, she realizes, or at least for now believes. She doesn’t know how long this reprieve of guilt will last, but for now she clears her head. She didn’t do this. Snow did. And one day Snow will pay for that. She’ll see to it.

“They did,” she repeats, holding his gaze. “They did.”

Gale nods just once. “They did. And they’ll pay for that one day. One day soon.”

The Capitol puts Marcia and Gale up in a large suite like the one she and Peeta were in last year. Snow gives her and Peeta a room of their own, with one queen sized bed covered in rose petals. Peeta is quick to brush them onto the floor. She steps on them on her way to sit down and stare out the window to the Capitol horizon.

“They’re doing this to distract you,” Peeta says from behind her. “So you’ll be so caught up in the Games that you won’t cause trouble. They’re doing this so you fall apart.”

To a certain extent, it is working. There are scratches all over her elbows and knees these days. She doesn’t decide to pull at her skin it just happens, happens in sleep, happens in meals, happens anytime she’s not thinking don’t scratch. But in other ways, it’s not working at all. Snow may have realized that he could get to her through Gale, realized it before the Victory Tour and capitalized on it ever since. What he didn’t account for, though, was that going anywhere near Gale would turn her into the rebel Snow feared. He miscalculated, and she has chosen Gale and the rebellion after all.

“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.

“Even if it kills you?”

Even then, she does not say, but she still sleeps in Peeta’s arms that night.

In many ways, the Games are the same each year. Marcia cries; Gale throws a knife against the wall. Effie asks what they teach in those Seam schools and Katniss says, “Not much.” Katniss teaches Marcia how to throw a punch and tries not to gauge how long she will last in there. It’s not that Katniss wants to be cruel. It’s that, well, in some ways cruel comes naturally, and in the rest of her lives a total prioritization of Gale. A couple times, she hears Marcia crying to Peeta about how Katniss only cares about Gale, and she is not wrong. But Katniss was not born to be just.

The show with Peeta does not stop. She has to hold his hand and smile at the people of the Capitol, chin raised high. They meet the other Victors, almost all tired and ragged things, and Peeta does nearly all the talking. “She’s quiet, isn’t she,” says the woman from District 7—Johanna, was it—before turning back to talk to Peeta. Maybe she flirts. Maybe Katniss cares. Peeta holds her hand under the table where no one else can see, and she doesn’t mind at all. Truth be told, she doesn’t know how she would do this without him. Peeta makes sure she eats, makes sure she sleeps, doesn’t question her moods or the broken mirror in the bathroom. She even gets to return the favor sometimes, when the nightmare stir him awake, and she is there, ready to hush him back to sleep. The Games have torn at him once already; she does what she can to make sure they never hurt him again.

A few people stop her to say how deeply sorry they are for the way the Games keep touching her family, which makes her want to punch them, but they always follow with how handsome and very, very tall her cousin is, which puts her back on the party line. Beauty and strength get sponsors, and Gale has plenty of both.

“Thank you for saying that,” she says with just a hint of sweetness. “I just hope the citizens of the Capitol are as generous with him as they have always been with me.” Beside her, Peeta seems pleased.

The next morning, they all eat breakfast together. Haymitch appears slightly more sober than usual. He is friends with the other Victors. Being here must make him a different, less intoxicated kind of miserable.

“Which skill are you showing?” Haymitch asks with a mouthful of eggs benedict, gesturing at a nearby Avox for another pour of scotch. Katniss finds she barely shrugs at this anymore.

Marcia has barely touched food since they left District 12. On the one hand, Katniss wants to tell her to keep her strength up, but on the other it’s probably the first time she’s gone hungry, and that’s as good a training for the Games as any other. “I think I’ll do shadowboxing,” Marcia says. “It’s a bit like dancing, and I’ve always been good at that.”

Haymitch nods. This makes sense to Katniss too, though Marcia’s punches are weak. Peeta has been teaching strength drills. It will do.

“What about you?” Haymitch asks Gale, pointing an egg-tipped fork in his direction.

Gale shrugs, spreading a thin layer of jam over toast. He can’t eat large meals; his body is too used to starving. “I was considering just shooting arrows into the gallery. Worked out so well for Katniss.”

She rolls her eyes as everyone turns to look at her. It may have only been a few days, but they’ve already caught on that if they have any chance of getting Gale to listen to them, they have to go through her. And, frankly, even that doesn’t always work. Hence the knife-throwing incident.

“You could pretend to take this seriously,” she says.

Gale smiles—no, that snarl again, his lips pulled away from his teeth like a wolf. “I am deadly serious. I don’t give a shit about getting these people to like me. I should just burn this place to the ground.”

“And how do you propose to do that?” she asks, putting her fork down. Well, more like throwing it against the table. “You going to get sponsors to send you explosives with your deep charm and wit?”

He shrugs. “You blew up the Cornucopia. I’ll blow up something else.”

She scoffs. Somehow the fork has made it back into her hand, stabbing straight into the table. Her grip around it is so tight her nails start to dig into her palm. “I didn’t realize you were such a student of the last Games, Gale.”

“Yeah, well, someone important to me was in them,” he says, standing with such force the chair beneath him goes flying backward. “And I cannot believe that you of all people are telling me to just play by the rules.”

“I’m trying to keep you alive,” she shouts back, also standing now, vaguely aware of the listening ears in the walls and definitely not giving a shit.

“I don’t need you to keep me alive, Katniss! I can fend for myself.”

Then, somehow, Haymitch is standing next to her. “Actually,” he says, in a shockingly even tone based on what’s going on at the table, “you can’t. And these two figured that out last year, and it’s best you do too.”

If Haymitch thought logic would work here, though, he certainly doesn’t know Gale, who simply blinks at him and says, “Fuck you too. You’re as much a part of this bullshit system as anyone else here.”

Down the table, even the Avox might gasp. Peeta is on his feet now too. Marcia is crying again, but Marcia’s always crying.

“Gale,” Katniss hisses, but Haymitch raises a hand to silence her, never taking his eyes off Gale.

“I’m going to make something clear to you, kid,” Haymitch says, voice low. “You don’t know me, or how I got to this table. But I know all about you. You’re poor and you’re starving and you’re pissed as hell—you’re a typical Seam story. Just like Katniss. And I’m sure the details are all very tragic. I don’t care. I don’t care about your dead daddy; I don’t care about your kid sister. I care about getting you back to her so she doesn’t lose anyone else. That okay with you?”

Something flickers in Gale—maybe only Katniss sees it, since it waves across his face like a cloud. “Whatever,” is all he says, and then turns on his heels and walks out of the room. The door does not slam.

Katniss watches the hallway, not knowing what she waits for. Out of the corner of her eye she sees Haymitch turn his shoulders toward her.

“That work?” he asks. Katniss nods, a tired, miniscule fleck of a motion. That doesn’t mean she knows what happens next. Haymitch sits back down to the rest of his breakfast. Katniss spends the next ten minutes cutting her fruit into smaller and smaller bits.

No one says anything until Peeta interrupts her pineapple dissection. She doesn’t even like pineapple; it’s too tart for her. It’s just easy to saw apart.

“Maybe you should spend the afternoon meeting people,” he says. “The interview is tomorrow, and I can work on their pieces. You can do some sponsor work with Haymitch while they do their skill sets.”

Katniss scowls. She hates talking, and that’s what Peeta is best at. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”

Haymitch reaches across her for the fruit bowl. Katniss finds herself without any sacrifices to the breakfast Gods and Haymitch looks a little disappointed in her for wasting all that fruit. Katniss scoops some bits of pineapple into her mouth.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Haymitch says. “The more people we know now, the more sponsors we can get during the Games. You’re a pretty major asset to the team that way.”

Katniss vaguely considers turning throwing a knife at his head into an annual tradition. “I’m not anything. The Girl on Fire, sure. Katniss Everdeen not so much.”

Haymitch shrugs. “Tough shit, sweetheart. Perception is reality. Didn’t I tell you that?”

Then, there’s Gale from the hallway: “They’re right, Katniss.”

Nobody says anything until he’s back at the table, easing himself back into his chair by the toast. He nods toward the bowl of eggs, and Marcia hands them to him. He drops one onto his plate and looks over at Haymitch as he cracks the shell.

“I’m pretty good with a spear,” he says, and Haymitch presses his lips together, pondering this.

Haymitch puts his silverware down. “Pretty good will do.”

Gale gets an eight, alliances with Districts 7 and 11, and some begrudging compliments on his snares from 4 that he doesn’t shut up about all evening. Marcia gets a five. Peeta reminds her the tests aren’t everything—Johanna Mason, in fact, got a four in her skills presentation, and now look where she is. Marcia looks unconvinced and goes to bed early. She is starting to look like the Tributes Katniss has seen on television before, the ones who jump before the countdown ends just to finish things.

The rest of the evening, the television walks the rest of them through the biographies of the tributes. The Careers are all lawyers, politicians, business people—the second tiers who never got the glory of volunteering in their youth. She finds them uninteresting. The outer Districts sting, though. They all thought they escaped. They were never nostalgic. They never looked back. Everyone is very quiet while they interview the families of those reaped. Some Tributes have husbands, wives, even children.

“It’s not your fault,” Gale says, which makes her wonder for a moment if she said anything out loud. Probably not. For however good she is at reading Gale, he is even better at reading her. It was probably written all over her face.

She tilts her head toward him. Maybe Gale will win these Games after all. She looks at those grey eyes of his and can be moved toward all sorts of things. That will get him very far if he uses it well. “It’s not my fault,” she echoes.

“Gale Hawthorne!” announces the television, pulling her gaze back to the screen. “What is the story behind this dreamboat?”

Gale’s scowl threatens to dislocate his jaw. Beside her, Peeta folds his arms. Haymitch just laughs.

“Such a tragic story,” says some Capitol announcer Katniss doesn’t recognize, a woman with teal skin and bubblegum pink hair. “Katniss Everdeen’s dear, beloved cousin. The odds are not with that family, Caesar.”

“No,” Caesar says with that familiar faux-sorrow voice of his, “they most certainly are not. But look at what talent District 12 brings with us once more! What build, what strength—I for one cannot wait to see what he brings to the interview tomorrow.”

“As long as he doesn’t bring clothes!” yammers the bubblegum woman. Katniss, in a truly astounding display of strength, does not throw the nearest heavy object through the screen. Peeta shuts the television off instead.

“These people are sick,” she says, but Gale stays silent. He just stares at the empty screen for a long while before he says, “Could you guys give us the room?”

Beside her, Peeta shifts to standing without a word. Haymitch looks like he’d like to say something—she can’t imagine what, but he’s got a look about him she doesn’t trust—but Peeta is already pulling him out the door by the elbow. When Peeta looks back at her before closing the door, it’s with a glance that takes all the breath out of her and makes her want to cry, somehow. She doesn’t even know why.

The door clicks shut. Then, it’s just her and Gale in a silence that feels like helium in this balloon of a room. He doesn’t say anything, and while waiting Katniss presses her feet into the floor. She starts with her toes and rolls back to her heels and starts over again.

“I’m sorry about by the lake,” he says. It tumbles out of his mouth so quickly that she freezes mid-foot roll with her toes grinding into the carpet and her heels up in the air. She doesn’t even know what he’s talking about until he continues on. “For telling you I—loved you and for getting so upset when you didn’t say it back. That was stupid and—and wrong. I just wanted to say that. In case.”

The last few weeks have been frightening. But there is nothing more terrifying to Katniss than Gale sitting across from her and apologizing for mistakes months old. Gale doesn’t apologize. Well, he does, but he never uses the word. Katniss has learned to find sorry in other words, in laughs and touches and the curve of his mouth. She’s fine with it. That’s the way Gale works. Katniss has always taken Gale as he is.

It takes her a moment to draw her open jaw shut again. “I’m not sorry you told me. You shouldn’t be either.”

He breathes in, short and surprised. She watches the rise and fall of his chest, the slight widening of his eyes. “Oh?” he asks. Katniss hears an array of questions he might be asking in that one sound, but she’s not going to answer any of them.

“But you were an asshole otherwise,” she continues, sitting back on the couch and hoping she can play it off well enough. “So I will take that apology, thank you.”

He smirks. “It’s a rare gift from me to you.”

She gives a slight bow of the head, her hand pressed above her heart. “And I will cherish it always. But please—” and this she says with total sincerity, severe as anything she has ever said “—don’t talk about this like you’re going to—”

Gale raises his eyebrows. “Die?”

Katniss shakes out her hands to stave off the shiver she feels there. She thinks she hears the joint in her wrist pop.

“When I was going to the last Games,” she asks, pressing her still tingling palms against her knees, “did you really think I was going to make it out or were you just trying to make me feel better?”

He might laugh. “I knew you were going to make it out.”

She frowns. “And how did you know that?” Truth be told, there’s some strange part of her that hopes there’s a trick to it. That Gale understands something she doesn’t, because Gale has that ability to see into the heart of things, to understand what she just can’t. And if he has this magical gift, maybe she can take it, maybe she can learn it, maybe she can keep him safe.

But Gale only shrugs. “I didn’t know what to do if you didn’t.”

A part of Katniss shudders and shrinks. The idea was preposterous anyway. But these are desperate times, and desperate people hope for desperate things. “That’s not a reason,” she says, scuffing her heels against the floor.

“I know,” he says, and at this he raises a hand to her cheek. He still feels like a fever. Katniss closes her eyes and remembers what it feels like to be made of fire. “But it was all I had.”

Katniss’ eyes stay closed. “And what do I have?”

And there are a thousand bullshit platitudes, a hundred uneven truths to make her feel better, a million lies. But Gale just kisses her, and all she has is a hope he doesn’t stop.

As it turns out, Gale is brilliant in the interview. Nothing like her last year, with her shifting fingers and shaky sentences. He doesn’t smile much—Peeta is good, but he’s not a miracle worker—but he sits up straight and speaks with the ferocity normally reserved only for the woods, for her, and the Capitol eats up every word. And he’s not bad to look at. That certainly does help.

“The diamond look was just inspired,” Caesar is saying. Days earlier, Cinna had dressed the Tributes from 12 in diamonds and reflective coating so bright a couple people claim to have gone temporarily blind. But Capitol people love things like that, and from then on she saw women weaving diamonds into their bright green hair. “What was the thinking behind it?”

Gale thinks about this for a moment. “Well, in 12 we mine coal. There’s a lot of pressure with that—it’s not just the six days a week we work underground, it’s the fact that at any time the mine could collapse and”—here, he snaps his fingers—“that’d be it. My father died that way. My—my cousin, Katniss, her father died there too.”

There’s a coo from the audience at that. So much tragedy in the Everdeen/Hawthorne clan. It never seems to leave them.

“But, as you know, Caesar,” Gale continues on, something rising like anger in his voice. She probably hears it before anyone else does, but it is certainly there. “You put pressure on coal, it turns to diamonds. You can’t break it. You can’t destroy it. And it might be beautiful, but it will cut through any substance. It will go straight through to your bones.”

Katniss shivers. The rest of the audience holds their breath. Beside her, Peeta nods just once.

“Is that what you plan to do in the Games, Gale?” Caesar asks after a pause that goes on far too long. “Cut through to the bone?”

Gale looks toward the audience and though she knows he can’t see her with the lights on him she swears, she swears he looks her straight in the eye. “I plan to survive.”

It is then officially the night before the Games. She won’t stop pacing. Gale glares at the television, memorizing each of the Tributes. Peeta sits with Marcia in the living room telling stupid stories, the ones Katniss has always found soothing and finds soothing still. Last night, when she returned to their bed at three in the morning, shaking and sobbing the second she left Gale’s side, Peeta told her stories until the sun rose.

Tonight, when it grows late, Peeta leaves to prepare for their trip to the Games Headquarters. He doesn’t ask if she’s going to join him; she will follow him later. Marcia vanishes to her bedroom not long after. She doesn’t like being with Katniss unless Peeta is around, and Katniss doesn’t blame her. Haymitch is god knows where. And so by 8 PM she and Gale are left alone with the television muted, shades of blue and green flickering across their skin in the dark.

The television gives them a gracious break from Games coverage to show them an advertisement for glamping equipment—apparently glamour plus camping, with fancy tents outfitted with refrigerators and jacuzzis. She hates these people. All the same, she can practically taste the smell of the woods on screen.

“Do you think we could be happy together?” she asks as the magenta-colored family on screen laughs at something up a tree. The question seems like a stupid one as soon as she says it. They are happy together. They always have been, even with the bumps along the road.

“You know that’s a ridiculous question, right?” he asks immediately.

She laughs, soft and quiet. “We do okay.”

“Katniss,” he says, turning to her on the couch and finally turning the television off so she can only see him in the light of the Capitol outside, “you only smile in the woods—the real ones, not this bullshit camera smile you’ve almost perfected. And I’m not saying that it’s me and the woods, but I do tend to be there.”

She rolls her eyes and nudges her shoulder into his. “Don’t let it go to your head.”

Then, he moves his thumb to rest at the corner of her mouth. Katniss closes her eyes and lets herself feel it, the roughness of his skin, the gentleness of his touch, whatever slivers of happiness there still are in the world, just for a moment. “Wouldn’t dream of it,” he says.

Katniss waits for him to kiss her. There’s something terrified in her that keeps her from kissing him first, something that is clawing its way up her throat and that makes her want to cry more than she’s ever cried in her life. She doesn’t even know what it is. But he does kiss her, and she cries anyway, cries every second his mouth is on her skin. When he moves away from her just an inch to brush the tears off her face, only then can she pull that small, shaking sound out from somewhere deep inside her: “I love you.”

Gale gives an almost imperceptible shake of his head. If anyone else were around, even in the light, they probably wouldn’t even notice. But she knows everything about this man, down to the patterns on his palms. She notices.

“Don’t tell me things just because you think I’m going to die,” he says with a small smile. “I’ll hold you to that later.”

Katniss might laugh. “As long as there’s a later to hold me to,” she says, and reaches behind her to turn on the light. She wants to see him. She doesn’t want to hide anymore. When she settles on the couch again, he takes both of her hands.

“I love you,” he says. He doesn’t flinch when he says it; this comes easily to him. She envies that. “And I don’t need you to say it back. Great if you do, really, I’ve wanted — I wanted to hear that from you for a long time. But I don’t need it. It took me a bit to figure that out, but I don’t need it.”

She pauses. “What if I need you to hear it?” She does. She means it too, in whatever fashion she can offer. Katniss doesn’t love the way other people do, she’s come to realize. That’s okay with her. She works with what she’s got, which is the way of the Seam anyway. Whatever love means for her, that’s how she feels about Gale. This is the furthest into another person that her heart can go. That’s how she loves him. That’s what she means. However she can.

Then, he looks at her. Looks at her like she’s never seen him look at anything before. It startles her, this brand new thing about him borne of a belief in what she confessed. She thought she knew everything there was to know about this man, and, yet, here they are with something entirely new. Something of him she has yet to learn. Something she built.

He kisses the corner of her mouth. It feels like spring in the woods, a butterfly flutter against her cheek, the day she learned that if you touch a monarch’s wings they will cease to fly. All that beauty and kindness and power and pain at once.

“It’s nice to hear,” he says.

And then there’s a knock at the door. It’s Peeta with a rueful reminder that they have to go. Gale does not say a word. It is by the grace of a God she has never believed in that she does not simply grab onto his limbs and swear vengeance. Instead, Katniss stands up straight. She brushes her fingertips across jaw and then his lips. When she goes to the door, she does not look back. She does not scream.

Her fingers twitch with each tick of the countdown clock. To her credit, she does not cry or otherwise dissolve into the hysterics she feels bubbling inside of her. Other than her hands, she stays perfectly still. The only person who feels her flinch is Peeta, and even that only because she holds his hand. Not for any audience—no one in this room needs to be convinced of their romance. Just because she can. Just so she doesn’t scream.

“I’m sorry about your cousin,” Finnick O’Dair says, and Katniss almost believes him. Truth be told, she barely hears him at all. The monitor in the Games Headquarters is the largest she’s ever seen, perhaps even larger than the one in the square in 12 for a fraction of the people. All she sees is the split-second shots of the Tributes. When the camera pans to Gale, she nearly digs her nails into Peeta’s soft skin.

“Thank you,” Peeta says. Then, the opening canon booms. Finnick closes his eyes, and Katniss too remembers it: the first ten seconds in which they did not die.

Gale runs from the Cornucopia. Eight Tributes die in the first fifteen minutes. The arena is in the tropics this year, and there is some comfort in this. Though this is hardly like their woods, Gale knows how to live amongst the trees. Finnick moves on to a different part of the room to sit next to Haymitch, where he takes sips of tea and leans in close to speak. Katniss has to move fast.

“I need to talk to you and Haymitch,” she whispers in Peeta’s ear. “On the roof.”

Peeta frowns. “About what?”

Katniss just shakes her head, then ticks her eyes to the ceiling. For one long moment, she turns back to the screen. Gale’s not even there. They’re showing the Careers, reveling in their brief victory in the Cornucopia. She would like to see him, but it’s probably better she doesn’t. That means nothing interesting is happening with him. That means he’s alive.

“Meet me in five minutes,” she whispers to Peeta, and then, louder, “I’m sorry, sweetheart, but I need some air.”

She does not ask for permission. She slips out the side door and up and up and up the stairs to the roof. In the distance, she can make out the grey-domed roof of the arena. Despite that, it’s a surprisingly sweet morning, just a bit cool and smells of pine. The sun is a beautiful shade of off-white. She wants to stare at it until she goes blind.

“What’s up?” eventually Peeta asks from behind her. When she spins around, she sees Haymitch as well.

“And make it fast,” Haymitch says, looking behind him. “Three Victors from the same district disappearing at once doesn’t go unnoticed, especially you two.”

Katniss rolls her eyes. She is tired of being noticeable. But, fine—if she has set this rebellion in motion then she will make herself seen. Gale was right about that. Gale was right about all of it, for whatever good it’s doing him now. But, no matter. She will stoke the rebellion until she has burned every inch of this godforsaken city to the ground.

“We need to get him out,” she says, and it’s in a voice she’s never heard before, something loud and uneven, full of the kind of anger that would make grown men shirk before her. “The Districts are in rebellion; Snow is at his weakest point. We need to act now. And we need to get Gale.”

Gale’s voice never sounds like this in his rants against the Capitol. But Katniss feels like something is going to claw its way up her throat and burst, and where she stands there will no longer be just a girl. There will be an inferno.

She expects Peeta to try and calm her. She expects Haymitch to scoff. But they don’t do either of those things, and they don’t shy away from her rage either. Instead, Haymitch kind of shrugs. It’s the only moment all day that shakes Katniss out of the war path, just because she’s so startled by the nonchalance of it. She blinks at them both.

“You go ahead and tell her,” Haymitch says. “I’ll go update Finnick.”

“Update Finnick on what?” Katniss says. She doesn’t want anyone updating Finnick on anything. She doesn’t trust anyone else. But Haymitch is halfway to the door back into the building, and he just raises his hand and waves.

She turns back to Peeta, then. “Update Finnick on what?”

He scuffs his toe against the granite. “That you’re in on the plan,” he says, and then takes a seat on the ground. He pats the ground next to him for her to sit.

Katniss doesn’t move. She just stares at him. “What plan? And when were you going to tell me about it?”

“Today,” Peeta says, squinting in the sunlight as he looks at her. “Snow watches everything you do; we weren’t going to bring you in until it was happening.”

“Until what was happening?” she asks, crossing her arms.

Peeta might actually roll his eyes. If it were anyone else, she’d punch them and walk away. “That’s the part I have to update you on. So, take a seat.”

She still doesn’t move to sit next to him, but her arms do fall back to her side. When she speaks, she’s quieter than she was before. “If you were going to have a plan to get Gale out, you should have told me immediately. He’s my—” She pauses, deciding between her options: best friend, boyfriend, partner. But Katniss doesn’t have have an end to that sentence, or even a word to describe him. Gale is just hers.

He turns his gaze to the ground. Maybe the sun is too hard to look at, or maybe it’s her. “That’s why we didn’t tell you. But since you’ve caught up to us, why don’t you sit down.”

She finally does so, reluctantly, with her eyes still on the arena. Peeta speaks, and she stays still, stays silent, watches the dome in the distance as he explains that District 13 lives, that Plutarch is a member of the resistance, that they can all be free.

When he finishes, he waits for Katniss to speak. Under the sun, she closes her eyes. She thinks of Gale, trapped in the arena where she once was. Right now, he is probably up some tree, behind a stone, fighting for his life and thinking of her. That’s what she did in her Games, anyway. And when she survived, the Capitol scrubbed off all the scars they could see and left her wilted with the ones they couldn’t. She won’t say that Gale healed her; there are some things that stay broken for a very long time. She can say, though, that Gale welded the metal scraps of her into a structure again. He shared a fire with her and it built her back up. That he is now under the crushing hand of the Capitol that ruined her is, on its own, enough for her to wage a war.

Katniss opens her eyes. They have been on the roof too long; anything could have happened in the arena and she needs to get back to see. Katniss climbs to her feet, and reaches down a hand to pull Peeta up beside her. It’s only when he looks at her that she remembers she still has to say something, even though she thought it was obvious. She might actually smile when she speaks.

“I’m ready.”
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November 2014

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