"You'll be alright, Prim, okay? You only have one slip," Katniss says to the trembling girl in front of her. The odds are in Prim's favor and she knows it, but what twelve year old isn't nervous on their first reaping? Katniss stoops down quickly to place a soft kiss on her forehead, and then takes hold of her hand and leads her to her designated section.
On her way back to the sixteen year olds' section, she finds herself involuntarily scanning the crowds for Gale, catching his eye once she's standing with the other girls her age. He manages a small smile for her, and she returns it easily, even though her thoughts are heavy. In four years she has gone from only worrying about herself in the reaping to worrying about four people at once, because it's also Rory's first reaping today. the numbers fourty-two and twenty keep repeating themselves in her mind, and she can only do her best to ignore them as she waits for Effie Trinket to pull the names of this year's tributes.
When the mandatory speeches are over and the tributes have been called and it's not them, it's not them, Katniss shifts her gaze automatically to Gale to see that he is already looking at her. Suppressed smiles appear on both of their faces simultaneously, and even though they're probably sick for being the slightest bit happy at a time like this, Gale's forty-two slips have evaded the Capitol's hands and Katniss is safe for one more measly year.
They sit in the woods after they've stripped off their fancy clothes, sharing stale bread and and strawberries that taste a lot better than they should.
"You know I'll have to start working in the mines," Gale says quietly, disrupting the comfortable silence.
Katniss's heart clenches.
Gale finishes chewing his last piece of bread and looks sideways at her. "If.. if anything happens, you'll take care of them, right?"
"But you will?" he says, unfaltering.
Katniss shoots him a look and brushes the crumbs off her hands.
"Always, Gale. You know that," she replies, pulling her knees up and folding her arms around them.
Gale's gaze turns back to the horizon, eyebrows creased.
Two days later Katniss stands on the Hawthornes' front step, because it's already nine in the morning and Gale still hadn't shown up to their meeting place, and she feels that something is wrong. That sense only heightens when her soft knocks are answered almost immediately, and the door swings open to reveal a stony Hazelle, her face drawn.
"What happened?" Katniss asks straightaway.
"There's been a shortage of miners because of the sickness that went around a few months ago. They pushed back the sign-ups deadline to today."
"No," Katniss says, her eyes going wide. The deadline is officially supposed to be two months after the reaping.
"He starts tomorrow," Hazelle replies.
Katniss turns abruptly and takes off towards town.
"So this is your last night of freedom," Katniss says, clenching the grass around her in her fist. The forest is tinted dark blue-black, last bits of sunlight filtering out and white smudges of stars taking its place.
"We were never free, Catnip," Gale replies with a sigh.
"I think the coal mines are as good a prison as any," she says, shifting to face him."Gale, you should've waited another year. We could've pulled through until then."
"They'd start getting suspicious, if they aren't already."
Katniss doesn't say anything, because it's a pointless argument and they're both well aware of that.
"I'll be careful, Catnip. Don't worry," he says, reading her thoughts.
On her way to the woods the next morning, Katniss catches Gale in his coal miner's uniform, the cloth too baggy on his lean frame. He stands tall and with a glimmer in his eyes that the others around him seem to have lost. Katniss looks at him from afar, catching his eye, and he gives her a pained little nod, that she returns with one herself. There's nothing to say.
Katniss looks away quickly and runs the rest of the way to the fence before she catches up to him and drags him away from those damned mines.
She can barely focus on locating any game, because the whole time she mentally charts Gale's progress towards the mines, and the thoughts eat up her mind.
He's at the entrance now, waiting in line for the elevator.
A squirrel flits in Katniss's periphery.
He's probably stepping into the elevator.
Her arrow flies.
He's going down into the coal.
She takes the arrow out of the animal's eye with unnecessary force.
Dinner is even quieter than usual that night; Katniss's mother's eyes just a bit more lost and Prim looking solemn.
Katniss knocks at the Hawthornes' door afterwards, and Hazelle lets her in, telling her that Gale's in the room and he's probably asleep.
Katniss insists on coming in, because she just needs to see that he's still in one piece, and Hazelle understands some of this because she nods and gestures for her to go on.
She finds him snoring loudly on the bed - dusty, but intact - and her lips quirk up just a bit as she shuts the door again.
Wednesday and Thursday and Friday pass, Katniss checking up on Gale every night until some of the deeply ingrained fear in her lifts just a bit. Without the entirely too distracting fear, though, she finally notices just how eerily empty the woods seem without Gale at her back. She often turns around to find nowhere there, and opens her mouth several times just to clamp it shut again.
As she checks the snare line, she comes across a few new snares hanging off of trees that Gale had been trying out in the past several weeks. After untangling the small birds caught in them (she notes with pride how Gale always knows exactly where to place his traps), she can't figure out how to reset them. She tries every technique she knows, and racks her brain for anything Gale told her in the past few weeks, but comes up with nothing.
At the sixth one of these snares and her thirtieth attempt to reset it, Katniss ends up with a finger tightly wound in rope, and has to cut away at the tangled strands with her knife, ending up with a good two feet of spoiled rope and a shallow cut.
For the first time in years, she feels vulnerable in the woods.
She hates it.
"Gale, you should really sleep," Katniss says, eyeing him as he drowsily redoes one of the complicated snares on the line. It's Sunday and it's his only day off, and even though Katniss insisted he didn't come with her, he fought back just as much and came along anyway.
"I'm fine," he says, fighting back a yawn and blinking several times determinedly.
"No, you're not," she insists. "Come on, Gale, go back and rest. You need it."
There's deep dark circles under his eyes and coal dust already stuck in his fingernails. He wobbles slightly as he walks, as if fighting sleep with every step.
"Catnip, really," he replies, looking up with drooping eyes. "I'm okay."
Katniss lets out a frustrated sigh, saying nothing as she stands, watching him reset a few more snares. At the second-to-last one, his eyelids inch closer and closer together until he falls asleep, leaning lightly on Katniss's knee. She can't help but smile as she crouches down, taking off her hunting jacket and laying it under his head as a makeshift pillow.
"Told you so," she whispers. He stirs, and she impulsively reaches out to touch his cheek, jerking her hand away at the last second.
Wondering what came over her, she grabs her bow quickly and heads out to find game at a distance that she can keep an eye on him.
"Why didn't you wake me up?" is the first thing that comes out of Gale's mouth two hours later, when Katniss's game bag is full and she decides it's time to go home.
"I just did," she points out, knowing the answer will irritate him.
"Before that," he says.
"Well, I think your little nap did you good," she replies, and it's true. Gale actually looks alive now, his eyes alert and body supporting itself.
"Still," he pushes on stubbornly, looking annoyed as they fall into a comfortable silence.
"Hey, Katniss," someone says urgently. Katniss turns around, confused as she looks back at the rest of the school hallway. She sees the blond hair first, then the blue eyes and broad shoulders. Peeta Mellark.
"Peeta?" she says, unable to hide her surprise at being approached. He doesn't look affected by her tone of voice.
"Take this," he says, holding out a brown bag that she didn't notice before. The irresistible aroma of bakery bread wafts from it. Charity, she thinks bitterly. Doesn't she already owe this boy enough?
"I can't," she snaps, the response coming out more biting than she intended. She softens her voice, "I can't take any more from you." A flash of remembrance passes through his eyes.
"Think of this as a gift." The bag comes towards her once again.
"I'm sorry," Katniss says, because she knows what lengths he probably had to go to to get this bread, with his witch of a mother, but her pride holds her back.
He doesn't look too hurt as he nods tersely. He's probably come across his fair share of Seam pride as well.
Katniss shifts her weight from foot to foot, waiting for the mayor's back door to open. Her game bag's filled to the brim with bright red berries and she's afraid they'll all tumble down the pretty steps if someone doesn't come soon.
"Yes?" the mayor says, looking sleepy as he looks down at her. "Oh, hello Katniss." He promptly disappears back into the house and returns with a large plastic box. Katniss silently empties her bag into the container.
"Here," the mayor says, dumping a few coins into her hand. "You brought extra this time."
Katniss looks into her palm to see a gold coin and two silvers. She usually only gets half of that.
"Thanks, but-" Katniss begins, because she's already fuming at this second act of charity but this is the mayor and-
"Katniss, I'm not trying to donate anything to you," the mayor says, speaking carefully. "You brought nearly double the amount of strawberries, so your pay doubles too."
"And the extra silver?" she says, trying to hand the coin back.
"Buy something for Gale's younger sister with it."
He closes the door gently then because a Peacekeeper is walking towards the house, and Katniss stalks off in the other direction before the uniformed man catches her. The silver coin feels heavy in her hand, so she goes directly to the Hob and buys a length of pink ribbon with it, surprising Posy with the little gift before school. She braids it into the little girl's hair upon request, her eyes trailing towards the direction of the coal mines.
By the third week she finally gets used to the biting loneliness, all of her seeming just a bit colder with every day that passes.
She doesn't know why this affects her so much, because she was just fine hutning without Gale for the first twelve years of her life, and now he's become an essential part of it. Stupid, she keeps telling herself.
If she's honest, she doesn't know if it's actually the empty woods that's bothering her or just the prospect of seeing Gale only once a week.
"Hope everything's going all right for you, girl," Sae says, pouring Katniss a bowl of who-knows-what. Katniss takes the battered thing that really shouldn't be called a bowl anymore, setting it down in front of her and watching the bobbing pieces of meat.
"Good enough," she replies succinctly.
"Getting quieter and quieter, aren't we?" Sae asks with a laugh. Katniss looks up from her slurping, putting the bowl down long enough to reply.
"Just distracted, that's all."
The past few months had passed in a blur of quiet lunches with Madge and hunting double-time in the woods. No matter what he says Gale's always far too exhausted on Sundays, and Katniss has absolutely refused to bring him along anymore, worrying that he would disintegrate from fatigue or something equally preposterous. They're doing okay, with Gale's pay managing to support everyone, along with Katniss's hunting and tesserae.
But that nagging in her heart that she barely knew existed won't go away.
"Gale? Gale, where are you?"
Her voice is garbled and she's running in blackness.
She runs faster towards the voice, but her legs stick in the coal and it starts to swallow her.
"Catnip, please," he begs.
The mine explodes in a perfect harmony of reds and oranges, sending flames flying.
She wakes up sweaty and sticky and scared and saying his name, and she just doesn't know what's wrong with herself anymore.
Katniss is back home from another evening of hunting, looking for half-clean clothes to wear instead of her dirt-covered, sweaty hunting ones. She hears continuous knocking at the door when she's half-way through a pitiful pile of shirts, hears the door creaking open, and then the panicked voice of Rory filling the house.
She gets up so fast she thinks she hears a joint crack.
"He's sick, Katniss. Really sick."
She's never heard Rory's voice sound so shaky.
"He's been dry heaving for the past half hour. I haven't tried to give him anything to eat since then," Hazelle says calmly for the sake of the four children gathered around her.
"Other symptoms?" Mrs. Everdeen asks curtly.
"He's delirious. He barely recognizes anyone," Hazelle replies, her voice wavering just a bit.
Katniss's mother nods once and heads into the bedroom to check on him. Everyone else waits quietly, all the kids shocked into silence and Katniss's mind jumping to horrifying conclusions. Just when Katniss thinks she can't handle it anymore, her mother emerges, looking grim.
"I'm not sure if it's contagious, but it looks a lot like the virus that went around the mines last year. His is more advanced," she announces. "He'll need at least two weeks."
Katniss automatically makes a move to go towards the room.
"I said it might be contagious," Mrs. Everdeen repeats firmly.
"I don't care," Katniss replies, knowing very well that if she catches the virus they're all as good as dead. She adds a feeble-sounding, "Please", and her mother's expression softens a bit, and she nods her consent.
"As quick as you can."
Katniss cracks open the door, peeking in once before entering fully.
"Gale?" she says.
A groan comes from the mass of sheets on the bed.
"Gale?" she repeats.
A quiet, "Catnip", comes in reply. She rushes to his side, her face getting hot with anger when she sees just how bad his condition is. Gale's barely conscious, his face flushed red. She briefly touches her hand to his forehead and recoils at the heat radiating off of him.
"Catnip, stay. Please," he says, his voice wobbly, already drifting back to sleep. Katniss brushes a stray lock of hair away from his closed eyes just as her mother comes in with water-dipped rags, Prim behind her.
"You should stay with the rest of the kids at our house," she says. Katniss reluctantly stands up, casting one last look at Gale before exiting the room and gathering up everyone.
Only Posy and Vick sleep that night.
Katniss presses ice cold cloth to Gale's burning skin, almost able to hear the sizzle as the two meet. Her mother's in the Hawthornes' kitchen, flipping rapidly through the plant book to look for any way to break the fever. She'd already tried the standard mixes of herbs to no avail. Hazelle's been forcing Gale out of bed for a cold bath daily for the past four days, but his temporarily cooled skin would go back to searing hot in only an hour.
The kids are all scared out of their minds now, seeing the one person they thought indestructible incredibly weak.
Katniss jerks upright, an impression on the sheet where she had laid her head. She didn't even realize she'd drifted off.
"You need to get some sleep," Mrs. Everdeen says, a bowl of a foul-smelling mixture in her hands.
"I'm fine," Katniss says, her eyes barely leaving Gale's form. She's so, so tired, but she doesn't want to leave him alone, not like this.
"He wouldn't want you to tire yourself out like this," her mother replies gently. "You're not helping anyone by exhausting yourself."
"I'm helping Gale," Katniss snaps back. She doesn't want to hear this spiel, not right now.
Her mother sighs. "Move aside for a minute. I'm going to see if this works."
Katniss obeys and leaves her spot, taking a seat on the other side of Gale. She leans her head on the wall that the bed is pushed up against, watching through barely open eyes as her mother starts to put the mixture on Gale's neck.
A few seconds later, Katniss is fast asleep.
When she wakes up, it's nighttime and the fever hasn't broken, and her mother's doctor composure is faltering, and Hazelle is trying not to cry and everything's gone so terribly wrong.
"How much for the fever pills?" Katniss asks, eyeing the little capsules.
"Five gold coins apiece," the old man replies, his voice soft and hoarse. The rest of the Hob bustles around them, people laughing and talking loudly.
Katniss's heart sinks. She has three gold coins and two silvers, and that's after a week of saving up extra game. Gale needs this medicine now.
"Will you give them to me for three golds and two silvers? I'll give you a two squirrels a week for a month," Katniss says, trying not to sound too desperate.
The man shakes his wrinkled head. "Sorry, girlie. These are straight from the Capitol."
"Three squirrels a week."
"I said no, girl."
"I said scram."
Defeated, Katniss stalks away from the stand, ignores Greasy Sae calling her name and walks through the Hob's doors and into the night. Gale just keeps getting worse and worse and she just doesn't know what to do anymore. It's so unfair and for the first time, she can actually understand Gale's sudden rants in the woods, because what else are you supposed to do when there's people out there who have cabinets stocked with food and medicine while you can't even afford one damn pill.
Her whole body's quivering with a flood of barely held back sobs and rage as she walks quietly back to the Hawthornes' home for one last check-up on Gale, her head down and eyes focused on her feet to hold back the tears.
She almost doesn't notice the blonde girl standing in the house's doorway.
Katniss immediately recognizes Madge's head full of long yellow curls, and wonders what the hell she's doing at the Hawthornes' home at this time of night. It's one thing for mayor's daughter to be out late; it's another thing for her to be caught in the Seam, of all places.
Madge's fist stops mid-knock, and she turns to Katniss, holding up a small package.
"Take this. Please," she adds, seeing Katniss's face.
"What is it?"
"Fever-reducing capsules. My parents keep them in the house, but please, take them. Gale needs them," Madge replies, already shoving the package into Katniss's hands.
"Thank you, Madge," Katniss says quietly, all objections erased from her mind. She hates owing people anything, but she's not in a position to argue. Madge nods, pivoting and running down the street towards her house without another word.
A new seed of cautious hope inside of her, Katniss pushes open the door and presents the capsules to Hazelle and her mother.
"Gale, you need to swallow this," Hazelle says, two little pills in her palm and a glass of water in her other hand.
Katniss helps shift him into an upright position. His face is blank and hollow, dark circles under his eyes. Gale doesn't question what he's being given and gratefully takes the medicine with water after being told that it will help him. Hazelle strokes his hair for a few minutes and murmurs to him before getting up to tend to the other children, leaving Katniss alone with Gale. She sits on the floor beside him.
"You'll get better, okay? I've got you."
Katniss feels lighter in the morning when her mother informs her that the fever had broken overnight.
After school (which Katniss didn't attend), Prim comes home and tells Katniss that Madge wanted to know how Gale was doing.
"What did you tell her?" Katniss asks. She's no expert at love by any means, but she's not naive enough to miss the stares that a majority of the girls at school aim towards Gale, and even though Madge is extremely discreet about it, Katniss's sharp eyes have caught her enough times to raise suspicion.
"I told her that the capsules helped a lot and the fever broke."
"She looked relieved, I guess."
"How did she even know Gale was sick?" Katniss asks softly.
"She asked me why you weren't at school a few days ago, so I told her," Prim says sheepishly. "She must've actually cared about Gale to give over those pills, though. Mother says they're really expensive, even for the Capitol."
There's a knot in Katniss's stomach at that when there shouldn't be.
"I should go to work tomorrow," Gale says, finally able to sit up without support. He'd downed two bowls of broth in the last five minutes, and he's now working on a bowl of thick stew.
"Gale, really," Katniss says, rolling her eyes. She sitting cross-legged across from him, spooning her own stew into her mouth.
"I'm serious. They've probably already cut my pay for missing the past two weeks," he replies, making a face.
"I will personally make sure you don't go to the mines for the next three days, at least," Katniss says, standing up to collect both of their bowls. "You still need to heal completely."
"But I feel perfectly fine," Gale argues, moving his arms around spasmodically to prove his point.
Katniss frowns at him.
He huffs. "Could you at least take me to the woods?"
Her skin almost stings when she accidentally brushes his hand when getting off the bed.
They're both moving quietly through the forest fifteen minutes later, Katniss feeling somewhat at peace for the first time in months. Gale coughs every so often from beside her, but that's okay, because it's better than him lying immobile in a bed or down in the mines. When they reach their meeting place, Gale insists on going hunting but Katniss refuses, and they go on like that for a while before they both give up and sit against a wide tree silently.
"Never do that again," Katniss says, and she feels Gale's gaze shift to her. For some reason she's on the verge of tears at this one sentence because everything that's happened has finally caught up to her.
"I can't promise you anything, but I'll try," Gale says lightly.
"I mean it," Katniss says firmly, except it doesn't come out as stern as she would've liked, and is surprised to find her voice is quivering.
"Catnip," Gale says softly, looking at her now. "What's wrong? I'm alright, aren't I?"
"You scared me," she whispers, looking away. Breathing is suddenly harder. "I- I don't-"
"Don't what?" Gale asks quietly when she fumbles.
"I can't lose you. Please. Not you too." What little composure she had crumples and she feels Gale's arms wrap around her. She almost flinches away because the contact is electric, but she buries her face in his side because she doesn't want him to see her crying.
He gets it, and doesn't say anything until she straightens back up on her own.
"You won't lose me," Gale says, looking her in straight in the eye.
Impulsively, he leans towards her and even though Katniss's mind is telling her to run away, she stays put and instinctively reaches her arms out for his neck, and just like that their lips mesh together and the electricity from before is a full-on storm. They part after a few seconds, as if that was some sort of test, and immediately meld back together again, shockwaves running through Katniss's whole body as their lips move together. Gale mouth trails down to her jawline when they run out of air between them, his lips barely skimming her skin.
"I won't leave you," he breathes into her neck, and she shudders. Gale pulls back and holds her against his chest. She grips him tightly, breathing in his scent of pine and oranges tainted with coal dust.
Katniss promised herself when she was only twelve that she would never love anyone but Prim, much less fall in love with someone.
She's realized there are some promises you just can't keep.