A/N: I'll be posting a companion piece to go along with this story that is told from Gale's perspective since I didn't want to bog this story down with a crap ton of exposition. It will be called "Dark was the Night" so keep an eye out for that. Damn, writing these author's notes is like leaving a voicemail for someone you don't really know. When you've said what you have to say you just start sort of rambling cos' you don't know how to finish it... so... peace out? My awkward audience communication does not reflect on my story telling ability... just saying.
Katniss' arrow struck the bird through the head and it fell to the ground. She let out the breath she had been holding and stalked after it. It was a decent sized bird for sure - at least enough for a meal for Prim and her mother. She stuffed it into the rucksack along with the other small game she had caught that day. She debated for a bit whether she should keep going or if she should head to the Hob to turn in her catch. It was getting dark and Gale would be back from the village soon. She took another look into the bag. Good enough. She thought and made her way toward her childhood home.
The sun was setting earlier than usual, she noticed. And with night time came the cold. She pulled the collar of her jacket up in a futile attempt to keep warm. Winter is close. She thought. Birds were migrating, squirrels were hibernating, game was becoming scarce. She dreaded winter. It meant more of a struggle to feed herself and her family. It meant she and Gale had to scrape for every morsel, every supply, every little essential just to survive. Though at this point they knew to prepare - they had been stockpiling all fall. Trading what they could with the Hob and local merchants… and the deranged witch further in the forest. Winter also meant the Games. This was something for which they could never prepare.
She was shaken from her train of thought as she came upon the electric fence. Her sister stood on the other side waving with a big smile plastered on her face. Katniss couldn't help but return it.
"Don't touch it, they turned it back on." Prim shouted as Katniss ran up to her.
"How long?" Katniss frowned. Their turning the fence on meant the Reaping was coming up.
"Two more days." Prim replied. Her face now grim.
She had just turned 12 this year. That meant she was now eligible to be Reaped into the Hunger Games. Katniss tried not to look worried. Instead she started off toward the Clever People tree, as she and her sister had affectionately, though unimaginatively, named it. It had been a toss up between that and The-reapers-must-think-we're-stupid Tree. It had one large, overhanging branch that spanned the fence. One just had to climb it and hop over to freedom on the forested side. She was about to pull her length of rope from its place around her shoulders when Prim pointed out that Gale had apparently left his wrapped around the branch. The girl began to scale the massive tree and, straddling the branch, scooted gingerly toward the rope to throw the slack down to Katniss. Katniss watched in amusement as her little sister struggled to accomplish this feat. The only thing the girl feared more then the outdoors was heights. Tasks like this were not her strong-suit. On her face was an expression of absolute focus and she never looked toward the ground. Katniss chuckled.
"Shut up," Prim croaked. "I need complete concentration." Katniss laughed louder.
Prim smacked at the rope until it fell to her sister and began scooting, this time with a little more urgency, back to the base of the tree. Katniss struggled at climbing the rope. She had knots tied in hers to make climbing easier, Gale didn't, though he couldn't tell her why. Probably to be difficult, she assumed. She finally reached the top and threw her leg over the branch, wrapped the rope back around it and moving across it a bit more deftly than Prim. She jumped down into District 12.
"I guess I could have just thrown my rope up there with his." She said. "Would have made it easier on both of us." She grinned at her sister. The remark earned her a playful punch on the shoulder.
"You're a horrible person, you know that?!" Prim leapt at her, wrapping her arms around her neck in a half-hug half-threatening gesture. She embraced her anyway - discretely feeling for signs of malnourishment. They parted and Katniss smiled down at the younger girl. She had grown so much since she had last seen her. She looked healthy. Happy.
"Looking good, little duck." Katniss said. She put her arm around Prim's shoulders and they started toward town. "Getting enough to eat?"
"Yeah." She replied. This was a topic she apparently wanted to avoid. So she began telling Katniss all the latest gossip from the Seam. She would sometimes invite her sister into this conversation, but they had an understanding that Katniss preferred to just listen. At this point she had no clear idea who any of these people were. She had grown out of touch since her exile. The only people she had any meaningful connection with were Gale, Prim and Greasy Sae. Because of her… predilection… she wasn't allowed within the district proper. Refusal to submit to the Pantheon and, by extension, the Capitol was a punishable offence in Panem. And thus she had been marked and cast out. Forced to survive in the forest or die trying.
The darkness provided cover, and their destination had few patrols. Prim went quiet as they approached the house. Katniss heard Lady bleating from some unseen location and she kept an eye out for Prim's devil cat. She saw it eyeing her from the porch as they rounded the corner. They maintained eye contact until she entered the house. She refused to back down.
"What you see in that thing, I will never know." She growled
"Buttercup's cute." Prim smiled, gazing dreamily at the floor. Katniss looked at her, horrified. That?! She was about to say something snide when her mother interrupted her.
"It's you." She looked at her eldest daughter as if she wasn't sure if she was real. Katniss stiffened. She never knew how to act around her mother - never knew what to say. So she just nodded curtly.
The woman stepped towards her and extended her arms, pulling her into an awkward hug. Katniss reluctantly returned it. The relationship between the two of them had been strained since her father died. It was as if her mother had been frozen in time somehow. A veil had been thrown over her eyes, allowing her to watch the world pass her by without concern. Allowing her to disappear.
"Are you being safe?" The woman murmured.
Katniss sighed. "Mom, now? Really?" She wrenched herself away from the woman.
"I'm sorry." She started. "I just - I know it's just the two of you out there and your both growing up so -"
Katniss cut her off. "And I've told you it's not like that." She stormed past her into the kitchen. She emptied the contents of her bag onto the table. "Take your pick."
Her mother seemed to have ignored everything she had said previously. "For you maybe, Katniss." Katniss watched Prim follow their mother into the room, looking very uncomfortable. "But he's an 18 year old boy," She looked sternly at her daughter. When she spoke next, her voice was softer, more like a whisper. "And you're a beautiful girl. And I find what you're telling me very hard to believe." She took Katniss' hand. She looked back up at her mother now. Her face held a look of concern and something the girl could probably mistake for love, if she didn't know any better.
"Take your pick." Katniss repeated. Her mother let go of her hand, deflated. She grabbed the bird, and a squirrel from the small pile and took them to the counter to skin and salt them. Katniss shoved the rest of the game into her bag and headed out toward the Hob, Prim on her heels.
"So, are you two out there making little baby Gales?" Prim asked. Katniss could hear the tone of mischief in her voice. She raised an eyebrow at her little sister, who looked entirely innocent. They darted behind buildings, sticking to the shadows until they finally made it to the Hob. She traded her catch for the supplies she and Gale would need. Clothing and blankets. Oil for lamps. Needle and thread. She knew Gale had already gotten bags of salt to preserve what little meat they could catch. Alcohol for sterilizing wounds - lye for soap.
Prim followed her back toward the woods. "You didn't answer my question." She said. Katniss scoffed, rolling her eyes.
"Oh, gods, Prim. Not you too." She quickened her pace. This was not something she liked discussing - with anyone.
The girl whined, "I didn't mean it like that." She struggled to keep up. "It's just, you know, the girls at school talk about him." Katniss relaxed and slowed, allowing the younger girl to catch up. They continued on a bit in silence. Feet making satisfying patting sounds on the dirt roads. There were so few patrols at night.
"I know Madge would be." Prim finally said. It took a moment for Katniss to catch her meaning. Then she chuckled. "I'm sure."
Prim was quiet for a moment before she said "I would be." Katniss halted immediately.
"Primrose!" She gasped, punching her sister lightly on the shoulder. "Inappropriate!"
"What?!" The younger girl flinched, rubbing her wounded arm. "Its not like he hides himself. He's always stalking around the Seam and the Hob with his big, muscley arms." She gestured vaguely toward the forest. "We've all seen him in the forest, Katniss." She poked her elder sister in the chest accusingly. "We've all seen him naked in the forest, Katniss."
Katniss' jaw dropped. They had seen that? She heard a voice behind her and turned to look. It was a peacekeeper. Great. She thought miserably. They had grown to accept hers and Gale's trips into town, only because they too thrived off of what the two poachers had caught. But it didn't make them any more pleasant to be around. He grabbed her roughly by the arm.
"Go home, Everdeen." He said to Prim. She looked worriedly between the two of them before Katniss gave her a nod to leave. She hurried off back in the direction of her home.
Katniss and the peacekeeper stood there in tense silence until Prim was out of earshot. Then she pulled her arm free, mumbled that she was leaving and stomped off.
"Yeah, get out of here, Hawthorne." The peacekeeper replied.
Katniss turned around to see a smug look on the lout's face. She made a rude gesture and bolted when he started chasing her. She ran him around the outer forest of the district until she was sure she had lost him. Then she climbed the branch over the fence and headed toward her home.
So the girls in 12 had seen Gale in the nude. She rubbed her face, trying to remove the thought. Seeing her mother, hearing Prim talk about Gale. It all brought back memories she would rather have forgotten, as these trips into the district often did.
She and her father had been hunting that day - they had also been caught by peacekeepers. They found her Lady's token upon them and her father had been lashed brutally. "She's too young." They had said. So they bound her and marked on her throat, with needle and ink, a symbol of evil or autonomy - depending on who you ask. Then they cast her out, chasing her past the fence with dogs.
She would later come to find that her father had died of his injuries. And her mother had withered away.
She snuck back into the district. Looking for food, scraps, anything. She went back to her home to find Prim starving and her mother staring out the window like a ghost. She struggled for days to get her consistently moving and talking. Going out at night to scrounge or steal what food she could to feed the three of them. She had gotten caught, of course, and had been lashed - though not as violently as her father. Then they threw her back into the woods.
It was the Fall before the Games and there was little prey around. She had lacked the experience to stalk anything and her pitiful attempts at making snares had failed. She trudged through the forest weeping silently. She was weak and almost dizzy with hunger. And that's when she discovered Gale. She had stumbled across one of his snares. She gaped at the lean hare it had caught. She turned, looking for any sign of the snare's creator. It obviously wasn't one of hers.
Satisfied that the person was nowhere around she knelt to examine it. Loosening the cords, she pulled the rabbit from its noose and took note of the knots in the trap. It was then that she heard the loud crack of a stick breaking behind her. She turned to see some sort of wolf/bear hybrid bearing down on her. Its dark fur looked matted and dirty, but it was very large. Larger than her at any rate. It bared its teeth letting out a low growl and she ran.
She didn't get far before it pounced on her, shoving her face first into the dirt. Its great paw pressing down on her rib cage, knocking the wind out of her. She braced herself for what was certain to be a horrific death only for the beast to start to turn her over. That isn't right? She thought. She was pushed roughly onto her back to face a boy at least 5 years her senior, she figured. He glared at her before shouting, voice hoarse with disuse.
"Who are you?" He was kneeling over her, one hand pressing her shoulder down, the other holding a makeshift knife to her chest. She opened her mouth dumbly.
"Huh?" She squeaked.
It was then she noticed the mark on his neck mirrored hers. He seemed to realize the same thing as the pressure on her shoulder lightened and his brow furrowed. She took in more of him. His chest was bare and had on it a series of ornate jagged scars, no doubt placed there deliberately. Though by him or some other force, she wasn't certain. He showed no outward signs of the hunger that she suffered. His ribs weren't visible through the muscle and no bones were jutting from his shoulders or arms. She took in the size of him, eyes traveling down to gauge his height when she noticed he was completely naked. She blushed furiously. Her eyes darting back up and avoiding looking the boy in the face.
"Katniss." She said, probably a little too quietly. He lowered the knife and moved off of her.
He seemed to hesitate for a bit before finally saying "I'm Gale."
She nodded. Still not looking at him. "Why are you naked, Gale?" She asked. Certain her face was still red. Out of the corner of her eye she could see him shift, possibly to cover himself. She braved a glance over at him and saw that indeed he had.
"It's just more comfortable." He mumbled. Now it was his turn not to make eye contact. They sat in silence for a time before he got up and walked toward the snare. He jumped up to grab something held against a low-hanging branch. It was a small bag. Just big enough for a rabbit, she thought.
She stood up, looking around for any sign of the creature from before. He must have scared it off, she thought. He's huge after all. Satisfied it was gone she looked back towards him. He was walking back to her, arms inconspicuously trying to hide his genitals from her view.
"When was the last time you ate?" He asked timidly. She shrugged - feeling her stomach growl. He had apparently heard it, "Follow me." He said, moving past her.
"I'm not following a naked man anywhere." She was taken aback. How long had he been out here? He looked at her incredulously. Apparently shocked that she would turn down a meal for something so trivial. He had also apparently forgotten about her aversion to his nudity as he started toward her again holding the bag containing the rabbit out to her. She was determined not to look down, but it was from this determination that a flood of curiosity overtook her and she let her eyes linger, perhaps too long, on the only human penis she had ever seen. He followed her gaze down and then back up to meet her eyes. Her face felt hot, and she was certain it was entirely pink. He raised an eye brow, and handed her the hare. She took it and turned her gaze away from him.
"What about a wolf?" He asked. She met his eyes again, this time in confusion. He gave her the most up-to-no-good smirk she had ever seen before or since. It made her rather uneasy. He backed away from her. "Watch this." He said, making to crouch down. He hesitated before saying, "You don't need to be scared, okay?" in an almost gentle tone. And then suddenly he shifted and the beast from before now stood in front her. She gaped.
"You're gifted?" She reached out a hand, wanting to touch him, wanting to prove to herself that he was real. But she didn't see the human intelligence she was expecting to see in one of the hounds of Poloma. The wolf eyed her suspiciously. Its pupils grew wider each time she made to move toward it. Its ear's flattened and it let out a mix between a growl and a whimper when she tried to touch it, so she backed away.
It turned to move deeper into the woods, albeit slowly, as if unsure it could trust her behind it. She had a nagging doubt in the back of her mind if she could trust him. But he was gifted by her Lady, and he had scarred himself in her honor. She knew that she was protecting them both so she followed the hound to the hut in front of which she now stood.
She walked in and saw no sign of Gale but for his clothes in a heap on the floor. He must be out running. She mused. The moon was full tonight. That's when he was closest to Poloma. As one of her gifted he could feel her presence like no other could. He had once tried to describe it to her when they were warm in their home and their bellies were full. He had held her against his unnaturally warm body and told her to imagine, in her current state, a dream in which all who had loved her and cared for her stood around her and congratulated her on every triumph she had achieved, cheered every wonderful trait she had, and said all of this with complete sincerity. There are no feelings of condescension, no doubts of honesty. Full, happy, warm, and loved.
It sounded beautiful.
She returned to the present when she heard a heavy scratching at the door. She opened it and looked down at a furry, panting Gale. He had a heavy golden silk purse hanging from his mouth which could only mean one thing.
"Her again, huh?" She asked fluffy Gale. He ignored her and trotted past into the warmth of their home. He sat down leaning against their cot expecting her to sit down with him. His fur was cleaner now that he let her maintain it. And he trusted her completely. He would even, if she was feeling particularly daring, wrestle and play with her. But they were both too tired to face that challenge right now so she settled next to him scratching the hound's face and ears. He dropped the purse and laid his head in her lap. The feeling of flesh against her hand alerted her to the fact that he had changed. She continued to card her fingers through his hair.
"The Reaping is in two days." He said matter of factly. She told him that she knew. She told him that Prim was 12 now and he sat up. His nudity didn't bother her at all now. "Are you ok?" He asked. She shrugged. He put his arm around her and pulled her in to kiss her forehead. "She's fast, she can get away from the Reapers." He said, holding her. "We can wait for her by the tree - hide her until it's over." She nodded into his chest, hugging him back now.
"How did your trip to Circe's go?" She asked dragging the purse toward them. She desperately wanted to change the subject. Gale chuckled. Katniss and the witch had a pretty poor relationship to say the least. The old hag was a follower of Vega and was convinced that Katniss was a repressed prude that would faint at the mention of words like "vulva" and "clitoris" and "penis". She harassed the girl every time she entered her territory. There had been several times when she and Gale had been hunting that the woman had set what could only really be called "rape traps". The most recent of which involved a suspicious looking squirrel that, when shot, exploded in a cloud of one of her crazy sex potions. Well, it destroyed inhibitions so naturally Gale didn't stay Gale, instead he turned to hound form and the whole scenario ended with her being beset upon and chased up a tree by fluffy Gale and a very persistent bird. Though nothing untoward had happened, she and the boy couldn't look at each other or even speak to each other for days. Which is why Gale is the only one who goes anywhere near her shack anymore. And incidentally, is why Katniss thinks the woman is completely insane.
Gale laughed, "Well she wanted me to tell you that you're a frigid ice-queen and intercourse is a beautiful thing and you should have it some time." Katniss rolled her eyes. He pulled a small jar out of the bag and tossed it to her. "She also gave me a bottle of 'erotic massage oil'." He wiggled his eyebrows at her in mock seduction. She let out a soft "ooh" to match. She examined the bottle, it did indeed have "erotic massage oil" painted on the glass.
"Don't open it." He was more serious now. "Remember the lake." She sniggered remembering the incident.
"Did you tell her anything about us?" She inquired.
"Never." Gale smiled and gave her a light kiss on the cheek.
Good. She and Gale had a 'special' thing going on here and it was none of the crone's business. The last thing she wanted was the woman coming into their home and performing her bizarre rituals. And groping at her, and looking at her like she wanted to ravish her. Katniss shuddered. She would see their 'fornication' as an invitation.
Gale removed the rest of the contents of the bag. There were several small bottles, some to fight infection, some to heal frostbite, some to aid in mending broken bones, still others for keeping food fresh. Katniss started taking mental notes on which ones to ration, which ones could be sold at the Hob for something better.
"Who's the leading Champion this year?" She asked. Gale looked somber.
"The Champion of Marcus," Any light that had been in the boys face faded and he added "Again."
Katniss huffed in frustration. "Why won't he just die already?!" This will have been the juggernaut's third year in the Games. He had volunteered when he was 17, and he was still alive. They reap children from the ages of 12 to 18, but if you are victorious, you remain in the Games until you die or turn 20. The reigning victor and Champion of Marcus - Cato - was 19. He was gifted, like Gale, and he had been scarred in his god's honor, like Gale. He relished the fight, and seemed to her to be bloodthirsty and cruel. Just like his Lord. She knew this because the only time outcasts like her were allowed into civilization was to watch the Games.
She had held Prim as they watched him brutalize a boy, not much older than her sister, on the huge screen on the justice building. He had hacked the poor thing to pieces, never thinking to wash the blood off of himself. To prey on their fear. She thought. She had seen his gift in his second Games. It was monstrous. Another boy about his size was charging at him with a sword when Cato reeled back, sucking in a deep breath. Katniss thought he was going to scream but he let out a massive stream of fire. It engulfed the other boy completely, the primal screeching from the burned boy tore at her mind. She wasn't sure she believed what she saw, but what else could it have been?
The Capitol had taken to calling him the Wyrm, like the dragons of legend. Gale figured just plain 'dragon' wasn't catchy enough.
She couldn't stand the thought of Prim having to face that… thing. Gale must have sensed what she was thinking because he pulled her into his lap and kissed her. And kept kissing her.