Rating: M (just in case. I'd really call it the upper end of T, but you can't be too careful around here these days)
Characters: Katniss, Gale
Disclaimers (Hunger Games): The Hunger Games trilogy was written by and belongs to the brilliant Suzanne Collins. I'm just borrowing the characters and world for a short while.
Summary: "Do you have any idea what people see when they look at you? You give us hope, Katniss." "What if I need hope too?" With everything falling apart all around and on top of them, Katniss and Gale cling to each other to get through the night.
Timeframe:There are a few unaccounted for hours when Katniss and crew are hiding in the tunnels under the Capitol after Boggs dies (page 300 of Mockingjay). This is where we are. I wrote this story assuming that "Minutes to Midnight" happened, although that is neither required reading nor a required event for this story to be possible and (hopefully) enjoyable.
Notes: Because I am incapable of keeping my thoughts confined to their proper fandom along any reasonable or logical lines, apparently, the "last night together" romance scene at the end of Mass Effect 3 made me have to write this. With shoutouts to Ellenka, as usual, and to my mother, who read The Hunger Games trilogy finally and without any prompting whatsoever from me came away with "I hate what happened to Gale's character" as one of her few comments. Yep! So I tried to let him regain a little bit of compassion and humanity here while still staying true to where we are in the story, which is a very dark and dangerous place.
"Bit by bit, we're torn apart, we never win but the battle rages on, for toy soldiers."
- Eminem (sampling Martika), "Like Toy Soldiers"
I curl my knees up to my chest and watch Peeta sleep, my mind buzzing with a state of hyperalertness that goes beyond exhaustion. Another thing that reminds me this is just another arena. "Real," I whisper, the words barely ghosting over my lips. "We protect each other." The answer to Peeta's question and the truth, but full of doubt and anxiety that threatens to pull me under. I flick through screen after screen of Boggs' holo, mine now. None of the words or pictures make any sense to me, even if I wasn't scrolling through them so fast it's impossible to see anything clearly. I just want an excuse for the blue glow of its light. Down here underground... it's bad enough even without being pitch black.
I hear heavy footsteps, slow and hesitant, heading directly for my little circle of light. I jump, my fingers tightening around the holo in their grip, stupidly - it's not like it's a weapon. But I've also settled into a defensive crouch, ready to run or fight. Something they'd tried to teach me in that three weeks of intense training back in 13, but perhaps the one thing Johanna and I never needed to be taught. Survival instinct is ingrained in us. And none of the arena's victors sleep through the night. I relax almost immediately when I recognize Gale's... pants? Boots? I have no idea how I know that it's him, neither of us have spoken and his face is completely hidden in the shadows. But I still know, with a sense that goes beyond logic.
"You should be sleeping, solider," I tease, because with the holo in my hand I am his commanding officer now, although I am certain we both know what a terrible idea that is. I can barely hold myself together. Leading is out of the question. But the holo is in my hand, and Boggs shoved it at me as he was dying, and nobody else can do it.
"Back at you," Gale says softly. His voice is rough, his muscles tense. Even in the flickering dim reflections from the screen I can see the dark circles under his eyes. And I understand that, like me, there is no way he's sleeping tonight, even though tired soldiers make mistakes and we can't afford any mistakes. Even though I know the mistakes I make can never be blamed on the amount of sleep I do or don't get.
"You really think we're gonna make it out of this, Gale?"
The way he avoids meeting my eyes tells me his answer before he says a word, but he traces the tips of his fingers slowly up the inside of my arm. The heat of his touch feels so good. This skin-to-skin contact helps me forget, just for a little while, that I'm dressed in a ripped-apart mockingjay suit and he's got a bead in his ear connected to keep him in contact with the rest of the squad. And a semiautomatic rifle strapped to his back. We're a far cry from the kids we used to be, in the woods back home. We haven't been those kids for a long time.
"You're better at this than me," I tell him. Gale winces, and I look away, still fiddling with the lid from the can of soup I'd given to Peeta. I know he's thinking about 2, our fight about blowing up the Nut, blowing up a mine. He did it anyway while I froze. People like him win the war. "You are though," I say softly. "You always have been. You know what has to be done. Me... I just do what they tell me."
"That's why it has to be you."
"What are you talking about?"
"Do you have any idea what people see when they look at you? What I see?"
"The mockingjay," I spit. "The face of the revolution, that's what Haymitch calls it. Or, if you're talking about 13, then I'm a 'significant asset to the war effort.'" Significant enough that other people, real soldiers, have orders to throw their lives away to protect mine. It is an unspoken truth that I have slowly put together since the attack in 8, from scattered fragments of conversations my camera crew always cuts off abruptly as soon as they realize I'm listening, and cemented by the uneasy glances the other members of 451 throw my way during mission briefs.
But Gale just shakes his head, looking sad and more tired, more grown up, than I think I've ever seen him. Which is saying a lot, because I've actually seen him recovering from serious traumatic injury on more than one occasion, and the fact that he looks worse now than he did when he was bleeding out on my kitchen table is... worrisome.
I think about what I'd seen in his eyes that afternoon - this afternoon, but it seems like a lifetime ago. No wonder we're all so tired - when Peeta told us about watching Darius slowly tortured to death, the absolute hatred reflected there. I'm scared if I really look, I'll see it again. He deserves to be angry. So much has happened to him, to us, to everyone. And since that conversation, what was supposed to be a simple propo shoot turned real. Boggs is dead. Mitchell's dead. Peeta's unstable and nobody trusts me and I don't trust anyone. But I still I squeeze my eyes shut and take a shuddering breath. I don't want to be afraid of Gale.
"Hey," he says quietly, brushing his fingers across my eyelashes, which are wet, because I'm crying, apparently. Gale wraps his arms around me, and my body sags against his. It's different when the only thing I feel is the cold hard lines and heavy weight of his body armor, but I inhale quickly and blink my eyes open, and relief surges through me, because right now, this is still my Gale. He smiles and his hand slides down my cheek and rests there, and he kisses me gently. "You give us hope, Katniss."
Hope. I hold the word in my mind, turn it over and over. I barely remember what it means. I don't think I've ever had it, really. I never tried to be an 'asset' or a revolutionary. I only tried to keep myself alive. And keep Prim safe. That's the only thing I've ever really tried to do, and it's not like I planned it or anything. I just did something stupid, and then a lot of things happened around me while smarter people made plans and used me like a piece in a chess game. Haymitch and Peeta play sometimes. I never understood the rules.
I loosen one of the straps coming undone on my armor, and tighten it again. Loop and pull, not very unlike tying knots. I know I shouldn't be angry at Cinna for this, I know he is one of the few people who has always been on my side, if such a thing exists. But this outfit I'm wearing is just another symbol of this person everyone wants me to be. "People don't need wings to survive." "Mockingjays do."
"Hope," I repeat, and Gale nods. "What if I need hope too?"
I wait for him to say just the right thing, give me exactly the right words to motivate me and make me feel like this is really possible. It's what Peeta would do. But Gale only blows out a long breath and draws soft circles around the back of my neck. "I don't know."
Honesty. I nod, and collapse against his chest, realizing that I like this better. I draw his mouth down toward mine hungrily, needing him to kiss me again, to warm me up, to give me light and safety and certainty for whatever brief time we have. I crush his lips against mine and breathe him in, taste him, moaning softly as his body rocks against mine. I hear his gasping breath echoing in my ears and my heart skips a beat, flashing in momentary panic as I feel him beginning to pull away. "Gale, please," I cry, or at least I think I do. I am not certain if any of my words make it out of my mouth, or if they sound like anything intelligible. I just know that I cannot be alone again, not now, not tonight.
"Okay," he says, holding me close and humming a tuneless melody I vaguely recognize but cannot place, as he gently guides me to the blanket stolen from a Capitol apartment and thrown onto the tunnel floor to be ignored while I don't sleep. His careful fingers strip away most of my armor, and as he covers me with kisses and gentle touches and heat, I focus on the flickering blue-white light cast by the still-opened holo just out of reach.
Hope, or the closest thing I am ever likely to have.
When the alarm we set all those hours ago begins quietly beeping, I dress quickly and smile as Gale squeezes my hand before moving off to wake the others. I am ready.