a/n; thanks for the support/interest/skepticism, everyone!

Sweet Heart: Two: Side Effects


Katniss is asleep for what seems to be a long time.

Gale gathers up several nuts from wherever he can find them, the immediate impulse to rip out a strawberry bush greater than his better judgement. He lays them all beside her, glaring at any skittering noises he hears. The animals must sense his frustration, because the sounds quiet after a few moments.

He wills her to wake with his eyes, and he's overly twitchy. He decides to shake her, but she moans and makes a funny noise, and the reaction gets him to think maybe using force isn't the best thing for her.

So he sits beside her, listening to her delicate heart. Then he has to move ten feet away. Then a begrudging twenty. Then his head starts to ache, and his teeth start to hurt. He watches her body rise with gentle breaths, before focusing on the sounds of the forest. Then he switches back to her, then to the forest. Knowing his luck, she'll waken when he's not around. She must be somewhere near conscious. Her heartbeat is getting stronger with each passing second.

A thought passes through his mind that that might not be a good thing for him. He sighs before he pushes off his legs and runs in the opposite direction.

When he gets his hands on a ground squirrel, (he had to dig it out from a maze of burrows), he seriously contemplates about the population. One day and a dozen less of their friends, and they already know to hide deep in their homes.

Maybe Katniss is right. Not that he ever truly thought she wasn't. But denying it was easier. Now, though, he's come to realize how disgracefully terrible animal blood is. After the boy, it was less than palatable, but now he knows what Katniss is like, it's damn near inedible.

He can't even finish it. He releases his hold, and the small squirrel dashes for his life into the ground, leaving droplets of dark, dribbling red blood splashes in its wake.

Gale shuffles back until he reaches a tree trunk, then he closes his eyes against the throbbing in his mouth. It reminds him of the perpetual motion of the mine elevator, the fluctuations of galloping hums from the gears. It's all coalesced inside his skull, rooted in his jaw and blooming in his mind. Unlike the rusted creaks in the machinery in Twelve, this one seems to be very reliable-it isn't going to give out. Unfortunately. Gale's already tired of it and it hasn't been twelve hours.

He's aware when Katniss finally awakens, the hitch in her movements against the grass like a fog horn. Without thinking, he's by her side in a flash.

"Damn it, Gale!" she shouts at him, jerking at his abrupt proximity. She catches herself before she falls back.

"Ah. Sorry."

She holds her forehead. Her other hand goes to her stomach.

"I think..."

She looks like she's close to hurling. He rushes to the berries, picks one, and shoves it in her mouth.

"Hurry, eat some of these. You'll feel better."

Her face contorts, and she must be fostering her nerves back, because she manages a glare. She takes a bite and pulls the stem out of her mouth, relaxing into the grass. She reaches over to grab another, and he readily hands them to her in succession.

"Yeah. Better," she says, sighing and chewing on her sixth berry. Then she seems to notice the entire bush. "Gale, why did you…"

He follows her glance to the bush near his lap. He shrugs and feels oddly—it takes him a moment to put a name to it.

Because he never gets embarrassed. By anything.

"Got carried away, I guess. New strength, and all that."

She frowns at the answer, eyes narrowing thoughtfully. "How are you feeling?" she gestures to him. "You're able to sit this close, and you're not going…insane, so that's good, right?"

He glances to the side. The throb in his gums strives on. He can't assume optimism for this, not where she's concerned. But it's like her blood unlocked a new, harder shielding against himself. A new vigor and temperance—suddenly and compellingly immediate. Where his rapid impulses for killing and eating still grind under the surface, a lacquer has been waxed over it.

Whether it was her near-death or her blood, he's not sure. Maybe not the blood. His tongue keeps up a repetition of the taste of her, as if determined to rid the memory of the squirrel, and he can already feel the frequency of the marching pound of his gums in time with the steady, wet punches of her heart. How just a little…a little sip won't be bad. Won't be anything, would it? No, it…

He pushes the end of his palm into his forehead, breathing out his nose. He's guessing the lacquer hasn't quite set.

"Gale?"

"What? Oh—right, yeah, it's good. Good. But I should probably…" he stands, still not looking at her, and walks twenty paces away from her before he takes a seat. "Better. It's better. Over here."

She regards the distance indelibly. Then she stares at him, and he stares back. They hold this pose for a moment. She stands and cuts the distance in half, placing herself in his direct line of sight.

"Katniss," he glares. "It's been twice in the last six hours. Wanna hedge on three?"

"Third time's the charm," she shrugs. "Besides, you're already getting better. I don't care what you say. I can see it."

"You can see it?" he scoffs at her. "I think you should blame the lack of oxygen your brain's gotten this past hour."

Her nose wrinkles and she scowls at him, eyes settling on his eyes with an unsettling intensity. From this distance, he can still see the flecks of bright, silvery iron in them.

"You can't see your face like I can."

He opens his mouth to say something, before he gets an irrational rush of panic. His hands jump to his face and he feels around it, expecting abnormal hair growth or leathered skin or deepened, monster lines, vestigial remnants of something grotesque.

"What's wrong with it? Is there something..." he stops when Katniss starts laughing.

"No, of course not. Do you really care that much about what you look like? I thought the girls at school were joking."

He splutters, feeling a dark heat flash across him. He rolls his eyes, trying to hide his embarrassment for a second time.

"No, it's not that. I just thought I was growing…" he pauses. "What? What have they said about me?"

She shrugs. "Do you think I pay attention?"

"You just said you did."

"No, I didn't."

"You said you thought the girls at school were joking."

"I didn't hear them. Madge did."

He shifts. It's just like her to hear secondhand about something so trivial. Not that his adventures in the more risqué trials of his life matter, now. He'd now, probably, literally, eat out all the girls he'd come in contact with.

His eyes trail to her neck. He hurriedly turns his head to the ground.

"Because the Mayor's princess is so dependable."

She gives him a look. "Not that, again."

"Not what, again? I don't care if you think she's your friend. You shouldn't keep her so close."

Katniss opts to look down at her wrist, messing with the dried-on fabric of Gale's shirt. She changes topic. "Your face is the same right now, but it does change, when you're about to…" she points at the edges of her teeth. "Your eyes turn red around the iris, and your eyes dilate until they're completely black. Veins pop out around your eyelids. But only when you're about to...attack."

Gale processes the information, touching the tips of his teeth, and snagging the skin of his finger.

"Do I scare you when I do that?"

She avoids his gaze. "It happened too fast to remember what I was feeling."

Bullshit. He knows it's a lie, because he saw the fear, tasted the adrenaline inside of her. She can't even look at him now. But he's kind of glad she was scared. He'd wonder about it if she wasn't. It wouldn't be natural, even if Katniss is not average in the regards of anything.

He nods at her wrist that she's messing with. "You should let your mom work on that. Before you get an infection."

She shakes her head. "What am I going to tell her? I tripped and landed on a perfectly pointed rock?"

"She's going to see it, Katniss. You can't avoid that."

"Then what do I tell her when I get the same wound over and over again?"

He recoils at this thought. "I'm not going to do that to you."

"Yes, you are."

His teeth grit. "No, I'm not. You are the one who isn't going to stay here."

They stare each other down. She scoots an inch closer. She isn't leaving, and he's not sure how else he can keep her away, considering what he's done to her already.

He grinds his jaw, thinking about all the punctures she'll sustain if they go through with it. He imagines her with dozens of red, bloodied holes, resembling a bullet-infested rag doll, stuffing clinging to her seams.

He cuts his finger on a piece of bark, again and again, feeling the stitch of fibers threading back. It's unfair how he heals as fast as he does, and how long it'll take her—how she might never heal with the countless times he'll need her. Until he gets better. And he's not even sure how to put that in realistic terms.

He cuts his finger, deeper. The sluggish blood is a shocking contrast to his slightly paled skin. He furrows his brows, and he knifes through his tongue, tasting the sickening sweetness that zaps his mouth. Then it disappears, like it always does.

He ponders for a second…the burst of an idea he has is absurd—more than absurd, but if there's a way to avoid a bruised and bloodied and undeserving Katniss, then maybe.

He appears beside her, sitting. She jolts in a gasp.

"I don't think I'll get used to that. You were so quiet before."

"This is going to be weird," he says. "But just go with it, okay?"

She stares at him, bemused and suspicious, but nods.

He swiftly cuts through the skinny vein in his own wrist, deep enough to cause a small pool of blood to seep out onto his skin. He puts it under her nose.

"Drink it."

She eyes the molasses-like goop trapped in the dip of his forearm. Her face contorts in disgust.

"Gale, no! I am not going to... Why would I do that?"

He gets unconsciously closer. "I drink yours, don't I? What'll happen if you drink mine?"

Her eyebrows rise to the middle of her forehead. "I'll choke and die? It'll poison me? I'll throw up?"

He huffs, frustrated. Maybe it would poison her, but…she'd be fine. It'd be fine. It'd have to be fine.

The only hope he has is the fact that his gash has long since healed. And if his heals, maybe hers will, too. "Or it'll work on you like it works on me. Maybe it'll heal you. Just try it, okay? If something happens, spit it out."

"Gale..." Her eyes fall back to the blood and her face cringes comically at the sight. She reluctantly touches his forearm, before she grips it. "I can't believe...Why am I doing this?" she mutters, trailing off as she comes to terms. She breathes out, crunches her eyes together, and forces the blood into her mouth.

She doesn't jerk away and wretch immediately, like he had a feeling she might. Instead, she does the opposite. It's almost as if she forgets what she's doing after the first few moments. Her teeth needle into his arm and her tongue pushes into his skin. He gets a little breathless. The nerves in his arms are like his emotions. They damn near electrocute him. He pulls away from her.

"Oh—um…" Katniss stumbles, blinking a few times in a stupor. She stares at the line of his arm, and how she almost drank everything up. Her lip curls in a kind of repulsion, though her eyes gleam and her skin has a newly gilded touch.

He hurries to reach for her wrapped wrist, ridding the grungy strip of shirt in a second and finds—

Nothing. Nothing except for the residue of dried blood.

"It worked," he says, incredulously, running his thumb over and over the smooth skin. "You're…it's…" He looks at her still stupefied face, and he beams. "Katniss, I can heal you. It's okay. You don't have to deal with your mom, anymore, or any of the holes or bruises. I can fix you." He's nearly vibrating with relief. He wraps his arms around her, squeezing her into an impromptu hug. He doesn't have much foresight when he does. He's overwhelmed with her scent, and he pushes his face into her neck before he realizes what he's doing. He hauls back a great gap of feet before his teeth have a chance to spring.

At his loss, she falls forward, catching herself with her hands. She looks up at him, glares, but there's something…different in her face. In her movements when she tries to stand.

She's very languid. She moves like she has no bones. When she nearly tips to the side, she stops and brings her arms out for balance. She shakes her head.

"I feel…I think…" she covers her face with her palms, blowing out a gust of air. "I'm…it's really hot out here. Is it hot out here? Ugh," she groans, reaching for the hem of her shirt with absent fingers. "Gale, what's going on? What did your blood do to me?"

When the shirt gets half-way up her stomach, he reaches for her and presses the shirt back down. Her surprised jump is two seconds late.

"What—Gale, stop doing that."

He turns her head toward him, hand under her chin. Her eyes are peculiarly dilated. Her blinks are off on their rhythm, one eye closing before the other. Her cheeks are flushed like she has fever. His stomach starts to sink. He shouldn't have believed it so soon. This might have made everything worse.

He stills when he feels her hands on his chest. She hums. Then she sneers, jerking away from him. She trips, but he catches her, and she jerks away again.

She lifts her hands up and studies them, as if they betrayed her. "What the hell am I doing?"

He'd probably think this was humorous if he wasn't so concerned. "Katniss. You might have fever. Are you dizzy or light-headed or—"

She looks back to him, and her eyes glaze. Then they refocus, only to glaze again. It's like she's fighting something, with a mightily conscious effort, though he's almost certain the fight—or whatever it is—is in vain.

"I don't know what is in your blood, but I think..."

She steps forward to him, a finger tracing his face from cheek to lip. It's Gale's turn to back away.

"Hey, Katniss..."

"Gale," she says, the uncommon shyness in her face mixing oddly with the mystification in her eyes. "Oh, no," she breathes, hand landing in the middle of his chest. Then she wraps her arms around her middle and stares at his shirt. "I think...um..."

"Are you going to throw up?" he demands, trying to catch her eye. "Do you feel okay? What's wrong?" He tries to make sense of the expression on her face, which isn't a sickly green, nor is it contorted with pain, but her eyes are widened enough to make him believe she'll have a heart attack.

She shakes her head at his questions. She hesitates, words coming out like pulled teeth. "I think...I think I'm...attracted...to you."

He blinks. It isn't nearly as awful as he imagined. He could even be happy about it if... well, if she wasn't looking at him with silent horror. And if the way she said it didn't remind him of the Reaping. As if it's wrong, horribly, terribly, caustically wrong. As if it's the worst thing that could possibly happen between them—and he can't fathom why this might scare her more than his fangs or his blood-sucking or even him killing some kid.

It chafes at him badly. His emotions flare, imploding with fire. He steps away from her, forcing her hand to fall to her side. There's a deadened, atrophying puncture that writhes almost immediately inside his stomach. It feels like it shrinks.

"How awful," he says flatly.

"It's your blood! It's a side effect, it has to be. Gale," she says, almost pleading. She shakes her head vigorously. "This isn't...I don't want to have to feel this way...It'll just make everything harder. Harder than it should be. And I—"

"I told you earlier that I could handle this myself," he snarls, animalistic as he bares his teeth. "But you didn't listen to me. You stayed, like you could do a single fucking thing."

Her shoulders hold up, but it looks like she's shrinking, regardless. "Gale—"

"And there were going to be consequences," he jabs a claw—no, that's not right, it's still a hand—an inch below her neck, hitting hard bone turned soft overnight. "You knew that, and it turns out that being attracted to me is a consequence, and it's somehow worse than me killing you? Of turning you into what I am by accident? This is nothing. It shouldn't even matter. Everything could turn out so much worse."

He hulks above her, scene resembling a giant versus a dwarf.

She shakes her head. "Calm down, Gale. You aren't going to kill me, or change me, or do anything."

"Get out of this forest."

"No!"

His teeth rip through the seam of his gums. He can feel the blackening of his eyes this time, the pop of the veins.

"I said, get out."

He didn't think it possible, but he sees the brief flash of her eyes start to glisten. Just one level higher in shine.

He jabs into her chest again, and she flaps backward like that same rag doll he imagined, riddled with bullet holes, stuffing falling, ripping out of her seams. Her elbows, her knees, her hips.

"Stop it, Gale."

"Stop what?" he patronizes. "Stop being who I am?"

"Keep thinking that way, and you'll turn into what you already think you are."

The abrupt lightning inside him starts to lose its thundering heat under her stare; it begins to leave him in small, residual increments. He can feel the writhing in his stomach beginning to show again, the fleeing anger uncovering it like a worm under a rock.

"Third time's the charm, isn't it?"

He gets her eyes to widen, flicking to his still overgrown teeth, then to his veined eyes.

"You won't do it," she says knowingly, so knowingly it rubs him raw. She goes so far as to step forward, vulnerability fading as she stands in front of him. "You'd never do it, willingly."

"That's what you think," he keeps up, though it comes out without enough pressure to be even remotely believable. She touches his shirt in the same place as before, and it's enough to have the rest of his sudden flare of emotion dry away.

She looks at him for a few silent moments. "I shouldn't have acted that way. I'm sorry," she says. "I didn't think—your reaction...and it was all just..."

"It came with the strength," he says, converging wry with sarcasm. He backs away from her hand, turning off to the side. He walks to an opening in the field, pushing his back against a tree and slipping down until he's sitting. He runs a hand through his hair. "I'm an emotional wreck. I'm not used to it."

She follows behind him, sitting by his side. "I didn't know."

"I didn't tell you."

She stares at his side profile for a good long measure. "I'm going to go see your family tonight. I'll take care of it. I don't want you to worry about it."

He sighs at the thought. Mom and Rory and Vick and Posy. "Tell them I'm going through a phase. Living out in the wilderness and living the dream."

"How'd you know that's what I was going to say?"

She's joking, but he doesn't have the heart to laugh. "Lucky guess."

He notices the shift she makes, however minimal, erasing a centimeter between them. The guilt on his chest is too much to bear. "Sorry," he relents.

She shrugs, as if her heart didn't race when he stared her down. As if her eyes didn't flash with tears. He wants to place a hand on her shoulder, or hug her, or do something affectionate. But he keeps his arms in place, because she's too close, and if she gets any closer, he fears what his body will do. He keeps his head firmly looking forward.

"It's the hazard of being your partner," she says.

"I'm not always that bad, am I?"

"Not always, but you're rarely fun to be around."

He pushes her, conscious to just graze her shoulder in a barely-there nudge. She smiles, stumbling to the side but coming to sit back in the same spot. The distance between them remains, and neither goes to adjust it.

He imagines this is the hazard of being her partner. The comfortable gap spanning over them like a stigma, seemingly wider the closer they get, the tepid warmth between them never daring to become any warmer. Now he's a few degrees chillier, and that can't help anything.

He opens his mouth to tell her that he appreciates what she's doing, that he appreciates her and all the things she's done for him this far in the three years he's known her. But even with the emotional bludgeoning tolling inside his throat, he can't quite get it out of him. His teeth clack back together.

"You'll be okay," she says, voice certain in its confidence. "You have to believe that you will be."

"What have we been doing all our lives besides believing?"

Her face is very soft. Sweet and breakable. It isn't the first time he's feared for her, if just to fear. If they had been born at a different moment in the present, a different year, a different decade, century. There are an infinite number of possibilities where they could have ended up being.

She smiles at him, and her hand comes up to touch his cheek. He almost flinches. Then she realizes what she's doing a mere second later, and she darts her hand back. She grabs her wrist with her other hand, as if it's a handcuff.

"I think your blood is fading. It's effects, I mean."

Gale lets his eyes wander to her hands, and how she's avoiding his face.

"...Good."

"Yeah..." she says. "Maybe I'll start building tolerance. We can try to reach that goal together, me to your blood and you to mine."

He manages a tight smile.

"Yeah. As long as mine doesn't do anything else to you. We'll reach it, no problem." It isn't going to be a problem for her. He knows that already. Her fight is downhill. His is up. Very far up. He knows he could drink her blood all day if he could, life becoming a wonderful, hot red heaven.

When she leaves around dinner time, he shoves several animal bodies into her hands and onto her belt. She, in turn, shoves her wrist into his nose. He refuses for a long, stubborn minute before she wrangles it into his mouth.

He sends her off with another puddle of his blood. She shuttles out of the forest as fast as she can.