Hello long-suffering readers, for whom I have not provided an update in almost two months! I'm sorry. That's all I can say. I can also say that I have a few other following chapters nearly completed, so there won't be nearly so long between updates now.

For those of you who are getting author alerts from me but have never read this, this is my other (first) story. It takes place in the same universe as all my other writing. Same characters, same everything, but it's a background view of the Games and the War from Johanna and Gale's perspective (though not POV). Sorry if that's not your thing, but I should have a The Grandmentor update next weekend? I'm at a conference where I can't really write, but this chapter has been nearly finished for weeks, so it didn't take as much to finish it and publish.

-sc


After meeting Coin and begrudgingly agreeing to her terms, an unnamed soldier had stuck Gale's wrist under a strange machine that tattooed words on his wrist. Just like that he had been given a schedule, as though Coin had assumed he would agree and prepared for that eventuality. His first appointment was at the hospital for "processing." Like a hunk of coal. He hadn't been able to get a good look at the other items on his schedule because his arm had started to swell up after he read the first.

The purple ink that Thirteen used had irritated Gale's weather-roughened skin to the point that he needed an injection to make the swollen rash go away. It was hardly the only shot he received, but it was the one that embarrassed him the most. After working in the mines, and hunting in the woods he never once had shown any signs of sensitivity. But the ink made him swell up like a balloon. He had attempted to reassure himself with the thought that even the mines had been natural in some way. Deep in the bowels of the earth, but from the earth nonetheless. This bright purple was as fabricated as Effie Trinket's hair. Maybe his body just rejected anything so fake.

But the soldiers who walked him to the hospital wing didn't know that, and they had chortled behind their hands when they saw him clawing at his wrist frantically.

"Well, there's just one more Soldier Hawthorne, and then you're good to go," said the doctor, a washed-out man whose honey-colored hairline had retreated far from its place of origin. Gale was sitting on a stainless steel table, feet dangling over the edge. His dirty mining shirt was crumpled up next to him so that the doctor could look at his injuries. The man had declared them well-tended, and asked who had done the healing. When Gale had told him about Prim and her mother, the doctor had been intrigued and said that he would be speaking with his supervisor about bringing them both on at the hospital.

"Nothing goes to waste in Thirteen, especially talent!" he had said cheerily.

Gale hadn't responded.

Now the doctor had his back to him, but it was clear that he was once more drawing some liquid from a vial into a syringe. When he turned around again, Gale could see that the fluid was a sickly yellow-green.

"What's this gonna keep me from getting?" he asked.

The doctor grinned, and it was moderately repulsive. "Girls pregnant," he said cheekily, walking forward syringe extended.

Holding up his hand, Gale leaned away from him. "Hold on just a minute. What exactly is that going to do?" Not getting diseases was one thing. This… was different. And maybe they just might want to ask before using it.

The doctor lowered his weapon, smug grin even larger. "Oh, you're concerned! I forget, you can't afford this sort of thing in Twelve," his tone made Gale clench his teeth in fury, but then he relaxed a little when the doctor went on, "And, of course, the Capitol is too dull to see the benefits of any sort of national health care, especially in the form of birth control." Of course they didn't. If people could choose when to have children, they could take the time to look at the world around them and maybe, just maybe, do something about their lot in life.

"It's not permanent," the doctor continued in what he probably imagined was a reassuring tone. "In fact, it can be instantly reversed with this," he picked up another vial, the liquid inside white with just a hint of blue, and shook it, "otherwise, you're free to fraternize with anyone you wish, free of any physical consequence. Everyone within Thirteen is inoculated against all sexually transmitted illnesses, so that's a non issue. Although child-rearing is strongly encouraged, officers are given a prophylactic shot as a matter of policy until such time as they decide to procreate. Having an unexpected family to care can be considered… distracting."

"Already have a family," Gale glared at the man, who was completely oblivious.

"Ah yes, of course, but our siblings are not the same as our children, are they?"

It was a choice between stabbing the man repeatedly with his own syringe or saying nothing. Gale took a deep breath and thought about all the food that Posy and Vick were getting, all the tesserae Rory was not signing up for. The fact that his mother, for the first time in her life, could have time for her hands to stay dry long enough to heal.

About Catnip somewhere in this same hospital.

He said nothing.

The man injected the liquid into his arm, and then stood back, admiring his handiwork.

"Well, Soldier Hawthorne, I do believe that you're free to go," he said

Gale's hand was on the door, when the doctor stopped him.

Shaking his head, laughing a little, he said, "Silly me, I almost forgot. You're to go to the H wing. The Mockingjay is waking up and they want you to speak to her."

"Who?"

"Oh sorry, I mean… Mrs. Mellark, I suppose her name is now? The Mockingjay is just our little nickname for her," he continued to chuckle.

It took a moment for the name to sink in. He felt sick at the sound of it, even though he was almost entirely certain it wasn't true. At the same time, a logical part of him respected the doctor. Mellark had claimed that he and Katniss had forgone the Capitol plans to get married in secret with the only ceremony that Twelve required. To this doctor, that was enough. What the Capitol said didn't matter.

Too conflicted to respond, Gale just nodded sharply and exited the exam room.

He knocked over at least three people on his way to the H wing. Like everything else in Thirteen, the physical organization of the underground hospital was obvious when you took the time to look at it, but there was a rigid sort of utilitarianism that seemed to crush the soul wherever you turned. As he ran, he briefly wondered how Thom was doing with all this. Not well, probably.

It couldn't necessarily be said that he reached the wing in record time. He had no basis of comparison. But it must have taken less time than expected, because he ran into Abernathy and the Finnick Odair, of all people, talking in hushed voices in the middle of the corridor. The younger Victor was in a hospital gown, and he looked halfway mad.

"Let me go back for them," Odair was almost hysterical, even in whispers. "You can convince them to let me! You're the one who orchestrated all this, Haymitch. Please. They're hurting her."

Abernathy shook his head, "Snow's not going to hurt Annie until you're there to watch him do it, Finnick."

The young man's eyes were wild, "You don't know that. There are ways to hurt that don't leave any marks. And what about Jo? Oh god, Jo…"

"We just have to hope she's tough enough to last," the older man muttered.

"And who's going to scrape whatever's left of her off the ground even if she is?" Gale asked, drawing their attention.

Finnick Odair was not as tall or imposing in real life as Gale had anticipated. In fact, he was a bit shorter than Gale himself was. Of course, it didn't help that the man from Four was hunched over, fingers madly twisting and knotting a bit of thin rope. His golden skin took on an almost greenish hue as the weight of Gale's words sunk in. Then, without another word, the greatest Victor alive was running as fast as he could down the hall, like a wild animal. Orderlies chased him with needles full of what were probably sedatives.

Haymitch looked at him with disgust, "And that, handsome, is exactly not how you're going to talk to the girl."

"You figure she needs to be lied to some more? Thought you took care of that pretty well," Gale muttered bitterly.

"And if the kid dies, she can beat me to death for it. You can even hold me down while she does. But the he's not dead yet, and the only chance in hell we have of getting him out is by making certain that she can hold it together for a little while."

Gale shook his head in quiet fury. The man's duplicity was disgusting.

Abernathy grabbed his collar and yanked his head down, speaking in a harsh whisper, as though he didn't want anyone else around them to hear. "You and I both know that she'll be useless to anyone if that kid dies. Useless to the rebellion. Useless as a partner… lover… whatever the hell it is you want from her."

The younger man recoiled, whipping his head back, "This isn't about that. Katniss can and will do whatever the hell she wants. She doesn't love me right now anyway. After that arena… I dunno… she might love Mellark… don't think she even knows."

"Love him or not, she knows what it means to owe someone. And you can't really be more beholden to anyone than you are to the man who gets tortured or killed because his captor can't get to you." It was strange, but Gale suddenly realized that this man, this old, worthless drunk, probably knew Catnip better than she did herself. What's more, under all this bluster, he cared, maybe as much as he and Mellark both did.

"You get her strong, let her pull herself together enough to be the symbol of this rebellion that they want her to be, and then, when Thirteen realizes that they need her and she can't function with the kid in prison like that, then we'll get him out. Gale, you're the only person who can do that. The only person she trusts. She's likely to kill me as soon as she looks at me."

Gale nodded, teeth clenched, not missing the fact that this was the first time he had ever heard Haymitch call anyone by his first name.

"Tell her about Twelve. That will get her riled enough. But as far as the kid goes, don't tell her anything. You don't know anything. Don't tell her that they've got him for the sole purpose of destroying her. She's not gonna realize at first. She'll think they want him for information, even if he doesn't have it. She's an idiot like that."

He was right. As much as it killed him, he was right.

"Cheer up, handsome. We get the kid back, you'll finally have a fighting chance."

He grit his teeth, his mild appreciation for the drunk evaporating. "It's not about that."

Haymitch shrugged. "I'm sure it isn't all about that. But I'm getting pretty damn sick of being the only one who's willing to be honest about this shit. I might lie, but at least I know what's going on. And we both know the same thing: long as that kid's gone like this, you don't have a snowball's chance in hell."

Gale ignored him, and pushed through the door into the hospital room.

Katniss lay on a bed, and he could tell by the way she moved, sluggish, deadened, that she had been sedated. Otherwise her eyes would have been on him as soon as he entered the room. She was thinner than she had been the last time he saw her in the arena. He stood at the side of her bed, not sure what to do. Not sure if she would wake enough to speak.

He was just about to reach his hand out to caress her cheek, when her eyes fluttered into focus.

"Gale…" she said in a croaked whisper. As she moved, a strand of hair fell into her eyes, and he leaned down to brush it away. Despite their familiarity, this sort of contact was not something he was used to doing with her. His fingers burned wherever they grazed her skin.

"Hey Catnip."

The touch seemed to rattle her somehow. Actually, he had completely forgotten about the burns on his face and his injured arm, so maybe it was that. Either way, she knew that something was terribly wrong. Her small, frantic gasp for her sister made his heart clench and swell at the same time. Prim was alive. He had made certain of that, as he always would.

But what about Madge? a nagging voice insisted. And everyone else, for that matter. He pushed it away as he tried to explain what had happened to their home, neighbors, and friends in a way that would be both calming, like she needed, and honest, like she deserved. It felt like he was putting her out of her misery, but he kept on as the names Bristel, Leevy, Michlan, Gareth… and on and on rolled through his brain like a funeral march.

They made him leave the room when she began to wail miserably, and they sedated her once more.

In the emptiness of the hall, Gale found himself with nothing to do in a place that simply did not allow it. What was worse, he felt the most alone that he had ever felt in his life. Catnip was more lost than he had ever seen her, even more than the day of the Quell announcement when he had run to her frantically to beg her forgiveness, only to find her too drunk and despairing to even care. His family, with whom he had shared the struggle to survive and for whom he had solely existed were suddenly cared for. His entire crew was dead, with the exception of Thom. And the drunk was right. As long as Peeta Mellark was held captive, even if it was for the rest of their natural lives, Katniss would never be the same. It didn't even matter if she didn't want to be with Gale specifically. It was more than that. She wouldn't be able to function at all. Love wasn't even part of the equation at this point.

So obviously Gale was angry too, desperately so, but, much like Odair, there wasn't a thing he could do at this point. The doctors had been too distracted with calming Catnip down to tell him where he needed to go next, and the tattoos on his arm were still completely illegible. Abernathy had disappeared completely.

After wandering for what seemed like hours, he asked an orderly where the people from Twelve were being housed, and he was directed to a large section of the residential area, a honeycomb of doors so similar his head spun. Each compartment was labeled with the names of those who lived there. It looked as though they had kept families together for the most part; the odd person out was assigned a roommate. His own family was too large for one compartment, so he expected them to be split up. However, when he reached the area where they were located, he was surprised to see the names H. Hawthorne and P. Hawthorne on one door, and V. Hawthorne and R. Hawthorne on another.

No G. Hawthorne at all.

It made sense, he told himself, trying to crush the rather childish feeling of exclusion that surged into his heart. It made sense because he and Rory were both enormously tall, and there just wasn't enough space for that much body in one compartment, even one designed for three people. It was even better this way, he insisted to himself, because Vick never shut up under the best of circumstances and now, in a place like this, the kid was bound to be unbearable.

But it still hurt like a son of a bitch. Like he wasn't part of his own family anymore.

He looked for his own name on another door, maybe with Thom, but Thom was roomed with someone named H. Dalton. Danl was roomed with another kid from Twelve, too. Even Delly's little brother, Lenny he thought his name might be, was with someone else. He couldn't find his name on any door.

It was as though Gale was no longer a part of Twelve at all.

At least at home, dark and horrible as the mines were, he had been able to keep his wits about him. He knew what he wanted. He knew how to work to stay afloat, until, of course, Thread had come and taken away one of three things left that made his life worth living. And then the Capitol had taken away the second when Katniss was reaped a second time. Love the baker or not, as long as they had him, they were still holding a part of her hostage.

His family was the only thing he had left, but now even they seemed out of his reach.

There was a sound of a nearby door opened, and then a bright voice broke through his dark thoughts.

Delly Cartwright had finally cleaned herself up, but her pale pudgy face seemed to look a lot worse in the unnatural light. Instead of the snarled ringlets that had been left to fend for themselves in the forest, her hair was braided and neat, the buttery yellow made harsh and almost fluorescent underground. She was slipping out of the room of individuals whose names Gale did not recognize, and she looked pleased with herself. So pleased, in fact, that he had a pretty good idea of what she had been doing in there, which was something he hadn't really expected from her. Of course, he didn't really know the girl, other than as a person who was really nice, and incredibly useful in a pinch, so it wasn't quite fair to have any expectations at this point. Especially since she had just watched her own parents die in the explosion.

Everyone deals in their own way.

"I was looking for my room," Gale said, clearing his throat of all of the emotional effluvia that had been congesting it, trying to ignore what might be the extreme awkwardness of the situation.

Delly, though, didn't seem awkward at all as she eagerly offered, "Oh, they put you in the officer's barracks. It's really amazing that they're giving you so much responsibility so quickly! Not that you don't deserve it, of course."

"Yeah, 'amazing's' one way of putting it," he didn't want to offer up all of the other ways the situation could possibly be put. Sneaky. Controlling. Suspicious. Any of those would work.

Before he could stop her from touching him, Delly had lifted his wrist where his schedule was supposed to be, and then gave him a sympathetic look when she saw the slowly disappearing remnants of his rash.

"You too?" she tsk-ed. "Thom's is even worse. Everyone who worked in the mines is like this. They think it had to do with the coal dust in your pores reacting with the tattoo ink."

"Gave me a shot to make it go away."

Delly nodded, "Us too. A bunch of shots, really. Then they told me I could sleep with whoever I wanted without worrying about jenny warts." She laughed.

Gale did not join her, but she didn't seem to mind.

"Everyone's eating in the mess hall right now. I can show you where it is, if you want."

As they walked through the halls, Delly described how, in the short time since they had arrived, everyone from Twelve had been treated by a doctor ("processed" he corrected in his mind), assigned a room, and given a schedule. The children would go to school and begin basic military training. The adults, if they felt so inclined, could join the military themselves. Otherwise, they were given useful tasks to do based on their skill set.

"I'd obviously be an awful soldier, so they have me scheduled to work in one of the central administrative hubs when I'm not in school," she said excitedly. "A lot different than making shoes, that's for sure. They have to do a lot of work to make certain things runs smoothly, that everything gets done and nothing goes to waste. I'm not certain what I'll be doing, but it's bound to be interesting. Do you know that they had rooms assigned to us here before the hovercrafts even landed?"

It was all just too much.

"Your parents are dead," he spat. "Two thirds of the district is dead. How the hell can you talk about administrative procedures?"

She took a little breath and then, for the third time in one day, Gale got to watch someone have a nervous breakdown. The second time he had caused it himself.

"Because if I don't, then I die too. I can't stop. I can't stop moving or I'll die," she squeaked pathetically. She was beginning to shake uncontrollably, the cheery, happy girl dissolving into a complete nervous wreck. The tremors wracked her body so hard they had to stop walking. Gale leaned her against the wall as she shook. They said nothing for a long time.

"My parents are dead, my little brother won't speak, and my best friend is probably being tortured as we stand here!" she coughed out through her tears. He winced at her words. For once, maybe for the first time in his entire life, he felt sincerely bad for someone that had the misfortune to be born Merchant.

"I have to do something," she continued hysterically. "This all has to mean something. This all has to be worth it. That maybe we can have a better life. I just have to believe that or I am going to die."

He cleared his throat. Emotions like this weren't exactly what he did, ever. Just powered through. No one ever even needed this from him, especially not a silly merchant girl who he barely knew. But Delly had managed to keep things together by the lake, and he owed this to her, to the girl who maybe was just as alone as he was.

"I know how you feel."

She looked up at him, shock and realization plain in her features.

"You do know, don't you? She's your best friend, and she's hurting too. And you lost your dad… you understand. You know how it feels. That you have to work, that you just can't stop. You have to keep moving too."

"I do," he nodded.

After few moments, she gave a giant, sniffle, and pushed herself away from the wall with what could only be described as bouncy resolve.

"Then let's get to work, Gale Hawthorne."

They found Thom, Rory, and Vick sitting at the end of a long table, digging into a pretty bland looking stew. Next to Thom was a man with ruddy brown hair, dark eyes, and skin that looked like he could have been from the Seam. His face was so weathered it was tough to tell exactly how old he was, but Gale guessed somewhere in his late twenties.

"Name's Dalton," the man said in a slow drawl, shaking Gale's hand vigorously. He had the strangest callouses Gale had ever seen, as though his hands had been repeatedly bound with rope. "Henry Dalton. Hail from the fair prairies of District Ten."

Gale didn't know what a prairie was, but he wasn't about to ask.

Posy and his mother were missing. Vick told him that their sister had thrown a fit because she wanted to go outside and was not allowed. For the second time in less than ten minutes, he found himself feeling a swell of empathy. It made it easy to ignore Vick's excited ramblings about the advanced technology in their rooms, the fact that there was a library full of books, and every other thing that Gale just did not give a damn about himself.

Finally interrupting the kid, Dalton spoke up through a mouthful of stew.

"So, I heard you're gonna be an officer here, Gale." He looked at him directly, as though he were trying to communicate some sort of serious message.

"Seems like it," Gale responded noncommittally, matching his gaze.

The man made long, mournful sucking sounds as he ate, but didn't turn his eyes away.

"Things ain't all they seem in this place," he smacked. "Jus' be careful."