Thank you to everyone who has been reading and reviewing so far! It means a lot to me. I'm going to do the full author's note stuff at the bottom, so here we go:
For a moment everything is still. Katniss's mind seems to have stopped and even the crowd seems frozen, but somewhere in the stillness she realizes that Gale has just been called. Gale has been reaped.
She searches frantically for him in the crowd and finds him standing as frozen as she is. Then, he straightens his shoulders, tilts his head up, and begins to step forward. The motions send Katniss into a panic. Her breath is coming in short gasps and she starts pushing her way towards the edge of her section. The desire to get closer to Gale is overwhelming, though she has no idea what she'll do when she reaches him.
When Katniss gets to the edge of her section, Gale has made his way to the center walkway and is moving towards the stage. She meets his eyes and sees something of her own horror reflected there, and something else too, something like an apology. But suddenly his eyes fill with panic and she follows his gaze to see Rory stepping forward.
"Don't you dare! Don't you fucking dare!"
Gale's shouting is echoing behind her and Katniss begins pushing people aside again to reach Rory, because he can't do this, he just can't. But everyone is moving out of the way too slowly, and she's not going to make it in time, and suddenly she hears,
Katniss freezes. The voice is familiar, but it's far too deep to be Rory's. She finds Rory in the crowd, and he's come to a stop and is staring towards another section. Katniss looks over and sees Thom walking forward, following the path left behind Gale and coming to the center of the crowd. His face is blank and his eyes are fixed ahead, ignoring everything but the path in front of him.
Gale comes to a stop, his mouth slightly open and his eyes wide. But as Thom steps up next to him, he comes to life.
"What the hell are you doing?" he grabs Thom by the elbow and jerks him back. "You can't do this! You can't-
Thom moves to pull out of Gale's grip, but Gale holds fast.
"No, you can't! I can't-
Thom shoves Gale, who takes a step back with the impact. But in a moment, he's shoving Thom back and Katniss sees peacekeepers rushing towards them.
"You can't fucking do this!"
"I don't need your permission-
Katniss rushes forward just as Gale lunges at Thom and throws him to the ground. They roll in the dirt for a moment before Thom manages to pin Gale beneath him.
"Stop!" Katniss screams again. She goes to yank Thom's arm away from Gale, but then she feels herself being pulled backwards. Before she has a chance to protest, peacekeepers close in around Thom and Gale.
Katniss looks back and sees that it's Darius pulling her away from the fight. She lets him guide her to the edge of the pathway and watches as Thom stands up and two Peacekeepers keep ahold of Gale. He's still swearing and shouting at Thom not to do it, but Thom doesn't even look back, he just continues making his way towards the stage.
Eventually, Gale falls silent and Katniss vaguely hears Effie Trinket babbling about how exciting this has been. Thom steps onto the stage and introduces himself and Effie directs the tributes to shake hands.
When she asks for a round of applause for the tributes, the crowd stays completely silent. Katniss doesn't see who starts it, but suddenly everyone is raising three fingers to their lips and then holding them out above their heads. Katniss sees Gale jerk out of the Peacekeepers grip to hold up his own fingers and she follows suit. The gesture is weighted with profound respect and finality, but she thinks Thom deserves it as much as anyone ever has.
The crowd remains completely silent with their hands in the air for a few moments and Katniss feels goose bumps break out across her arms. Finally, Effie ends the moment by stuttering awkward closing remarks and leads Thom and Ansley into the justice building.
Katniss's first instinct is throw herself into Gale's arms because she got so painfully close to losing him. But when she considers his stance, stiff and with his arms tensed, she decides on a more cautious approach. She walks slowly over to him, letting him glimpse her from the corner of his eyes before she plants herself in front of him.
"Gale," she says softly.
He meets her eyes and Katniss has never seen him look so lost. His mouth is still slightly open and he keeps blinking as he takes in the crowd thinning out. His anger from before seems to be submerged beneath grief, guilt and disbelief. Before she can think of something to say, Hazelle approaches him.
"We need to hurry and get to the Justice Building," she says.
Gale blinks at her and Katniss thinks it's cruel that he doesn't have more time to come to terms with this, but her wishes have never changed much. So, she takes his arm and loops it through her own, then moves them towards the Justice Building. After only a slight hesitation, Gale manages to follow her.
When they arrive at the Justice Building, Hazelle asks Katniss to take the children to visit Thom so she can have a moment alone with him. Katniss doesn't particularly want to face him without the support of Gale or Hazelle, but she's not about to ruin their chance to say goodbye on their own terms.
So she takes a deep breath and pushes open the door, holding it open as Prim, Rory, Vick, and Posy trail in behind her. Thom is pacing in the back of the room, but he stills and looks up when they enter. As he watches them pile in, Katniss sees a small smile appear on his face and she thinks he looks surprisingly at peace for someone about to enter the Hunger Games.
At first no one seems to know what to say, but then Prim breaks the silence and says.
"Oh Thom, thank you!" she steps forward and holds her arms out for a hug. Thom picks her up and squeezes her as her feet dangle off the floor. Katniss feels the back of her eyes pricking and she looks at the floor. She can hear Rory, Vick and Posy saying thank you, but she can't bring herself to speak. She tries to look up as she hears Thom making a joke with Rory, but then she sees Thom scoop Posy into a hug and she has to look away again.
She's just barely managed to gather herself together when Rory and Prim start herding the younger children out and she realizes she's about to be left alone with Thom.
"I-you-why?" she stutters when the door shuts behind everyone else. "I-I mean thank you, but why?"
Thom grimaces and looks out at the door.
"There's a lot of people who depend on Gale," he says hoarsely. "He's got everything to lose and I…I don't have that."
Katniss tries to wrap her mind around the enormity of what he's said. Flashes of sympathy, awe, and sadness pass so quickly she can't process the emotions. She feels her chin shaking, but swallows and wills herself not to cry. She won't, not when it would only make things worse for Thom.
"Thank you," she whispers again. "Without Gale, I don't know if…"
She trails off. She doubts she could have fed everyone without him, but the thought is too unpleasant to sustain.
"I know," Thom says quietly. "That's why."
Katniss nods again and fumbles for something else to say.
"You could win," she says. "You're strong, older than most of the other tributes. You could do it."
"I mean to try," he says. "The Capitol isn't going to forget about District 12 this year."
He looks resolute, even fierce, when he says it and Katniss thinks maybe he can do it, but she's still afraid to hope so.
She doesn't know what else to say. She knows she should leave so Gale and Hazelle can have their turns, but she feels like she owes him so much. It's more than she could ever repay, but she still feels like she ought to say something to let him know that he's important. That no matter what, she won't forget him.
"I-you-you were my first kiss that night," she blurts out.
He cracks a grin.
"Really? Well, I'm sorry-
"I'm not. You're as good a first kiss as anyone," she says it fiercely, because part of her feels rather honored that her first kiss came from someone this brave.
"What about Gale?"
Her mouth drops open and she can't even begin to formulate a reply. She shouldn't think about kissing Gale. Not right now. But she can't help herself, because maybe she does want to kiss him, and in some ways her first kiss probably should have been from Gale.
She's blushing uncontrollably, but Thom just starts laughing.
"Don't worry Katniss," he says. "I know how you feel about Gale, and your secret's safe with me. I just hope you two figure it out sooner rather than later."
Katniss blushes and stutters, trying to make sense of what he said and figure out some kind of response. She's still tongue-tied when she hears a knock on the door.
"Oh! I should go! Hazelle and Gale want to talk to you."
He opens up his arms and Katniss steps into them.
"Take care of yourself," she tells him.
He lets her go and she walks quickly out of the room so he won't see her cry. Once she's out, a few tears fall from her eyes and she turns towards the wall, trying to wipe them away.
Hazelle's already gone into the room by the time Katniss composes herself and Gale is standing a few feet away from the rest of the family, tensed and pacing. Katniss hugs her arms to her chest and remains silent, shifting her weight back and forth on her feet.
Eventually Hazelle comes out of the room, dabbing tears from the corners of her eyes. Gale doesn't say a word to anyone as he walks in the door to take her place.
Katniss puts an arm around Prim who is still sniffling and they all wait in silence while Gale says his goodbyes. Hazelle holds Posy, who has buried her head in her mother's shoulder. Vick and Rory stay close to Hazelle and don't say a word. Katniss wishes she could do or say something comforting, but she's not sure there is anything. The only thing good about is that Gale's safe, but to say that right now seems selfish enough to be cruel. And she wonders if Gale even wants to be safe if this is what safe looks like.
Peacekeepers finally come to take Thom away. They take Gale's arm like they're afraid he'll start fighting again, but he jerks out of their grasp.
"I'm going," he snaps.
They drop his arms and go inside the room with Thom. Gale stands outside the door, looking drained.
"Gale," Posy twists out of her mother's grasp and reaches her arms out to him. "Don't go away."
He swallows and looks at the floor for a moment before he says quietly,
"I'm not going anywhere Pose."
He takes her out of Hazelle's arms and she nestles her head onto his shoulder.
"We should go," Hazelle says.
They draw stares from the people they pass as they leave. Katniss is not sure if she's reading their expressions accurately, but she thinks she sees everything from awe to sympathy to curiosity. She has a feeling Thom and the Hawthornes will be talked about extensively in the coming weeks. It makes her glad school is out for the summer, she'll only have to put up with the gossip during mandatory viewings.
The walk home is just as silent as the time in the Justice Building and Katniss knows that none of them have any idea what to say. When they get inside, Gale moves to put Posy down but she whines a protest and clings to him. Katniss doesn't entirely blame her. If she were young enough not to have mixed emotions, she'd cling to Gale too. In fact, she'd still cling to him if she knew he wouldn't mind. The enormity of almost losing him overwhelms her again and she blinks back tears. She hates herself for crying this much in one afternoon.
But she must not be the only one thinking this way, because suddenly Vick launches himself at Gale and flings his arms around him.
"I'm sorry!" he says, sobbing into Gale's stomach.
"Hey, hey," Gale puts his free arm around Vick. "It's okay buddy. It really is. I'm sorry too."
"You almost got picked. You would have left hating me."
"What?" Gale looks appalled. "Vick, look at me. I never, never hated you, and I never will. I love you and there's not a damn thing you can do about it. Don't ever forget that."
"I love you too," Vick mumbles, burying his face back against Gale.
Katniss hears a sniffle.
"Ma, don't do that, stop," Gale looks frantically around the kitchen. Hazelle is wiping tears out of her eyes and Prim and Posy have joined Vick in sobbing.
"You guys," Gale looks positively distressed. "Don't, I-I'm still here and you guys would be fine without me."
Rory snorts and Katniss is tempted to join him, but Gale is looking at her when he says it, and she knows it's a plea as much as a statement.
"It wouldn't be easy," she tells him. "Gale, if you-
Her throat closes and her eyes burn.
"Don't," Gale moves to step towards her, but Vick is still clinging to him. He looks around, clearly helpless to comfort this many people at once.
"Posy," Hazelle steps forward and lifts her out of Gale's arms. "You need to share your brother too."
At first Katniss doesn't move, she just blinks back tears. But Gale is still holding an arm open for her and the need to be close to him is overwhelming. She's carefully suppressed it all afternoon, but now she's not sure she can take it any longer. She steps forward and lets him wrap an arm around her and squeeze her against his chest. Eventually, Vick must step away because she feels his other arm come around her and smooth her hair.
"I'm still here," he tells her softly. "It's okay."
"Yes and no," she looks up at him. He grimaces and she wishes she hadn't said anything. Of course he knows it's not okay, he must feel that even more than she does.
"Sorry," she mumbles.
"It's not your fault."
"It's not your fault, it was just the truth."
Katniss squeezes him tighter for a moment before she lets go of him and steps back. Gale hugs Prim, Rory, Hazelle, and Posy again, before Hazelle orders them all to sit down at the table.
She begins by explaining to Vick and Posy that Thom chose to put his own life at risk so Gale could safely take care of his family.
"He's a hero," she tells them. "No matter what happens, he's a hero, and we're all going to try to be more like him. We're also going to try and help him as best we can. I want each of you to find something of yours for Katniss and Gale to trade so we can collect money for a sponsor gift. We're also going to be eating a bit less so we can give more to Thom."
Katniss knows whatever meager amount of money they manage to raise will hardly make a difference, but she also knows it's the principle. Perhaps they can send some token to let Thom know it's from them. She'll have to ask Madge how to go about sending a gift because she's never tried before.
Gale goes outside when Hazelle is done speaking and Katniss lets him sit on the bench for awhile before she goes to join him.
"I feel like a piece of shit," he says and Katniss can see just how much he was holding it together for his family's sake. Now he looks lost again.
"It's not your fault."
"No, it's the Capitol's fucking fault. But, it still should have been me."
"He made his own decision."
"I know, that's what he kept saying. He said he had been thinking about volunteering after his mom died, even before it was me, but…he wouldn't just say that, right?"
"I don't know," she admits. "Maybe he would, to keep you from feeling guilty. But he did tell me he wants to make sure the Capitol doesn't forget our district. So maybe he has been thinking about it for awhile."
"He's been angrier since his mom died, but still…It-it should have been me! It was my name! And I want to fight them, to show them they're evil and we're better than them-
"You want it bad enough to leave us all?" her voice rises.
"No," Gale looks away. "A sick, cowardly part of me is happy. Thrilled, in fact, that I'm still here. Not just to take care of my family, but also because I-I don't want to go through that."
"It's not sick, it's human."
"Maybe, but tell me you don't feel awful for being happy I'm here. I know you do, it's been all over your face."
"I know. I-I didn't want it to be Thom, but anyone was better than you. Except Rory."
Katniss's stomach twists horribly as it occurs to her that it's not Rory dying that makes her feel that way, but what his death would do to Gale. She thinks she must be the most selfish girl in the world for caring so much more for her best friend than she does for anyone else.
"When he started stepping forward I thought I was going to die," Gale says softly. "It would have killed me."
"I know. I don't know what I was going to do."
"You could have knocked him the hell out for all I cared. Anything but that."
" I wasn't going to get there in time. If Thom hadn't…"
She shivers and Gale shakes his head.
"He saved us alright," his voice sounds both bitter and grateful. "If he hadn't been there…there's not a damn thing I could have done. Not a single fucking thing."
And Katniss knows that's the worst part of it. That after everything, everything Gale has done, he's still ultimately powerless to protect his family. And for a moment she understands why he talks about rebellion, because there really is no way to care for the people he loves so long as the Capitol remains in power. But her understanding only lasts a moment, because a rebellion is futile. It would move his family from possible to certain danger. But maybe they're already in certain danger?
Katniss forces the thought from her mind, shaking her head violently. She can't think like that. She won't. It's not safe and Gale does it enough for the both of them. If she didn't stop him who knows how far his rants might take him.
They sit in silence for a while longer before Gale sighs, stands, and offers a hand to her. She lets him pull her up off the bench and they head inside for dinner and the recap of the reaping.
Normally, Katniss doesn't watch the recap. She keeps the television on in the background in case peacekeepers come calling, but she goes about her business instead of watching. She knows the Hawthornes usually do the same, and Gale purposefully tries to keep his brothers and sisters from paying attention to it. But this year is different, this year they want a look at Thom's competition.
As she expected, the Careers look like trouble, particularly a large boy from District 2. But Katniss finds herself most upset that a tall, muscular boy is reaped from District 11. The career districts were going to give Thom enough trouble, he shouldn't have to worry about a boy from District 11 too.
She knows Gale must be thinking the same thing too, because he looks at the boy and says,
"He didn't volunteer. Maybe he doesn't want to kill anyone and they can just avoid each other."
Katniss nods. There's certainly plenty of ways the boy from District 11 and Thom could get killed without running into each other.
When District 12 comes up, Katniss is surprised to see herself on camera as she rushes towards Gale and then turns to get towards Rory.
"You shouldn't have done that," Gale says, and Katniss can see him getting angry all over again.
"I'd do it again," Rory says. "This family needs you to survive."
"Enough," Hazelle's voice shakes slightly. "This family needs both of you and I don't want to hear another word about it."
Both boys look abashed and mumble their apologies. Turning back towards the screen, Katniss sees herself again trying to pull Gale and Thom apart before Peacekeepers arrive and Darius moves her away.
To nobody's surprise, the video cuts off before the residents of District 12 give the three-fingered salute and both announcers start talking about what an interesting year it was. They speculate on how Gale and Thom know each other, cousins maybe, and even who Katniss is. Eventually, they decide everything will be revealed in the interviews and urge viewers to stay tuned to learn more about the drama of District 12.
Hazelle snorts and turns off the television.
"Time for bed, we have plenty more of this nonsense ahead of us tomorrow."
Usually there is a bit of grumbling from Vick and Posy about bedtime, but tonight everyone goes quietly. Katniss gives Prim a quick kiss on the top of her head and remembers that, however bad this day was, it could have been much worse.
Once everyone has left the room, Katniss lays out her pillow and blankets and tries to ignore the way the television seems to stare menacingly at her. Though she tries not to look at it, her eyes seem drawn to the blank screen. And she knows the blankness is only a temporary reprieve. Tomorrow she's going to have to keep watching. Maybe she'll have to watch Thom kill someone, or be killed, or get attacked by a mutt. She shivers at the thought and pulls her blanket up around her.
Trying to sleep proves impossible. After half an hour of trying to keep herself from imagining future broadcasts, Katniss gets up and paces around the living room. Eventually, she pours herself a glass of water and stands towards the window to drink it. But the moment she looks out the window, her stomach lurches. Right across the street is the house where Thom grew up.
Katniss puts the glass down with a slam and almost runs back to the couch. When she sits down, she hugs her knees to her chest and buries her head on her arms, trying to keep the stinging in her eyes from transitioning to tears.
Even when she's willed the tears away, she doesn't dare look up, knowing the television will be staring back at her. Instead, she keeps her forehead against her knees and takes deep breaths, trying to think of something, anything else. Her mind doesn't cooperate though and she's thinking not just of this year's Hunger Games, but of all the worst moments of previous year's Games. She's remembering the way a District 1 boy eviscerated his partner when she feels an arm wrap around her shoulders and the couch sink down beside her.
Gale doesn't say anything. He just pulls her towards him and Katniss allows her head to fall against his chest and her legs to drape over his. Gale keeps one hand cradling her shoulder and reaches his other hand around to rub circles on the small of her back. His warmth doesn't make Katniss forget about the Games, but it does make them less overwhelming. It's a tangible reminder that there is some good, even in Panem, and she doesn't have to deal with the bad all on her own.
The thought makes her start crying all over again and she feels absurd crying when she knows this must be so much harder on Gale. She takes deep, shuddering breaths to try and calm herself, and eventually manages to quiet her sobs.
"Sorry," she whispers.
"Don't be stupid. It's fine."
She shakes her head, but Gale shushes her before she can protest. The hand rubbing her back now smoothes her hair and Katniss closes her eyes. Gale moves beneath her hair, massaging her scalp with small circular movements and it makes her mind go blank. It's not everyday that her scalp gets massaged and it's a profoundly relaxing experience.
When he moves back down to rub her back, Katniss's head drops into his chest and her jaw relaxes. She thinks she dozes for a moment before she wakes up again and realizes Gale is still tracing circles on the small of her back.
"Sorry, I think I fell asleep."
"S'okay. I'm glad you relaxed."
"Me too," she says. "I couldn't sleep before."
Without thinking she looks back at the television and feels her stomach clench. Gale looks down at her and then follows her gaze.
"Oh that," he glares at the television. "No wonder you can't sleep."
"It's stupid. I'm sure I'll fall asleep eventually."
"You can sleep in our room tonight. My bed's big enough."
Katniss considers this for a moment. Perhaps she ought to think it strange to climb into a bed with a guy, but this is Gale. It's obviously not like that. His presence is comforting and there's no television in there, so she nods her agreement and starts to climb off his lap.
"We'll just have to get up before everyone else," he says. "My mom wouldn't like it, even though it's not like we're doing anything."
She nods, that'll be easy enough. They're usually up before everyone else so they can start hunting. Katniss has been getting up early for so many years she's not sure she could oversleep if she tried.
They're as silent as ever as Gale opens the door and they step into the bedroom. The door makes just the slightest click as he closes it and they both stand perfectly still, watching Rory and Vick breathe evenly before they cross the room to Gale's bed.
He climbs in first, lying down on his side and scooting all the way against the wall. He's left her enough space to keep an inch between them and Katniss slides in and rolls on her side. She folds her hands and slips them under the pillow to rest beneath her head. Gale drops his arm over her side and Katniss feels a warmth flow through her. She can feel the light bursts of Gale's breath against her hair and the rise and fall of his chest. From a few feet away, she hears Rory start snoring. She smiles, lets her eyes shut, and is asleep in minutes.
See, Gale is okay...for now :) I'm so glad you all cared so much, it makes me feel like I'm doing something right here. Thank you so much for reading, favoriting, reviewing, etc.
So, to those of you who wanted to see the cuddling/falling asleep together, here's the first part of it. They'll be more in future chapters. Anyway...
Anon: Someone was right on the money. Way to call it.
Bloodredfirefly: Thank you again for such a sweet review. I'm glad I'm making the characters realistic.
FortuneFaded: Thanks for reading, and things worked out remarkably like how you predicted they would :)
Ellenka: Thank you so much! Yeah, Vick's stealing is going to be a problem. Like you said, not a good trait for District 12.
To be a rebel: I hope you didn't actually throw the phone. And trust me, I am equally unhealthy about my favorite stories.
bohobo: See it's all okay, I'm not trying to kill you :) I'm glad you care so much, it makes me so happy because I have stories that I'm exactly the same way about. I'm glad you're liking the characters and thanks so much for all your lovely reviews.