A/N: This was written for Panem for the Hunger Games Spring Fling on AO3. Panem's prompt for this story was "a variation on the Book of Ruth." This started out as a smaller Book of Ruth-focused Everlark story, but gradually got bigger as I felt compelled to add background.

Thanks to sunfishdunes for being a great beta, as always. Also thanks to daydreaming-of-jhutch for pre-reading and providing lots of encouragement.

Please review and follow me on tumblr (soamazinghere) if you are so inclined!

Gale Hawthorne wasn't supposed to win the 74th Hunger Games.

It wasn't necessarily Gale Hawthorne himself who wasn't expected to win; it's just that everyone has low expectations for the tributes from District 12. Tributes from that far-away, coal mining district rarely make it even halfway through the Games. They fight just as hard as any of the other children who are reaped, of course, but the dark-haired, olive-skinned teenagers who usually represent the district are so scrawny, weak, and pitiful that they just don't stand a chance.

No one could figure out how it happened, but Gale Hawthorne wasn't like any other District 12 tribute in recent memory. You couldn't tell it from his skin, hair, or facial features – no, in all those respects, he was just like any other boy from 12. But he was tall and he was strong. He had a fierce determination in his eyes that simultaneously frightened and intrigued the Capitol viewers. Being eighteen years old, as well as one of the most handsome tributes in his Games, certainly worked in his favor as well.

That year, the Capitol fell in love with the boy from District 12. (His district partner, a typical, pathetic-looking young girl, has long since been forgotten.) With his natural strength and help from the many sponsor gifts he received, he reigned as the Victor of the 74th Games.

The sponsor gifts that were so immensely helpful in securing Gale's win didn't appear solely due to his looks and abilities, though; district mentors and escorts also play a key role in "selling" their tributes. Unfortunately for District 12 contestants, however, their only mentor – the only living Victor from 12 – was the perpetually-drunk Haymitch Abernathy. And he was rarely seen at the events occurring throughout each year's Games, where mentors mingle with the wealthiest Capitol citizens and representatives from large, money-laden businesses to solicit donations and gifts to support the tributes.

Much of that effort fell to District 12's escort, Effie Trinket. It wasn't exactly in the escort's job description to coordinate sponsor gifts, but she was well aware that securing the success of her tributes would only help advance her career. So she stepped in where Haymitch wouldn't. Unfortunately, the tributes she was typically trying to promote had so few talents and so many flaws that even her relentlessly positive attitude was useless in garnering support for them.

Until the coming of Gale Hawthorne, that is. Finally Effie had a tribute who she could effectively campaign for. And campaign she did, down to the very last second when Gale was named Victor. Effie's contributions to the victory of an incredibly popular contestant – which was so improbable, having come from a poor, outlying district – were not overlooked. And with such an accomplishment under her belt, Effie Trinket finally got what she had been clamoring for all along – a promotion to a better district.

"Katniss! Katniss!" She whips her head around at the insistent tone of the woman running toward her. "Marcus wants to talk to you right now," the woman tells her seriously. Katniss nods her head, removing the microphone from the waistband of her skirt and handing it to a nearby cameraman.

Marcus Lagerfield is not someone you ignore. He isn't a Gamemaker, but he is the person who directs all of the other on-air aspects of the Games – the interview shows where the contestants are introduced, the reaping broadcasts, the Victor recap shows – everything. It takes hundreds of people to produce the broadcasts that the citizens of Panem watch so intently each year. And he has the last word in every piece. When he asks to see you, you don't keep him waiting.

So Katniss Everdeen is understandably nervous. She stops in front of a mirror as she hurries down the long corridor to Marcus's office, smoothing her skirt and ensuring that every last strand of her green-dyed hair is in place. As one of the small cadre of young, attractive reporters who appear on-air during each Games, she knows she has a job that many would covet. Her involvement in a variety of televised segments that are broadcast when there are lulls in the action – some of her past features have included talking to mentors about their tributes, discussing favorite contestants with her fellow Capitol citizens, and touring memorable locations from past arenas – also makes her popular with viewers. She hopes that hasn't changed; she's never been called to speak to Marcus by herself before.

She attempts to reassure herself that she's unlikely to be fired. After all, she's good at her job – her segments consistently get high ratings, the producers always tell her as much – and she's unfailingly professional in all her interactions with other Hunger Games staff. Although he's never admitted it, she knows that she only got this position through her father's influence, which is considerable due to his high-ranking position overseeing Panem's defenses. Because of that, she's always made a point to put in extra effort to show people that she's capable and willing to work hard; she's not just the spoiled, rich daughter of one of Panem's elites.

Stopping in front of the door to Marcus's office, Katniss takes a deep breath before knocking. "Come in," he calls from inside.

"You wanted to see me, Mr. Lagerfield?" she asks hesitantly as she approaches his desk.

"Yes, Katniss, please have a seat," he says, gesturing at the small, silk-covered sofa near where she stands. She sits timidly on the edge of the cushion, waiting expectantly for him to speak.

He finally turns to face her. Marcus Lagerfield is an extremely unassuming man given his powerful position within the Hunger Games. He's short (only about Katniss's height, and she's average for a woman), very thin, and what little hair remains on his head turned white years ago. Katniss notices how fragile he looks and wonders how someone who appears so weak managed to gain so much authority. But she has little time to consider this before he begins speaking.

"I've heard excellent comments on your reporting for the Games, Katniss. And after watching you for the past several years, I'd have to agree. Would you be interested in possibly taking on a new role within the Games?" he asks, leaning back in his chair to gauge her reaction.

"Absolutely, Mr. Lagerfield," Katniss responds immediately. She's satisfied with her current job, but she's also smart enough to realize that you don't say 'no' to this man. "What is the job, exactly?"

"You've heard that I recently promoted Effie Trinket to become the new escort for District 5?" Katniss nods in response. "Good, then you must realize that we need a new escort for District 12. And I'm offering you the position, Katniss, if you're so inclined."

Katniss can hardly believe what she's hearing. Escort positions are very hard to come by and are quite prestigious. But they do require a good deal more work than her current job. She'd be expected to spend most of her days before and during the Games either with her tributes or working on their behalf, in addition to traveling to and from the district for reapings and other events throughout the year.

But she knows she can't turn down this opportunity for numerous reasons. She would likely damage her career irreparably if she turned down a position that Marcus Lagerfield personally selected her for. Just as importantly, she wants to make her family proud and repay her father for everything he did to help her succeed. So with no hesitation in her voice, she tells him, "I'll take the job, Mr. Lagerfield. You won't be sorry."

Before Katniss became an escort, she had never personally spoken to a tribute. As a matter of fact, the majority of the Hunger Games staff never see or talk to the actual contestants. They are sequestered in the Training Center for the most part, brought out only when necessary for certain special events like the tribute parade. And it's become an unspoken rule that only Caesar Flickerman gets to interview them. Reporters like Katniss talk to mentors, fans, and occasionally Gamemakers, but never to the tributes themselves.

So, most of her knowledge of the tributes came from watching the Games on television. Katniss, like many residents of the Capitol, grew up entranced by the Games and everything associated with them. She and her younger sister, Primrose, spent hours watching the non-stop footage of the Games and arguing over which tributes were likely to win. When they were little girls, they created mini-arenas in their playroom and staged Games with their dolls. As they grew older, they swooned over the most handsome boys and felt irrational jealousy toward the prettiest girls. Due to their father's clout in the government, they were able to attend the tribute parade every year. Katniss admired the tributes for their bravery, fearlessness, and willingness to lay down their lives for the good of Panem.

Suffice it to say, Katniss had a lot to learn during her first two years as an escort. When she conducted her first reaping, she was surprised at how uncomfortable the entire situation was. The people in the crowd—both the children and adults—seemed almost hostile toward her. And the boy and girl whose names she picked didn't act honored to be chosen; they just seemed scared.

Meeting the tributes and talking to them on the train as she escorted them to the Capitol was the worst part. That's when Katniss learned exactly how frightened and angry these young people really were. None of them wanted to be in the Games, which astonished her and went against everything she'd been taught growing up. But as hard as she tried to reassure her tributes, tried to remind them of the great honor of their position, and tried to be just like Effie – nothing worked. And as their escort and a citizen of the Capitol, she often received the brunt of her tributes' anger.

She was ashamed to admit to herself that she had never before given much thought to the fact that the tributes – despite all the honor and prestige of their position – were being sent to die.

And die they did; all of her tributes during her first two years serving as District 12's escort.

Winning the Hunger Games didn't do anything to staunch Gale Hawthorne's anger at the Capitol. It didn't suddenly make him begin to respect the power that the Capitol wielded over the districts, and it certainly didn't make him feel lucky to be alive. If anything, he was angrier than he'd ever been. He hated himself a little bit for accepting the money and the house that were his "rewards" for being a Victor…but he was practical, and after all he'd been through, he wanted to at least make sure that his mother and younger siblings were well taken care of.

But after his Victory Tour, he couldn't bring himself to return to the Capitol to face the Games again. He knew what was expected of Victors, but he was more interested in preserving his sanity by staying at home. Haymitch, who Gale learned actually had more wits about him than people gave him credit for, warned him to be quiet about how he felt. He took pity on Gale, knowing how it felt to be a new Victor, and allowed him to remain in 12 while he continued to serve as mentor to their district's tributes for the first two years after Gale won.

Still, the Capitol didn't forget their popular District 12 Victor. And one day, the inevitable telephone call came telling Gale that his fans were clamoring to see him, and therefore he would be expected to mentor in the next Games. No amount of polite protesting was able to make the Games official on the phone budge. And when Gale stormed to Haymitch's house after the phone call, all he received was a resigned shrug and a reminder that "this was bound to happen someday, kid."

Soon enough, Gale found himself on a tribute train bound for the Capitol, along with two unfortunate children that he could barely look in the eyes (the only difference between these two and the tributes from any other year was that one was the fair-haired, blue-eyed daughter of a merchant family), and Katniss Everdeen.

Gale had never paid Katniss Everdeen much attention before. He attended the reapings she conducted for the past two years, but he had schooled himself to remain as distant as possible from the proceedings that occurred just a few feet from where he sat. He tried to not really hear or see anything, with the hopes that he wouldn't feel anything later if he shut it all out. He'd heard talk around town that Katniss didn't have quite the same enthusiasm as Effie Trinket, that she seemed somewhat awkward and unsure of herself, but none of that mattered to Gale. He knew everything he needed to know about her: she was from the Capitol and she was part of the Hunger Games, making her complicit in the murder of numerous children.

It was easy to decide that he hated her, even before they ever met.

"Gale? Um, Gale?" a voice calls timidly from behind him.

He turns around slowly. He'd been so wrapped up in his thoughts, trying desperately to forget that he was just hours away from returning to the Capitol, that he didn't even hear Katniss enter the dining car behind him.

He silently appraises the young woman standing in front of him while trying to give her an intimidating glare. He concedes to himself that she's pretty; probably more than most women he remembers from his previous visits to the Capitol. Of course, most women in the Capitol cover their faces with so much makeup that it's impossible to tell what they really look like. Katniss doesn't, though. But she decorates herself in other ways that make it obvious she's one of them. He hates her god-awful green hair, with its asymmetrical cut that's considerably shorter on the left side than the right. And her arms and upper chest are covered in an elaborate set of matching green tattoos that are always visible thanks to the strapless dresses that she usually wears. None of the women back in District 12 – not even the wealthiest merchants – have the time or money to put so much effort into their appearance.

"What is it?" he responds curtly. He doesn't want her to find him approachable or likeable; he just wants her to leave him alone as much as possible. So he's been purposely trying to treat her poorly ever since they and their tributes boarded the train back in 12. It seems to be doing the trick; Katniss has barely spoken to him during the trip.

Katniss sits across from him at the dining table, clenching her fists nervously. "I, uh, wanted to ask what you're planning to say to the tributes. I mean, to start helping them prepare. We're arriving in a few hours," she reminds him. "I've only seen what Haymitch does…" she trails off, thinking that she doesn't need to say more.

"Why would I do anything different?" he asks angrily, standing up from his seat. "We all know they're just here to die for your entertainment. What's the point of preparing?"

"But someone will win, Gale," Katniss says pleadingly. "It could be one of them!"

"Please, you've seen them," he snaps dismissively as he turns his back and makes his way to leave. He gives her one last look as he reaches the door. "Besides, they'd be better off if they weren't crowned Victor."

Gale made certain that his relationship with Katniss began contentiously enough. Reacting strongly against anyone and anything he associates with the Games was one of the ways he protected himself from the Capitol. And Haymitch had warned him that Katniss was different than Effie. While Effie never seemed to be anything more than the woman everyone saw conducting the reapings each year, Katniss seemed to want something from them. Haymitch wasn't sure what, but he told Gale that she made him nervous. She asked questions. The kinds of questions that someone from the Capitol shouldn't be asking. Haymitch always refused to answer.

So Gale is unsurprised when Katniss starts asking him questions, despite his obvious attempts to discourage her. She starts off with simple, safe topics, such as asking him about his family, or what his school was like back in District 12, or what his favorite foods from back home are. He gives her the shortest, least detailed answers he can muster. Still, over time she seems to grow more comfortable with his presence and starts asking the kinds of questions Haymitch warned him about. Did he wish he hadn't won the Games? Isn't it an honor to be chosen as a tribute? Does the Capitol take good care of the people in the districts?

Almost every one of her questions, though, is more complicated than she realizes. And he doesn't trust her. Why would she be asking him these things? He's certain that it's not above the Capitol to use someone like Katniss to gather information, to make sure that their Victors are behaving as they should and not causing trouble. So he tries to give her a Capitol-approved answer every time, although he's sometimes unable to stop himself from letting his own opinions slip through. He wonders if Katniss notices what he's not saying when he answers her.

As he sees more of Katniss, though, the less Gale suspects her of being a spy or trying to gather information about him. He becomes more certain that she's just hopelessly naïve. In a way, he feels sorry for her: her questions sound like she's repeating information that she found in a textbook.

In the first Games he served as a mentor, he saw Katniss nearly break down when their first tribute – a tiny thirteen-year-old named Oriana – died. He didn't realize at the time why she had stormed out of the room so suddenly, but when he found her later, sobbing on the rooftop of the Training Center, she admitted to him that she was always emotional about her tributes' deaths. At least, she had been ever since she became an escort. She never thought much about the tributes' actual deaths before she met and got to know some of them.

As he attempted to comfort her, it sickened him to realize how thoroughly the Capitol citizens must divorce themselves from the reality of the Games. Hundreds of children have died in the Games during Katniss's lifetime, but it's as if she didn't comprehend that fact before she was directly confronted with the deaths. They were never really people to her before, just part of the show.

He starts to understand why Katniss questions him so much about the Games and how they're perceived back home. She senses the injustice that's occurring but knows only what she's been taught. There's no one else she can talk to without casting suspicion on herself, and they wouldn't have the answers she's looking for anyway.

His better instincts tell him not to, but as time passes, he opens up to Katniss more. He doesn't volunteer information, but he answers her questions honestly when it's safe to do so. He even asks her some questions about growing up in the Capitol, curious to understand what led her to where she is today. Eventually, they're both genuinely surprised to realize that they consider the other a friend.

If Gale is completely honest with himself, he could almost envision being more than friends with Katniss. As he gets to know her better, and sees more of the Games and the Capitol, he's convinced she's the only thing keeping him sane when he's there. Something about her presence comforts him. Maybe it's just the knowledge that there's at least one person in the Capitol who seems like a normal human being. He's not really sure. But aside from a few awkward hugs and brushes of their hands, he doesn't allow himself to get too close to her. He and Katniss are from completely different worlds and there's no point pretending things are different.

He's also not completely convinced that their friendship has benefited Katniss. As eager as he is to tell the truth about the Games and life in the districts, he sees the weight of that information settling on her. She's not as light-hearted or innocent as she was when they first met; she seems to carry a burden of guilt now. He can see it every time she talks to their tributes, every time she conducts a reaping. She looks almost ashamed; of what, he's not exactly sure. But he can guess. She doesn't realize how much she leans on him for support, but he tries to be there for her.

He starts to think that she was better off when she didn't know.

It happens one day as an impulse. Katniss and Gale escape briefly from the hubbub surrounding yet another reaping on the pretense that they need to talk. In reality, they just need to take one last break from everything related to the Games. Once the reaping occurs, there won't be any escaping it until the Games are over, or at least until their tributes have both been killed.

As they wander slowly through the meadow, Gale once again notices the drained, resigned look that Katniss all too often wears when they're together. For once he doesn't stop himself from pulling her to his chest, wishing for the hundredth time that he hadn't had any part in putting that look there. Katniss tenses briefly in his arms, but then surprises him by reaching up and bringing their mouths together in a brief, soft kiss.

As their eyes meet, they quickly pull away. "What was that?" asks Gale.

"I couldn't resist," Katniss admits. "I just…needed to feel something, I guess. Being here for another reaping…" She sighs and trails off, kicking the toe of her shoe into the dirt. "Sorry," she offers.

Gale smiles sadly. "Don't be." He honestly doesn't mind that Katniss kissed him now – he may have even enjoyed it – but he's sure she won't ever do it again. He doesn't need her to.

"We should get back," she tells him, looking at her watch. It's still some time before the reaping, but these days it takes her more time to prepare to be "escort Katniss." It's not as easy as it used to be. She looks around, trying to remember the way they came from. Gale nods and starts to lead the way back.

They walk back in silence, but before they reach the town square Gale stops her, sensing her nervousness. "Hey. Everything's fine. We're fine," Gale reassures her.

"Just like always," she nods.

In truth, though, things aren't really "fine" ever again.

They go through all the motions, just like every year: another reaping filled with silence and dread, another pair of despondent teenagers, another train ride that feels like a funeral. But when they reach the Capitol, the routine varies unexpectedly. An avox comes to take the tributes to the Training Center, and Katniss and Gale are asked to wait on the train.

After sitting in a confused, uneasy silence for several minutes, the door to the train car finally opens. Katniss gasps inaudibly as Marcus Lagerfield enters. She has no idea why he's here, or why she and Gale have been asked to stay, but she suspects the worst.

"Katniss. Gale," he says, greeting each of them in turn with a curt nod of his head. Before he continues, he examines the two of them closely with a curious expression on his face. Katniss sits motionless at the dining table where they had eaten breakfast with their tributes not two hours ago; Gale leans against the wall with his arms crossed over his chest several feet away. The tension in the air is palpable. Finally, Marcus lays a piece of paper on the table and slides it to Katniss.

She can feel the blood drain out of her face as she looks at it. She silently passes it to Gale, but he doesn't have any visible reaction as far as she can tell. He just looks at Marcus, challenging him to say more.

The paper was a photograph of Katniss and Gale, kissing in the meadow back in 12, several days ago. "That picture," Marcus explains, pointing at the paper still clenched in Gale's hand, "has been making the rounds in the Capitol – "

Frantic, Katniss interrupts him mid-sentence. "I'm so sorry, Marcus! It was the only time. We've never… We didn't know there were any cameras around and – "

"Katniss," Marcus says, cutting her off. "You don't understand why I'm here. You're right if you suspect that relationships between people in each of your positions would normally be frowned upon. But people all over the Capitol have, shall we say, fallen in love with your love story."

"But we don't have a 'love story'!" Gale protests angrily. "Katniss and I aren't – "

"Stop right there," Marcus commands. "I don't need to know anything about your relationship with Katniss. People in high positions in Panem's government are interested in seeing how this plays out. How a love story between a Capitol citizen and a district resident might be perceived."

"But it wouldn't be real," Katniss insists weakly. She senses that no amount of objecting will make a difference, though; unlike Gale, she understands just who Marcus is and what influence he has over the Games.

Marcus ignores Katniss as he continues. "The two of you are being asked to continue your 'romance' throughout the upcoming Games. Whenever you're in public, we want you to make your feelings for each other obvious."

"And what if we don't?" Gale challenges him.

Marcus turns to Gale with an unreadable expression on his face. "There will be consequences for you both," he says simply, as he stands and turns to leave. "You're free to proceed to the Training Center now. Keep my instructions in mind from here on out." He strides out of the room without looking back at the stunned faces of Katniss and Gale.

Katniss stares helplessly into her lap, feeling ashamed as the weight of Marcus's words settles over her. She's learned enough from Gale over the past two years to realize that the "consequences" will be so much worse for him than for her. Completely incomparable, really.

"Gale, I – " she begins, turning to face him with unshed tears in her eyes.

He puts up his hand to stop her. "Don't. There's nothing we can do about this," he says flatly. She can see the anger in his eyes – she just doesn't know if it's directed at the Capitol or at her. He clenches and unclenches his fists a few times before walking to the door. Just before he leaves, he stops, as if remembering something. He extends his hand back to her, beckoning. "Come on."

She slowly rises and makes her way to him. She puts her hand in his, and he intertwines their fingers. Taking a deep breath, he plasters a smile on his face as they leave the train car a happy couple.

Over the next couple of weeks, Katniss throws herself into the romance with Gale as if her life depends upon it. If the things Gale has told her over the past years have been even partially true, then his life may truly depend on it. It's unfortunate that neither of them is good at acting; Katniss notices that Gale's facial expressions don't quite match his actions when he's holding her or kissing her. She assumes hers are the same. That is to say, equally unconvincing.

But she still tries. They both do. They become accustomed to holding each other's hands anytime they're in public, to the point where it's almost second nature and they do it without thinking. Other displays of affection are harder to undertake without conscious thought, though. Especially since the forced physicality they display in public has caused them to act almost the opposite when they're together in private, as if they're both retreating into their individual spaces.

The gestures are simple but hopefully meaningful enough to those who are watching them. Gale slipping his arm affectionately around her waist as they walk through the streets near the Training Center. Katniss purposefully pressing her lips to his when she knows they're likely to be on camera during the tributes' interviews. Countless "furtive" embraces when they're anywhere but in the privacy of District 12's floor in the Training Center. They know that their actions are being caught on cameras to be broadcast on TV or printed in the newspapers; what they don't know is if they're accomplishing whatever it is they're supposed to accomplish.

At the end of the Games, after Katniss and Gale have watched two more of their tributes die in the arena, they receive their verdict. The only problem is, they can't tell whether they've succeeded or not, because they don't know whether they're being rewarded or punished.

Katniss and Gale are politely but firmly informed that they will be getting married within days. Katniss will be stepping down from her escort position and moving to District 12 with her new husband.

"Katniss, you can't go!" Primrose cries to her older sister. "When will I see you again?" she sobs.

Katniss feels numb, knowing that the answer to her sister's question is probably "never." Citizens of the Capitol aren't allowed to travel to the districts unless they have specific business to be there. In fact, before becoming an escort, Katniss had rarely left the Capitol. Now she's leaving the only home she's ever known, probably forever.

She has to admit that she's been growing further and further apart from her family since she started to learn about the lives of people in the districts from Gale. She can't exactly talk to her father or her sister about what she's learned; her sister is far too naïve about life outside the Capitol, and her father, with his prominent government position, firmly believes that the system as it exists is fair and just. But even though Katniss has been growing more distant from her family, she's not ready to leave them. Especially given the fact that this choice was forced upon her.

"It's okay, Prim," Katniss reassures her while packing her clothes into the trunks that are going with her to 12. "After all, I'm marrying the man I love." She hopes that she sounds confident enough to convince her sister. Prim can't know the truth behind her situation; she might be punished if she happened to let anything slip. And since Katniss doesn't know how severe that punishment might be, she thinks it's safest to keep her younger sister in the dark.

The girls' father sits in the corner of the bedroom, maintaining a stony silence. At Katniss's words about her impending marriage, he frowns and gives an almost imperceptible shake of his head. Katniss knows that he's having difficulty accepting what's happened, but the fact that even he couldn't prevent it tells her just how serious her situation is.

"But moving to the districts, Katniss!" Prim wails. "And District 12 of all places! All they have there is coal – it sounds so depressing! I don't care if you love him – you can't leave!"

Katniss looks helplessly around the room. She doesn't know what to say – of course she doesn't want to leave. But she has no choice in the matter, and her sister's wailing isn't making her inevitable departure any easier. Her eyes fall to her father and she gives him a pleading look.

"Primrose," her father interjects, "Your sister's made her decision. Can you please go call your mother – tell her Katniss will be home to say goodbye to her in an hour." Prim sniffles and shuffles dejectedly out of the room.

"Dad, I – " Katniss begins.

"Katniss, listen to me," her father tells her urgently as he walks across the room and sits down next to her on the bed. "I'm going to get you out of this. I'm not sure how soon I can do it, but I will."

Katniss nods silently. Her father is the only one in her family who knows the complete truth of her situation, even though he'd so far been powerless to change it. He may even have known her fate before she did.

"It's not the worst thing imaginable, Dad," Katniss says, trying to stay strong for his sake. "I was just…surprised at what happened. I didn't know…" she trails off, biting her lip.

Her father puts an arm around her shoulder and pulls her to his chest. "I know," he whispers. "I should've tried to warn you. I should've kept you away from the Games…"

"It's not your fault, Dad. This has never happened before."

Her father sighs but doesn't immediately respond.

"Just be ready. Okay, Katniss? I'll do whatever it takes to make sure you come back," he promises.

Katniss tries to find these words reassuring. She's always idolized her father, and he's always done everything to make her happy. She's not convinced that he can do anything to help her now, but she knows that if anyone can, he will.

Gale and Katniss were married in a showy Capitol wedding ceremony and soon afterwards shipped directly to District 12. They take up residence in Gale's comfortable home in the Victor's Village with his mother and three younger siblings: brothers Rory and Vick and sister Posy. They continue to live comfortably thanks to Gale's Victor salary from the Capitol. Katniss is immensely relieved to know that Gale's salary means that she won't have to find a job right away; her only skills – gleaned from years of working for the Hunger Games – aren't exactly in high demand here.

They quickly settle into a new routine for their life in 12. Gale spends most of every day out of the house and away from Katniss. He won't tell her anything more than to say that he goes to "the woods," but she doesn't know where that is or what he does there. The only thing she sees that looks like a forest is outside of the district boundary, but she can't imagine that's where he goes; she knows from what she was taught in school that the areas outside of the boundaries are dangerous. But she doesn't ask for details – she doesn't think he owes her an explanation.

When she first arrives in the district, Katniss spends much of her time wandering by herself, trying to learn about her new home. Although she had been to 12 many times during her years as an escort, she was mostly familiar with the town square (where she conducted her reapings) and the Mayor's house (where she stayed when visiting). She explores the town, familiarizing herself with the shops available there. It's a poor selection compared to what she grew up with in the Capitol, and mostly devoted to food and necessities. She supposes that few people in the district have the money to spend on luxury items.

She discovers the area that locals call the "Seam," which appears to be the poorest part of the district, where the coal miners' families live. She notices the striking distinction between the fair-haired town residents and the black-haired Seam dwellers, and comes to the realization one day that during her years as escort and as far back as she could remember, almost every District 12 tribute came from the Seam. She wonders how that's possible.

It doesn't escape her notice, either, that if she allowed her hair to return to its natural black, she would look just like anyone from that part of the district. In fact, she wishes that she'd had the foresight to dye her hair black before she moved to 12; her green hair makes her stand out like a sore thumb. She can cover her tattoos – they're not permanent anyway, so if she just wears a long-sleeved shirt for a month or two they'll fade from her skin – but her hair marks her as an outsider.

Most people here aren't exactly friendly toward her, and she can't blame them. Hundreds of children stood in the town square quaking in fear for the three years that she came to conduct reapings. For a small number of residents, she took their sisters or brothers or sons or daughters off to the Capitol and delivered them to their deaths. She has a hard time facing anyone, because she knows that she was complicit; she was a willing part of the Hunger Games. She wishes there was a way she could make amends.

It's a lonely existence for Katniss. Her husband spends his days avoiding her, she spends her days avoiding everyone else, and she's reviled by almost everyone in the district. Gale's family though, particularly his mother Hazelle, try to make her feel accepted. None of them know the truth about her relationship with Gale either – much as she did with Prim, she and Gale are trying to protect his family by not burdening them with information – so as far as they know, she's simply the girl that Gale fell in love with and married. So that redeems her in their eyes: if Gale sees something good in her, it must be there.

She doesn't blame Gale for spending so much time away from her. It's exhausting to devote so many of their waking hours to living a lie, but that's what they have to do when they're together, especially in the presence of others. In all honesty, she probably prefers it this way.

She wonders if her father will keep his promise and try to get her out of this. But it's been months and she hasn't had so much as a phone call or letter from him or anyone from back home. So slowly she comes to accept that this is the life she's meant to lead. It makes her feel slightly better to imagine this as a punishment (although completely inadequate) for participating in the Hunger Games – she knows she deserves it.

Gale often includes his brothers on his excursions to the woods. They frequently stay out all day, sometimes not returning until after dark. So on one unseasonably warm March evening, when Katniss, Hazelle, and Posy eat dinner alone, no one is alarmed. In fact, none of them even give the men's absence a second thought.

It's only much later, when Katniss wakes up and realizes that Gale is not asleep in his usual spot on the couch on the other side of the bedroom, that she knows something is wrong.

Days pass with no word. The Hawthorne women wait, without hope, as district residents and Peacekeepers conduct a search. Eventually the news comes, surprising no one. The bodies were discovered in the forest, miles outside the district. An accident, they're told. Some kind of wild animal must have attacked them. "That's why you don't leave the district boundaries," the Peacekeepers tell them, rubbing salt into the wound. As if that information would make a difference now.

Hazelle, Posy, and Katniss never see the bodies. They're promptly buried in the district's lone cemetery, alongside their father.

Katniss doesn't feel she has any right to mourn, but she has to for Hazelle and Posy's sake. It would only hurt them more now to learn the truth about her and Gale. But she tries to strike just the right balance between mourning enough to be believable, and devoting herself to taking care of the remaining Hawthornes. She feels almost inexplicably responsible for them now. They've lost so much. Her losses are nothing in comparison.

Late one evening not long after the deaths, Katniss and Hazelle find themselves alone once Posy has gone to bed. Katniss is cleaning in the kitchen while Hazelle sits behind her at the table, staring absently into a cup of tea.

"We have to leave the house," Hazelle says suddenly.

Katniss turns around, a questioning look on her face. "What do you mean? No we don't.

Hazelle smiles sadly. "The house was Gale's reward. They told me we have to vacate it within two weeks."

Unable to face Hazelle any longer, Katniss returns to drying the dishes, hoping to contain the anger that she feels building inside her. She had already learned that Gale's Victor salary was lost when he died; she didn't realize that the house would be taken as well. She'd always been taught that Victors are well taken care of after the Games. But apparently their families are not.

"Where are we going to go?" Katniss asks quietly, trying to control her voice.

"Back to our old house in the Seam, I suppose," Hazelle muses. "But Katniss, you don't have to come. This is your chance to go back to your family, back to the Capitol."

Hazelle doesn't know about the forced nature of Katniss and Gale's marriage, but she saw Katniss's sadness when she arrived in the district. At the time, Katniss attempted to explain away her feelings as mere homesickness, hoping that she could avoid any further questions into her relationship with Gale. It worked. And now Hazelle understandably thinks that Katniss wants to go back.

It's not that Katniss doesn't miss her family or the easy life she had back in the Capitol. But she's not sure she can go back. She's seen too much of the deplorable living conditions here and learned too much about how Panem's government treats most of its citizens to fathom returning to that world. Going back to the Capitol would mean ignoring everything she's learned – and maybe even returning to the Hunger Games. She doesn't think she can do that.

And what would happen to the Hawthornes if she left? She knows that Gale was the main provider for his family after his father's death. Without him, one of his brothers could have stepped in, but they're gone, too. Posy's not even ten years old and Hazelle hasn't held a job in years. Gale told Katniss – although she barely believed him at the time – that it was common for people to starve to death here. Katniss can finally understand how that would happen. It's an increasingly likely fate for the Hawthorne women.

"No, I, uh…I can't go back," Katniss lies. "I have to stay." Truthfully, she doesn't know if she's lying – she honestly has no idea whether or not she can go back – but it's easier to pretend that she simply can't. She's decided to stay and do whatever she can to help Hazelle and Posy.

She's not sure she's capable of helping, but leaving would mean nothing short of abandoning them to die. And after working for the Hunger Games for so many years, she doesn't want to contribute to any more deaths.