"No!" I cry, and spring forward. It's too late to stop the arm from descending, and I instinctively know I won't have the power to block it. Instead I throw myself directly between the whip and Gale. I've flung out my arms to protect as much of his broken body as possible, so there's nothing to deflect the lash. I take the full force of it across the left side of my face.
The pain is blinding and instantaneous. Jagged flashes of light cross my vision and I fall to my knees. One hand cups my cheek while the other keeps me from tipping over. I can already feel the welt rising up, the swelling closing my eye. The stones beneath me are wet with Gale's blood, the air heavy with its scent. "Stop it! You'll kill him!" I shriek.
I get a glimpse of my assailant's face. Hard, with deep lines, a cruel mouth. Gray hair shaved almost to nonexistence, eyes so black they seem all pupils, a long, straight nose reddened by the freezing air. The powerful arm lifts again, his sights set on me. My hand flies to my shoulder, hungry for an arrow, but, of course, my weapons are stashed in the woods. I grit my teeth in anticipation of the next lash.
"Hold it!" a voice barks. Haymitch appears and trips over a Peacekeeper lying on the ground. It's Darius. A huge purple lump pushes through the red hair on his forehead. He's knocked out but still breathing. What happened? Did he try to come to Gale's aid before I got here?
Haymitch ignores him and pulls me to my feet roughly. "Oh, excellent." His hand locks under my chin, lifting it. "She's got a photo shoot next week modeling wedding dresses. What am I supposed to tell her stylist?"
I see a flicker of recognition in the eyes of the man with the whip. Bundled against the cold, my face free of makeup, my braid tucked carelessly under my coat, it wouldn't be easy to identify me as the victor of the last Hunger Games. Especially with half my face swelling up. But Haymitch has been showing up on television for years, and he'd be difficult to forget.
The man rests the whip on his hip. "She interrupted the punishment of a confessed criminal."
Everything about this man, his commanding voice, his odd accent, warns of an unknown and dangerous threat. Where has he come from? District 11? 3? From the Capitol itself?
"I don't care if she blew up the blasted Justice Building! Look at her cheek! Think that will be camera ready in a week?" Haymitch snarls.
The man's voice is still cold, but I can detect a slight edge of doubt. "That's not my problem."
"No? Well, it's about to be, my friend. The first call I make when I get home is to the Capitol," says Haymitch.
"Find out who authorized you to mess up my victor's pretty little face!"
"He was poaching. What business is it of hers, anyway?" says the man.
"He's her cousin." Peeta's got my other arm now, but gently. "And she's my fiance. So if you want to get to him, expect to go through both of us."
Maybe we're it. The only three people in the district who could make a stand like this. Although it's sure to be temporary. There will be repercussions. But at the moment, all I care about is keeping Gale alive. The new Head Peacekeeper glances over at his backup squad. With relief, I see they're familiar faces, old friends from the Hob. You can tell by their expressions that they're not enjoying the show.
One, a woman named Purnia who eats regularly at Greasy Sae's, steps forward stiffly. "I believe, for a first offense, the required number of lashes has been dispensed, sir. Unless your sentence is death, which we would carry out by firing squad."
"Is that the standard protocol here?" asks the Head Peacekeeper.
"Yes, sir," Purnia says, and several others nod in agreement. I'm sure none of them actually know because, in the Hob, the standard protocol for someone showing up with a wild turkey is for everybody to bid on the drumsticks.
"Very well. Get your cousin out of here, then, girl. And if he comes to, remind him that the next time he poaches off the Capitol's land, I'll assemble that firing squad personally." The Head Peacekeeper wipes his hand along the length of the whip, splattering us with blood. Then he coils it into quick, neat loops and walks off.
Most of the other Peacekeepers fall in an awkward formation behind him. A small group stays behind and hoists Darius's body up by the arms and legs. I catch Purnia's eye and mouth the word "Thanks" before she goes. She doesn't respond, but I'm sure she understood.
"Gale." I turn, my hands fumbling at the knots binding his wrists. Someone passes forward a knife and Peeta cuts the ropes. Gale collapses to the ground.
"Better get him to your mother," says Haymitch.
There's no stretcher, but the old woman at the clothing stall sells us the board that serves as her countertop. "Just don't tell where you got it," she says, packing up the rest of her goods quickly. Most of the square has emptied, fear getting the better of compassion. But after what just happened, I can't blame anyone.
By the time we've laid Gale facedown on the board, there's only a handful of people left to carry him. Haymitch, Peeta, and a couple of miners who work on the same crew as Gale lift him up.
Leevy, a girl who lives a few houses down from mine in the Seam, takes my arm. My mother kept her little brother alive last year when he caught the measles. "Need help getting back?" Her gray eyes are scared but determined.
"No, but can you get Hazelle? Send her over?" I ask.
"Yeah," says Leevy, turning on her heel.
"Leevy!" I say. "Don't let her bring the kids." "No. I'll stay with them myself," she says. "Thanks." I grab Gale's jacket and hurry after the others.
"Get some snow on that," Haymitch orders over his shoulder. I scoop up a handful of snow and press it against my cheek, numbing a bit of the pain. My left eye's tearing heavily now, and in the dimming light it's all I can do to follow the boots in front of me.
As we walk I hear Bristel and Thorn, Gale's crewmates, piece together the story of what happened. Gale must've gone to Cray's house, as he's done a hundred times, knowing Cray always pays well for a wild turkey. Instead he found the new Head Peacekeeper, a man they heard someone call Romulus Thread. No one knows what happened to Cray. He was buying white liquor in the Hob just this morning, apparently still in command of the district, but now he's nowhere to be found. Thread put Gale under immediate arrest and, of course, since he was standing there holding a dead turkey, there was little Gale could say in his own defense. Word of his predicament spread quickly. He was brought to the square, forced to plead guilty to his crime, and sentenced to a whipping to be carried out immediately. By the time I showed up, he'd been lashed at least forty times. He passed out around thirty.
"Lucky he only had the turkey on him," says Bristel. "If he'd had his usual haul, would've been much worse."
"He told Thread he found it wandering around the Seam. Said it got over the fence and he'd stabbed it with a stick. Still a crime. But if they'd known he'd been in the woods with weapons, they'd have killed him for sure," says Thom.
"What about Darius?" Peeta asks.
"After about twenty lashes, he stepped in, saying that was enough. Only he didn't do it smart and official, like Purnia did. He grabbed Thread's arm and Thread hit him in the head with the butt of the whip. Nothing good waiting for him," says Bristel.
"Doesn't sound like much good for any of us," says Haymitch.
Snow begins, thick and wet, making visibility even more difficult. I stumble up the walk to my house behind the others, using my ears more than my eyes to guide me. A golden light colors the snow as the door opens. My mother, who was no doubt waiting for me after a long day of unexplained absence, takes in the scene.
"New Head," Haymitch says, and she gives him a curt nod as if no other explanation is needed.
I'm filled with awe, as I always am, as I watch her transform from a woman who calls me to kill a spider to a woman immune to fear. When a sick or dying person is brought to her … this is the only time I think my mother knows who she is. In moments, the long kitchen table has been cleared, a sterile white cloth spread across it, and Gale hoisted onto it. My mother pours water from a kettle into a basin while ordering Prim to pull a series of her remedies from the medicine cabinet. Dried herbs and tinctures and store-bought bottles. I watch her hands, the long, tapered fingers crumbling this, adding drops of that, into the basin. Soaking a cloth in the hot liquid as she gives Prim instructions to prepare a second brew.
My mother glances my way. "Did it cut your eye?"
"No, it's just swelled shut," I say.
"Get more snow on it," she instructs. But I am clearly not a priority.
"Can you save him?" I ask my mother. She says nothing as she wrings out the cloth and holds it in the air to cool somewhat.
"Don't worry," says Haymitch. "Used to be a lot of whipping before Cray. She's the one we took them to."
I can't remember a time before Cray, a time when there was a Head Peacekeeper who used the whip freely. But my mother must have been around my age and still working at the apothecary shop with her parents. Even back then, she must have had healer's hands.
Ever so gently, she begins to clean the mutilated flesh on Gale's back. I feel sick to my stomach, useless, the remaining snow dripping from my glove into a puddle on the floor. Peeta puts me in a chair and holds a cloth filled with fresh snow to my cheek.
Haymitch tells Bristel and Thorn to get home, and I see him press coins into their hands before they leave. "Don't know what will happen with your crew," he says. They nod and accept the money.
Hazelle arrives, breathless and flushed, fresh snow in her hair. Wordlessly, she sits on a stool next to the table, takes Gale's hand, and holds it against her lips. My mother doesn't acknowledge even her. She's gone into that special zone that includes only herself and the patient and occasionally Prim. The rest of us can wait.
Even in her expert hands, it takes a long time to clean the wounds, arrange what shredded skin can be saved, apply a salve and a light bandage. As the blood clears, I can see where every stroke of the lash landed and feel it resonate in the single cut on my face. I multiply my own pain once, twice, forty times and can only hope that Gale remains unconscious. Of course, that's too much to ask for. As the final bandages are being placed, a moan escapes his lips. Hazelle strokes his hair and whispers something while my mother and Prim go through their meager store of painkillers, the kind usually accessible only to doctors. They are hard to come by, expensive, and always in demand. My mother has to save the strongest for the worst pain, but what is the worst pain? To me, it's always the pain that is present. If I were in charge, those painkillers would be gone in a day because I have so little ability to watch suffering. My mother tries to save them for those who are actually in the process of dying, to ease them out of the world.
Since Gale is regaining consciousness, they decide on an herbal concoction he can take by mouth. "That won't be enough," I say. They stare at me. "That won't be enough, I know how it feels. That will barely knock out a headache."
"We'll combine it with sleep syrup, Katniss, and he'll manage it. The herbs are more for the inflammation – " my mother begins calmly.
"Just give him the medicine!" I scream at her. "Give it to him! Who are you, anyway, to decide how much pain he can stand!"
Gale begins stirring at my voice, trying to reach me. The movement causes fresh blood to stain his bandages and an agonized sound to come from his mouth.
"Take her out," says my mother. Haymitch and Peeta literally carry me from the room while I shout obscenities at her. They pin me down on a bed in one of the extra bedrooms until I stop fighting.
While I lie there, sobbing, tears trying to squeeze out of the slit of my eye, I hear Peeta whisper to Haymitch about President Snow, about the uprising in District 8. "She wants us all to run," he says, but if Haymitch has an opinion on this, he doesn't offer it.
After a while, my mother comes in and treats my face. Then she holds my hand, stroking my arm, while Haymitch fills her in on what happened with Gale.
"So it's starting again?" she says. "Like before?"
"By the looks of it," he answers. "Who'd have thought we'd ever be sorry to see old Cray go?"
Cray would have been disliked, anyway, because of the uniform he wore, but it was his habit of luring starving young women into his bed for money that made him an object of loathing in the district. In really bad times, the hungriest would gather at his door at nightfall, vying for the chance to earn a few coins to feed their families by selling their bodies. Had I been older when my father died, I might have been among them. Instead I learned to hunt.
I don't know exactly what my mother means by things starting again, but I'm too angry and hurting to ask. It's registered, though, the idea of worse times returning, because when the doorbell rings, I shoot straight out of bed. Who could it be at this hour of the night? There's only one answer. Peacekeepers.
"They can't have him," I say.
"Might be you they're after," Haymitch reminds me. "Or you," I say.
"Not my house," Haymitch points out. "But I'll get the door."
"No, I'll get it," says my mother quietly.
We all go, though, following her down the hallway to the insistent ring of the bell. When she opens it, there's not a squad of Peacekeepers but a single, snow-caked figure. Madge. She holds out a small, damp cardboard box to me.
"Use these for your friend," she says. I take off the lid of the box, revealing half a dozen vials of clear liquid. "They're my mother's. She said I could take them. Use them, please." She runs back into the storm before we can stop her.
"Crazy girl," Haymitch mutters as we follow, my mother into the kitchen.
Whatever my mother had given Gale, I was right, it isn't enough. His teeth are gritted and his flesh shines with sweat. My mother fills a syringe with the clear liquid from one of the vials and shoots it into his arm. Almost immediately, his face begins to relax.
"What is that stuff?" asks Peeta.
"It's from the Capitol. It's called morphling," my mother answers.
"I didn't even know Madge knew Gale," says Peeta.
"We used to sell her strawberries," I say almost angrily. What am I angry about, though? Not that she has brought the medicine, surely.
"She must have quite a taste for them," says Haymitch.
That's what nettles me. It's the implication that there's something going on between Gale and Madge. And I don't like it.
"She's my friend" is all I say.
Now that Gale has drifted away on the painkiller, everyone seems to deflate. Prim makes us each eat some stew and bread. A room is offered to Hazelle, but she has to go home to the other kids. Haymitch and Peeta are both willing to stay, but my mother sends them home to bed as well. She knows it's pointless to try this with me and leaves me to tend Gale while she and Prim rest.
Alone in the kitchen with Gale, I sit on Hazelle's stool, holding his hand. After a while, my fingers find his face. I touch parts of him I have never had cause to touch before. His heavy, dark eyebrows, the curve of his cheek, the line of his nose, the hollow at the base of his neck. I trace the outline of stubble on his jaw and finally work my way to his lips. Soft and full, slightly chapped. His breath warms my chilled skin.
Does everyone look younger asleep? Because right now he could be the boy I ran into in the woods years ago, the one who accused me of stealing from his traps. What a pair we were – fatherless, frightened, but fiercely committed, too, to keeping our families alive. Desperate, yet no longer alone after that day, because we'd found each other. I think of a hundred moments in the woods, lazy afternoons fishing, the day I taught him to swim, that time I twisted my knee and he carried me home. Mutually counting on each other, watching each other's backs, forcing each other to be brave.
For the first time, I reverse our positions in my head. I imagine watching Gale volunteering to save Rory in the reaping, having him torn from my life, becoming some strange girl's lover to stay alive, and then coming home with her. Living next to her. Promising to marry her.
The hatred I feel for him, for the phantom girl, for everything, is so real and immediate that it chokes me. Gale is mine. I am his. Anything else is unthinkable. Why did it take him being whipped within an inch of his life to see it?
Because I'm selfish. I'm a coward. I'm the kind of girl who, when she might actually be of use, would run to stay alive and leave those who couldn't follow to suffer and die. This is the girl Gale met in the woods today.
No wonder I won the Games. No decent person ever does.
You saved Peeta, I think weakly.
But now I question even that. I knew good and well that my life back in District 12 would be unlivable if I let that boy die.
I rest my head forward on the edge of the table, overcome with loathing for myself. Wishing I had died in the arena. Wishing Seneca Crane had blown me to bits the way President Snow said he should have when I held out the berries.
The berries. I realize the answer to who I am lies in that handful of poisonous fruit. If I held them out to save Peeta because I knew I would be shunned if I came back without him, then I am despicable. If I held them out because I loved him, I am still self-centered, although forgivable. But if I held them out to defy the Capitol, I am someone of worth. The trouble is, I don't know exactly what was going on inside me at that moment.
Could it be the people in the districts are right? That it was an act of rebellion, even if it was an unconscious one? Because, deep down, I must know it isn't enough to keep myself, or my family, or my friends alive by running away. Even if I could. It wouldn't fix anything. It wouldn't stop people from being hurt the way Gale was today.
Life in District 12 isn't really so different from life in the arena. At some point, you have to stop running and turn around and face whoever wants you dead. The hard thing is finding the courage to do it. Well, it's not hard for Gale. He was born a rebel. I'm the one making an escape plan.
"I'm so sorry," I whisper. I lean forward and kiss him.
His eyelashes flutter and he looks at me through a haze of opiates. "Hey, Catnip."
"Hey, Gale," I say.
"Thought you'd be gone by now," he says.
My choices are simple. I can die like quarry in the woods or I can die here beside Gale. "I'm not going anywhere. I'm going to stay right here and cause all kinds of trouble."
"Me, too," Gale says. He just manages a smile before the drugs pull him back under.