The Hunger Games played in the corner of the main room on the Hawthorne family's battered old television. The picture sometimes dissolved into static and more often than not the color wasn't quite right, turning the tributes pink or green, but it worked well enough for them to hear and see the Capitol broadcast. Gale's mother was the only one actually watching, not because she enjoyed it – no one Gale knew did – but because she felt sorry for the girl from District 7, the one who had cried so desperately at the beginning of the Games.
The music issuing from the crackly speakers ramped up the tension as that same girl waited, crouched inside a thicket of some sort, when Gale's father said, "What a load of shit." The girl sprang from the bushes with a shout, swinging an axe over her head.
"Jack! The children!" Gale's mother looked right at Gale as she said it.
"My language is a lot less damaging to them than this." His father pointed at the television where the delicate-looking sixteen-year-old was covered in bright pink blood, the boy from District 1 dead at her feet. "Turn that shit off."
"Jack, please," Hazelle Hawthorne pleaded, "it's forbidden." Her voice dropped off at the end and Gale saw real fear in her eyes.
"Forbidden," Jack snorts. "The Capitol is nothing but a bunch of bullies. If we all decided to stop watching their damn Games, maybe they'd stop forcing them on our children." There was a scream on the television and Gale's youngest brother, Vick, started to cry. Jack Hawthorne surged up from his chair, stalked over to the corner of the room, and switched off the television; suddenly the only light in the room came from the oil lamp on the dining room table, where Gale and Rory did their homework, the only sound was their mother trying to calm a whimpering Vick.
The shock of the explosion in the mines was felt miles away, both in the vibration of the earth and in the rolling cloud of smoke and coal dust that lingered in the air for days afterward. The explosion caused the biggest collapse since the one that killed thirty-three miners two years before the first Quarter Quell – Gale's class had just read about that in district history the week before.
It was only a few minutes after the tremors knocked President Snow's portrait off the classroom wall that the bells signalling town-wide emergencies began to ring, loud and persistent, and the teachers herded the children from the school. The younger ones stayed behind with the older teachers while the older children, like Gale, ran to the mines with the rest to help in any way they could.
It was a gray January day. The temperature had been dropping since morning, and fat white snowflakes began to fall before they reached the mines, mixing with dull gray ash and black coal dust. Gale's eyes watered so much from the cold and dust he almost missed his mother at the mine's entrance, leading a coughing miner over to where Mrs. Everdeen was setting up a first-aid station in the meager shelter of a stand of pines.
That's when it hit him like a punch to the gut that his father was down in the mines. He ran to his mother, skidding to a stop in the slushy gray snow that was just starting to stick. "Dad?" The fear in her eyes when she shook her head and the realization that the miner she helped wasn't his father cut through him worse than the icy wind that chose that moment to pick up and send the ash and snow swirling.
"Still down below," she said. "I know you need to help, Gale." She cupped Gale's cheek for a moment. "Just be careful."
The rest of the day blurred together. He acted as a runner, taking messages or buckets sloshing with water or in need of refilling for those doing their best to keep the threat of fire in the mines at bay. Once he even helped when they just needed hands to lift a beam that fell near the entrance during a secondary collapse. Even a few of the Peacekeepers lent a hand until Head Peacekeeper Cray put a stop to it, saying it was a district matter and it wasn't their job to interfere. He didn't say outright that the miners still missing weren't worth saving, that Gale's father wasn't worth saving, but the implication was there all the same, and Gale hated him for it.
At first it was all shouting orders and not much else, but as time wore on and fewer miners came up from the broken seam, talk turned to speculation, to fear and anger. The talk didn't stop when Gale took a pail of water and a soup ladle around to men and women tired and thirsty from battling to save their friends while slogging through snow and slush. He didn't start listening until he heard the name Hawthorne mentioned along with a few others, quickly followed by words like "murder" and "punishment" and "sedition." Once the men realized his father was one of the ones they talked about, one of the ones still missing, they lowered their voices.
Later that night, Gale asked, "Ma? What does 'sedition' mean?"
She sucked in a sharp breath and closed her eyes, and it wasn't until she said, "Oh, Gale," that he noticed the tears sliding down her cheeks. He didn't press her for an answer, instead deciding he'd ask about it in school the next day.
But there was no school the next day. Every able-bodied adult, including most of the teachers, returned to the mines to continue the search for survivors. The day after that, there were still no classes as they searched instead for bodies. By the time Gale returned to school, he had forgotten all about the unfamiliar word, but he remembered his father's anger at the Capitol during the Hunger Games months before, and the grumbling of the men and women trying to dig down to the miners trapped in the collapse that followed the explosion. He remembered Head Peacekeeper Cray putting a stop to his Peacekeepers helping the people of the district in their rescue attempts. Most of all, he remembered the way his mother used to light up when his father came home from the mines, something that would never happen again.
He tried to slip the money the baker had given him for the rabbit in with the money his mother brought in for doing other people's laundry without her noticing. He should have known it wouldn't work, even though he tried to be slick and do it while she was changing baby Posy's diaper, but one of the coins caught on the edge of the wicker basket. It hit the table and rolled before he could stop it, clattering to the floor and rolling to a wobbly stop when it hit his mother's heel.
"What's this?" Gale winced when she leaned down to pick it up; a moment later she pushed her hand in under the clean clothes and pulled out what looked to be the rest of the coins he'd buried there.
Swallowing hard, Gale straightened his shoulders and said, "I'm the man of the house now, Ma." He felt a little embarrassed saying it, but that didn't make it any less true. "The kids need to eat." His mother's eyes narrowed, but then her gaze softened.
"Gale, honey, you are a…" Her voice trailed off as she thought better of what she started to say. Instead, she laid the rest of the coins with the runaway. "Where did you get the money?" There was something so sad in her eyes as she asked the question that he felt almost like he wanted to cry, but he didn't.
"From the baker." Along with a loaf of day-old bread that he'd successfully snuck into the kitchen.
"Donal Mellark? Why?" She frowned when he didn't explain right away. "Gale, don't make me drag it out of you."
With a sigh, he knelt on the floor in front of her chair. "I set up some snares and caught a couple of rabbits." He forced himself to not fidget. "Outside the fence." She didn't say anything at first, just wrapped the baby up in a soft blanket. "Ma, I know it's not allowed, but I'll be careful. I won't get caught."
She searched his face and then looked out the window to where Rory chased after Vick, himself chasing after a small white butterfly. She picked up little Posy, resting her cheek on the baby's fuzzy head. Finally she said, "See that you don't, Gale. I can't lose you, too."
She was a skinny thing, dark-haired and gray-eyed just like him, kneeling over one of his rabbits. She looked kind of like a rabbit, too, spooked by his sudden appearance, and Gale took a rapid step toward her, half to see if she'd run like a rabbit, but she held her ground. She didn't look spooked anymore, either, more defiant.
"Give that back," he demanded, reaching for the rabbit, but she pulled it away, out of his reach.
"It's mine," she shot back at him. "I brought it down fair and square."
He took a closer look and saw a broken-off arrow shaft in its neck and a line of blood in its gray-brown fur. Behind the girl he spied one of his own snare lines and another rabbit with one white ear caught in it. Hands on his hips, he blew out a gust of air. Not one of his after all.
"What's your name?" She said something he couldn't quite hear, so he repeated what he thought she said, sure that he'd misheard. "'Catnip?' What kind of a name is that?"
"Not 'Catinip/i.' Katiniss/i."
He ran into her in the woods more and more often after that first time. Sometimes he'd see her when he went out to set his trap lines in the morning before school, other days it would be after, if he went to check the lines on the way home. That their paths crossed on Sundays when he went out hunting was almost inevitable. He usually gave her a hard time when he saw her – she was pretty easy to get a rise out of. Eventually, though, she started taking his teasing in stride, even accepting it when he called her Catnip, especially after a lynx started following her around, scaring off game until she finally had to kill it.
By the turn of the year, they made it a thing, meeting regularly on a rocky ledge protected from anyone on two legs or four by thorny blackberry bushes. Once they teamed up, the hunting got better for them both, good enough that they had plenty to take home to their families – her father had died alongside his in the mine explosion – and still have some game they could sell to Greasy Sae in the Hob or Baker Mellark in town.
Selling what they didn't need themselves gave them enough coin Gale could safely tell old Peacekeeper Cray to stay the hell away from his mother when he walked in on the bastard trying to talk his way under her skirts, offering her a little bit extra if she "took care of him" along with his laundry. It felt good, chasing the bastard out of their kitchen. Not as good as knocking his teeth in, but maybe someday he'd get the chance to do that, too.
"You'll be okay, Katniss. This is your first reaping. Your name is only in once."
She jerked the arrow from the turkey's breast with a little more force than necessary. "Four times. I signed up for tesserae."
Gale stared at her, his hand lifted halfway to his mouth to pop a strawberry in. "You didn't tell me." Four times. Gale's own name would be in the reaping ball eighteen times. He didn't want to think about what would happen to his family if Effie Trinket called his name today.
"I don't have to tell you everything." Katniss started stripping feathers from the carcass, dropping them in a pile between her feet.
"Does your mother know?"
She shrugged. "I told her." She glanced at Gale before leaning down to gather up the feathers. They'd bring a good price in the Hob, useful for stuffing pillows or lining coats or even for decoration. "Who knows if it sank in?" Pushing up from the rock she'd been sitting on, she shoved the feathers into the sack at her waist and hoisted the naked turkey up by the legs. "We'd better get going if we're going to stop by the Hob before two."
Every year was the same, at least in the larger picture if not in the details. Gale hunted with Katniss to provide for both their families, traded at the Hob for other things they needed to survive, went to school, day in, day out. As he grew older, the girls at school started to pay more attention to him, and while he had to admit he didn't mind, even took a couple of them up on what they offered, the only one he really wanted to be with was Katniss.
He always assumed that one day, when they were both past reaping age, they'd marry and start a family of their own. Sure, it would mean more mouths to feed, when they starting adding their own kids to the mix, but it wouldn't be that much more work than it was already, feeding his family and hers. He'd go to work in the mines, receiving regular pay for that, and he'd still hunt either in the mornings or evenings and on Sundays; it would just be a matter of trading school for a job.
He was so sure of his path in life and so sure that she shared the same ideas for the future that he never even brought up the subject. Instead they talked about things in town or how screwed up the Capitol was or how to get around the Peacekeepers on the odd occasions old Cray tried to beef up district security. When Gale was seventeen, Cray even brought in half a dozen new Peacekeepers in an attempt to clear out the Hob, but most of them learned pretty quickly that the Hob was the only place they could get little luxuries on the average Peacekeeper salary, like soap that didn't burn your skin or real coffee. One of the new troops, Darius from District 2, wasn't much older than Gale and seemed like a decent guy.
Things moved along as expected, right up until reaping day for the 74th Hunger Games. Gale was eighteen, and it was his last year of eligibility. He and Katniss went hunting that morning, as they always did, and spent most of their time at their meeting place just being lazy, eating a loaf of bread he'd traded for just before heading out into the woods and some soft cheese Katniss' sister Prim gave her. They'd gathered some of the wild blackberries, too. He didn't know why he said it. Something about the way she looked, relaxed and almost happy, smiling and unselfconscious.
"We could do it, you know," he blurted out, wishing almost immediately that he hadn't.
"What?" she asked sharply, her smile dissolving into a puzzled frown. But instead of backing down, he forged ahead.
"Leave the district. Run off. Live in the woods." She just stared at him with those gray eyes of hers, so like his own. "You and I, we could make it." They both knew how to survive in the woods, she knew it as well as he did, but any amusement in her was gone, the puzzlement faded away, replaced with an expression that made him shrink inside, made him feel about as mature and adult as Vick or Posy. Rory. Prim. He closed his eyes for a moment as his remaining enthusiasm for the idea melted away, before he continued, his voice subdued, "If we didn't have so many kids."
She finally looked away then, took a bite of cheesy bread. "I never want to have kids."
Gale's heart sank at the words, but still he pushed forward, hoping, although he didn't really know what he hoped for. "I might. If I didn't live here."
Katniss looked at him as if he'd lost his mind. "But you do."
He tossed the blackberry he'd been about to eat into the bushes. "Forget it," he said, harsher than he meant to, but unable to keep the disappointment from his voice. Katniss didn't seem to notice, though, and when she asked what he wanted to do, sounding like nothing much had happened, nothing had changed, he tamped down his feelings and followed suit, suggesting they fish in the nearby lake until time to head back to get cleaned up for the reaping.
Gale's life changed with the reading of two words: Primrose Everdeen. Before he'd gotten over the shock of that – along with the abject relief and the guilt that it was Prim and not Katniss – it got worse.
"I volunteer!" came Katniss' frantic, panicked shout. "I volunteer as tribute!"
In the space of less than two minutes, Gale's world came apart at the seams.
He watched as little of her Games as he could get away with, but even so, he had no choice but to watch some of it. Enough to see the manufactured romance between Katniss and her district partner, Peeta Mellark. A romance obviously made up for the cameras. She and Mellark were in the same year in school, but that's all they shared, wasn't it? A class or two? Katniss was Seam; Mellark was Merchant. They had nothing in common but the Games.
That's what he kept telling himself. That, and that she had to come home.
He ran into Madge Undersee – literally – on his way out the back door of her father's house. He'd just delivered a quart of strawberries he'd collected while he was supposed to be watching the Hunger Games. He was in a hurry to get home; she was coming in with an armful of cut flowers. When they collided, her forehead hitting his chin pretty hard, what flowers weren't crushed between them, bent or broken, scattered across the boards of her back porch. When her right foot slipped on the edge of the top step, he caught her arm before she could fall backwards to the ground.
"Shit! Madge! I'm sorry. Are you alright?"
She considered him from pretty blue eyes and tilted her head to the left, soft golden hair worn loose catching in the collar of her once-pristine white blouse, now streaked with red and yellow and green from the flowers. Rather than accepting his apology, or telling him she was okay, she said, "I suppose this means fresh strawberries and cream for dessert tonight." She made no move to pick up the cut blooms.
"I guess that means you're not hurt." He let go of her arm and stepped around her to jog down the steps to the path that led to the street.
"I'm sorry about Katniss," she called after him and he turned to see pearly white teeth sink into her lower lip. He couldn't drag his eyes away for a moment. Her lips were the same shade of red as the strawberries her father so loved. He turned away again without a word when he realized he was staring and that she knew it, too.
He was still close enough to hear her movements when she started to gather up the flowers; he could all but hear his mother telling him he'd helped make the mess, he should help clean it up. When they were finished and he started to leave again, he said from the top step of the porch, his back to her, "I'm sorry about your blouse, Madge." He turned a little so he could see her standing in the doorway, see her look down at the stains on her shoulder and breast.
"It's okay, Gale."
"No. I meant about what I said on reaping day." He snorts a laugh, raps his knuckles on the pillar beside him. "I guess I'm sorry about this one, too."
Katniss did come home – Katniss and Peeta both – but she wasn't the same. She was jumpy and thin-skinned. If he teased her, instead of giving back as good as she got, she bit his head off. He started avoiding her, if he ran into her in town; it wasn't hard, given he spent a good twelve hours every day but Sunday in the mines. All Gale wanted was for things to go back to the way they were – he wanted to see her smile again, to hear her laugh – but he didn't know how to make that happen.
She went to her new life and her big, fancy house in the Victor's Village and he went to his work in the mines. It was grueling, back-breaking work and he came home at night exhausted more often than not, wanting only to wash away the gritty, oily coal dust and fall into bed. But he still had to hunt, to bring home meat for his mother, his brothers and sister. He'd thought he could continue hunting every day, and maybe someday that might be true, but in the weeks and months following his descent into the mines, he could barely manage to hunt on his one day off. He missed Katniss the most when he was in the woods. He wished more than anything for her to be there with him, but the days turned into weeks and he continued to hunt alone.
More than a month after Katniss returned from the Games, Gale slipped between the thorny branches of the blackberry bushes and came to a dead stop. She was there. Stiff and nervous, uncomfortable in her own skin, but there. Her long, dark hair was in its old familiar braid, wisps escaping it to frame her face, softening her features just a little, and she wore her father's hunting jacket, too big for her and maybe a bit too warm for the day to come, but just right for the early morning hour. She didn't move, didn't give any sign that she knew he was there, and he stood paralyzed, wanting to run to her but fearing how she would react.
He must have made some sound. She shifted, turned her head the slightest bit and he saw her eyes widen. A heartbeat later and she flung herself at him, her arms closing tightly around his shoulders as she made some sound that was half laugh and half sob into his neck. He held her so tightly he thought she might suffocate. The world shifted back into place. He never wanted to let her go, but eventually, he did. Mostly because she'd started to hiccup and he was afraid she might choke.
When she could breathe again, they shared the food they'd each brought and they hunted and fished, gathered berries and talked, but in the end, none of it meant anything. They didn't touch on any topic that might get too close, that might breach the walls that had somehow risen up between them. Walls of fear and longing, loneliness and pain. And it was all because of Gale.
He wanted her so badly, had missed her so much, and he wanted so to feel normal again, for things to stop being so weird between them, but he only made it worse. He kissed her.
He hadn't meant to do it. Never planned for it to happen. Didn't think about what he was doing when he did it. He knew it was a mistake before his lips left hers, called himself an idiot and a fool, but even so, he didn't think he'd change it.
"I had to do that," he told her when he let her go. "At least once." And then he left her there, staring after him.
Gale's life fell into a new routine. He'd made new friends down in the mines, friends who hated the Capitol as much as he did. Before that fateful reaping, he wouldn't hesitate to talk to Katniss about what he thought or felt about the Capitol or the Peacekeepers or the Hunger Games, secure in the knowledge she felt the same way, but that was a thing of the past, just like the ease they'd always had with each other. He didn't know how she'd react to any of that anymore. Sometimes a sound or a shift in the wind or a smell would send her back to the arena, leaving him standing there helpless to do anything for her.
He was far more at ease with Madge now than with Katniss. After that morning on the Undersee's back porch, whenever Gale sold the mayor berries or anything else he thought might be of interest to him or his family, he'd stay and talk to Madge for a few minutes. At first, it was because they both cared about Katniss and worried about her, but later, he found that he simply enjoyed Madge's calm presence.
Sitting on the top step of her porch one Sunday afternoon, the raucous call of the cicadas threatening to drown out her voice, Madge told him about the mockingjay pin she'd given Katniss to carry as her district token. It had belonged to Madge's aunt, who had died in the Second Quarter Quell.
"I don't see how that was such a good token." He thought that might offend her, but Madge just arched one perfect eyebrow at him and said nothing, silently asking him to explain. "Your aunt died."
"She did," Madge acknowledged. "She died, yes, but she wasn't defeated. I thought that pin could be a symbol of that for Katniss." She looked over at Gale, her arms wrapped around her knees. "Because of the mockingjay. It should never have survived, but it did." She looked out over the yard once more. "And maybe it worked. Katniss survived."
The Victory Tour was, if possible, even more painful to watch than the Games themselves. Losing Katniss to death would have been hard enough; losing her to Peeta Mellark was in a whole new class. It would have been easier, in some ways, if Mellark wasn't such a likeable guy. But he was who he was, just as Gale and Katniss were who they were, and it was a form of torture, watching them on screen as sweethearts, as a couple, as the Star-Crossed Lovers of District 12.
He stopped watching long before they reached the Capitol, so it was his friend Thom who told him about the engagement. Gale couldn't breathe. For a moment, he couldn't even see. Thom just kept talking. He didn't seem to notice that Gale no longer listened and if anyone had asked, Gale could not have told them a single word Thom said. All he knew was that he'd lost her. But then she'd never been his, had she?
How could you lose something – or someone – that wasn't yours to begin with?
He didn't know why he went to their meeting place. He had no expectation that she would be there. He knew she'd been looking for him, probably to tell him to his face about her and Mellark, a sop to her conscience. He'd managed to avoid her through the entire three days of the Harvest Festival. For that matter, he'd managed to avoid running into her, talking to her since she and her fiancé returned from the Capitol, even if he hadn't avoided seeing her. On those occasions, he'd turned and walked rapidly in the opposite direction. He knew it was childish, but he did it all the same.
Past the blink-and-you'd-miss-it passage through the thorny blackberries, he saw the things she'd left for him: a sack of food, a pair of gloves, a flask. He checked to make sure the turkey he'd shot earlier was securely tied to his belt, slung his bow over his shoulder, and then leaned down to scoop up Katniss' peace offerings. The sticks pointing to the north he kicked over the side of the ledge.
He found her in an old one-room shack. It wasn't hard to figure out where she was, given the wood smoke rising from the chimney. Stopping in the doorway, he watched her until she became aware of his presence, which didn't take long.
She started talking almost immediately, telling him President Snow himself had threatened to have him killed, along with both their families and ending by proposing they run away, proposing the very thing he'd once suggested to her, that long ago day before she was reaped. Hope surged up inside Gale and for a wild moment, he had everything. Right up until he told her those fateful words.
"I love you."
He told her he loved her and everything died. His hopes and dreams of a life with Katniss Everdeen by his side turned to so much blackened dust in an instant. She went on about her plan to take him and both their families – along with Mellark and their drunk of a mentor – into the woods. It would never work, and she saw that, too, after she said it aloud. But that didn't take away her desperation or fear. It didn't stop the disappointed churning in his gut. Gale only half listened to her, until she said something that caught his attention and rekindled an entirely different kind of hope.
"There's an uprising in Eight?" he asked quietly, no matter how much he wanted to shout. All the talk in the mines, from his friends and from men and women he barely knew, whirled in his head. Talk of uprisings. Of rebellion. Of freedom. Of breaking the stranglehold the Capitol had on the districts.
Gale pressed her for more. He didn't notice right away that she wasn't as excited about the prospect of rebellion as he was, but it soon became apparent. He'd thought she felt the same way, but she didn't want to fight, she still only wanted to take their families and run. Their families and her fiancé. She stopped herself from throwing that in his face, at least.
Disappointment turning to disgust, he barely kept his voice below a shout. "What about the other families, Katniss? The ones who can't run away? Don't' you see? It can't be about just saving ius/i anymore. Not if the rebellion has begun!" Maybe she'd always felt this way. Or maybe the Capitol had changed her.
He stared at her, saw the fear in her beautiful gray eyes as she shrank away from him. She really didn't care about any of it. She didn't really care about him. Everything he'd ever dreamed of with her, he'd built from dust and smoke. Shaking his head, he almost laughed, not at Katniss, but at himself. iI'm such an idiot./i
"You could do so much," he told her. He saw how people had reacted to her in the Games and on her Victory Tour, even if he couldn't stomach watching. They'd follow her lead. If she said the word, people all over the country would start an uprising, not just in District 8. He tossed the gloves she'd given him to the floor. "I changed my mind. I don't want anything they made in the Capitol."
He left her there. Walked away from her and from his dreams as fast as he could. When he reached the fence, he took the bow from his shoulder. Unstringing it, he returned it and the arrows to the hollow tree he always stored them in and, pulling the dead turkey from his belt, he slipped back under the fence and headed toward home.
After the second knock with no response, Gale began to feel uneasy. Old Cray had asked him to stop by with whatever he had, but Gale had decided not to bother, until he and Katniss argued and he'd gotten angry. Too agitated for hunting, he changed his mind; if he sold the turkey to Cray, it would give him enough time to cool off. He didn't want to tell his mother any of what had happened, but if he went home before he got himself back under control, she would know something was wrong between him and Katniss, and he didn't want to see the pity in her eyes again.
Turning away, Gale started down the steps, intent on heading back to the Hob, even though Katniss would probably be there, when the door opened behind him. Steeling himself – he'd never liked Cray – he turned back with a smile, slightly lifting the turkey, his grip around its ankles tight.
"There's just the one, I'm afraid…" He stopped talking, staring at the man in the Head Peacekeeper's uniform. It wasn't Cray. "Who…?"
"DeSanto. Pritchart. Take this man into custody." Flint-black eyes only left Gale's face once, fixing on the fat turkey in his hands.
Darius, who Gale sometimes played cards with in the Hob when the Peacekeeper was off duty, and a man Gale had never seen before came out of the house behind Cray's apparent replacement. Gale took one look at Darius' face and felt sick. He almost dropped the turkey, but the Head Peacekeeper wrested it from suddenly nerveless fingers.
"Where did you get this?" he demanded, handing the offending bird to Darius. To the other man he ordered, "Cuff him," and unsnapped a set of metal cuffs from the back of his utility belt. "Well?" he asked of Gale. "Answer me."
Uncertainty began to give way to anger. Gale took a step back. "Who are you? Where's Head Peacekeeper Cray?" he demanded in turn. Behind the Head, Darius silently motioned for him not to say anything else even as the other Peacekeeper moved toward Gale once more. Gale took another step back, a voice inside whispering that the turkey Darius held in his hands was a death sentence. Another step back.
Someone gently brushed Gale' s hair from his eyes. He floated on a lake that smelled of wood smoke and coal and mint. Lifting his head, opening his eyes, was too much effort and might set the smoldering embers in his back and shoulders to blazing again. At least for the moment, the pain was little more than a memory of being trapped in an inferno, unable even to cry out.
Soft lips brushed lightly over his, and Gale opened his eyes; it took a moment for the girl sitting beside him to come into focus, and when she did, he thought he must be dreaming. "Hey, Catnip." He tried to smile, but he didn't think he quite made it.
There were dark shadows under her eyes and her slight smile didn't mask the worry in her expression. He had no idea where he was, but if Katniss was there, even as wrong as things had been lately, it couldn't be anyplace too bad. But then he remembered their argument, and that she planned to take her mother and Prim and run away. He closed his eyes again.
"I thought you'd be gone by now."
Her expression turned from worried to determined, fierce. "I'm not going anywhere," she whispered. "I'm going to stay right here and cause all kinds of trouble."
"Me, too," he murmured as he drifted back into pain-filled darkness.
It was almost a month before Gale returned to work in the mines, but then the mines themselves had only reopened a couple of weeks before – Romulus Thread, the new Head Peacekeeper, had closed them down the afternoon of the whipping. One of Gale's coworkers from the mines, Bristel, told him about it when he came to visit one afternoon.
Gale couldn't remember any of it. Mrs. Everdeen said that was normal, although he didn't like to think there was anything normal about taking forty lashes with a whip. Bits and pieces came back to him at odd times. The turkey hanging by a nail over his head. The bite of the cuffs into his wrists and the trickle of blood once they broke through the skin. Peacekeeper Darius falling in a white heap on the ground when he tried to stop Thread; no one had heard from Darius since.
Things in the district were the worst they'd ever been. Between the new Peacekeeper leadership, the spoiled food shipment on parcel day, and one of the worst blizzards they'd had in years, Gale wasn't surprised when he saw a pair of Peacekeepers zipping an emaciated body into a black plastic bag on his way to the mines his second day back.
It wasn't long after that Thread set fire to the Hob as part of his cleanup efforts for the district. He'd already transformed the town square surrounding the Justice Building into something straight from the Capitol. If the man could make the electricity more reliable, he'd probably have the Capitol anthem playing over the loudspeakers round the clock.
Days turned to weeks turned to months. Spring followed winter, as it always did, bringing a flurry of activity to the Victor's Village and some new mandatory viewing for the districts of Panem, but Gale refused to watch anything to do with Katniss' wedding to Peeta Mellark. Instead of watching, he sat in the corner of the room and helped Posy work on her alphabet. Not watching wasn't the same as not hearing, though, so he heard it loud and clear when the President announced the terms of the Third Quarter Quell. It didn't take him long to figure out what it meant for District 12 that their tributes that year would be pulled from the existing pool of victors.
"Fuck," he said, horrified.
"Fuck?" Posy innocently repeated.
"Sorry, Ma." His gaze met hers over Posy's head and he knew she understood it, too.
Katniss was going back into the arena.
Gale tried to watch the Games. It was just as painful as the first time, maybe even more, what with the commentary from Flickerman and Templesmith about the tragedy of Katniss' supposed secret wedding to Mellark and the baby. He could handle all that, though, because he knew it was a strategy for the Games. It was unpleasant, but it was all a lie. Even knowing she could die, that the odds weren't in her favor – Gale could live with that.
No. What hurt the most was watching her – only ever watching her – when Mellark hit the force field and the guy from District 4 restarted his heart. He knew Katniss. He knew that whatever she felt for Gale, even when Thread nearly whipped him to death, she never looked at him the way she looked at Mellark when she thought he was dead, or worse, when she realized he wasn't.
Madge was there when he arrived at the strawberry patch. She didn't look like Madge, like the mayor's daughter. Wearing a faded pair of jeans and an equally faded shirt, both soft from many washings, she looked more like someone from his side of the Seam, except for that length of blonde hair glistening in the sun. She didn't see him at first, didn't hear him, but then he must have made some sound – the sight of her there was definitely a surprise – because she stopped picking berries and rocked back on her heels, looking up at him.
"Gale. I'm sorry. I know this is your place, yours and Katniss', but…"
He shook his head, denying ownership in spite of the netting they'd rigged to keep away the birds and other berry-loving animals. "Not mine. What are you doing here?" The strawberry patch was outside the fence. The fence that was electrified round the clock, with Romulus Thread in charge.
"Katniss showed me how to get here a few weeks ago and I just… I didn't want to be around anyone today." She shrugged. "So I came here." Looking down at her pail of strawberries, she said, "I should go."
"No," he told her, and her gaze flew up to his face. "I don't want to be around anyone today, either." He gave her a rueful smile, thinking how badly he'd misjudged her all these years. "I guess we can be alone together."
Rory, Vick, and Posy were all in bed when Katniss fired her arrow into the lightning-filled sky. Gale watched the Games with his mother, even though they both had to be up before dawn and needed the sleep. The television screen whited out from the explosion and when the picture returned, Hazelle's fingers dug into her son's arm and they both stared, transfixed, at the arena in flames, Katniss, Finnick Odair, and farther away from the tree than either of them, Johanna Mason lying unconscious or dead in the undergrowth as more explosions occurred all around them.
"What's happening?" Hazelle asked, but Gale could only shake his head, his heart pounding.
What looked like a hovercraft descended from above and a claw dropped – and Gale's heart with it – to lift Katniss Everdeen, the Capitol's Girl on Fire, from the burning arena. All he could think was ishe can't be dead she can't be dead/i. Nothing else could get through the static that filled his brain until suddenly the television went dark. The only light in the room came from the burning embers in the stove, the red-orange light that seeped out from the edges of the door in the center of its belly.
Gale looked at his mother and swallowed hard. "The electricity…" He jumped up and ran to the window. During the Games, even at midnight, he should be able to see a few windows lit up by the bluish light from the televisions inside, all tuned to the Capitol broadcast, but when he looked out the window, all he saw was darkness. "Someone cut the electricity."
He saw Bristel from his work crew step out into the street and look around. Someone else farther down the road did the same. Behind him, he heard his mother wake Rory.
"Ma?" he asked, turning away from the window.
"Get your sister, Gale." She pushed shoes toward a still half-asleep Rory and then turned to wake Vick. "You'll have to carry her." She paused and looked over her shoulder at her oldest son. "There's something very wrong."
Hazelle was right. Something bad was going to happen. There was no other reason to cut not just the broadcast – a scene that sure looked to him like Katniss deliberately destroyed the arena – but the power to what must be the entire district. Galvanized into action, Gale scooped up little Posy, blankets and all, and handed her to Rory.
"Ma, get everyone you can to the end of the street." That was the closest to the fence and the Meadow beyond. If the power grid was indeed down, the fence would be dead, too. "Get Bristel and Thom to help you." She knew both of them, friends from his crew in the mines. "I'll meet you there."
"Where are you going?"
"To the Victor's Village." He had to get Katniss' mother and sister out before whatever was going to happen happened.
The bombs fell on the center of the town just as Gale, Prim, and Mrs. Everdeen reached the edge of the town square. They watched in horror as the Justice Building collapsed in flames, taking half the square – including the Mellark Bakery and the family's apartments above – with it.
"I should've stopped before going for you," he said to Mrs. Everdeen. Katniss would never forgive him for letting Mellark's family die. But then Katniss was dead, too, wasn't she? Wasn't that what the hovercraft meant? Just one more dead tribute, no matter how much damage she'd caused?
"They wouldn't have left," Prim said. "Not if someone from the Seam told them to."
Someone from the Seam. A dirty coal miner, darker of skin, of hair. A man not worth listening to. A pair of blue eyes, a strawberries-and-cream smile, and long golden hair swim into focus in Gale's head.
"Wait here!" he ordered before he broke into a run toward the more affluent residential sector, at the far end of which stood the mayor's house.
He never found Madge or her family. Their house was gone when he got there, destroyed by the bombs that still fell over the district. He had no choice but to return to those who still lived, herding them like cattle from District 10 out to the Meadow. The bombs stopped falling before the remaining people of District 12 reached that wide expanse of grass and wildflowers. From there, they watched as their homes and livelihood burned. Once the mines started, they all knew that fire would burn for days.
Three days. That's how long the survivors spent in the woods once they decided to follow Gale wherever he led them. He was the one with experience outside the boundaries of the district, after all, the one who'd gotten them out of their homes and to relative safety when so many of their friends had died.
He took them to the lake Katniss had shown him the winter before, just before she left on her Victory Tour. It was far enough from the still-burning town that they couldn't smell the smoke or the underlying scent of cooked meat. It was also the only place he could think of far enough away the Peacekeepers that followed the bombs wouldn't find them. At least, not right away.
It wasn't the Peacekeepers who found them, in the end. Rather it was a flight of hoverplanes emblazoned with the nuclear power symbol of the long-since destroyed District 13.
As it turned out, District 13 wasn't gone after all.
When they arrived in 13, while helpful citizens took the rest of the remaining population of District 12 to temporary housing and triage-style medical examinations, Gale met with the district president and her advisors. Alma Coin was a hard-looking woman who appeared to be in her fifties, although she could have been much younger or much older and Gale wouldn't have been surprised. When a dark man with a military bearing asked Gale to tell them what happened after Katniss shorted out the arena, Coin raised a hand to stop him and looked over at a pale young woman with eyes as light a blue as Coin's.
"Get Abernathy. He'll want to hear this. Maybe it will give him a reason to cooperate." They returned to their war council – or so Gale dubbed it in his head – and left him to wait, wishing for nothing so much as a flat place to lay down and maybe a little bit of quiet. Gale had never been so exhausted in his life, even after working twelve hours a day in the mines for weeks at a stretch.
He found an unoccupied chair in the far corner of the room and sat, ignoring the walls of television monitors showing various news feeds and what looked like some kind of surveillance footage. Gale closed his eyes and tried to tune out the voices, both in the room and over the airwaves. Head leaned back against the wall, he was almost asleep when a new set of voices broke through the fuzz in his brain.
"Why the hell can't you just let me die in peace, Madam President?"
Gale opened his eyes and sat up straight, staring across the room into the bloodshot gray eyes of Haymitch Abernathy, town drunk and victor of the 50th Hunger Games. He'd gained a good deal of appreciation for the man's intelligence and for what he'd been through over the years, the reasons he drank so much, after what he'd seen Katniss go through since coming home a victor.
Katniss. Gale closed his eyes again against the pain of that last image of her surrounded by a hoverplane's claw. They only collected the dead ones like that.
"Mr. Hawthorne?" Coin's voice. Gale opened his eyes, took a deep breath, and got up from his chair.
"Gale," Haymitch said. "How'd you come to be here?"
"That is what we're about to hear the details of, Mr. Abernathy," Coin told them and gestured for the sound from the monitors around the room to be muted.
Gale wanted so badly to sleep, knowing that he and the others were safe here in this underground bunker of a district, but instead he launched into a tale of falling bombs, desperation, and survival, of an entire district wiped out and its population scattered. Haymitch looked more and more bleak as Gale spoke. No one said anything for a moment when Gale was done; it was Haymitch who broke the silence.
"You did good, son." He laid a hand on Gale's shoulder briefly, then turned to Coin and said, "Anything else you need from him, you can ischedule/i for in the morning. Kid's asleep on his feet."
Coin raised one eyebrow, but said nothing. She waved them both away before leading her entourage to the lighted table in the center of the room. The noise level rose as they unmuted the monitors and Haymitch led Gale out into the hall.
"There's someone here you want to see." Gale frowned, but Haymitch didn't explain, merely turned to the woman who'd brought him at Coin's request and said, "I know my way back and I can take the boy with me. The detox ward isn't that far from where the rest of our people are."
Gale woke to an insistent alarm, sitting straight up in bed. For a moment, he had no idea where he was, but then it all came flooding back in a jumble. The only things that came through clearly were the facts that his family was alive and safe and so was Katniss.
"What's that noise?" a sleepy Rory asked.
"It's your brother's communicuff," their mother responded from where she was getting dressed behind the curtain that divided the sleeping compartment into two smaller chambers – she and Posy in one half, Gale and the boys in the other.
Glancing down at the device on his wrist, he saw on the screen that he had an incoming message. He flung back the sheet and shoved his feet into his boots.
"I have to report to training," he told his mother. He didn't remember anyone saying anything about training. He didn't even know what kind of training he had to report to, just that it was on level 22, room 2217. He threw a t-shirt over his head and shoved his arms through what he hoped were the right holes. "I'll check in later, Ma," he told Hazelle as he kissed her on the cheek on his way out.
From that morning on, Gale Hawthorne became Soldier Hawthorne. They taught him how to fire a rifle and a pistol. How to fight with a knife in close quarters. How to communicate silently using only hand gestures. They taught him how to use his communicuff and how to work as part of a larger team.
When he wasn't training with Boggs and his men, Gale spent time with Beetee Latier, showing him traps and snares and helping to adapt them to combat. In return, Beetee taught him the geometry behind his snares. Gale soaked in the information like a sponge, knowing it meant that, when the powers that be, particularly Boggs, decided he was ready, he could finally do something to fight back.
Being one small part of a big mission – big in impact, if not in manpower – didn't stop Gale's nerves from playing havoc with his stomach. If anything, the small number of participants made it worse, because if any one person didn't do their job precisely as it had been laid out, then they were all screwed. Consequently, his stomach had been doing back flips for a good hour.
"I wouldn't have let you come on this mission if I didn't think you could handle it, Soldier Hawthorne," Boggs told him. Unable to trust his voice, Gale nodded, running over his instructions again in his head. The vote of confidence from Coin's right-hand man – he no longer considered him her lackey, after training with him for the past few days – helped him to center. It was just another hunt. It didn't make that much difference that their prey could shoot back.
Boggs unstrapped his safety restraint and stood. "All right, soldiers, listen up." He looked at the dozen men and women with him, pausing briefly on each on in turn. "This is a targeted, surgical strike. We go in, we locate the victors, we get out." Each of them had memorized the victors' faces from the most recent photographs they had; the only one that wasn't from the Quarter Quell was the photograph of Annie Cresta from 4, a shot from her Victory Tour almost five years before. Apparently, they didn't have access to anything more recent.
While they waited for the signal to go, Gale heard a man's voice speaking in a clear and measured tone – Boggs identified it as Beetee's broadcast, having successfully broken through the Capitol's jamming – but it was too muffled to make out the words from inside the hovercraft. Moments later, moving rapidly and with purpose through the detention facility toward the maximum security holding cells, he recognized the voice as belonging to Finnick Odair. From what little made it past his concentration on the hunt, Gale was glad he didn't have to listen to all of what the man had to say. What he did hear chilled him to the bone. If what Odair said was true, would that have eventually become Katniss' fate, too?
He heard a scream coming from the cell at the end of the corridor. Signaling to his partner, Gale picked up the pace, coming to a stop at the cell door. Motioning for the other to stay back, he fired a two-shot burst at the lock and the door swung open, nothing remaining of the latch. A man in a Peacekeeper uniform, no body armor, operated the controls to a set of wire leads attached to the torso of a woman lying on a metal table. There was a large container over her body, and water rained down from a showerhead positioned over her chest. The spray widened out from the source so that it reached from her head to her hips. The Peacekeeper turned a dial and the woman's back arched almost to the snapping point as she screamed again.
Without a second thought, Gale fired another two-shot burst, right into the man's chest. A bloom of bright red spread out over the white fabric of his uniform. The woman's scream shaded into laughter, harsh and brittle; for a moment, Gale thought he was going to be sick.
The schedule on his arm decreed that he had almost half an hour before he was expected in training. Gale shrugged his shirt back on; it felt strange, sliding easily over skin rather than catching and dragging against cotton bandaging. The doctor had given him a clean bill of health, declaring no permanent damage from the shrapnel he'd pulled from Gale's shoulder following the rescue from the Capitol.
Thinking he might go to Special Weapons to see what Beetee was working on, he passed by the doctor's partially open office door. He could see through the opening the man sitting behind his desk, someone leaning over the desk in what looked like an attempt at intimidation.
"You don't understand. I ineed/i that shit just to be able to close my eyes without screaming."
Gale stopped. He knew he shouldn't listen, but he couldn't help it when the doctor said, "That sounds more like a matter for Dr. Aurelius, Miss Mason. Medically speaking, you should have no more need for the morphling."
With an inarticulate sound of rage, she slapped her palms on the desk and whirled away toward the door, shoving it open and nearly clipping Gale in the face. She stopped abruptly, whether because she'd caught him in the act of eavesdropping or of the doctor's voice behind her, he didn't know.
"I'm afraid I have no choice but to report this incident."
"Fuck you," she shot back at the doctor and then, remembering Gale was there, she followed up with, "Not you." But then she took a step back, gave Gale a once-over, and smiled. "Then again…"
Thin to the point of emaciation, sallow-skinned and bruised purple beneath her brown eyes, her dark hair just barely past the point of stubble, the gray District 13 uniform she wore was the healthiest looking thing about Johanna Mason. But when she smiled at Gale, her face transformed. She brushed against him when she passed and he watched her walk away, wondering what the hell had just happened.
He glanced out the window at the mountain they'd nicknamed the Nut while the brainstorming session swirled around him. Restless, he began to pace again, the others more or less ignoring his need to release some pent up energy. Katniss, sitting in the deep windowsill, offered a comment or two on the discussion, but Gale remained silent, studying the problem, chasing after a solution. The Nut was the key to smashing the resistance in District 2. Take the impregnable Nut and everything else would fall into place. In a way, it was just another kind of hunt, and Gale was good at hunting.
"We need to take those entrances," someone insisted, which launched yet another round of why that wouldn't work versus why they had to make it work. He didn't know who suggested it this time. Commander Lyme's troops had already attempted that kind of frontal assault at least twice that Gale knew about, both times at the order of someone from District 13 who thought they knew better; both attempts had failed spectacularly. Looking now at the one entrance to the underground bunker they could see, the restlessness that had kept him moving leaked away.
He slid into the windowsill beside Katniss and studied the uneven, jagged lines that ran down the darker walls of stone above the opening into the mountain. No, it wasn't so much hunting skill that they needed. What they needed was to set some kind of trap. The Nut was just the barrier behind which their prey hid. Why not use it against them? Those pale lines were where the exposed rock of the mountain was newer… They could plant explosives at the weakest points and bring down the rock face above the entrance, effectively sealing the tunnel.
Lyme's voice cut through all the others in the room. "The next person who suggests we take the entrances better have a brilliant way to do it, because you're going to be the one leading that mission!" Everyone looked in her direction and she glared back at them, her hands on her hips. From the way he shrank away from her, Gale guessed it was Heavensbee who'd suggested taking the entrances again. The silence grew heavy until Gale broke it. He could make his idea work – all he needed was a little more information.
"Is it really so necessary that we take the Nut?" he asked, looking first at Commander Lyme and then over to Beetee, who he knew would pick up on what he was about to propose. "Or would it be enough to disable it?"
His idea worked flawlessly, the rock face sliding in a mass of brittle stone to block the entrance, trapping the miners and Capitol soldiers inside. The part of him that still ached at the loss of his home, of the thousands who died because of the anger of one man, wanted to seal it all and let them rot for their loyalty to that bastard Snow, but Lyme insisted there be a way out, the option for them to surrender, and so the train station remained open and under heavy guard.
That act of mercy, and Katniss Everdeen's stubborn need to help the helpless, nearly lost them the war. Gale would never forget the look in her eyes, the utter confusion in her face when that bullet slammed into her side and she crumpled over the man she'd talked out of shooting her. Gale was running an instant later, not toward Katniss, but toward where he'd seen the muzzle flash from the crowd. He planned to kill the man with his bare hands, but he never got the chance. He lost him in the chaos. Everyone was too stunned by what they thought was the loss of their Mockingjay to try to stop him and Gale had to admit defeat.
But Katniss was alive, and rather than the disaster it could have been, the bullet she took turned the tide throughout the whole district. Within just a few days, most of those loyal to the Capitol surrendered and the remaining population, miners and stone masons, a few Peacekeepers in training, declared for the rebellion.
They sent Katniss back to 13 and Gale went with her. As soon as they arrived, they hustled her off to surgery and sent Gale to Special Weapons and Beetee Latier. He didn't get a chance to make sure for himself that Katniss was alright until a few days later, when he visited her in her hospital room. He stopped just inside the doorway and stared as Johanna Mason pulled Katniss' I.V. drip from her own arm and hooked Katiss back up.
"Your cousin's not afraid of me," she stage whispered into Katniss' ear before straightening up and sauntering toward Gale. "Are you, gorgeous?" She laughed as she brushed past Gale and out into the hallway.
He watched Katniss dance at Finnick Odair's wedding. She danced with the groom. She danced with Haymitch Abernathy. She danced with Thom and his own brother, Rory. She even danced with Prim, but she didn't dance with Gale; he never asked and she never offered. He did dance, though. After Greasy Sae pulled him out onto the dance floor, he twirled his mother around the room, and Mrs. Everdeen and Prim. It was a reminder of the good times back home in 12, but it was also a reminder of how far they all were from home.
When he released Prim to dance with a young man from 13, Gale found himself at loose ends. The party had been going for hours and it didn't look to be ending anytime soon. People were too starved for something happy to replace the fear and anxiety of war, if only for a few hours. Even so, Gale was tired, ready for peace and quiet. Heading toward the door, the sight of a too-thin young woman with dark hair cropped close to her skull stopped him short. She wore a deep green dress that would have looked good on her, if she were healthier, not still so battered and bruised weeks after the torture was over. She watched Odair dance with his Annie, her fingers tapping out the beat of the music against the wall at her back.
"Didn't take you for a wallflower," he said as he approached and Johanna Mason turned toward him, fixing him with dark eyes still shadowed by ghosts he'd never know.
"Didn't take you for an idiot," she shot back, one fine dark eyebrow arched provocatively. But then she smiled and pushed off from the wall, patted him on the cheek. "That's okay, Soldier Hawthorne. You don't have to be smart when you're pretty." She grabbed him by the hand and dragged him into the mass of dancers, and Gale had no more thought of leaving the party.
After the wedding, District 13 underwent a subtle change. The atmosphere grew more determined as the Capitol forces drew back closer to the Capitol. The rebels began to plan an invasion, an all-out assault on the city, one that might even end the war. Katniss and the other victors filmed propo after propo, all geared toward building the rebels' confidence and bringing more of the districts' populations on board, convincing more of their young men and women to join the fight.
Gale took part in some of the propos, too, when his schedule sent him to combat training. Katniss was in the intermediate group with Johanna Mason, a camera crew following them around. The second day of training, Peeta Melllark – along with two guards – joined the group of new recruits. Two days after that, Finnick Odair became part of Gale's group, the ones with more advanced training. Boggs put them through their paces, working again and again on the Block, fighting men and women in Peacekeeper uniforms through a simulated Capitol street.
Victor-turned-rebel Soldier Odair had no apparent problems navigating the obstacles as he and Gale went through the simulation. In fact, he did better than Gale, never flinching at the bullets that whizzed past their heads or explosions that showered them with burning debris or attackers running at them with knives. Gale was half afraid Odair would fall apart, given his recent history as "mentally disoriented," but when he said as much to Odair, the older man laughed.
"It's nothing but another arena."
When Gale arrived in Command, the numbers "451" stamped on the back of his hand in black ink, Odair was already there with several others Gale didn't know, standing in a group against a wall. Boggs took a look at the stamp on his hand and said, "Squad 451, sharpshooters. You're with me, Soldier Hawthorne." He gestured toward Finnick and the others.
"Soldier Hawthorne," Finnick greeted him when Gale stopped beside him.
"What are we waiting for? Why are we in Command and not getting ready to move out?"
Odair shrugged. "I guess we're special."
A moment later, Katniss arrived, apparently the last member of their squad. Once they were all assembled, Plutarch Heavensbee joined them and began going over the details of their mission, starting with a holographic image of a Capitol city block, peppered with what he called "pods." Katniss and Finnick seemed to recognize them right away.
"Ladies and gentlemen…" Finnick began quietly.
Finishing his thought, Katniss' voice rang out across the room, "Let the Seventy-Sixth Hunger Games begin!"
The morning they shipped out, Gale said goodbye to his sister and brothers, leaving his mother for last. His siblings were hard enough, but Hazelle had quietly worried about her oldest son, about losing him, since he turned twelve and signed up for tesserae. His father's death in the mines had only made that worse.
"Try not to get yourself killed, son," she told him, kissing him on the forehead – he had to lean down for her to do it – before pulling him into a tight embrace. Though she didn't say it, he heard the ghost of the long ago day she'd learned he was hunting outside the fence. iI can't lose you, too./i
"I'll be home before you know it, Ma. We're just filming propos."
"In a war zone, Gale. Don't make light of it."
Rather than joining the main body of troops leaving for the Capitol, squad 451, nicknamed the "Star Squad" because of its high-profile members and the camera crews that followed them everywhere, boarded a hovercraft that dropped them into a makeshift transportation hub just outside the burned out town in District 12. Gale couldn't see much of the ruins from the hub, but when the wind blew in the wrong direction, he smelled it, bringing back the frenetic terror of that night. It only hardened his resolve.
From there they boarded a coal train converted to a troop transport, soldiers and gear packed almost too tightly into a stripped cargo car. They were two days on the train with nothing much to do. Gale and Finnick played cards with the Leeg sisters; Katniss watched the scenery fly by through the two-inch gap between the doors.
Finally they reached the farthest point they could go without going on foot – a tunnel deep beneath the mountain that housed the Capitol. It took them another six hours to march, carefully treading only on a glowing green line marking their path, to the rebel encampment outside a train station near the Hunger Games complex.
The mission began the morning after they arrived. Up with the dawn, they moved into the streets of the Capitol, abandoned a week earlier when the rebel forces drove the Capitol troops farther toward the city's center. In addition to setting off the pods marked on their holo maps and battling whatever emerged – tracker jackers, giant spiders, hallucinogenic gas – they also simply shot things up, firing at targets they knew weren't dangerous.
"We can't allow our enemy to know how much information we really have," Boggs told them the first day. "So shoot whatever target seems appropriate." When Finnick whispered something to Katniss that Gale couldn't hear, making her laugh, Boggs speared Odair with a look. "Don't go overboard."
The camera crew followed them around, just as they had in training, filming everything. They spent hours bored nearly to death interspersed with a few minutes of excitement, and then returned to the boredom again, but they took out their intended targets and advanced the rebel lines.
On the fourth day, one of the Leeg sisters set off a pod that should have been muttation gnats, according to the legend on the maps, but instead it burst in a shower of metal darts. One of the darts took her in the eye. She fell dead at Gale's feet, a look of utter surprise on her pale face.
By the end of the following day, Peeta Mellark arrived to take her place, a shiny new "451" stamped on the back of his right hand. President Coin herself had decided his assignment. She wanted him in the Capitol, filming propos alongside the rest of them.
Gale watched in silence as Boggs made a call. He couldn't hear any of it, but he could see the growing anger in his commander's expression. A few minutes later, he put Jackson on setting up a guard rotation and took Katniss aside.
It didn't make any sense. The only reason Gale could think of for Peeta to be there meant bad things for Katniss Everdeen. Mellark was undeniably better than he'd been when they first brought him back from the Capitol, but he was still a threat, a weapon aimed at one person: Katniss.
It wasn't long before she left Boggs and demanded Jackson put her in the guard rotation. Katniss was as angry as Gale had ever seen her and it soon became obvious that she had come to the same conclusion as Gale. When the dinner whistle sounded, Gale approached her in line, but he kept his gaze fixed on Mellark.
"Do you want me to kill him?" he asked Katniss. He never did know whether he meant it or not.
"Pull it together, Four-Five-One," Boggs called, fighting to not smile at Mitchell's dubious acting ability. A moment later, he took a step backward to get a better vantage on the next pod and tripped a mine buried beneath the street, blowing off his legs.
More mines. More explosions. Another pod activated. Mitchell dead. Boggs dead. What had been a game was suddenly anything but. When Katniss announced her intention to find President Snow and kill him, Gale was right there with her.
They used every bit of their training from the Block as they moved through the streets of the Capitol. They broke into an apartment building to regroup and saw themselves in a Capitol broadcast that ended with a declaration that they were dead. After a quick meal from their rations and a lot of brainstorming – and talking Mellark out of suicide – they cleaned up all traces of their presence and headed out of the building into the underground sewer system.
The hissing whispers and the horrible stench followed Gale as he ran through the sewers. Most of the others were up ahead, scrambling to reach the ladder that would carry them up and out through an access tube to the street above.
The muttations, some kind of lizard-human hybrid, wanted Katniss' blood. They were vicious and deadly and gaining ground with every step Gale took. He sprinted the last thirty feet as the smell grew stronger, closer. He heard a cry behind him and stopped to look back.
Homes had fallen and Odair stopped to help him up, but a mutt tore Homes from Finnick's grasp.
"Odair!" Gale shouted and the rebel from 4 swung his trident at a mutt, taking its head from its shoulders. Another mutt dragged Homes screaming into the darkness. Gale started to run toward Finnick, but he waved him away.
"Go! It's too late for me." He stabbed another mutt as a second one wrenched his arm back, pulling the trident from his grasp. "Get out of here, Hawthorne!" A third mutt joined the attack and Gale ran.
In the end, only the three from District 12 remained of the Star Squad. Peacekeepers separated Gale from the others and made his way as best he could toward the President's mansion. He saw the bombs drop on the children and the medics, the second part of a trap he and Beetee had discussed on one of Gale's visits to the Special Weapons section a lifetime ago. He felt sick at the sight of so many dead children, but he reminded himself that it was a kind of justice for the hundreds of children who had died in the Hunger Games. He couldn't find it in himself to mourn.
He was there in the Capitol when Katniss assassinated Alma Coin. He knew what she would do a split second before she let the arrow fly. Just like a squirrel or a rabbit, she nailed the former president of District 13 right in the eye, no damage to the flesh surrounding it, just instant death. Gale didn't know if he wanted to laugh or cry.
They hustled her off immediately, locked her up for her own safety – or so they said – to await trial. Gale wanted to stay, to make sure she was okay, even though he knew she wanted nothing to do with him. She blamed him for Prim's death, and even if she someday found evidence that it wasn't his bomb or his design that ripped her sister from her, it wouldn't matter. The thought would always be there, and he couldn't deny the possibility that it was true.
When everyone else he knew went home to what was left of District 12, Gale went to District 2, part of a squad of volunteers whose purpose was to root out the last of those in the district loyal to the Capitol and causing damage to the new government's fragile infrastructure. He stayed as a kind of atonement, wanting to help rebuild what he'd helped to tear down. He preferred to think of it that way than to accept that it was just some kind of cosmic irony that he, the man who'd been instrumental in the destruction of so much of the district was to be equally instrumental in making it whole again.
The real irony of it, though, was that the people of 2 were far more ready to welcome him and accept who he was and what he offered than the people of his own district. Because of the bombs, the people of 12 looked at Gale like he was a monster. Maybe he was. He felt like one, sometimes, especially when he thought about Prim. But the people of 2 accepted that he was a soldier and that he'd done what he had to do to accomplish his mission in a time of war.
At least someone could forgive him.
It was during a trip back to the Capitol to wrangle supplies from the government that Gale ran into Johanna Mason and, on impulse, asked her to come to 2 to help mop up the loyalists. The ones who remained were the hardcore resistance in the district, those who wouldn't hesitate to kill anyone they thought of as a rebel. Gale had lost half his squad to them.
He was shocked when Johanna said yes. He had no ulterior motive in asking her, but still she gave him a smirk and some attitude as only she could when, at her arrival in the district, the powers that be gave her an apartment in the same building as his, just one floor below. He offered to help her move in, but she said she didn't need any help, since she didn't have anything to move anyway. All she had were the clothes she wore plus a few spares, a rope bracelet of tiny purple shells and wooden beads interwoven together and tied around her left wrist, and a child's stuffed dog, threadbare and patched, but still recognizable for what it was.
He didn't say anything to that, but there must have been something in his face because she punched him in the shoulder. "Don't you look at me like that, Hawthorne." Her dark eyes snapped with anger and something else more sharp-edged, but he didn't think it was directed at him.
"Like what?" he asked, rubbing his shoulder. She'd hit him hard enough it would probably leave a bruise.
"I don't need your pity." The heat leached out of the words as she said them, and that smile that he'd seen before, back in 13, transformed her still-thin features into something he couldn't look away from.
"Why are you smiling?" he asked. Her smile was still there, but it was more wistful, a little blurred around the edges.
"You have your secrets. I have mine."
They worked well together, and Johanna integrated into the squad with relative ease. Most of the members were former soldiers from District 13 and had the same training. Before the end of the war, she had been on target to become part of the Star Squad, but she failed the stress test. Gale didn't know the particulars of it, but he knew from Katniss they'd flooded the streets. It didn't take a genius to figure out that a woman who'd been tortured with water would have issues with it later.
Usually their missions were brief – hunting a single man or woman causing trouble – lasting a few hours and only needing a two- or three-man team. Occasionally, though, they would be sent out after a larger group and thus needed a larger team. Those missions could sometimes take days or even weeks. As the best hunters in the squad because of their unique backgrounds, Gale and Johanna took part in them all.
One long day in August the two of them spent on reconnaissance, just watching a group of loyalists for hours, hoping to track them back to their headquarters. Johanna fell asleep waiting for something to happen; when Gale saw her, she had a rare smile on her face and he quickly and quietly dug through his gear until his hand closed on the camera they'd used earlier to send recon shots back to the commander. He thought he might use the photo to tease her, but he ended up keeping it.
The hunting began to wind down, fewer and fewer loyalists remaining to sabotage the things President Paylor was trying to do to help the district get back on its feet. The squad as a whole had more downtime, and without meaning to, Gale spent most of his with Johanna. Because neither of them liked her apartment all that well, impersonal as it was, most evenings they spent in his watching television or just talking. He told her about his days hunting with Katniss and trading in the Hob, described the claustrophobia of the mines and the explosion and subsequent collapse that had killed his father. She told him about her friendship with Finnick Odair – he gave her the bracelet she wore not long after President Snow had her family killed; the stuffed dog was all she had left of her baby brother.
They both had their issues, but for the first time in three years, Gale felt comfortable with another person, looked forward to seeing her when they were apart.
Gale stared at the television, not really seeing it. He felt relaxed, sitting there on his couch, Johanna's bare feet in his lap, her head resting on the far arm. He traced patterns on the soft, thin skin that covered her ankle bone, his fingers wandering as if with a mind of their own. He wasn't aware of what he was doing until suddenly he was. He froze, the palm of his right hand flat against the cool skin of her calf. Embarrassed, he was afraid to look at her in the flickering light of the television.
"At ease, Hawthorne. I don't class that as foreplay." He glanced at her face, saw the humor dancing in her beautiful brown eyes, but there were shadows there, too, that had nothing to do with the ambient light. "I also don't give pity fucks."
He half-smiled at her then, looked at her lying there on his couch, saw his own large hand on her leg; he stroked her shin with his thumb, his smile widening, just to see how she'd react. Her gaze met his and she didn't look away. His breath caught in his throat, but then he forced air past the blockage to say, "Good thing, too, since I don't need your pity." He hadn't realized until that moment just how much he wanted her.
Slowly, so she could stop him if she wanted to, he leaned in, shifting both their bodies until his breath ghosted over her face, mingled with hers.
"Tell me no," he whispered.
"Why the fuck would I do that?" she whispered in turn, just before winding her fingers through his hair and pulling his mouth down hard on hers.
She didn't leave his apartment that night. He woke before she did and watched her sleep. She wasn't his first, but none of them had ever stayed. If he was honest with himself, he was perfectly fine with that. She looked younger in her sleep, softer, just like in the photograph he'd accidentally kept. He took it out sometimes to look at it, wondering what it might be like to wake up to that subtle beauty; now he didn't have to wonder.
His bedroom window was outlined by light, growing brighter by the minute as the day grew older. A glance at the clock told him he was due at work – no longer a soldier, he spent his days working on government propos – in half an hour, so he slowly slipped out from under Johanna's leg and arm, transferring her head carefully to his pillow. He didn't want to wake her, but the moment he stood and looked down at her sprawled across his bed, he knew he'd failed.
He started to tell her she could clean up in his bathroom, but almost immediately cursed himself for an idiot. Water and Johanna did not mix. Instead, he ran to the hall closet and returned with a length of white cotton sheeting.
"You can fill the sink and use this to clean yourself."
"She told you." He couldn't read her voice or her face, both carefully controlled, but "she" could only mean Katniss.
Gale shook his head and told her he'd figured it on his own, and when she asked what he was afraid of, presumably to put herself back on an even footing with him, he answered without thought, "Fire." He'd seen too much of what fire could do.
For a moment, she looked like she wanted to laugh, but then she shifted, propped herself up on one arm, and smiled. "I guess that works out okay then, huh? Fire and water."
When he got home from work that night, heart in his throat, he left a fresh sheet and a key to his apartment in front of the door to hers.
Time moved forward, taking Gale and Johanna with it. Rather than just working behind the scenes on the propos, Plutarch Heavensbee talked him into becoming the subject of them, working in front of the cameras instead as the spokesperson for Paylor's Centralized Government. Johanna used her background as a citizen of District 7, of 13, of 2 – and her experiences as a victor – to gain a place on District 2's governing Council. Two separate apartments became one larger one, both of them finally unpacking their baggage to make for themselves a home.
The word "love" never passed between them. He'd said it once to a girl who didn't want it, thought he could maybe find it again with a girl he'd never had the chance to say it to. But with Johanna, though he felt it as strongly as he ever had for anyone else, maybe even stronger, he didn't need to say it. She didn't want to hear it. He knew what she'd been through as a victor, knew how she'd found some solace with Odair for a time. The things she'd been through left her unable to believe in love.
But one day she told him about District 7's marriage customs, the ceremonial exchange of pieces of paper that contained something important to the giver. Even as he told her about 12's toasting ceremony, he couldn't stop thinking about what she'd said about paper and the meaning it could have. In particular, he thought of the photograph of her he'd taken that day, not long after she'd arrived in 2.
The next morning, unsure of himself as he'd ever been, Gale shaved and then dressed in the best clothes he could find from back home. He pulled out that black and white photograph of a sleeping, smiling Johanna and ran his index finger lightly along the creases he'd put into it. She was already up long since, dressed and downstairs, so he refolded the picture and slipped it into his shirt pocket.
When he arrived in the kitchen, she handed him a piece of paper and watched him as he read it, her expression unreadable. It was a letter. A letter addressed to him. It sketched out what she'd been through since the day she was reaped, the day her old life ended. He already knew most of it, because she'd told him about it over the course of all those evenings they'd shared in his apartment or hers. The last paragraph, though, was something entirely new.
iI never thought I'd be able to say this to anyone, Gale Hawthorne, until I met you. I've been made to feel less for so long, that it scares me a little, that you make me feel like I'm so much more. You make me want to do more than just survive. You make me want to live. I want to live, Gale Hawthorne, not just exist. I want to go to sleep beside you at night and wake beside you in the morning, and I want to live with you to the end of my days./i
When he finished reading, her letter still in one hand, he dug the photograph out of his pocket. Silently he handed it to her, that photograph that had come to mean so much to him. It was part of his heart, and he gave it to her freely, knowing that she would keep it safe.