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Katniss tries to keep her panic at bay as she waits for Prim to stop coughing. She helps her sister stand and then guides her towards the drinking fountain. When Prim is finished drinking, Katniss makes her take a few more sips before they set off towards home. During their walk, she tries to ascertain just how sick Prim really is.
"How long have you been coughing like this?"
"A little bit yesterday, but it didn't get bad until today."
"Okay," Katniss considers this information. She tightens her grip on Prim's shoulder, steering them more quickly towards home. "You need to rest, no more seeing patients."
"Katniss, it's just a cough. I'll-
Prim startles and Katniss knows she was probably too stern, but she can't let her sister even think about treating anyone else.
"You are going to be your only patient. You can worry about everyone else when you get better."
"Katniss, people are really sick! They have fevers and-
"Which is exactly what you'll get if you don't rest! This isn't up for discussion."
It was a phrase she'd heard from Hazelle Hawthorne on more than one occasion, and she hoped it sounded as final coming from her as it did from Hazelle. It must carry some weight because Prim just frowns and sighs.
"How have you been treating the cough?" Katniss asks her.
"Lots of fluids, hyssop tea with mullein, and a poultice with eucalyptus and anise oil."
Katniss starts preparing the treatments the moment they get home. She puts Prim to bed with a glass of water and starts on the tea first. When it's ready, she delivers it to Prim and prepares the herb poultice.
"I know it's probably not as good as yours, but it should work," Katniss says as she applies the treatment to Prim's chest.
"You did it pretty well," Prim says with a smile. "But you're overreacting, I'm really not that sick."
Katniss hopes her sister's right.
"I'm not taking any chances. Now sleep."
Satisfied that Prim is well situated for the time being, Katniss hurries to meet Gale for hunting. She's late, but he'll more than understand the delay. As she walks briskly towards the fence, Katniss tries not to think about Prim. There's no reason to worry…yet. A cough is manageable, but the possibility of a fever scares her. More than ever, she wishes her mother could pull herself together. If this had happened before the mining accident, Katniss would have been much less worried.
She crosses the fence, retrieves her bow, and makes her way towards their rock. When she gets there, Gale is already standing up and coming toward her. Katniss takes a deep breath and tries to banish her worries so she can give her full concentration to the task at hand.
But she must not succeed, because Gale looks her over and says,
"What's the matter?"
"Prim has a cough. I just finished making her tea and stuff."
"Is it bad?"
"I'm not sure. She says it's not, but it sounds bad."
Gale frowns for a moment, then says,
"And your mom?"
"The same, Gale. She's always the same."
"You sure you don't want to look for her herbs?"
"It might help. She could treat Prim better -
"What will help Prim is getting this done quickly so I can get back to her!" Katniss snaps. "So, let's go."
Gale scowls, but he nods and they head out into the woods. If he's angry with her for snapping at him, he doesn't show it. They cooperate as seamlessly as ever and catch plenty. On the way to the Hob, he's more talkative than usual, telling her about Rory's crush on an older girl at school. Katniss is grateful for the distraction and asks Gale for details she would normally have considered unimportant.
At the Hob, Gale quickly becomes all business and takes over much of the trading from Katniss. He seems determined to get just a bit more than usual from their customers. When Greasy Sae says he's asking for more than normal for a rabbit, Gale tells her that her memory is failing her and this is one of the plumpest rabbits they've caught in ages. Now Katniss knows he's up to something, because that just isn't true. But he manages to squeeze an extra coin out of Sae and they leave the Hob richer than Katniss expected.
Just before she begins to turn off the path towards her home, Gale says,
He runs a hand through his hair, then shifts his weight between his feet.
"My mom is making this big stew, and uhm, I was thinking that you could get a bowl of it to bring back to your family-
"I don't need a handout, Gale," she snaps. She's fed her family for years, does he think she suddenly stopped being capable of it just because Prim has a cough?
"It's not a handout! It's just that I know Prim usually cooks, and you hate it."
As usual, she can't fault his logic. She wasn't looking forward to cooking at all, but she's not taking his family's food.
"It still sounds like a handout to me, Gale."
He sighs in exasperation and shakes his head.
"Then give me an extra squirrel or something. Will that make it alright with you?"
Katniss considers this for a moment. That would pay for the stew itself, but not for Hazelle's labor.
"Come on Catnip, what's the problem here? We always look out for each other."
"You don't always give me free food."
"It's not like that. It's a special circumstance because Prim's sick," he says. "Remember when Posy got sick last winter and you gave us those herbs? This is the same kind of thing."
"You gave me extra meat in exchange."
"So give me a squirrel. Isn't your time better spent looking after Prim than cooking?"
He's played his trump card and Katniss feels herself beginning to relent. As long as she gives him an extra squirrel it won't be so bad. It won't really be a handout.
"Okay," she says finally.
Gale smiles and they make their way back to his house. When they get inside, Posy rushes to greet them and launches herself onto Gale's leg.
"Gaaallllle," she says. "Vick is being mean! He's not sharing!"
Gale scoops her up and she latches onto his chest. He catches Katniss' eyes and rolls his own at Posy. But he's smiling and Katniss can tell he's not really that exasperated.
"Vick! Is there a reason you can't share with your baby sister?" Gale asks, as he walks into the living room and beckons Katniss in after him.
"Yeah! She broke my train!"
Vick appears holding a train with only three wheels. Katniss recognizes the toy. Gale spent months working on it before Vick's last birthday.
"I dinnit mean too! It was a accident!"
"I told you to be more careful, but you kept slamming it into the wall!" Vick shouts back. His cheeks are getting red and his eyes are welling up as he looks at his toy.
"Okay, okay," Gale says. "Hold on just one second and we'll get this sorted out. Hey, Rory! Can you get out here?"
Rory comes out from a bedroom and starts to say something about studying.
"I know, I know. Test tomorrow," Gale cuts him off. "Can you just go tell Mom to fill up a bowl with stew for the Everdeens? That's all I need you to do."
"Sure," Rory looks up at Katniss and waves a hello. She waves back and he disappears into the kitchen.
"Alright," Gale turns back to Posy and Vick. "Is he telling the truth, Posy? Were you slamming the train into the wall?"
"Don't lie to me, Pose."
"Yes," she mumbles and then buries her face into Gale's shirt.
"Okay," Gale sighs. "Now, Posy, you have to be extra careful with other people's toys. If Vick says not to slam the train into the wall, you have to listen. You're going to have to play with just your doll for the next two days, then you can try to play with Vick's toys again."
Posy looks like she's about to protest.
"Don't make that face. I'm not changing my mind, no matter how much you cry. But if you put on a happy face, like a big girl, I'll play Carl the Dog with you tonight."
Posy nods and he sets her down. She stumbles back towards the living room and Katniss turns to Gale,
"Carl the dog?"
"It came from one of my dad's old books. It's about a dog named Carl who took a girl on adventures through her town. The whole game is me being Carl and crawling around on the ground while Posy rides on my back. She's pretty thrilled by it."
The image gets a smile out of Katniss. Gale just shakes his head and sighs.
"The things I do for that girl," he says. "Now Vick, let's see that train."
Vick hands it to him and Gale turns it over in his hands.
"Where's the fourth wheel?"
"Here," Vick hands it to him.
Gale studies it for a moment.
"I can fix this. I'll try to get it done tomorrow night, okay buddy?"
"See, no harm done."
He claps Vick on the shoulder as the boy heads back into the living room.
"Sorry about all that," he tells Katniss. "They make trouble if someone isn't watching them every damn second."
"Don't worry about it," she says. She doesn't mind their bickering. Homes are supposed to be full of bickering children, not silent like her own house. Gale gestures to the couch and they sit down and wait for Hazelle. She arrives a few minutes later with a bowl in her hand.
"Katniss!" she opens up her free arm and offers Katniss a one-armed hug. "How are you, dear?"
"How's your mother?"
"Her mom's still not feeling well," Gale answers for her. Hazelle draws her brows together, but all she says is,
"Oh dear, well, send her our best."
"I will, thank your for the soup."
They say their goodbye and Gale walks her out to the porch. She hands him a squirrel from her pack and he nods. She's halfway down his walk, when he calls her name.
"Catnip! Just-just let me know if you and Prim need anything, okay?"
She gives him a wave and takes off back towards her house.
During the next few days, Katniss is glad for Hazelle's stew. She's busy enough without having to cook. She spends every free moment forcing tea down Prim's throat and making herb poultices to put on her sister's chest. But despite her best efforts, Prim's cough only worsens. It keeps them both awake at night and Katniss can feel her anxiety build each time her sister coughs. Eventually, Prim's chest and throat get so sore that she complains it hurts to eat, and Katniss has a harder and harder time forcing food down her.
Despite all that, Prim still insists she's fine. She ignores Katniss protests and goes to school, and she even tries to treat patients who show up with fevers. That's where Katniss steps in, telling them that Prim is sick and shooing them out of the house. She doesn't like turning them away, but her guilt fades when she hears Prim's deep, hacking cough.
It's on the fourth day that Prim is so tired from coughing all night that she finally agrees to stay home. Even though Katniss is finally getting her way, it's of no comfort to her. It just means that even Prim knows she's no longer fine. Katniss is reluctant to leave her for school, but attendance is mandatory and she has to explain Prim's absence.
She also doesn't want to leave Prim to hunt for the afternoon, but they need to eat. They could probably afford to skip a day because she and Gale have been doing so well lately, but Katniss doesn't want to take any chances. So she meets Gale and they hunt as usual. He doesn't ask how Prim is doing, but he doesn't need to. He knows she wasn't at school and he can read Katniss well enough to sense her growing apprehension.
At the Hob, he is even more aggressive with trades than he'd been the previous few days. Katniss thought she had noticed a difference in his bargaining, but today's trading confirms she's not imagining it.
"You drove some hard bargains," she tells him as they leave the Hob. "I think Sae was a little put out."
"We need to be prepared. With Prim being sick, it won't hurt to have a little extra on hand."
Katniss knows he's right, but she feels a sort of irritability when he says it. She's can't explain the emotion, she only knows his worrying on her behalf is grating on her nerves.
On the way home they don't speak much. Katniss is sullen and Gale doesn't try to force anything. But before she turns off towards her house, Gale stops her and tells her to follow him back to his place.
"My mom made more stew," he says as they walk. "She wants you to have it since she knows your mom is still sick."
"Gale!" Katniss stops walking. "I'm not taking your food!"
"I know!" He rolls his eyes at her. "You can give me extra meat again."
The idea does sound appealing. She wants to think that if she gives him a squirrel, they'll still be even, but she doesn't really think so. A voice in her head reminds her that ever since the mining accident, she's just been getting deeper and deeper into Gale's debt. Not with anything tangible, but with all kinds of intangible things. The comfort of his presence, the quick embraces, his help the night Prim ran away. Before, they always had an equal partnership, but Katniss feels like the balance has been upset lately because she's not pulling her weight.
But she doesn't know how to begin to voice all this. Gale takes her silence for consent and goes to get the stew. He appears moments later, offering a bowl of stew in one hand while holding his other out for a squirrel. She sighs exasperatedly, but complies with the exchange.
"Alright," he says. "So, I was thinking, I know we don't usually hunt on Friday afternoons, but we should probably go tomorrow."
Katniss scowls. They don't really need to go. Due to Gale's aggressive bargaining, they have plenty of food and some extra coins. The only reason they would need to go is if they assume Prim will get sicker and Katniss will have to miss future hunting trips. She might have been assuming as much herself, but for some reason it bothers her that Gale was thinking it too. It's not his problem, not his responsibility to think about it.
"We're not going tomorrow," she says. "We've got plenty and I would rather keep an eye on Prim."
"Okay. I'll go and bring back your cut."
"I don't get a cut if I don't go with you."
"Yes you do, we always split the kills."
"Yeah, because we hunt together."
"Come on Katniss, I don't mind splitting it."
"Well, I mind! That's not how we do things, Gale. I'm not your damn charity case! I've fed my family for years, whether or not they were sick. I don't need you to hunt for me!"
"It's not charity! How many times do I have to tell you that? We're not keeping score here!"
"It doesn't matter what you call it, Gale. I'm not taking your kills! So, don't go tomorrow. Or if you do go, keep the meat yourself. I'm not taking it!"
"And what if I bring it to you anyway?"
"I'll let it rot on my damn doorstep!"
"Fine! Then forget tomorrow."
He goes inside and slams the door loudly behind him. Katniss storms off to her house. She's positively seething the entire walk home and she slams her own door shut just as furiously as Gale slammed his. She manages to stay angry until she gets into her bedroom and finds Prim curled up on her side, shivering with a fever.
Katniss doesn't sleep at all that night. She frantically makes every tea and herb mixture she knows for fevers and gives them to Prim throughout the night. But none of it seems to make any difference. Prim continues to shiver even as she stays hot to the touch.
It's near dawn when Katniss realizes they've run out of yarrow to treat the fever. She feels herself on the verge of tears and tosses the jar down furiously. She has to pull herself together. Yarrow grows outside the fence, she'll get more on Saturday and everything will be fine. Or it least it will be fine if she doesn't let her emotions get the better of her. She's got no business crying over nothing, she has to keep it together.
Katniss pulls out the plant book and searches for alternative herbs to use. Her head is pounding and she has to read the same sentences over and over again so the words sink in. Finally, she decides on willowbark tea, though they hardly have any willowbark left. She brews Prim a cup and goes into her room to give it to her.
"Hey, Little Duck," Katniss rubs her sister gently. "Wake up, wake up. You need to drink this."
Prim stirs and tries to roll away. Her blonde hair is damp and stuck to her face. Katniss shakes her and Prim whimpers.
"Come on baby," Katniss says. Prim opens her eyes and moves her hand to shield them from the light. She moans and starts to mumble a protest, but eventually Katniss manages to get her upright. She brings the cup to her sister's lips and Prim takes a few sips before she turns her head away.
"No you need to finish this," Katniss tells her. "Come on, keep drinking."
It takes a long time, but eventually she manages to get Prim to drink the entire cup of tea. The sun has risen and Katniss considers whether she ought to go to school. If she misses school, teachers will ask why her mother isn't taking care of Prim instead of Katniss. She doesn't want to draw extra attention to her mother's condition and Prim's fever has remained constant, so Katniss decides to show up at school and cut out early.
The morning seems even longer than usual. Katniss always has a hard time concentrating on coal production, but today that task is downright impossible. She fidgets at her desk and scratches the peeling wood with her nails instead of taking notes. Finally, when most of the students head to the cafeteria for lunch, Katniss starts to sneak away. She's a few feet from the door when a familiar hand touches her shoulder.
"Are you leaving?"
Katniss turns to face Gale, who looks at the door and then back over at her. He looks her up and down, taking in her unwashed clothes and unkempt hair. She doesn't bother trying to erase the apprehension from her features, Gale will see it regardless. Instead, she tries to resist the completely ridicules urge to fling herself into his arms. Wasn't she irritated at him just last night? But she can't find it in herself to stay angry at Gale, that's just way too much energy right now.
But even though she's no longer angry, she still doesn't like the strong urge she feels to hug him. When did she start doing that anyway? Whenever it was, she's beginning to regret it. Maybe if they had never hugged in the first place, she wouldn't find herself wanting to do more of it.
"Gale, are you coming?"
Maura Amesworth is standing a bit up the hall, leaning against a locker and tapping her foot. Katniss can sense her irritation, but couldn't care less. Gale doesn't so much as glance back at her.
"I'll meet you there in a few minutes."
He doesn't wait for Maura to reply before he says,
"Is Prim getting worse?"
"She's got a fever."
"Okay, okay. Uh…let's see…you've got herbs for that, right?"
"I'm trying them. We're running low though."
Gale runs a hand through his hair and glances back and forth as he thinks.
"Okay," he says again. "How about tomorrow morning I'll hunt and you get the herbs?"
"Will you be able to get enough food on your own? Maybe we should go tonight."
"You should stay with Prim. We're fine for food, you guys are too, right?"
It's a stupid question. Of course they're fine, they've been eating his food, cooked by his mother. But Katniss doesn't feel like being snarky, so she just nods.
"Okay, that's decided then. I'll see you first thing tomorrow."
Katniss makes a conscious effort to keep her voice steady. Gale didn't say anything sad, so there's no reason for her throat to close up at this particular moment.
"Hey now, it's going to be alright."
Gale draws her into his arms.
"Kids get sick and then get better all the time. The ones that don't are usually malnourished. But you've taken good care of Prim, so she's going to be fine."
He keeps one arm around her waist and runs his other hand through her hair, working out the tangles so gently she barely feels the pull. Katniss burrows her head into his chest, finding it's just as comforting as she imagined it would be. It's only over the last few weeks that she's discovered just how nice this spot is. It's warm, firm-but not too firm, and smells like some combination of pine, orange, and something she can identify only as Gale.
He keeps rubbing her back and smoothing her hair for a few more seconds before she remembers where they are. This is school, not their homes, not the woods. She can barely stomach letting Gale see her moment of weakness, she certainly doesn't want anyone else to witness it.
"Okay," she says. "I'm going to head home now."
He lets her go, but before she turns away, he touches the bottom of her chin and nudges her face upward so she meets his eyes. They're piercing, staring intently at her and conveying as much gravity as she's ever seen in them.
"Listen to me, Katniss. We have each other's backs. That's what we do. So, come to me if you and Prim need anything, okay?"
And she means it this time. She almost understands that Gale doesn't see it as charity. But more importantly, she's getting too desperate to refuse his help.
Okay, so I'm sorry I'm still leaving you hanging about Prim. I didn't mean to stretch that over two chapters, but this chapter just grew on me. I promise you'll find out what happens to Prim in the next chapter. I hope you all are still enjoying the story, and thanks again for reading it.