A/N: My first shot at a Hunger Games fic. Kindly bear in mind that I like aspects of the first book, lose interest in the second, and actively dislike the third; that being said, having issues with a series has never stopped me from writing.
This is not one of my cleaner efforts, but I needed to get it out of my head so I could get back to other obligations. Also I'm kind of obsessed with second person these days. Sorry.
Three Times Gale Hawthorne Defended Katniss Everdeen
(and three times he couldn't)
as sure as night is dark and day is light / i keep you on my mind both day and night
Live, "I Walk The Line"
You knock on the back door of the blue house, and the sound echoes through the alley. "Don't say anything. Just watch."
She scowls at you. It reminds you of Vick when he's told to do his homework. Catnip is twelve but she's still young - tough-as-nails, but young nonetheless. "They're my fish, Gale," she says, hefting the bag of game over her shoulder. Her squirrels hang from her belt; no reason to hide them when you're just slinking behind the houses. "I should get a say."
"Don't worry, he'll pay. This guy loves crappies." You still can't figure out how she managed to shoot them so perfectly; crappies are small and fast and she manged to take down eight with a bow. You've only ever managed to net them, and not many at that. You're not sure if you're impressed or jealous. Probably both. "Now stand back and let me handle it."
Katniss snorts like she thinks you're full of shit. You are. It took six months of trial and error to learn how to haggle properly and you still get a raw deal a lot of the time. But you've got the basic skills down, which is more than you can say for her; she's never even tried to sell before. This is the first time you've let her come with you, and only because you had the flu a week ago and realized that if you dropped dead Katniss would have to take over. You're not friends, not really, but you're partners now and she needs to know this stuff. And there's no reason for her to make all the same mistakes you made.
Besides, teaching is kind of fun.
It takes another long minute of waiting - Katniss bounces on the balls of her feet - but the door finally opens. The guy who loves crappies raises his bushy silver eyebrows. "I wasn't expecting you today," he says kindly.
"Wasn't expecting to have so much luck this morning." You keep your tone light and friendly, like you're delighted to be there - this one responds well to pleasantries. To a certain extent you are delighted. You're about to make money. Most of your buyers pay in trade, which is fine, but coin is better. Coin means options. "We've got your favorite."
"We, huh?" The guy who loves crappies - no, you don't know his name, and he doesn't know yours, it's better that way with the merchants - glances at Katniss. She gives him a smile. It's completely fake, of course, but you told her to at least pretend to be pleasant when negotiating with certain customers and it seems she listened. Good girl. "Who's this?"
"She's tagging along," you answer quickly, not giving Katniss a chance to speak. (A smile was enough; a pleasant response would be asking too much.) "She might be the one selling sometimes."
"Ah." He scratches his chin. "I see. Well, let's look at the fish first, shall we?"
You nod to Katniss; she opens her sack and pulls out the string of crappies. They're fresh, clean, and still bright-scaled. The arrows somehow got every one of them through the eyes. Fucking amazing. Between her shooting and your trapping your families will always have a meal.
The guy inspects the fish for a long moment, turning them over a few times, then reaches into his pocket. "I'll give you five," he says, pulling out his wallet.
You open your mouth, ready to haggle - then pause, too shocked to speak. Katniss makes the tiniest surprised noise. The fish are worth three. At most. And you should have had to argue him up to that.
"All right," you say hesitantly. Katniss hands over the string; the guy who loves crappies (and holy shit he must love them) gives you the ridiculous number of coins. "Thank you."
"You're very welcome," he says, voice still pleasant. "Now, how much for the rest?"
And he glances at Katniss again.
It takes you a half-second to understand - is he looking at the squirrels? - but then you get it. Fire flares hot in your chest and your hands automatically curl into fists. "Not for sale," you manage between gritted teeth.
"Twenty," the guy who loves crappies offers. Kind and friendly, like you're still talking about fish.
Catnip's gray eyes widen and you're going to shake apart with rage. "I said no."
"Well, aren't you high and mighty all of the sudden." He's not quite so friendly now. He shifts his weight and there's a bulge in his pants. "Thirty-five. Final offer."
You're so angry that you can't even see straight, but your brain goes on auto-pilot. Thirty-five equals four bottles of oil, eight pounds of beans, eleven sacks of grain...
Doing the math is just a knee-jerk reaction.
You hate yourself anyway.
It takes you a moment to find your voice, but then you're snapping "Enjoy the fish" and pushing Katniss away from the blue house and down the alley. A few seconds later you hear the door slam behind you.
You turn a corner and have to actually stop to breathe, your lungs burning, everything burning. This stuff happens to people all the time but it's the first time it's happened to you. And even though the guy who loves crappies is middle-aged and soft around the middle, he's still big; if he'd grabbed her you probably wouldn't have been able to protect her. It would've been your fault, all your fault. You brought her here.
"Gale!" Katniss shoves your shoulder; she's freakishly strong for her size, and your back collides with the brick wall. "What the hell is wrong with you? Thirty-five? Why didn't you take it? Thirty-five!"
You stare at her blankly.
"Who the hell else is going to pay that much for squirrels?" she seethes.
You keep staring.
"Gale! Are you even listening to me?" Katniss is as angry as you've ever seen. (She's a slow burn, cold and aloof ninety-five percent of the time, but when she gets going she really gets going.) "How was that haggling?"
She has no idea.
God, she's so fucking young.
"It wasn't haggling," you hear yourself say slowly. "It was... the squirrels, they're for the baker. He gets first pick. Then Greasy Sae."
"They won't give us anything worth thirty-five!"
"It doesn't matter!" you shout. She looks surprised at your outburst and you can't decide if you want to hug her or shake her. "It doesn't matter," you repeat more quietly, trying to keep your temper under control. (She'd've been inside the house and you'd've been outside and you couldn't have done anything about it, you're fourteen, still skinny from your growth spurt, a Seam kid and a poacher to boot, no one would have helped you-) "Look, it's... business. Maybe this guy wants the squirrels today, but he won't want them next week. The baker, he always wants squirrels, he's been buying them for years and always trades well. We treat him fair, he treats us fair, and that's just... it's how it works." You're fully aware that you're not making much sense. "Listen, we're not selling to this guy anymore. Don't come back here, okay?"
She gapes like you've grown another head. "He paid five for fish and you don't want to trade? I can shoot tons of-"
"Please, Catnip." You're scarily close to begging. "Don't come back here. We'll find someone else to buy the crappies from now on, don't worry. I know what I'm doing. Trust me."
Katniss looks at you for another moment, studying your face. Then she nods once, reluctantly. She does trust you. It's new and catches you a little off-guard.
"Good. Okay. Let's go, lots to sell still. It's hot, don't want the meat to go bad. Just wait 'til we get to the Hob, the rabbit's'll go for..." You prattle on as the two of you walk and hope it's not too obvious that you're trying to calm your nerves. The whole thing has you so fucking rattled you can hardly keep your voice from shaking. But at least Katniss didn't understand what the guy who loves crappies really wanted. At least there's that.
Because you know that Catnip knows the math too. And if she understood what the guy who loves crappies really wanted she would think Thirty-five equals four bottles of oil, eight pounds of beans, eleven sacks of grain and walk right into the blue house without a second thought.
In the hall at school, one of the merchant kids - big, older, and blonde like all the others - stares at Katniss as she hoists her backpack. She's just starting to fill out and get a few curves on a steady diet of wild turkey. He smirks and you overhear him say, "Nice piece of ass. Think she'll take it against the wall like the other Seam sluts?"
You break his nose and your knuckle in the process.
You tell yourself you were defending all Seam girls with that one.
(When Katniss asks what happened - she hadn't heard the bastard's comments - you tell her he said something about Rory's lisp. She nods, because defense of family is something she understands. And during the month it takes your hand to heal she gets a lot better at setting traps.)
You're fully aware that you've got a temper problem. You can feel it solidifying as you get older, iron in your bones that stiffens your spine but might make it hard to bend one day. So when Darius tickles Catnip's face with her braid, you're not surprised that it makes you angry.
What surprises you is the reason why.
You want to dislike it because of the presumptuousness. The Peacekeeper touches the Seam girl because he thinks he has a right to do so, because working for the Capitol means he can take whatever he wants. Peacekeepers pull shit like that all the time and no one says a word. No one wants to make trouble. (You'd be happy to make trouble.) Peacekeepers are above things like asking a girl's permission before playing with her hair.
But Darius isn't like that and you know it. Darius is one of the good ones, maybe the only good one. He isn't much older than you and he works for the the enemy - which means you have to be careful - but he's decent. He doesn't mean anything by offering Katniss a kiss.
Your eyes narrow anyway.
Out of nowhere, without warning, Catnip looks different. She's been your hunting partner for four years now. You know each movement of her body and each inflection of her voice. You've told her everything; all of your trapping tricks, all the best places to find berries, all the hate you harbor for the Capitol and all the worry you have for your future. You trust her the way you trust Rory and Vick. She's part of your family. Like your sister.
But now Darius is talking to her about kisses and you're suddenly aware that, no. Katniss Everdeen is not your sister.
And no one should be kissing Catnip but you.
You wait until she's gone to discuss trades with Greasy Sae before you grab Darius by the arm. "Don't," you say. Your voice is low and full of all the weight you've started carrying.
Darius blinks, then smiles. "Don't?" he asks innocently, like he doesn't what you're talking about.
"Yeah. Don't." His amused look bothers you, so you add, "She's too young."
"She's sixteen, isn't she?"
"Fifteen," you correct him. Maybe fifteen isn't that young (you were fourteen when you first went to bed) but that's not the point. You're you and Catnip is Catnip. You know her. You know she doesn't think about things like this. Not yet.
She probably will soon, though.
"Too young," you reiterate.
Darius' smile grows. "Okay, Gale," he says indulgently. "You know I was only teasing anyway, right?"
Your eyes go back to Katniss, watching as she haggles with Sae. You see her - the curve of her waist, the length of her legs, the shine of her hair - and something inside clicks into place. She's too young but that's okay. You've got time.
"Right," you say.
It's Catnip, and she's worth waiting for.
Your blood boils as you stand with the other boys of District 12 (boys in name only, you don't think of yourself that way anymore and haven't for a long time) and watch the mayor read the history of Panem. Watch, not listen - if you listen you'll lose your temper and start raging the way you do in the woods.
You'll rage at the unfairness of it all. You'll rage at the Capitol for inventing these games, at every citizen in Panem for watching on TV, at every District who doesn't fight to stop it, at every family in the square for bringing their children to stand in herds for the slaughter.
You'll rage that Katniss Everdeen is on twenty slips.
You'll rage that Gale Hawthorne is on forty-two.
It would do no one any good.
The history reading ends and it's time for Haymitch Abernathy to make his annual fool of himself. He does. It's not as spectacular as last year when he threw up on stage, but he's repulsive enough to meet his own standards. It's reassuring in a weird way. There's comfort in ritual. Even barbaric ones.
The Capitol knows this.
You feel Katniss looking at you. She's wearing some blue dress you've never seen and she looks pretty, just like you suggested. Pretty but not quite herself and you think her hair should be let down and that you should be the one to do it. She's got the smallest smile on her face. You return it because it's just so fucking ridiculous, isn't it? And, again, if you don't smile, you're going to rage instead.
Then Effie Trinket's bright pink fingernails are digging through the bowl, and everyone has stopped breathing. Don't be Catnip. In a few years it'll be Don't be Posy, but for now you only have one girl to worry about at the reaping. You'll hate to see any of them go to their deaths but there is only one you think of now, only one you'll pray for to a God you don't believe exists. Don't be Catnip. Don't be Catnip. Catnip is yours.
Effie Tricket cuts through your thoughts.
You know what's going to happen before anyone else does, but you're on the far side of the square and you don't get there fast enough. It's her you would have grabbed, Katniss you would have dragged away, Catnip you would have saved. But the words are said before you're even halfway there to clap a hand over her mouth.
"I volunteer!" Her voice is only a gasp but it carries through the crowd. "I volunteer as tribute!"
You want to shout a denial, except Prim does it first.
"No, Katniss! No!" Prim grabs at Catnip's dress. Your blood throbs with the girl's hysteria and everyone else's probably does too. "You can't!"
Katniss is ordering Prim to let go, and it's the right move, you know it is, you've seen the Games same as everyone else. If Katniss has a breakdown she'll be marked as prey. If Prim keeps screaming then Katniss will have a breakdown. So Prim has to stop screaming.
You wrap your arms behind the little girl and yank her free, lifting her off the ground as she kicks and claws. Katniss gives you a look that would seem stoic to anyone else but you can see both gratefulness and terror. You know Katniss Everdeen better than anyone. Katniss Everdeen is terrified.
"Up you go, Catnip," you say, like climbing the gallows is no big deal.
Your effort to sound reassuring is hampered by how your voice cracks.
Katniss' eyes go back to the girl thrashing in your arms. You have to get Prim away, so you start dragging her back to her mother - and for such a little kid, she can put up one hell of a fight. The scratches on your arms go deep enough to draw blood, and Prim even manages to bite you on the shoulder. It's pointless, anyway; even if she wrested herself free and went running back, Katniss is on the stage now and she's a tribute. Can't be undone.
But you could go too.
Fight in the Games with her. Watch her back. Protect her, the way you've always tried to.
Who will feed your families in the meantime?
Posy, already too thin, turning to skin and bones...
Your thoughts delay you. Your steps are slow. You're vaguely aware that the rest of the crowd might be quiet or that someone on the stage might be speaking, but you're not sure, Prim is screaming in your ears and drowning out almost everything else. You have to get through the sea of other potential tributes to carry the little girl to Mrs. Everdeen, whose eyes are dead. "Here!" you hiss, holding out Prim. "Take her!"
"Katniss!" Prim writhes the way Vick used to when he threw toddler tantrums. "Katniss!"
"Take her!" you say again to the unresponsive woman. She's shutting down. You want to slap her but you resist. Barely. "Hold her!"
Something seems to register, and Prim is pulled from you and enfolded into her mother's arms. The screaming continues, the vacant look continues, but Prim is out of your hands and not your responsibility anymore. You turn, still not sure if you can do it, if you can bring yourself to volunteer (they'll starve Mom Rory Vick Posy they'll starve without you) but you're going to open your mouth and try to say the words anyway.
But the mayor's already reading the Treaty of Treason. A merchant boy stands on the stage.
You're too late again.
Catnip is going to the Hunger Games, and she's going without you.
The girl on fire.
You've never fucked a Seam girl before. It's always been blond Town girls - bored princesses (and occasional housewives) who feel like slumming it for an afternoon. It felt good to leave dirty smudges on their clean clothes. Sex and spite go well together.
This one's hair is dark, and her eyes are closed so you can't see the gray. Maybe you wouldn't see anyway - it's past midnight and the moon isn't shining into the alley. She had come with you happily (you'd seen her around a handful of times and she'd always batted her lashes) and hiked her skirt to her waist before you'd even lifted her up.
You're taking her against the wall.
The girl on fire.
Her cries don't block out the noises in your head ("She seems to be talking to herself - if only our mics were powerful enough to hear her words!"). Her soft pants don't help the breath enter your lungs ("This might be the first tribute eliminated by smoke inhalation in fifteen years!"). Her warm lips catching your combination of moans and sobs don't make the pain in your chest stop ("You can see by our monitor that Everdeen's heartrate is now over two hundred beats a minute; we'll ask our medical panel about cardiac arrest after these messages!").
Since the moment you saw that shining silver bow on screen you knew Katniss would somehow get her hands on it. Katniss would take down every one of her opponents with a clean shot through the eye and she'd be home in a matter of days. You knew she'd be fine; a little battered, maybe, and a little messed up in the head, but nothing a combination of hunting and hugs from Prim couldn't fix.
Then her leg burst into flame. You've been watching every second of coverage but when Catnip started to scream you nearly broke the Everdeens' door off the hinges as you ran because you couldn't watch her die.
"The girl on fire certainly is on fire, isn't she?" Laughter.
There is nothing, nothing you can do right now, but one day you will kill because Katniss Everdeen burned.
The fury and the warm legs squeezing your waist make you pound harder and when you do the instinctive pleasure shuts down your brain. You just pulled this girl off the street, but you love her a little because for a few seconds - just a few, just long enough to empty out deep inside where you shouldn't be because no one in the Seam can afford the medication - you're not thinking of Catnip.
But only for a few seconds.
A week later (Katniss is alive after all and you've slept maybe a total of six hours) you see the girl in the Hob. The shake of her head is relieved. At least you won't have to marry her.
You never do learn her name.
You'd give anything to hate Peeta Mellark, but you can't quite bring yourself to do it. During the whole of the Hunger Games - yes, even when he was curled up with Katniss, taking her kisses when you always thought you'd be the one to touch her lips first - you really only felt sorry for him, because he was a dead man walking. If he didn't die in the arena he wouldn't live more than twenty-four hours after he returned to District 12. (You would have slit his throat yourself.)
Peeta Mellark only inspired pity until they curled together on that loveseat in front of the whole of Panem and you understood the "romance" wouldn't be ending. Right up until you saw how he looked at her and realized that hadn't been an act. Not for him. And not entirely for her.
But you can't hate him. He kept Catnip alive.
Being her "cousin", though... oh, that you can hate.
You avoid her for weeks. It's not hard - you're in the mine instead of the forest now, you'll spend the rest of your life in the ground just like your father, you may as well already be dead - but then one day she's just waiting at your old spot in her boots with her bow and her eyes full of tears. Her hair has been cut stylishly and her eyebrows are shaped. Her wrist is smooth and clear of the deep scar she got when she fell down the valley chasing an injured deer. If you thought she didn't look like herself at the Reaping it's nothing compared to now.
Then she sees you, and an instant later she's in your arms, making some sort of wrenching keening noise that rips into your chest. She's clean of scars and torn apart and you couldn't stop them from making her that way. You hold her hard against you so she can't see your face because as much as you trust her you still don't want her to see you cry.
You wait until the end of the day to kiss her. She's not too young now. Catnip might be older than you are. And you'll keep trying to defend her, but you watched her swallow those berries and her lips are under yours and you know she can defend herself too. Even from you.
"I had to do that," you say as you step away. Her eyes are wide. "At least once."
She isn't your sister and you're not her cousin.
You leave before she can respond.