Title: A Lot of Hope
Author: LJ Summers
Fandom: Hunger Games
Genre: Romance, Suspense
Relationship(s): Gale Hawthorne/Katniss Everdeen
Content Rating: PG-13
Warnings: Violence – Graphic, Minor Character Death, Avoxes=Canon-level slavery
Word Count: 64,900
Summary: Gale Hawthorne, Victor in the 73rd Hunger Games, is making a cautious, romantic pursuit of Katniss Everdeen. At the Reaping for the 74th Hunger Games, his world changes forever. With more than just his heart on the line, Gale realizes that plans he and Haymitch Abernathy have been making need to be accelerated. Can they be accomplished before he loses Katniss to the Capitol? Is there any way he can save her?
“A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous.”
– President Coriolanus Snow, The Hunger Games (film)
Chapter One: The Day Before
The fact that there were only twelve houses in Victors’ Village had struck Gale Hawthorne in a particularly ominous way when he had returned from the Capitol after the 73rd Hunger Games. Granted, District Twelve had only the one Victor in the Village for more than twenty years, but that wasn’t the case with other Districts.
What happened when there were more than twelve Victors? The regulations stated that the Victor and their family could live in their marble mansion until the Victor died, after which time they were ousted unceremoniously back into their community.
He had never heard of a time when any Victor got shunted aside because there weren’t enough houses in the District’s Victors’ Village. But that didn’t mean they hadn’t been disappeared, anyway. The Capitol had an obscene stance on the value of lives in the various Districts. Gale hated it. Hated basically all that the Capitol stood for.
Yet, here he was. Living in Victors’ Village along with his mom, brothers, and sister.
Closing the door of his particular marbled abode, he shook his head. To him, the District 12 Victors’ Village looked like nothing so much as an abandoned mine. The houses were empty, their windows sightless eyes that told him nothing. All save the house across the way and two over. That was where he was headed that morning. A new chapter in his life was beginning, thanks to the man in that other house. He strode with slow purpose, noting the drawn shades on the windows, the trim that needed paint around the eaves. It was not a happy house, but it was inhabited, and Gale knocked.
Haymitch Abernathy opened the door before Gale’s hand had dropped. “You’re early,” the older Mentor stated.
“You’re sober,” Gale countered.
Simultaneous shrugs followed before Haymitch made an elaborate production out of bowing his visitor into his house. Haymitch, almost a year after acquiring neighbors, was still getting used to the idea. He’d spent a lot of years alone, out there.
Gale nodded and folded himself down into the chair his host indicated. “Thanks.”
Haymitch shook his head and frowned before he asked, “How was it?”
Gale snorted. “The last trip?”
“Usual.” He tried to play it off, but knew his eyes tightened with impotent fury. He hated being a Victor. Hated what the Capitol demanded of him. But most of all, he hated lying about it back home.
“So, tomorrow then?” Katniss had asked, her gray eyes shining silver in the morning sun. They still hunted together when he was in Twelve. Though he didn’t need to hunt to feed his family any longer, he still enjoyed doing so with her, and the meat sold well at market, to feed others. “I’ve got a surprise for you.”
Something about her voice made his heart leap in his chest. He swallowed. Hard. “Oh?”
He swore under his breath. Her bright expression—she only smiled when they were hunting—evaporated as mist over the trees. “I can’t, Catnip. I’ve gotta go to the Capitol.”
“Yeah. I hate this.”
Her wordless cry communicated her dismay as she shot one hand out to cup his jaw. “No! Gale Hawthorne, you came back to me. To us. No. You’re not allowed to hate that.”
Remembering her glad shout of welcome when he’d returned from the 73rd Hunger Games, the way her body had wrapped around his in front of everyone in Panem, remembering the joy in her face and the happy tears that shone in her eyes, Gale smiled a little. “Okay. I just hate leaving you.”
It was true enough. Being a Capitol Whore was not in the brochure he received during the Victory Tour.
“Well, now comes the fun part,” Haymitch said with half a sneer. “Beats Capitol Sexing, but not by much.”
The men clashed gazes. “The Reaping.”
“Yeah.” Sunlight angled in from the matching windows in the room, highlighting the emptiness of the space around them. It was in no way a cheerful sight, clean and modern and grand as it may have been. In District 12, cheerfulness wasn’t usually an option.
Gale grimaced and leaned forward in his chair so that his hands dangled between his knees. “At least my family doesn’t have a ton of tesserae, this year. I was able to do that much.” Haymitch winced visibly and Gale held up one hand. “Sorry.”
Haymitch blew out a huge breath before stopping in front of the stone-encased fireplace. “‘S’kay. Tomorrow. Hell, this is just weird, you know? We haven’t had two Mentors in Twelve, like, ever. I didn’t even have one.”
Gale skirted Haymitch’s look. “I know. But now there’s two of us. How can I help you, O Experienced One?” Gale respected Haymitch’s ability to be of use; the man had come through for him the year before.
The girl who had been reaped for the 73rd games—Fern: a tall, slender, scholarly type who was drastically out of place in their community—had frozen in fear and hadn’t even stepped off the pedestal before the Games officially began. The pedestal had exploded, as they had all been warned they would, and she had died. It had been hard to bear for Gale, but no actual, visceral guilt over her death had lingered; he knew he hadn’t had time to do more than gasp in disbelief before he’d grabbed the first pack he saw and, fruitless tears dashing from his cheeks, headed away from the Cornucopia bloodbath.
Haymitch watched as the young man remembered; there were some expressions that were universal amongst the Victors. When the focused-but-distant look passed, Haymitch cleared his throat. “Well. Yeah. So, the hardest thing to know is that we’ll have to probably choose just one.”
“I mean, we’ll get a feel for the Tributes early on during training, but you have to realize we can’t divide our resources, Hawthorne. One of our two Tributes will be more worthy”
“Stop,” Gale said, hopping to his feet. “You mean… We have to abandon…” He started swearing and clenching and unclenching his fists.
Haymitch watched, waiting for him to calm. “You about done?” he asked after a few minutes.
With a glare and a final, pushed-out breath, Gale nodded. “Fine. Okay. But how do we do that?”
“Sometimes,” Haymitch said with seldom-heard despair, “sometimes, we don’t have to. Sometimes, one is chosen for us.”
“Oh.” Gale eyed his Mentor with a new appreciation, remembering Fern again. Haymitch might be the District Drunkard, but the man was canny and had survived what might put Gale Hawthorne to a bottle himself, given a year or two. “So. Tomorrow.”
“We’ll meet at the Justice Hall and be led out, same as every year. There’ll be a chair up there for you, now. Remember the cameras are always effing on.” He rolled his eyes. “Use this to your advantage.”
Gale stiffened. “How?”
“C’mon, boy. Use your head. You’ve been real popular in the Capitol, haven’t you? Some of those…new friends of yours…will be inclined to help you as a Mentor. And you need to play on that if you can. If it’ll matter.”
Gale couldn’t seem to dampen the revulsion that roiled within him. “If it’ll matter.”
Haymitch shoved his hands in his trouser pockets and rocked back on his heels. “It might not.”
Thinking of Fern—he never would forget—Gale could only nod his head, his resentment silent but palpable.
After another moment, Haymitch spoke again. “So. Cameras. You’re new, you’ve still got friends and family in the District, so look confident. In control.”
“Oh, like you do every year.”
“Hell, I’m the drunk. They’ll be so happy to see a handsome, sober face that we might make it through a Reaping without anyone bawling.” They stared at each other for a moment before Haymitch lurched to his feet and shuffled off to the kitchen. Gale studied the room, remarking the absence of personal touches anywhere. There was a television screen on one white wall, a fireplace, and a bookshelf that had a coal-truck’s worth of books on it.
The place damned near had its own echo, it was so empty.
When Haymitch returned, he was balancing lunch and two bottles of beer on a tray, as well as two pads of paper and pencils. “Now, ready to work?”
“Work?” Gale shifted in his chair—which he had to admit was comfortable, despite the neglected decor of the room. “What kind of work? How to get Sponsors? Because, you know, that’s still kind of terrifying for me.”
The older man snorted as he portioned out the food and drink, which they put on the small occasional table between them. “We’ll get to that. No, this is something else. Tell me, Hawthorne. What would you do to get out of the Capitol Brothel forever?”
Shock jolted Gale’s whole body; his heart even seemed to sputter for a moment before it started up again, strong and firm. “Just about anything. This whole system is so…” He gestured, not feeling that words were adequate.
“I am in full agreement. So, let me tell you what I was thinking.”
Hope remained in Gale’s mind, even as he wondered who amongst his friends in the Capitol would help or hinder what Haymitch was daring to think about. There was a lot of unrest in Panem, more than Gale had picked up on during his Victory Tour and since then. Tight bundles of folk, unconnected and unwilling to be moved.
But maybe…Gale finished his beer and held Haymitch’s sharp gaze. “Really?”
“I think so, Hawthorne. I thought so last year, too. Fricken flame of hope burns eternal or some crap like that.”
“But will it burn hot enough?”
Haymitch pushed himself to his feet and paced to the cold hearth. “A fire needs three things, right?”
Gale rolled his eyes and used his fingers to indicate the numbers. “One, fuel.”
“Well, oxygen,” Haymitch corrected with a nod.
“Fuel would be what needs to burn. The Games need to go, Haymitch.”
“Snow needs to go, Hawthorne.”
“Granted.” Gale watched as Haymitch shifted to shove his hands in his pockets. Then Gale added, as the older man seemed to have lost himself in thought, “The heat is what we bring to it. To catch it on fire.”
“Right. We’ll bring…” He turned and directed a diamond-hard look at Gale. “I want him gone. He’s a monster and I want him gone.”
Gale’s heart jumped in no small amount of nerves. “Gone. Nice euphemism.”
“Yeah,” Haymitch agreed before smacking his lips. “I’m good, like that.”
With a long exhale, Gale crossed his legs, still holding his bottle of beer between his palms. “And the air?”
They both drew in deep breaths, chuckled, and thought on it. “Air is invisible. Unseen. Makes everything keep going, though, right?”
Wondering where Haymitch might be headed with his analogy, Gale could only nod. “And?”
“I know who makes the Capitol do its thing.”
He put the bottle down on the floor and stood. “Who?”
Haymitch smirked and rocked up and back, toe to heel. “Not tellin’ ’til I make sure it’ll work.”
Holding up a hand, the older man became entirely serious. “Just in case something goes really effin’ wrong, Hawthorne, I don’t want you to know.”
He was going to protest, but decided against it. “Fine. For now. But count me in.”
The smile was back; Haymitch had as many masks as anyone in the Capitol ever had, Gale supposed. “Of course, I’m counting on you. Couldn’t do it without ya!”
One thing about being a Victor that Gale appreciated was that the house in the Village was his, not his mother’s. Victors received a lifetime’s income for themselves and their family—but if and when the Victor died, the family would be immediately tossed out to fend for themselves.
He didn’t have to allow his family to live with him, but he chose to. Even if he sometimes regretted it.
“Gale? Where have you been?” his mother demanded to know as soon as he returned from Haymitch’s house. Hazelle Hawthorne hadn’t been so sharp, years ago when her husband—Gale’s father—had still been alive. It had been four years since the mining disaster, though, and times were hard for everyone. She hurried across the polished hardwood floor and stared up into his eyes and sniffed before firing her accusation. “You’ve been drinking!”
“I’m old enough to drink, Ma,” he reminded her, pushing down his immediate flare of temper. He wasn’t an angry man, all things being equal, but the Hunger Games the year before had changed him in many ways. “And I’m home.”
“Well, Rory’s been asking after you,” she said, spinning on her heel and returning to the kitchen. They could hire people to work for them, but his mother had scoffed at that idea. “What would I do if someone else cooked and cleaned?” she’d asked when he’d initially brought the idea up.
His mother had a point, Gale supposed. Still, he wished sometimes that she had something else to do with her days. Maybe, if things worked out, he could get her a place of her own in town, closer to her friends…
Right. Friends. “Rory can come with me. I’m heading over to see the Everdeens.”
Hazelle’s voice softened. “All right, then. I’ll send over some tea sachets you might take to Violet,” she murmured, speaking of Mrs. Everdeen. “She’s not been…right…lately.”
Gale nodded. “Thanks. I’ll get cleaned up and tell Rory to do the same.”
His mother started to work on that, and he could hear the subtle scraping of glass jars opening and closing as his mother hummed while she prepared the sachets. Gale had no idea if anything could help Violet Everdeen; she’d been next door to a wraith since Katniss’s dad died in the same mine accident that took Gale’s father.
Katniss had assumed the role of breadwinner in her family, just as he had in his own. They’d started hunting together a couple of years or so before. He’d been astonished at just how good that girl was. And then, she’d started to relax with him in the forest, to respect his own skill with his blade and bow, and they’d become friends. He wanted more. He hoped for more. He could provide a good home for her, now, if she wanted and…
“Hey, Gale! Get your head outta the clouds and help me with this!” Rory called, interrupting his thoughts. “I gotta figure out how to do this math problem and you’re good with numbers.”
Bending over his brother’s homework—word problems made sense to him; Rory used words well, but not when it came to math—Gale said, “Come with me to see Prim and Katniss, will you? Mom’s making some tea for Mrs. Everdeen and I wanted to see Katniss before tomorrow.”
Rory stiffened. “Right. It’s Prim’s first Reaping, tomorrow.”
“Yeah.” Gale took his brother’s pencil and wrote out the equation needed to solve the problem; Rory could take it from there. “I wanted to go over, you know.”
“Prim’s so tiny,” Rory murmured, finishing the math. “She just turned twelve. I’ll be twelve in a month, and I’m taller than she is already.” He frowned. “What if she…”
“She won’t be,” Gale promised. “I bet you a cake from the baker’s that she’ll only have her name in once.”
Rory shuffled his homework together and the two of them moved away from the kitchen table and headed toward the stairs. The family bedrooms were all upstairs and each room had its own bathroom. The luxury was astonishing. Carpeting softened their steps as they went up. “I know you put your name in a lot for tesserae before, Gale.”
“I felt like total crap when you got reaped. I wondered if that slip with your name on it was in there for food I ate.” He stopped at Gale’s bedroom door, and Gale could not have been more surprised at the pain in his brother’s gray eyes, so like his own. “I know you took some for, for us.” Gale couldn’t even answer that; it was true, but he never thought to put off his responsibility to anyone’s else’s shoulders. “Katniss probably has too, right? But she won’t let Prim. And she hunts, so that’s helping, right?”
“Yeah, and you’re right. We’ll make sure Prim only has to put in the one entry, right?”
“Right!” His brother brightened at the idea. “I won’t tell her, though. The Everdeens are…kinda proud.”
Gale snorted. “Aren’t we all? So, you sweet on Primrose Everdeen?”
Rory’s face went red in a heartbeat. “I never said that!”
After ruffling Rory’s hair long enough for his brother to push him away, Gale went to his own room. One of the things he had to appreciated by the improved housing, he reflected as he stripped down in the bathroom, was that he had his own shower. And heated water that didn’t take an age to reach it! In the, sure, there were all sorts of frills and scents and extras in even something as mundane as a shower, but for the Hawthornes, this was richness.
The Everdeens didn’t even have a shower. They had a tub that they used to bathe in. No, you will not be thinking of Catnip in the bath, Hawthorne. Stop it.
But he was an eighteen-year-old male and the thoughts didn’t go away while he was soaping up. He did his best to ignore the inevitable reaction, however, and ruthlessly scrubbed at his hair before just as ruthlessly shunting the water over to COLD.
It didn’t really help, but he did finish his shower in record time.
At length, he and Rory were on their way to the Everdeens’ house. It wasn’t a short walk by any means, but for residents of District 12, getting about on foot was the norm. Gale felt that they were just lucky that the Village wasn’t too far from the mining town where he used to live.
“It’s weird,” Rory remarked as they hit the crossroads that would take them to their old neighborhood.
Gale flipped his knife from its holster into his hand, taking reassurance in the worn leather of the hilt. “What is?” He squinted to see into the tree line. Not that he was too worried about Peacekeepers, today, though they’d be infiltrating in preparation for the Reaping, but it wouldn’t be unheard of if some hungry Seam kid tried to steal something.
He hadn’t done it himself, but he knew people who had.
“It’s just weird, seeing the differences, Gale. I mean, we pull a lot of coal out of the mines, so why aren’t we warmer, here? Why are we always so hungry, when we have woods with game and the fuel to cook with? It doesn’t make sense.”
Gale pushed a low whistle out from between his lips. “Well, that’s a heavy thought for the afternoon.”
Rory snorted. “It’s not as if I never heard you and Katniss talking, you know.”
Heat sped up the back of Gale’s neck. “Well, never you mind what you hear us talking about.” He paused and clapped his brother’s shoulder with his free hand. “Just keep those thoughts to yourself, you hear? No one needs to be thinking the Hawthornes are…rebels.” He blanched at the thought of it. The Capitol was a harsh teacher.
“Right, sorry, Gale,” Rory murmured. Then, he brushed Gale’s hand from his shoulder. “So, are you sweet on Katniss?” he teased.
“Hey!” Gale said, half laughing in his shout. Rory started running and Gale was happy enough to chase him all the way to their old haunts.
They reached the slanted shanty in time to see little Primrose Everdeen giving her pet goat a bath. She grinned up at them, bending over to keep the bleating animal in the tub of water. “Hi, Rory! Hi, Gale!”
Rory held up the package their mother had sent them with. “Our mom sent your mom some teas, Prim.”
The girl blushed brightly. “Oh, that’s so nice! Please tell her thank you! Mama’s inside.”
“Where’s Katniss?” Gale asked, not wanting to interrupt his friend if she were in the middle of something personal.
“She’s around back, hanging up the wash,” Prim said in a casual way. “You can go on back, Gale. Rory, if you’d help me with Lady, here, we can bring the tea in for Mama.”
“Sure, Prim!” Gale grinned to see his brother roll up the sleeves of his new shirt, take off his shoes, and wade right into the bath with the goat and Prim. Their laughter and Lady’s noises were bright spots in a day that had thus far been punctuated by alcohol, cynicism, and plotting, as well as his mother’s disapproval.
He pushed all of that aside when he saw Katniss and her laundry basket. Her dark hair was loosely braided into a wide rope down her back. She was wearing a faded blue shirt, denim shorts, and a pair of her oldest hiking boots. She was shaking out an apron when he called her name. He had to laugh when she jumped and spun to face him.
“You come closer and say that,” she challenged with a look before turning her back on him to pin the apron to the clothesline. “Better yet, hold the clothespins for me?”
Well, of course he’d do that. How many times had he hung the clothes on the line before the 73rd Games? “Give ’em here,” he said, holding out his hand.
She went digging in the baggy pockets of her shorts and produced several wooden clothespins. “Here.” She eyed him before bending to snatch up a dress he recognized as belonging to her mother. “So. Reaping tomorrow.”
She still stared at him and he met her ash-gray gaze with his own. “You ready?”
He shrugged and offered her a couple of pins. She rolled her eyes and clipped the dress to the line by its shoulders before turning back and eyeing him sternly. He blew out a breath. “Katniss,” he said softly, deciding to tell her today, even if he couldn’t the next day. “How can I possibly be ready to be a Mentor? Tomorrow, there’ll be two people hoping like hell I’ll be able to help them and…I don’t know if I can.”
She was solemn and silent, then, bending over at her waist to pick up another piece of wet laundry. A shirt, that time. A green one that he’d seen Katniss wear before. They’d been friends for years, sure, but seeing her hang up her own laundry flustered him.
Likely misinterpreting his discomfort, she kept her eyes on him even while she clipped her top to the line. “Gale. You’ll do great. You won, last year. And you’ve been back to the Capitol, well, a lot, and you’ve met a ton of people, right?”
He felt a bit sick inside when he nodded that yes, he had. “But Katniss, they’re not…not the kind of people I’d want to rely on in a pinch, you know?” How could she know? He’d never told her, really, what he had to do in the Capitol. He didn’t think he ever could.
She nodded and pinned up another part of her washing. A white shirt, that time. He hoped she didn’t have any…underwear…in that basket. She saw his face heat and smirked a little. “Don’t worry, I hang up the—” she shifted her voice into a falsetto remarkably like Effie Trinket’s—”ladies lingerie, ahem, inside.”
She almost laughed. “So, why are you here, anyway?”
“Brought some teas for your mom from mine. She says hello, by the way.” Katniss nodded while finishing hanging up the last couple of items of clothing: a pair of shorts and…a dress. “That’s new,” he noted, flicking one hand toward the pale dress with the bits of lace at the collar.
She blushed, surprising him. “Ah, yeah. Mom wanted me to wear it for tomorrow. I,” she faltered, her hands fluttering oddly as if she didn’t know what to do with them. With affected casualness belied by the flush in her cheeks, she continued. “I outgrew last year’s dress.”
Gale coughed and pretended to examine the dress she’d just pinned up. “Well, I, er, usually only see you in hunting clothes, so I hadn’t noticed.” Desperate to change the topic, he blurted, “Can you go today, hunting?” Her eyes widened and he backtracked. “Wait, yeah. No. Too late in the day, right? Sorry. I had a meeting with, er, Haymitch Abernathy and it threw off my entire day.”
She glanced over her shoulder before reaching for him with one hand, her firm fingers wrapping around his wrist. “About tomorrow?”
“Yep. First Reapings are…known to be hard.” He didn’t want to talk about that, after all; he wanted to talk with her about something else. “Hey, I was wondering if we could meet up later tonight, maybe?” He covered her hand with his own. “Maybe a picnic?”
“Gale?” She cocked her head like a bird. “You must be really nervous,” she said decisively, patting his hand with her own. “We’ll get through this one, you know. It’ll be hard, but you’ll…you know you always figure out how to win, right? I bet,” she went on, and he was captured by the sudden fire in her eyes, “that you’ll do it. You’ll bring one home from this one, Gale. Like Haymitch brought you home.”
His heart pounded as he studied her face, heard the positivity in her voice. “I want to, Catnip, but…even if I am able to help with the people I’ve met in the Capitol…” After grimacing he took a deep breath.
“What, Gale?” she whispered urgently. “What is it?”
“I can only bring one home. One.” Here, looking into her face, he felt a cold ball of ice form in his gut. “There can only be one Victor. What if I can’t bring…” You. He couldn’t say that last word but mouthed it silently.
She blanched and her whole body seemed to spasm. “No. I’ve been lucky so far.”
“I was lucky until last year. I was seventeen. It was my last year and still—”
She tried to be flippant, letting go his hands and dipping quickly to pick up the laundry basket. “I’m only sixteen, so you’ll have at least one year of Mentoring experience before—”
The mere idea made him want to vomit. “Stop. No.” He took her basket and ignored her protests about it. “So, a picnic isn’t a good idea?”
“Not tonight. Not before a Reaping.”
His heart plummeted. “Tomorrow, then?” He leaned close to her. “We can go to the woods.”
Her face lit up and that’s what he had been hoping for. She was always happiest in the woods. “Yes. In the morning.”
He brushed a lock of hair from her forehead and wished he could keep his hand there, in her hair or on her face. “We always go on our Happy Hunger Games hunt, don’t we?”
“Even now, that you’re a Victor?” She looked down and up and then away. “A Mentor? Living in the Village?”
“I’d rather hunt with you than be anywhere else tomorrow,” he confessed with a shrug.
Chapter Two: The Reaping
The morning of the Reaping for the 74th Hunger Games dawned with surprising beauty. Gale noticed it only because he was to meet Katniss for their traditional hunt. The sun shone with green accents as he stepped on a quiet path to their usual meeting spot.
She was late. “Sorry,” she whispered, pulling arrows from a hiding place in a hollow tree. “Capitol Peacekeepers are a lot harder to avoid than our usuals.”
Her statement hit him oddly, making his heart twist just a little. He didn’t know why, so he rubbed at his sternum for a moment before closing the distance between them. “So, I wondered. What are we gonna do with anything we catch?”
“Well, we usually gut it and hide it…is that not what you want to do?”
“I’m Mentoring, this year. I’ll be…”
“Gone.” Her eyes shuttered abruptly. “Right.”
He tugged her further into the shade, out of sight even from the fence. “When I get home, though…we’ll hunt. Rory wants to learn too, you know.”
She smiled—a rare enough sight that he allowed himself a moment to appreciate it. Gale remembered meeting Katniss after the mine explosion, at the memorial for their fathers. She’d been so stern in the face, then. That hadn’t changed. The only time she ever seemed to relax was here, in the woods.
For just a moment, he reached for her, to try to capture that smile in the palm of his hand. Her quick flare of surprise reminded him that it wasn’t like that for them.
“You okay, Gale?” she asked.
He found a smile of his own and put it on. “Yeah. I guess I’m just thinking about last Reaping.”
Fear and then annoyance had her eyes widening before they narrowed into two slate-gray slits surrounded by heavy, sooty lashes. “Don’t, Gale. That was the worst day. When they called your name…” She trembled visibly before quickly inhaling and exhaling. “I’m so glad you don’t have to face that again. I mean, I know being a Victor hasn’t been easy…”
“No, it hasn’t,” he reflected, bending down to snatch up a small piece of deadwood from the forest floor. Sliding his hunting knife from its sheath, he started walking to the nearest clearing, on the top of the low hill to the east, into the rising sun. “Come on. I’ve got breakfast for us.”
“Well, I’ve got something, too,” she told him with a saucy light in her eye. “Prim gave me some cheese.”
“That’ll go great with the bread. Come on! We’ve gotta hurry.”
They paced with a carelessness that was not characteristic of them, coming out of the tree cover and into the high meadow. “What if we didn’t show up? We could go back, right now, get our families and—well, you know, there’s miles and miles of nothing out there,” she said, sounding as close to desperate as he’d ever heard her. “I bet we could disappear. Greasy Sae said she saw a bunch of hovercraft using some binoculars someone traded at The Hob. Right out that way. You know they only show up once every few years, so we could go there and no one would find us.”
He grimaced and dropped heavily into the grass. “Katniss. I can’t not be at the Reaping.” With a rueful smile, he let his knife fall to hit his boot before tugging on her braid. “Tempting, though. Now if you’d only thought of that last year…”
With a sigh, Katniss rummaged in the small pouch she wore across her body. “Yeah. So. Here’s the cheese,” she said, offering a wrapped parcel without visible enthusiasm. “And may the odds be ever in your…my…favor.”
Gale spread the wrapping into a small square before getting out the bread. He could have brought some roasted meat, fresh fruit, maybe even something to drink for their common meal. But he had learned shortly after his return from the Games that Katniss refused what she counted as charity. Sharing bread and cheese, though, was acceptable.
“How many times is your name in?” The question asked itself; he guessed, but didn’t want to say it. Still, he had to know. He was, for the first time, free from this worry for himself, but—
Her voice was matter of fact. “Twenty.” She continued. “Prim, remember? For her, too.”
“So she’s just got the one.” Since it was Prim’s first year, she would only have the single entry; Katniss would take the tesserae on herself, as she had done for years.
“Just like you used to take on extra for your family,” Katniss stated, sounding defensive. “It’s not like you needed to, this year.”
A resentful anger pulsed through him, so that he threw his knife. “I know, damn it. Every time I walk in the Seam, I feel like everyone’s glaring at me, knowing that.”
She blew out a loud breath. “No, they’re not. They’re proud of you, Gale. You’re our only Victor in more than twenty years. And they all know you shop in the Seam. You know us…”
With a grunt, he avoided further discussion by pushing himself up to get his knife. “Anyway. We should get back, Catnip. I have to do my best Haymitch Abernathy impersonation.”
She transitioned her tone, he heard, as she said, “All right. So, do you have a vest and collar? Planning on getting falling-down drunk?”
“No, actually,” he answered, holding out his hand to her. “I’m supposed to look sober.” She studied his face and he shrugged. “Strategy, really, but yeah.”
She took his hand and let him help her up. He held her there, next to him, for a moment. Today was going to be hard, but he’d keep this image of her face before him as he saw the Tributes that would be Reaped that day. Each person would be as important to him as Katniss Everdeen. He’d work hard to save them.
Well, to save the one that he and Haymitch thought might…have a chance. Damn.
She slid her skin from his and cleared her throat. “Well, it’ll be a change.” As they started walking down the rise, she asked, “Are—are you okay? Nervous?”
His gut clenched. “Oh, yeah. Petrified, to be honest. I feel like I still need a Mentor myself. And…someone’s life could depend on me and what the hell do I know?”
She stopped and put a hand on his arm. “Hey. You’ll be great. People like you. They say that’s important, when they do the commentaries every year.”
He snorted. They liked him. Yeah. Too much and for all the wrong reasons. “I’ll do my best, you know.”
Twenty chances. She had her name in twenty times.
The verdant shade of the forest enveloped them once again and their voices hushed, their steps quieted, and they spoke of nothing important on the way back to the fence. But once they got on the other side and were walking safely distant from it, Gale tugged on her shirt a little to get her to stop. “Hey, Catnip.”
“Keep your head down, okay? I mean, today and afterward. I won’t be able to be here for a while, you know…” She nodded quickly, her eyes sharp and assessing. “And it’s been…restless, in the Districts, I’m hearing.”
She pursed her lips and blew out a silent breath. He had to look away or he’d tug her into an embrace again, as he’d wanted to do for a year or more.
With a heavy heart, Gale Hawthorne made his way to his mansion…er, house. Two lives would be in his hands by the end of the day.
“Good morning, Gale! It’s a Big, big, big day!” Effie Trinket called, her voice echoing with false joy in the foyer of the Justice building. Gale couldn’t help the chuckle that escaped from his chest. She was all in shades of pink, that day. Pink heels that clicked like squirrels throwing rocks, pink clothes, pink everything. “My, don’t you look handsome,” she said, sounding as if she might purr as she straightened his tie. “Gray is a perfect color,” she assured him, her eyes unwontedly serious as they met his.
“It’s our color, here in Twelve,” he said, moving a step from her and wishing Haymitch would show up.
“And it looks so nice with your eyes,” she countered, her smile odd and plastic on her over-painted face. “Ready?”
“I am,” he said, wondering if it were true. A weight seemed to sit on his chest and his stomach felt knotted. In some ways, it was worse than being out there with the rest.
Effie fluttered about, her hands moving like disconcerted sparrows. “Where’s Haymitch?”
“He said he was planning on getting drunk,” Gale answered. “And honestly, Effie? That sounds like the sanest thing to do right now.”
“Gale!” She all but leapt to stand in front of him, her heels clicking loudly, echoing on the flat, dead concrete floor. “Hush.” For a moment, she looked afraid as her glance flickered over the Peacekeepers in the room. Her voice was hard and bright as she admonished him. “Now, now. It’ll all be over soon. A Mentor’s first Reaping is the hardest, I’ve heard.”
He kept hearing that. He’d heard it in the Capitol amongst those he saw when he was there. He’d heard it from Haymitch. Hell, he’d even said so to Katniss already.
But he hadn’t expected that piece of wisdom from Effie Trinket. The year before, she’d been all bright and flashy on the way to the Capitol. Now, he saw the way she concentrated on individuals, her focus on the timetable, and had to tip an imaginary hat to her. The woman knew her job.
Still, she was an irritant.
Peacekeepers lined the concrete walls, their masks down and weapons at the ready, even within the Justice building. Gale blew out a breath, feeling the tension building in his legs, his torso, feeling everything tighten. Boys and girls, lining up down there like goslings and he couldn’t do anything to stop it. To save them.
But he might save one. Maybe two—Haymitch Abernathy might be wrong.
Not likely, but…
A laugh rippled through the audience just before a curse exploded to Gale’s left. Haymitch had arrived.
“Haymitch Abernathy!” Effie whispered as if she were directing a naughty child during a school play. Gale could recollect his mother sounding like that when he’d been involved in a Glories of Panem pageant when he was about seven.
“I told you,” Gale muttered under his breath. Effie didn’t spare him a glance, but he could have sworn that Haymitch winked at him as he collapsed onto the chair reserved for him on the stage in front of the Justice building.
Despite Effie’s gesturing, Gale couldn’t make himself sit down as he saw the lines of…kids. Kids just like he’d been the year before. Young men and women, Effie Trinket would say momentarily, but they were kids. Younger than he was and he was only eighteen. His family was present, his mom lined up against the wall along with his brothers and sister, but the Hawthornes were not represented amongst the possible Tributes that day.
After nodding at his mom, Gale scanned the mass of faces until he saw Katniss. She was wearing the dress he’d seen the day before; her hair was braided around her head like some kind of shining, woodland crown. She didn’t see him, but he could see she was watching the younger girls. Today was her sister’s first Reaping and Gale could imagine the tension lashing at his best friend at the moment.
That tiny wisp of a girl wove through the crowd to find a space among the youngest possible tributes. Primrose Everdeen. She didn’t look like a seam girl at all, but she did look like her mother, who hadn’t been born and raised nearest the mines. Gale had. Katniss had. But Prim rose above all of that, making her way with a nasty old cat, a happy goat, and a talent with herbs just like her mother.
Gale nodded at Prim when she caught his eye as she found her place with her year-mates. He tried to look reassuring. She only had her name in once, after all. She’d be safe. Her sister, though, was not so lucky.
Any self-protective instincts seemed muted as Katniss kept her eyes on Prim until she herself found a place with the sixteen-year-old girls. Gale had never seen all of this from the stage. So many faces. He’d seen them as a shocked and horrified tribute the year before, but this year it was different. Of course it was. He wasn’t out to survive, this year. He didn’t have a battle in a wasted city before him, fighting under hot, dry skies with bricks and dirt at his feet and ruined buildings as his only shelter. This year, he wanted to do more than just be the only one left standing out of twenty-four desperate teenagers. He wanted to make it so that those young ones—kids, some of them pre-pubescent—would never have to fight for their lives in such a horrendous way for the sadistic entertainment of their governmental authorities.
He was a Victor, yes, but he had another fight in him. If only he—they—could find the right way to start it.
“Who’re you looking for, Hawthorne?” Haymitch muttered as Gale finally took his seat. Effie Trinket was approaching the large microphone.
“Welcome, welcome! Happy Hunger Games!”
“My friend Katniss,” Gale answered his Mentor. “Remember her?”
“Girl who practically jumped you when you got home?”
Though his throat was hot with the memory, Gale nodded minutely, not looking at Haymitch but pretending to listen to Effie.
Haymitch snorted. Loudly and in character. Effie shot him an acid glare but then continued with a “Special film from the Capitol!”
“War. Terrible war.” The opening line was familiar to every citizen of Panem and, as they had the year before, Gale and Katniss caught each other’s attention and mouthed the words silently to one another. He didn’t see her features with the clarity he might have done on the ground, but he could see her face and the slight smirk she offered him. It was their own small act of defiance.
The short film droned on, reminding them all of why they had to do this. But did they really? How many people were truly in support of the horrible means of oppression, anyway? Not as many as President Snow and his cronies would likely think…
“Ladies, first.” Effie interrupted his thoughts with her swishing walk and the hard, bright way she indicated she would be choosing one of the girls right in front of her to go to the arena and likely get killed. All in the name of “remembering our past and safeguarding our future.”
Shiny fingernails catching the light, Effie unfolded the slip of paper she’d chosen. After a delicate little clearing of her throat, she read the name out loud.
The girls around Prim pressed as far from her as they could, as if the girl had suddenly become contagious. Remembering how that felt to him only the year prior, Gale winced. The instant ostracizing was a terrible feeling. He was enormously proud to know her, though, as she started to walk, face blank, toward the Peacekeepers who waited for her in the center aisle.
Proud, yes, but his heart hurt, too. How would she fare in the Games? And Catnip—! He didn’t have to wonder long.
“Prim!” Katniss screamed so fiercely it sounded like her throat was shredding.
Gale started to launch to his feet, but Haymitch gripped him tightly. “Don’t. Just don’t.”
Remembering his role, remembering all that they’d spoken of the day before, Gale forced himself to sit still as Katniss burst into that center aisle calling for Prim. His heart hammered and he clenched his jaw against shouts of his own as the Peacekeepers went after Katniss. His Katniss.
Then, she did the unthinkable.
“I volunteer! I volunteer as Tribute!”
Silence fell on the crowd in an instant and Gale’s heart basically stopped for that same moment. Katniss rushed to Prim, embraced her quickly, and sent her back to their mother. Prim didn’t want to go, she was screaming not to go, and Gale was afraid the Peacekeepers would strong-arm that little girl and drag her…
But his brother Rory ran from the family and tugged her away. Gale couldn’t hear what was said, but he sure as hell hoped Violet Everdeen would pull herself together to take care of her younger daughter. What was going to happen to them?
Later, Hawthorne. Later.
Another few moments had the girls switched so that Katniss was stepping to the stage in a walking perimeter of Peacekeepers. As if she’d try to escape? She’d volunteered!
Katniss is a Tribute…! Gale broke out in a cold sweat.
“Watch it, Hawthorne,” Haymitch murmured under Katniss’s introduction.
“…your little sister.”
Katniss didn’t even look at him, but kept her focus on Prim, who was now surrounded by not only her mother, but all of Gale’s own family. He blew out a breath when his mom lifted an arm to him—quickly, but purposefully—and he knew that Hazelle wouldn’t let Prim lack for anything if she could possibly help it.
One big worry off his plate, Gale focused on Katniss again. Conflict raged in his chest as if it were a wild animal. He needed to protect her, his best friend, his hunting partner, his hoped-for—all of that. But also, he felt a deep, rolling pride in her. She was, as Effie was saying, the first to have ever volunteered as a Tribute from District 12.
Then, Effie tried to get some applause generated for Katniss—who would not appreciate it—only to be foiled by the unique token of respect that had become traditional in District 12. The three-fingered salute.
He didn’t know from whence this quiet mark of appreciation stemmed, but Gale had seen it often in his life. Miners would offer it to the man who had held a cart for them during a crisis. When the flood had torn through the town five years before, his dad had been one of the men who’d helped rescue the kids from the school and they had all offered his dad that salute.
Effie didn’t get it; he knew that. But Katniss would. He studied her but saw nothing in her face to say that she had seen the mark of honor given to her.
Well, it’d be all over Panem, now. Live, with commentary.
“Now, for the boys,” Effie stated abruptly, her heels clicking as she stepped to the other bowl.
Katniss was a Tribute. How the hell was he going to keep her alive?
The name…Mellark. The baker’s son? Gale grimaced as he saw the same, silent ritual take place around the blond boy. Mellark had shoulders like an ox, though. He’d…
Wait. How could he sit there and think of possibly abandoning one of their Tributes in favor of the other?
“Later, Hawthorne.” That time, the admonition came from Haymitch. “Stick to the script right now.” He flicked a finger to the other side of the stage, where representatives from the Capitol and the Games were seated, looking bored out of their minds.
Well, of course. This wasn’t their District. It wasn’t their home. They didn’t know the Tributes.
“Come now, shake hands,” Effie insisted.
It was a cruelty, truly. When he had had to shake Fern’s hand last year, he’d felt dirty. As if he was saying, “Hi, Fern. Nice to meet you. I’ll most likely try to kill you in a few days.”
Nauseating. Even now, remembering, he felt his stomach try to heave.
Katniss and Peeta Mellark shook hands and then, after a brief word, they were guided through the enormous steel doors of the Justice Building.
Chapter Three: The Train
When he’d been Reaped for the 73rd Hunger Games, Gale was sequestered in an anteroom off the main receiving area of the Justice Building. He thought it might have served as an interrogation room under regular circumstances, but it served well enough for all of his family to crowd into for three minutes to say their farewells.
He had thought it was going to be the final time he saw them, and it had been hard to sound confident and able and ready. So hard.
But then Katniss had burst into the room, breathless and shaking, but tearless. She hadn’t cried since the day both of their fathers were killed in the mine. She’d worn a red-checked dress, her hair was hanging down her back in one braid, and she’d lunged toward him, gripping one of his arms with both of her strong, work-hardened hands.
“We should have run,” she said on a breath, so that no prying ears could possibly have heard. It was the voice they used when deep in the woods hunting deer.
He had only nodded and stared into her eyes. They narrowed a bit, then, and she’d gone on to say, “You can win, you know. You’re smarter than any Tribute we’ve ever had.”
He’d shaken his head in immediate denial. “Impossible.”
She shook his arm. “You’re smart in the forest, you’re a survivor.” She leaned even closer, and he could feel the press of the curve of one breast on his arm. “And you hate the Capitol. You can win this, Gale Hawthorne.”
He swallowed, overwhelmed by the fierce faith he saw burning in her eyes. He didn’t let himself think, he merely pulled her in tight against his body and pressed his lips to her hair. “Watch out for them, Catnip. Please.”
“Of course. Every day.”
A Peacekeeper knocked on the door and Gale let Katniss go with a wrenching feeling in his chest. “Promise?”
“Promise. Come home, Gale.”
He tried to smile. “Just for you, Catnip.”
He’d been ushered out of the room before she could answer.
This year, Katniss had been Reaped, and Gale stood in the receiving area as her mother and sister walked under the stern eyes of the Peacekeepers to wish her luck. He had wondered, once or twice during the last Games, what he and Katniss might have said to each other had their positions been reversed.
Well, I can talk to her on the train, he decided. But still, he was an official and—
Again, Haymitch was reading his mind. “No. Not here.” The other Mentor clapped him on the shoulder, no evidence of intoxication in his touch or eye. “Cameras are everywhere and you’re the young, handsome, recent Victor, remember. You can’t afford to be seen to be friends with a Tribute.”
Here, though, Gale had to disagree. He turned, nodding at Effie Trinket and the Mayor as well as the Peacekeepers from the Capitol who were visibly playing guard dog just then. It was an oppressive building, designed to be so, and it still worked to oppress his speech, thoughts, and wish to express himself as he organized what he wanted to say. He turned to meet Haymitch’s hard, blue eyes. “I know what they did to your family. I’m not going to try to pull any stunts. I didn’t in the games.”
“No, you played it square.” Haymitch’s lip twitched. “The snare/brick combo was genius.”
Gale grimaced but nodded. He’d set up the end of District 2’s Tribute with precision. Still, he persevered. “I’m friends with Katniss Everdeen, yes. Have been for four years.”
“You look like cousins.”
Gale snorted. “In the Seam, we all look like cousins. Anyway. Thing is, I’ll fight for her, Haymitch.”
“And they’ll take her from you. You know that. They’ll manipulate the Arena and—” Haymitch blew out a breath. “You’re lucky they like you, so far, in the Capitol.”
A sharp stab of terror went through Gale, but he did his best to ignore it. “I know it. I’m keeping my nose clean, boss,” he said with a drawl that he hoped would ease the man a little. “But really, if they find out? Think of the drama. It’ll be a spectacle. They like a show. And they got her when I came back to Twelve, last year, on all the broadcasts.” He remembered the blush it had earned him then; it worried him, now. “All of Panem must have seen…”
Haymitch shook his head abruptly. “They saw her, yes. But also your mother and sister and, hell, you two look like you could be family.” He blew out a breath. “Just be careful, Hawthorne, not to give them too much of what they want.”
Wise words, indeed. “I’ll talk to her on the train,” he said, turning as steps came back down the hall.
He saw another couple, Mellark’s parents, coming out of the other anteroom. They took steps as if to approach the Mentors, but the Peacekeepers stepped between them in nearly mechanical synchronicity. “No conversations with the Mentors. It’s not allowed until after the Games,” the one on the left intoned.
The other repeated the warning, adding, “Any contact might be considered as interfering, Mrs. Mellark.”
The couple went white and backed off immediately. Gale nodded shortly to them; they were the bakers, for pity’s sake, and he didn’t want to be seen as an absolute jerk by the people he’d grown up with. It would make things harder for his family.
One of the Peacekeepers escorted the Mellarks from the building. The other stayed with them. Effie Trinket hurried over, hands fluttering once again as if she were unsure of where to put them, now that the business of the day was, in effect, complete.
“Haymitch, you advised our Mr. Hawthorne, here, to bring his luggage with him, right?” Her smile was brittle. “I haven’t been able to find it anywhere, and it is your job to guide him in his new role!” She blinked in such a way that Gale thought might have been an effort at being blithe and flirtatious, but it just made her appear nervous.
Which was entirely possible. There was a nasty, ugly underbelly to the world in the Capitol and Effie’s position might be precarious on Reaping days. Everyone’s position was precarious, save the Tributes’. Theirs…was positively untenable.
Haymitch waved his hand drunkenly in the space between the three of them. Gale suspected, though, that it was entirely an act and even the fumes of alcohol had been poured on his clothes instead of in his body. “Yeah, I told ‘im. Where’s your gear, kid?” he asked with a nudge.
“In one of the anterooms,” Gale responded with a respectful nod. “I’ll go get it now, I guess?”
“Right away!” Effie insisted, all but shoving him away. “Immediately. We have to do our orientation on the train as soon as we pull away from the station!”
Each District had their own car on the train to the Capitol, just as they had their own floor in the Tributes’ Tower. The Tributes stayed in their car and the Mentors were free to move about the train itself during the time they were on it. District 12 had an all-night ride, but they also had more time to prep with their Mentors, he’d found, than the Districts they’d pass through during the night to pick up Tributes.
“I’ll be there, Effie,” Gale promised over his shoulder as he hurried to the anteroom where he’d left his luggage. Just as he reached it, Violet Everdeen and Primrose emerged from that same room, and he nodded to them.
Prim, though, grabbed his hand. “I’m scared!”
“I know. But she’s strong. I—I can’t talk right now,” he went on to say, shifting his focus to Mrs. Everdeen. “It’s against the rules.” Prim gasped and he shrugged. “It’s the truth. You take care of yourselves and go say hello to my mom, okay?” He figured that was not a bad thing to say; no reflection on the Games or anything other than sending worried family members to his own family for comfort.
It was the only thing he could do at that moment. They moved past him, to be flanked by Peacekeepers, and Gale slipped into the anteroom.
Katniss was right at the door, but she lunged back, eyes wide with what could only be construed as fear for a brief moment. He had to hold her, to reassure her, though she was never one who had seemed to need it.
She did then. “Gale, oh Gale.”
“You’re amazing, you know that?”
She was shivering in his arms and he tugged her in even closer, relishing the way she clung to him as well. “I’m no such thing! But I couldn’t let Prim go. She’d—”
She’d never make it, was what Katniss didn’t have to say aloud.
Gale understood. He allowed himself to nuzzle her hair for a moment, sighing a little. “You’re still amazing to me.” She laughed a little and he counted that as a victory for the moment. “I have to get my bags. I hid them in here.”
She blinked and drew away from him, looking about the small room with its high, inaccessible windows that let in only the thinnest streams of light. “I remember. This was your room, right? Last year.”
“Yeah. So, I’ve gotta get on the train. I’ll meet you there real soon, all right?” He cupped her face in one hand and brushed his thumb over her cheek. “Most amazing girl ever,” he said.
That she actually blushed, he counted as another victory.
“I’ve never done this part,” Gale muttered as he and Haymitch paused before entering the lounge for their car. Employed as a dining room, conference area, and even a wet bar, this car served quite well for the Tributes and Mentors who had the farthest to travel. “Last year, you were such a…”
“Drunk. I know.” Haymitch let out a long, ragged breath and glared at the door that led to the lounge. “Not much better, today, but some.” He offered Gale a slight shrug. “Got one right, yeah? So, let’s see if we can help out your girlfriend.”
Gale felt his ears catch fire. “She’s not my girlfriend,” he hissed under his breath. “She’s just my friend. A good friend.”
“Uh huh.” The door opened then and Gale shifted his focus to Katniss and Peeta, who were standing about the pastry-laden table as if they didn’t know if they were allowed to look, let alone eat any of the treats.
Effie was already into her spiel. “And I know it’s only for a little while, but so many others don’t even get this, right? Anything you like, here. Have as much as you like!”
Katniss, Gale could see, was not intrigued. She was wary, her body language—so familiar to him—shouted her wish to fight and run at the same time. He completely understood. He held out his hand, ready to cross the car to her, but Haymitch stopped him.
Again, damn it.
“Well, did you people get settled? I’m sure Effie, here, told you it’s an all-nighter into the Capitol.”
Katniss stared at Haymitch as if he’d grown another head before quickly shifting her focus to Gale. Is he serious? her gray eyes demanded.
He nodded minutely, indicating with the barest angle of his chin that she should be listening to the Senior Mentor just then.
“So!” Haymitch continued, moving to the drink cart, “Lucky me, we’ve got two. Whole. Mentors for District Twelve, this year. Well, yahoo for that.”
Gale couldn’t help but smirk. “That’s twice as many as I had, and I’ll tell you both,” he said, meeting Peeta’s pale blue eyes as well as Catnip’s, “that Haymitch is a pro. He won his Games because he’s smart and strong and sneaky.”
Haymitch waved the decanter of bourbon in his direction. “And Gale, here, won his Games because he’s strong and smart and ruthless when he has to be.”
Their gazes clashed, memories surged for each of them, and Gale jerked his focus back to the Tributes. Katniss. Peeta Mellark.
Effie cleared her throat. “Well! If you’re going to be getting to business, then, I’ll just be on my way. Peeta? Katniss? You listen, now. And eat up! Enjoy the ride.”
Finally, finally, Gale paced to Katniss’s side. “Hey, Katniss,” he murmured. “Have you had anything to eat, yet?”
“Not you, too,” she retorted, her nostrils flaring.
Peeta laughed a little. “Effie Trinket kept talking about food, but she never stopped talking enough for us to eat anything.”
Gale smiled and tried to put them at their ease; tension was obvious despite their words. “She’s like that,” he said while Haymitch poured himself a bourbon. “It’s all right. She’s got a lot on her mind.”
Katniss picked up a muffin after asking him silently if it was really all right to do so. Peeta, though, spoke. “I get it. So,” he went on, pursing his lips before choosing a shiny, red apple, “you’re our Mentors.”
That reminded Gale a bit of himself, the year before. “You’re our Mentor,” he’d said to Haymitch Abernathy, as Fern had trembled herself into near insensibility. “So, what do we need to know?”
He managed not to laugh when Haymitch clinked his tumbler against the crystal decanter. “I’ve heard that before,” the older man said. “We are your Mentors, yes.” He leaned against the wall of the car. “And we’ll do our best for you. But for the rest of today, let it hit you. Feel it. Accept that, in all likelihood, you’re going to die.”
Gale closed his eyes and held his words behind his teeth. Not Catnip. Not if I can help it. He nodded, though. Because it was true. Even if one of their Tributes did win—as Haymitch had, as Gale himself had—one of them would die. Twenty-four Tributes entered the Arena and only one came out alive.
Peeta nodded and turned abruptly to look out a window on the opposite side of the speeding train car. Katniss clenched her jaw. “I told Prim I’d try to win for her,” she whispered. Gale didn’t know if she was speaking to him or to herself. “I’ll try.”
“I know you will,” Gale answered, equally quiet.
“But the odds suck,” Haymitch asserted, pushing off the wall and waving his bourbon around as if he were already half-sauced. He wasn’t. Gale knew his sheer capacity for alcohol. “So put it in your heads, kids, that you’re going to die. Accept your imminent demise. Be willing to walk into that with clear heads. And then, we’ll talk tomorrow.” He caught Gale’s eye. “Don’t be too long, Hawthorne.” Without another word, he left the car.
Gale stiffened his spine and turned to the other two passengers in the lounge. “Peeta,” he began, not knowing how to act with the younger man but wanting to try his best to be a good Mentor. “I know you have a lot of questions. I will tell you one thing that helped me when I was in the Arena last year.”
Pale blue eyes opened wide as Peeta Mellark nodded eagerly. Gale cleared his throat. “The odds are not ever in your favor, going in, no matter what they say, but if you have something—or someone—to fight for, it helps. If you don’t want to dwell on dying,” he said, trying to be helpful as well as maybe a bit sarcastic, “think about who you wanna live for.”
Peeta glanced at Katniss just then, his cheeks darkening with an obvious blush. Startled, Gale swallowed back a question and met Katniss’s eye. She was nodding, but didn’t look away.
“Thanks, Gale,” she murmured before sitting at the table and proceeding to pick her muffin into bite-size pieces. He watched her eat every bite, even the crumbs, while he listened to Peeta crunch on a different apple.
Then, as neither of them had anything else to say, he left them alone.
Effie Trinket pulled him aside after they had eaten a strangely silent meal. Normally, the woman was overly talkative, but she hadn’t been that evening. The train had picked up the Tributes and Mentors from Districts 8, 11, and 6 by the time coffee and dessert were brought to them by the staff on board the train. Truly the technology was remarkable, considering so much in District 12 was entirely backward, from all he’d been able to read about the history of what used to be the United States of America. But he was relieved the trip was comparatively brief for them. No use having days to agonize without any relief in action.
“Gale,” the too-pink woman whispered, “there’s been a concern.”
Cold sweat sprang from his pores as he leaned in to hear her words. “What kind of concern.”
“About you and the volunteer from your District. She’s not your sister, is she? You look, well, remarkably alike.”
In spite of the gravity of the situation, he had to chuckle. “No. You’ve been to Twelve often enough, Miss Trinket, to know that those of us born and raised in the Seam often look, well, like I do. Like Katniss Everdeen does. I don’t know why.”
She sniffed, but her eyes shifted with obvious tension. “Well, it’s not common here, I know, but in One? In the 67th Games, before I started, well, doing what I do? There was an obvious friendship between a Mentor and one of the Tributes.” Nearly inaudibly, she warned, “They sabotaged the girl. Sent her poison instead of the medicine her Mentor had planned to send to her.”
Dread draped him like a cloak, even darkening his vision for a moment while he got his breath back. “Oh.”
“Oh. Be careful.”
How could he manage this? Gale dragged one hand down his face as he paced back to his private quarters to change his shirt. He felt…dirty…even having been warned. He had to talk to Katniss. Privately.
Well, where was private? Her quarters. They had one night, he figured. He didn’t trust that anything would be private once they arrived in the Capitol, but on the train…
He thought he had a pretty good chance, there. She had a bathroom. They could go there.
Freshly showered, brushed, and in a new shirt and trousers, he left his quarters to look for Haymitch. The older man was in the bar car; it was where he made connections, met new Mentors, and got his feet under him before the assault of the Capitol. Schmoozing, basically, but it had worked for Gale and he wasn’t going to denigrate the process.
Haymitch smiled broadly, seeming to be the epitome of a drunken, down-at-his-heels Mentor. Gale knew it was a façade, this year. His senior counterpart was razor-sharp in his focus. He wanted to foment another Rebellion. A successful one. Gale was entirely on board with that, but…
He wanted—needed—Katniss Everdeen at his side to fight with him. He needed her to win.
As soon as the car door closed behind him, every pair of eyes focused on him and Gale could feel them measuring him. He didn’t know how Haymitch had put up with it for so many years; he was ready to jump right off the train, come what may, already. But he had a mission, a goal, and that was far more important.
Besides, he had to protect his family.
“Hawthorne, c’mere!” Haymitch called, waving him over with a hand that held what looked like a lobster tail. Gale put on a smile and complied, knowing after a year of Capitoline socializing what would be required of him. “You remember Gale Hawthorne, right, Prisca?” he asked the Mentor from Six.
Prisca Whitaker was a woman of middle age. She’d won the 49th Games, Gale had learned while preparing for his first stint as a Mentor himself. Her hair was an improbable red, and her eyes were dark brown, hard as any oak. She stood tall, alert, and as if she’d take anyone down who dared to glance at her sideways. She nodded once.
“Hawthorne. Welcome,” she went on with a sneer, “to the Mentor’s Happy Hour. I saw Twelve had a volunteer, this year?” One brow arched as if daring him to contradict her.
He, of course, did not. “We did. Katniss Everdeen.”
“You’ll forgive me for saying I hope she doesn’t live to regret it.”
It was a stab, but not entirely unexpected. Prisca wanted one of her Tributes to win, as well. Six hadn’t won the Games for at least ten years, he thought. “Forgiven, but you know I won’t be mourning if she does live to regret it.” He didn’t think anything would make Katniss regret volunteering to go to the Games in place of Prim. Even if she were to die in some awful manner—Gale was sure he’d have nightmares for the rest of his life if that happened—Katniss would be proud to have been able to take her little sister’s place. Just as Gale would have been proud to do the same for his siblings.
He just wasn’t going to say so to the other Mentors, as he was introduced to them all in the capacity of his new role from District Twelve. From Tribute to Victor to Entertainer to Mentor, Gale wondered how any of them kept track of all the roles they had to play on the Capitol’s stage.
There were four Mentors from District 3, and they shook hands and gave him a look that managed to convey their own confidence as well as pity for him and his District. Three men and one woman, they seemed content to huddle in their clique around a small round table.
“Remember to coach your Tributes for the Interview,” the oldest of the men told him in a confidential manner. He took a sip from what looked like a martini. “Can’t rely on Abernathy, over there. He’s been on his own too long.”
“Thank you,” Gale said politely, meeting each pair of jaded eyes and nodding. It was a routine he’d use until Haymitch called it a night. He met the three Mentors from Eight. “Remember, you’ll probably have to choose one over the other, lad,” the eldest of them said with a sad smile. “It’s never easy.”
“So Haymitch has advised me,” Gale allowed, grimly nodding. “Tell me, do we all meet back here after the Games on the trip home? Is this how we are taken back, on the train?”
The youngest Mentor from the District threw up a hand. “Hell, yes. There’s more liquor, lots of noise, it’s chaotic, but you’ll need it.” He shrugged and looked across the room as the latest arrivals entered. “Sasha, from Eleven, helped me quite a bit a few years ago.”
Sasha was the only Mentor from Eleven, as they’d lost their other during the past winter to a lung disease. Her dark skin gleamed in the light from the wall sconces and her smile was thin and knife-blade sharp. Gale had seen her on the broadcasts and winced a little. Her Tribute had almost won…but he, Gale, had taken the younger man down under a hot, dry sky.
“Seeing them all is the worst,” he remarked, not purposefully saying so aloud. He was startled to hear his own voice but surprisingly comforted to receive immediate affirmation from the others gathered around the small table. Tears burned in his eyes for the briefest moment before he looked down and willed them away. “Not just me, huh?” he asked, trying to sound less affected than he was.
“Nope,” one of the women from Eight murmured. “It takes a few years, too.” Her light green gaze was sorrowful as it held his. “Next year, someone will have to face you, you know.”
He shut his eyes, imagining someone killing Peeta or—God forbid, Katniss—as he’d done Barnes the year before. “Damn.”
All those nearest and in earshot lifted their glasses. As one, they said, “Damn it all.”
Gale froze, a sudden hope piercing him. Were other Mentors as ready to take action as he and Haymitch were? Sasha lifted her chin, catching his heightened attention. She nodded as if she’d read his mind.
Perhaps they were. Maybe they were the “air” that Haymitch had alluded to, the day before.
It was after ten by the time Gale made his way back to where his Tributes were staying. The lounge was indirectly lit by tubes up near the ceiling, and the uncovered windows showed only a dark blur of land topped by a less-dark blur of night sky as the train sped through the night. They’d just picked up the Tributes from District Two. Gale couldn’t imagine having to wait for the train for such a long time after the Reapings.
Scheduling Reaping Day was a bit of a hassle, he imagined as he stared into the night, gathering his words and nerves.
Why am I nervous? It’s Catnip. We’ve been friends for years. She knows me. She trusts me…doesn’t she?
His heart gave a hard double-thump in his chest as he went to the door that he knew was hers—he’d found out before dinner where his Tributes were sleeping. Mentors needed to know, right? Holding his breath, he knocked softly. “You awake?” He let out the breath and drew a new one in without any sound. There was a barely discernible rustle before the door was unlocked. “Hey,” he whispered into the dark space that appeared as she opened the door.
“Gale?” She frowned before backing away; he could see her shadowed expression even as she beckoned him in. “Come in,” she whispered. “Are you okay? Is something wrong?”
He blew out a breath as he entered her room. “I’m sorry…were you, uh, sleeping?”
“Tonight?” She looked at him as if he were insane. “No. Too nervous.” She waved vaguely at the chair next to the narrow bed.
He lowered himself into it. It was a small room, but compared to what he knew Katniss had in the Seam? It was luxurious. Soft mattress, freshened air, a private bathroom, mahogany furniture. “I thought you might be. I just wanted to talk to you. I would have given…well…not my right arm, maybe, but my best boots to have had you with me to talk to last year,” he confessed to the girl now sitting cross-legged on the bed.
She offered him a crooked smile tinged with disbelief. “Well, you did really well even without me. But,” she went on softly, plucking at the blanket on the bed, “I don’t know if I’ll do as well.”
The train slowed. “Five,” a quiet, feminine voice said through the unobtrusive speaker in the ceiling.
“District Five? Is that where we are, now?” Katniss asked, frowning up at the speaker.
“Yeah. It’s a fast train. You should get some sleep. We’ll be in the Capitol before noon tomorrow, I think, unless something goes wrong.” He took a breath before holding out one hand to her. “But honest, Catnip, I think the most wrong thing is having to be your Mentor for this. I don’t know how I’m going to do it.”
She took his hand slowly, staring at it as she started to tremble a little. “I’ll try to win.”
“I know you will.”
“But I don’t know if I can…can kill someone, Gale.” With a jerky lift of her head, she scooted a bit closer to him. “Animals, sure, but a person?”
Too many images flared behind his eyes and Gale dropped his gaze to their joined hands. “I won’t tell you it feels the same, Catnip, because it doesn’t. But the mechanics…are the same, basically.” He looked up again and waited until she was focused on him. “Aim and apply deadly force. Arrow, knife, or even your bare hands. Do what you have to do,” he said, ending on a whisper.
She swallowed audibly, but her fingers were cold. “That’s what you did, right?”
He sighed. “Yeah. It’s a bitch, Catnip, not gonna lie. But yeah.”
She blinked rapidly and withdrew her hand from his. “I’ll do my best.” She rubbed her hands together as if to warm them and he took them in his own again, bringing them up to his face, cupping his hands around hers, and blowing hot breath all over her fingers. She made a startled sound and he suppressed a small smile.
After lowering their hands, he kept them in his own as leaned forward, elbows on knees. “Part of the Mentor job is to help you do well for the interview with Flickerman, you know?” She nodded quickly. “I wanted to let you know,” he said slowly, “that they might try to surprise you or unsettle you.”
“Like when they asked if you had a girlfriend in your interview last year?”
“You remember that?” he blurted, blushing and letting go of her hands. His had gone all hot and sweaty with the memory of that interview and the way Caesar Flickerman’s smile had seemed playful but predatory.
“So tell me, Gale, do you have a special girl back home in Twelve?”
Gale had blushed, despite all efforts at appearing nonchalant. “I don’t have a girlfriend, if that’s what you’re asking,” he said over the pounding of his heart. He wouldn’t have put it past the Capitol spies to have monitors imbedded in the chairs on the stage, at that point.
“Really? Handsome fellow like you? I don’t believe it.” Caesar had leaned forward, almost as if he were flirting with him, which unsettled Gale to no small degree.
His memories of Katniss spun in his mind. “A man likes to keep some things private,” he’d finally said.
“A ha! I knew it! Well, if you win, you know, I imagine that could change for you and your private person,” the host said, his voice sliding with all kinds of innuendo.
In Katniss’s room as the train stopped in District 5, Gale nodded and kept her gaze with his own. “Yeah, and then you…well…kinda grabbed me when I got off the train.”
She held up a hand. “I am so sorry for that.”
He laughed a little, but his limbs were thrumming with all the things he wanted to do, to say, so he pushed himself up from the chair and paced the two steps he could on the small bit of floor allotted to the room. “Don’t be, Katniss,” he said after he’d found his voice again. He paused and dragged a hand through his hair as he looked down at her. “I wasn’t. Not even a little bit.”
“Gale Hawthorne, I practically jumped you.” She shook her head and shifted to lean against the headboard of the bed, her eyes trained on the wall opposite. “I was just so relieved to see you home, you know? After watching you for all those days…”
“I liked it,” he confessed with a shrug, returning to the chair and moving it to see her better under the recessed lighting on the wall. “The jumping me part, not the being broadcast all over Panem part.” He shook his head. “That…I wish I could keep you out of it.”
She went very still. “You…liked it?”
He didn’t recognize the tone of her voice and wasn’t sure what to say in answer. Was she angry? Worried? Frightened? Nervous? He didn’t know…and he thought he knew just about everything a guy could know about Katniss Everdeen. “I did,” he said after a long breath. Honest. He had to be honest. Time was short, though. Getting to see her alone again like this before the Games was a toss up and, as the two of them had both proven, the odds were not in their favor. “I’ve…thought about it, a lot, since then, too.”
She blinked a few times and turned to look at him. Finally. “You have?” She pushed a lock of hair from her face and looked embarrassed. Like the girls in school used to look, back when he was interested more in getting any girl’s attention instead of focusing on Katniss.
Encouraged, he moved to take her nearest hand in his own, though his mouth was dry and his heart was racing again. “Yep. But this is the thing, and,” he continued, squeezing her hand lightly, “I do not regret it for myself for a minute, but you might. Because that was played all over Panem, of course, like the Victors’ homecomings are every year.”
“They make it like it’s a huge deal,” she added, her tone rebellious. He liked that she was still rebellious. “That you were home and safe and that was the happy ending of the Hunger Games that year. But it wasn’t.” With a grimace she shook her head. “You’ve hardly been home at all, it seems like.”
“Hate to break it to you, Catnip, but being a Victor isn’t all about the big house.”
She snorted and relaxed more. “Right. So, you mentioned the interview.”
He nodded slowly and tried to relax back into his own chair. “They might bring last year up. Flickerman is…very good at his job. And his job is to show you off and, really, he wants the audience to like you. He’ll probably ask you about why you volunteered.”
Katniss let out a small sound before clamping her jaws shut and nodding.
He continued. “They might ask if you’ve got someone at home, waiting for you. They want people to be cheering for you, understand that. And you volunteering, well, I bet that’s already news all over Panem.”
“Seriously.” He smiled crookedly. “You were so brave. You are so brave, Katniss.” His breath caught, but he mastered himself in a moment. “I’ll do everything I can to help you.”
She turned fully to study his face and he could practically feel her focus as if her fingertips were stroking his skin. It was unnerving but also something he could see himself enjoying for an inappropriately long time. “All right.” She dropped her head. “So that’s why you came tonight? Pep talk?”
He chuckled. “Well, not entirely. I just…really wanted to see you. We haven’t had as much time, not this whole year. I didn’t know that being a Victor would take me away from home so often.”
“Yeah. I’ve missed you, Gale. A lot.”
“Same. And it’s going to be crazy when we get to the Capitol and then you’ll be training and showing off for the bigwigs and then…”
“The Games,” she finished for him on a whisper. “Yeah.” After clearing her throat, she nodded. “Thanks, Gale.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
She tossed her head. “Of course.”
He’d had time to think about this—not for this situation, but with this particular girl—and he knew he’d have to put his own wishes and feelings out there because she might not be ready to even think of having feelings of her own, yet. She was two years younger than he, had been taking care of her family since her father had died, and had never been interested in any boy at school or the Seam, as far as he was aware. Not even Peeta Mellark, with his blond hair and blue eyes, had apparently garnered any attention from her; the pair of Tributes been stiff as boards at the Reaping.
“Would you consider being my girlfriend? We could wait until this is over—I don’t want you to have to lie or put yourself in more danger—but would you?” He tried not to be obvious as he held his breath to wait for her answer.
Her face had gone still as she studied him as if he were a new puzzle or skill she wanted to learn. “I—me? Really? But what about Madge and Sarah-Anne? I thought you were going with one of them.”
He took a deep, hopefully quiet, breath of relief. She hadn’t laughed or refused. “Not for more than a year. Just wanted to wait for you.” He swallowed. “We can’t just now, like I said. Effie told me about a year where there was a, a relationship between a Mentor and his Tribute and they…they sabotaged the Tribute during the Games.”
“What?” She clutched at the pale blue top she was wearing. “That’s—”
“I know. So we have to be careful.”
“Like you said.” She nodded in a strangely even manner. “What would they do to you?” she whispered.
He went cold just thinking about it. “I, I have a lot of family…”
Their eyes met with a sharp, edged electricity in the air. “I’ll be careful,” she promised. “You be careful too, all right?”
“Four,” the intercom announced.
“Damn, already?” Gale groused, glaring balefully up at the speaker in the ceiling. “I better go, Catnip.”
“Yeah. Still won’t get any sleep,” she said lowly as she rolled off her bed to gain her feet. “Will you?”
“I might try. Got a few hours. If I’m late to breakfast, you’ll know why.”
She smiled as she opened the door for him. “Okay. Thank you.”
“Goodnight, Catnip,” he murmured, slipping past her and letting his fingers skim the skin on her arm as he did so.
“Night,” she whispered.
He thought he might have heard another door close as he left the small passenger-compartment area, but when he looked back, no one was there. He ignored the twinge he got at the back of his neck; he was preoccupied with thinking about Katniss.
That was probably Catnip making sure she got rid of me, he decided with a smile he didn’t have to hide.
Katniss Everdeen might be his girlfriend in a few weeks…if he could keep her alive.
Chapter Four: Prep Day
By the time Gale emerged from the shower in the morning, sunlight had burst brightly into his sleeping compartment. He dressed in what he considered to be among his best clothes, because they’d arrive in the Capitol shortly and he wanted to make sure he represented his District well. Black trousers, gray collarless shirt, heavy black vest that he left unbuttoned, though it fit him quite well either way. He looked serious, dangerous, and focused.
Haymitch was waiting for him outside his door. “Well, hey, it’s sleepin’ beauty,” the older man drawled. “The kids are in the lounge already,” he went on to say, eyeing him speculatively. “Dunno if they got the whole Accept your imminent demise message, though.”
“The trainers will make sure they hear it loud and clear, I’m sure,” Gale said on a sigh. “Where are we?”
“Train stopped overnight in Seven. That hadn’t been the plan, but Johanna Mason—from the 71st Games, remember her?”
“Axes. The woman was like a Viking.”
Haymitch nodded with a sharp snort. “Exactly. So, she’s one of their Mentors, and apparently she was a bit hard to find after the Reaping.” Seeing Haymitch’s suggestively quirked eyebrow, Gale motioned for him to go on with the story. “Well, she’s very well connected in Seven, and the people there’ll do anything for her.”
“I met her last March. She had an entourage,” Gale commented, sliding his hands into his pockets.
Haymitch barked out a laugh. “Sounds about right! So, they found her and she wasn’t, erm, ready to get on the train so we stuck around until she could be dragged aboard.”
“Kicking and screaming?”
“That’ll work for an explanation.” Haymitch then leaned in closer, as if he were brushing something from Gale’s shoulder. “She’s with us.”
Gale made an affirmative noise before pushing the other Mentor away. “Enough! Jeez, Haymitch. I did use a mirror.”
“Oh, I can see that. Let’s go scare the kids.”
“I’m right behind you.”
Oranges. He smelled oranges immediately upon entering the lounge in their car. There was a pitcher of orange juice, fresh oranges in a bowl, and even an orange-glazed pastry near to hand. Gale skipped all that and went straight for the coffee, offering half a smile to Katniss and Peeta. Oddly enough, they were dressed in the same outfits they’d had at the Reaping and Gale remembered how that had felt, last year, to get to the Capitol and all the shiny people there, while he was dressed in faded denim.
He caught Katniss’s eye and lifted his chin in greeting. Even though it was just the four of them, he felt like he needed the practice. And he wanted to get Haymitch off his back for the next few days. And he didn’t want Katniss to feel awkward or obliged or anything other than positive toward him.
“Why aren’t you eating?” Haymitch demanded of the Tributes, crossing to the table and piling food on a plate. Mostly, the older man drank coffee with a splash of bourbon from a flask he’d had in a pocket. Blond hair looking as if it hadn’t seen a comb in days, Haymitch gave off an entirely disreputable air. This was, the man had confirmed days before, a ruse, meant to make too-sharp Capitoline eyes focus elsewhere. It was still disheartening.
Especially when Gale could see Katniss and Peeta lose confidence and hope, right before his eyes.
Peeta cleared his throat. “We were waiting for you,” he said in answer to Haymitch’s loud question. “Trying to be polite, you know?’
“Polite?” Haymitch snorted and stabbed at a sausage patty with a butter knife to bring it to his plate. As he did so, Peeta took a seat opposite and started to serve himself. “No one’s gonna win the Games by bein’ polite, Peeta. So forget that.”
“How are we going to win, then?” Katniss asked, sliding next to Peeta and also staring at Haymitch. Gale saw the Tributes exchange looks that seemed to indicate affirmation of one another.
“Like he did,” Haymitch said, pointing his knife at Gale.
Peeta cocked his head and studied Gale, a furrow developing between his eyebrows. “So you should be talking to us, then. Tell us how you did it. Any advice?”
Gale opened his mouth but Haymitch jumped in with both bare feet. “He knew how to be ruthless, like I already told you. But he also knew how to be nice.”
Katniss pushed out a loud breath. “Great. Nice and ruthless.”
Peeta shot her a grin. “I’ll be nice and you be ruthless.”
The pair exchanged nods and then met Gale’s gaze in tandem. He felt as if he’d lost his legs in there, somewhere, and was glad to be sitting down. “Nice and ruthless,” he managed to repeat, wondering if this was Katniss’s answer to his question from the night before. Was she rejecting him? Focusing on the Games first? Or was she more interested in Peeta than he’d ascertained?
Get your head out of the romance thing, Hawthorne, he admonished himself as he poured a cup of coffee and added some cream to it. Games first makes perfect sense. For everyone.
Peeta took a sip from his glass of orange juice. “We have to get Sponsors, right? To help us?”
“Yep,” Gale answered, wordlessly asking Katniss to pass him the bacon platter. “Getting someone to send medicine if you’re wounded would keep you alive.”
“Or a canteen of water, or a few matches,” Haymitch added before taking a bite out of a pastry. “They’ll save your life,” he went on, while chewing.
The other Mentor had lived alone too long, in Gale’s estimation, but he said nothing about it. Instead, he tried to explain things just a bit. “You need to be strong, worthy of the support of a Sponsor. Most of them are just in it to watch the spectacle. You know this, both of you. You’re old enough to have watched and remembered.”
“I can’t be…nice,” Katniss said, her gaze piercing him with its combination of strength and vulnerability. “I, I don’t make friends. Prim makes friends.” She jerked her head to stare at the sofa in the lounging part of the lounge car.
“Our families are friends,” Gale reminded her, wanting to reach for her hand as he had the night before, but knowing it would be a bad idea. “You do all right.”
The train began to slow down noticeably and Peeta straightened his spine. “Are we there? Are we?” Without waiting for an answer, he pushed back his chair and all but bounded to the window. “Wow. This is amazing, Katniss. C’mere!” He beckoned, looking for all the world as if he was taking a holiday to the Capitol and not sentenced to a short, brief time as a Tribute.
Win or lose, this was no holiday for anyone.
Katniss eyed Peeta with obvious suspicion before rising slowly from her chair to join him at the window. “That’s amazing,” Gale heard her murmur.
Haymitch finished his coffee. “Hey, Effie will be back here in a minute.”
“Yeah.” He gestured for Gale to lean in. “Stick with Peeta today, all day. I’ll stay with Katniss. It’ll look…”
“Less like there’s an inappropriate relationship, I get it.”
No hint of inebriation lingered in Haymitch Abernathy’s sharp gaze. “We still have to pick one, Hawthorne. And I don’t know which one that’s gonna be, yet.” When Gale opened his mouth to protest, Haymitch glared at him. “Neither. Do. You.”
“Well, good morning!” Effie Trinket burst into the room in a swirl of perfume. Roses, Gale thought. “Nice to see everyone up and smiling,” she said, stepping quickly to the table, picking up an orange, and then joining Katniss and Peeta at the window. “Isn’t it wonderful? I love coming home to the Capitol. It’s so reassuring to see all we have done as a nation, don’t you think?” She didn’t give them time to answer but spun on one heel to face the Mentors. “Are we ready?” Eyeing the table, she shook her head, but Gale didn’t know what she found to disapprove of; there was still food on it, and no one had stabbed the table, this year.
“That’s mahogany!” she’d scolded him when he and Fern had had it with Haymitch’s intoxication over breakfast last year.
“Staff will be getting your luggage, you two, so you focus on keeping our Tributes safe all the way to the Tower, all right?” Effie’s color theme that morning was yellow, the color being painted around her eyes like a sunflower or something. It was disconcerting when she blinked with nervous rapidity. “Remember, no talking to anyone today,” she added, spinning again to address Katniss and Peeta. “They’re already talking about you.”
Katniss frowned at the older woman. “Why?”
“Because of you, Katniss Everdeen! I’ve already heard that the two of you could have had your pick of Stylists, this year. It’s so exciting!”
“Look!” Peeta called, his voice vibrating. “Look, we’re here!”
The train slowed to a stop and Gale watched Peeta’s face light up as he waved to the parasites—residents of the Capitol and all who were vacationing for the Hunger Games—with patent enthusiasm.
I have got to talk to him. Prepare him for the interview. They’ll eat him alive.
“And since you’re from District Twelve, you get the penthouse. Isn’t that grand?” Effie gushed as she showed Katniss and Peeta around the suite they would all be sharing during the Games. After the Tributes went to the Arena, their team remained in the suite as long as they had a Tribute in the Games.
Haymitch rolled his eyes, trying his damnedest to banish the memories of so many teens having heard the same spiel. Whether it had been Effie or the older lady who had preceded her—Jonquil, he thought her name had been, a tired woman who wished only for the bottom of her own bottle—the words seemed to be the same every year.
But this year, there was Hawthorne. Well, he was doing his best to save the kid’s ass again, this year. What the hell? Even when Haymitch had a Victor, he was still trying to keep ’em alive. Still, he did his best. He hated the Hunger Games with the fire of a thousand suns and he would do everything he could to stop them, even if it killed him.
He leaned against one of the plate glass windows of the main lounge in the penthouse. He would give that much to the Games organizers: the accommodations were impressive. There was once a custom, back before there was a Panem, that the condemned would get a last meal of their favorite foods. Or, at least, of really good food. On the presumption that even a criminal should get a good meal before they bought it, Haymitch guessed. Bet some murderer in that older world didn’t get a whole penthouse and full spread of all of the best food known to mankind, though.
With a snort, he pushed himself from the wall. “Time’s a wastin’, Effie.”
“Of course!” She eyed the kids and shooed Hawthorne out of the way. Which, Haymitch supposed, was all right. The young Mentor had turned into Mellark’s shadow as soon as they left the train. Haymitch hadn’t heard what they’d been saying—he’d been trailing behind Effie and Everdeen—but there’d been body language enough to go on. There was some initial hostility between them and he’d wanted to smack both of them on the back of the head. He’d bet his last bottle of white liquor that part was all about the girl. Man’d have to be blind not to see that.
But then, they’d smoothed it over and Hawthorne was pointing out the sights and whatnot all the way to the Tower. As they neared the elevator, he caught them in the middle of a discussion about the showers, by all the holies.
Lives on the line. Games coming up in a matter of days, not to mention the need for a near perfect interview, and they were talking about how the showers worked.
He needed another drink, soon. And then he wanted to pass out and not worry about any of them until the parade. He wouldn’t get to, but a man could dream.
“Yeah, don’t worry about what you’re wearin’,” Gale told Katniss and Peeta as the suite’s door opened for the Prep Teams. Peeta had immediately tried smoothing the collar of his white shirt while Katniss had checked her buttons and the tie at the back of the faded blue dress. “They’ll be taking you down to get cleaned up and then you’ll meet with your Stylists.”
“I’ve seen them on the broadcasts. Some of them have been around as long as I have,” Katniss murmured. Gale didn’t know if she’d moved closer to him on purpose, but he pretended not to notice that she had. “But I haven’t seen these guys.”
Peeta shifted uncomfortably. “You know they always send the new ones to our District.”
“Yeah,” Katniss said.
Gale put his hands on their shoulders so that he was clearly supporting both of them equally. “They did all right with me, last year. We had a different pair, but I am sure they’ll do their best for you guys.”
Effie—now in a sleek silver ensemble that actually didn’t look half-bad, Gale guessed—performed enthusiastic introductions. “Ladies first, just like always! Katniss Everdeen, these lovely people are your Prep Team. They’ll be getting you all fixed up for tonight! This is Flavius and this is Octavia. Now, run along and let them make you beautiful!” She all but pushed Katniss into Octavia’s hands before motioning for the other pair to come forward. “And here’s your team, Peeta! Here are Otho and Martina! I just know they’ll have you spruced up in no time!” She giggled a little as the Prep Teams ushered Katniss and Peeta to the double doors.
Katniss shot him a grave look and mouthed, Beautiful? Me?
He grinned and nodded, adding a silent Amazing to his answer.
Effie hustled them out with her customary fluttering, her voice echoing over the many planes and angles of the foyer as the Prep Teams, Tributes, and Escort all hurried to the Preparation Level of the Tower. Remembering how intrusive it had felt to him the year before, Gale could only sigh.
His breath seemed too powerful in the silent suite. “Now what, boss?”
“Boss, am I? Never know it to watch you, Hawthorne.” Haymitch stretched before collapsing onto one long line of the sectional sofa. The sofa was placed so that all those seated on all of its sections had a good view of the television screen. This would be their focus far too often during the next…well…until it was over. “Now what? Well, now we wait. You know they’ll be getting the full treatment. Worse for the girls, as I have heard tell before.”
Gale winced a bit and let himself collapse on another part of the sectional. His whole body was tense, every muscle ready to fight or run, it seemed to him. Add to that, the fierce need he felt to protect Katniss by staying away from her when all he wanted was to run away with her…
He was exhausted. Physically, mentally, emotionally.
He blew out a breath. “Fern said it was pretty awful.”
Haymitch scrubbed at his face with his hands, looking every month of his forty years. “Was glad for Effie bein’ here, I’ll tell you that.” He stilled and then glared balefully. “Do not tell her I said that.”
“Not in a million years.”
The men exchanged mirrored, slanted smiles. “So. Next. You and I need to get presentable.” He rolled up and stared at his scuffed shoes. “Boggles the mind, don’t it? You’ve got some pretty decent clothes, but we also want to see what they’re wearing, right now. And we should check out the news and listen to some gossip.”
Gale scrubbed at his own face. “Right. Okay.” It occurred to him that they should also, perhaps, meet up with some of the people they’d talked about back in Twelve, and he opened his mouth to say so.
Haymitch—maybe the man was a mind reader—cut him off with one angled brow and a grimace. “Hey, if you didn’t get a chance to eat? Do that now. Everything here in the suite is paid for.”
“Right. Thanks.” He turned back to the dining area, but Haymitch didn’t follow. Gale pointed a finger. “You, too. It’s gonna be a long day.”
There was a collection of finger-foods left in what served as a kitchen in the Penthouse Suite. With basic (awful, in Gale’s opinion) colors of pale green and slate gray (didn’t they have enough gray in Twelve?) the kitchen was not decorated to encourage chatting over a beer and sandwiches. “So where do we go for gossip, then?” Gale asked, picking a pre-made sandwich provided by the Games. Beef and cheese on dark rye. Nice.
Haymitch opened a bottle of beer and peered at it through the indirect lighting. “Where do you go when you’re here visiting…friends?” he countered.
With a grimace, Gale put his sandwich on a plate. “Usually private parties. President Snow has…events.”
“Yeah.” Haymitch guzzled half his beer in one go. “I remember. Damn. Right. Okay, so on Games Days, they’ll be…congregatin’, for lack of a better word. Near the public screens, you know? To see an’ be seen, and see who they wanna invite back for later, you know?”
Gale shuddered. “I know. Glad I’m working.” No playing Capitol Sex Toy when he was serving as a Mentor. That wasn’t a directive in writing—just as the idea of prostituting oneself wasn’t in writing—but it was understood all the same.
An hour later, he felt as if he had once again landed on an alien planet. “Look, I know that couple,” he murmured to Haymitch while inclining his head toward one of the most skilled cryosurgeons in Panem. “She’s Dr. Smith and her husband is Mr. Grigson, owner of the Vintage House.”
“Smith.” Haymitch actually appeared surprised. “Is that her real name?”
Dr. Melinda Smith was entirely ordinary in appearance, having short, dark blond hair and pale blue eyes. She reminded him a bit of Peeta Mellark, actually. “That’s what they told me. She’s very keen on Better Living Through Freezing or something.”
The other Mentor snorted and directed his focus elsewhere. “Have you met Ginger and Marston Potter? Marston is also in pharmaceuticals. Has a huge lab and a staff with a whole mess of famous researchers from all over.” Haymitch nodded when the Potters turned and noticed them. “Money. Meds. His wife is…”
“I’ve seen her. She’s a speechwriter for Snow.”
“Yeah. We need to talk to them. Ready?” Haymitch lifted one finger and smiled briefly at the Potters. “Let’s go.”
Gale swallowed down his nerves. He had to. This was his job. The crap he had to put up with as an unofficial Capitol Whore was just a nasty sideline he did to stay alive and keep his family safe. This was the job of Mentoring. “Am I going to need another shower after this?” he murmured.
“Not today.” Haymitch seemed to lighten and brighten all at once. “Well hello, Mr. and Mrs. Potter. Imagine seeing you here.”
Marston Potter had his head shaved save for one long, dark blue braid that began at the top of his scalp and ended at the middle of his back. He was just under six feet in height and had chosen a white suit that day, with lapels that matched his hair color exactly. His eyes were shielded behind light-lenses—contact lenses worn in place of sunglasses—so he appeared to have black irises. His voice—heard in many voice-overs, making Gale think that the man did voice-acting for fun, perhaps—rumbled up from his chest when he greeted Haymitch and presented his wife to Gale.
“Gale Hawthorne! Congratulations on your Victory last year,” Dr. Potter said, one arm around his wife. “Sorry I haven’t been able to meet you in the interim. This is my wife, Ginger.”
Unlike her husband, Ginger came forward and shook hands with him. She was wearing what he considered to be the epitome of Capitoline fashion: extravagant detail. About six inches shorter than Marston, Ginger’s deep red hair was piled high on her head in the shape of what looked like a woven basket, with tiny, sparkling stones throughout. Her skin was pale as paper, her eyes looked to be a natural forest green in color, framed by eyelashes that reflected the colors of the stones in the…hair-basket. She was wearing a black pantsuit with gemstone buttons and black, stiletto-heeled boots. And she was still six inches shorter than her husband.
“Mrs. Potter, a pleasure,” Gale managed to say. “I’ve heard a lot about you, in my time here.”
She smiled easily before eyeing him up and down in a way that was far too familiar to him. “Well, now, Mr. Hawthorne. So nice of you to allow Haymitch to drag you out here, today.” She turned her charm on the older Mentor. “Shame on you, sir, for neglecting us these last years. The two of you should come around, after the Games are over. Marston, give them our codes.”
With an indulgent smile, Marston Potter flipped a silver-edged card at Haymitch, who caught it with a flattered expression.
Gale didn’t know what to say, so he faked it. “Haymitch wanted to make sure we met, Mrs. Potter, Mr. Potter. He’s had nothing but good things to say about you.” It was close; they’d been mentioned in passing back in Victor’s Village. “Will you be at the parade tonight?”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” Marston assured him with a smile. One of his canine teeth appeared to have a sapphire set in it. Gale managed not to stare. “Please, find us if you need us, Mr. Hawthorne, Haymitch. Happy Hunger Games.”
Ginger blew kisses at both the Mentors before winding her arm around her husband’s and walking languidly away.
“Well, that was interesting,” Haymitch murmured, pocketing the card. “I’ll see if I can find a muffler for any talks with them, though.”
“Good idea. Where to next?”
“A bar. I need a drink.” He checked his pocket watch, though, and sighed dramatically. “But we have to hit one more location before we do that, Hawthorne.”
“Schmooze Central. The Plaza. Let’s go.”
The world was a mad kaleidoscope of color as they wove between slow-moving pairs of people on the way to The Plaza. Enormous screens showed the latest news interests, gossip items, and advertisements all around the square, at a variety of levels. Subtitles scrolled on the screens as well, just in case someone missed something.
“Damn, the Reapings,” Gale said out the corner of his mouth. “I missed all of this last year.”
“You were in all of this last year. Look, Two’s volunteers. They all had to show up and put their names in.”
“The bowls are practically empty, though,” Gale blurted. The bowls from Twelve had more slips of paper than lived in the entire District.
“You’ve seen this before, Hawthorne. They show the Reapings every year.”
The screens shifted and the Escort for Two—her name was Sophie Towers and she’d been Two’s Escort as long as Gale could remember—swept long, dark fingers through the transparent bowls before flipping up one.
“And for our girls, we have…Clove!”
Gale stared at the largest screen as cheers erupted all around them. The citizens of the Capitol were exempt from the Hunger Games and so were able to enter into the insanity, the crude viciousness of it, without personal risk. To them, this was a game. A betting match. A chance to experience vicarious thrills by risking money or reputations. Not their lives. Never their lives.
“And for the boys, we have…”
“I volunteer!” A strong male voice called from the screen. Subtitles were already filling in the details from the Reapings of the day before. Cato: District 2
Clove—a whip-thin girl who looked to be about fifteen, maybe—sported a fierce grin as she stood before Two’s Justice Center with its expert masonry on display. It looked like an ancient castle from a book. The girl thrust a fist into the air as if she were holding a hammer and the potential Tributes gathered before her cheered.
Cato—tall and blond with an arrogant sneer—strode up the center aisle, flanked by the inevitable Peacekeepers, as if he were lord of all he surveyed. He nodded to Sophie Towers and the officials who sat nearby. There was a slew of Mentors clustered on their dais as well, and they all nodded at their volunteer.
“Lovely, lovely,” Sophie said with her warm tones. “Shake hands now, and we’ll let everyone else go home for the day!”
Cato and Clove shook hands, grinning at one another as if they were about to undertake an adventure, not about to enter an arena where they’d have to kill or be killed.
Did I look like that, last year? No, I couldn’t have. Fern was so slender, I felt protective of her immediately. I wasn’t smiling, either. Couldn’t. All I could do not to lose what breakfast I’d eaten…
The screen flashed with the “War, Terrible War” clip that President Snow insisted be played on every station all during the Hunger Games at regular intervals. Then, the Reaping Review moved to District 3 and the process repeated itself.
Surprised to hear that voice in that place, Gale darted a frown to Haymitch before finding his Victor Smile to put on for the woman that had hailed him. “Good afternoon, Aspen.” Aspen Tier was in her thirties, looked about twenty-one, and wore a spiky dress of red silk with black quills around the hem. Her hair had been colored to match, but her eyes—a distinct shade of light brown—were entirely natural. He’d asked in an intimate moment two months before and she’d told him so, anyway. They shook hands and he introduced her to Haymitch.
“Oh, Haymitch Abernathy, I’ve heard of you,” Aspen said in something near a purr. Gale suppressed a reactive smirk as she continued. “Do you still run around shoeless? I’ve heard stories about your…feet.”
Haymitch snorted. “I bet I know who you’re talking to, Ms. Tier. You were just a little thing when I was starting out here.” He smiled, though, and shook hands with the woman. “Doesn’t look like you’ve aged a day.”
Aspen smiled and rolled her shoulders. “Well, you know. Clean living.” She bowed her head for a moment and then looked up at Gale once more. “I look forward to seeing you after the Games.”
Gale didn’t know what to say to that; he was doing his job as Mentor, at the moment. An acknowledged role. Honorable and public. No one ever talked about the other role as Capitol Whore that so many new Victors—and some not so new—were forced into. Once more, the experienced Mentor covered for him. “We’re hoping, Ms. Tier, that Hawthorne, here, will be accompanying his Victor on Tour.”
Relief slid under Gale’s skin with subtle relief. “Right.”
“Oh, yes. Your Volunteer. Well, with you as Mentors, I’m sure she’ll put on a good show. Should I place wagers?”
“I wouldn’t like to say, Aspen,” Gale said smoothly, slipping into that other role for a moment. “But keep your eye on her. I’m sure we’ll all be pleased with her bravery and strength.”
“Indeed. I will be watching the Parade this evening. I’m in the fourth box, if you find yourself at a loose end,” she added with another smile at Gale. “Happy Hunger Games!”
“Keep smiling, Hawthorne,” Haymitch advised under his breath as they watched the Reaping from District 4. “Confidence, not arrogance, will help us right now.” Gale smiled and nodded and pointed at the screen as if they were all about watching the other Tributes.
Which they were, but also, they had to talk. “So do we talk to them?” he asked.
Smith and Grigson. Ginger and Marston Potter. Aspen Tier.
By the time they’d evaluated those that they’d met, three more people had approached them, all with smiles and invitations of one sort or another. “After all,” one of them remarked casually, “if both your Tributes are taken out right away, you’ll have plenty of time on your hands, won’t you?”
“They won’t be,” Gale asserted, feeling his muscles tighten with the need to punch the older, bearded man in the mouth. She won’t be!
The man held up a beringed hand. “Oh, there’s a chance, of course. After all, one of yours did Volunteer.” A hard light glittered in his dark eyes. “Neither of you did that much, did you?”
When Gale would have stomped off, Haymitch leaned against the white back of the bench they had appropriated in The Plaza. “I wouldn’t have even considered it,” he drawled. “Unlike some people, I have no wish to die.”
Gale blinked when their guest paled, made excuses, and left them.
“What the hell was that?” Gale whispered harshly, unable just then to keep his expression neutral.
“That, Gale Hawthorne, was a warning.” He glanced down at his watch and rose to his feet. “Time to get back. We’ll need to eat and freshen up before the Parade.”
Chapter Five: The Parade
“You look fine, Hawthorne, so get over here. We have to go.”
They took the elevator down to the ground floor. The basement of the Tower was where the Tributes would be training as of tomorrow, but that night, no one was working with any equipment. Instead, the Tributes were being tended to by their Stylists while all the biggest wigs of the Capitol found seats in boxes that lined the Avenue of the Tributes.
It was a scene out of an old comic book, Gale had often thought. Grand towers on either end of the Avenue, the way was paved with a distinctive pattern. All angles and edges, to contribute to the feeling of tension and order, which certainly was communicated. At the other end of the Avenue, President Coriolanus Snow was preparing to take his seat with the highest echelon dignitaries. Not far from them, Caesar Flickerman and Claudius Templesmith were already giving their pre-Parade commentary, their faces dominating every screen in Panem for the Parade of Tributes.
It was required viewing. Everyone in Panem had to bear witness to another collection of teens and children who would be sacrificed for a rebellion that had taken place before even their grandparents had been born. This year, even more than the year before, Gale felt infuriated and powerless.
Katniss was marked for sacrifice. His Katniss. He could not let her end like that.
He saw her, there with Peeta and their respective Stylists, down at the end of the waiting line of chariots. He felt his breath catch in his throat and resolutely did not look at Haymitch to catch his reaction to the costumes their Tributes were wearing.
District 12 was in charge of coal. Of fuel. Not sexy fuel like the power plants, but the dirty kind. The Stylists for their District usually dressed the Tributes like coal miners…to represent the people of their District. It was so common, so expected, that it was practically believed to be a rule. District 12 had to be the coalminers.
District 12 was also known to be the very last District chosen by Stylists, so they were generally offered the newest and greenest and most nervous of the Stylists to be employed for the Hunger Games. Gale had fully expected to see Katniss and Peeta decked out in overalls of one sort of another. Maybe Katniss might have had shorts on hers, or Peeta might have been shirtless—the younger man did have a great pair of shoulders. Gale himself had been sent to the Parade with only suspenders on his chest, holding up a pair of trousers. His Stylist had taken her sweet time oiling down his skin to make it appear hot and sweaty.
Gale had been well aware of how he’d appeared, and what that image had led to, for his Games and for Haymitch’s ability to get him help when he’d needed it. If his Stylist had been assigned to Katniss or Peeta, that would have been a good thing, in his estimation.
But the man down there right at the moment, the one who was checking the shoulders and the back of the legs of Katniss’s costume, was not his Stylist. He could see the man explaining something to Katniss and Peeta, something about their costume, perhaps.
Because that costume? Well, it needed an explanation.
“Well, that’s…different,” Haymitch murmured next to Gale.
Gale swallowed. “Yeah.” Katniss looked…breathtaking. There was no other word for it, he guessed. In what looked like a black bodysuit that could have been painted on, she looked nothing like the coal miners they saw year after awful year. Her hair, too, had been artfully styled, braided elaborately all over her head. A moment later, the Tributes had to take their places in the chariot, and he could not help watching how she moved. She was not comfortable; that was evident to a man who had been watching her for years as he had been, but she was entirely eye-catching.
The big screens flickered to life there in the staging area, but Gale still couldn’t look away from the chariot for his District. Peeta looked eager, but cautious. Katniss’s face was flat and expressionless. She didn’t trust anyone, it seemed, though she had at least spoken with the Stylist a minute ago. “Who is he?” he asked Haymitch.
“We were lucky,” the other Mentor replied, rocking back on his heels as the screens showed the blue-haired Flickerman start his descriptions of District 1’s Tributes. “Cinna asked for our District, Hawthorne. He wanted to work with Katniss, after the Reaping. He asked to be reassigned.”
“Well, damn. Sure hope he knew what he was doing.”
“Portia, too. They both asked to be assigned to our District.” He smacked Gale on the arm. “Maybe you are still making an impact.”
Gale choked. “I just wish we could stop it,” he said under his breath.
“Watch it. Okay, look, there they go.”
The chariots were moving slowly to the Avenue, and as they went, Gale kept his gaze on his Tributes. Peeta saw him and nodded, lifting his hand half-way. Reciprocating, he smiled a little. Encouraging the Tribute would be a plus, right? Haymitch hadn’t done it, but Haymitch had still acted like a drunken wretch until after the Games were over and Gale was in recovery.
Katniss glanced their way as well, and Gale offered her the same nod and smile he’d given Peeta, as the chariot rolled slowly at the end of the line. She nodded back, but he didn’t see her smile. Her smiles were rare…unless they were in the woods.
Would they get to return, the two of them? If she won, she wouldn’t need to hunt, but…he missed those times. Why that hit him so hard just at that moment he couldn’t have said, but he felt a sharp ache in his chest that nearly brought tears to his eyes.
Slowly, as if pulled by invisible strings, the Mentors from all the Districts gathered in the staging area after the chariots began the Parade. He knew some of the Mentors by sight, of course, and he’d seen Victors every year on the Games broadcasts, but it was a different experience standing on the same piece of cement floor.
There was an air amongst them, when they were congregated as a group; he’d noticed that on the train, though he had been preoccupied with his words and actions and hadn’t studied the other Mentors as closely as he ought to have, perhaps. There wasn’t a man or woman in that select group who had not killed another human being. Maybe more than one, but certainly at least one. It was a stain on what Gale thought of as his soul, and they each bore it. Combined with the further humiliations and obligations they were all subject to, there was always an undercurrent when Mentors gathered in a group.
He could understand why Haymitch drank.
His former Mentor mingled among the others, sometimes shaking hands, sometimes just nodding. While that was happening, though, Gale kept at least one eye on the screens as Katniss and Peeta rolled onto the Avenue. And caught fire!
A collective gasp echoed throughout the staging floor. Mentors and Stylists alike choked on their own tongues to see District 12 make the most incredible entrance of any District ever. The sleek black bodysuits had flame flaring off the backs! Both Katniss and Peeta were on fire and all of the Sponsors and spectators on the Avenue were on their feet cheering.
Gale couldn’t seem to tear his attention from them. Neither could Flickerman and Templesmith, though when the split screen showed their President’s ill-impressed gaze, it seemed as if some of the enthusiasm was dialed back.
“Gale, you should meet their Stylists,” Haymitch said, breaking into his fascination with the Tributes. Just as Peeta and Katniss thrust joined hands into the air and Flickerman gushed with amazement, Gale had to refocus. “This is Portia, Peeta’s Stylist, and this is Cinna, who’s working with Katniss.”
Portia was a brightly smiling black woman with yellow-hued hair that was shaped around her head rather like an umbrella. It certainly made her look distinctive, as did the bright reds and yellows of her ensemble. She was the colorful Stylist. Her counterpart, Cinna, was much more subdued. His skin was darker than Portia’s, his hair cropped closely to his head, but he sported multiple earrings and gilded eyeliner. His suit was a plain black with a red dress shirt, as somber an outfit as any he’d seen on any Stylist ever.
He shook both their hands. “Thank you, both of you. Peeta and Katniss look amazing.”
Portia beamed. “They’re really making a statement!”
Cinna nodded thoughtfully, watching as their Tributes flamed their way to the gathering in front of President Snow. “I saw her—Katniss—at her Reaping. Someone that brave deserves more than…the usual.”
Gale studied him. That kind of inventiveness and creativity could not have happened overnight. “Are those flames dangerous at all?”
Cinna’s smile was a little smug, a little fierce. “Not at all. They look it, though, don’t they?”
“They sure do,” Haymitch assured the Stylists. “We owe you.”
Both Cinna and Portia slid their entire focus to Haymitch for a long moment. “We’ll talk about reciprocity later,” Cinna murmured under cover of the other Mentors’ speculations.
Ah, Gale understood, and felt a jolt of energy surge down his spine. Could they really do it? There had to be a way to stop the damned Games!
He grimaced as he watched the President’s short speech. The man’s eyes were dead, like a corpse’s.
Dead President Snow. He could do that. He could, couldn’t he?
Not tonight, Hawthorne. Now, we’ve got a job to do.
The chariots returned and all of the Mentors hurried to their Tributes. Gale didn’t feel in the least conspicuous as he talked up the impact he felt Katniss and Peeta had made, praising Cinna and Portia as he did so. If anyone was listening via some secret device, he would hear a Mentor doing his job.
And if he had to keep shifting his focus from Katniss to Peeta…well…she was his friend, right?
They moved as a group away from the chariot, just as the other District teams were doing. “We’ll get you out of the costumes,” Cinna said, his tone smooth and warm. “And send you back up to your floor.”
“You’ll join us, of course,” Haymitch said, meeting Cinna’s eye.
“Of course. Thank you.” Portia grinned at them all in an expansive manner before putting one hand on Peeta’s shoulder to lead him away.
“Do they have names, here?” Katniss whispered to Gale while unobtrusively nodding toward the red-headed Avox who was waiting upon them at the dinner table an hour after the Parade.
The…servants, former rebels, slaves…were a background concern for Gale, in his view for how his world could be better. Never seen in the outlying Districts, they were part of the invisible workings of the Capitol. “I’ve never asked, Catnip,” he whispered back, relishing the quick flash of amusement with which she responded to her nickname. They were standing a bit back from the dining table, while the rest of the team settled around it. Effie was there, of course, though he’d missed her at the Parade assembly. She and Haymitch were sniping at each other, just like always. Gale had wondered, last year, if that was their way of flirting.
It could happen. But he’d never asked either of them. Wouldn’t be prudent.
Cinna and Portia were talking to Peeta about something or other. Gale had heard something about their training schedule?
Katniss seemed reticent about joining the rest of them. “What’s the matter, anyway?” he asked her quietly, appreciating the way the fancy chandelier lights caught in the new waves and highlights of her hair. The Prep Team had sent bleached streaks through his the year before, though they’d grown out easily enough and he’d cut them himself, but there wasn’t a lot that was off the table when it came to enhancing a Tribute’s appearance.
She pressed her lips together, looked up into his eyes for a moment, then dropped her own gaze. “Can we talk later, maybe?”
He nodded without even thinking about it. “Tonight? After everyone’s…”
“Of course.” He remembered all of Haymitch’s cautions. “I’ll find a good spot, okay?”
They moved as one to the table, then, and he pulled out a chair for her as his dad had taught him, years ago, to do for his mom. Katniss seemed surprised and flashed him a glare. “What are you doing?”
“Being a gentleman like my dad taught me,” he said, making sure he was being overly formal so that even Peeta chuckled. “Didn’t your folks teach you that, Peeta?”
“Oh yeah,” the baker’s son said, nodding and smiling in that way he had that was already being noticed. “I got Portia’s chair for her, didn’t I?”
“He surely did,” Portia chimed in, lifting a water glass in salute.
Haymitch was sitting at the head of the table, indicating wordlessly that Gale should take the foot. This way, they could see all the faces, all the time.
Peeta was nodding at something, filling his plate quite well, but he had a vacant look to his face before he took a bite. Concerned, Gale was about to say something, but Effie spoke first.
“Eat up, you two! This is so delicious! I know this is all very new and difficult, but right now? You should enjoy what you can. You have the nicest suite in the Tower, and you can even have dessert! They don’t let them in District 1, I heard.” She was arranging her food on her plate with meticulous care as she rattled on. And on.
She wasn’t eating, either.
This was a marked difference from how Gale remembered the 73rd Hunger Games. Tension was like a blanket hanging over them, invisible but unmistakable. It seemed that Cinna and Portia were doing their best to pretend it wasn’t there, Effie spoke as if reading a script read several times too often at a backcountry play, and Haymitch was brooding, drinking only water, and occasionally stabbing a piece of meat with his fork.
Gale didn’t know if he should be trying to bring in polite conversation or move on to Games business. Because there was lots to talk about. Training began the following morning. They would be on their own, there.
After a moment, he went for the vegetables and made himself take two bites before he decided to just go for it. Ignoring that invisible blanket of tension overhead, he made his tone deliberately businesslike. “You’ll want a good dinner,” he advised. “Tomorrow’s the first of three long days. Training can be brutal.”
Haymitch angled a brow at him before waving him on and letting him run with it. He was about to, when Peeta dropped his silverware with a clatter to the tabletop. “How do they expect us to eat?”
“Peeta,” Effie began, her tone conciliatory. She’d likely done this many times before. “You’ll be fine, really. You know you all start on the same foot for the Games. All with the same training opportunities.”
The young man pushed back from the table and swept his gaze over them all. “You know what my mom said, yesterday? She said this year could be the very first year Twelve won two Games in a row. Last year,” he went on, eyes dark and glittering with emotion as he spoke mostly to Gale, “she cheered you on as if you were her son and told me it was a good thing I hadn’t been Reaped. I’d never have been able to do what you did. And she was right!”
“Peeta…” Katniss turned her chair and, her voice soft as if she were coaxing an animal out from the brush, said, “She wants you to win! Of course she does! Why’re you so angry?” The others supported her, their words filling the air between the table and the tension.
“She didn’t mean me! She meant you, Katniss!”
“Me?” Katniss jerked as if slapped.
Peeta started pacing and everyone decided that dinner was on intermission. The Avox in the corner was watching avidly, as well, as Peeta spoke. “Did you know that Katniss can hunt?” he asked the room at large, but he ended up focused on Gale. “You do. I know you do. My dad says she hits squirrels square in the eye. He’s bought game from you, too,” he went on, heedless of the fact that he was basically saying Katniss had broken the law on numerous occasions. “You hunted together. I know you did.”
Which was true, and Gale would always be proud of hunting for his family, hunting with Katniss, but still. This was the Capitol. He didn’t address it, though, because Peeta’s statement shifted everyone’s concentration.
“You’ll want to get to a bow if you can, then, but not tomorrow,” Haymitch stated, leaning back in his chair with his face in hard lines and lips thin as he spoke. “You want to keep that hidden from the rest of the Tributes. Save it until the third day, all right?”
Clearly bewildered, Katniss nodded and jerked herself around to resume her spot at the table. Peeta joined her. “I don’t have any special skills like that,” he muttered.
“Peeta’s strong,” Katniss asserted, nodding. “I’ve seen him lift bags of flour that weigh a hundred pounds, right over his head.”
Haymitch nodded and Gale watched. This, this is why we’re here. “So, no throwing flour bags tomorrow,” Haymitch drawled, though his expression was still dead serious.
“They’re going to have all kinds of weapons there tomorrow,” Gale added, figuring it was his turn. “And that’s great. But there’s other stuff that’s important as well. Like…how to light a fire.”
“A match can mean the difference between livin’ and dyin’,” Haymitch said. “And we, your Mentors, will do our best to make sure you get what you need, but you still need to learn to do it without help, if you can.”
Effie was nodding, and the Stylists were as well, though they were swirling small amounts of wine in their glasses. As Stylists, they had to prepare clothing for the big interviews, but they weren’t responsible in any personal way, during Training. They could afford to drink.
Gale and Haymitch really couldn’t.
“They’ll be watching you,” Haymitch continued after tossing back what was left of his water. Gale noted he’d only eaten that one initial bite of beef, that night. Like Effie, he’d pushed the rest of it around on his plate. Cinna was eating, but it was an absent-minded exercise, for him. Portia was taking tiny nibbles in a clockwise direction around her plate. Everyone was focused on Haymitch, though, regardless of what they were doing with their food. “The other Tributes and some officials, as well as anyone else who can buy their way in. They won’t talk to you, and you can pretend they aren’t there if you want, but there will be plenty of people keeping an eye on you and they all talk to someone.” He picked up his knife and used it as a pointer. “Watch. Learn. Do not antagonize anyone. You know about alliances?”
Katniss nodded and glanced Gale’s way with a rueful light in her gray eyes. He had had one alliance last year, with the guy from District 7. Who then tried to set him on fire two days into their supposed alliance. Gale sighed. “Yeah, well, the thing to remember about them is that they aren’t to be trusted, not really.”
“Maybe not,” Haymitch allowed with a nod, “but they can be useful while you’re learning your way around.”
“And we have to learn our way around,” Peeta repeated. “And try not to die.”
“And make friends at the same time,” Katniss added, glancing that time to Cinna, who nodded with a knowing light in his gold-lined eyes.
Gale frowned inwardly. No, he wasn’t jealous that Katniss had conversations with other men. Of course he wasn’t.
He’d have one with her of their own. Later. He knew where to go to avoid detection; his Mentor had shown him the year before.
“Eat up,” Haymitch said after the quiet had gone on too long. “Peeta, you had them cheering for you before you got off the train. And the Parade? Y’all did a great job. They love you.”
Effie nodded vigorously, the silver mini-hat on her big, big wig bobbing with the motion. “They were calling you the Girl on Fire, Katniss. Remember that. Sponsors like that.”
“So they like Peeta and they’ve given me a nickname that has nothing to do with me. Great,” Katniss groused before picking up a dinner roll and picking at it.
Cinna grinned. “Oh, keep that nickname in mind, Katniss Everdeen. Everyone loves it and will be using it again. Trust me. You want to be identified. Liked. Favored.” He nodded, his expression flattening until it was pensive. “Your families will be watching, and they know—like we do—that these details matter, out there.”
Haymitch’s knife caught the light. “These are the details that will get you medicine. Water.”
“Matches,” Portia added, setting aside the rest of her wine. “Food. This is my third year as a Stylist and I think this year?” With a grin, she took in both of the Tributes. “I’ll have a winner.”
Peeta seemed to take comfort in that, but Gale couldn’t. Not really.
A winner. Portia might have a winner. One. Singular.
He met Haymitch’s look down the length of the dining table. “We’ll probably have to choose just one,” the man had said only two days before.
Gale was always going to be upholding Katniss, but…how could he just abandon Peeta after all he’d heard?
I hate these Games.
Chapter Six: The Roof
Dinner seemed to fade into obscurity shortly after the discussion about alliances. Haymitch and Effie talked to Katniss and Peeta, all bunched together at the corner of the dining table. Portia had excused herself to deal with dinner. The citizens of the Capitol sometimes took a shot of an emetic after a meal, so they could eat all they wanted, and Portia apparently was one who did so.
Gale pulled Cinna aside. “That was an amazing costume. What got you to make something so inspirational?”
Cinna nodded thoughtfully before meeting his eyes. “Sometimes, you gotta have a spark to catch fire, right?”
Spark. Fire. Fuel. The words spun in his memory, but he wasn’t connecting them that evening, what with all that had gone on. He blinked and nodded. “Yeah?”
“Hers was her sister. You know them, right? You’re friends?”
“Yeah. And my brother is friends with her sister,” he said quietly, not sure where the other man was going with this.
“And now she’s going to be the one starting a fire. For your District. You are the only people I’ve ever met from Twelve, but I hope that she keeps the fire burning for a long time.”
There was a code in there somewhere; Gale could feel the tension in Cinna’s words. They were, mostly, innocuous, but there was a weight to them that he knew he should be picking up on. He’d have to talk to Haymitch about it. There were plans, yes. Plans and plans and plans, but Haymitch was the one who knew where the bodies were buried.
Gale, well, he’d bring a shovel and help him bury another one if he had to.
Fire. Spark. Katniss Everdeen.
The lights in the penthouse suite were off, save in a recessed line near the high ceilings and under the cupboards in the kitchen. Gale prowled the quiet spaces, mindful always of the surveillance equipment that existed in every room of the Tower. Haymitch had told him and Fern about it all the year before.
“Why are we on the roof?” Gale had demanded of their Mentor. He had a protective hand on Fern’s slim shoulder, already edgy about how to keep her from dying in the Arena.
She had her arms wrapped around her torso, but her chin was jutted out and Gale knew she was trying to appear tough and ready to begin training the following morning. For himself, Gale wanted desperately to stay alive and keep her alive…
As long as possible, anyway.
Haymitch hadn’t had the ubiquitous bottle of booze, Gale had noted. No cigarette. He’d even been barefoot, there on the sloped roof of the Tower. In the dark, with the sparkling lights of the Capitol thrown out below them like discarded diamonds at their feet, Haymitch had gestured for them to hunker down and huddle up.
“We’re on the roof because I had this crazy idea y’all wanted to stay alive. Am I wrong? ‘Cuz if I’m wrong, we can all just go back inside, and you can contemplate your imminent demise.”
Fern had huffed and Gale had to silently agree. Haymitch had used the phrase imminent demise four times since they’d boarded the train the day prior and it was starting to lose its impact.
“We want to stay alive, Haymitch. So why are we up here?”
The blond man had nodded as if he heard what he had expected to hear, and Gale held his breath until their Mentor began speaking.
“You know that the Games are rigged, right? Not just that they set up the Arena and make it terrifying but good for broadcasting,” he explained, making a face that Gale couldn’t see fully, but could catch the sharp edges of. “Really, they don’t want anyone to win but they let one person win each year, to make it so that you’ll work for it. To give you hope.”
“Hope,” Fern had whispered. Gale had only nodded, breathing deeply and slowly to keep as calm as he could.
“But before they even get you in the Arena, they are getting to know you. They have the Training days, which you start tomorrow. And they listen to you while you’re here. They want to know if you have any special fears. Any special loved ones at home. Leverage they can use against you in the Arena or—” Haymitch pushed out a harsh gust of air and shook his head sharply as if to cast something away from him. “Or after,” he ground out as if he were swallowing gravel. “Family. Friends. Sweethearts.” At the last word, he looked Gale right in the eye as if he were ferreting out any secret love affair or something. “So be careful what you say in the penthouse. It’s pretty. Real nice compared to Twelve, I know, and hell they redecorated it five years ago, so that’s all right, but they are listening all the time.”
“Even in the bathroom?” Fern had whispered.
Haymitch snorted. “Well, okay, maybe not everything? But I wouldn’t put it past them to have some kind of recording device in there, too.”
Fern shivered. “Eww.”
Haymitch nodded at Gale. “Gale? You’re awful quiet.”
“It’s just…I hate it.”
“Me, too. But if you want to stay alive, and want anyone important to you to do the same? You’ll remember.”
And he had. Haymitch had told him, one maudlin night shortly after Gale and his family had moved to Victors’ Village, what had happened to the rest of the Abernathy family and the girl that Haymitch had been sweet on, all those years ago. Gale had worked very hard not to let any of that happen to his family or the girl he was sweet on.
He’d been successful so far. His family was still fine, and Katniss would have been fine, but her sister had been Reaped and so—
Here we are.
He stood for a few moments, staring blindly at the lights of the Capitol through the so-clean-they’re-invisible plate glass windows. They weren’t breakable, the windows. That was another little tidbit that Haymitch had passed along that one night at his big, lonely house. He’d tried. Suicide attempts were, tragically, not unheard of in the Tower.
What was he going to say to Katniss?
He pressed his lips together, nodded at nothing, and decided he was wasting time. And there wasn’t time to waste. At all. Walking through the room and down the short hallway, he then paused before the door he knew was hers. It was mostly dark. There were listening devices. He had to be very careful.
Every muscle in his face tensed up as he tried her door. It opened easily, without a sound. Not wanting to…intrude, exactly…he slid his hand in and waved it, hoping she’d see it and know it was his. She should know his hands by now, shouldn’t she? After years of hunting together, he thought so.
Katniss caught his hand and he froze. He hadn’t heard her move. Relief blew through him like a breeze as she held his hand and nudged the door the rest of the way open. He placed a finger on his lips in the universal Quiet! signal. She nodded. He backed away from the door so she could leave the room, and then held her hand behind him as he led her to the roof.
There was a maintenance door which led to a concrete corridor that ended with a heavy metal door…and a separate window. That was the method Haymitch had taken, so that was the route Gale used as well. It wasn’t locked—who would be on the roof of the Tower this week, anyway, right?—and it was at a height that required only a little stretching to get through.
And they were out!
“Shh,” he advised, recapturing Katniss’s hand and easing her away from the window to make for the spot a few yards away where Haymitch had taken him and Fern the year before. “Careful right there,” he added quietly as he found the spot.
Katniss nodded before turning carefully to see where they were. “Wow. This is such a…it’s so weird, being here, Gale.”
Watching her visible consternation, he nodded in sympathy. “I know.”
She shuffled a bit, looking, he thought, for a comfortable place. At length, Gale invited her to hunker down in the same place Haymitch had sat with him and Fern. “This works here, if you want.”
As she was wearing what looked like silk pajama pants and a sleeveless top, Katniss was able to sit down pretty comfortably, he thought. They sat side by side on the hard roof, gazing out over the city lights. “Thanks for coming up, tonight,” he murmured.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her nod. “What’s going on, Gale?” Her voice was husky, which appealed to him more than he would probably be able to tell her. “You wanted to talk?”
He reached for her hand and was relieved and grateful when she allowed him to do so again. “Yeah. First, Training starts tomorrow and we’ve gone over that, but is there anything you had any questions about?”
She made a helpless sort of sound. “How do I not die?”
He felt like she’d stabbed him with a shard of ice, and the cold pain of it pierced him. “There are ways,” he said slowly.
“You were ruthless. I watched constantly when you were in last year, Gale. All the time. I was so…so scared for you. But then, I thought you’d make it.”
“I was lucky.”
“No, Gale Hawthorne. It’s like Haymitch said. You’re ruthless. And I, I don’t know if I can be that ruthless.”
He withdrew his hand, feeling as if it was still covered with the blood from the Arena. “After a few days…it might not be so hard, Catnip. But that’s part of it. The way to win is not to die. To be the last person alive. To stay alive even when the others are out to kill you.”
Katniss seemed to perk up a bit at that, and she turned to him, leaning forward a little. Her newly trimmed hair shifted over her shoulders as she did so, and he wanted to touch it, feel the shiny length of it between his fingers. She cleared her throat and he blinked, wondering if she’d caught him staring. “I can maybe stay alive. If I can hide. But what about Peeta? I worry about him. He’s strong, like I said, but he’s…he’s had food his whole life, Gale. I don’t know if he can be, well, ruthless.” With a jerky motion, she turned away again. “And what would I do if it were down to just the two of us, you know?”
“I wondered about that, too, with me and Fern,” Gale confessed, shrugging with one shoulder. “Unfortunately, I didn’t have to worry about it long.” He closed his eyes, still able to see Fern’s death on the pedestal. Katniss touched his hand, then, and he opened his eyes to smile sadly into hers. “So, don’t you worry about it. You worry about yourself. Haymitch and I will do our best to keep you both alive.” He shifted to take her hand in both of his. “I…I care about you, Catnip. Last year, all I wanted was to spend time with you…after…and they kept taking me away. So I told myself that this year, I’d come back, after the Games. Back to you.”
Her eyes widened. “Gale…”
“Hang on,” he asked, shaking her hand a little. “I have never been so amazed by another human being as I was when you volunteered, Catnip. I know you’ve got a thousand things on your mind…your heart. I know that. I’ve been there, too, you know. But I want you to make it through this. I want to be there for you when you win. I want to hold you in front of all of Panem, too. If you’d…give us a chance, you know? You and me.”
He held his breath, not sure even then if she’d answer him or put him off or tell him she couldn’t think about it then. He kept staring at her, though, memorizing the way she looked, remembering how she’d always looked, to him. Was she pretty like the girls on the big screens? Not his Catnip. But she was smart. Sharp. Keen and beautiful like a well-honed knife that he trusted in his hand. She was all about making things work. Making people work but protecting her own beyond the reach of anybody.
How could he not love her?
Her fingers trembled a little and he wasn’t sure if he should let them go or not. He chose to keep them in his own, hoping that was what she wanted, too. “I’m scared, Gale.” She gestured toward the lights below with her free hand. “We’ve said, May the odds be ever in your favor for years, you and me, but I don’t feel like they are.”
“I know. I know exactly how that feels,” he assured her.
She tossed her head impatiently. “Do you? Because I’m worried. I’ve heard about…Tributes, you know…who…” Her thin brows angled sharply. “It’s not just my family that would be hurt, Gale. It’d be yours.”
“We could run,” he whispered, leaning as close to her as he could as a breeze kicked through their hair.
“Only if I win,” she reminded him with a wry tone.
He could see it, in his imagination. See her as the Victor and see them going back to Twelve and escaping with their families as soon as they could. The world was bigger than Panem. And even within Panem, there were places to hide. Miles and miles between the Districts. Wildlands—they were bigger out by Twelve. Miles and miles. Or they could go to the ruins of Thirteen, maybe…
“I’ll do my best for you,” he promised.
She took a deep breath, as if preparing herself to feel pain of some sort. “If…if I make it, and if we can, I’ll run with you. We have to take Prim and my mom and your family…”
“I’ll keep my eyes out while you’re in the Arena,” he swore to her, his heart pounding as he replayed her promise over and over. “Figure out a plan.”
“You really think I can win?” Her eyes were piercing through the shadows. He nodded. She cast her gaze over the lights again before asking him the question that had been at the back of his own mind since their first night at dinner. “What about Peeta?”
Gale let go of her hand. “I don’t know. I’ve been trying to figure that out.”
“He saved my life, Gale. I can’t just…kill him. What if we hide, right? You and I have both seen that over the years.”
There were years where Tributes created alliances for secrecy as opposed for conquest. The Hunger Games had been going for almost three-quarters of a century; every possible situation had transpired, Gale was fairly certain.
“What did he do? How did he save your life?”
Katniss told him, then, about a time when the Everdeens were literally starving. Gale had known that Violet Everdeen had…stopped living in quite the same way after the mine disaster; that had been obvious and even his mother had noted it. And in the Seam? Food was always scarce. But that they’d been starving? He hadn’t known it had been that bad.
“I hadn’t started hunting, yet. And Prim didn’t know how to help yet, either, but Peeta…Peeta gave me bread when it cold and I was…” She pressed her lips together and ducked her head. That time, Gale did take a moment to caress the top of her hair and run one hand down her arm to let her know he was listening.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered, not having anything else to say. They hadn’t been hunting, they hadn’t been friends, really, but he still felt guilty that she’d been that poorly off.
With a nod, she straightened. “I don’t want to kill him. I can’t hide with him and maybe, maybe make it to the end, and not kill him. I owe him, Gale.”
He had no immediate plan to answer the iron in her voice, so he nodded instead. “Let’s think on it while you’re training, okay? See if there’s…any kind of way to make it so you don’t have to kill him. But Catnip?” She offered him the usual eye-roll that followed his nickname for her. “I don’t know if I can watch you die. I think it might…”
“Gale,” she countered immediately, her voice soft in a way he had never, ever heard it. The tone gave him hope. “Don’t you think I died a hundred times last year?”
He’d been selfish, he guessed, thinking of his wishes and his wants for their future. He’d forgotten that she would understand, too.
But he did not want her to understand how difficult life was for a Victor in the Capitol. That…he couldn’t see her living his life. No way.
With a renewed strength of purpose, he pushed himself up to his feet, not even surprised when she refused his hand to get up on her own. “I’m sorry. Sorry for everything that you’ve been through that I didn’t help with. I’ll do my damndest to stand by you from here on out, Katniss Everdeen.” He reached out tentatively to pull her in for a hug, just a hug. Like…but unlike…the nearly manic embrace she’d given him upon his homecoming the year before. He could feel her fingers bunching his shirt at his back, feel the tremors that raced through her body.
She was afraid. Well, so was he. Terrified.
“There has to be a way,” he whispered.
She pulled back a little from him to meet his eyes. “Can we talk up here with Haymitch and Peeta tomorrow?”
Gale listened the following morning over breakfast as Haymitch talked up training. Effie was with them, but the Stylists had left already to get to work on the interview outfits and making the Arena uniforms for their Tributes.
At length, ham and eggs and all the pastries were cleared away by an Avox—someone Gale was sure he’d seen before but knew better than to speak to lest the unfortunate girl be harmed even more by the machine in the Capitol—and Haymitch poured one last cup of coffee.
“Right. So first day. Remember, do not show your best skills.”
“I won’t use a bow,” Katniss stated.
“And I won’t go all—what did you call it? Caveman, Katniss?” They shared a chuckle and Gale knew he’d missed something, somewhere.
Haymitch snorted. “Right. Gale. You’ve been there most recently. Any advice?”
“They’re going to remind you about the percentages,” Gale said with a grim nod. Effie frowned, her pale makeup making her look like a puppet, but she also nodded with him.
“Percentages?” Peeta inquired softly.
Gale blew out a breath. “You’ve seen the Games every year, right? So you know that there is a lot of, well, killing…but there’s also a lot of other ways to die. They’re going to remind you of that. What percentage will likely die due to dehydration—”
“So get your asses to water, first thing,” Haymitch interrupted, tapping a half-full water goblet with his finger.
Gale smiled ruefully. “What he said. And they’ll tell you about poisonous plants, malnutrition, bug bites, sunstroke…there are lots of ways other than, well, the big dramatic ones.” He sighed. “Of course, the Cornucopia is…awful. That’s all about fighting.”
“And running,” Haymitch added. “Don’t forget how to do that.”
Shortly after that, Katniss and Peeta excused themselves, changed into their training gear, and headed down to the lowest level to spend their day…training. Mentors weren’t allowed to watch, but Gale knew they’d be plenty busy, even so.
“What, my turn now?” Peeta asked, his tone as brittle as his smile. “I’ve had enough training, today. I need a break, Gale.” Dinner was over, the day’s training regimen had been parsed and suggestions broached for the following day.
Leaning against the closed door of Peeta’s room, Gale swept the suite with his gaze. “I know. Did anyone show you how the wall works, there? With the viewing choices?” He crossed the room to pick up the controller, clicking the wall on to show a view of The Plaza. “And what do you mean, your turn now?”
He might have missed Peeta’s scowl if he hadn’t been studying his face. It was gone in the next heartbeat, though, when the younger man shrugged with an assumed nonchalance. “I mean, you were with Katniss the other night. I can only guess it’s my turn.” He slid a glance over from the corner of his eye. “For the pep talk or whatever.”
Not sure if he’d dodged a brick or not, Gale decided to play it straight for Peeta as he had for Katniss. How sharp was the baker’s son, though? Gale changed the scene to a different view: the night sky. Might even be a live feed, for all he knew. “Great view, yeah? Have you seen it since we got here?” He pointed a finger straight up, even while nodding at the viewing wall.
Peeta’s brows shot up into his forehead in what may have been the first genuine expression Gale had seen from him since they got to the Tower. Peeta was…cagey. Cunning. He knew how to say what needed to be said, even when he was upset. But this sudden startle and silent question? They felt quite earnest. Peeta took the controller roughly and pointed it up at the ceiling. “That view?”
“Yeah,” Gale said on a breath, relieved. “Come on, I’ll show you.”
He left the viewer on but beckoned for Peeta to follow him. The window at the end of the corridor was open, telling Gale that someone was already on the roof. He was unsurprised, therefore, to see Haymitch and Katniss sitting next to one another, already talking tactics. They hushed up when Peeta slipped a bit on the roof.
“Sorry,” Peeta whispered. “Not used to the super-secret spy stuff.”
Haymitch shook his head in an overplayed manner as they all settled down near a windbreak. “Right, then. So tomorrow, we start with individual training, right?”
Katniss nodded. “Yeah. You and me in the morning, you and Peeta after dinner.”
Not surprised, as he and Haymitch had discussed this—though not to happen a day early—Gale went along with it. “Right and Peeta, you and I will be opposite. We’ll talk about anything you have questions about that you want to keep to yourself, all right?”
“You won’t tell Katniss?”
“Nope,” Gale promised, though he smiled at Katniss as he did so. “And it goes for both of you.”
Haymitch cleared his throat. “Thing is, Peeta, as you know, there’s only one person that walks out of that Arena. And we know that, even if Tributes are friends, or whatever, this still holds true. Hell, there’ll be alliances struck in the first two days in there that’ll make a marriage look like a casual date, you know?” The older man twisted a comic smile that had the Tributes smiling with him. “But, they’ll still try to kill each other before it’s over.”
The smiles vanished.
Gale met Haymitch’s eyes. “Yep. Three years ago, the Tributes from Seven and Eleven, remember? Flickerman thought they were just…” Gale squirmed inwardly, because it had been weird and like a fictional romance there, for a couple of days early in the Games.
Haymitch made a disgusted sound. “Well, it was after that that they got a new Head Gamemaker, Seneca Crane.”
“Last year, the Tributes from Three were looking like they were going to be more than just allies…”
Peeta made a disapproving sound. “I remember. They were cold and I think they forgot that the cameras were on.”
“Remember, the cameras are always on in there,” Gale murmured. “They edit out the stuff that they don’t think we need to see, but they see everything.”
“Well, they tend not to be around on the perimeter, where the force field is,” Haymitch remarked. “But that’s where I won, in the Quarter Quell. They might try to get you away from the edge, though, so be prepared for that if you Seek. It. Out.”
Gale caught the emphasis and stared at the older man. The force field. Haymitch had knowledge of it. The force field couldn’t be seen but it was essential to the Games.
Essential like air. Air. Fuel. Heat. Is that what this is? The fire we talked about?
A sudden jerk of motion caught his attention. It was his girl, right there, tugging on a lock of her hair. “There’s no way to escape from the Arena, is there?” Katniss whispered, sounding resigned. “I mean, no way for anyone. We’ll have to—”
“Yes. Remember. You have to prepare for your—”
“Imminent demise,” Katniss and Peeta said together.
Haymitch slapped the roof and got to his feet, looking beyond irritated. “It’s not a joke, dammit. It’s reality for twenty-three out of twenty-four of you. If you want to have any chance of being that one, you have to be willing to do anything. And I mean anything.”
Even Gale felt chastened by Haymitch’s low-pitched tirade. He immediately spoke in support of it, however. “Avoid trying to be that couple,” he told Katniss and Peeta. “That’ll put a huge target on your back. Not in the Arena, maybe, but with the Gamemakers.”
Katniss pushed herself to her feet, as well. “Right. None of that, then.” She eyed Peeta and then Gale, and Gale didn’t know exactly how to feel about that. Was she rejecting everything they’d spoken of the night before? Was she warning him merely to keep a lid on…on them? Until after?
He had promised to do his best to get her out of there. He’d do it, too. Anything.
Or was she warning Peeta not to…what? Peeta had saved her life.
The silence stretched between the four of them until, eventually, Peeta and Gale got up as well. The younger man sighed and stretched up on his toes for a moment. “Look. Just because I don’t think I can win doesn’t mean I won’t try. I don’t want to hurt Katniss, not for anything,” he continued, “and that means I won’t even hint at any…romantic stuff.” He scratched at the back of his neck. “But I’ll tell you, I had been thinking about it up ’til now.”
“Peeta Mellark!” Katniss took a long step in Peeta’s direction, hands clenched into fists at her sides. “Don’t you dare. Don’t you even dare! I’ll look…weak!”
“You could never look weak,” Gale hastened to say, trying to draw some of her attention so she wouldn’t maim her fellow Tribute.
Haymitch, a calculating smile on his face that Gale could interpret despite the minimal light afforded by the city around them, stepped between the Tributes, a hand on each of them. “It’d make you interesting, but I don’t want you targeted, either. So, good. That’s settled. Let’s get down. Both of you are meeting with both of us before breakfast.”
He turned and left the way they’d come, disappearing into the open window. Gale nodded but waited to see if Katniss and Peeta would be going as well, but Katniss shook her head at him.
“We’ll be in in a minute,” she said.
Uneasy, Gale nevertheless left them and headed back to the window—only to be surprised to see an Avox waiting for him.
Her unexpected presence startled him, causing his heart to leap in alarm and him to flatten his back against the wall. “What is it? What do you want?” he asked more harshly than he would have under other circumstances.
She pointed to the window frame and then gave him a slip of paper.
Careful. They can monitor your comings and goings, even here. I canceled the surveillance tonight, but will have to start it back up again soon before they grow suspicious and send maintenance. Please destroy this note immediately.
He stared hard at the young woman, who still wore the red tunic she had had earlier. A convicted rebel, an Avox was compelled to servitude as punishment for their rebellion. Taking courage from her, Gale nodded and proceeded to tear the paper into tiny pieces while he stood there. “Right. Are you good with electronics?” he whispered as quietly as he could manage.
She nodded. Pointed to herself and then one finger, then to all her other fingers, one by one, before making her hands flare and move away from her with such force that he could feel their movements in the air around him.
The idea hit him square between the eyes and he blinked. “Are there others in your, um, position who know this kind of thing?”
She nodded and flared her hands away again.
A plan came to him in an instant, exploding from him with a smile that nearly hurt. “I will eat these pieces,” he promised her. “But I need to talk to you in the morning.”
Her eyes glinted as she nodded her agreement.
He ate the tiny bits of paper on his way back to his room. It was as good a way as any to assure that no one would ever be able to read the note.
Chapter Seven: Subterfuge
“Haymitch, a word, please?” They had escorted Katniss and Peeta downstairs to the Training Room and were preparing to head out to their own business that day—networking and sounding out possible sponsors for their Tributes—but Gale felt the note he had received, and the hope it had given him, were more immediately important.
Time was, after all, of the essence.
He took Haymitch to the kitchen and turned on the water in the sink as he daren’t risk the roof again. Beckoning the older man closer, he murmured, “I got a note from the Avox assigned to this suite last night. She indicated they have us under surveillance, maybe in the coming and going through that window to the roof. She canceled it for us last night for a brief time, but if it happens again, there might be maintenance people sent up.”
Haymitch’s brows shot into his forehead as he pursed his lips for a silent whistle. “Good to know. So we don’t go back there. Anything else? We have to mingle and do some shopping.” Haymitch bent down to the cupboard to get some pans so he could make some noise. The water had, Gale guessed, been on long enough.
Through the clattering bang of moving pots around and opening the refrigerator as well as heating water for no apparent reason, Gale told him what he’d learned from the Avox.
“I need to see her,” Haymitch muttered as they helped themselves to some bottled water and left pots and pans out to dry on the counter.
They looked for her and eventually discovered she was changing sheets in Katniss’s room. She was wearing a shapeless white tunic, that day, and her hair was bound up under a white net. When she saw the two of them in the door of the room, though, she froze as if she were a deer in Katniss’s range.
Haymitch made a business out of fixing his facial expression and Gale tried to soundlessly reassure the young woman while he did so. He smiled, ducked his head, and held up a hand until Haymitch nodded harshly and blew out a breath.
“So, hey,” he drawled. “I was wondering if you, ah, could put in an order for the kitchen. We need more beer. And for the Tributes. We want them to have a good last night, you know?”
Relaxing noticeably, the Avox nodded, folding her hands in front of her. Then, she mimicked writing a note, her eyes suddenly hard and sharp.
Gale leapt into the silence before Haymitch said anything that might be misconstrued. “I’ll find out what they want and leave you a note, okay? On the kitchen counter.”
She nodded and Haymitch rolled his eyes. There wouldn’t necessarily be visual pickups in the bedrooms, so Gale figured it was safe enough. Then, he thought of a note. He gestured to Haymitch to keep talking and scrambled to find a piece of paper somewhere.
Toilet paper worked, and he used it along with a very careful touch of a pen. But because the paper was delicate and he didn’t want to use more than a little bit in case it was noticed, he tried to keep his words brief.
Idea. Yes. During, not before.
You see Gamers? When?
He took two squares to get that out. Two fragile, white squares. And then he handed it to her.
“Thanks for ordering the food,” Haymitch said as they left the room. “So, ready to head out?” he asked Gale.
Gale agreed that he was and they made quick strides to the brass-inlaid elevator. Gale kept an eye on the numbers as they dropped, all the while thinking of Katniss down in the Training Room. “So, tomorrow they’ll be one on one with the Gamemakers,” he said out loud. Talking of that was normal and expected.
“Yep. Peeta will be the last they see all day. He ready?”
“I think so, yeah.” They reached the ground floor and exited into the main foyer. “I think he wants to work with camouflage. He’s really good at it. Said it’s like decorating a cake.”
Haymitch snorted as they reached the big glass doors that led to the rest of The Plaza. Once they were out of the building, he kept a half-drunk, half-curious expression on his face as he spoke, his hands moving at total odds with what he was actually saying. Gale had to concentrate on the words so as not to be distracted.
“So presumably she’s going to let us know who will be working with the Gamemakers?”
“Or be a go-between. I didn’t indicate what we wanted done. But I had a thought.”
“Fire. Avoxes are like air. In everything, unseen, essential. Right?”
Haymitch stopped abruptly and turned to face him, recovering his composure enough to slap him lightly on the chest as if they were having a mild disagreement. “Go on?”
“She indicated there was a bunch of them that were into electronics. Surveillance. Barriers, maybe? She didn’t say so much, of course, but what if they could disrupt the force field around the Arena?”
Haymitch’s jaw dropped. “You are effing ruthless. Damn. That would mess up everything and get ’em killed, Hawthorne.”
Gale nodded; he had thought of that. “Them meaning the Avoxes.”
“Yeah. But she volunteered, you say?”
After taking a moment to recall the servant’s expressions, Gale nodded. “She volunteered.” He huffed out a harsh breath and attempted to smile as Haymitch was then doing. “Volunteering is deadly in the Capitol, isn’t it?”
“Got that right.”
They continued walking, weaving amongst the thronging spectators, the various conversations flowing around them as the screens flashed replays of the various Reapings and the highlights from prior Hunger Games. Gale tried to point things out to keep up with the outward image of learning the ropes as a new Mentor.
Haymitch, though, had gone oddly quiet. “What’s up?” Gale asked when they’d crossed a spot recently vacated by a man and his two Dalmatians. “Am I wrong to be thinking like that?”
“No, Hawthorne. Good thinking. This is scary enough, to be quite honest. Hell, man, I’m not sure how I got rolled into this. I got things to do. And I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to, but right now?” He turned and offered a slanted smile that actually seemed genuine. “I think I can. Just remember I’m blaming you.”
Gale snorted but remembered to keep a smile on his face as they ambled along once more, weaving amongst the outrageously garbed Capitoline residents and their equally outrageously garbed pets. “You rolled me in, remember?”
“Oh, no. I was fine bein’ drunk and depressed. Then you move in with a fire in your eye and your heart on the girl and that changed everything. Don’t think I didn’t see your face when she jumped you last year.” Haymitch slapped Gale’s chest with the back of his hand. “Yeah, yeah, so you got me into this and now I’m all over it. Dammit. What happened to my two-week vacation?”
“Right. Because it’s so relaxing to be a Mentor for District 12.”
“Sure it is,” the older man drawled, actually sounding intoxicated. Gale noticed, though, that the pedestrian traffic around them had grown thicker. His appreciation for Haymitch’s ability to play a role increased tenfold on the spot. “The alcohol is always there. The showers are great and the food’s top of the line. But no, you have to go and win this thing and throw me back into being responsible.”
“I’m kind of selfish, that way.”
“No kiddin’, Hawthorne. No effin’ lie to that. Hey, look, let’s go check out that place. Maybe we could get some fire-starters just in case, yeah?”
Well, that term took on a whole new meaning, that day. “I got some money.”
The day rolled on, with Caesar Flickerman’s blue hair and white-white smile appearing on the big screens every so often, updating all of Panem about the latest happenings with the Tributes and Mentors. Gale was a bit surprised to see his own face appear in a brief spot.
“And last year’s Victor, Gale Hawthorne from District 12 is acting as our newest Mentor this year. Seen in The Plaza today with veteran Mentor, Haymitch Abernathy, he is clearly enjoying the bounty of the Capitol and no doubt eager to see this year’s Hunger Games!”
Cheers erupted as well as some shouts to him personally, making Gale very uncomfortable. He longed, deeply, for the sensible quiet times in the forest he had enjoyed with Katniss back in Twelve.
Keeping a small smile on his face and feeling sheepish and even a bit slimy on the inside, he elbowed Haymitch. “So are they gonna be ready for tomorrow?”
“We’ll find out tonight. See how they’re doing. Make sure Katniss hasn’t used the bow yet, anyway.”
“I think she said she was going to practice with snares.” Gale sighed. “She needs the work.”
“She’s a survivor,” Haymitch reminded him. “Even if she’s got a Save the Sister issue.”
Gale nodded and looked in a store window. “Hey, look in there.”
“No, we are not getting her anything, Hawthorne, you idiot,” Haymitch growled. “They can only take the uniform given.”
“I know, okay? I was thinking for after.”
“One day at a time. Remember,” Haymitch added, nudging him away from the store with its belts and boots, “any attention could get her family killed. Even if we pull this off.”
“I just want her to live…”
Haymitch sighed and, in what felt like a moment of actual sincerity, patted him on the back. “I know, kid. I know.”
The message was, unsurprisingly, hidden three layers deep in his toilet paper roll.
Wilds 12 and 3
Will need escape
Wilds 12 and 3. He had to think a moment to connect the dots, there. And then it hit him. The Arena would be in the wild land near his own District.
Hope flared hot and high within him. Like a fire.
His original plan had been predicated on Katniss winning. She had to win. He’d crumple in devastation if she were killed in the Arena, so he had not let his mind consider that possibility as he’d been thinking of how to get her away from all the awfulness that was a Victor’s life in the Capitol. But now? Now there was another option.
Gale emerged from his room, having disposed of the message in the most inconspicuous manner, to see the Tributes had returned from training. Peeta had a grin on his face and Katniss looked a bit bemused. In a good way.
“So…how’d it go?” Gale asked, joining them in the lounge. The Avox he’d been communicating with was standing against a far wall, head down. She wore another red tunic, with her hair pulled into a tight bun at the top of her head. It was…awful, how they were treated. There were no Avoxes in District 12, so his only experience with them had been in the Capitol. Last year, he’d been so keyed to the Games that he had paid them no mind, but this year…this year he had good reason to pay attention to them.
Could they liberate the Avoxes? What about the girl that served them specifically? Would helping her hurt the others? The Capitol had set up an annual murder show in retribution for a rebellion that took place several decades ago. What might they do for such a transgression as freeing actual slaves? He didn’t know, but the message had indicated an escape was desired and he’d do his best if he could. As long as doing so didn’t compromise Katniss’s safety.
Filing that away for not right at the moment thinking, he brought his awareness to everyone else in the room.
Effie was perched at the edge of her seat, wearing an unusual purple shade as her theme of the day. Her hair, though, was a platinum blonde. He wondered how many wigs that woman kept and if she had an entire room devoted to them. With a swirl of her glass of something blue, she sparkled a little. “Well, now, I didn’t get to go in, of course, but I was watching when they came out, and I can tell you that our Tributes are really having an impact.”
“She’s got herself a fan, I think,” Peeta offered. “Girl from Eleven named Rue was watching her a lot, today.”
Katniss’s expression thawed and she flickered a glance toward Gale. “She reminds me of Prim.”
Gale felt something nudge in himself. That was a lot for Catnip to admit to; maybe they could try to get Rue out, too?
You can’t save them all, Hawthorne, said a voice in his head that sounded a lot like Haymitch. Katniss first. Then Peeta if you are in time. Focus!
He wanted to tell her that they had a plan in progress, but he couldn’t. Too many ways for it to go to hell and Katniss was amazing but she couldn’t lie very well.
“What about you, Peeta?” Haymitch inquired, sticking to soda-water that evening. “Any little girls following you around?”
Gale was shocked to see the younger man blush bright red. “Er, no.”
“No, but he got the Careers to take notice,” Katniss told them.
“Hey, it was your idea!” Peeta countered.
Katniss rolled her eyes and leaned forward on the sofa. “They were looking at you like you were a meal, and we weren’t even in the Arena. You did the right thing.”
Effie held up a hand. “Now, now. We don’t need to get agitated, do we? Tomorrow will be the most important day in terms of how we can help you. Your private sessions, remember.”
“Meeting with Peeta in half an hour,” Gale said with a nod to the baker’s son.
“And Katniss and I will have a conference, too,” Haymitch reminded him. “What else did you learn, today? Anything new that can save your hides?”
Gale mostly watched Katniss as they shared bits and pieces of what they had done during training, that day. No, she had not yet used a bow, but Haymitch had intimated one would be there for the private session the following day.
After a lull had slipped into the conversation, Effie rose to her feet. “Well! This is just lovely, and I am looking forward to seeing how you will impress the Gamemakers, tomorrow. Remember, their opinions are key, so it will be a big, big day for you both!”
“What did you do for the Gamemakers, Gale?” Peeta asked as they all stood and moved from the sofas.
Haymitch met his look with a twisted smile. “Bow and arrow,” Gale admitted with a shrug. Katniss just snorted. “Hey, you’re better than I am, so I expect you to make it count tomorrow,” he told her.
After a little bit of laughter, they drifted away, each to their own rooms. Gale wrote another note via the same method the Avox had used before. This way, there wouldn’t be need for personal contact.
It was tricky to indicate they wanted a huge thing. It was an enormous risk. He was prepared to do his best to get them out of the Capitol, though there wasn’t anything he could do about their voices.
What were he and Haymitch getting themselves into?
Maybe it took a Victor to do this. Not one Victor, but years’ and years’ worth of Victors. Would there be a lot of them?
They’d meet with another couple tomorrow.
“Gale, you got a minute before you meet with Peeta?” Katniss—wearing a loose, flowing pantsuit in a shiny, copper fabric—leaned against a room-separating column.
He smiled at her; he couldn’t seem to help himself. She glanced away, but a smile was tugging at her lips and that warmed his heart. “As many minutes as you need, Katniss.”
She walked toward the floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out over all of the Capitol. He joined her and they spoke to the glass, seeing each other’s reflections.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to make friends, like Haymitch says I should,” she murmured.
He shoved his hands in his pockets so he didn’t try to take one of hers. “Can I talk like a Mentor and a friend, here? Would that be all right?”
She turned to look at him for a moment, not his reflection, and nodded. They refocused on the window and he felt his heart speed up as she offered him such honest sincerity. “I’ve known you for four years,” he began slowly, feeling his way through his words, aware of the possibility of being recorded or observed. “Your strength has never been in having a group of supporters, Katniss Everdeen. You do best alone or with one person beside you. Whether that person was your dad—”
She gasped a little and jerked her head around as if she’d watch him instead of the window again. He didn’t look at her, though. He had to keep it a little distant or he’d be pulling her into his arms to comfort, support, and encourage her. And that would not be a good idea.
“Your dad, Prim, or even maybe me.” He smiled at their reflections. “You are impressive as hell, Katniss. In The Plaza, with Peeta? You didn’t need to make friends. You just had to be there, standing tall, and making it look like you owned the parade.”
She snorted a little. “So I could go solo.”
“You could. Only one walks out of the Arena alive.” He hoped she remembered he was saying that because of the likely cameras or other recording devices. He hadn’t forgotten that she owed Peeta Mellark her life.
Katniss froze, her face stiff even in the flat glass before she nodded. “Right.” After a moment, she rolled up on the balls of her feet and stepped even closer to the glass, tapping on it. “So any other advice for tomorrow’s private meetings?”
“Knock ’em dead, Miss Everdeen. Knock ’em dead. Just not, you know, literally.”
Only a few minutes remained until his scheduled meeting with Peeta, and Gale did his level best to turn his mind toward helping the younger man. Gale remembered what it had been like, being the male Tribute. He’d been the only survivor from the moment he stepped off the pedestal at the Cornucopia bloodbath, but before that, he’d carried around a feeling of responsibility for Fern.
Peeta, he was sure, had a similar feeling for Katniss. Greater, likely, since he had already saved her life, once.
“Hey, Gale, are we meeting here?” Peeta joined him at the window, where they looked out over the lighted city. “It’s a great view.”
“We can if you want,” Gale answered, half-turning to look him in the face instead of merely his reflection. This was a different kind of meeting than he had just had, and he wanted to acknowledge that internally. “Or we can get some coffee and meet in the kitchen? Or even your room, if you’d rather.”
“Coffee sounds good.”
A few minutes later, they were both leaning against the granite counter in the kitchen, holding mugs of coffee in their hands. Small talk had filled the space while they made it, talk about the bakery, Victors’ Village and why it looked like a ghost town, and so on.
But then, warm mug in hand, Gale cocked his head. “So. Tomorrow. What’s the plan?”
“I don’t know. They’re probably watching, right? And you and Haymitch have talked to them?”
“They seem to have a sixth sense, yeah. And we have been informally meeting quite a few people,” Gale allowed himself to say.
“Right.” Peeta sipped at his coffee slowly, thoughtfully. Gale thought he might be thinking of what to say. “If they have weights out there, I’ll make them count,” he said decisively. “I knocked over a whole stand of spears, so I could do something like that. But honestly? I think my camouflage work is my best to show them. Maybe blending my arm into the bark of a tree or something like that. The trainers said to focus on survival even more than weapons.”
“That’s good thinking, Peeta.”
Peeta shrugged and sipped quickly at his mug. “Thing is, there is no way on earth I’m going to top whatever Katniss is going to do. I…” Grimacing, he set the mug on the counter and leaned forward in the manner of someone who wished to be confidential. “Only one of us is going to come out of this alive, you know that.”
Pain knotted in Gale’s chest for a moment as he nodded. “Those are the rules.”
“But why?” Peeta demanded in a harsh whisper. “Why are we paying for something that happened when, when my grandparents were born?”
He agreed totally, but Gale held up a hand and pointed at the ceiling, where lighting fixtures could easily hide surveillance equipment. “I know. It’s not fair. Did you study Ancient Rome in school?”
“I remember reading about Caesars, yeah. And how they baked their bread in round loaves. Some bread loaves were found in ruins, the books said.”
“You would remember the bread,” Gale said with a smile. “Well, they also had what they called circuses. Big fights and displays in arenas all over their empire. Kept people interested. And distracted.”
“So we’re a distraction,” Peeta spat, looking disgusted.
With a shrug, Gale allowed that to be the case. “So we do our best, like the old time gladiators did.”
“Did the gladiators ever win?”
“Yeah.” Sometimes they even won their freedom, he mused.
“Well, I’d put my money on Katniss,” Peeta declared, pushing off from the counter and standing, feet firmly planted, in the middle of the kitchen floor. “I want to help her win, Gale,” he added softly. His eyes, though, were as sharp as any knife.
“She wants you to make it out alive, though,” Gale told him, wanting him to have a reason to fight. To try hard and not sacrifice himself.
Shock seemed to freeze Peeta’s face for a moment. Gale let him think while he finished off his own coffee. Maybe it had been a mistake to share that, but Katniss was sincere and Gale wanted to do his best for her. He wanted her to live. And if allying herself with the boy who saved her life gave her reason to do so, he’d help. For her.
At length, Peeta blew out a breath. “All right, then.” He shook his shoulders and rubbed his hands together. His smile was short and hard when he asked, “Should I try to talk her out of that idea?”
“Have you met her?”
They shared a laugh, then Gale put his mug down next to Peeta’s. “The winner is the last Tribute alive. When Haymitch won the Quarter Quell—”
“It was only because he outlived the other surviving Tribute. Yeah, he told me. It could have gone either way.”
“Right. So I’ll tell you like I told Katniss: Stay alive. That’s the key thing.”
“What about, like, making an alliance with someone else to keep them away from her?”
Gale thought about it as a strategy. “I don’t know what your skills are. I don’t know what kind of Arena you’ll be facing in a couple of days, so I couldn’t say how well you’d do, there, if you were only bent on survival. Alliances can be helpful, but something like that would keep you apart from her, which might be to your benefit as well. Hard to say. Flickerman and Templesmith speculate hourly on what could happen, but no one really knows. How are you with a sword? An axe?”
Peeta shrugged, seeming embarrassed. “Not so good. Knives, I know. And clubs. I learned how to stick-fight. What did they call it?”
“That, yeah. I can do that.”
“Good. You can find sticks almost anywhere and they’ll give you an edge for reach, too. Good thinking.”
“I don’t think I could fight her, though, Gale. Not…not like that.”
“Maybe you could find time to spar with her tomorrow morning, before the private sessions start?” Peeta looked at him like he was crazy. Gale held up a hand. “Peeta. It’s good practice, regardless.”
“I’ll think about it.” His expression shifted. “Could you do it? If both of you were Tributes? You’ve known her for years, too.” He glanced up at the ceiling as if reminding himself that he had to be careful.
Relieved at that last-second bit of discretion, Gale scrubbed at his jaw with both hands. “That’s a good question. I guess I’m…relieved I didn’t have to ask it of myself last year.”
Peeta rolled his eyes. “Thanks, Mentor. You’re a lot of help.”
Gale let that pass. “Look, tomorrow, be strong. Be confident. They want to figure your odds based on how you handle the pressure, and you want them to be impressed, the Gamemakers, okay? The higher the score, the more sponsors will be willing to do for you. The better we can keep you alive.”
Peeta shifted about on his feet uncomfortably. “Maybe I can make the odds better…” he murmured.
After hearing Peeta’s idea, Gale felt both impressed at the younger man’s sheer gall and a bit sick to his stomach. He had no idea if he could go along with Peeta’s plan. He was pretty sure Katniss would hate it.
“You should stick with her,” he advised after some thought. He couldn’t tell Peeta of the other, secret plan he and Haymitch were working on, but he could give the Tribute that much of a hint. “I think you have compatible skills. You’re good with people. She’s good with weapons and finding food. It’d be a beneficial alliance.”
Katniss appeared at the edge of the kitchen just then and Gale wondered what she’d overheard, if anything. “Hey, Peeta. Hey, Gale. You done?”
“I think so,” Peeta said, glancing Gale’s way. “You?”
“Yes. I need something to drink. Oh, is that coffee?”
Reluctantly, Gale slipped past them, allowing himself to clap Katniss on the shoulder as he did so. “See you in the morning,” he told them both.
Haymitch was waiting for him, the Avox they were…communicating with…in the short corridor was with him.
“Hawthorne,” the older man began in his pretend-I’m-drunk manner, “our Avox, here, isn’t feeling so good. Might need a day off. I’m going to see if I can get a replacement in for her tomorrow.”
Not even sure why this was necessary, Gale had to pretend he didn’t care. “Sure. Thanks for letting me know. See you in the morning?”
The Avox nodded slowly and left them, but Haymitch followed Gale into his room. “We’ve got to talk.”