A Lot of Hope – 2/2 – LJ Summers

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
Beta: Katmom
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?
Artist: Krani



Chapter Eight: Private Sessions

Gale shut the door as Haymitch took something that looked like a pen from his pocket and clicked it before planting himself in the room’s one chair, all traces of feigned intoxication wiped from his face. “We only got a few minutes. That baffle won’t keep ’em off our backs for long. They’ll think it’s a glitch, so it’s gotta be fixable.”

“What is it?” Gale asked quietly.

The older man grimaced but held his gaze with a fiery determination. “Never mind that. We gotta worry about the Avoxes.”

Gale leaned against the wall and blew out a long breath. “We’re talking a lot of people, Haymitch.”

“I know it. I ain’t got no one but m’self, but I am kinda fond of this old hide, so yeah. And you and yours and her and hers and him and his. If they make it.” He paused, never taking his gaze from Gale’s face. “They might not, in spite of everything. And we’ll still need to get the others out.”

“Stylists?”

“Cinna for sure. Portia, if she wants to come. Effie, maybe.”

Gale cocked a brow. “Effie, huh?”

“Shut up. So, like twenty people minimum. And then I’ve got a side project. We’ll have to be ready to go when the force field goes. Like, immediately.”

“This is a hell of a lot more complicated than I thought it was gonna be,” Gale muttered, staring at the pen-thing that Haymitch had indicated would keep anyone from overhearing them. “So I guess we need to look like we’re schmoozing but we need to actually be getting, what, a hovercraft in order? I was just thinking of hitting the woods and going from there. Katniss and I know those woods. Sort of.”

“Might need more space,” Haymitch indicated with a smile. “And someone to collect the family.”

“And someone to fly us over.”

“Ah, hell. Forgot that part. Yeah. Right. Tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow.” Haymitch did something entirely unexpected at that moment. He crossed to his suitcase and pulled out a leather envelope. Gale couldn’t remember seeing anything like it before. Handing it over to Gale, the older man nodded. “Use it as you need to.”

Gale didn’t even have time to look, but the envelope felt heavy in his hands. He tucked it under one arm and tried to act as if he weren’t dying of curiosity.

With another click, Haymitch ended their subversive conversation, saying only, “So, yeah. She told me she was going to go for the bow in the Cornucopia. I thought that was smart, it’s her best thing.”

Gale gaped, but only for a second. He caught on pretty fast. “Good. Did you know she also sings?” That was maybe mean of him to say out loud here, but it was basically harmless and suited the moment.

Haymitch laughed a bit. “No kiddin’? Well, can’t see her givin’ a concert or anything, but you never know.”

“You never know.”

They left his room and Gale made his excuses to get back to his own room so he could check out what was in the huge leather envelope. After untying the leather cord that bound it closed, he pulled out a piece of paper.

Been saving this for a rainy day. Or something.

Hoping you’ll use it, because I can’t spend it all on liquor.

Inside the envelope was money. Lots and lots of money. The Victors received an annual stipend as well as a house, and it looks like Haymitch had been cashing it all in for, well, that rainy day.

Gale hefted the envelope in both hands before deciding to bury it in his own luggage. He’d count it later, when he had privacy and a couple hours.


“It’s another big, big, big day!” Effie exclaimed, looking genuinely enthusiastic the following afternoon. “I know, it’s a long wait, but it’s so important! Are you ready?”

Katniss and Peeta had pushed the furniture around in the lounge before engaging in some hand-to-hand sparring but were now freshly showered and back in their training uniforms.

She looked amazing, Katniss did, but then Gale had more or less always thought so. When she was small and fierce and trying so hard to keep herself together when her mother dropped off into her own world, when she was hunting in the woods, when she laughed at him while they shared bread and butter on Reaping Days…Katniss’s clean confidence had always appealed to him.

That she looked both sexy and intimidating in the training uniform was a pleasant surprise, too. He tried not to stare as Effie herded Katniss and Peeta out of their penthouse suite to the elevators. It was going to be a long wait for them.

“I’ve got an old friend to look up,” Haymitch stated, pushing off the wall he’d been holding up. “Hawthorne. You said you do too, yeah?”

Remembering that he had preparations to see to, Gale nodded. “Cinna? Portia? Got plans?”

They smiled in unison and Cinna flicked his hands out at the wrists. “I’ve got such a gown for Katniss for tomorrow night. She’ll be unforgettable.”

Intrigued, Gale asked for him to elaborate but the Stylist shook his head. “A surprise is a surprise. Trust me, you’ll love it.”

Portia nodded enthusiastically. “Peeta won’t be as…ah…dramatic? But he’ll look quite dashing.” She paused and tilted her head a little. “Really, the male Tributes always look quite dashing. Last year, you were the man of the hour, Gale Hawthorne.”

That still made him uncomfortable. He had heard that more than once over his year of compelled sexual involvement in the Capitol. “Oh, I’ve got a duplicate of your interview outfit, Gale,” he’d been told. Also, “You looked so amazing in The Plaza. I had my tailor make up a replica of your…costume.”

He shook off his discomfort and focused on the Stylists once more. “Well, this year, you two have made our Tributes once again the talk of the Games.” With a smile, he thanked them again. “So, will you be here, today? I’ve got to get out and do my schmoozing.” He tried to make his shrug a bit elaborate, as if to say he knew it sounded strange, but what was he going to do?

Cinna, who was new to the Games as a Stylist, nodded briskly. “I wish you all the luck. I really think the Sponsors will pay serious attention to our Tributes. Portia and I are doing our best for them.”

“You are both fantastic, thank you.”

Portia eyed him narrowly. “This has to be hard on you, Gale, seeing as you went to school with the Tributes and are friends. Anything we can do for you?”

Holding up a hand, Gale said he was fine. “You just focus on them. Hoping they do well in their private sessions, today.”

Finally, the Stylists retired to their workrooms and Gale was able to clear out of the penthouse. He had funds to liquidate and arrangements to make.


The Capitol blew Gale’s mind, every single time he visited. The high-pitched voices of the locals, the way they seemed nearly desperate to surround themselves with sights and sounds, and the outlandish excess that oozed from every square foot of the place—all of it made his head pound. He had an address in his pocket at the moment, together with a note of introduction to someone who lived off the main center of the Capitol. He’d had to, well, act a part to get the information, but he hoped Katniss would forgive him.

Julia Templesmith—Claudius Templesmith’s younger and smarter sister—had cleared her schedule for him that afternoon. “Gale Hawthorne, darling. I hadn’t expected you to make time for me just before the Games. And your first time Mentoring, too.” She was petite, with platinum blond hair and large, violet eyes that he believed were colored by contact lenses. She wore a loose robe that matched her eyes and was barefoot when she opened the door. “Kiss!”

He bent down to brush her cheek with his lips, inwardly cringing as he did so. “Julia. Thank you for making time for me.”

“Darling, it was the least I could do,” she purred.

He felt, sincerely, like he wanted to take a shower. Alone. This was too much like his Capitol Sexing, as Haymitch termed it. Still, he smiled as he had taught himself how to do in such a situation. “You’re too good to me, Julia.”

She practically glided into the main lounge of her apartment, glancing flirtatiously over her shoulder at him before turning dramatically and waving an arm toward the white leather sofa. “Sit, Gale, sit!”

He waited for her, of course, and she smiled a little as she settled into the matching white club chair at a right angle to his own seat. When she nodded, he did as well. “The first Mentoring is a trial, I’m sure.” She crossed her legs, but he heeded only her eyes and the opinions she communicated with them.

“Tributes don’t see a lot of the Capitol when we’re here, you know.”

“Oh, I do know! It’s dreadful to think how much they’re all, well, sheltered, here. So, what can I do for you?” Her eyes were bright and enthusiastic, if a little cunning. “Looking to sound out Sponsors for your Tributes? Or maybe just one Tribute? Hmm?”

“Haymitch Abernathy and I have been hard at work at that since we got here.”

“So…what can I do for you?” Uncrossing her legs, she leaned forward, gaze sharpening in what reminded him of traders in The Hob, back in Twelve. “I am usually reluctant to commit to Sponsorship until at least the training scores are given. That’ll be tonight, right?” Gale nodded, wanting her to speak so he knew how to counter. He had learned a lot about careful conversations over the past year. “Any way to feel like trying to persuade me to do otherwise?”

He leaned back in the sofa, trying to project an air of casual confidence. “Oh, no, Julia. I wouldn’t want to have you deviate from your usual patterns.” Her eyebrows quirked—just a little, but they lifted and lowered in a way that made him think she might be exactly the kind of person they needed. “You should be able to, ah, enjoy the Hunger Games just as you are accustomed to doing.” Had he, in a misguided impulse, laid it on too thick?

“Well, then, I will,” she said, still watching him with the intensity of a predator. “So if you’re not looking for some early Sponsorship, what are you looking for?”

“Truly? A vacation,” Gale responded in entire sincerity. “But,” he shrugged a little in an effort to appear appealing and shy—would she even believe him?—”I’m not going alone, so I was hoping to find a means of transportation that could handle a few more people.”

Julia Templesmith’s grin lit up her entire face. “Oh! Well, then. I do hope that works out for you. Yes, I know a man who can get you whatever you need for your little, ah, romp, there, Gale Hawthorne.” She wiggled her brows playfully. “Plan on making it quite a party, do you?”

He blushed, which embarrassed him but seemed to delight his hostess, so he owned it and moved on. “Well, you know, she’s a bit young and so…”

The older woman pursed her lips and looked suitably impressed. “I will definitely be keeping an eye on her,” she promised with a nod.

He felt blood rushing up the skin of his throat and wished it would just stop. “So will I,” he finally said. He felt as if he were openly flaunting the rules, here. And openly living a life that he didn’t like even a little bit, but perhaps the image of, what, fallibility? Would keep someone off his tail later. He didn’t know, but he was in too deep to leave Julia Templesmith’s apartment just then.

She pushed herself up to her feet. “Well, then, I am happy to help the latest Mentor with his first Hunger Games,” she declared, stepping to a table off to one side of her white-walled apartment. “But it’s going to cost you,” she warned him, again flirting with him over her shoulder.

Expecting that, he said he thought it might. “Next time I’m in the Capitol,” he promised her.

An event which would, he hoped, never happen.

She handed him a slender paper card—why paper, in their very plastic world?—with the name Sal on it with an address and her signature, before pulling his head to hers. He thought she’d be going for a kiss, which he would have accepted, but she skimmed his cheek until her lips reached his ear. “My brother is an ass,” she whispered. “But he’s just a talking head. Remember that, all right?”

Every muscle in his body tensed; she knew! Or guessed. Or…something. Forcing himself to relax, he drew her in for a hug and it was her turn to go rigid with tension.

They let each other go and Gale kept her gaze with his own, trying to discern her motives. She stayed silent and he had to go meet the mysterious Sal, so he cleared his throat.

“Well, thank you for your time and willingness to keep an open mind about my Tributes,” he said at last, hoping he sounded less like an idiot than he thought he might.

She smiled again, but it was an obviously feigned expression and never reached her eyes, which were shadowed. “My pleasure. Enjoy your vacation, Gale. I look forward to claiming my reward next time you’re here.”

Another minute saw him out of her apartment and navigating his way to the address he’d been given. All the while, though, he wondered what Julia Templesmith had heard and if they needed to silence her or what.

I have got to talk to Haymitch.


It hadn’t taken him long at all, months ago, to discover that the Capitol had a dark side.

It wasn’t dark just because it was corrupt and vengeful and wasteful on levels unprecedented, but because it was literally lacking light. There were no video screens in these dark places, nor very much artificial illumination; there was only concrete, glass, narrow alleys, and puddles of water left over from the last rain. The high-rise buildings had slab walls and were nearly featureless, but there were etchings in the concrete and glass. Etchings that were more permanent than paint, for sure, and not so easily removed.

Can’t wait for the Games? Spend the night, here!

Make it too hot for Snow!

The voiceless need a voice!

The final line had been recently added, it seemed to Gale as he stepped near the plate glass window to investigate. Red. He saw red in the word “voiceless”.

The Avoxes. Of course! And it seemed that the red was actually blood.

The combination was enough to send a chill on jagged pathways through his body as he stared at the etching. Haymitch had said that there was rebellion simmering under the overblown ideal of the Capitol.

Trying to affect nonchalance, Gale stepped away from the window. He didn’t know if he should welcome the evidence he’d seen or freeze in sheer terror.

It doesn’t matter now, he told himself as he neared his destination. Whatever you can do to save Katniss will be worth it.

Thinking of her as a Victor, envisaging her with him, in the woods, their families near and safe…It was all he wanted.

Scanning the largely uniform buildings, he eventually found the one he wanted and went inside. Basement level, on the right, he found the proper number and a button and he pressed it, all his focus on acquiring transportation.

The door jerked open before him and a bald man with a bright flame tattooed on the left side of his forehead eyed him up and down. “Yeah? Who’re you?”

Half-mesmerized by the vivid colors in the man’s tattoo, Gale took a moment to answer. “Gale Hawthorne, Mentor for District 12. Are you Sal? Ms. Templesmith sent me.”

The flame on the man’s skin wrinkled with his frown. “Got proof?” Gale handed him the card he’d been using to find this…place. The wrinkles in the flame changed when the man’s eyebrows rose high into his expansive forehead. “Yeah, okay. C’mon in. I’m Salvatore Featherstone and if she sent you, you’re okay.” He found out why the card had been made of paper; Salvatore Featherstone set it on fire as soon as the door was closed. No trace. Not even ashes were left behind as the final flickering flame puffed into air.

Sal turned and led the way down a flight of stairs, ducking when they reached the final one so as not to hit his head on the enormous piping that crossed the stairwell. “Watch your head,” Sal called back, the words echoing off the painted concrete of the walls, floor, and ceiling. “Wasn’t expecting company,” he continued as he led the way to a room that managed to be cavernous even though it was a basement. Gale kept an eye on the various chains and lights that were anchored overhead, wondering at the total dimensions of this place. It appeared to be entirely subterranean.

“Thanks for having me in, Mr. Featherstone.”

“Sure. So.” Sal pulled up a wheeled stool with his foot and pushed it toward Gale before getting one of his own. “What is it you need, Mentor?”

As Gale seated himself, he realized the whole space was more like a machine shop than a home, but there was a kitchen off to one side and a stack of at least three mattresses near a heating grate. “Well, I’ve clearly come to the right place.” He tried to sound positive but not pushy. “I need transportation for after the Games. My, ah, girlfriend and I want to take a vacation before I’m called back to the Capitol again.”

“And you don’t got anything back in, where? Twelve?” Sal’s look, as seen in the bright but indirect lighting, was shrewd. “You all have big houses, don’t ya?”

Gale allowed himself to frown. “It’s not like being free, though,” he whispered. “I wanted to fly. Take her someplace away from basically everyone.”

There was a sudden pressure, he felt, in the room and he held himself still and ready; it was as if he were being weighed and if he were found wanting, his blood would be etched into a window. Sal rocked a bit on his stool so that it rolled forward and back, mere inches at a time.

“A trip,” Sal said at length. Gale nodded. “It’s a long way to Twelve, there, Mentor. You got a pilot?”

“Got connections,” Gale said, figuring it was true, even if not an entire answer to the man’s question.

Sal’s forehead-flame flickered with another frown. “That’s true. You know Mizz Julia. All right. Young men do want their adventures, don’t I know it. And sometimes, young Mentors want to…kick over their traces a bit. All right. But I don’t let anything go for free.”

The way the man spoke sparked Gale’s curiosity. “You’re not a native of the Capitol, are you?”

Sal snorted and kicked his stool into a rolling path that took him to a large door. “Nope. So I’m pretty sure I have ways of getting this thing out of here. Come take a look and, if you like it, we’ll talk price.”

This thing turned out to be an old Peacekeepers hovercraft. He’d been in one like it the year before.

“Is it stripped out or ready for use, sir?” he asked, walking back and forth to get a sense of the dimensions and how many of his possible companions he could fit in there.

“Doesn’t need to be fancy, Mentor. It needs to be invisible. Which it kinda is. It’s got the cloaking system, which the Peacekeepers use. So, for you and your girlfriend, hey? Lots of room to play in there,” he added with a mischievous curl to his voice.

Gale couldn’t have stopped the blush, so he just let it come and ignored it. “Looks like,” was all he said. “Got a way to get this above ground and to my pilot?”

Sal snorted. “Of course. Do I look stupid? So, can we do business?”

Grateful for that envelope in his rooms, Gale said he thought they might.

Half an hour of haggling later and a price was agreed upon. It took another ten minutes to arrange a covert means of immediate contact. They shook hands, exchanged information, and Sal walked him back to the door that would lead to the narrow road.

Just before opening it, Sal sneered a bit. “Happy Hunger Games, Mentor. Hope your girl walks out of the Arena alive. Be a shame not to take her with you.”

Gale was still sputtering when Sal pushed him out the door.

Great. What the hell do I do about that? Does he suspect whatever it is with Katniss and me? Or is he just hoping she is the Victor? But then why wouldn’t he say something about Peeta, too?

He added that to the concerns he wanted to share with Haymitch as he hurried to get back to the Tower. It was getting late and Flickerman and Templesmith would be sharing the Training Scores before too long.

>>>>||<<<<

Haymitch hadn’t returned to the Tower, so Gale pulled Peeta aside after nodding to Cinna and Portia. “Hey, how’d it go?”

The younger man was freshly showered, his hair still damp, but he looked worn clear through. “Honestly, Gale, that was a long wait.”

Nodding in total understanding, Gale agreed that it was. “What options did you take?”

Peeta appeared to flush so that his ears turned red. “Well, I’m basically useless with most weapons, but I was able to camouflage my arm so that no one could see it. And I threw the weights at the artificial tree that was there for me to use—have they been watching us, then?—and broke it. I don’t know how effective it was. Honestly, half of them looked the way someone does after a big meal, you know? All sleepy.”

“Yeah. Being at the end of the line, it’s like that.”

Peeta cocked his head and gave him a hard look. “What’s the point, Gale? I mean, you and Haymitch are great Mentors. But only one of us can win and even if our District does win twice in a row, it’s not gonna be me. It’s gonna be her. You know it and I know it.” The edge to his voice let Gale know Peeta already understood that there was something going on between him and Katniss.

Hope was important, though, and Gale felt that he might be able to help with that. Choosing his words carefully, he reminded him, “She wants you to live.” He refrained from using the words saving her life because he did not want Peeta to be thinking of self-sacrifice. That would wreck Katniss. “Haymitch and I want you to live, too.”

“What we want doesn’t matter, does it? Not once we’ve been Reaped.”

“Being determined to live is important. You have to be willing, though, to do anything.”

“Including accepting our imminent demise,” Peeta tagged on, a rueful smile on his face.

They shared a soft chuckle before Gale offered him what he could. “Stick together, the pair of you. Remember how others have won before. You’ve seen Haymitch’s part, I know, and you saw mine last year, right?” Peeta nodded, frowning. “Right. So stick together. Haymitch and I will do our best.”

Peeta nodded, but then he scraped his hands through his hair. “Just…take care of her, all right?” And before Gale could say anything, Peeta turned and left, calling out, “Almost time for the scores!”

Gale sought out Katniss, then. She was wearing a sleeveless tunic and loose black trousers which seemed to caress her legs as she took hesitant steps to the sofa. She chose to sit in one corner, drawing her legs up and wrapping her arms about her knees. Tension vibrated around her and he wanted nothing so much as to pull her up against himself for comfort.

He couldn’t, but sitting wasn’t a problem, right? Dropping down next to her, he leaned in a bit. “How’d it go?”

After casting a quick look about the room, she shrugged. “They were horrible. Just, awful.”

“Was there a bow?”

She nodded. “Yeah. But I hadn’t used one like it before.” Shame and anger suffused her voice when she added, “I missed my first shot.”

Gale managed not to wince. “That must have been disconcerting.” He touched one of her arms, warming her cool skin with his hand, and slipping down until he covered one of her feet. “You’re freezing,” he whispered, concerned.

She dropped her head and her hair brushed against his arm. “It was not my finest hour.”

“What happened?”

“Well—”

Effie Trinket appeared just then, her color of the day being something between blue and green, heels clicking angrily on the floor of the suite. “Are you crazy?” she demanded of Katniss, looking for all the world as if she wanted to slap the younger woman.

Gale shifted and glared up at Effie. “Hey! What the hell, Effie?”

Katniss rolled her eyes. “I just got mad!”

“Mad? You realize that your actions reflect on all of us, not just you!” Effie was in a snit, clearly.

Cinna held up a hand. “They just want a good show. It’s fine.”

Gale met Katniss’s eyes as Effie went on about good manners and soon. “What did you do?” he asked his—friend? girlfriend?—as quietly as he could to avoid drawing attention to the question. Everyone else already knew and he was worried.

“Well, finally!” Effie nearly shouted.

Katniss reached for Gale’s hand. Startled, he wrapped her fingers with his own as she shifted in her corner of the sofa.

“I hope you noticed we have a serious situation?” Effie snapped at Haymitch, who was strolling into the lounge with a broad, expectant grin on his face.

Gale felt himself relax as he smiled with Katniss. Haymitch looked right at the girl and held out his fist, thumbs-up, in the time-worn style.

“Nice shooting, sweetheart.”

“I thought that didn’t work?” Gale whispered.

Katniss pushed out a breath that was half-laugh, half-sigh. “Well, that was only the first try,” she confessed.

“What did they do when you shot the apple?”

“Wait, what?” Gale and Peeta asked at the same time.

Katniss nodded. “Was the pig still there, Peeta?”

“Yeah. You shot it?” He looked both appalled and impressed.

Gale, though, was struck by the sudden need to kiss the girl, but he couldn’t, so he kept his mouth shut for a moment while he got the impulse under control.

“Yeah. They looked started,” she said, answering Haymitch’s question.

“Oh, yeah?” The older Mentor appeared rejuvenated, delighted, even playful and Gale had to wonder what was going on in his head. He laughed and swung his swivel chair back and forth, still laughing and shaking his head. Even Effie didn’t interrupt him. “Now, what did you say?” Haymitch asked when he came to a halt. “Thanks?” He gestured that she should finish it.

How had he heard, though? Frustrated, but wishing he’d been there, Gale could only listen when Katniss smiled self-consciously. “Thank you for your consideration. Yeah.”

“Genius!” Haymitch declared with a righteous shake of his fists. “Genius,” he said again, more quietly.

Gale collapsed against the soft sofa cushions behind him and regarded Katniss Everdeen. Effie was going on about how there could be repercussions, but Gale didn’t think so. He trusted Haymitch’s instincts.

Katniss had been a hit with the Gamemakers, that day. That could mean everything.

Or it could kill her.

“Loosen your corset,” Haymitch advised their high-strung Escort. “Have a drink.”

Katniss snickered and Gale caught her gaze. Her eyes were warm, her smile real, and he treasured being able to experience that. No matter what happened.

“I would have given anything to see that,” he told her, maybe more loudly than he should have. “Anything.”

She bit her lip, ducked her head, and pushed herself back into the corner of the sofa.

The wall display flickered to life shortly thereafter and Caesar Flickerman appeared at a sober gray desk with a black wall behind him. This was a big night for the Hunger Games, Gale was aware. Everyone in the room, even Effie, settled into a seat, whether on one of the two sofas or in a chair. Two bottles of something alcoholic were on the large occasional table in the middle of the room, but no one was drinking yet.

Gale’s mouth was dry, however, and his heart started pounding as the training scores were explained and then read aloud.

“Why do they insist on ladies first in the private sessions with the Gamemakers but they go with the guys first for this?” Peeta wondered aloud, directing his question half to the screen and half to the room at large.

Effie fluttered her hands. “I have no idea, but it doesn’t matter, does it? We have to pay attention!”

Gale offered Peeta what he hoped was an encouraging and apologetic smile all in one. Effie was rattled, after Katniss’s apparent display of…nerve…in her session that day. She’d be no good to anyone, likely, until the scores had all been read.

“A lot of tens,” Katniss murmured to Gale as they watched the faces appear and disappear on the screen. “Kind of intimidating.”

“Well, keep an eye on ’em, Catnip,” Gale advised quietly. “Sometimes, the scores are to make them targets; but they’re gonna be dangerous regardless.” His muscles were taut as he watched each face. He wouldn’t be in the Arena this year, but his heart would be. That might even be worse.

“Now our final District,” Flickerman said at length. “From District 12, Peeta Mellark.” Peeta leaned up as if he’d stand, but he stayed seated. Gale held his breath, not knowing what to expect. “A score of eight,” Flickerman announced.

Portia clapped enthusiastically and Cinna smiled in that slow way he had. “Bravo.”

Haymitch nodded. “Good job!” he said. Gale wondered how many times, over the past twenty-odd years, Haymitch had had to say just that. Over and over.

Effie’s body relaxed almost audibly; Gale could hear the leather cushions sigh under her as she let herself breathe, presumably. “Good! We can work with that,” she assured Peeta with an affirming nod. While Peeta allowed himself a tentative smile, Effie met Gale’s eyes. She had been expecting better, he could see.

Gale had scored a ten. He didn’t see that it had mattered too much while he was in the Arena and he’d have to remember to remind both Peeta and Katniss of that once this was finished.

“And finally,” Caesar went on, drawing the last score announcement out like the showman he was, “from District 12. Katniss Everdeen.” He put an inflection into Katniss’s name that puzzled Gale. Was the blue-haired host mocking Katniss or trying to make sure she stood out because he wanted—in his own, weird way—to help her? A dramatic pause, then, “With a score of,” and Flickerman checked his papers and stopped with evident surprise. “Eleven.”

The penthouse lounge erupted with gasps of shock. Cinna got the first actual word in.

“Outstanding.” He looked proud and Gale knew he should. He nodded his thanks to Katniss’s Stylist while he clapped his friend on her shoulder. Carefully not touching her anywhere else or in any way other than a good job kind of way in front of everyone.

Katniss appeared to be in shock, barely acknowledging Peeta’s quiet congratulations.

“I thought they hated me,” she stammered, looking at Gale with eyes that brimmed with confusion.

“I guess they didn’t,” he answered.

Haymitch leaned forward a little to catch her eye. “They must have liked your guts!”

Cinna had opened one of the bottles on the table and an Avox brought a tray of glasses. Portia handed out the glasses once Cinna had filled them, but Gale didn’t partake.

Cinna didn’t seem to notice, but Gale suspected he did. The Stylist held his sparkling drink aloft. “To Katniss Everdeen. The Girl on Fire!”

Gale could hear that name echo in his mind for the rest of the night.

Chapter Nine: Interviews

It was the last day before the Hunger Games began in their horrid, bloody outbreak of retribution. Gale’s nerves were jolting through his whole body, making his hands twitch and his heart race even before he got out of bed. Tomorrow. The Games started tomorrow.

He’d have to watch her leave the building with Cinna, who would be the only one allowed to stay with her until she had the final trip to the Cornucopia. Hell, Gale didn’t even know what the Arena would be, this year! A water environment? Would they be stuck having to fight for land or die? A desert, where the thirst would drive them insane? Would there be a swamp filled with dangerous creatures that had been created by the mad scientists of the Capitol? They Gamemakers could create anything in the wild lands between Districts.

Scrambling out of bed, he hit the shower first, not even shaving. His hands were shaking, for the love of Mike, and he had to get to her. Haymitch’s door was half-open, and Gale popped his head in there.

“Hey.”

“Oh, hey, Hawthorne. Look, you’re gonna take Peeta down to the training room at nine this morning, all right? I’ll follow with Katniss at eleven o’ clock and we’ll all get together for a late lunch before we get prepped for the interviews.”

Feeling as if he’d been doused in freezing water, Gale shook himself. “What? Oh, right. There’s two of us, now.”

Haymitch’s smile was wry. “Yep. Hey, come ‘ere. I got a print-out of the room usage, for today, so you know who’s down there.”

Surprised, Gale entered the room and accepted the sheets of paper. The first one was indeed a print-out of the training room schedule, but there was a second one, as well, and it was a handwritten note.

H-

Bringing E down @ 9:30. We’ll switch then. Talk tactics with M.

Don’t be stupid. Say goodbyes in private, yeah?

-A

Gale knew better than to even mention the private communication. He folded both pieces of paper and slid them into a pocket. “Hey, thanks, Haymitch. It’s gonna be a busy day.”

“Yeah, and Portia and Cinna will be wanting them to have an early dinner, so they can get all dolled up for the interviews.”

“What about you and me?”

“We’ll be backstage, like I was for you last year.” Haymitch snorted and reached for a long-sleeved t-shirt. “So wear a tie. You’re supposed to be the respectable one.”

“Will Sponsors be there?”

“In the audience. Do you remember the crowd?”

Gale snorted. “Barely. I was petrified.”

“Well, pay attention to the monitors this year. We’ll learn a lot.”

Gale missed seeing Katniss before breakfast, but he was relieved they’d have time together later that day; from the way Haymitch was talking around it, there would be…time. Gale promised himself there would be time even if he had to pull her under a blanket to muffle conversations in a bathroom.

The mood at the breakfast table was brittle, it seemed to Gale. As if one wrong word would pierce the veneer of optimism they had all adopted after last night’s scoring broadcast. Gale chose the seat across from Katniss, that morning, smiling at her when she greeted him.

“Get any sleep?” he asked her.

She reached for a pitcher of juice. “Not much, to be honest. Not until I put on that forest-view image on the wall.” She shrugged a little as she pulled over the butter for her toast. “That was actually helpful.”

Impressed, Gale saluted her with his coffee cup before filling it. “I never even thought of that, myself. Nice.” She smiled at him and he held her gaze for another moment before turning to Peeta “So, you and me at nine, right?”

Peeta’s preoccupied expression was a bit worrisome, but he answered immediately. “Yeah. I’m ready.” After shooting a look at Katniss, he continued. “I could use some advice.”

“That’s why I’m here.” Gale nodded and reached for the platter of scrambled eggs. “Don’t eat heavy, okay?” He grinned. “Don’t want you to get sick while we’re in training.”

“Good advice,” Haymitch called from the head of the table. Portia and Cinna nodded as well.

Effie tossed her head. “Well, I think you and Katniss should eat anything you want to, while you’re here. It’s one of the benefits of being here! You’re allowed to eat anything you want, and we can even get more, if you’d like!” She smiled in a general way and Gale cringed inwardly. Effie seemed as if she was struggling to maintain that smile and he could relate, but he also wondered if she had any way to not do what she was doing. Was she stuck in her role as the rest of them were in theirs? Would her life be forfeit if she decided she had had enough?

He’d ask Haymitch. Perhaps they could invite Effie Trinket to join the exodus.

Peeta went to change, and Gale used those few minutes to reach out to Katniss, beckoning for her to join him at the window. Not a lot of reflection, as it was a bright day outside, but it was privacy of a sort, anyway.

He covered her nearest shoulder with the palm of his hand for a few moments, grateful when her initial stiffness eased under his skin. “Hey.”

“Hey.”

“You were pretty quiet at breakfast,” he remarked, slowly lowering his hand to his side.

She sighed. “Yeah. Just thinking about Prim. I miss her.”

He nodded and rocked back on his heels. “Yeah. I miss my family a lot when I’m here. Worse last year, though.”

She snorted. “No, really?” She half-turned toward him. “You didn’t mention them during your interview, though.”

“No.” Grimacing, Gale stared, unseeing, out the window. “I didn’t want to bring any attention to them at all if I could help it. Haymitch’s family and girlfriend…” His voice fell; the revenge President Snow visited on Haymitch’s loved ones after the Quarter Quell had made them all a bit nervous about their personal lives being widely known.

“Gale,” Katniss whispered. She touched his hand, and he felt a sort of zing inside because she did so voluntarily. After a quick breath, she continued. “If, if I don’t make it. If I don’t…”

He gripped her hand in his own, maybe too tightly, but she didn’t seem to notice. “I’ll look out for them, Catnip. I swear it.” Releasing her, he pretended a lightness he didn’t feel as he added, “Rory’s looking after her for me while I’m here.”

They were still shaking their heads about that when Peeta approached. “Ready, Gale?”

“Yep. Let’s go.”

>>>>||<<<<

Gale eyed the way that Peeta seemed to disappear into the rock that he was leaning against. The younger man’s entire hand had been blended to appear just like the rock and Peeta had only used the materials at hand to make it happen. “That. Is. impressive. You could hide yourself brilliantly, with that.”

“Or I could hide Katniss.”

Around them, the sounds of hand-to-hand combat echoed in the Training Room. The clangs of steel weapons, the thuds of bodies hitting the floor. Mentors were guiding their Tributes or fighting with them, preparing them for the next day. The lights were about at half-brightness overhead, discouraging overt attention beyond one’s immediate vicinity.

It was effective. “You could hide her, yeah. But I’m pretty sure she’d want you to hide yourself, too.”

Peeta shifted and dragged his hand over his hair…leaving a trail of faux-stone in its wake that made Gale chuckle.

“What?” Peeta demanded.

“You’ve got rock in your hair. Come on, Mellark, let’s run.”

There was a track around the perimeter of the Training Room, and Gale led the way. “Stamina,” he called over his shoulder, “is super important, no matter what the Arena looks like, tomorrow.”

When they’d run partway around, Peeta puffed out, “Stop, would you?”

There wasn’t anyone in their vicinity at the moment, so Gale did. “Hey. You okay?”

“Yeah.” Puff. “I wanted to ask you a question.”

“What?”

Peeta wiped sweat from his face and bent over to get some more air, Gale supposed, before he stood straight again. “Do you really think Katniss and I should stay together?”

“If you make an Alliance with her, it would make sense. She’s good with weapons and you,” Gale went on, pointing at the sweat-dampened camouflage matter in Peeta’s hair, “are good with the environment. Plus,” he went on under his breath, pretending to get some of the rock stuff off the younger man’s shoulder, “you’ll keep each other safe near the border. Don’t forget that.”

“Still thinking about that?”

“Yep, still am. Ready to fight?”

“What?”

With a feral grin, Gale led the way to where the knives were, hanging on a perforated steel frame. “Come on! Try to stop me!”

Gale went easy on Peeta, but even as he tried to be encouraging and show him how to block and then how to slice, he could see that Peeta didn’t have it in him to harm anyone. He shoved the younger man down to the floor and pinned him to it with his knee.

“Hey!” Peeta shouted.

“Shut up and listen if you want to live past the first day,” Gale advised, tapping the flat of his knife on Peeta’s arm. “If one of those careers, like Cato maybe? Comes after Katniss? What are you going to do? Wave him off? Or try to pick him up or what?”

Peeta went white. “Do you really think…someone would…”

They were interrupted by a drawled yell. “Hawthorne! Get offa Peeta and trade with me, yeah? I didn’t want you to kill the kid.”

Heart leaping in his chest, Gale got up and pulled Peeta up along with him. “Not killing him, I swear,” he said. “Just letting him know it’s more than a game.”

Still pale, Peeta nodded and stared at Katniss in a way that Gale didn’t entirely understand. “Yeah. I mean, we’re a team, right?”

“Right,” Katniss said.

Haymitch, wearing a pair of trousers and an open-collared button-down shirt, beckoned to Peeta. “My turn. Let’s see what you got, kid.”

Gale turned to Katniss, who was surveying the Room with cool gray eyes. “Last time I’ll be down here,” she mused, sounding offhand about it.

“I thought so, too, last year,” he said, moving to stand next to her. “Wanna run or fight?”

She sent him a challenge in her gaze. “Catch me.” Without another word, she jogged off to the nearest point on the track, running past Marvel and Glimmer and the little girl from Eleven, Rue, who was working with the male Tribute, Thresh.

But Gale, didn’t stop to talk, he just did his best to keep up with Katniss. “Hey, you’re fresh,” he called after they’d run for maybe a hundred yards.

“And you’re experienced.” She slowed down, then, and he lunged to catch her, grabbing her by one arm and throwing himself off the running track. She rolled with him, her face tense with stress as she pinned him to the floor.

He didn’t fight back; she looked like she’d use a knife on his face just then, if she had one, and he wondered what was going on in her head. “Hey, Catnip,” he murmured, not struggling, though she was straddling his stomach while pressing on his arms. She felt…amazing, and it was all he could do not to break free of her hold and roll her back the other way.

Don’t be stupid, Hawthorne. Haymitch’s voice echoed in his head.

Katniss blinked and puffed out a breath. “Oh, damn, Gale. I’m sorry.” She leaned back, freeing his arms but also landing on his hips, which was…uncomfortable. He let himself smirk and tap her thigh and she actually blushed before making some kind of aggravated sound and rolling right off him. “You’re incorrigible.”

“No, if I were I’d have rolled you over, pinned you to the floor, and put my blade to your throat to remind you how it’s done,” he told her, rolling slowly up to his feet. “You up for some hand-to-hand? Peeta and I did some knife fighting, earlier, before you got here.”

“That would be good,” she said softly, not meeting his eye. “Sorry, by the way.”

He led the way to the knife-frame and she was at his side after two strides. “For what? Getting the best of me?” He glanced at her, saw a bloom of color in her cheek, and looked away. “You caught me by surprise, Catnip,” he told her with a grin. “Good job. Won’t happen again, though.”

“Are you sure?” she challenged, sounding more like herself.

They had reached the knives, and with a wave of his arm, he indicated she should choose first. “Yep,” he said in answer. “Because if you roll me under you again, I’m pretty sure we won’t be sparring.”

“Gale!” His name exploded from her in a rasp of air and she froze, staring at him.

He waited her out and she eventually calmed enough to select a knife. He chose one, as well. It had a non-reflective blade and leather-wrapped handle. When they were both armed, he had her step away from the frame before squaring off. “You okay?”

“Yes, but…that’s private,” she insisted, adjusting her grip on the white-handled blade she held. “Okay, so teach me what to do so I can, you know, not die.”

“That’s why I’m here. But,” he went on, smiling at her a little before they got to work, “after? I’m getting back to that whole rolling over thing.”

“Gale. Teach me.”

So he did. “Right. So, let’s say this is a surprise attack, right? And you need to fight.” He showed her how to hold the knife, which was not how she was holding it. “You’re not going to cut a roll in half, Katniss. You’re going to try to take a chunk out of your opponent.”

She blinked and looked at the seemingly backward way he held his knife. “Like that? Why?”

“So your movement isn’t hampered if your blade gets stuck. Also, there’s more force on the cutting edge if you attack this way.” He demonstrated with a lunge at empty air.

She copied him, but haltingly. “I can’t do this without seeing someone there, Gale.”

He stopped and brought her up next to him. “Look around the room,” he whispered. It wasn’t a big deal, studying the opposition. “Any one of these people might be out for your blood, tomorrow. Which sucks, but—”

“Yeah.”

“So pick one and imagine them to be your opponent. Gossip has it that Clove from Two is lethal. See her? She’s working on swords right now. If she comes after you, throw something at her face and run.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously. She throws knives, Katniss. Get out of her way. But that guy? Cato? If he comes at you? I’ll teach you how to fight. See him?”

“Yeah,” she said, setting her jaw. “I can do that.”

They spent the next hour alternating between knife fighting and hand-to-hand combat without weapons. When she legitimately got him face first on the floor and had his arms twisted behind him, he yielded and they got to their feet. “That was great. I hope…” He wiped the sweat from his forehead. “I hope it’ll help.”

“Me, too.”

“Ready to head up? Gotta get cleaned up and prep you for the interviews.”

“Yeah.” With a toss of her long, thick braid, she nodded. “Any other advice?”

“Find the edge,” he murmured. “Keep Peeta close.” She nodded and he stopped just short of where Haymitch and Peeta were putting away some first-aid supplies. Peeta was sporting a field bandage over his forearm, but no blood was in evidence. As Haymitch was wearing a makeshift eyepatch, Gale guessed they were practicing. “I’ll do my best to get you out of there.”

“You just hate losing.”

“Well, yeah.”

She side-passed him with a bump and joined Peeta. “You okay?” she asked.

Peeta went on to give her an account of their practice session and Haymitch nodded. “He could be a good doc. He’s got an eye for detail.”

“That’s for sure. His camouflage is brilliant.”

“So, Katniss caught you, huh?”

“A well-earned pin. One, mind.”

“Good. That’s good.”

Their departure seemed to be a signal to all the other Tributes and Gale could hear a veritable parade of Mentors and Tributes follow behind them to the elevators. They all had the same timetables, that day, and it was going to be another long one.

Not as long as the days to come, but…yeah.

>>>>||<<<<

The Mentors were gathered backstage, and they could already hear a warm-up happening onstage in advance of Caesar Flickerman’s appearance. There were several video screens placed about the room, enough so that the Mentors didn’t have to congregate to watch, but they did, anyway.

Prisca—Victor of the 49th Games—approached them first, her red hair catching all the light in the room so that it seemed to incandesce. “The Girl on Fire, eh?” One brow angled sharply as she regarded Gale and Haymitch. “That was nicely done.”

“All thanks to Cinna,” Haymitch said, adopting his inebriated air once more. “He’s a flippin’ genius.”

Prisca’s smile was thin. “Yes, well. One never knows what a new Stylist will bring to the Hunger Games, does one? Perhaps next year, he’ll ply his talents elsewhere.”

“Oh, I think he’ll be in demand next year,” Sasha opined. The District 11 Mentor had her eyes on the screen in front of them but was clearly alert to the conversation. “He did his job, right? Now we have to do ours.” At that, Sasha slid Prisca a look, but the red-haired woman didn’t reply.

Gale cleared his throat. “I just think we’re lucky to have Cinna and Portia. Dressing like miners gets a little old.”

Sasha smirked. “You didn’t look so old yourself, now did you?”

Haymitch slapped him on the back and was chuckling when Prisca dropped her disdain for a moment and batted her lashes dramatically at Haymitch. “You didn’t look so old, either, at the Quarter Quell, Haymitch Abernathy.”

Gale had never seen Haymitch turn quite that shade of pink, before. He’d have to remember to tell Katniss, later!

Brassy trumpets signaled the beginning of the flashy experience that was Interview Night for the Hunger Games. All about the backstage area, conversations hushed as all the Mentors and some of the Stylists gathered around the video screens.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, your Master of Ceremonies, Caesar Flickerman!”

The man himself was still sporting blue hair—his color this year, apparently, and a matching suit. His trademark smile was wide and sincere as his chair turned him to face the studio audience. “Where’s Cinna?” Gale asked Haymitch under his breath.

“In the audience. He left word that Katniss was nervous, and he wanted to give her moral support.”

Gale nodded and watched the screen. Flickerman was focused on getting applause from the audience, keeping them enthusiastic about the Tributes. Why not? It wasn’t as if any of them had had to face a Reaping. The Capitol never had Tributes, did they?

Never had Tributes…They were the only Tribute-free part of Panem…

A jolt struck him, as if electricity connected with his brain, and Gale stiffened, not hearing the usual patter of Those Who Were About to Die. Thirteen Districts had taken part in the Rebellion, but only twelve sent Tributes. Thirteen, everyone said, had been obliterated.

It would be the perfect place to go with Katniss and their families. And the Avoxes. And Haymitch, if he wanted to come. It was dangerous, rumor had it, but was it still?

Checking it out would be worth it. There were all those miles of woodland. And if he got a pilot that was ready to run and hide out—it might just work.

When he was able to put that idea aside in his head, to be reviewed later, Gale found he’d missed the first District’s Tributes. Cato from Two was up, his body language confident and unafraid. Well, fine. He was a Career and they always looked that way.

Next to Gale, Haymitch was holding a glass of what was supposed to look like bourbon but was in fact juice on ice. Haymitch might play the drunkard, but he hadn’t actually touched a drop before any official event for the Games. Gale wasn’t sure what they were supposed to learn, watching these interviews; the production was primarily to garner support for the different Tributes so that Sponsors would have names and faces and backstories to aid them in their decisions in the coming days. But Gale supposed that knowing was better than being ignorant, so he paid attention as best he could, all the while waiting…waiting to see how Katniss would do.

“I don’t know how to make people like me,” Katniss had protested earlier that day in the penthouse. Haymitch and Gale were sitting with Peeta and Katniss, a pitcher of water on the low occasional table, talking about how to approach the evening’s event. “Peeta can get anyone to like him. I’ve seen him do it. But, ugh. These people are going to be seeing what I look like and what I say and deciding whether or not to help me?”

Gale had wanted to reassure her, remind her that she was amazing and brave and strong, but he remembered the likely surveillance equipment and bit his tongue.

Peeta got to his feet. “You don’t have to make people like you, Katniss. Haven’t you heard the rumors? You’re the Girl on Fire, remember? They’ve been calling you that in broadcasts and the others were sneering it at you during training.”

“They want to like you, Everdeen,” Haymitch drawled, leaning back and crossing his legs. “Just be yourself. You volunteered in place of your baby sister and that’s all you care for. And Mellark?”

“I know, I know. No, I don’t have a girlfriend. I’m focused on the Games. Parents and my brothers are watching, yeah. I know.”

“…You know her as the Girl on Fire!”

Haymitch backhanded him gently on the chest to make sure he was paying attention and Gale blew out a breath to study his Tribute. His friend. The girl he was pretty sure he wanted to spend the rest of his life with…if they got through this. Flickerman’s introduction of her was fulsome, and he seemed to pour more emotion into it, as if sincerely interested in Katniss as the interview went along.

The noise in the auditorium was like a storm. Katniss was visibly overwhelmed, but she got herself together before too long, and Gale was enormously proud of her.

She somehow found a tentative smile which was well received. And then she displayed the gown Cinna had created for her. The flames—clearly Katniss had an image to maintain, that none of the others had and or could imagine being gifted with—flared out from the skirt as Katniss spun on stage.

“Wow,” Gale whispered. He wasn’t the only one, either. Exclamations were heard in front of all the screens.

“No one said they could have trick outfits!” one Mentor complained in a shrill way. “That’s not fair!”

“And Caesar thanked her? What the hell?!” another Mentor cried, his voice echoing.

“Hey, hey, it’s totally legal,” Haymitch shouted over the rising noise. “Just because your Stylists are used to the status quo…”

“Shut up!” Gale called out. “They’re not done!”

“New kid,” Sasha muttered, nearly at Gale’s elbow. “Relax. Nothing you haven’t heard.”

Caesar Flickerman took Katniss’s hand and asked her about Prim, and Gale’s heart clenched.

“I told her that I would try to win. That I would try to win for her,” Katniss told the man, clearly, distinctly, and without any of the airs someone else might have.

Prisca sighed. “They love her, you know. That big aww. And now Caesar will get them all teary over her. Watch.” She shot a near-glare at Gale. “This won’t help her fight, you know.”

“But it might help her get Sponsors,” Gale countered, willing himself to be as strong as Katniss was, that night. “And if it does, my hat’s off to Caesar Flickerman.”

“You did it, darling! That was incredible!” Effie was the first one to greet Katniss as she returned from the interview, looking shocked and in need of a hug or a drink. Neither were things Katniss usually indulged in, but Gale would have in her shoes.

“Nice job, sweetheart,” Haymitch said next, clapping his hands slowly.

Katniss shrugged off the compliment with a tired chuckle and Gale felt he could add his comment in at that time without everyone thinking…well…the truth about his feelings for the girl. “You were fantastic. Loved the dress.”

That earned him a genuine grin and Gale silently congratulated himself. “Thank you.”

“Bet Prim is proud of you, too,” he added.

She didn’t smile at that but nodded soberly. “I’ll do my best for her.”

“We know, dear,” Effie said, fussing with a loose strand of Katniss’s hair. “Oh, look! Peeta’s turn and then we can all go.”

By that time, there was more alcohol flowing backstage, and Tributes and Mentors were more clustered together in their District groupings. Rue and Thresh had joined Sasha, but they had moved to another screen during Katniss’s interview.

Peeta’s interview was an entirely different sort. He and Caesar chatted like friends, talking about the Capitol and the showers, of all things. Gale smiled at Katniss. “He’s really good.”

She bit her lip. “Yeah. But smelling each other?”

“Well, it’s not like he has a dress that catches fire,” Haymitch muttered. “But don’t worry. He’s really good. They love him.”

“Yeah, I can see that.”

Caesar then went on to ask if Peeta had someone waiting for him back home.

“No,” Peeta said with a regretful smile. “I’ve been baking a lot of bread, lately. No time for girls.”

“Baking…bread?” Flickerman repeated, clearly amused. “Well, ladies, here’s a man who’s good in the kitchen!” That got a general laugh.

“If you win, I hope you’ll get someone to bake for you, Peeta. Maybe even a cake!” More laughter followed and Caesar stood up, catching Peeta’s hand to lift it like a champion’s hand. He’d done the same with the twenty-three Tributes before, too. “District Twelve, Peeta Mellark!”

It was over.

Tomorrow, the Games would begin.

Chapter Ten: Let the Games Begin

“I hate this part,” Haymitch confessed as they watched Portia and Cinna lead Peeta and Katniss toward the elevator. He didn’t say anything else until their Tributes and Stylists had gone through the doors, turned, and nodded with determined, optimistic expressions. Then, he pushed out a hard breath and turned to go back into their suite. “Sucks. Really does. Never gets easier.” He shot a look at Gale, who was following and doing his best to focus on him. “At first? I was effing seventeen the first time I had to do this. Sev-en-flipping-teen. Didn’t really have a Mentor, either. The Escort they assigned Twelve was a man that reminded me of Flickerman.”

Gale snorted and Haymitch shrugged.

“It was what it was. And the next year, same guy was the Escort, but I was a Mentor and that was that. I had to watch two kids, one my age and one not even old enough to swear, walk out of this same damned suite and out to the Games.”

Haymitch paced like an angry wildcat throughout the common living area and Gale, sensing the frustration and anger building in him, let him continue without comment, leaning against a wall. If everything he was hoping for died a horrible, bloody, violent death in the next day or week, there was every chance Gale himself would be just like Haymitch. Just as angry. Just as determined to put a stop to the madness.

“Last year,” the older man went on, pausing in his temper-fueled strides to stare at the bourbon decanter, “I watched you and Fern go and I remember thinking that if you both died, I’d…try to drink myself to death.”

“Haymitch!” Gale pushed off the wall. “You never said!”

“Meh. I didn’t have to do it, did I? You won.” Still, there was regret in the lined blue eyes, a tiredness that pulled at the older man’s face. “So now we do it together, watching ’em go. Crap. I’m so tired of this. I really am. Let’s get one of them back and finish it, yeah?”

“Yeah. It’s harder than I thought it would be, to see ’em leave like that.”

“I know.” Haymitch shook himself visibly and rolled his shoulders. “Come on. We don’t just sit here waiting. We’ve got people to see. Possible Sponsors to schmooze with. And,” he added with a sharp look at odds with his demeanor, “we need to find a place to watch the Games. Location is important.”

“Right. Okay.”

“Ten minutes. Bring your most charming smile,” Haymitch advised, smiling in a horrible facsimile of charm.

Gale tried to smile as well. “I’ll do my best.” They separated then, each nodding to the familiar Avox who emerged from one wing of the penthouse with a double armful of what looked like laundry. It struck Gale with a cold wave of terror, seeing the visible reminder that Katniss—and Peeta—had left the building and weren’t coming back that day. Shaking it off, he reached his own room and leaned on the door after he closed it behind him.

There would be no trace of Katniss Everdeen in that room anymore. That room where they’d spent what might easily be their last evening together.

He’d been on edge, keyed up after the interviews, and had gone looking for her, but she wasn’t in her room. Instead, she and Peeta were talking in an alcove that overlooked the raucous Plaza below. Gale could hear the wild sounds of desperation from the Capitoline residents. He hadn’t meant to eavesdrop on Katniss and Peeta, truly, but he’d been staring at her nevertheless until Peeta called out to him.

“Gale? Can’t sleep?”

He’d jolted back to himself and was thankful for the shadows in the suite at that hour. “Uh, yeah. I couldn’t last year, either.”

“Neither can we,” Katniss had said. “Can you hear them from your room?” She had jerked her thumb at the window and Gale knew she referred to the revelers below. “It’s insane.”

“It is, yeah.”

Katniss got to her feet and swept her hand in Peeta’s direction. “Peeta was saying that—”

“Katniss!” the boy hissed harshly.

“What? It’s not like he hasn’t thought the same things, Peeta.”

Hesitant to pry, but also curious, Gale had stepped closer to the two of them, hands in the pockets of his trousers and trying hard not to look too Mentor-ish. Not to be an outsider, someone they would bar from their company at such a sensitive juncture. “There’s a lot to think about, the night before.”

“What were you thinking about?” Katniss asked, folding her hands in front of her. The lights from the Plaza caught her face at an angle and it was all Gale could do not to trace the familiar planes. “Last year? Did you and…”

“Fern,” Gale supplied with a nod. “We didn’t meet here, no, but we talked, yeah. It’s normal to be scared. To think of one’s imminent demise,” he said, trying to provoke at least a little decrease of Peeta’s tension.

It didn’t work. The younger man made a dismissive gesture with one hand. “My biggest thing is that I don’t want them to change me,” he stated. “We see the Mentors every year, you know. And some of them, they change.” His look to Gale was almost a glare. “Even in the Games, it seems like the Tributes are thinking of the…the Sponsors more than survival.”

“The Sponsors often provide the means for survival,” Gale reminded them both. “But I get it. And it changes you. I promise you that. Those that make it out…we’re changed forever. I’m sure that’s part of the retribution the Capitol wants to make sure we understand. They control it all.” He had to be careful with his words, though, so he pushed that line of thought away. “Anyway. I get it. Anything I can, well, help with, tonight?”

Katniss looked to Peeta for an instant before shaking her head. “We were both just, you know, up.”

“Well, try to get some rest,” Gale advised before, reluctantly, turning from them. He didn’t want to keep Katniss and Peeta from whatever moral support they required.

He was, though, disappointed that he hadn’t found Katniss alone. Until she stole up behind him, steps soundless in the dark hallway that led to his and Haymitch’s rooms.

“Gale?” she whispered, her voice only barely reaching his ear. “I’m scared.”

He didn’t think, didn’t plan. He only responded, opening his door and pulling her in behind him, signaling her to silence as they had done when they went hunting in Twelve, before pulling her gently into his arms.

She was trembling. Katniss Everdeen. His Catnip. He half-rocked her as they stood in his quiet quarters, his lips in her hair, not daring to say anything as he did his best to reassure her by his presence, his touch, his strength. Slowly, she relaxed against him, her hands at the small of his back, her cheek at his shoulder, her forehead pressed against his throat.

“What if…” Her words, barely breaths, brushed against his skin and he felt a sudden rush of heat throughout his body.

He pressed one finger to her lips, though, and led her to the adjoining bathroom, holding her hand as he turned on the shower and closed the door, keeping them standing right next to it. He touched his forehead to hers. “I’m scared, too,” he whispered, his voice hardly audible around the sounds of the shower. “But we’re working on it, Haymitch and me. Remember to stay as close to the boundary as you can.”

“I’ll remember.” She tilted her head, then, and met his eyes. “Thank you,” she murmured, her lips making the words tangible to his understanding.

He gathered her a little closer, bringing his mouth nearer to hers. She didn’t move away when he pressed the words, “You’re welcome” to her skin. They were followed by, “I love you, Katniss. Remember that.” All spoken as kisses against the soft skin between lips and ears.

“Gale…” She drew in a sharp breath before holding his face between her hands. “Really?”

He nodded, his fingers somehow tightening of their own accord on the silky fabric of her pajamas. The light over the shower, which was now billowing with a sandalwood-scented steam, showed him the smile on her face, the hesitant hope in her clear gray eyes. Then, she shocked him by pushing her body nearer to his and kissing him.

It was a brief kiss, one that felt like it might have been her very first, and Gale’s heart leapt to receive it. It was a gift, that kiss. Even if he never had another, he’d remember the light, tentative pressure of it until the day he died.

The Avox—he hadn’t even asked her name, so he couldn’t tell anyone who she was, in case there was trouble—brushed past him, bedsheets in her arms that smelled faintly of Katniss. He touched the girl in the white day-tunic and asked, “Did you get to my room, yet?” She nodded, offering him the quickest significant look he could have imagined. “Thank you.”

He could offer gratitude to an Avox without incurring suspicion, he supposed. He wasn’t a Capitoline resident; he was just an outlier from District Twelve. Without any apparent haste, he entered his room, and headed to the bathroom, as any man might. And then, he found the note, written two spins into the roll.

Trying for D3.

Escape ready?

Trusting.

No pressure, he told himself before handling this note as he done with the last one of its type. Third day of the Games. If it went as they were trying to plan. Okay. There was absolutely no way to communicate that to Katniss and Peeta, though, so Gale could only hope that Katniss’s skills and Peeta’s social savvy would be enough to keep them alive until then.

>>>>||<<<<

There were viewing tables in the Plaza.

Everything in Gale rebelled to see them. His arms tightened as if he were preparing to throw the shiny white tables and chairs into the flat windows of the nearest buildings. The bench seats were also occupied. Those who wanted to enjoy the Games with their friends and family were seated in them, nibbling or sipping with apparent delicacy on snacks while they did so.

Eating snacks. During the Hunger Games. The dichotomy made him want to scream himself hoarse.

Haymitch slapped him none too gently between the shoulder blades. “Got it outta your system, yet? Better. Time to mix and mingle, Hawthorne.”

“I’ll do my best.”

“I know you will. Right, then. There’s Prisca. Avoid the other Mentors at this stage. They’re competition. Afterward, on the train back? We’ll all get drunk and disorderly. But now, focus on the screens, our kids, and the Sponsors. Look, remember the Potters? There they are.”

Gale inhaled sharply and put on a pleasant, slightly flirtatious expression. “Ginger and Marston, right. Shouldn’t she be with Snow, right now?”

Haymitch made an equivocal gesture with one rough hand. “Eh. She’s probably given him a bunch of general-purpose bits to say if the occasion warrants it. Like that time about eleven years ago, when all but four of the Tributes were killed at the Cornucopia within five minutes. It was insane,” he concluded on a whisper. Gale watched his face, seeing the brief, powerful grief that narrowed the blue eyes. Then, the older man shook it off. “You might not remember, as you were still pretty young then—”

“My dad wasn’t keen on us watching the games,” Gale muttered.

His gaze flickered to the largest public screen where the display was in thirds. One third showed the empty and quiet Cornucopia, surrounded by deadly weapons, packs of food and water, and some coats, too, likely. Waterproofed. There was a tree line in view, as well. So, a forested Arena. Good. Katniss is at home in the woods. Good. He felt a tiny bit of inner tension slip away. It was a confirmation of the information he’d received not long ago. The Arena was somewhere between Districts 12 and 3, in the wild lands that belonged to neither.

“Yeah, well,” Haymitch said, talking away. “That one time, it was sickening. I mean, more than usual. The first night, everyone was really excited, but then by morning, they could see the Tributes had divided up and were just setting up their own territories, fortifying them and doing their own things, to stay safe and get adapted to the Arena. Snow, may he rot in Hell, had had a What a Great Bunch of Tributes speech the first night. But by the next afternoon, the Plaza was getting ugly.”

Gale had to swallow back a sudden rush of bile. “Because no one was killing anyone. Damn.”

“Right. So yeah, sometimes, Snow needs a speech. I’d guess, though, that Ginger Potter has got it all handled for the day, anyway. So, come on.”

Ginger’s hair wasn’t in the previous elaborate basket-weave but was down in a long curtain that swished about her white, silky pantsuit. “Gale Hawthorne! Haymitch Abernathy! So good to see you again. Come, join us.” She pointed to the largest screen. “Look, there’s your girl, the Girl on Fire, going to the final room for her gear. So glad you got to see her. And there’s Cato, who was also a Volunteer this year.” She smiled and pulled out a digital notepad. “I’ll want to make sure to remember them.” She tapped away on the small screen as her husband, Marston, joined them at the sharp-edged table.

Haymitch pulled himself to his feet and Gale did likewise as greetings were given and the usual social rules obeyed. “I’ve got money down on your girl,” Marston confided. His braid was snaking over his chest as he spoke. He made an approving sound as he nodded to the screen. “An eleven. So…what are we going to see from her?” He looked at Gale, but it was Haymitch who answered.

“Katniss Everdeen is sharp as a tack, Potter. You heard her interview, right?”

Potter’s eyes went round and he looked so much like Caesar Flickerman for a moment that Gale wondered if they were related. “Oh, my heart. She took it and just held it up somewhere and…wow. Yeah.” The pharmaceutical genius sniffled, and he might even have been sincere. “Right, well. If her tack gets a bit dull, you come find me. I haven’t seen such an appealing interview for years.”

Ginger Potter leaned back and slid her notepad into a pocket. “Oh, that was so affecting. She was so good. Yet, she clearly hated being on stage. It was so…” The woman seemed to dig through her own mental thesaurus. “Innocent. Determined. I loved that. And that dress! Well, Cinna is your Stylist, right? He’s new and I Ioved his work at that show last spring. Oh, yes. You have such a good team.”

A gasp echoed around the entire Plaza. A camera that was set on the top of the wide, metal structure panned to see all the Tributes as they surfaced in the isolation tubes. Gale remembered how his own heart was racing as his tube opened and disappeared, leaving him on a pedestal that would explode within seconds of the timer going off on the Cornucopia.

There they were, and they looked so young. That girl, Rue, from Eleven was so tiny. And the boy from Seven. Where was Katniss?

The Gamemakers had the video focus and pause on her and Gale ground his jaw to avoid saying anything there in front of Ginger and Marston Potter. Didn’t matter, really, because they spoke instead.

“She looks good, gentlemen,” Ginger remarked thoughtfully. “Did you have any last minute advice for her?”

Haymitch shrugged. “The basics, you know. Find water. Get out of the way. Stay alive.”

“And you, Mr. Hawthorne?” Marston inquired, his gaze still on the screen, though the faces were now tense and watching the countdown. “Any last words?”

“I advised them to stick together,” he said as the timer got down to 10. “I didn’t have the chance, last year, but I wished I had.”

He got a glimpse of Peeta shaking his head in the general direction where Katniss had been standing and he wondered what that was about. Was she indicating a direction for them to run? Had she seen the shiny, silver bow and arrow set in the middle of the weapons cache? Hell no, Catnip. Stay away from that!

There were no more questions as the voices in the Plaza started to count down with the timer. Out loud. As if this were some sort of sporting event. All while the Tributes were looking fit to run a race, knees bent, hands flexing, an eye on a destination.

Get out! Get out of there! Go! Somehow, he felt that Peeta would run to the trees as he’d been told. But would Katniss? Or would she go for the weapons?

“Three! Two! One!” And then the low, eerie tone sounded and twenty-four people jumped, hopped, or ran to get off their pedestals. No one suffered the tragic fate of Fern, he was glad to see. Perhaps all of their Mentors or Stylists—who were the last ones to see them before the Games began—had reminded them of Fern’s fate.

Gale didn’t know. He was just relieved not to see that again.

And then, there was no time for relief. “Good man, Mellark,” Haymitch said, nodding as Peeta ran like the wind to the shelter of the trees.

He was not the only one, but he was the fastest. But then, the focus was on the bloodbath. Cheers in the Plaza reached his ears, but Gale didn’t heed them. He was watching for a distinctive face, a long, thick braid that he knew so very well. A face he’d caressed just the night before.

And she wasn’t running! Dammit, Catnip! Move!

“What is she doing?” Ginger Potter mused in a languid fashion that grated on Gale’s heart.

“Oh, look. The girl from Two got a pack and ran for the hills!” Mr. Potter remarked. “Smart girl. She’s not strong enough to go toe-to-toe with, say, the boy from Eleven.”

“Very true, my love.”

It took just about all that Gale had not to give way to the roiling anger in his gut over their casual spectatorship. They can help, he reminded himself. Stay cool. They can help if there’s a problem.

“Oh, nice job,” Haymitch said, slapping Gale’s bicep with the back of his hand. “Look. She got a pack and ran. Smart.”

“Oh, no, someone’s after her.”

“Katniss is fast on her feet,” Gale said, wanting to reassure himself as much as the potential Sponsors.

“Oh, you know her well?”

Ginger Potter’s question chilled Gale, and he instantly remembered all the people he had to protect in his next sentence.

“We all went to school together, in Twelve. She’s two years behind me, but our dads both worked the mine.”

“Ah—oh look! She’s down!”

“What?!” Terror seized Gale’s throat as one third of the screen caught Katniss falling and nearly dying by a brutal battle-axe. But then, Clove from Two killed that boy with a wicked knife throw. She tried to do the same to Katniss, but Katniss lifted her pack and used it as a shield.

“Well done, Girl on Fire!” Marston declared, pretending to lift a glass to her. “Stopped the attack and acquired a weapon all at once.” He leaned to his wife. “I like her.”

>>>>||<<<<

“And that marks the end of another Tribute,” Caesar Flickerman announced later that afternoon. There had been twelve percussive sounds. Twelve deaths, all at the Cornucopia.

Ginger and Marston Potter had reminded Gale and Haymitch to look them up. “Really, she’s our favorite so far, and I love to see a strong girl who loves her family,” Ginger said, nodding as if approving of a press release. “She made quite an impact.”

“Thank you,” Haymitch said smoothly. “We’ll remember. Come on, Gale. Let’s go find a drink.”

As they walked, mingling as was required, Haymitch was ranting under his breath. “Damned fool kids. I told ’em to stick together. Didn’t you tell ’em to stick together?”

“I did, yeah. And Peeta started off but then Katniss…decided she needed supplies.” Haymitch swore and Gale held up a hand. “Hey, she stayed away from the bow, right? So that was smart. I’m hoping whatever was in that pack was worth it.”

“You an’ me both.”

The screens were now split in half, Claudius Templesmith on one side and—at the moment—the Tributes from Eleven hustling through the trees together. Even as they watched, though, the male, Thresh, stopped them to talk to little Rue. Then, they split up. Templesmith mused as to why that might be the case.

Gale didn’t have the patience to wait any longer. And, as they were just then alone, huddled together like other groups of Mentors he could see around the Plaza just then, he figured he could talk. “This is going to sound, well, ignorant. Sorry. But. Do the Avoxes get stripped of any skills? Like how to fly?”

Haymitch blinked and pursed his lips for a silent whistle. “Maybe. I’ll ask around. You got the thing ready?”

“I do.”

“Well.” The older man blew out a breath and turned to watch the screen again. “Impressive. You’ll have to tell me about it. Later.”

“Later.”

They continued to watch, buying food from wandering vendors. Extravagantly spiced meats and frothy beverages came and went and they watched. Katniss and Peeta had yet to connect and, with every hour that passed, Gale grew more worried.

Still, the pair of them were alive by the end of the day, and that was good. Half the Tributes weren’t.

>>>>||<<<<

“You look like hell,” Haymitch remarked when they accepted breakfast from the young Avox who had, for better or worse, helped them out so far.

Gale poured coffee into his cup, spooning sugar into it immediately thereafter. “Tell me you sleep the first night every year?” The coffee was hot, but it helped to jolt him to a better sense of his environment, so he welcomed it even as Haymitch tippled a bit of something from a flask into his own coffee. “I kept the screen on, just in case, all night.”

The other man stood and gathered what he wanted to eat before collapsing back onto his chair. “First night? Well, yeah. I sleep. I slept last night, honest. Though,” he went on to say, pulling apart a biscuit and topping it with marmalade, “it took me about eight years before I could do that, so I honestly don’t blame you.”

“Good morning!” Effie called as she click-clacked her way into the dining area. “Is there water? I am so dehydrated. Last night was exhausting! Oh, there it is!” She poured water into a blue goblet and drank it all off in one go.

While she was doing that, Cinna and Portia entered. Portia filled her water goblet as well and took a blue pill, while Cinna went for coffee with more cream and sugar than Gale had ever seen anyone use before.

“You all right?” Gale asked, keeping his voice low in case Cinna had a hangover. The pill Portia took was a stimulant; he’d seen them before. Cinna, though, looked to be handling his headache the old-fashioned way.

Cinna held up a hand, drank his coffee, and sank gracefully onto his usual seat. The Avox stepped around the table, now that everyone was there, and moved the serving plates about to be more convenient, as well as replacing the water pitchers.

Effie selected pastries and requested some fresh fruit. “Well, then,” she said, obviously going for Group Leader position. Which, Gale supposed, made sense as she was their Escort. “Today! I watched the overnight report while I was in the shower,” she said, pulling apart her pastry and selecting a bite-sized piece. “They’re still with us, which is to be expected.” She popped the pastry in her mouth and somehow continued to smile while she poured herself more water. After she swallowed, she kept talking as if she’d never stopped. “I know you’re anxious for them, especially you, Gale and Cinna, as it’s your first year, but they’re doing great. I saw Katniss was looking for water and Peeta found a group that’s taken him on for the time being.”

Gale winced and Haymitch rolled his eyes. “That was not the strategy,” Haymitch said, throwing his napkin on the table. “They’re supposed to stick together!”

“I’m sure they will, Haymitch. Relax! It hasn’t even been twenty-four hours, yet.”

The Avox replaced Haymitch’s napkin and tapped it as if to draw attention to it. Gale glanced at her and caught the barely significant light in her eyes, but he looked away immediately and grabbed a piece of bacon. She had left a message, he was pretty sure. Nerves buzzed under his skin. They were really doing this, but how the hell were they going to get them both out if Katniss and Peeta weren’t together?

Portia was peeling an orange. “I’m thinking positive on this one. Gale Hawthorne, you may have made me an optimist.” Gale tried to smile, but he felt weird doing so. The woman continued. “I’m designing an ensemble for Peeta’s Victory Tour. I feel so inspired!”

Cinna nodded. “Our Girl on Fire will make it. I just feel it,” he said quietly, pushing his fried potatoes about on his plate. “So I’ve got some ideas for a Victory Tour, as well.” Portia huffed dramatically but Cinna only shrugged. “No apologies here.”

“Well, it sounds like we’ll all be very busy, today. I’ll be checking in with my stylists, of course, because if you’re going to be optimists, so am I!” Effie plucked another piece of her pastry up and tossed it in her mouth.

From the lounge, a rich voice with a practiced curl emanated from all the hidden speakers. “And now, here’s Claudius Templesmith with a recap of the first day of the 74th Hunger Games!”

The Hunger Games were broadcast 24/7 during the day on a dedicated channel. Periodically, the Gamemakers would make appearances on featured broadcasts with “Hunger Games Highlights” as well. Gale was not surprised to find the Games being shown in the lounge as he and the others finished eating.

“Be right back,” he murmured, hurrying from the table to his private bath. “I want a chair!” he called over his shoulder. He grabbed a pen on his way to the toilet. After doing the needful, he unrolled the toilet paper to find, yes, another note.

Ask for Flex.

Tell him Lavinia sent you because he can fly.

You’ll have to buy or borrow him from the Transfer.

Gale felt hope surge in his chest with this message. After reading it twice, he disposed of it in the best method before rejoining everyone in the lounge.

Haymitch was smirking; he’d taken the only chair, the jerk. Gale shot him a look and angled his chin at the screen. “News?”

The team was still together in the lounge; even that show of support struck Gale badly, that day. The desire to see the latest body count, to see what the Tributes were doing, how they were plotting on killing one another or finding food without getting caught and killed while doing it…It was awful. He’d always thought so. Even more since he had been the Victor the year before and had had to face the families of the Tributes who had died in the 73rd Games.

The older Mentor pointed at the viewing screen. “Well, the Careers have all teamed up, surprise, surprise. And, uh—”

“Peeta’s with them,” Portia said breathlessly, her fingers laced together, and her body language filled with tension as she studied Gale. “Something about hunting down, ah, That Girl on Fire.”

Cinna grimaced and pushed himself to his feet. “Well, I’m still unofficially betting on her, so I’m going to work on her Victory Interview outfit. Coming?”

Portia allowed the other Stylist to help her up. “Peeta’s smart. He’ll get back to her. You said you had talked about a plan?”

Haymitch blew out a breath. “It involved their sticking it out together, though. This is not the plan.”

The screen flickered and a small figure darted across it through slanting rays of light in the forest. “And look there,” Templesmith said, his voice high and excited. “The girl from Eleven is running off with one of Clove’s knives. Remember, Clove is said to have a great skill with those. Oh, and there Clove goes, and it’s a chase! She threw another one—and missed!”

Gale gripped the back of the sofa until his hands hurt. Rue, the girl’s name was Rue, and he knew by something Katniss had said that Rue reminded Katniss of her sister.

“No one volunteered to take Rue’s place,” she’d whispered when they were talking quietly after they’d kissed. “I don’t think I could…could be the one to kill her. I—”

“I would never expect you to,” he had assured Katniss.

Her body had trembled in his embrace and he’d pulled her even closer. She pushed her forehead against him. “I’m not cut out for this. I don’t want anyone to die, Gale. I just want it done.”

“I know.”

“But I can’t win unless…I’ll have to, at least once, right?” She blew out a breath. “Am I that strong? That, that ruthless?”

“Do you want to live? I want you to live, Catnip. I want you to come home with me. I want…I want it all. I do. Eventually.”

She’d gripped him tightly and nodded. “I want to live. I want to go home with you. Take them all away with us. I want all of that. You make me want to want more, Gale. Is that, is that enough?”

He’d smiled and kissed her hair, lingering and rocking her back and forth a little as they stood together. “It’s enough. For now.”

“I can’t let her die, though. I won’t. Not if I can help it. Rue, I mean.”

“Just…do your best to come home, Catnip.”

“I will.”

It came, then, as no surprise at all to Gale when a sharp wooden arrow flew out of the trees, making Clove stumble enough so that Rue could skip away.

“Well!” Templesmith said, glee ringing in his voice. “Someone’s watching out for that little girl. Let’s see if we can find out…ah, it’s Katniss Everdeen! The Girl on Fire! Look at that!” There was a swooping shot of Katniss darting away, a rough-hewn bow in her hand and her pack on her back as she went.

Gale could not help his grin. That’s my girl.

>>>>||<<<<

“Her name’s Lavinia.”

They were entering the party-never-stops atmosphere which was The Plaza during the Hunger Games. All the screens were showing different views, to provide for even more noise and bustle. One was a shot of the Gamemakers, but no audio was included. Just a look at Seneca Crane as, with hands on hips, he was performing some kind of countdown. Haymitch looked focused on the nearest screen, which showed Peeta and Cato, from District 2, chasing someone across an open meadow.

Their prey wasn’t wearing Katniss’s backpack, so Gale wasn’t as interested.

Haymitch grunted. “The Avox? Good. I feel like crap, now, not having asked her.”

“So do I,” Gale confessed. “She wrote it down. I’ve gotta get us a pilot.”

The other man pinned him with a wry side-eye. “You’re the newest Victor, Hawthorne, and you’re Mentor for the Girl on Fire. You’ve got, what did they call it in the books? Carte blanche.”

“Does that mean money?” Gale asked with a shake of his head. “More than you already gave me?” Haymitch handed over a chip-card without comment. Blowing out a breath, Gale managed to say, “Okay. Thanks. And what are you doing, today?”

Haymitch inhaled, pressed his lips together, and rolled up on his toes. “I’m gonna use some of my other, ah, resources. I’ve got a debt to pay.”

Parts of their conversation on the day before the Reaping came to the forefront of Gale’s memory. “Right, then. I’ll handle the vacation arrangements. And if I see any of our…friends…I’ll give them your regards.”

“Perfect. Thanks.” Haymitch straightened his jacket—a dark one, appropriate for meeting with Sponsors that they might need at any moment—and stepped away.

Left on his own, Gale felt momentarily vulnerable. The heaving, noisy mass of humanity that surrounded him, combined with the multiple broadcast options, made him want to cover his eyes and ears for a few moments to gain some peace. He didn’t.

What he did do was look for a familiar face, to help him with getting an Avox from Transfer. Most of the people he knew had some form of employment, even in the Capitol, but he thought he might find someone in the Plaza as the hour drew toward midday.

He was just surprised to find Dr. Smith and her husband.

“Gale Hawthorne!” Grigson called out, his voice clear over the myriad others. “Your Tributes are doing quite well, today.”

Putting on a smile, Gale made his way to their table and sat when invited. “I didn’t know you’d be out, this morning.”

“Well,” the cryosurgeon said, sipping on a bottle of something fizzy, “we’re taking a long, early lunch. Where’s Abernathy?”

Gale leaned back in his chair. “Oh, meeting and greeting on his own. Figured I needed the practice solo, I guess, for a while.”

The couple laughed politely, and Gale wondered if he could ask them. “And yes, Katniss and Peeta are doing well, so far. We’re quite proud of them.”

Grigson nodded. “I should think so. But,” he went on, leaning forward and offering Gale an unopened sandwich, “you have the look of a man who’s hunting for something, yourself.”

Gale froze for a moment, took the sandwich, and gathered his thoughts while he broke the seal on the food. The sun passed behind some clouds, and he didn’t know if that was a bad omen or not, but he figured nothing ventured, nothing gained.

“After the Games, I’m wanting to take my girlfriend and our families on a little vacation.”

Dr. Smith—whose hair that day looked like the tip of a candle’s flame—beamed. “What a lovely idea! Are you bringing them here to the Capitol? I imagine they’d enjoy the novelty of everything. You could show them around!”

He smiled at her but shook his head. “Kind of thinking to get away from it all, you know? And I wondered if you knew where I might hire a pilot. I heard there were Avoxes in Transfer that would be capable.”

“Oh, yes. Actually, we do have a…few…who are adequate for such an endeavor.” She cocked her head in a critical manner. Much, he imagined, as she would do when presented with a surgical oddity. “You should talk to Crassus, who is their overseer. Crassus Torte. Tell him I sent you,” she added with a wicked little smile. “And if he asks…intimate questions? Make something up.”

He blushed and she seemed to find that amusing. Thanking her, he asked where he might find Crassus Torte, and got the appropriate directions. “I really appreciate your recommendation,” he assured her.

“Oh, I’m sure. I hope you and your…girlfriend will have a great getaway. It’s always nice to take some time alone. You can make it up to me and Grigs next time you’re in the Capitol.”

His insides turned to ice, but he brought out a practiced smile. “I will definitely let you know when I’m back.”

>>>>||<<<<

Even having watched the Hunger Games for basically his entire life, Gale did not realize how awful the constant eyes-on aspect of all the Arena cameras could be. The year before he’d been reaped, during the 72nd Hunger Games, he had only been angry at the situation and horrified when both Tributes from his District met their ends. As they had. Every single year of his life until the last year.

During his own Games, the fact of the cameras and the attention being paid to them was peripheral; he didn’t think about it while trying to stay alive. Occasionally, he’d remember to look at them, but only when he was having a restful moment. Haymitch had been adamant about the need to appear strong and confident to inspire Sponsorship. Gale had done his best but hadn’t thought about the wider idea of being under the gaze of all of Panem during the Games.

While he was making his way to the Transfer offices, though, he couldn’t help but be aware of the cameras in the Arena. All the Tributes were seen, at one point or another, depending upon how interesting they were. Cato, from Two, was the apparent leader of the Career group that had oddly adopted Peeta Mellark. The Career Alliance invariably had a lot of screen time and all around the Plaza, Gale could hear the cheers for them and individual names being shouted and bets being placed.

But then, there were others, and on the screen at that moment were Katniss and Rue, who had clearly set up an alliance of their own.

“Looks like they’re trying to find water,” Flickerman was saying, an air of tense anticipation about him. “Did you see, Claudius, how young Rue was digging up the roots by that tree while Katniss was using that small branch to check the soil?”

“I did indeed, Caesar. They’re showing their survival training, I’m sure, that they learned here after the Reaping.”

Gale scoffed silently. Katniss had known how to find water before he’d ever seen her fire an arrow.

“Their alliance is certainly proving beneficial, though it seems odd, to me,” Templesmith went on to say. Then, he gave his co-host a scripted segue. “What about you, Caesar?”

“Oh, I think she’s taking care of Rue as she would have hoped someone would have taken care of her sister. You remember the Reaping, of course!”

Templesmith affected a dramatic expression. “I do! Well, let’s hope that they find their water soon!”

Gale stayed to watch for the next half-hour. As a Mentor, it was expected that he would be avidly interested in the Games, and so his appearance in the Plaza was in no way suspicious.

“And look, there’s Cato from Two! And he and Peeta Mellark from Twelve are still working together, there. That is an odd partnership, but it seems that they have, ah, look!” Caesar exclaimed, handing the conversation over to Claudius.

“I see it! They’ve stockpiled everything there at the Cornucopia. As long as they are in an alliance, this group has nothing to worry about.”

How long would the Gamemakers let that stand, Gale had to wonder.

He was also wondering about Katniss and the water. Others had found water, and the Careers had it bottled—Peeta was fully hydrated, for sure—but Katniss wouldn’t last long unless she could get to some.

>>>>||<<<<

“You’re Gale Hawthorne! Crassus Torte, at your service.”

Gale shook hands with the Transfer official, noting the eager, grasping light in his pale eyes. “Thank you for meeting with me. I’m looking for a skilled pilot, and I heard you had an Avox who might be available for me after the Games. Flex was his name, I heard. I apologize if this is inconvenient timing,” he went on as Crassus’s gaze kept flickering to the by now ubiquitous display screen. “But I don’t have a lot of personal time while I’m here for the Games.”

“Oh, right! Sure!” Crassus’s cheeks went red with embarrassment. He keyed up a screen from the monitor in front of him. “If you tell me where you’ll be later, I can send that Avox to your suite.”

Gale stared at him; was the man that uninformed? Maybe. “In the Tower. District Twelve has the penthouse.”

Crassus’s forehead furrowed as he made notes. “Right. He’ll have the standard rental contract with him. Deposit required in advance. Will he be flying you back to your District from here, Mr. Hawthorne?”

Gale managed to barely hide his worried wince, saying with confidence he tried to make certain: “If all goes well, no. I’ll be riding the train home with my Tribute, of course. I’ll be requiring his services to fly the hovercraft to pick up my friends.”

“Right. Of course! Sorry,” he added with a rueful smile. “We don’t get requests like this that often.”

Chapter Eleven: Finding Water

“She’ll be wanting our water,” Peeta was telling the Career Alliance on the screen that evening. “She’d come here.”

Cato took stabs at empty air with a wide-bladed sword. “Are you sure? You’re not trying to protect the other Tribute from your District, there, Strongman?”

Gale had heard that Strongman was the nickname the others in their alliance had given Peeta. It had a derogatory edge, as if the only thing Peeta had going for him was muscles, but his strength had served them during the day already, in a fistfight that had resulted in three Tributes being knocked unconscious.

One of them had died. It was possible Peeta was responsible. It was likely to be someone else, though. The baker’s son didn’t seem the type to make an early kill like that.

“Protect Katniss? Are you kidding? She’s scarier than I am. She volunteered, remember.” Peeta scoffed and took a knife from his pocket. It wasn’t a large weapon, but it was the only one Gale had seen on the younger man.

“So did I,” Cato said, growling a little and coming around as if to make Peeta a target. “Does that make me scary?”

“Hell, yes,” Peeta stated, smiling. “Like you didn’t know.”

Marvel and Glimmer, hands linked, followed Cato and they all studied Peeta. And then the focus of the screen shifted to a dark cave and the sound of rushing water.

In the penthouse lounge, Haymitch whooped. “She found some! Way to go, Katniss!”

They had gathered again to watch that evening, with Gale feeling guilty as they had had a full meal, drank their fill of whatever they wanted to drink, and had a climate-controlled environment. His day had been long and complicated, involving making arrangements to hire that pilot—Flex—and to find where Haymitch had disappeared and when he planned on returning.

He still hadn’t found out where the older Mentor had gone, but Gale had his suspicions, based upon the nearly manic energy that had shone from Haymitch’s eyes when they’d met in the Plaza before dinner.

“Can’t tell ya,” Haymitch had said gleefully. “But you’re a smart kid, you’ll figure it out before tomorrow, I’m pretty sure. Also, border security is a lot less stringent than I’d figured on.”

“Border as in over there or over here?” Gale didn’t want to be more specific, but he had to ask what he could.

“Yeah,” was all Haymitch would say. “Yeah.”

Haymitch had had more than twenty years to plot, out there in Victors’ Village. Twenty years to drink, plan, and wish for revenge for his family, his girlfriend, the life that he’d lost when he’d been Reaped…Gale knew that there was a lot of anger underneath the skin of the older Victor.

And Haymitch knew that he knew.

Gale suspected, though he couldn’t say he knew, exactly, that when he won the Games the year before, a spark was lit in Haymitch. Igniting a drive to get that vengeance he’d been craving for so long.

He did his best to banish his thoughts on that, though. Because he didn’t want to imagine losing Haymitch Abernathy, as odd as the man was; he was the irascible uncle that everyone wanted to make sure had a seat at the fire, a drink in hand, and something to eat. He was the man who knew how to fix things that were broken, or to make you see the value in the breaking.

Because he was a survivor. Like Gale was, himself.

“Oh no!” It was Portia, and she jumped up from the sofa, hands out. Effie Trinket had been sitting next to her and she stiffened as Portia continued. “No, Peeta! Don’t do that!”

Peeta and Marvel were staring one another down and the others had cleared a circle for them. Gale’s gut clenched. This would not end well. “Run if you have to,” he muttered to the viewing screen.

“Go! Go! Go!” the Tributes were shouting, cheering on the fighting teens. Gale couldn’t look away, sure that he’d see Peeta’s blood spilled right there as the sky went dark.

And then Peeta lost his knife.

Haymitch slapped his leg. “Shit.”

Effie hissed. “I hate this. Every year. I hate this.”

Portia turned and left the room, hands spread from her body as if to push everything away. Cinna didn’t say anything, so Gale didn’t turn to look at him, choosing instead to watch, just in case.

Marvel crowed, glancing at Glimmer. “What you got for the winner?”

“You’ll see!” she teased, looking for all the world like a Capitol girl on a date, Gale thought.

“Great!” Marvel turned, blade swinging through the air, but Peeta had moved, and the camera hadn’t shown it happening. There he went, rolling! Hitting Marvel’s legs out from under him and the District One Tribute fell…on his own sword.

The cannon fired a few seconds later and Peeta was left standing in the diminished circle of Careers, looking stunned and wary. The Tributes all looked to Cato who nudged Marvel’s bleeding body with his foot. “One down,” was all he said. “If you’re in the mood to fight, Strongman, let’s go to the river.”

“I don’t think she’ll be there, though,” Peeta protested.

Glimmer, still staring at Marvel’s cooling body, dashed tears from her cheeks. Gale wondered if they were real or just good acting on her part. Pretty girls did tend to get good Sponsorship at the Games. “I don’t care what you think, Strongman. I just want this to be over. Let’s go.”

The focus shifted back to the Hunger Games desk, where Flickerman and Templesmith were ready with their trite commentary. Haymitch tapped his shoulder and the two of them left the room.

“Effie,” Haymitch said flatly. “Hawthorne and I have to talk. Call if they show what happens at the river.”

“I hate this!” she said, her voice shrill. “I am going to need the maximum dose of Sleep, tonight!”

“Just remember to wait ’til you get to your room,” Haymitch called as they walked away. “I’m not carrying you to bed this time!”

“Oh, you! It was just the once and you could’ve gotten an Avox to do it!”

Gale growled. “When did it become all right to have a slave class?”

“When did it become all right to kill off over twenty children a year for something that happened seventy-five years ago?” Haymitch countered bitterly. He opened the door to his quarters. “Come on. I’ve got the latest stats on the remaining Tributes,” he said clearly, obviously in a bid to remind Gale that the walls had ears…

“Great. Any projected alliances?” Gale improvised, refraining from rolling his eyes at the lame repartee.

“Well, Katniss and Rue don’t surprise me, but—” Haymitch paused before indicating they should each take a chair and sit down— “I don’t know how long it’ll last.”

Gale huffed. “Why?” He spoke like they did on the broadcasts. “It’s obvious that Katniss is going to take care of Rue like she’d care for Primrose, her sister.” It was all right, he’d decided, to call Prim by name; they were from the same district and it was established that he knew Katniss and so, by extension, her whole family.

Haymitch sighed and rubbed his hands over his face. He was tired. They both were. “Hawthorne. Our Girl on Fire has a target on her back. You saw the Careers.”

The dread that poured through him was like nothing he’d felt when he’d been in the Arena. “I did, yeah.” He checked his watch. “Did you see the numbers, today?”

“Down three, last I heard, but there’ll be another update in an hour.” Haymitch rolled his chair to the small writing desk. It was a sleek white piece of furniture with what looked like inlaid jade along the edges. He started writing but was speaking at the same time. “And Peeta, you know, is doing pretty well. Good fighter. I was surprised to see that, to be honest.” He continued to write, motioning with his free hand for Gale to take over the burden of maintaining verbal observations.

“So was I. He did well in training. His hand-to-hand went well, and he’s got stamina.” Haymitch rolled his hands so Gale kept going. “Wish he’d stayed with Katniss. The other Districts mostly have their Tributes together just here at the beginning. Except for Eleven,” he went on, watching as Haymitch kept writing. The other man made a sound that could have been anything, so Gale continued to let his mind wander out loud. “That surprised me. I would have thought Thrush would have wanted to stay with Rue to keep an eye on her.”

“Remember what I told you last year,” Haymitch muttered, frowning over the paper, which he then folded with short, rapid presses of his fingers.

“To reconcile myself to my imminent demise, yeah. I guess both the Elevens learned that one already.”

Haymitch pushed himself away from the desk, tossing the folded paper to land on Gale’s lap. Gale didn’t remark upon it, as Haymitch got back to the spurious reason for their private conference. “So, we have to decide, Hawthorne, who we’re throwing our weight behind.”

“I hate this.” Gale pushed his chair so that he rolled across the floor to the wardrobe on one side of the room. Haymitch rolled his eyes but Gale could not have cared less. “Right. So.” He glared at his counterpart before saying what he thought would be impartial, keeping Katniss from being a target. Protecting himself and his family. All that he had to manage to get what he wanted… “Peeta’s looking strong, right now. The others in his alliance didn’t go after him after the fight with Marvel.”

“Do you think that was because Marvel basically died from bad balance or what?”

“How should I know?” What the hell? he mouthed silently. “I think it’s because he’s charismatic and they know it. The Careers are savvy about what looks good to Sponsors. They grow up with it. Peeta is a natural, that way, and they’re going to stick with him.”

A startled look in his eye, Haymitch nodded slowly. “Good points. So, if he stays with them, do you think they’ll just wait the rest out or go hunting?”

“Hard to say this early.”

“And Katniss?”

That was the rub. Haymitch’s gestures were saying, Read the paper, you idiot!

Gale unfolded it as noiselessly as he could while responding to the audible question. “Well, she’s tough. But Rue makes her vulnerable.” And he began reading while Haymitch began listing Katniss’s strengths and weaknesses—considerably edited, but also acknowledging that she received the Gamemakers’ highest score.

Tomorrow is the earliest the border can be compromised. I will be handling my own score as soon as possible after it happens, so be prepared to start your vacation early. There will likely be a lot of ’em if they pull it off tomorrow. Lots of Ts on the run.

Now. I left word with Sae. She’s smart. She will get the others out as soon as there’s a breech. She might bring along others, but that’s not your concern. You get yourself out with whoever gets to you on time.

Do not wait for me. I won’t make it, I don’t think. But that’s okay.

If we’re lucky, you won’t have to do this again, eh? Find Boggs here.

Haymitch had drafted a sketch of Panem with the district numbers in their usual places. Even District 13. Which was where Gale had been planning on going, anyway. So that was good.

Tell him I sent ya. May the odds be ever in your favor.

Gale blinked, swallowed, and felt his eyes burning as he stared at Haymitch, who was still talking.

“And that bow worked, but will she have time to make enough arrows, is what I want to know. And what if she’s got to go hand to hand?”

“She did pretty good in training,” Gale managed to say over the lump in his throat. “An eleven, remember?”

Haymitch sent him the three-finger salute from Twelve and Gale returned it. He didn’t know how else to respond.

Effie’s shrill voice broke into the momentary lull in Haymitch’s monologue. “Haymitch! Gale! They found them!”

Bolting out of their chairs so that the furniture rolled too fast and collided with the bed and chest of drawers, Gale and Haymitch scrambled to get to the viewing screen in the lounge. Cinna, Portia, and Effie were on their feet, fists clenched as the cameras ramped up their dark sight viewing to enhance the details on the confrontation to come.

What Gale saw, after studying the nearly motionless scene was that the Career Alliance had arrayed behind Cato from District 2 as the apparent leader. Behind him were Glimmer, Clove, the Tributes from Four, and Peeta. The sun had set by that time, but the sky over the Arena was lightened and darkened at the whim of the Gamemakers, so there was enough light to make sure the cameras got all the grisly details.

“Hey, Girl on Fire!” Cato yelled into the shadows. The Alliance was standing in full view on a shelf of what looked like granite, while the river drifted at their feet. “You shouldn’t be anywhere near the water.” He laughed at the lame joke and the Tributes with him laughed as well. Even Peeta appeared to be amused.

Gale reminded himself that the younger man knew how to put on a public face, though, so he didn’t read too much into Peeta’s current association.

Katniss didn’t respond verbally, but two arrows from two different vantage points had Glimmer and one of Tributes from Four dancing off the rock. The lad from Four shrieked before he started cursing, saying something about his ankle.

Cato turned to him. “Shut up! I can’t hear what they’re up to, idiot!”

Arrows were fired from another, different, spot in the trees on the other side of the river, but neither Katniss nor Rue had said anything. Gale wondered what they were trying to do. He figured Katniss had taught the youngest Tribute how to use a bow, in the most general terms. Firing arrows—even badly—could keep the other side off balance, which might be enough. Maybe.

Glimmer climbed back on the rock and Portia made some sort of odd sound when the District 1 girl edged to Peeta’s side and whispered something in his ear.

With a nod, Peeta moved to stand next to Cato. “Katniss, come on. Enough. You’re drawing this out for no reason.”

Another arrow flew from the trees, this time actually hitting Clove in the foot. Gale could see the shock and anger on the girl’s face as she jerked one of the knives sheathed on her arm and let it fly into the trees.

Every person in the penthouse suite, including the Avox in the corner, held their breath. Nothing happened. No scream, no shout, no apparent movement…until there was some. A quick bending of a branch and then another arrow!

“What the hell is Katniss playing at?” Haymitch growled.

Just then, the screen split to show another scene, and Claudius Templesmith provided commentary.

“Would you look at that? If you’ve been watching all day—and you know we have!—you will remember that the main Alliance this year was debating on whether or not to track down District Twelve’s Katniss Everdeen, the Girl on Fire! Peeta Mellark said she’d be trying for the bottled water and other supplies that the Alliance had gathered together. They’d been talking about booby trapping it only this morning, if you remember.”

“I do indeed, Claudius.” Caesar Flickerman’s far-too-happy face flashed on the second half of the screen before the entire screen’s focus switched to the Cornucopia and then the trees beyond it. “Remember this view, ladies and gentlemen. This is where it all began, this year, and there, just in the trees, you can see stacks of supplies and weapons. This year’s big Alliance has gathered all they could from the Cornucopia, it would appear. Now, if you look very carefully, you can see—ah, there we go, thank you Gamemakers—highlighted with a flaming orange, ha ha, for the Girl on Fire, is indeed the Girl on Fire. She’s creeping through the trees, apparently to pilfer from the supplies!”

“Good thing the booby traps weren’t established,” Claudius said offscreen. “Could have been messy.”

“I wonder what she’s…oh, yeah. It’s water. And look, she’s got a bag of something.”

“If she’s there,” Templesmith asked, his voice childlike in its wonder, “I wonder who’s firing the arrows at the river?”

“Let’s switch over to see, shall we?”

Haymitch snorted. “I told her to find water. She did. Twice. Why couldn’t she just stay at the river?”

“It’d tie her down, you know that,” Gale fumed at his Mentor. “If she is reliant on the river, they’ll know where to trap her. Like a hunter does his prey.”

Haymitch grunted and Cinna—who had turned to stare at him—asked, “She’s been hunting?”

“Hm?” Gale said, pretending to be innocent on that score. “Katniss? I’d never even asked about that.” Hunting was illegal, and he’d never actually asked her if she did it. Just asked her to meet him, or vice versa.

Clearing his throat, Haymitch pointed at the screen. “All right. So. I guess she, what, made a bow and arrow. Bunch of arrows. So that Rue had a way to defend herself?”

“She was the distraction,” Gale surmised, trying to relax and sit on the sofa. The others followed his example, surprising him a little. “So I’m going to guess that when Rue runs out of arrows, she’ll run away. She’s fast and it’s dark.”

Effie huffed and crossed her legs. “What about Peeta? Did he really abandon her?”

“I don’t think so,” Portia said softly, rubbing her hands together. “He’s a distraction, too. He…he mentioned wanting to keep an eye on the Careers.”

Haymitch slapped the arm of the chair he was in. “I told him to stick with her!

The picture returned to the river. “Look.” Gale pointed at the screen and everyone turned once again to focus on it. “Looks like they’re going to cross the river.” He felt sick. Little Rue was by herself, over there.

“You owe me for my foot!” Clove shouted, though she was seated and treating her wound with fresh water. “I’ll burn you up, Girl on Fire!”

Peeta moved ahead, and Gale had to believe it was so that he could stand with Katniss and Rue if necessary. “C’mon, Katniss. You’ve run out of arrows, right? You had to have. You didn’t take the quiver at the Cornucopia.”

“Right! Stupid girl didn’t even try for the weapons.” Clove looked with disgust at the arrow she’d removed from her own body. “This thing is so shoddy that it’ll break if I look at it too hard!”

Gale noted that she didn’t break it, however. An intact arrow—bloodied or not—was valuable.

Peeta was scowling into the trees. “Katniss Everdeen! You’re never getting to this water alive the way it’s going now.” A rock hit him on the head and Peeta dropped to his knees, clutching at one eye. “Hey!”

An axe in her hand, Glimmer sloshed through the thigh-deep water. “You know, I bet you are out of arrows! Didn’t see you get anything of use at the Cornucopia yesterday, so all you’ve got left are rocks, right? Ha!”

Cato leapt from exposed rock to exposed rock, reaching the opposite bank with disgusting ease. He slapped the flat of his sword blade against one hand, and the fading light from the “sky” seemed to glance off the shining metal. After a glance behind him, he shrugged and rocked his head back and forth as if to say, “All right, then.”

The final Tribute—the girl from Four—called, “I’ve got night vision goggles!”

“No shit?” Cato shouted, laughing. “Well, get ’em up here! Let’s go hunting!”

The laugh seemed to be what the Careers needed. Gale drew in a harsh breath as all the Careers save Clove and the boy from Four bolted into the trees.

The split in the screen showed Katniss running. The red-headed girl from District 5 crossed paths with her and, after a wide-eyed moment, darted away. Katniss shook her head, checked her bearings, and kept running. The cameras would track her, zooming in and panning out as she ran. Gale could see she now had a quiver of silvery arrows strapped to her back, as well as the pack. And she was carrying a matching bow. The same bow and arrow set that had been in the Cornucopia the day before.

Reduced to voice-overs, Templesmith and Flickerman each took one view and commented upon it. Gale cringed to hear their distant, oh-so-excited remarks.

“They’re chasing Rue from District 11,” Claudius said in hushed tones. “Now, she’s proven to be fast as a rabbit, but I don’t know if she’ll outrun Cato or Glimmer.”

“Will she be able to hold out for Katniss, is what I wonder,” Caesar murmured. “Katniss is almost there, though. See, the Gamemakers have the overhead on her and, of course, Seneca Crane has assured us all of a great view. Will she be in time to protect little Rue?”

“I don’t know, Caesar, it’s going to be close!”

Gale heard another rough breath in the lounge and was not surprised to find it was his own.

Glimmer shifted the axe she still carried and leapt over a log. She slipped and cut herself shallowly with the axe. She was swearing as she fell, but looked up at the same time. Her stream of anger was cut off in a heartbeat. Gale swallowed as the cameras shifted.

Rue was perched high in the tree, eyes wide in the deepening darkness. And then, as Gale watched with a sick feeling in his gut, a well-aimed knife sliced through the air to her throat.

Katniss was going to hate herself, and part of Gale’s mind at that moment set itself to preparing how to handle that even as he exhaled in sorrow over Rue’s death.

Cato laughed and the cameras caught him, Glimmer, the girl from Four, and Peeta staring at the bleeding form of the tiniest Tribute.

Peeta appeared to be in shock, but no one else seemed to notice, Gale thought. “Hey, Clove,” Cato shouted. “I can kill with knives, too!”

“Crap! What did I miss?”

“Where’s Katniss?” Peeta asked, cutting off the other Tribute’s boasting. “She should be here, right?” He started walking around, staring up into the trees. “She would have said something by now.” Still covering his wounded eye with one hand, he wasn’t doing a great job of searching. Gale didn’t blame him.

“Shit, you’re right.” Cato crossed to Rue and stared at her until even her fingers quit twitching. Then, he calmly pulled his knife from her body, wiped it off on his thigh, and sheathed it. “What would she do, Strongman?”

Peeta held up his free hand. “She’d probably, uh, well, you know she can use a bow, so I bet she’s waiting to ambush us.”

Glimmer pushed herself to her feet. “Before we go chasing her, I’ve gotta get—”

Silver flew into view of the camera. An arrow pierced Glimmer right in the eye.

Cinna gasped as the already wounded Career fell, screaming. “Did you see that?” the Stylist demanded of the room. “Did you?”

Haymitch snorted. “Peeta said she could take a squirrel in the eye, so I bet this was easier. She’s screaming enough that it ain’t fatal. Yet.”

Gale was impressed, yes, but his heart hurt for Katniss. His girl’s voice sounded fierce and terrible in the trees. “One down. Who’s next?”

The girl from Four hesitated and looked at her companions before nodding and rushing in the direction of Katniss’s voice, slipping on her night vision goggles as she ran. Gale could see Cato in the wide shot that followed as the scene claimed the entire screen. The other known Volunteer that year hefted his sword and started stalking Katniss as well.

Two more arrows found their marks, though, leaving Glimmer, who had been writhing in pain, dead on the leafy floor of the Arena.

“Cato? What’s happened?” Clove’s voice sounded thin and weak across the water.

“He’s dead, Clove.”

“That bitch!”

The next minute was almost unfair. Katniss’s unerring aim took out the remaining Careers on that side of the river, even as Peeta knelt at Rue’s side, checking vainly for signs of life. Clove, seeing and hearing the sounds of death, cut her losses—and the throat of District 4’s remaining Tribute—and hobbled as fast as she could go away from the river.

Caesar Flickerman was the first to catch his breath. “When we saw District Twelve’s Tributes on fire, Claudius, I knew they were going to be special. But wow.”

Claudius made an affirmative sound on the voice over as Katniss paced slowly into view, still holding the bow but focused only on little Rue.

“Katniss,” Peeta murmured, collapsing to lean against the tree. “I’m so sorry.”

She didn’t spare him much of a look, but asked, “What happened? Did they do that to you?”

“What, my eye? The girl did it. That was Rue, wasn’t it?”

“Rue,” Katniss confirmed, kneeling down at the girl’s side. “She stayed here as a distraction. I left her with a bow and arrow and thought she’d be safe while I went to get water.”

“Water was right here, Katniss,” Peeta protested.

“Not enough to carry us away from it. Where were you?”

“Trying to keep them away from you, obviously.”

Katniss looked at Peeta, then, with a frown. “Let me wash that out and bind it and then I have to…oh, Rue.” She made a sound that sounded like half a sob, half a hiccough, and Gale gripped the back of the sofa as the only way he could think of to control his inner turmoil.

Within fifteen minutes, Katniss had cleaned and bound Peeta’s wound—though Gale had no idea how long or how effective her treatment would be—and managed to lay out little Rue in what could only be described as a restful pose on the rock near the water. She was surrounded by branches and greenery, and held two bloodied, wooden arrows in her hands. “I’m so sorry,” Katniss had murmured over and over. Even when the mics didn’t catch it, Gale could see her lips move.

At length, Katniss stood and pressed three fingers to her lips, in the old sign from their District. Then, in a twist designed to be caught by any camera, she raised her hand in salute.

The last view Gale had of her was as she and Peeta gathered all that they could carry and disappear into the dark forest.

“Well,” Caesar said, sounding at a loss.

“Indeed,” Claudius added. “That was…efficient.”

“And I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do that with…even in an Alliance, in the Games,” Caesar remarked, eyeing his own video monitor. Then, he summoned a smile. “This has really been an exciting start to the 74th Hunger Games!”

Haymitch clicked the view screen off. “He wasn’t wrong,” the older man said tiredly, scrubbing at his face. “At least they’re together now.”

“Well, that’s good,” Portia murmured, bending to pluck her drink up from the low table.

Effie huffed and started pacing. “Someone needs to get that boy some medicine!”

“I know,” Gale said, blowing out a breath. “Haymitch?”

“Let’s go.”

Chapter Twelve: And on the Third Day…

He was being smothered!

Gale fought in his bed, lashing out with all the desperation a Victor would possess for the rest of their life. He connected with flesh and heard a muffled grunt and his name.

“Dammit, Hawthorne, shut the hell up!”

He relaxed immediately and held up his hands away from his head so that Haymitch would recognize his compliance. When his mouth was free again, he whispered, “Sorry.”

“Today’s a big, big day. The kids are ready to go and so am I. Get your butt out of bed.”

Haymitch stepped away, but Gale could practically feel the man’s narrowed focus on him. “I’m up. I’m up.”

“Shower. Get it in gear. Looks like the Games have wound up after our girl’s evening.”

Gale pushed himself out of bed and scrubbed at his jaw, hearing that distinctive sandpapery sound that meant he needed to shave. “Yeah, she really let ’em have it.”

After another admonition to hustle, Haymitch left him, and Gale hit the shower, remembering the night before.

Dr. Smith had been willing to send antibiotics to Peeta to prevent him developing an infection. Her smile had been far too perky. “Always glad to help a Victor out, Gale,” she’d murmured, making the arrangements. “I’m thinking your Peeta is a smart lad. Who knows, maybe you could bring him around with you, later this year, if he makes it?”

Gale had made himself smile and play along, all while vowing to himself to keep Katniss—and Peeta!—out of the Victor Visitations if they did indeed make it out alive.

Upon returning to the penthouse, they were treated to reactions to the River Rumble, as Claudius termed it in a misguided effort at wit.

“The Peacekeepers in District Eleven are trying to calm a riot in their Justice Square,” the host had reported, his tone avid and breathless. “The people there are protesting!”

“What are they protesting?” Caesar inquired, picking up his cue like the pro he was.

“Oh, half of them are trying to send bread to the Tributes from Twelve, and the other half want her dead for leaving their Tribute to face the others alone.”

Flickerman had pursed his lips and pretended to whistle. “Well…I can see how that would be a problem. The outlying districts don’t often have such a response to their Tributes. Young Rue captured their hearts.”

But what about Katniss? Gale sent the medicine to Peeta, with a note for him to take care and stick with Katniss. Even Haymitch said that was innocuous enough for the second night in the Games.

And that night, more names and faces shone in the night sky over the Arena. Rue. Glimmer. Cato. And the Tributes from Four: Wrasse and Aquamarine, of course. Jason from Six and Lustring from Eight had also died that day. One from a Tracker-Jacker; the other by falling and breaking her neck.

Nineteen Tributes were already dead. Leaving Katniss, Peeta, Clove, Thresh, and Foehn—the girl Katniss had nearly run over on her way back to Rue. The Hunger Games generally lasted for a couple weeks, and all of Panem were glued to their video screens all day, every day if they could be. Businesses kept the Games on during working hours. Families kept them playing during the day and everyone talked about them over dinner. President Snow had made that the normative behavior, early on in his Presidency. Watch the Games. Appreciate the Tributes. Enrich yourself by betting. Immerse yourself in the adrenaline rush.

Understand that the lives of your children are in the hands of the Capitol.

Gale hated it.

But there was hope. A lot of it. In the form of a note he’d found in his bathroom the night before.

Saw about the pilot. Thank you.

As many as can will find you at Sal’s.

We do not ask for you to wait if we are late.

Just go and know we are proud to serve you.

– L

If they were late, it was likely they weren’t going to make it at all, was what Lavinia the Avox wasn’t saying.

So, it’s going to be today. After his shower, Gale studied himself in the mirror. He needed to look like a Mentor as he left the building. He had to schmooze and find a viewing spot in the Plaza that would allow quick access to the transport. So, he shaved and made sure he was as perfectly groomed as possible. He was a Mentor to two-fifths of the remaining Tributes, and that meant he would be seen, that day. Seen and noticed and maybe even interviewed.

How would he be able to monitor the Games to see if the force field fell and still get to the hovercraft and meet the Avoxes if Caesar Flipping Flickerman was talking to him?

He needed an identical twin.

Someone was banging on his bedroom door. “Hawthorne! You’ve got a guest.”

Nearly choking in surprise—and then in laughter at the reflection he caught on his way out of the bathroom—he pulled on a pair of trousers to answer his door. “What?”

Haymitch was leaning opposite the door, hands behind him as if to hold him up against the wall. “You’ve got a guest. You arranged to employ an Avox, the contract says?” He then produced some sheets of paper and waved them a little so that they made a rattling sound. “What’s up?”

Remembering that there was still a role to play, even that day, Gale smiled sheepishly. “Look, I wanted to take my girl on a date, you know? Thought I’d make it something special since I haven’t seen her a lot recently and was going to be busy with the Games.”

The older man gave him a nod while mouthing Nice job. “Yeah, I know how that is. Fine. You take the paperwork, then. Remember, we’ve got work to do today, okay?”

“Right, I know. I’ll be ready in a few.” He took the paperwork but left his room as he skimmed the top page. “Flex. Oh yeah.”

Haymitch looked amused, smug, with an air of having a secret about him as they moved toward the main lounge. Gale decided not to give him the satisfaction of inquiring, as he was really wanting to focus on figuring out how to manage everything that needed doing that day.

The video screen in the lounge was on, and he could hear Claudius Templesmith raving about the Rumble at the River the day before. “So now, we have five—count them, five!—Tributes in the Arena! Clove from District 2 received a welcome gift of medicine overnight, and she’s made her way back to the Cornucopia. There, you see? She’s in the process of moving everything out of the trees, though.”

Caesar Flickerman interrupted with a small chuckle. “Well, she is probably wary of being near any number of trees, Claudius, and I don’t blame her.”

Haymitch snorted and so did one other person. Gale only then saw the quiet man standing against the farthest boundary-column in the room. He held up the papers and looked at the man again. “You’re Flex? Avox in Transfer and formerly of District Five?”

Laughing, Haymitch collapsed on the nearest sofa, using the remote to mute the broadcast, though the images remained visible. “He could be your twin, Hawthorne! Damndest thing I ever saw! Sure you don’t have family in Six?”

Gale grinned and stared at Flex, who shrugged. Then, the Avox waved a hand like he wanted to move on. Pointing at the papers Gale still held, he drew a question mark in the air.

“This looks solid, thank you. I, ah, did the business with Crassus already, so you’re stuck with me for a while, all right?”

Flex nodded and pulled a piece of paper out of his back pocket. It was the backside of a work order that was stained with oil and ripped through in a couple of places, not to mention appearing to have been crumpled and straightened several times.

Mr. Hawthorne,

Thank you for hiring me. It was good of Lavinia to recommend me.

I am from 6 and have experience with hovercraft, as per the job description. I would like to see the craft in question so I can do a maintenance check before it is needed. If you require a different uniform, that is your prerogative, per the contract.

I am legally bound to inform you that I am serving in retribution for my rebellion against the Capitol. They took my tongue so I cannot speak, but I can make noises in an emergency. As such, I will require someone to speak for me as I pilot.

I can stay in Avox quarters here in the Tower or wherever you would prefer. You have hired me for 2 weeks.

Avox Flex

Gale read the note twice and then studied Flex’s face. Hope rose in him again, and he thought that, perhaps, they might just make this happen.

Haymitch slapped the sofa and brought back the sound for the viewing screen. “There they are!”

Flickerman, on the right half of the screen, was commenting on Katniss and Peeta, who were on the left.

“As we’ve seen with Thresh, Clove, and Foehn, Katniss and Peeta have left the center of the Arena and are seeing to their own supplies two kilometers away. They’ve been there all night, and I am guessing the Gamemakers will be enticing them back to the center soon.”

Gale frowned at the screen. Peeta’s eye was still bandaged, but he didn’t seem to be otherwise impaired. He might need a new eye, actually. And there was no way he, Gale, would be able to supply one where they were going. Sorry, Peeta. Katniss was kicking dirt in a fire ring, so he guessed she had taken the time to start a fire—a luxury Gale hadn’t had in the Games—or she’d managed to find fire starters on her own. Possibly in the supplies cache where she’d been the day before.

Haymitch started pacing. “This isn’t good,” he muttered.

Gale chanced a look at Flex before focusing on the other Mentor. “What?”

Haymitch pointed angrily at the screen. “It’s too quiet, in there. Crane isn’t going to let that stand. Snow…” He sneered the name with more contempt than Gale had heard from him before. “Snow will insist on death. You know it. I know it.”

He was about to reply when Caesar made a knowing sound. “This doesn’t surprise me at all. Does it surprise you, Claudius?”

This was the sudden sight of flames at the edge of Katniss’s campsite.

“Damn.” Gale slapped the sofa under his hand. “It’s between them and the perimeter, right?” he asked the air. Flex got his attention by waving one arm in broad strokes. “What?”

Through a series of gestures, the silent man indicated that the Games could be over soon.

Worry churned, and not just because Katniss could become The Girl Set on Fire. The fire, of course, would drive all of the Tributes to a central location.

One year, the Gamemakers had employed engineered attack dogs to round up all remaining Tributes into a fenced area and they had no choice but to fight or be killed by the muttations. This year, apparently, it would be fire.

“This is going to be a problem,” Haymitch ground out, collapsing onto a chair.

“This will be a problem!” echoed Claudius Templesmith on the screen. “But the Gamemakers are always ready to improvise!” The man looked almost ready to drool right there on camera.

Katniss grabbed Peeta’s arm and started shaking her head and pointing at the fire. She didn’t want to run, but the fire was moving closer.

Peeta sprinted to a tree and began climbing. “What is he doing? Haymitch demanded of the air. “Those trees will burn. I guarantee it.”

“Look, there’s Foehn, she’s also climbing. Oh, look!” Caesar called as if pointing out the way a small child mastered a skill. “She’s going to jump from tree to tree!”

“Ah, she’s quite nimble!” Templesmith remarked. “And Clove is just running. I’m going to guess that she’ll try to be first to the middle of the Arena so she can establish a position. This is going to get interesting.”

“There’s Thresh…”

They went on while Gale focused only on Katniss and Peeta. They were soaking themselves with all the water Katniss had liberated from the cache at the Cornucopia. “Haymitch, are you seeing this?”

“Yeah,” the man said abruptly.

They all moved closer to the screens, the three of them in the suite. It was early enough in the day that the rest of their team was out being involved in their personal concerns.

All at once, Haymitch froze. “Gale,” he said. “A word, please.”

Gale turned to meet Flex’s eyes. “You wanna keep watching this? Is that okay? We’ll set you up as soon as Haymitch info-dumps, all right?”

Flex sent him a thumbs-up before turning to continue watching the Games.

In the kitchen, Haymitch turned on the faucet and started filling glasses with water. Gale just watched, figuring the older man was making camouflaging noise.

“I’ve gotta go. Like, now. They’re going to be…you know…any minute, I’m thinking.”

“Right.” Everything was escalating that morning. Afternoon. Whatever.

“So listen. They’re getting wet. I’m thinking they’ll try to run back through the fire.”

Gale nodded. “That’s what I’d do, probably, if I had to stay near the perimeter.”

“So they’re going to need burn treatment. Grab water and ice and sheets and have your double, over there, take it with him. You get out and be seen. Hurry.”

“And you?”

Haymitch started pouring the water into the sink from a high altitude, arm stretched up as far as it could go. The splash was pretty significant. “I’m going for Snow. You get out.”

All the blood in Gale’s head dropped toward his feet. He could feel it. “Really.”

A nod. “Yep.” A slanted smile. “Hey, been wantin’ to do that for decades. You get the kids.” He finished pouring the water. “So, hey! See you out there, yeah? Remember the burn ointment. Ask Dr. Smith again. I think she likes you.” His tone was light but the blue eyes were still and sober.

“Good idea. See you later.”

Heart pounding, mind racing, Gale just stared at the glasses, wondering where she was. Lavinia. The Avox assigned to the penthouse suite. He hadn’t seen her…

She’d gone, too. What had he started? How many people…

Enough, Hawthorne. You’re going to get out of here, find Katniss, and get her safe. All of you. Safe and away and…now. Go.

>>>>||<<<<

It was a nice uniform that Flex was wearing, Gale decided as the Avox left the suite in a suit of Gale’s own clothes. Any random surveillance equipment would show a person who looked a lot like Victor Gale Hawthorne leaving the Tower and heading off. Maybe to find Dr. Smith about the medicines for his Tribute. He was heading to where Salvatore would be expecting the pilot for the hovercraft. All the paperwork was in order and Gale hoped to hell the odds were actually in their favor.

Ten minutes later, with the smallest bit of unobtrusive baggage he could find, Gale himself headed down in the elevator. The Penthouse Suite had the privilege of a private elevator, so there were no stops and starts, no unexpected meetings up and down. Soon enough, he was out of the building and well into the Plaza, where he would see and be seen and watch for when the force field fell in the Arena.

He was already sweating. Still, he watched the screens as Katniss and Peeta screamed and jumped and dodged falling, flaming trees. The fire seemed sentient, of course, as it was being guided by Seneca Crane and his minions. All the screens held running Tributes save the one that featured the Tributes from Twelve.

“Maybe they’re confused?” Claudius wondered, baffled.

“Gale Hawthorne! Is your Tribute trying to live up to her name?”

“Hawthorne! Now you’ve got the Boy on Fire, too!”

“Oh! Eleven and Two! Look! It’s Thresh and Clove!”

A loud groan rose up from the floor of the Plaza as Clove’s knives hit the larger Tribute in one eye and his groin. As if uncaring, Thresh ripped the knife from his eye and kept moving to the smaller Tribute. His blood washed down his face and chest to meet the seepage on his legs. He reached the girl and grabbed her by the head with both hands. She cut him over and over, but he only smiled redly before snapping her neck.

Then, as he lay dying, he held up the three-fingered salute and Gale shut his eyes for a moment.

Two cannons fired and even Katniss and Peeta paused in their escape to stare at each other. The pops and ravaging of the fire prevented audio from reaching the pick-ups that were undoubtedly doing their best, so Gale didn’t know what his Tributes said at that moment.

He just hoped they both made it out so he could ask them.

There was a respectful pause from both Flickerman and Templesmith before Caesar said, “That was…a good death for District Eleven. A valiant fight from District Two.”

“Foehn is still trying hard to stay alive—oh, look!” With an ominous suddenness, it seemed to Gale, the fires ceased their inward paths.

He could hear the screaming as the flames seemed to withdraw into the soil of the Arena. The screens all over the Plaza reflected different scenes. On one, there was Foehn, her red hair covered in soot as she sought to rip her melting boots from her feet. Her tears tracked through the black dust on her cheeks and the cameras zoomed in for every excruciating grimace and cry.

Another screen showed Katniss, burns on her face and hands, as well as on her now-bare feet as she and Peeta stood back-to-back. They had heard the cannons, but there wouldn’t be any faces shown until nightfall. They wouldn’t be sure of who was still alive.

Peeta’s bandaging had been singed away and everyone could see the crater in his face where a small stone had wounded his eye. “Katniss? What do we do?”

“Stick together!”

Another camera panned over to where Thresh and Clove had fallen. As the audience watched in the Plaza with the kind of anticipation that only happened in blood sport, a hovercraft descended to retrieve the bodies.

Caesar Flickerman did a voice-over. “That was intense, don’t you think, Claudius?”

“It really was! Have the Gamemakers prepared for this?”

Gale was ready to bolt, to walk as quickly as he could to where Flex was supposed to be waiting with the hovercraft. Get in the air! he demanded of himself. Get to her! Now!

But what about the Avoxes who were planning on destroying the force field and then finding him? They were counting on him to help them escape. As many as could make it, anyway. Lavinia had said not to wait, but leaving before it had even happened was…a breach of trust. And as ruthless as he might be, he didn’t think he could do that.

Not and look Katniss in the eye when next he saw her.

Which should be soon. He hoped.

Gale started walking, anyway. Slowly, nodding at those who called out to him, looking as if he were going to talk to someone. He was approaching the last tables, weaving through the vendors distributing sweets and beverages, when he heard his name.

“Gale Hawthorne!”

He couldn’t ignore anyone, not even at this point, because if the force field didn’t fail, his Tributes—Katniss!—would remain in the Arena until only one of them were left. Marston Potter, the pharmaceutical genius, was beckoning and Gale stepped to him, not quite smiling.

“Marston Potter. What can I do for you?”

The other man’s eyes were still shielded by special contact lenses, but he seemed sincere when he said, “It’s more like what I can do for you. This kind of body count so early in the Games is unprecedented and I’m thinking to send in some burn creams to your Tributes.”

Shocked, Gale nodded. “Both of them?”

“I think so, yes.” He appeared a bit sheepish, though, as he shrugged and added, “The resources I set aside for Sponsorship this year might be underused.”

“Thank you, of course.” After a moment, Gale added, “I’ll let Haymitch know. He’s the one who’s arranged things so far.”

Marston flashed a smile. “I’ll take care of it for you. Right after this announcement.”

The nearest video screen featured Claudius Templesmith’s face with an overall aerial view of the Arena behind him. “Well, it seems that our Tributes are trying to lie low for the rest of the day. What, aside from fire, can bring the Tributes together. Remem—”

Static interrupted Templesmith’s commentary. His face was pixelated and separated with jagged edges and Gale felt a sudden rush of adrenaline take over his body. “Marston—I’m going to find Haymitch.”

The other man didn’t even turn. “Right. I’ll remember the meds.”

“Thanks!”

It’s happening. It’s happening!

Flickerman’s face appeared next, a wary but still warm smile lighting his entire face. “Well, even in the Capitol we can have glitches! But there, you see behind me—wha- – – -” Caesar’s face froze on the screen, his smile split so that his upper teeth were at the top of the screen and the lower were on the bottom. Still, his words were being broadcast. “Whoa! Well, at least my smile is still there, right?”

Low, uncomfortable laughter swept through the Plaza.

Gale paused, watching. What would come first, the force field or Haymitch’s final act of rebellion? The long-time Mentor surely wouldn’t survive only to be made into an Avox…

“There seems to be some kind of irregularity at the Arena,” Caesar’s voice informed them. He sounded concerned and intrigued more than upset, so Gale kept moving to the meeting place. Now, he was jogging, uncaring if any video surveillance tracked him just at that point. Everything was narrowing to a single, unrelenting point, and time was not a friend to him or anyone.

He didn’t hear Caesar’s announcement about the failed force field, but he heard the almighty shout of shock from the Plaza when it happened.

Chapter Thirteen: End of Game

Cough. “Haymitch Abernathy.” Cough.

Haymitch nodded as he stared at the man bound with harsh wire to a chair. “President Snow. Been wanting to see you again.”

“Yes,” the white-haired man drawled as blood leaked from the corner of his mouth. “About twenty years.”

“About.”

Years, he’d waited for this day. Years. He’d daydreamed and plotted and planned and talked himself through a nearly unending variety of scenarios for the day he took his vengeance on Panem’s hateful President for the deaths of his mother, brother, and girlfriend.

Daisy. Her name had been Daisy Morris and though he’d only just turned seventeen when Snow had had her killed, Haymitch carried her memory with him even here, on his last day on earth. She’d had red hair and gray eyes and looked like an angel when he’d come home from the Second Quarter Quell…

The next cough spewed more blood, some of it hitting the carpeted floor, the rest falling to Snow’s soiled trousers. “What do you want? The lives of your Tributes?” Snow’s rheumy eyes shifted this way and that and it seemed that only then did he notice that the video screens were still working, after a fashion.

The Arena was on fire and Katniss and Peeta were braving walls of flame. Jumping through fire, helping one another climb trees and rocks…sometimes just running through them. Haymitch ground his teeth together in an effort not to act precipitously.

The timing had to be perfect. Lavinia, the pretty Avox in their suite, had proven a masterful organizer. The nonverbal language of the Avox community had been stunning to an outsider like himself. Communication on toilet paper had been highly effective, and he’d not told Hawthorne much of anything other than what pertained to his own mission.

There was a phrase he’d heard or read or something somewhere. Plausible deniability. Sounded almost as good as imminent demise.

Hawthorne was safe from knowing some of it, anyway.

Haymitch shook his head and Snow focused on him again. “What I want is your life, Snow. Nothin’ more, nothin’ less. I’m a simple guy, really.”

The President struggled for half a second against the punishment wire an Avox named Pollux had found for him in a closet. The barbs on the wire dug into the old man’s skin and muscle. Haymitch was all right with that.

“So take it, already. Unless you’re afraid?”

Haymitch snorted outright at that. “I know you know better than that.”

Two Tributes died onscreen. Breath coming fast, Haymitch made himself wait. The longer he could draw this out, the better chance the rest had of getting out.

“Who’s the Gamemaker? Seneca Crane, right? He’s doing a marvelous job. Really,” Haymitch drawled. “But maybe my girl Katniss scared him, yeah?”

Snow coughed a little, winced, spat more blood. “An eleven. He said she deserved it.”

“She’s a lot like me, you know.” He’d shocked them too, when he’d had an eleven. No one remembered that, anymore. “So, yeah. She did. Feisty, my Girl on Fire.”

The girl with the red hair was stuck in a tree. Katniss and Peeta paused to hear the percussive sound that announced another death. Haymitch marked more time. “So no one’s come looking for you. I wonder why.”

“I had wondered,” the President said with astonishing sangfroid. He sniffed and made a small movement with his fingers. “You’ve always been an intelligent man.” He looked beyond Haymitch to a place in the ceiling. “I imagine you’ve covered everything.”

“I tried.”

The fires stopped. “Well, your Tributes will certainly require assistance. I imagine your young associate is handling that while you’re here…taking care of ending a long story.”

“I’m sure he is. He’s gotta learn to do it alone. I had to, no thanks to any of you.”

“Now, if that had been you, Abernathy, you’d have killed your wounded companion and…how did you do it? Oh yes. The force field.”

A chill swept through Haymitch’s entire body, but he did his best not to let it show. “Well, Peeta and Katniss have a history, apparently. Who knows,” Haymitch tagged on with a smile, watching the screen, “maybe they’ll play rock, paper, scissors to see who wins?”

“What?”

“You don’t know that game? It’s a classic in the Seam. Kids don’t have a lot to play with, but they have their hands and feet. Mostly.”

The broadcast started to scatter and Haymitch knew it was time. “Wow, looks like a problem with the Almighty Hunger Games there, Mr. President. I better find out what’s happening.” In moments, he had a knife in his right hand—his throwing hand—and a small handgun in his left.

The President stared at him with cold, pale eyes. “You won’t be able to get away with this. Even if you’ve shut down the surveillance video, someone will hear, will see. And you’ll be killed.”

“Snow, I’ve been dead since the Quarter Quell.” Drawing a quick breath, he threw the knife into Snow’s throat and followed through with three shots to the man’s forehead.

The door opened behind him. It was the Avox Pollux, who was actually a cameraman for the Capitol under normal circumstances. “Thanks, man. On my way.”

Behind him, in Snow’s private office where he micromanaged the Gamemakers, the video screen displayed the rupture in the force field surrounding the Arena.

Haymitch nodded, turned, and ran—following first one Avox, then another, on his way out of the President’s office suite. He had to smile. He’d done it! He’d killed the bastard! For his mother, brother, all the Tributes he’d had to watch die, year after hellish year.

For Daisy.

His body thrummed with wonder, awe, and appreciation for the voiceless ones who ran with him, somehow forming a human shield as they all but flew down the Avox Avenues out of the building. Everyone who worked there was poised in front of one of the viewing screens that were always on for the Games.

“What’s wrong with the Arena? The sky? What happened?”

“Wait, who are they and do they know what’s wrong?”

“Oh, shit,” Haymitch muttered as all the staffers turned to see him and the phalanx of Avoxes that were escaping. “Oh, shit,” he said again, louder.

Pollux grabbed him by the arm and shoved him ahead. Fear and a sense of inevitability replaced the wonder and awe as the Avoxes all followed suit. Arm—grab—push—stumble—catch—run. Over and again until they were out in the open air and running…

He hadn’t even found out where Hawthorne’s meeting place was; he’d never expected to get that far. Still, they ran, and those he ran with seemed to know where they were headed. I trust them. They’re amazing and I can’t believe I never really interacted with them before and—

“President Snow’s been murdered!”

The words exploded through the air on loudspeakers that were built in, apparently, as a feature for all the Capitoline construction.

“President Snow’s been murdered!”

Peacekeepers—where had they been, anyway? Maybe the Avoxes had trapped them underground?—erupted from doors, weapons at the ready. Haymitch grimaced as he developed a stitch in his side. I’m getting too old for this, he groused silently.

Not aloud. He had no more breath to complain.

“The Avoxes did it! They’re running away! Get them!”

Weapon fire pierced the air they breathed. The bodies that ran as a human shield around him. His clothes. His skin. His muscles. His skull…

Haymitch Abernathy fell, bleeding from innumerable wounds to his body. He was smiling as he died.

>>>>||<<<<

Gale banged on the door to Sal’s place. The transportation dealer was waiting, the flame tattoo on his forehead unmoving as he said, “You made it, good.” He grimaced as he turned away, beckoning for Gale to follow.

Their steps echoed in the concrete stairwell that led out. “Your friend Flex got the equipment. Two others were waiting for him outside my place. He vouched for them.” A pause. “I’m guessing that was all right.”

Gale was still trying to wrap his mind around the notion that everything was coming to a head at that precise moment. His mind was spinning, but in the very center of it was Katniss. Burned, running, frightened. Far away. “Yeah. They’re good. So, they’re here. Good.” Then, he shook his head in a physical effort to get clear. “You said two?”

Sal didn’t seem at all dismayed—he hadn’t wanted to know how many total might be there; the less he knew for sure, the better. “So, you’ll have staff for your trip, right?” Turning to walk again, he continued speaking. “There’s been some trouble with the Games, they said. A lot of Tributes are already gone but your two are still alive. They’re doing great.”

“Thanks. I’m really proud of them.” How was Katniss? Was she hurting? Did they get away? Where was Haymitch? The questions ran circles in his brain. “Where’s the hovercraft?”

“I’ll take you. Your pilot needed a test lift before trusting it, he said.” Sal snorted as they reached the large hangar, where there was a smaller transport. “I built this myself. Not so big for a trip, but it’s easier on fuel. Your staff is already with him, but he’ll need—”

“Someone to speak for him, right. He let me know. Still, he’s got a good recommendation and I feel good about him.” Gale tried hard to sound businesslike as he spoke, but he was wanting to hurry. He hefted the small haversack on his back. “So, let’s check it out. Looks like the Games might be over sooner than expected.”

With a shake of his head, Sal agreed. “Let’s go.”

There were only two seats in the small craft, and no cargo room, so Gale held his pack on his lap after strapping himself in. Sal opened the outer hangar door, and they flew carefully through an upward-slanted passage that was indeed big enough for a normal hovercraft. Gale breathed deeply to calm himself. He couldn’t go any faster than he was. “There’s a beacon on the craft you’ll be taking,” Sal remarked casually. “So I can find it. Safety precaution.”

“Of course,” Gale said as smoothly as he was able. Damn. Gotta disconnect that! Lavinia…ask her. “So I heard a huge shout on my way to your place. I had been watching the Games and left Haymitch so I could check in with you and my pilot. What happened?”

“Well, like I said, there was some trouble. The broadcast kept pixelating and—if you can believe it—Caesar Flickerman’s mouth was stuck open.” He laughed as he reached the open air over the Capitol. They flew low to the buildings on their way east as Sal continued to tell Gale what he’d missed. “Not sure what it was all about, but it looked—” he said with a strange stress on the word as a light started flashing and moving on a small screen—”like the sky was crumbling around the Arena.”

“Seriously?” Gale tried for his best shocked voice. “The force field? Wow. I hope everyone found a place to hide,” he added as if it didn’t matter. “Haymitch had that problem in the last Quarter Quell.”

“Ah, there he is. Your pilot. I got him on visual. Prepare for landing. And yeah, I remember. Haymitch Abernathy’s full of piss and vinegar.”

Gale chuckled, truly amused despite the nerves jangling all throughout his body. “People say that here in the Capitol? I thought it was a Seam thing.”

“Well, I say it. I guess that counts. All right. Steady on. The landing’ll be bumpy. Not a lot of shock absorption this one.”

Gale felt a bit sick as they landed, and it had nothing to do with the rough thud they had felt on impact with the earth. There wasn’t a lot of air cover, out in the foothills, but there was a meadow and the larger hovercraft…and only three people.

Haymitch hadn’t made it. Gale said nothing, though, because if his fellow Mentor had done what he’d planned to do, Gale wanted to be far away from the Capitol when Sal found out. The man was an outlier, but how far did his loyalties stretch?

He didn’t want to test that.

“Thanks so much, Sal. I’ll make sure to tell Julia how much help you’ve been.”

Sal frowned and the flame on his forehead seemed to flicker. Was it a holographic tattoo? Gale had been wondering about that off and on since he first met the man. “Want a ride back? With the force field down and your Tributes—” He stopped mid-sentence and just stared. “You’re going after them.”

Running out of time and clinging to his hope of reaching Katniss before anyone else did, Gale sighed and put a smile on his face. “Well. You’re coming with us.”

>>>>||<<<<

He should have been sitting, but Gale couldn’t make himself stay still. Lavinia had caught the most recent news broadcast from the Capitol.

“We are unsure if this is part of a larger conspiracy against Panem. At this time, no security footage is available to us that might show the sequence of events leading up to the murder of our President, Coriolanus Snow. More news as it develops.”

And then there was a shift to a romance-based reality show. Not even a mention of the Hunger Games. This was worrisome, indeed, because it was possible that Haymitch’s timing to go after Snow was the worst.

Salvatore was strapped to a chair in the rear of the craft, but he called out, “You can untie me, Mentor Hawthorne. It’s not like I can go anywhere.”

Gale checked with the final escaped Avox of their crew, a girl from Eleven by the name of Sage. She was tall and strong and looked to be in her early twenties, Gale surmised. She could have rivaled anyone in the Games and probably won…if she hadn’t been charged and convicted of rebellion. He’d get her story later.

At the moment, she was in charge of their notional captive, Salvatore, and she shook her head, lips compressed. That meant no as far as Gale was concerned.

“Not just yet, Sal. Hang tight. Lavinia,” he called next, gesturing for the red-haired girl to come to him.

Her face was clear and inquisitive, the obvious question in her eyes. What?

“I just remembered something. The trackers that go in the Tributes. Can you shut them down?”

Lavinia frowned, thought, and then shrugged, miming that she’d have to see the arms of the Tributes.

“Okay. Good enough. Flex? How much longer?”

There was a chronograph near the pilot’s chair and the man tapped it with a callused finger. Then he put up one finger, closed his fist and then put up the finger again, but bending it.

“An hour and a half?”

Flex nodded and Gale tried to calm down. There wasn’t anything he could do, at this point. He hoped Katniss and Peeta knew he’d be coming for them. He hoped they hadn’t been found, if they had figured out how to escape.

“Screw it, I can’t sit here,” he muttered, pushing off his chair and moving around.

Sal laughed a little. “There’s a galley on board, you know. I had it all fitted out for your, uh, vacation.”

“Do I look hungry?” Gale shot back, moving to stand near to the older man. “My…my Tributes are down there and I have no idea what they’re doing and they don’t know where to go or what to do, right now.”

Getting it off his chest felt good. He missed Haymitch Abernathy in a huge way.

A burst of static blared into the cabin. “That’s an emergency signal,” Salvatore volunteered. “In case you wanted to know.”

Flex nodded and rolled his eyes at Gale; the two of them sharing in the feeling of the beleaguered. With a couple of clicks, the pilot had brought a Message from the Capitol into their hovercraft. Gale held his breath, hoping this wouldn’t mean another obstacle in his desire to find Katniss.

An implacable, female voice made the announcement. She sounded familiar, but Gale couldn’t think of who it was.

All Peacekeepers. All Peacekeepers. Report immediately to the nearest Justice Hall and await orders. Repeat. All Peacekeepers are to report immediately to the nearest Justice Hall and await orders.

“Leave it on,” Gale told Flex, “If you would. Please. Just in case things change.”

“C’mon, Hawthorne, I gotta, you know…”

Gale stared at Sal for a long, hard moment. “All right. I don’t suppose you’ll try to jump or anything. Sage? He doesn’t have any electronics or enhancements, does he?” The woman shook her head and bent to free their guest. “Fine,” Gale continued. “Just…make sure he doesn’t do anything we’ll all regret.”

Sage’s smile flashed white and feral and Gale relaxed just a bit. Enough to smile back at her as she led Sal to the sanitary facilities.

Gah. Even thinking like I’m from the Capitol. That sucks.

Lavinia was pacing, but every now and then, she stopped behind Flex and pressed his shoulders with her palms. Flex would look back at her and smile and Gale had to look away. It hadn’t even been a week, but he missed Katniss. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t always missed her when he was off making nice with the Capitol, but after kissing her…

It was just more.

“I’ll be right back,” he told the pair, hurrying to the passenger compartment. He checked his supplies, there, and did another look to see what they had on hand. He hadn’t had time to stock up for any serious medicines, but he did have some basic first aid. In the Capitol, Peeta could have his eye replaced, but that likely wasn’t going to happen now…unless he claimed he was kidnapped and returned to the Capitol on his own.

“Gimme back my clothes!” Sal’s shout echoed off all available surfaces and, even in his worry and stress, Gale had to chuckle. Nice, Sage. “You Amazon! I want my pants!”

Sage, feral grin still in place, emerged from the toilet area, holding Sal’s clothes over one arm. After tossing them to Gale, she turned to the first aid supplies, organizing them in a way that Gale recognized as neat and organized, before she turned to him and gestured for him to find their guest.

Who was still calling, albeit in a bored sort of sing-song tone. “I want my clothes. I want my pants. I want them all. I’ll rant and rant.”

“So you’re a poet?” Salvatore was standing in a toilet stall, hands in front of his genitals and chanting with his eyes shut until Gale spoke.

Fiery eyes snapped open. “Stuff it, you. Gimme my clothes.”

Gale tossed them over. “Come on, then. Let’s get ready for guests. I don’t know how many we’ll find, down there, but I’m thinking we won’t have to deal with a lot of other traffic.” After Sal got his trousers on, Gale added, “You’re not getting near any equipment though. Not ’til I’ve got my Tributes back.”

“From what I saw, Hawthorne, it might be that only your Tributes survived that firestorm.”

Grunting, Gale nodded. “Did Foehn from Five die, too, then?”

“You know? I dunno. Maybe.” He pulled on his shirt and buttoned it up halfway. “I wasn’t thinking to have to outfit this for a mob, there, Hawthorne. Just you and your girl and those you brought with you to help out,” he added, jerking his thumb in the direction of the flight cabin. “Speaking of, where’s that great, tall girl?”

“Sage? With the medicines. Come on. If we have to figure out new sleeping arrangements for everyone, we can do it in the air.”

Another burst of static came from every speaker on the hovercraft. The same female voice spoke once more.

“Attention, Attention. It is now confirmed that President Coriolanus Snow has been assassinated in his private office. This is Ginger Potter speaking now, his speechwriter, and I can verify this to be true. At this time, we have reason to believe this vile act was the responsibility of one man, Victor and Mentor Haymitch Abernathy from District Twelve. We are currently seeking the other Mentor from Twelve to confirm our identification of this man’s body. Gale Hawthorne, please report to the Tributes’ Tower as soon as possible. Thank you.”

Haymitch’s body. His body. “They killed him,” he whispered, eyes burning with shock and pain. He turned and pressed his face to the nearest wall, the hard, cold surface oddly reassuring.

He felt a hand on his shoulder. “Sounds like he did the world a service, there, Hawthorne.”

Gale dragged in a ragged breath, still not moving his face. “He said he might not make it. But I didn’t know it’d be permanent.”

“At least he didn’t Mentor you all the way to the President’s office,” Sal commented, moving to lean against the same bit of wall.

Pushing himself from the wall, Gale glared at the other man. “Don’t, okay? Don’t. I gotta focus on getting my Tributes safe.” His cheeks were wet so he turned and wiped them dry on his way to the flight compartment.

All three of the Avoxes were there and they turned as one to look at his face as he entered. Lavinia frowned and touched his arm briefly. Sorry, she said in her silent way.

Sage nodded, no laughter in her slightly up-tilted eyes. Sorry…Her echo was silent, but appreciated.

Flex nodded at him, determination in eyes a lot like Gale’s own. Then, his expression changed and he held up one hand with all the fingers flared. Once. Twice. Three times.

“Thirty minutes?” Gale guessed.

Nods all around.

Gale sniffed hard and put Haymitch’s death away from him for the moment. “Time for everyone to keep an eye open. We’ll go to the Arena first, and then out in a spiral from there. Sal?”

“Yeah?” The answer came from less than three feet away.

“Do we have a, a lift? Like they use to pick up the, ah, Tributes in the Games?”

“Not exactly, but we can improvise.”

“Right. Lavinia?” The girl focused on him. “Will you go with Sal and help if you can, to improvise a way to bring the Tributes in if we find them and they can’t get to us?”

She nodded and left with Salvatore. Gale pressed his lips shut for a moment, thinking. “Sage? Please keep your eyes open for any other aircraft. Flex? Sun’s setting, looks like. Do you have any special night vision options for the ground?”

While they got to work on that, Gale felt his stomach rumble in hunger and he remembered he hadn’t eaten properly at all day. Well, he’d been hungry before.

Haymitch was gone. He’d want him to keep on with this. Rescue Katniss and Peeta. Help them. Get their families safe…

With that thought, he darted from the cabin. “Be right back!” he shouted over his shoulder. His families. He’d have to get word to his mom. Katniss’s sister, Prim. They’d be worried.

What about Peeta’s folks?

A wordless sort of grunting cry came from the flight cabin and Gale abandoned his ideas to jog back. “What?”

Flex pointed to a screen, then to his eye, then to the screen again.

Three warm bodies, hiding in the trees just below them. Relief flooded Gale’s limbs and heart. “You found ’em. Flex, I owe you big.”

The man shrugged a little, but he was smiling as he pointed to another speaker and made that odd, nonverbal vocalization.

A label under the speaker had the words MIC OFF and MIC ON.

Gale clicked the ON button and cleared his throat. “Tributes, this is Mentor Gale Hawthorne. The Hunger Games are OVER.”

Chapter Fourteen: The Days After

“Are we ready?” Gale asked the group of people he had somehow become responsible for over the last week or so. They were assembled in a copse of trees, near the now-vacant hovercraft, and all had packs and bags with them. The sun was rising, stringing yellow ribbons of light through the branches far overhead, but on the ground, all was cool and shady. He scrubbed at his jaw with the knuckles of one hand, hearing the sound of his incoming beard. The other hand was entwined with Katniss’s.

Thinking about it made him squeeze her fingers lightly and smile. She made a funny sound under her breath, which made him smile more broadly. “Is that a yes, Katniss Everdeen?”

“Yes, Gale Hawthorne,” she answered with elaborate courtesy, clearly imitating Effie Trinket once again.

He didn’t know what had happened to the rest of their team; he hadn’t had the chance to check on them when he’d left the Capitol. None of the broadcasts they’d heard from the screens in the hovercraft had mentioned them, either.

“It’s been twenty-four hours since President Coriolanus Snow was assassinated by Haymitch Abernathy, former Victor from District Twelve,” Ginger Potter had announced the week before. “At this time, there is a Peacekeeping Council to maintain law and order, and we have enlisted District Representatives to maintain order and productivity in the Districts themselves. Chief Peacekeeper, Jan deForge, will be acting as our chief executive for the time being.

“Assassin Abernathy was executed by the Capitol Peacekeepers, as were his co-conspirators. At this time, there is no reason to believe that his co-Mentor, Gale Hawthorne, Victor in the 73rd Hunger Games, was in any way in collusion with Abernathy. Interrogations have revealed that Abernathy had long been a drunkard and malcontent.

“For those who have asked, the Hunger Games have been canceled for the time being. There were three surviving Tributes on record when the President was assassinated, and by joint declaration of the Gamemakers and the Peacekeepers, these survivors are all named as Victors of the 74th Hunger Games. Foehn Larson from District Five, Katniss Everdeen from District Twelve and Peeta Mellark, also from District Twelve. It is uncertain as to their current whereabouts; the Peacekeepers were called away from the Arena as President Snow’s death was prioritized. If they are found, they are to be given all aid and succor. Please notify the head Gamemaker, Seneca Crane, so they can be celebrated as all Victors have been in the past.

“Thank you, and have a good evening.”

Gale hadn’t dared to try to communicate with Effie, Cinna, or Portia. He hoped that so long as he didn’t hear their names in a broadcast, they were free from suspicion and retribution.

“We’ve been ready since before sunrise,” Hazelle called, a smile in her voice as she caught his attention. “So come on, already. The Peacekeepers could still be looking for this hovercraft.”

Sal cleared his throat. “I’m the only one who knew he was going to be using it, Mizz Hawthorne. Should be fine.”

“Well,” Gale admitted slowly, “there was the lady who sent me to you.”

With a tattoo-wrinkling frown, Salvatore nodded. “True. But. She’s well connected and no one will think of asking her, will they?”

“Who’re you talking about?” Katniss wondered.

“I’ll tell you later. We should probably get moving. Rory, did you double check for fires?”

His next-oldest brother popped up on his feet. “Yeah, Gale! Me and Vick scattered the hearths and ashes, too.”

“I helped!” Prim added, crossing her arms while managing to hold on to her goat’s leading rope.

Katniss nodded. “Good. So where are we headed, again?”

“North. Ready?”

They were, they assured him, more than ready, so Gale took a breath and started hiking, Katniss at his side. He kept one of her hands in his as they started but didn’t speak for a while. He wanted to listen, to see if they’d been found or followed. And he really wanted to know how stealthy this group of people could be; he wasn’t entirely optimistic. He had to be alert. Just in case.

Perhaps something of his tension communicated itself to Katniss. She tugged lightly on his hand. “Hey. This is exactly like we planned, right?”

He glanced down at her, bringing her still-bandaged hand to his lips to press a kiss to a strip of bare skin. “Yeah.” Adding in three skilled but speechless rebels, Greasy Sae and her granddaughter, the five Mellarks—Peeta’s elder brothers didn’t live at home any longer, but Gale had insisted they come along, so they couldn’t be used as hostages by the Capitol should someone decide that would be a good idea, even without Coriolanus Snow—Foehn, and Salvatore. Foehn had barely spoken since she’d joined them.

Peeta had noticed first. “Gale,” the one-eyed Victor murmured the day after Greasy Sae had gathered their families to meet them in the woods. “What are we going to do about Foehn? My folks are mad that they had to leave the bakery, but I get it, and I’m grateful, believe me, that they’re here.” He almost rubbed at the back of his neck, but Gale could see him flinch the moment a finger touched the bandaging protecting the burns he’d received. “But what about her family?”

Pursing his lips, Gale had studied the red-headed girl. Her hair, surprisingly, was only lightly singed. The fire had mainly wounded her feet, so that she was still unable to walk and had to be carried about. Hazelle, Violet ,and Prim had all worked with her, making poultices and washes for her feet, as well as super-protective bandages.

“Feet are the worst,” Prim had stated in her thin voice. “So hard to treat. She keeps jerking away and we have to hold her still and it’s so hard.”

“Did she mention them to you?” Gale asked Peeta.

“Haven’t had much of a chance to talk to her, getting my folks settled in,” Peeta admitted, looking embarrassed.

“I’ll do it.” He’d pointed to the hovercraft, which they were using as a base while they studied maps, hunted, and gathered supplies for what was going to be a long walk, at the very least. “Rest your eyes, yeah? You heard Mrs. Everdeen. You’ve got to be careful with the muscles.”

Peeta grimaced. “Yeah. I’ve had cramps. In both eyes. It’s…so weird.”

“Hey, Foehn,” Gale called softly as he reached the girl. She eyed him warily, even then. “Peeta’s worried about your family.”

“I don’t have one,” she’d whispered. “Well, I mostly lived with my da’, but he’s out on the boats every day, so I lived alone once my ma died.”

Gale winced. “I’m sorry. My dad died in a mine accident. It’s hard to lose a parent.”

She shrugged and studied her feet. “Could be he wasn’t even watching the Games,” she said flatly. “So I’m not worrying about him. B’sides,” she added, finally meeting his eyes, “I’m not from your District. They probably won’t be looking for me. Might even think I died from the fire. I’m fine, Gale Hawthorne.”

In the days since, Gale’s sister Posy had taken to spending time with her, and that had been a relief.

He never heard her name again in a broadcast.

“Just like we planned and then some,” he murmured at length to Katniss. “How’re you doing?”

“Good.” She flexed her free hand to show him. “No bandages on this one, anymore. Mom and Prim made a great salve.”

“She, your mom, seems to be doing better.” He kept his voice low, but he felt compelled to keep Katniss talking. He was still so grateful she was there with him.

Katniss tossed her head a little, but her lips tilted in a small smile. “Yeah. And all it took was the dismantling of the Hunger Games and evacuating our District. Who knew?”

“You really think we’ve dismantled them forever?” he asked. “I mean, I’m all for hoping we did, but—”

Frowning, she glanced back over her shoulder. He focused ahead, conscious of the rising sun to his right and thinking of the maps he and Flex had studied aboard the hovercraft. “I hope we did. But,” she dropped her voice, “we’re heading to Thirteen, aren’t we? Or where it used to be?”

He nodded. “We’ve seen in the propaganda that the place is a wreck, but it’s also left alone. They won’t look for us, there.”

She blew out a quiet breath. “That’s a long walk, and Foxface—”

“Foehn, Catnip, come on.”

She snorted. “You call me a nickname, why can’t I call her one?”

“Because she’s not your girlfriend?” He let himself chuckle at that.

“You were calling me Catnip long before I was your girlfriend,” Katniss remarked, her voice a bit too casual. He tugged her a bit closer as they continued to walk, adjusting the pack on his back as he did so. It was heavy with a tent and supplies and clothes and medicines.

“That’s probably because I’d always kind of hoped you would be, eventually,” he said, also trying to sound casual.

They hiked in silence for a while after that, and he could hear the hushed conversations of those who followed him.

“I’m glad,” she said eventually. “Glad you were hoping.”

Warmth filled his chest. “Me, too.”

>>>>||<<<<

Two weeks and five days later, they reached the edge of what had once been District 13. The mountain they were on was rich and green and replete with wildlife, but the valley below them seemed bereft of humanity. To Gale it was filled with possibility.

The nineteen people who had traveled with him gathered with the sounds of shuffling feet and lowered packs. Lady, the goat, bleated before turning to munch on a stalk of flowers nearby. Gale wrapped his arm around Katniss’s shoulders with an ease he wouldn’t have believed would come to them so soon. “Well, I think this is far enough. What do you think?”

“We’ll have to get ready for winter, you know.”

Flex grunted in his characteristic manner. He, Lavinia, and Sage were teaching the rest of them how to understand a sort of hybrid sign-and-grunt form of communication so they didn’t have to engage in what Foehn had wryly called interpretive dance whenever they wanted to talk.

Flex was thorough as he made a list: Houses, plants, hunting, looking for other people.

“Yeah, I agree,” Gale told him. “All right. Let’s see what we can do.”

“You mean we’re stopping?” Vick asked, practically bouncing next to him.

“I mean we’re stopping.”

Vick shouted in glee and dashed off to make plans with Rory and Prim. Gale smiled as the others clustered to make their own plans, leaving their packs in the dirt and giving the high ground overlooking the valley a quick survey.

“What d’you think, Catnip?”

She turned in his arms and wrapped her own loosely about his torso before turning her bright gray eyes up to his. “I think this is good. And I think you’re amazing, too. In case I hadn’t told you.”

She hadn’t, but that she did now delighted him. “Thanks.”

That night, the group set up shelters that were open to the breezes available above the valley, lighting fires to cook with and tell stories by. New groups took the places of old families, Gale noticed as he leaned against a granite boulder.

Peeta’s dad was working with Katniss’s mom on Peeta’s eye, which had grown inflamed over the past couple days. They looked a bit…furtive…with one another and Gale wondered if they had a secret or something. No way was he going to ask, though.

His own mom was with Vick and Posy and Foehn around a separate fire. They were drawing in the dirt with sticks and gesturing as they spoke. Rory and Prim were tending to Lady and sitting close together at a small fire of their own. Gale thought about teasing them.

He didn’t, though.

Salvatore and Sage were at another fire with Lavinia and Flex. They were clearly paired off and Gale had seen that coming before they had picked up the families from District 12. He wouldn’t be surprised if they built two small homes for themselves. Avoxes couldn’t marry in Panem, but he would wager that those laws wouldn’t hold, up here. He wasn’t going to mention it.

His shelter and fire held four people: Katniss, Greasy Sae, her granddaughter Sadie, and himself. Sae had been instrumental in what he deemed a covert extraction of their families. He and Katniss had always spoken with her and they got along well enough, and he was truly grateful for her help over the years as they had traded for needed supplies in The Hob back in Twelve.

That night, after they’d had a dinner of freshly killed rabbit and dried vegetables in a stew, Gale was happy enough to hold Katniss’s hand while they fell asleep.

Sae was telling Sadie a story when they woke up the next morning. Katniss sat up first, pushing her sleeping bag off and sliding on top of it. Gale smiled at her softened expression as she seemed to study him.

“What?” he whispered, not wanting to be overheard.

She appeared to start to talk, then stopped. He waited; Katniss’s words were generally worth waiting for. “This, this is good, Gale. And I’m glad you, you fought for us. You did all this planning and work and got my mom and Prim out and safe.” She paused and looked away for a moment. “I miss Haymitch, you know. Is that weird?”

“I miss him, too.” Haymitch Abernathy had a quiet room of his own in Gale’s memory, but he kept the door closed to it for now. “But he made it possible for us to…to escape, you know?”

“I know. I wonder what’s happening, back home.”

“I just hope they’re not looking for us.”

She shrugged and started tracing patterns on his sleeping bag, which was still pulled up on his chest. He could feel the pressure of her fingers, though, and enjoyed it probably more than he should have. “Me, too. But do you think we should find someplace more…sheltered, for the winter? Winters are harder, higher up, you know.”

He squinted, caught her hand in his, and shifted to sit up. Sae and Sadie immediately focused on him. “Yeah. Maybe we should have an expedition down further into the District. To see what’s left.”

Sae cocked her head. “I got long-sight, you know? I seen bodies movin’ with lights in the middle o’ the night.”

“That’s not good,” Gale muttered.

Then, surprising everyone in earshot, little Sadie yelled, “Not good!”

Katniss blinked and then grinned and crawled immediately over to the little girl’s side. “Well look who’s talking?”

“Not good!” the girl said again, eyes mostly vacant, but still smiling.

Gale smiled too, and got up. “Well, I guess we better go check it out.”

>>>>||<<<<

“You’re Gale Hawthorne, Victor from the 73rd Games.”

Hefting his hunting knife in his hands, Gale froze at the voice that came to him out of the dark when he’d been on watch, standing on the highest outcropping of rock near their encampment. He turned slowly, hearing the grind of rock under the soles of his boots. “Who’re you?” he asked the tall, dark-skinned man who held himself like a Peacekeeper.

“Name’s Boggs. And if you’re Hawthorne, I’ve been sent to find you.” His voice was deep and spare, sounding assured. “You Hawthorne?”

Boggs. The name was familiar and Gale studied the other man as he tried to remember where he’d heard it. “Who sent you?”

The man’s smile flashed white and fast before disappearing into the general darkness. “I’m from down there,” he said, pointing to the valley. “And if you’re who I think? You’ve saved us all one hell of a big fight. You have the survivors from the last Games with you? You’re all welcome. I count twenty of you, right? Plus a goat and a cat.”

Both impressed with the man’s information as well as concerned that he had it, Gale cleared his throat. He wished Haymitch were there to handle this, but he was on his own. “Yeah. What do you want with us?”

“Your stories,” Boggs said, smiling again and gesturing to the rock. “Can we sit? I’ve been out here watching you for two days now, and I’m tired.”

“Sure?” Wary, Gale asked, “Are you armed?”

“I am. But so are you. Don’t pull that blade on me and I won’t do anything either.”

“Fine. So, why do you want us, really?”

Boggs let out a loud sound. “You’ve given us hope, Gale Hawthorne. We don’t know how you did it, but Panem is different than it was when you dropped off the radar. And we want you with us.” He hesitated before adding, “Besides, Abernathy was a good man.”

That’s where he’d heard the name. Relief spread from his chest to his limbs. “Right. He, he told me to look for you.”

The men shook hands and sat down together, and Gale told him the story of the 74th Hunger Games.

>>>>||<<<<

“Panem, this is Ginger Potter, Administrator of Alpha District. On this five-year anniversary of the Great Reorganization, let us stand in silent appreciation for those who brought us hope.”

In their home in the renamed Omega District, Gale stood with Katniss at his side as they watched the broadcast from what had been the Capitol, once. She leaned into him and he held her up, playing with her long, thick hair as they saw faces familiar and unfamiliar scroll by on the viewing screen. The one that caught at him, though years had passed, was the blue-eyed visage of Haymitch Abernathy, who’d had a plan.

“Look, it’s Daddy,” Katniss murmured as Gale’s own face filled the screen, his name underneath it in big white letters. “See, Anders?”

“Da!”

Shock distracted Gale from the annual broadcast, and he bent to nuzzle his son’s dark hair. “He said Da!”

“First word,” Katniss declared, sounding smug. “I’ll have to tell our moms.” She set Anders down to toddle about as the broadcast ended. “That’s not all I have to tell them, though.”

Gale gathered her up against himself. “Oh yeah? What else?”

She looked down between their bodies. “You know, I never figured to have kids because of the Games, right?”

A sort of anticipatory dread swept through him. “You said so when we found out about Anders. Are you okay?”

With a laugh, she brought her head up once more. “Pretty much. So…what do you think of the name Hope?”

The End


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LJ_Summers

Inveterate daydreamer, I entered the world of fan fiction to fix things. I keep my fanficking life at a definite distance from my mainstream publishing, but people who have happened to peek at all my writing will tell you that there is usually a bodycount somewhere. My fanfic is published at FFn -- https://www.fanfiction.net/~ljsummers

10 Comments:

  1. A true fix it! Thanks, so much, for sharing!

    • Thank you! The fix turned out quite different than I originally thought it might, but I had quite the ride. lol

  2. Not really one of my fandoms, but a great story nonetheless. Thanks for sharing.

    • Hi! Thank you for taking the time to read something that wasn’t your usual. 🙂 I have only one other story in this fandom—a one-shot—so it was kind of an adventure for me to go here. 🙂 Glad you found the story to be a good one. 🙂

  3. What an excellent story! Thanks for sharing!!

  4. Wow, I’ve never read a Hunger Games fanfic, but this one seemed so interesting to me. And it was! I love that Gale and Katniss stayed together and had kids – so sweet! I love it so much, thank you for writing a great story.

    • Thank you for trying something new! 🙂 I very much wanted Gale and Katniss to be happy and to, gah, END Snow.

  5. Oh man!!! This was so cool!! I loved all the subterfuge and the inclusion of the avoxes! I also really liked that Peet’s and Katniss didn’t play lovers

    • Thank you! I enjoyed the subterfuge, too. lol I figured a certain level of it had to happen on the Mentor level. Eliminating the “play acting” for Peeta and Katniss was something I wanted to make sure happened. Thanks for reading!

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