Disclaimer: All characters are the property of Suzanne Collins. It is not intended to infringe on any copyrights held by Suzanne Collins or Scholastic Press. Any original story directions and plot lines herein are the property of the author. This work is written solely for the enjoyment of exploring that world in new ways.

A/N: If you're on twitter at all, you know that I have a habit of doing crrraaaazzyyyy things to celebrate LolaShoes' birthday, from organizing world-wide avi conspiracies and now to writing the story she kept asking for. She gave so many people a story and a relationship that exists in our fondest dreams. I know for a fact that my love-affair with Twilight would have died out long ago if it hadn't been for her LYLS/ALE/THW stories. Lo, there are no words I can find that express my love for you, your family, and your written words. I carry it all with me. Happy Birthday, sweets. I hope this is everything you wanted to have of Gale. I've added a lot of love to it, just for you. My deepest thanks, again, to IrishGirlTaken for her excellent beta work and constant friendship-it all started on a little Twilighted thread. Special thanks, too, to Songster, (aka, Eagle Eyes) for additional fixes sent to me over email.

Author's blog: gkkstitch-gkkmouse(dot)blogspot(dot)com

"We are all faced with a series of great opportunities
Brilliantly disguised as impossible situations."
-Charles R. Swindoll


The reaping

"Primrose Everdeen."

My stomach plummets. I'm in shock before I can feel anger. The only thing worse than hearing Katniss' name being called is hearing her sister's name. She only has one slip in the ball where they draw the names. I remember Katniss being adamant about Prim not taking a tessera.

Everyone is a target, no matter how low the odds might be. Poor Prim has just proved that.

I hear Katniss' strangled voice trying to call to her sister as the small girl walks mechanically toward the stage. I know what the sound of her voice means. Even before she gets the words out, I know what she's going to do.

"I volunteer," she gasps. "I volunteer!"

I can't get to her fast enough to stop her, and now Prim is crying, pulling her sister back and screaming, no. My heart is racing to get out of my chest and I duck under the ropes that separate the different age groups and wrap my arms around Prim to pull her off of her sister.

"No, no. Shh," I whisper, trying to calm the hysterical child. "It's me. It's Gale. Oh, my god." I feel sweat dripping along my jaw and down my neck.

Who can calm me?

The departure

I go into the Justice Building alone. My chest feels like there is a weight on it. My heart beats hard and slow, trying to push blood through the feeling of being crushed. Madge walks fast by me, glancing at me like she is passing me a secret. I can't think about that. I need to see Katniss. Her hour is almost up.

Her expression and posture is calm, but I know her. I know my Katniss. No one will ever know her like I do. It's in her eyes. She's afraid and seeing fear in her fearless eyes rips me apart. As soon as I open my arms she's there, holding me as tight as I hold her. Feeling her body mold to mine, everything in my heart that I want to say vanishes. I can't lose her. Instead, I start giving her advice to survive.

I panic as the Peacekeepers come in, refusing to give me more time. As they drag me away, my heart races painfully and as the door slams shut I almost confess my love for her before I know what I am doing. Instead, I tell her to remember I'll be here, waiting for her. I don't know if she hears me.

I'll always wait for her.

The opening ceremonies

My sense of panic has not eased since the train pulled away and took her away from me. By the time the opening ceremonies start, I am sick with exhaustion, my mind unable to let go of the dread that has left my stomach sour and aching. Some part of my mind registers the parade of motion on the screens we are forced to watch. Watching the horse-drawn chariots from the other districts, I only recognize two things: the jerky we could make from one horse would feed both mine and Katniss' family all year, and which of her opponents can she easily defeat.

I am startled out of my reflections by the sound of her name through the hissing speakers. I search the screen for her. The words 'District 12' scroll across the bottom of the screen, then move up and out of the way for her name and Peeta's. Powerful black horses pull the chariot containing two flaming people I do not recognize. They look like they are on fire, but I can't find it in myself to care. Where is Katniss? Has something happened? Have they replaced her? Is this impostor a stand-in?

Even when the camera closes in on her face, for a moment I still do not recognize the beautiful girl they are calling Katniss Everdeen. She smiles and my eyes open wide. I don't realize my mouth is open until I feel dust on my tongue. It's her. It's Katniss. Until this moment, I have been the only living person who has ever seen that smile. It's the same smile I have seen every time she meets me in the woods. Her eyes are guarded, though. Now that I know it's her, I know something has happened. I'm sure of it.

I'm amazed at the changes her stylist has wrought in her. Her olive skin almost glows. She isn't ridiculously painted like the other tributes have been. Her eyebrows are thin and delicate giving her features a smooth and fragile appearance. She's remarkable, stunning, even more beautiful than I have ever realized.

When the picture on the screen shifts to Peeta, I frown impatiently.

"Move," I whisper. "Move."

As if my words have power, the camera pulls back to show the two of them with flames dancing around their heads. They smile and the camera moves back. They wave and the camera moves again. Katniss catches a rose and throws a kiss into the crowd, and the camera pulls back even more.

Peeta is holding her hand. She is holding Peeta's hand. Her small fingers are curled around his. What is she doing? Is she a fool? Has she befriended another tribute, even if he is from our own district, knowing that she might have to kill him?

The camera pulls back to give a full overview of the city as the twelve chariots fill the loop of the City Circle. I don't like the way the image of their hands stays in my mind's eye.

The scores

Most of the population of the Seam returns to the town square for the scoring since most don't have any way of watching the mandatory exhibition in their homes. Some are in the Hob with me. I've been here more than an hour already because it has been three days since I've heard anything. The training sessions are private and the news has been filled with talk about possible outcomes, but nothing of substance, nothing of how she is doing.

When they announce her score, a flash of pride in my girl burns through me and I almost shout out loud for her, and then reality snuffs me out and I shiver in cold fear. It was bad enough that our district has gotten the bulk of airtime after the opening ceremonies. The broadcasts have been replaying their entrance over and over again, talking about the genius of the new stylist who requested District 12.

The inevitable jealousy of the other districts wasn't enough to single them out. Now her perfect score has painted a perfect target on her. The careers will have a field day once they're cut loose.

The interview

Like the opening ceremonies, I watch the procession of tributes come out without seeing them. They are only numbers to me and I count them off impatiently. Eighteen. Nineteen. Twenty. My hands clench into fists at my sides. Twenty-one. Twenty-two. I hold my breath and there she is.


My... Katniss?

My mouth falls open again and I cannot breathe at all. She's... she's... transformed. Radiant. Dazzling. Luminous, literally. She is night and fire bound together like the red ribbon in her black hair. The marks on her arms, her shimmering skin, the remarkable dress... In this moment I know I will forever see her in every match, every hearth fire, every miner's torch. She is a beacon. She is light.

She takes a seat and the cameras move to him. The other one. The other tribute from our district, and a burst of air rushes from my lungs when I can't remember his name. He's dressed like her, but not. He's understated, like fire licking around a lump of coal, but Katniss is the human incarnation of a goddess.

Peeta! His name suddenly in my mind feels like being doused in ice water.

I find I can't remember the other man now talking, too fast and loud, and I laugh out loud when his name pops into my head, too. Caesar Flickerman. He calls up the tributes one at a time, but I don't hear any of them speak. My mind is caught between the present and the past.

Katniss, scared but stoic, standing with her mom and Prim, next to my own family as we accept the medals for our father's sacrifice. Katniss, looking smaller and thinner, fingering the snare I had set as a rabbit hangs from the thin wire. Katniss, fierce and stubborn, arguing with me about our first trade, too smart to be convinced that meat, any meat, could ever be considered an equal trade with a few wild turkey eggs. Katniss, warily handing me one of her father's precious bows with pursed lips and a grudging look of respect. Katniss, her lips easily creasing into a sincere smile as she finds me in the woods, wearing her father's old coat, which is many sizes too big for her.

I have always loved her just as she was. To me, her beauty has always been her spirit and strength, but I see now she has always had a greater beauty that only the Capitol and its magic has been able to uncover for all of Panem to see. My eyes are drawn like magnets back to the screen when it's her turn to speak. She struggles at first, and I see the fire in her eyes flare for a moment that has nothing to do with her costume but has everything to do with the injustice we all suffer for their entertainment. Then her eyes search for something and they soften and I hear my Katniss speaking to the crowd, the Katniss who has told me her dreams and her desires in the solitude of the woods. Even though I feel myself drawn to the hidden girl I've known most of my life, I can't stop from wondering who she was looking for. Who did she find in the crowd that brought out my Katniss? Could it... could it be possible that she's thinking of me?

Then Peeta is sitting with Caesar and they are joking about bread and roses, and I smile in spite of myself. I never got to know him well when he was here and chances are I never will, but I could see myself not hating him. He might be from my district, but he's not from my world. His world is filled easily with food and warm winters. My world is clawed out of the earth every day. Every morsel is fought for and nothing is easy.

Ah, but he confesses that not everything in his life is easy. He's in love with someone. As I watch Peeta Mellark's face and his confession falls from his painted lips, I feel a brief kinship with him and his unrequited love, until the cameras cut away to her face—the look on her face. Was that the same look she had on her face when I left her in the Justice Building? Had she heard me? Was this expression shock at having heard a second declaration of love in as many days? Katniss' blushing face appears on the screen again.

Blushing? Katniss blushes? Even behind that crazy sparkling powder they have on her, you can see her blood rise to the surface of her cheeks and ears.

I feel pity for him. Peeta Mellark thinks he's in love with my Katniss? He's a bigger fool than I gave him credit for.

I watched her kill a lynx without as much as a blink, even when I knew what that animal meant to her. They had a strange dance between them, like shadows on the forest floor shifting with the wind but never coming into contact. They respected each other as predators. It followed her sporadically for over a month, waiting for the eventual gut pile that she would leave in her wake. We would hang our kills from our belts and call it a day, but I saw her. I always saw her. She would glance back and her lips would hint at a smile when the cat came out to gorge itself on what we left behind.

When it scared away a squirrel one day, she fumed. When it stole a rabbit from her a day later, she'd had enough.

She waited a day before she killed the lynx, probably just to let it enjoy its last meal. The foolish animal showed up near our ridge as usual and I watched with a smile as she let an arrow fly into its fine pelt.

When it came down to providing for her family, the lynx never stood a chance.

Peeta was no different. Katniss was too practical, too much of a survivor to be lured in with his pretty words and shy looks. She might even be fond of him, but I know her. I know my girl. When it comes down to it, she'll kill him without a blink because that's what the Hunger Games are all about: survival.

I can't stop from wondering, though, who she found in the crowd? Who was she talking to when she answered Caesar's questions?

Part of me does not want to know the answer.


The Games, Day 1

We have to watch the games. We're allowed to sleep. Not much happens at night anyway, but we all have to watch the games during the day. It's not yet mid-day when the games begin with Claudius Templesmith's famous voice announcing, "Ladies and gentlemen, let the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games begin!"

I come to hate the sound of his voice. The emotion he uses as he cheers and laments the tributes starts to wear on me from the very first battle. There is a frenzied excitement in his words as he reports each attack, every blow, the tripping, the grappling, the biting, as the tributes race to the cornucopia, and I find myself fantasizing about driving a rock pick through his forehead. By the end of the day his voice makes my spine crawl with rage.

Claudius jumps on it when Katniss hesitates at the gong signaling the start of the Hunger Games. Bets and odds are rapidly sounded off like an auctioneer's yodel. Peeta jumps into the fight right away, but Katniss turns and runs, grabbing what she can as she flees the bloodshed at the cornucopia. When she runs, the cameras lose interest in her and focus on the bloodiest fighting as some of the tributes reach the first weapons. When the cameras focus on Katniss again, there is a knife stuck into a backpack she has flung over her shoulders as she races into the woods.

There are eleven dead in less than an hour. She isn't one of them.

When the battle ends, Claudius gets excited again, but he's all eager and conspiratorial now, anxious to see what the careers do as they call an end to the fighting. It's early in the game and packs are often formed to pick off the weak. The alliances are flimsy and everyone is suspicious of a double-cross. Claudius reminds everyone of the Sixty-second Hunger Games when two packs formed immediately and there was talk that it had been pre-arranged by some of the tributes when they were still at the Training Center. On the second day of the games, both tributes from District 2 set traps for the others in their own pack and it turned out this had been planned as well, with the intention of hoarding all the food and water.

Betting runs even higher as his story ends and one of the careers starts shouting to the others to join him or run. Several careers come to his side immediately. I fall backwards, luckily landing on a bench behind me as Peeta Mellark himself strides across the open field toward the newly formed pack. Grumbles and hissing fill the Hob as we all watch the dirty double-crossing liar rip a stretch of material from inside his shirt to bind a wound on his arm. I can't even take satisfaction from the bruises and cuts on his face, because my own fist is itching to give him more. All that talk of loving Katniss, of moon-gazing at her from afar, is nothing but a load of sludge. Peeta Mellark is nothing but a conniving rat.

The cameras find Katniss again. With an eleven as a score, they are eager to find out what special skills she has that impressed the Gamemakers. She runs, and then stops to pull the knife from her pack, eyeing it with satisfaction. When the cameras find her again, she's setting twitch-up snares just like I taught her, then she climbs into a tree and settles in for the night.

A thin hand rubs my shoulders, making me realize how tense I am. I look up to find Greasy Sae's sympathetic eyes on me and I just nod. Every muscle in my body aches as I leave the Hob to find something to drink. I don't get very far and I double over, vomiting what little food I had in my stomach.

The Games, Day 2

I can't stand to watch this. I can't stand to see her suffering like this. The games started early today. An idiot girl started a fire near the tree Katniss had hidden in, and the careers found her and killed her.

At least now Katniss knows that Peeta is hunting her. When she smiles into the camera, Claudius has a field day trying to guess what it means. I think she intended it for me, to let me know she's still in this for the survival. It makes me feel better until mid-day when she is covered in sweat and getting weak from dehydration.

I can't force myself to leave when Katniss straps herself into a tree and the anthem plays. I stare at the bowl of water Greasy Sae placed beside me before she left. I stare at it, slightly milky with lime, and I'd give anything to send it to Katniss right now, but I can't. I drink it and I leave to keep my promise. I have to get up early tomorrow so I can hunt and bring food back for her family and mine.

The Games, Day 3 - Water

Nothing really happens today between the other tributes, so they focus on Katniss and a few of the others, struggling to find water as the careers finish sorting through the spoils of the cornucopia. The cameras have nothing interesting to show and people are getting bored. Everyone except me. With no fighting or deaths to exploit, the cameras are following Katniss closely with Claudius changing his odds and making snide remarks about her score.

The rock pick that I fantasize about driving into his skull is now absurdly large and would be too big for me to wield, so I change my fantasy into rock drills, cutting bore holes into his head from every angle for the blasting sticks. In my daydreaming, Claudius's head looks like the pincushion in my mother's sewing basket with blasting caps sticking out in every direction.

She is suffering, and I don't understand it when she finds the dark berries but refuses to eat them. She must know something about them that I don't. She was always better finding plants than I was.

When she whispers for water, Claudius clucks his tongue and shakes his head, and asks the same question we're all asking. Why hasn't Haymitch helped her? They pull up another screen for us to see, listing the number of sponsors each tribute has. Peeta and Katniss are running neck and neck with each other in terms of sponsors, and both are even in competition with the career's districts. That in itself is remarkable. Normally, District 12 only has a few sponsors, those who are eternally optimistic for the underdog.

Even though her expression is stoic, I know her well enough to know she wants to cry. I've only seen her cry once, after her father died. When Katniss stumbles and falls, the wooden bowl of soup that is cupped in my hand breaks in half, and I startle myself, unaware I had been squeezing it.

"Look!" someone shouts, and I hear a rustle as everyone around the screen stands to see what I have not yet noticed.

Mud. She's staring dumbly at her hand, which is covered in mud. As the cameras pull back and Katniss fights her way through the foliage, she's at the edge of a pond and a cheer goes up across the Seam and all eight thousand residents of the district breathe a sigh of relief.

Katniss has found water.

The Games, Day 4 - Treed

Even though I'm up early, I hear the clamor and cries of despair before I reach the Hob. My feet feel heavy as I try to run, and by the time I reach the Hob, all I can see is orange on every screen.

The arena is on fire.

The cameras are everywhere as tributes and animals race from the flames. They show everyone except Katniss. The people in the Hob begin to curse and I'm only slightly slower on the uptake. The fire is a tool of the Gamemakers.

There's no sign of Katniss at all and I feel my heart beating frantically in my chest as if it's me out there fleeing the fire. The sky is black with smoke and the arc of fireballs cut through the trees wherever tributes try to run. From this side of the games, we can tell they are being herded back toward the cornucopia. The Gamemakers are trying to speed things up.

The fire rages on for most of the morning before they finally find Katniss again. She's covered in smoke and burned, but she's alive. She's found water again and is nursing her wounds. When she's done, she packs up her gear and looks like she's about to move on to find shelter, but as soon as she lifts her wounds from the water, she sinks back down.

I make my way closer to the screen and imagine I'm watching over her even when the camera cuts away. I lose track of time as I stand guard next to the television, waiting for another shot of her to appear.

"Katniss! Wake up!" I'm screaming uselessly at the screen and I can hear people running in behind me to see what I'm shouting about.

The pack and that backstabbing Peeta are just about on top of her. She wakes with a start and bolts, but she's weak and injured. They're not doing much better, having spent the day retreating from the fire. Many of them have burns, too.

She flies up a tall tree, faster than I ever remember seeing her climb, and even when she's hurt and tired, I'm in awe of her all over again. Claudius' commentary is surprisingly filled with glowing compliments and amazement.

When she starts to make idle conversation with the pack, we're all stunned into silence, even Claudius Templesmith. When the shock wears off, Claudius is roaring with laughter and District 12 is laughing, too, although weaker and more out of nervous exhaustion than real hilarity.

But I feel the first of my hope spark when Katniss' eyes zero in on the bow and arrows in the hands of one of the careers from District 2.

When the camera catches her focusing on something in the trees nearby, another camera tries to find what she's looking at, but nothing is there. Then a tiny dark hand reaches through the branches and we all know it has to be Rue, from District 11. She's pointing at something and Katniss looks up. The cameras cannot catch what she's looking at, and it isn't until we watch her climb precariously onto the smaller branches of the tree that we understand what she's doing.

I don't leave the Hob that night. I don't leave the dark screens for even a moment.

The Games, Day 5, 6, 7 - Tracker jackers

Everyone in the Seam is watching as the nest of tracker jackers comes down on the pack, and the cameras zoom off after each of them, losing sight of Katniss in the process. Two careers in the pack take the worst of the attack. The one with the bow falls instantly. The other drops soon after. The rest are faster and running pell-mell for the lake, almost knocking themselves unconscious running into trees and branches. By the time the cameras find Katniss again, I can tell she's been stung as well; maybe not as badly as the others, but she's also at least fifty pounds lighter than the rest of them. It won't take much to make her succumb to the tracker jacker's venomous stings.

I hear someone's urgent voice. "How many times was she stung? Can you tell?" I turn and find Katniss' mother standing behind me. Prim is gripping her mother's arms so tight her fingers have gone white.

"Two, I think," I answer. All I can see are the obvious stings on her face and neck.

"There!" Prim cries out. "On her leg, too. That's three."

"At least she's pulled out the stingers," I tell them. "She knows."

"But she's so thin," her mother moans, "and so many on her head."

The only place worse than stings on the torso is stings on the neck and head, because the venom gets into your mind so much faster. We watch her fight to get the bow and arrows from the dead career girl. She has at least most of her wits about her, but she's acting strange and we all know the venom has started to effect her. She's still pulling at the quiver of arrows when Peeta, dripping wet, bursts through the trees in front of her. He's been stung, too.

Half of the Hob is on their feet with angry growls, as if we could all rush to Katniss' aid.

"What are you still doing here?" he snaps at her. "Are you mad? Get up! Get up!" He yanks her up by her arm and shoves her away. "Run!" he screams. "Run!"

Everyone in the Hob, including myself, is stunned and speechless.

The career with the sword—Cato is his name—slashes his way through the brush and Peeta charges him with a frantic shout. The battle is classic and fierce. Claudius is taking great delight at his job of describing every swing, every attack, and each action has at least two descriptions attached to it: lethal and quick, heavy and sharp, loud and crashing.

Cato seems possessed with killing Katniss. Peeta, despite his actions in the arena so far, seems possessed with stopping him.

Cato doesn't even appear to care about the traitor to the pack standing unflinching in front of him. He does everything he can to get around Peeta. He pulls branches down, throws things at him, and swings wildly with the sword, but nothing stops Peeta from letting Cato past. Peeta even sacrifices his spear to keep Cato from following Katniss and it's cleaved in half.

The cameras cut away to Katniss as she falls victim to the worst of the venom and collapses not more than a hundred feet away.

Even Claudius Templesmith's voice is quiet as the cameras focus on her unmoving body.

When the cameras come back quickly to the fight, Cato's arms look like they feel heavier. With his heart pounding from the battle, he must surely be spreading the tracker jacker venom faster through his body. I can count seven stings on his shoulders and arms alone. Peeta is slowing down, too, however, and cannot take advantage of this weakness. Despite the slow arch of the sword, it slices deep across Peeta's leg. Instead of falling back with the strike, Peeta lunges forward as he cries out in pain and lifts Cato up before crashing him down onto the ground. Peeta has him in some kind of wrestling hold and Claudius comments on Peeta's strength. When Cato's body goes limp, everyone begins to guess that Peeta has broken his neck, but the cannon never goes off and Peeta is now too weak and disoriented by the venom to realize he hasn't finished the job.

The cameras follow him, staggering and bleeding through the woods, until he comes to a stream and he falls unconscious onto the muddy bank.

The Games, Day 7

I haven't shaved. I haven't hunted. Katniss will be furious with me. I basically shut down just like her mother did. I only need to know if she is alive or dead. Every hour the cannons are quiet are a blessing and a curse. The waiting has almost broken me. These have been the worst two days of my life. All of Panem is waiting and watching with me, to see if she'll survive.

The commentators have picked up a favorite phrase—Peeta's redemption—and it's caused uproar in the Capitol's audience. Apparently, District 12 weren't the only ones in a rage over Peeta joining the careers in their pack. Key moments of the games are being replayed and everyone watches for minuscule signs as they reevaluate every move Peeta has made, looking at every act as Peeta's plan all along to buy Katniss time, to discourage the pack, to mislead them, staying awake that night under the tree, not to guard her from escaping, but to protect her. He's become a romantic hero, desperately trying to keep the girl he loves alive.

Since the tracker jackers, Cato has come to and dragged himself back to the lake. We catch glimpses of a couple of girl tributes hovering at the edges of the pack's camp near the cornucopia waiting for a strong opportunity to make a move. Peeta regains consciousness, but is so weak from the stings and blood loss that he simply and methodically began to bury himself in the mud of the bank to camouflage himself. Katniss still lies dying from the venom, dehydration, and exposure.

With all of the replays to find the evidence of Peeta's love and the waiting to see which tribute recovers from their injuries first, no one has been clamoring for more, and the Gamemakers have held back their hands from using any contrivance that would force the tributes together again.

As one day passes and then another, Claudius has the cameras cut away to people weeping openly within the Capitol, and reports that a small mob there nearly beat a man to death for trying to get a bet going on which of them, Peeta or Katniss, would die from their wounds first.

The cameras find Peeta again, hidden in the mud. If we hadn't all watched him bury himself there, we would never guess he was there, but the camera now knows where to go and it gets a close-up of where Peeta's face is hidden and we can make out his features, but just barely. Jealousy has been eating me inside out, but I can't hate him for what he's done. I can't hate him for keeping her alive and giving her a chance to win.

As is their new cycle, after showing us Peeta the cameras then find Katniss. I know she's alive, but the longer she's unconscious the weaker she will be. There is a collective gasp as her eyes flutter open for the first time in two days. When she slowly pushes herself up, I take a deep breath and feel like I haven't been able to breathe since she fell unconscious.

As I watch her try to eat and drink, Greasy Sae presses a bowl of soup into my hands and nods to me to do the same. So as Katniss rebuilds her strength, I do the same and force myself to move around the Hob to work out the stiffness in my legs.

I watch her try the bow to get the feel of the weapon, and when she catches some strange bird, I berate myself for doing less under better circumstances, neglecting my duties and my promise to her. While she hunts for herself, I dash home to clean and change before heading out to the woods.

The Games, Day 8 - On the offense

Before I get to the Hob to watch the day's events, I already hear the talk on the street. There has already been a death this morning and Katniss has formed an alliance. The mere fact that her name is mentioned seconds after the news of the death tells me all I need to know and I don't ask who died because I don't care. It just means one less threat to her.

Her new ally is the small twelve-year old girl from District 11. She had no older sister to take her place in the reaping the way Prim did, and though Katniss is pragmatic to a fault, I think I can guess why she chose the girl as her ally. But little Rue must have other skills, too. I mean, it's Katniss after all. So far, all I can tell is that she's damn good at hiding.

I see scenes of the girl, Rue, scampering away with purpose from one camera, and then the picture changes to show Katniss striding through the woods with equal resolve. I can't help the smile on my face because I know that walk. Katniss has a plan and a weapon—a lethal combination in any district, and she's headed toward the lake.

When Rue's smoking fire lures the careers away, I'm confused what Katniss is up to. Surely she wouldn't go to all this trouble just to steal food. However, when the pack leaves and everything is left unguarded, I hear myself whisper, "It's a trap."

Katniss knows this, too, and her eyes are sharp as she watches another tribute pick and dance her way toward the stockpile of goods to steal food. I can't tell how it's booby trapped, but Katniss seems to have figured it out. She positions herself and lets loose three arrows, slicing open a bag of apples.

The booby-trap is triggered as the apples fall to the ground and the entire area explodes. We had all watched the kid from District 3 dig up the explosives, but we never saw him set them. He must have rigged them at night.

Katniss is too close and she is thrown by the blast. She lands hard and seems stunned, and Claudius howls in excited delight at the action.

"Can we turn off the sound?" I snarl and I'm smacked in the back of the head by Cray, the head Peacekeeper in District 12.

"Mind your tongue, boy," he snaps at me.

I fight to keep the sneer off my face. I know I'm lucky to get off with such a light warning. Talking against Claudius is talking against the games, and talking against the games is talking against the Capitol. And talking against the Capitol is treason, punishable by death.

"Her head is bleeding," I hear Claudius's grating voice say, and my anger at Cray is gone as I spin around to see what he's talking about.

"Yes, she seems to have fallen badly," he adds, and then launches into a commentary on percussive injuries and head trauma.

God, can one person's voice be any more annoying? If he's not howling with excitement, he's yipping so fast he sounds like a pack of wild dogs.

The camera is able to get a close-up and we all see blood coming from her left ear. When she tries to get up, she falls. I start to feel sick as Claudius starts to describe, in graphic detail, what happens when the brain swells inside your skull.

"Get outta there," I whisper to her. "Get outta there!"

She can't walk, so she crawls across the plain back to the brush she had been hiding in a moment ago.

She stays there all day. The camera tries to catch her occasionally, but when its obvious she isn't going to move, they focus on the other tributes and show us close-ups of the blast damage.

A hand rests lightly on my shoulder and I turn to find my mother. "How is she?" she asks, holding onto my sister's hand at her side.

"I don't know. Not good. She blew up the pack's supplies," I tell her.

"They didn't catch her, did they?" she asks, only just arriving. She must have missed the explosion while she was making her way here.

"No, she's hiding now, but she was caught in the blast. Her ear is bleeding and she can't seem to stand."

"She's probably ruptured her ear," my mother tells me and I look at her in surprise. "It happens sometimes in the mines, men getting caught in the repercussive blasts when they're expanding the tunnels."

I like that answer a lot more than swelling brains. "Will she be okay?" I ask her.

Mother frowns but nods anyway. "She'll be dizzy for a while, and she might be deaf in that ear. Only time will tell."

I groan and reach up to pull at the aching muscles in my neck.

"Don't worry, Gale." Mother smoothes back the hair over my ear. "She's a fighter, that one."

She moves off with my sister to sit on the benches near one of the shops as I look back up at the screen, waiting for another glimpse of her. I try not to think of other tributes that have won the Hunger Games bearing the scars of their fight for survival. I remember one year the last two tributes fell off a cliff as they fought. The loser died in the fall. The winner was paralyzed from the neck down.

The Games, Day 9 - Rue

I get up early and force myself to hunt before heading to the Hob to watch the day's games. I don't even try to hold back the cry of relief as I immediately see her on the screen. Ripper, the old woman who makes white liquor, pats my arm and presses two small coins into my hand.

"Save me a trip, will you, Gale? Take these over to Greasy Sae for me."

I nod and stare at the coins. It's an odd request, asking anyone in District 12 to ferry money to anyone else, not that I'd steal it, of course. It just isn't done.

I'm stopped again by Darius, one of our Peacekeepers, who also passes money to me. He's only a few years older than me, and nothing like what you'd expect a Peacekeeper to be like.

"What's going on?" I ask him.

"Greasy Sae is taking up a collection in the Hob to sponsor Katniss and Peeta," he says.

"She is?" And I can do nothing about the surprise on my face. Sure, District 12 rarely does so well in the Games, making it to the last third of the tributes, but what can we do by just scraping together our meager savings?

"Yeah, and I think word's gotten out. I saw three shop owners from the square in here earlier and why would they ever come to the Hob? Saw the mayor's daughter not more than five minutes ago, too, and you know she's never down here," Darius tells me.

"Madge? You don't think the mayor...?" If the mayor has pitched in to sponsor our tributes, I may have to just eat a lump of coal!

Darius shrugs. "Who's to say?"

Darius walks with me to Greasy Sae's stall. "How's Katniss doing so far?" I ask, my eyes searching the screens.

"Better today. I think she's messed up her ear, though. She keeps pulling at it like she's trying to clear water out of it."

When I get to Greasy Sae's booth, she grins at me and pulls both Darius and me behind the counter. "Look!" she whispers.

One of the old kettles she uses for stews is filled by a third with money. It's more than I've ever seen in my life. By Darius' expression, he's feeling the same.

"All that is for Katniss?" I whisper in shock, understanding now why the old woman wouldn't want to talk too loudly about this.

"And Peeta," she adds with frown. "He ain't dead yet," she reminds me.

Darius lets out a low whistle then glances around nervously. I look around, too, and catch a moment of the camera's rare attention on Peeta, still lying in the mud, unmoving but for a feeble word he mutters in a fever delirium: Katniss.

"What do we do with it?" I ask, never having been in a position to sponsor anyone before.

"We take it to the mayor," Sae tells us. Of course, she'd remember when Haymitch was tribute. Did they take up a collection for him, too, all those years ago?

"I better go with her to help her keep it safe," Darius offers.

"Yes, yes. Gale, you stay here in case more comes," Sae tells me, and I agree. I have a good view of the screens from her stall.

While they take the money to the mayor, I watch Katniss sort through her things, obviously waiting for something and I realize she's waiting for Rue to come back. It's nearly night when she leaves her perch in a tree to go look for her ally.

I'm distracted for a moment by another person from the Seam coming to leave money to help sponsor our tributes, when I hear a small girl's voice screaming for Katniss. When I look up, the cameras show Rue caught in a net, screaming and kicking to get out as one of the other tributes approaches her with a spear. Katniss runs into the small clearing just as he stabs the girl, and an arrow from Katniss' bow skewers him through the neck.

As we all watch the girl die in Katniss' arms, I feel a rage I've left dormant in the pit of my stomach ever since she entered the arena. The Capitol is everything evil in this world. It's not enough to starve us and to make us watch the weak die from hunger. It's not enough to subjugate us and keep us penned like animals in our districts. It's not enough to enslave us and force us to mine and farm and work to create an easy life for everyone in the Capitol. It's not enough that we have no rights, except the right to be whipped, and no liberty, except the freedom to work ourselves to death. No. No, they have to pit us against each other—pit the children—against each other in some grotesque representation of warfare.

All I can see is red until I hear Katniss like I have never heard her before. She's singing. Even as I can feel my heart turning to stone, one small notch in it drips slowly in red. I am never more proud of Katniss as when she weaves flowers around the small girl's body. As the hovercraft's grapple lowers to pick up the girl's corpse, the cameras pull away so they can't focus on what Katniss has done, but in the twilight sky, you can see the blossoms fall one by one from the wreath Katniss made.

When Katniss receives the loaf of bread and announces to the camera her thanks to District 11, I'm confused by her words until I realize this gift is not from our district at all. It's from Rue's.

Despite my worry for Katniss, for the first time in my life, I feel a glimmer of hope.

The Games, Day 10 - Change of rules

I stay by Greasy Sae's stall today and thank those who are still bringing a coin here and there for our district's gift. Even though today, Katniss is taking Rue's death very hard, I can't stop thinking about District 11 and how they reached out to her in thanks, in friendship.

The districts are not our enemy. Like little Rue, they are our allies, if only there was a way to reach them. I spend the day like Katniss in silent contemplation of fallen friends, wondering once again about District 13 and the a boy and a girl wearing rags we found in the woods one day. Before we could do anything, a hovercraft from the Capitol swept in and hauled them away.

Who were they? What were they doing out there? Where were they from? More important, where were they going?

I think about how a tiny lump of bread has been like a deep clanging bell and though it was probably not intended as such, that mere crust has become exactly the message I needed to hear. Communication between the districts has always been forbidden, and all it took was some bread to sneak through right in front of their eyes. They even allowed it!

We have allies.

Really the only communication we have between the districts is the Hunger Games itself. It's the only time we're allowed to mingle with one another... and it suddenly occurs to me. The trainers! Haymitch has had access to the trainers from all the districts every year for the games. Even the train that picks up each tribute is a vehicle for communication. My mind is spinning with ideas when the trumpets blare from the monitors.

The Hell Hound's voice announces that there's a change in the rules and I feel the sneer instantly on my face. Of course, when you're in charge of everything you can change whatever you want. Rules mean nothing. They're only there to be broken at a whim.

And a whim it is. The citizen's of the Capitol are so besotted with the idea of Peeta's fatal romance that they've pressured the president into changing the rules to allow them both to live, if they can make it that far.

I should be happy, but I'm angrier than ever, and it has nothing to do with Katniss shouting Peeta's name.


The Games, Day 11 - Kiss

I can't stop my thoughts from flying. I lulled myself to sleep last night thinking of ways to build and hide a small stockpile of weapons. I had to find a way to the Hob that avoided the camera crews that have popped up, interviewing anyone who knows Katniss. They were at her house last night and I had to wait before I could deliver a rabbit and wild turkey eggs to her mother and Prim, like I promised Katniss.

I made a note of the crews, though, while I waited in the shadows realizing they were another vehicle for communicating to the districts. Two of them were wearing replicas of Madge's pin, the one she gave Katniss to wear during the games. I snort to myself. Capitol people sure do love showing off their money. I only wish I knew how the reporters got here.

When the camera crews show up in the Hob the next day, nobody points me out as Katniss' friend—only referring to me as a cousin on occasion— and for that I'm thankful. District people know how to stick together.

I keep my eyes on the screen as Katniss finds what's left of Peeta, but when the cameras let us see how badly he's hurt, the Hell Hound is fast at it with new odds for the betting and new prognoses about gangrene and blood poisoning, as well as the odds of surviving both without treatment. I tune it out until I see something that stops me in my tracks.

Katniss is leaning over Peeta and I didn't see enough of whatever it was to know if she kissed him, but when she pulls away, she laughs. Laughs. I try not to think about the rock in my stomach and I try to tell myself it doesn't mean anything, but I can't help enjoying Peeta's cries of pain as Katniss tries to move him into the stream to clean him up.

As she tends his wounds and washes the mud from his clothes, I find myself watching more and thinking about treason less. When she laughs again as she's cleaning the deep gash in his leg, the rock in my stomach turns into a boulder. I hate the way they talk so easily with each other, already having so much in common simply because of their names being pulled in the reaping. He teases her about Haymitch, someone I know not at all, except by reputation. When they start to move again, to find a hiding place and shelter, I enjoy his pain a little more and feel less guilty about it.

At least Peeta knows how bad off he is, and he tries to prepare Katniss for what could be the inevitable. She won't hear it, though, arguing with him to stop talking about dying, and then she's kissing him!

She kissed him. Her first kiss. She kissed Peeta Mellark.

The boulder in my stomach feels like it's being yanked out of me, pulling my guts with it.

She kissed him. I can't stop repeating it in my head. Why? Why did she kiss him? To shut him up? To give him hope? There's a sourness on my tongue with my next thought. Because she wanted to?

She's tender with him as she moves away and almost walks into another gift from their sponsors: a pot of hot soup. I glance back at Greasy Sae, but she's staring at the screen like everyone else.

Just when I'm still reeling from the first kiss, she kisses Peeta again. As she patiently feeds him the broth, kissing him again and again between spoonfuls, I can't watch any more.

The Games, Day 12 - Peeta and the Syrup

I can't sleep. I lay in bed with my two brothers, listening to the sounds of the Seam at night, sounds that have lulled me to sleep for over eighteen years, but they bring me no comfort tonight. I feel like someone is standing on my chest. I can't get the image of Katniss kissing Peeta out of my head.

I want to hate him. I want to hate whatever he is to her, but I can't. He's partly to thank for keeping her alive in the games. Then I want to hate her, but that's even more impossible. I let myself brood, thinking of reasons... excuses really, why she kissed him. She's been gone for a little more than two weeks and already she's kissing Peeta Mellark. I've know her my whole life, and known her well for the past five years, but we've never shared even a yearning glance.

I have never pushed her, never openly presumed more of our relationship. It was just a given. She was my constant. I guess I thought I was her's. There had been more than enough opportunity for us to express our feelings, but she never made me feel like I had to. I never questioned how she felt about me. The smile on her face when we would meet in the woods told me every day how she felt. In the woods, alone and together, we could talk openly about everything: our families, our dreams, our fears, and our anger with the Capitol. Mostly we talked about hunting. I taught her and she taught me. We were perfect together, always giving each other strength and support. I never had to compete with Katniss, not for attention, not for food, not for anything. Everything was equal between us.

It's like she is a part of me. Denying her would be denying myself.

Our situation is simply impossible to ignore. She's only sixteen and is—or was—practically the sole provider for her family. I'm eighteen and soon headed into the mines to scrape what living I can from the earth to feed my larger family, at least until my brothers can help out more.

I knew there was never any point in thinking about the future with Katniss until she was too old for the reaping. This was my last year, and I'm still relieved that my name was never called, even with forty-two slips with my name on them.

I can't say I never thought about it, though. I thought about what it would be like to be hers, hunting with her by day, holding her to me at night. Funny, though, in all my dreaming, I never pictured us living in District 12. We were always somewhere else, somewhere open and sunlit and free.

My mind makes me watch her kiss him again, and I wish it was me. I see how tender she is with him, and I wish it was me. I see him protecting her, and I wish it was me. He confessed his love for her, and...

I jerk out of bed, dress, and storm out of the house. I need to kill something, but luck is conspiring against me and I return empty-handed and angry.

When I finally show up at the Hob, I see the two tributes from District 2 shaking hands. I don't know what they were talking about, but whatever it is, it's settled and over now, because the cameras cut away briefly to Katniss, asleep, and Peeta watching over her. Clubhead Toiletsmith has to comment on how pale he looks, and I have to agree. Peeta is as white as quicklime. His eyes are red from whatever infection is raging through his body.

Nothing much happens throughout the morning, but the betting action has become it's own source of entertainment for the Capitol. Since the announcement, odds on the single tributes have plummeted and odds are now in favor of District 2 winning.

I see one of the camera crew in the Hob watching me. He's wearing the pin that looks like the one Katniss has. I ignore him and sit down next to Darius.

"Peeta looks awful," Darius says to me.

"He's an idiot for letting a wound like that get soaked in mud. How long did he lay there buried? Two days?" I'm not forgiving.

Darius shrugs. "Excellent place to camouflage yourself, though."

I snort. "And do you think he got up to pee or just wet himself right where he was?"

Darius frowns, but stops talking to me. I can see out of the corner of my eye that he's thinking about what I just said, though.

Katniss scolds Peeta for letting her sleep and makes a soup for him, to help him keep whatever strength he has left. I sigh as I think of her soups. They're always good. She comes back and treats his wounds again. The leg is a lot worse. Anyone who knows anything can recognize blood poisoning.

When Peeta asks for a story, Katniss tells him how we got Prim a goat for her birthday. I'm sure there are people cooing and making sympathetic sounds in the Capitol right now, but I feel bitter. First, she has to lie about the stag we killed which was the real source of the money we split to buy the goat. As if anyone with an ounce of sense would believe for a moment her mother could have anything so fine as a silver locket. Second, and probably to my own shame, I hate that I'm left out of a story from her life in which I played so large a role. That day is one of my most cherished memories and to hear it reduced to me carrying the wounded animal to Prim makes it feel... less.

The trumpets alert tributes and citizens alike that Hell Hound is going to make another announcement, and when he declares that there's something each of them needs that they cannot do without, I know that whatever it is it will be for Peeta, not her. She doesn't need anything. She never has. Katniss makes due with what she has and doesn't waste time lamenting over things she would like to have, even if she needs it.

When Haymitch sends her the sleeping syrup and I watch Katniss trick Peeta into taking it, I know the smile on my face must look cruel to outsiders, but I can't help myself. It makes me happy to know that she put one over on Peeta. He doesn't know her. He might think he loves her, but he has no idea what she's capable of. I, on the other hand, had totally expected her to do exactly this.

I also know she would have knocked him on the head to keep him unconscious if she didn't have anything as polite as sleeping syrup.

Never taunt Katniss about her inability to lie.

The Games, Day 13 - The Feast

No one leaves wherever they are as they watch the games now. Those in the square have brought blankets and straw, making little campsites in the square as they watch the games and gasp for and cheer on our tributes. The best screens are in the square.

School has been cancelled and I try to watch the games with Katniss' mother and Prim at the Hob. The television screens there have been strung up onto makeshift shelves high on the walls. Some are clear and have a good picture. Some are fuzzy and filled with static. One of them is black and white, and has a distortion in the screen. Whenever someone moves across that area of the screen, that part of their body elongates in a bizarre manner: unnaturally long legs, tall foreheads, eyes as large as an owls. The younger kids watch that screen when things get too frightening for them.

Ripper and my mother discuss Katniss' work of concealing the shallow cave where she has kept Peeta hidden. When she finishes preparing to leave for the feast, I don't watch her kiss Peeta goodbye but everyone in the Hob turns to look at me even though we can hear everyone in the square sighing in delight at what I'm sure was a tender, intimate moment.

Everything happens fast once the feasting table rises into the plain by the cornucopia, and the redheaded girl darts out from inside the horn to claim her bag and flees. She's smart, that one. Too bad Katniss didn't think of that. When Katniss makes her move to get Peeta's medicine, she's instantly attacked by the knife-wielder from District 2. The girl seems to have a personal grudge against Katniss and I can't stop myself from leaping to my feet when one of the blades catches Katniss across her forehead. My actions are not unique because everyone in District 12 has just jumped up to shout against the attack.

I'm gasping and filled with a protective desperation watching Katniss fight the career from District 2. Next to the career, Katniss looks so small that a choked sound gets out of my throat because I've never felt so helpless in my life. All the doubts I have about her have vanished as I watch what may be the last moments of her life, but the girl—Clove, I remember her name is—is too busy taunting Katniss to see Thresh descend upon her.

Was he always that big? He looks like a giant compared to the girls. As he speaks, it's answers he's demanding, wanting to know what happened to little Rue. His size is intimidating enough, but to see him angry and vengeful, and how deep his loyalty to his fellow tribute runs, makes me wonder if the Capitol is even just a little afraid of this kind of display. It could easily be one of them falling under the rock that Thresh just used to cave in Clove's head.

Peeta did have one thing right, though. Katniss has no idea how many people admire her, how easily she draws them to her without even trying. Even giant Thresh lets her go out of a sense of honor and indebtedness.

I hear my brother whisper; "I'm going to marry Katniss one day."

"You can't, silly," my sister whispers back. "She's going to marry Peeta."

I take a slow step back, and then another, and another, enough to spin away quickly without catching their eye, and I fall to my knees in a nook that separates one store from another. I can't catch my breath. I feel like I've just been kicked in the stomach. Of all the times my family has seen Katniss and I together, even they believe the television more than what is real. They have no doubt that she'll return to District 12, and they have no doubt she'll never be with me.

When I have recovered, I stand slowly and check the screen just as a cannon sounds. Clove is dead. The cameras cut away to Katniss making it back to her cave. Blood soaks the front of her clothes down to her waist. She pulls out a hypodermic and gives Peeta a shot of whatever was in the plunger and she passes out, blood still streaming from the gash on her forehead.

The cameras move back to the other tributes as Cato tries to track Thresh through the tall grass, but that gets boring fast and they begin to show slow-motion reruns of previous attacks and the deaths of other tributes from this year's games.

Funny that they never show Rue again, not even when she was caught in the net. It's like the Capitol wants to pretend she never existed and can erase her from our memories.

Can they do that, I suddenly wonder? No, of course they can't. Look at District 13. They literally wiped them off the map, but no one has forgotten.

When the sleeping syrup finally wears off and Peeta wakes up, I feel numb. I know Katniss is alive because the cannons are quiet, but Peeta doesn't know that. He's frantic and screaming at her, shaking her. He probably thinks the cannon went off while he was drugged. When he collapses over her, crying, I can hear everyone making 'aww' sounds around me, even my own mother.

"Check for a pulse, idiot," I mutter to myself, too quiet for anyone to hear me.

I feel like I'm losing my best friend, even if she survives the games. She hasn't come right out and said she loves Peeta, but actions speak louder than words. She's not just trying to save his life and get him stronger. The way she touches him. The tenderness in her hands. I've seen those hands slice down the belly of a rabbit and turn the hide inside out as she skinned it. I've never seen her hands soft like that except with Prim, and look what Katniss sacrificed for her.

I've never seen this side of Katniss before but there's something that still feels not... authentic about it all. Sure, I've never kissed her, but somehow I think there would be, I don't know, more.

The Games, Day 14 - The rain

The cameras only check in on Katniss and Peeta throughout the day, and focus instead on the other tributes that are not newly returned from death's door or unconscious from blood loss, and are still capable of providing some kind of entertainment.

Cloudiest (my newest, admittedly juvenile, nickname for the voice I have come to detest) alerts us, unnecessarily, that the Gamemakers have decided to allow for a few showers in the arena. By that, he means torrential rain, thunder and lightning. I glance up at the sky. It's not raining here, of course.

There are only five tributes left. The crafty girl from 4 is still lurking about, being slippery as crank-shaft lubricant, and with Katniss and Peeta out for now, the only thing left for any kind of entertainment is Cato and Thresh stalking one another in the weeds. Since there's not much else for Cloudiest to do, we all get a lesson on the tall thick stuff, which is called ostrich grass. He tells us it's a special variety which we all realize is Capitol-speak for genetically engineered, like the tracker jackers and the jabberjays. I don't understand how it's deadly as we watch Cato, who apparently couldn't track a slug by its slime trail, trying to find Thresh in the tall stuff. There is at least a hectare of it for him to hide in.

The cameras give us an advantage from the sky, and we can see both tributes in different areas of the grass. Cato is cutting huge swaths of the grass out of his way, but all I can think is that he's wasting a lot of energy for nothing, except to lead Thresh to him if he comes across one of these trails.

I lose interest in Cato's stupidity and lack of knowledge on how to track someone as big as Thresh, through something as easily disturbed as this ostrich grass. Even if it is pouring rain, every shaft of the plant that Thresh has passed is broken and bent. How much easier could it be?

Having given up on Katniss and Peeta, the cameras are not there when she regains consciousness. By the time they realize their mistake, Katniss is updating Peeta on what happened at the feast. I feel a watery smile on my face as Katniss tries to explain to Peeta what we all here, in the Seam, already know about debts and that Thresh did not want to owe anybody for anything.

He doesn't get it, and she doesn't expect him to, but she tries to explain anyway. Katniss has a weak spot for teaching people what they don't know, but would help them survive if they did.

Just as she taught me how to use the bow, I think to myself, and feel another little piece of something I thought was special between us slip away.

Her voice sounds like that of a tired child when I hear her say, "I want to go home, Peeta." The way she says it, needing him to make it better, needing him to fix it, makes me slump over my knees. Even though his injuries are far worse than hers, and even though she has been the one protecting him these past few days, in those few words, she has given him her crushed spirit to protect.

I've never heard my Katniss talk like that, and again, I'm mad at myself for not volunteering in Peeta's place, just so I could be with her now.

The day wears on, and so does the storm that beats on the arena. It's evening when Peeta wakes her, and the cameras are ready this time. They must have realized that with only five tributes to watch, and two of them hunkered down in one place, it's easier for them to track everybody now.

They eat and talk, and we watch them, and I hate it. I hate everything about it. I don't want to see how easy it is for them to be together while trapped in the arena. I don't want to see the way he looks at her, and the way she's starting to see how he's looking at her. I don't want to be tortured anymore about what's growing between them and how Peeta Mellark is becoming her entire world in that place; that the only place she can feel safe is next to him, in his arms.

...With her hand entwined with his...

I'm shaking. I'm shaking so hard my entire body aches because I see her face. I see the change in her eyes, the not-quite-right feeling I've had when I watch her kiss him has vanished. I see the change in her kiss, the way her entire body relaxes and her lips almost move hungrily with his. I see it because I know her that well. I see what's going on in her mind. I see her kiss become something real.

I can't even find concern for her when Peeta notices her head bleeding and breaks the kiss. I'm just happy that they've stopped. I can only feel grateful for the moment of relief from the pain, until he wraps his arms around her and pulls her close to sleep some more.

I think about the one and only time I felt her body next to mine in the Justice Building as I hugged her goodbye. I should be exhausted, but my mind will not shut down as it replays everything again and again. I try to ignore the subtle glances from the others in the Hob. They all see it, too. Events are hurtling out of control, sweeping her away from me.

The Games, Day 15 - The look

As the night passes, I leave the Hob and go down to the square, away from the more knowing eyes of the people in the Hob. I stare at nothing to the sound of rain and thunder coming from the large clear televisions. As morning breaks here and in the arena, sounds of District 12 waking up surrounds me, interrupted only by an occasional whack of Cato's sword as he begins his hunt for Thresh again.

People get up to move around and take care of the business of surviving. Shifts in the mines have been reduced to three hours. School is still cancelled. Individuals in families take turns going home to make food. Others have a sort of outdoor cookout wherever they have placed their blankets. Several groups get together to share their food. This year, the games bring us together in a way I've never seen before and I wonder if it was like this when Haymitch won the Quarter Quell games, twenty-four years ago. Did the district come together like a family then, too?

I'm more than surprised when that evening Peeta Mellark's father, the baker, sits down beside me. He doesn't say a word. I didn't even know he knew who I was. I mean, yeah, the district is small, but eight thousand people are still a lot to know.

He sighs heavily, staring up at the monitor watching his son and without looking at me, holds out a partial loaf of a heavy crusted bread with seeds throughout it. I look at him before taking it, but he still doesn't look at me. He just shakes the loaf to urge me. It's still warm and my mouth waters when I realize I've been sitting here all day and haven't eaten. I make the loaf disappear quickly.

When Peeta and Katniss awake, she gets him talking about when he fell in love with her. When I hear the story about Peeta's father being in love with Katniss' mother, only to lose her to a coal miner, I think I know why he's sitting here with me now.

It makes me angry and I'm sorry I took his stupid bread because I want to throw it back at him. I want to jump up and spit in his face for presuming to think he and I have anything in common.

His wife beats me to it, and she's a spitting hissing devil with nails and flying hair as she launches herself at him from who can guess where. By the way she's raging at him, I suppose it was a portal from hell.

She's screaming, "You loved her? And you humiliate me?" and the flying hair and nails attack him again before their fight—or more accurately, her fight—takes them back into their shop and away from the gossip-hungry eyes.

I'm still fuming about it, but her fury has sapped mine as I look back into the monitors at Katniss. They talk about her singing as a little girl. I remember Katniss' father's reputation for singing in the Seam. There's no exaggeration that the man could shame the birds into silence, but I'm two years older than Katniss. We never shared the same classes in school and I never heard her sing in all the time I've known her... until Rue died, that is.

And just like that, my anger is back and I hate Peeta Mellark. I hate him for having a piece of her that I've never had. But before I can let it take hold of me, their conversation becomes even more intimate and I see my strong, independent Katniss begin to melt with his words. I can tell she feels awkward and I know for a fact that this is a new feeling for her. She's in new territory now, feeling things she's never had to think about before... things about Peeta.

Not me.

"I don't have much competition here," he says to her, and I know he's thinking of me right now.

She pauses, looking at him. "You don't have much competition anywhere."

And somewhere in my chest, I know she's thinking of me right now, too.

I've lost her.

Watching her kiss someone else is awful and I feel like I'm suffocating, but the worst of it is hearing her talk to him. Their comfortable interactions—even knowing there are cameras, knowing every eye in Panem is on them—is what hurts the worst. It's the one thing that I always thought was special between us, and to see her have that with someone else...

My eyes register something that makes my head stop brooding, and I see the two people from the interview team again, the ones wearing Katniss' mockingjay pin. It's a man and a woman, and they're looking at me, leaning toward one another and talking behind their hands. I can't hear them, and they know I've noticed them. They say something to each other and start walking toward me.

I swallow hard as I get to my feet, not knowing why my heart is suddenly racing. They're only thirty feet from me, then twenty, then Claudius Templesmith's voice shouts, "There!" over the monitors and everyone jumps to their feet and gasps.

I take off running in the distraction. I can hear Claudius describing the fight. Thresh has found Cato, tracking him down through the trails he's hacked out through his own stupidity just as I imagined he would. I jump the mayor's fence and take the long way around to the Hob, through Victor's Village. I don't sense they're following me, but I don't take any chances.

As I run through the Hob, Darius reaches out to grab me. Darius. A Peacekeeper.

"Let me go! Let me go!" I cry. All the eyes in the Hob turn to stare at us, but no one interferes. They wouldn't dare, even if it's only Darius.

"Gale! What's wrong with you?" he shouts back. "Calm down!"

It's his tone that makes me stop. He's worried about me. I stop fighting him.

"What are you running from?"

I look over my shoulder, panicked, and look at him again. I can feel my mouth moving, but luckily no words are coming out. My brain picks up speed and comes up with a lie.

"A bear! There's a bear inside the fence. I saw it."

My fear is transferred to Darius' eyes and he lets me go, calling into his radio for help to protect the residents. I see two more Peacekeepers run past the Hob to join him.

Greasy Sae comes up behind me, walking loud enough so she doesn't startle me, and grabs my arm, pulling me behind her and back to her stall. She looks around and stares down everyone in the Hob, who all turn back to the televisions. She pushes me into a small storage closet and I hear the cannon's blast with another crack of thunder as Claudius announces that only four tributes remain. I don't know who has died.

"What's got into you, boy?" Sae hisses at me.

I'm still panting, and my heart is still racing. "I... nothing. I just..." Suddenly, I feel foolish.

She looks at me hard by squinting her eyes.

"The people from the interview crew," I admit quietly, trying to get a glimpse of the open floor of the Hob over her shoulder. "They were talking and looking at me. I just... It didn't feel like they wanted to ask me questions about Katniss."

Greasy Sae nods slowly and pats my arm. "You got good instincts, Gale, but don't let your age get you jumping at shadows. Not everything that knocks down woodpiles in the dark is out to get you."

I let out a deep breath and feel myself calm down. She is teasing me with an old fable from the Seam. It's something the miners tell their children so they won't be afraid in the dark, since most of them will grow up to work in the blackness of the coal mine.

"You watch the game from in here for a while, if you want," she says, then pours me a bowl of milky water and pulls back a board from the closet. I can see one of the televisions through the opening.

She leaves and closes a flimsy door behind her, but only moves to sit outside on a stool that's just in front of the board she moved for me. I drink the water quickly, peer out to make sure the Peacekeepers and the television crew are nowhere to be seen, and then look up at the monitors again.

"Who died?" I whisper softly into Sae's ear just in front of me.


I feel bad about that. Thresh was like us. He honored his debts, the same way we do. You don't go through life here owing anyone. It just isn't done. Cato, on the other hand, has something to prove, just like Clove did. And like Clove, he feels he can only prove it by using Katniss.

It suddenly occurs to me that I still care. She's not mine, but I still care. Then I feel bad about hating Peeta's father, because he still cares, too.

The Games, Day 16 - Foxface

I hunt early and stay out later than I usually would, given the circumstances. I split up the rabbits, fish, and nuts I've found and take some to Katniss' mother and Prim. When I get home, I clean up myself and help my mother clean up our house. I'm stalling. Part of me doesn't want to see anymore.

I wonder who is left? The last thing I saw from the game before I left was the slippery girl from District 5 was perched under a rocky overhang where she was sheltered by several fallen trees. Cato from District 2 was in the cornucopia out of the rain, but was taking a beating with every clap of thunder. And Katniss and Peeta were curled up in the sleeping bag in their makeshift cave, taking turns resting.

When my mother takes all three of my siblings to the square, though, I find I can't stay in the house alone, so I skulk around the Seam for an hour before I try to make my way back to the Hob. I don't see any sign of the two people from the television crew. I don't know what they want and I feel safer staying with the people who know me instead of daring the town square again.

I head over to Greasy Sae's, but Darius has spotted me and is walking toward me so I stop.

"Did you see the bear?" I ask, keeping up the lie.

"No," Darius answers rubbing his hand over the top of his short-cropped hair. "Are you sure it was a bear?" he asks.

"Big. Black. Rooting around near a trash heap?" I offer.

"You sure it wasn't just a big dog?"

I give him a look that makes him wince. Big dogs don't exist in the Seam. 'Big dogs' is another way of saying big dinners. The most we have around here are scrawny strays that are more timid and shy than rabbits. I hate to make him feel stupid, but this is the Seam and it's him or me. I choose him.

He rubs at his ear and nods. "We'll increase the patrol on that side of town, just to be safe."

I nod, but can't bring myself to say anything else to make him feel foolish. I actually like Darius.

The first thing I realize as I catch up with what has been going is that the Gamemakers have finally called off the rain. I wonder briefly if somehow the storm was actually outside of the Gamekeeper's control. Why would they let it rain like that? It actually worked in Katniss and Peeta's favor to have the extra time to rest and heal.

If I didn't actually know better, I would think that the Gamemakers were showing favoritism, but I immediately dispel that idea. No one shows favoritism toward the districts. The Capitol would never allow it.

All the tributes are on the move again, mostly out of hunger. In a desperate attempt to feel closer to her, I realize we were both hunting together at the same time, even if we were in different locations.

The cameras blink back and forth between Katniss hunting and Peeta foraging for plants and roots, when suddenly, the slippery girl from 5 sneaks up to the small pile of food Peeta has gathered and makes off with small portions of it. I have a grudging admiration for her.

I feel a foreign smile on my face when Katniss easily catches two rabbits and a squirrel, unable to stop feeling pride in her ability to find food. When she whistles for Peeta and he doesn't reply, the cameras shift to show us that he's by a bloated stream that is muddy with run-off from all the rain, but he does not return her call.

She panics. I've never seen fear in Katniss like that before, not even when wild dogs chased us. It isn't fear for herself that is making her shake and spin around calling for him in a tight, high voice. It's fear for him. Fear of losing him. By the time he returns, her fear has boiled into anger.

My fist cracks against the wall of the closet and Greasy Sae falls back down onto her stool, coughing loudly as many eyes turn to see what the commotion is about. She flaps her hand in the air to wave off their concern as she gets herself a drink of water.

"I'm fine," she mutters between drinks. "I'm fine."

When the curious onlookers turn away, she turns to glare at me through the hole where the board was. I don't know what she sees in my face, but her eyes soften.

The sound of the cannon makes everyone jump, even me, and my eyes flash up to the televisions. For a split second, the camera holds on Katniss' wide and startled expression and I feel myself rip in half thinking she's dead, and then she spins around to find Peeta, probably expecting to find him dead. I gasp and choke, clutching my head when it isn't her. That split second of thinking the worst has happened leaves me dizzy and choking down air.

It isn't either of them. It's the slippery girl from District 5. In stealing their food, she took the berries Peeta had picked, but he unwittingly collected handfuls of nightlock. She was dead before she knew what she'd done to herself.

When they realize what has happened, and that it's down to just the three of them, they brazenly start a wet fire to cook the meat and get back to the business of trying to survive the hunger games. Claudius gets back to the business of jostling the odds.

But I cannot forget so easily, even for that brief moment, how it felt to think she was gone, that the last image I would have of her would be a startled death mask. My knees give out under me and I fall to the cramped floor of Greasy Sae's closet and bury my face in my hands, choking back sobs so no one will hear me.

The Games, Day 17 - The plain

I'm not interested in leaving my hiding spot at Sae's for a couple of reasons. I don't want the interview crew to catch me unaware—and I've been more distracted these past two weeks than I have ever been in my life—but I also don't want people searching me out, waiting to see my expression every time Katniss talks to Peeta. It's hard enough to deal with that without wondering what horrified expression has found a roosting spot on my face.

But sometime during the night, as I hear Greasy Sae snoring softly in her chair just outside the closet I'm slumped over in, and I start to take stock of myself. I don't like what I've become. I feel like an idiot hiding in here. I don't understand the feelings I'm experiencing. I knew Katniss was lost to me the moment she volunteered to take Prim's place, or at least the odds of her coming back were not good. I don't know why I hate every gift of a moment I've had, knowing she's alive, even if it means she's with Peeta.

I scrub my face with my hands and scour my fingers through my hair, and step out to face the reality of our lives. Greasy Sae smiles at me and pats my arm with her bony hand. She's been strangely comforting to me through all of this and I give her a grateful smile.

Today is the day. Everyone can feel it. Even Katniss and Peeta know it. Sure enough, the Gamemakers have dried up all the water to drive them back to the lake to face Cato. Resigned to the fact that one or both of them could be dead before the end of the day, they hold each other and turn to face whatever the Capitol will throw at them.

When I look around the Hob, I see the two television crew people again. They're staring at me, but this time I don't look away. I stare right back. One of them breaks their gaze first, glancing at the screen, then taps the other's arm, motioning with her head to look. They both look at the screen now, and back at me. Their expressions mean something.

Katniss is singing Rue's song to the mockingjays, and touches the pin that Madge gave her. I frown and look back at the television people who look at me meaningfully and touch their own pins.

I don't know what it means, and I don't get a chance to find out. The mockingjays' song has turned into an alarm and Cato is barreling across the plain straight at Katniss and Peeta. Katniss fires an arrow at him but it bounces off.

"He's wearing body armor!" she shouts and braces for Cato to plow into them, but he flies past them without even a swing.

Muttations break through the brush and charge them. Cries of horror fill the air of District 12. I can even hear screams from the square. Cato, being no fool, climbs to the top of the cornucopia. The cameras have kept the chase secret from everyone, even Claudius, so we have no idea how long he has been running from them. When Claudius excitedly reports an "interesting new twist" to the games, the outrage we all feel at his flippant remark is as black as coal.

Peeta's injured leg quickly makes him fall behind and Katniss seems to have forgotten he can't keep up. She turns and kills the mutt closest to him with a perfect kill shot, screaming at him to run. He shouts back for her to climb. When he's close enough she grabs his arm and pulls him up. Shooting another arrow down the throat of one of the Capitol's monsters.

Katniss' expression freezes and the whites of her eyes expand before she shrieks in horror. Peeta twists around to see what new terror she's spotted, when she screams, "It's them! It's all of them!"

Though the cameras refuse to give us a close look at what she points at, it takes us only a moment to realize what has happened. The Capitol has mutilated the remains of the tributes and turned them into hunting killing monsters.

I have never heard the district go as quiet as it does right now. A palpable rage is burning in each of us as the Capitol destroys even the sanctity and safety of death. The families of the fallen tributes won't even get to bury their children.

I feel chicken skin prickle across my entire body as I start to quake with rage. The pure temerity of this act is so repellent, so blatantly evil that all I want is to fight back with even more indescribable acts. To flaunt their impunity in the faces of the families who have sacrificed their children for their entertainment, just to prove they can step on our necks while we are helpless to stop them, is so far over the top that all I see is red.

This isn't about me or Katniss. This is about being treated with respect and throwing off the chains the Capitol has kept us bound in for almost three-quarters of a century.

In my anger, I look for the interview crew, wanting to find justice in the bodies of those who represent the Capitol, but what I see makes me hesitate. There is rage in their faces, too. Like us, they are livid by what they are seeing. Their response to what they witness makes me pause and while I hesitate, they turn and storm out. I don't pursue them. I don't know what their reaction means.

Cato now has Peeta in his grasp threatening to throw him over the side of the horn and into the jaws of the mutts. Katniss is quick with her bow and shoots Cato in the back of the hand. I suddenly wish I was more like her: action without hesitation.

Cato tries to fight the mutts off, and whatever armor it is that the Gamemakers gave him, it's now a mixed blessing. It protects him from their razor claws and even their fangs, but each bite is crushing and each time his hand or arm defends his face, he pulls it back broken and limp and they slowly pulverize his limbs and drag him, helpless, into the horn. The cameras cannot get a good shot through the opening of the cornucopia, but from the sounds of it the mutts spend the night gnawing on Cato the way a pack of dogs would gnaw on a bone.

Peeta's leg is bleeding and Katniss does everything she can to keep him alive. With the mutt pack surrounding them, I can't blame her frantic need to keep him conscious. It would be terrifying to endure that alone, but I'm beginning to see that it's more. Strangely, I feel numb to this now. In the face of so many atrocities enacted by the Capitol, what little importance can my feelings for Katniss be?

Suddenly, it's very easy for me to admit to myself that I love Katniss Everdeen. I always have, but we live in a world where that doesn't matter. Even if I had her, I could never keep her. The Capitol will never allow it. Either through the threat of the games, or threats to our family, or just simple starvation, we live only at the mercy of the Capitol.

The Games, Day 18

No one leaves tonight, not to eat, not to sleep, not even to bring food back. Even the most skeptical of those in District 12, and there aren't many, recognizes that we are very close to having a winning tribute. With Cato making those horrible noises inside the cornucopia, it looks like District 12 will have food for the upcoming year, even if Peeta is bleeding to death.

To our everlasting credit, no one seems happy about this fact. The price is just too high. Out there in Panem, twenty-one families are in agony this night. Knowing that their memories of their children were not simply those of being brutally murdered, if that wasn't bad enough. No, their last memories of the babies they loved and raised are that they ended up as ugly, slavering abominations.

When the slanting morning sun gives Katniss enough light, she dangles over the edge of the horn, twenty feet off the ground, and mercy kills Cato. I hope his family appreciates what she did for him, but I know they probably won't. I want to hope I'm wrong. After seeing the way Thresh valued Rue, I want to think people are better than that, even in District 2.

Even as I hope, and the mutts disappear from the field, I hear the trumpets and voice of Claudius, repealing the rule to let both tributes from the same district live. My gut becomes a tangle of fire and hate so powerful I can taste it in my mouth. To be given even a glimpse of compassion, only to have the Capitol flaunt it's power... all I can see is red, all I can hear is the roaring of blood in my ears.

There is a grumble of dissent, but only just that, a low murmur. There are Peacekeepers present. Sure, they are our Peacekeepers, but you never poke at an animal no matter how tame you think it may be.

As Peeta throws his knife into the lake and Katniss thrusts her bow into his hands, fighting over who should die and who should live, it occurs to me that she might come home. Katniss might come back. I search myself for the feeling of weak relief and elation. She's coming back and I think I should be breaking down into tears, clutching whoever is near me. We should be sobbing in joy. But I'm not.

I watch Katniss pull nightlock berries from a pouch and make a pact with Peeta to die together. My heart pounds and I open my mouth to shout, No! when they both put the berries in their mouths, but Claudius is screaming at them to stop and as they both spit the berries out I don't hate the sound of him anymore.

I'm stunned. My mind is trying to process too much. She's alive. She's really truly coming home. The idea of her dying, of there being a world with no Katniss Everdeen, simply cannot happen. But I know she won't be mine. I can still hear Posy's voice in my head, "You can't, silly."

They lift both Katniss and Peeta out of the arena, and blood drops heavily from Peeta's leg. I feel a hot tear roll down the side of my face as I realize one indisputable fact.

My Katniss died in that arena, if she ever existed at all outside of my own heart.

The final interview

Everyone is back in the town square with the big monitors for the three-hour recap of the past three weeks, from the presentation of the tributes, to the interviews, to every single death of every child including the muttation attack. I sit with my family but I don't watch any of it. The only moments I see are Katniss entering the stage, washed and healed and beautiful, shimmering like a firefly in her dress, flinging herself at Peeta and kissing him as if he were her lifeline and her sanity. And later, unseen footage from the hovercraft that lifted them out of the arena, and a crazed, wild-eyed, blood-covered Katniss throwing herself at a glass wall, screaming Peeta's name as the doctors tried to keep him alive.

When I look over to where the tribute's parents sit together, I see the baker looking at me. He's got faint pink scratches on his neck and jaw. His wife sits beside him, still livid. I never see him look at Katniss' mother, not even a glance. I nod my head once to acknowledge him. He does the same, then we both look away.

Everyone I pass says hello to me as I follow my family back home, and their eyes are careful with me. They are not surprised when I don't answer. Even my own mother is careful around me. She knows I heard that the interview crew came to talk to her and my brothers and sister. Someone wise enough to be cautious with what they were saying told the crew that we were cousins of the Everdeens. So I'm Katniss' cousin. Most people know better, though.

We all have to come back again to hear the final interview, but I won't watch it. I'll be there, but I won't see it. I'm not sleeping. I don't hunt today. I just stay home and play with my brothers and sister, cherishing them and the feeble light of hope that they are. Maybe things will be different for them. Maybe, like Prim, the odds won't be in their favor and they'll be called to the Hunger Games.

That thought haunts me.

~ Fin ~