PART THREE: GALE

Chapter Thirteen of Thirteen

There's a rustle in the forest.

I press myself against the tree, closing my eyes and allowing my other senses to take over. The rustle comes again. It's on my right, maybe four or five meters from me. It's eating.

Perfect.

I jump out from behind the tree, my arrow already flying through the air, but my aim isn't what Katniss' is. I hit the deer at the base of its neck - hardly the killer blow. It gives a startled cry and charges through the forest, trampling through the fallen leaves.

Goddamnit. I can't leave it like that.

I race after it, throwing myself through the forest as fast as I can go. A low lying branch hits me in the face, and I can feel blood rising to the surface of my cheek. The pain in my legs is a burn that slowly builds to the point where it's almost unbearable. It's all oddly cathartic. I want to feel the pain. I need it.

It's easy to follow the injured animal, as its made an obvious trail through the forest, the occasional smear of blood leading me when I stray. Thirty minutes later, I find it drinking by the stream. Two more shots from my bow and the deed is done.

I walk over and pull the arrows out, inspecting the damage. It's not too bad. I'll just wash away the blood and hope I can still get a good price for it.

There's another sound from down the stream, much more heavier than the deer. Instead of raising my bow, I tense, ready to run. If it's a cat, or a bear, there's not much else I can do. The sound comes closer and closer, finally turning around the bend, and Rory walks out from the forest. I relax. He looks down at the deer.

"Gale, no one will buy that," he says.

I sling my bow over my arm, looking down at the deer. "It's fine," I say. "We'll wash the blood off and no one will tell."

"It looks like Emmental cheese."

I roll my eyes at him. "Would you like to try?"

He lifts his hands, palms facing me. "Hey, now, I'm just stating the facts," he says.

Rory, despite spending most days in the forest with me, is still a terrible hunter. I can't even hunt with him around; he's so loud he scares off the animals. I've put him on permanent fish and snare duty. You can't scare away animals that have already been trapped.

He helps me clean off the deer and drag it back the way we came. The process takes almost an hour, and by the time we reach the fence, we're both out of breath and exhausted. We take a break before walking to the Hob, sitting just out of sight in the forest.

"How are you?" Rory asks softly.

I look away. I've been a horrible brother as of late. I've spent my days sleeping at the Everdeen's, watching the Hunger Games every day, feeling utterly helpless every minute. I send food to my family when I hunt, but I've had little contact with them. They understand, but I know it must be hard. Rory wakes at sunrise just to spend time with me.

"I'm okay," I finally say, but we both know I'm lying.

I've never been more stressed in my entire life. When she was dying of thirst, I didn't drink, either. When she had nothing to eat, neither did I, watching her every minute of every day. I felt like crying when a rabbit jumped past her, as she had no bow to use.

When the wall of fire bore down on Katniss, I nearly ripped my hair out wanting to save her. When she was badly burned and no parachute came, I uttered profanities about how I would kill Haymitch when he returned. At night I cried, thinking of her singed hair and badly burned face, wanting her to come home so I could protect her.

I'm losing my mind. Every day she's closer to death. Now there's only six left. The Seam should be elated: our District hasn't been so close to winning since Haymitch. But it isn't. Now people have chosen sides.

After the fire, tension grew in the Seam. It became Team Peeta versus Team Katniss. The Town versus the Seam. When Katniss dropped the tracker jacker nest on Peeta, it became war. The Mellarks had come running into the Everdeens' house screaming, as though it was our fault. As if he didn't join the Careers. As if he never supported her, and Katniss was in the wrong.

He deserved it.

But at the same time, he tried to save her.

Sometimes I think he truly wanted to help Katniss, but other times, it was as though he made the love story up to gain attention. I don't know how I feel about Peeta.

It's not like Katniss didn't suffer, either. She spent hours rolling around on the forest floor, just like Peeta was, lost in hallucinations. Mrs. Everdeen had cried then, for the first time since the Games began, watching her daughter in pain. I had left after an hour to hunt. I couldn't deal with it, watching her and knowing I could do nothing. I want to be in the Games, not just to protect her, but as a distraction. Anything would be better than sitting, watching and being unable to help.

Rue was a cute little girl, but her death was inevitable. The moment she was caught in the traps, we all knew. Prim had left for a walk that day, not returning until long after Rue's death. District Twelve watched in silence as Katniss sang her to sleep: her voice was beautiful, as always. She had begun to do something - place flowers around Rue, I think - when the camera had panned away to District Two's tributes. I'll never know what she did, but her altruism showed Panem she would not become a monster, and that's what mattered most.

Now Peeta is hiding in the forest, dying. The camera zooms to him from time to time, but there isn't much to see. He's not an interesting death. He's blended himself into the mud (Which, I will grudgingly admit, is ingenious) and has begun to hallucinate, laughing at nothing and randomly smiling. Occasionally he mutters Katniss' name, and the commentators just lap that up.

I feel sorry for the Mellarks, but it just means Katniss is one step closer to winning.

"Come on," I say. I stand and pull Rory up with me. "Let's sell this before it gets dark."

We're only just through the fence when Prim is running toward us, full speed and tripping over her long dress. The Mellarks aren't far behind. My heart completely stops beating. I'm sure of it. It becomes lead in my chest. My entire body is frozen.

"What?" I say, but I can't manage any louder than a whisper. She's dead. She's dead. She's dead.

"There's been a change in the Rules!" Prim cries.

She's dead. She's dead. She's dead. She's dead. It's the only reason the Mellarks would look so happy. Those bastards. I'll kill them. I'll kill the whole damn Capitol. She's dead. She's dead.

"What change?" Rory asks, sounding suspicious.

Prim is crying, but she's also smiling. "Peeta and Katniss can both win! They can both win, together."

Rory gasps, throwing himself into the conversation. I don't listen to the actual rule change. My mind is rapidly working, trying to process the news. I listen to Prim repeat it again. They can both win. They can work together. Now Katniss has a partner. She has a partner. She can survive. There's more of a chance that she'll make it. I let this sink into my body, trying to relax, but instead my heart begins to beat faster with adrenaline.

Now she'll win.

If I had been chosen, we could have won, together. I used to be the only one to have that bond with her, a life or death, living on the edge link. Now she has it with Peeta, and I know those bonds do not break.

I don't want to share.


It doesn't take her long to find him. All of Panem watches the screens as she cleans him off and examines his wounds. Peeta is worse than I realized. While lying in the mud, his leg has swollen to twice its size. He's a strange shade of gray from head to toe, covered in infections and burns. I glance at Mrs. Everdeen.

"How bad?" I whisper to her.

She leans closer to me. "Really bad," she whispers back. "Beyond what I can do."

Katniss fumbles with herbal remedies, trying to figure out what to do. The Gamemakers and cameras give it a comedic tone, but there's nothing funny about Peeta's slow death. We all know medicine is too expensive for Haymitch to send at this stage of the Games. Still, we reassure the Mellarks that it'll happen and Peeta will be okay. There's nothing else we can do.


The first time she kisses him, I don't mind. I feel my family's and the Everdeen's eyes staring at me, but I know Katniss did it to quiet him. To placate him. When Haymitch sends broth, it confirms my suspicions. Vick looks triumphant as he stands next to me.

"I told you it was a ruse," he says proudly.

I laugh when Katniss turns into Mrs. Perfect Wife, coaxing Peeta to drink the broth spoonful by spoonful. Her voice is a strange, airy pitch, like people of the Capitol, as if she doesn't have a brain. They probably believe it's actually her. She kisses him over and over, but it's only small pecks. Peeta stares at her with a gushy expression on his face, and I want to laugh at his foolishness. As if, I think. As if you have a chance against me.


But as the days progress, his dreams really do come true.

And mine fall apart.

They sleep together, in the same sleeping bag. They kiss, they whisper, they talk about their feelings. Despite the act, she's falling for him. I can see it grow more and more each day. Prim tries to pass it off as an act, supported by Vick, but even now I can hear the hesitation in her voice. She knows, too.

The only hope I have left is when she tells the story of Prim's goat. Her voice holds a true tone of love in it, a secret smile on her face when she says she sold a locket. Only she and I know the story of how she got that money. It's our secret only. It's something Panem, and Peeta, will never know about. It's something that will always connect us, and I know part of the love in her voice is meant for me. I just know it.

It's the only thing that stops my heart from disintegrating in my chest, crumbling into ash and becoming nothing. The kisses aren't real, I tell myself over and over, the repetition making it into a jingle in my mind. It isn't real. It isn't real. It isn't. It isn't. It isn't.

Mrs Everdeen can see my heart is breaking.

"I know what love is," she says. "And I know that every move Katniss makes is thought through. Love isn't methodical, it's spontaneous. See there, when she almost left the cave and then turned back to Peeta? You don't forget to kiss your loved one goodbye."

I hunt down these moments she can see so easily, searching for any sign that Katniss is thinking of me. But as she and Peeta spend more days in the cave, I'm losing the signs. They aren't there anymore. Katniss spends more time talking to Peeta and less time lost in thought. I can't imagine she's thinking of me.

Why would she? Now she has Peeta.

I cannot bring myself to stop watching, even though every moment is torturous. I owe it to Katniss to watch every second of her in action. So day after day I come home from selling in the Hob and sit in front of the small television. Prim joins me when school is over, and we watch silently, together.

Day after day after day.


The final blow comes on the weekend.

On Saturday, we avoid the square, watching from the Everdeen's television. I sit on the rickety chair in the kitchen, my chin resting on my fists as I watch Katniss and Peeta together in their cave, as always. I'm surprised the Gamemakers haven't sent something to hurry this along. I don't want to see this. Why does the Capitol think a false romance is interesting? Because it's not. It's boring and awful.

At least Katniss is looking better. The wound on her head has finally stopped bleeding, but the stain of blood is still all over the cave: on the floor, on her clothes, on the walls. Every time I see the amount of blood I want to faint, wondering how she's still alive. Mrs. Everdeen says head wounds bleed a lot, and if she's walking and talking by now, she's going to be okay. I think that's supposed to be comforting, but it isn't.

The camera doesn't focus on Katniss and Peeta for long. It's pouring in the Games, the heavy rain flooding the plains and trying to drive Thresh out of his field into Cato's waiting trap. The audience wants to see a fight, but Thresh is holding on. My guess is he's use to battling storms like this.

"Come on, buddy. Hang on," Rory whispers under his breath.

Thresh is gripping the long strands of grass, refusing to budge. By the look of Cato, he's cold and tired and will soon call it a night. Thresh only has to hold on a little longer. It's easy to root for him, as District Eleven isn't all that different from our own. No one wants a Career to win.

The camera abruptly flashes back to Peeta and Katniss in the cave, the small house eerily quiet now that the rain has stopped on the television. I jerk forward and Mrs. Everdeen gasps. My heart is pounding in my throat. If they're missing a potential fight for this, something big is going to happen. An ambush?

Peeta is yelling at Katniss on screen, his hand tight on hers. I scramble to keep up.

"No! Just don't, Katniss! Don't die for me. You won't be doing me any favors. All right?"

He sounds really, really pissed. What did we miss? What is she planning to do? My fingernails dig into the wooden table, chills of panic rushing down my spine. Katniss' face is a mask. I don't know what she's thinking.

"Maybe I did it for myself, Peeta," she says angrily. "Did you ever think of that? Maybe you aren't the only one who. . ."

She stumbles over her words, searching for what she wants to say. I can barely hear her over the pounding of my heart.

"Who worries about. . . what it would be like if . . ."

Suddenly, she looks terrified. I don't know what to do. I don't know what happened. I don't know what's wrong. The camera cut in too late.

"If what, Katniss?" Peeta prompts her. His voice is velvet now, and I can hear a tinge of guilt in it.

She looks away from him. "That's exactly the kind of topic Haymitch told me to steer clear of," she says.

Peeta brushes her hair away from her bandage. "Then I'll just have to fill in the blanks myself," he says.

They kiss.

This time, it's a real one. It's the kiss I always wanted from Katniss. Her eyes are closed, as are his, and it's soft and sweet. His hand is on her neck, holding her still, their bodies nearly touching. When they finally part, their mouths stay open and close together, almost searching for one another. Peeta opens his eyes to look at her, softly licking his lower lip, as if he's tasting her. Katniss' eyes are still closed, but I watch her lean in for another, her mouth trembling as she searches for his.

She liked it.

She wants more of it.

"Oh," whispers Prim.

I stand up and leave the room.

I felt numb the first few kisses. There was nothing there, absolutely no emotion as I watched them together. I want to go back to that. I want to go back to that so badly, because now everything hurts. My heart feels like a snake has wrapped around it, pulling tighter and tighter until it stops beating. Squeezing the life out of me. Maybe even squeezing the love out of me. My chest aches, and every breath sends a shooting pain into my stomach. My entire body quivers uncontrollably.

She's already fallen for him. She won't be thinking of me anymore, because now it's all about Peeta. Peeta is the one who has kissed her and has taken her heart with him. When she returns, it won't be to me. I was foolish enough to hope the Games would change nothing. They've changed everything.

She and Peeta will win. I know they will. She'll win a giant house with Capitol-style food I can't even imagine. She'll leave the Seam and live with Peeta in their fancy white clothes and have her happy ever after. She won't have to hunt anymore: why would she risk it when she has everything she needs? Why would she live with me, be friends me, marry me, when she has everyone she needs?

I hear Prim's voice behind me, but I crawl into the forest before she can catch up. I can't see her face right now. I know she'll lie and tell me Katniss loves me, but I saw it. I watched the television, too. I know what happened. No one can convince me otherwise.

I walk straight to the place Katniss and I meet at. Used to meet at. Will never meet at again. It's dark now, and I can barely see, but I know this place like the back of my hand. I reach into the hollow log and pull out a bow. Her bow. I touch it softly, rubbing my thumb against the cold wood. I grab her arrows, too.

She won't be needing them anymore.

There's no need to hunt when you have everything.

For the first time in weeks, I put the bow to good use.


I wake up in the forest.

Idiot, I think. I can't believe I slept here. Anything could have happened. My clothes are damp from the forest dew, clinging to my body, and I shiver in the morning air as I crawl out from under the rock ledge and begin the walk back to the Seam.

I was hoping to dream of Katniss, like I once did in the forest, but nothing happened. I've even lost her in my dreams. The snake is still there, squeezing rhythmically around my heart with every beat it makes.

My mother is sitting in the kitchen when I walk in. Judging by her face, she hasn't slept.

"Oh, Gale!" she cries, running over to me. She throws her arms around me, pulling my body close to hers. The heat warms my skin and is comforting. She smells like home. I pull her even tighter against me, gripping her back with my hands and burying my face into her neck.

"I'm okay," I murmur, patting her back. "I'm okay."

"Where were you?" she sniffs, searching my face for injury.

"I fell asleep in the forest. But I'm fine," I say, pushing her away.

Her mouth hangs open. "The forest? Anything could have happened. You could have been-"

"I know," I snap. "I'm fine."

I don't need to be reminded of my stupidity.

There's silence in the small kitchen. I look over at the beds, but thankfully my siblings are still asleep. Mother brushes my damp hair off my face.

"You remember what Vick said?" she asks me.

I close my eyes. Pain shoots across my torso.

"I watched the entire thing," I tell her. "It was real."

My voice cracks embarrassingly when I speak, and her voice becomes even softer.

"She barely knows the boy."

"I don't think it matters."

"She knows you're waiting for her."

"I don't think it matters."

My mom grips my face, forcing me to look at her gray eyes.

"Of course it matters," she says. "She loves you. She's in the Games right now and she's scared and wants someone to be with her, but when she comes home and sees you, you'll fall back into your pattern again."

"What if she doesn't come home?" I counter.

"Don't talk like that," she says, her voice angry. "Of course she's coming back."

I firmly grasp her wrists and pull her hands off my face, holding them between us. "Yeah, she's coming back, but she's not coming home. She'll have to do a tour, and then she'll live in a nice house in town. She's not coming back to the Seam. Why would she?"

"Because you're here."

The voice comes from the doorway and I turn, startled. Mrs. Everdeen walks in, closing the door gently behind her. She looks at my mother.

"You found him?" she asks.

"He slept in the forest," my mother says. They both scoff.

Mrs. Everdeen turns to face me. "She will never leave you behind, no matter what happens between her and Peeta. She loves you, Gale, and," she says, cutting me off as I try to protest, "Her home will always be the Seam."

I look away. I don't want these women to see me cry.

"It might be a ruse and it might not be," Mrs. Everdeen continues. "You won't know until she's away from the Games. Give it another chance. She needs you."

I exhale a shaky breath. I don't know if I can watch anymore, but she's right. I promised Katniss. I promised her. She'll be expecting me to watch, no matter what. No matter how much it hurts, I will always support her, even if she doesn't choose me. I love her too much to ever let her go.

I nod stiffly at Mrs. Everdeen, and together we walk back to her house.

"Sorry for making you worry," I mumble just before we reach her house.

She smiles softly and squeezes my arm.

The day drags on uneventfully. Peeta and Katniss are huddled in a sleeping bag, but they're not doing much of anything. The rain is still pouring down, still trying to wash Thresh out of the plains, so the camera doesn't spend much time on them. The Gamemakers want a fight. If they were kissing, I'm sure it would pan back, but it doesn't. In fact, Katniss looks a little uncomfortable, like she doesn't know what to say or do with Peeta. The snake around my heart loosens its grip slightly. Maybe it was an act.

"See?" Prim whispers to me as we watch them. "Maybe they're just friends."

'Yeah. Friends. Friends who kiss each other', I think. I smile tightly at her instead. I'm not ready to let my guard down just yet.

We sit at the table eating dinner, a meal of bread and stew, watching Peeta and Katniss shiver together in the sleeping bag. They haven't eaten in hours, and I know they must be starving. I feel guilty for eating in front of them, even if they can't see it.

Katniss looks at Peeta for a long time, but says nothing. I see the wheels are turning in her mind, wondering how to start a conversation with him.

"Peeta," she finally says. "You said at the interview you'd had a crush on me forever. When did forever start?"

I close my eyes as the snake tightens its hold again.

"Oh, let's see. I guess the first day of school. We were five. You had on a red plaid dress and your hair . . . it was in two braids instead of one. My father pointed you out when we were waiting to line up," he says.

"I made that dress," Mrs. Everdeen says proudly. "It looked beautiful on her."

I wish I could remember Katniss at age five, but we weren't even in the same grade. I have virtually no memories of her before the medal ceremony. Peeta knows more about her childhood then I do. I clench my jaw.

"Your father?" Katniss asks. "Why?"

"He said, 'See that little girl? I wanted to marry her mother, but she ran off with a coal miner,'" Peeta says.

Mrs. Everdeen drops her spoon. Prim and I stare at her as she gawks at the television. A steady flush is creeping up her neck and her eyes keep flitting to the door, like she's waiting for Mrs. Mellark to come bursting through screaming at her. The entire house is silent. Katniss and Peeta are talking about some singing competition, but no one is listening.

"Mom," Prim starts, but Mrs. Everdeen interrupts her.

"It was a long time ago," she says. "And I don't want to discuss it."

Prim and I watch as she gathers her bowl, puts it in the sink, and walks out of the house. We hear the sound of a broom brushing against the concrete a minute later.

"That was . . . weird," Prim says.

"Definitely," I answer.

I want to know what happened between Mrs. Everdeen and Mr. Mellark, but I don't have time to think about it right now. I catch Katniss' face on screen and immediately wonder what I missed. Katniss and Peeta have gone silent, Katniss staring at him with a strange expression on her face. She looks confused. What did he say?

"You have a remarkable memory," Katniss says slowly.

"I remember everything about you," Peeta says. "You're the one who wasn't paying attention."

He tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. I want to break his arm. I can deal with them being in a sleeping bag together, sharing heat. It's survival. Talking is fine, too. But brushing hair back off her face is not survival.

"I am, now," Katniss says.

The snake squeezes around my heart tighter. It's hard to breathe.

"Well, I don't have much competition here," Peeta says.

He pauses, a hint of sarcasm in his tone. I know he's thinking of me, and I lean forward. Did Katniss speak about me before the Games? She pauses. My heart speeds up. Is she going to reject him? Will she tell him that I'm at home, waiting for her to return to me? She must know I'm watching, now. She has to. Whatever she says -

"You don't have much competition anywhere," she says.

The final blow.

The snake's grip tightens, and my weak heart finally dies.


Epilogue

"Greetings to the final contestants of the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games. The earlier revision has been revoked. Closer examination of the rule book has disclosed that only one winner may be allowed. Good luck and may the odds be ever in your favor."

A few hours ago I was trembling in fear as the mutts attacked her, vomiting in the pail outside of the Everdeen's house.

An hour ago I was holding Prim against me, covering her ears to drown out the horrible screams of Cato as the mutts ate him alive. I covered her eyes when they showed what was left of his body. When Prim tried to look, Rory wrapped his arms around her as well, obscuring her vision completely.

Ten minutes ago I was listening to the screams of delight in the square when they believed District Twelve had won. I held my breath. Somehow, I knew.

Five minutes ago I was hugging Rory tightly, tears of relief streaming down my face when I finally let myself believe they had won.

But now, at this second, I have never felt this kind of anger. My complaining about the Capitol was nothing compared to what I feel now. Somehow, I'm going to kill them. They won't survive this. I won't let them.

My fists clench tightly together.

After everything that has happened, after everything Katniss and Peeta have been through, it's all about marketing. It's all about the Capitol wanting to see a show, because they're monsters. To them, death is fun. Death is pink and blue hair and wearing your best clothes in a casket painted gold. It's a time to get together and pretend to mourn, but secretly gossip about the goings on around town.

To watch two teenagers die, two star crossed lovers who have fought valiantly side by side? And to watch them kill each other? Well, that would just be icing on the cake. The talk of the whole damn town. Because who cares about two kids from the poorest District? They don't have lives. They don't have families. They're poor.

I can't believe a few days ago I was moaning over the fact Katniss might choose Peeta. I have never felt so immature in my life. Because that? That was nothing. That was absolutely nothing compared to what is happening now.

This time I'm trembling with rage instead of sorrow.

Katniss and Peeta each hold a small amount nightlock in their hands, and I know her plan. I just don't know if it'll work. My breathing is rapid. My lungs can't get enough oxygen. It has to work. It has to. It has to.

"No," sobs Mrs. Everdeen. "No. No. No. No. No."

"Three!"

They simultaneously swallow the berries. Prim screams, Rory trying to hold her against him. Mrs. Everdeen moans. I watch the screen, stunned that it actually happened. Stunned that she's actually going to die. My mind can't -

"Stop! Stop!" a voice cries out of the sky. Now I can hear it around the Seam, too, broadcasting in every District. "Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to present the victors of the Seventy-Fourth Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark! I give you - the tributes of District Twelve!"


Katniss and Peeta get to live.

But it hasn't stopped the anger. It hasn't stopped the blinding rage.

Letting them live doesn't redeem the Capitol. Katniss is just a prop to them, something to make them look better to the Districts because they let the couple live. They expect us to get on our knees and kiss their shiny shoes for allowing it to happen.

I will never do that. They'll have to kill me first.

I know they would have murdered her had the audience not protested. I know everything is just a game to them. Life means nothing to them. Watching her get ripped apart by the mutts would have been enjoyable. They had to ensure Peeta and Katniss were the last two left, so they could watch the pair kill each other in a tragic scene.

They've shown their true colours. The people of the Districts really are nothing to them. The pain of District Thirteen's annihilation has long diminished, but now the anger and hatred is renewed. They've given us the spark to fuel our revenge.

Katniss could be in danger for going against them.

The plan is simple, already in my mind.

The Capitol's reign has to end.

I have to kill them.

And this?

This is just the start.


End.