It was President Snow's work, she knew. In fact, Katniss was more sure of that than she was sure she was going to die this time, and she was pretty damned sure of that. Her and Peeta's little lovebird routine had failed. District 8 had already had one attempted uprising, brutally put down, and there was tension and growing anger in most of the other districts. And her apparent failure to play the part of a giddy love-crazy idiot had condemned her. Maybe her family, too.
The thought of family burned across her brain the way the over-sweet liquor burned her throat as she choked it down, and her head echoed over and over with Snow's dusty dry voice reading off the terms of the Quarter Quell.
"On the seventy-fifth anniversary, to demonstrate to the rebels that strength will not save them, and that their acts of treason do not only harm themselves, the tributes shall number four from each district: one male and one female from the pool of existing victors, and one male and one female from the families of the victors chosen."
He'd read the words off a card in a box, cracked and yellowed with age, supposedly written when they first dreamed up the Games. She supposed it was barely possible that such a convenient Quarter Quell would come up just when Snow needed nothing more than for her to disappear quietly. But she doubted it.
The alcohol burned, and she was getting fuzzy. When she'd watched the announcement, it had taken an endless moment for it to sink in. Then she'd...gone mad, for a bit. Grabbed a poker from the fireplace and run out onto the green of the Victor's Village. If there'd been a Peacekeeper there, Katniss rather thought she'd have killed him. As it was, one of the trees would probably bear scars for the rest of its growth.
Then she'd been overcome by the idea that she'd left her sister, her defenceless beloved Prim, all alone with no one to guard her, and had rushed back in, maddened, torn her from their mother's grip and dragged her down to the cellar, where Katniss threatened to kill anyone who came down the stairs. She'd been convinced Snow meant to take her sister, who she'd volunteered to protect before. She hadn't really been thinking straight. Snow was too smart to kill beautiful little Prim in front of the Capitol that had come to love her as the sister of The Girl Who Was On Fire. Prim had hugged and gentled her until she eventually collapsed, and Haymitch had come down to take the poker away and they'd carried her back up to her bed.
The train hummed faintly as it moved, carrying them all away from home and back to the gilded rotten Capitol full of the stupid, the self-obsessed, and the evil. Peeta had tried to talk to her for a while, before giving up at her silent locked door and going to try to comfort his colourless cousin. Clover was a nice enough thing, but bland and slightly simple, and terrified of breaking the rules. Katniss had ruthlessly decided not to have anything to do with her. Clover was going to die in the arena, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
Once the train got quiet in the night, she'd ducked out of her room far enough to snag a bottle off the table Haymitch generally had to himself. Her choice had been random, and what she got was harsh but too sweet, cloyingly awful. Katniss didn't care. She didn't like alcohol anyway. But Haymitch had once said drinking held off the nightmares, and she figured she ought to give it a shot.
There was a businesslike rap on the door, which she ignored, and then a quiet voice she couldn't.
"Open up, Catnip. We need to talk."
She stared at the locked door to her cabin for a long moment, trying desperately to find the strength to look away, to ignore the sound of him breathing on the other side of it, to just will him away. Obstinate silence and a locked door had made Peeta leave, but Katniss knew better than to expect it to work this time.
Sure enough, as if cued by her thoughts, there was an exasperated sigh, and then the telltale sounds of someone trying to break a lock. Katniss jerked to her feet, staggered a bit as the drink caught up with her, and flicked the lock back. Gale stepped inside and closed the door behind himself and then just stood, looking at her. She stared at the floor.
Of course it would be Gale. Her "cousin"; the clever lie the media team had figured out to explain the closeness of this very handsome male person to The Girl On Fire, the star-crossed blushing bride of District 12. A protective lie now turned against them with a sort of subtle cruelty that reeked of President Snow, of blood and roses. Katniss fixed her eyes on the floor and honestly considered just stepping off the plate early and blowing herself up. Better that than watching Gale die. Coward, she thought at herself muzzily, and was appalled to feel tears starting in her eyes.
"Oh, Catnip, you are such an idiot," Gale said, and she felt the bottle yanked out of her grasp. She jerked her head up in surprise, just in time to watch Gale upend it in her bathroom sink and leave it there to stride back to her and wrap her in an iron-hard bear hug she couldn't escape. After a moment she stopped trying and let herself lean in, hug him back, inhale the clean forest-and-leather scent of him. She couldn't hold the tears back then.
"Gale, I can't," she said thickly. "I can't. Not you. Not ever."
"Shhh," he said quietly. "I know. Me neither." Then he pulled her away and held her chin, forcing her to look at him. "And I won't," he said fiercely.
She stared at him, at his face, at the one person she'd always known would have her back even when her own mother had stared blankly at grief and let Prim starve nearly to death. At the boy she'd met hunting in the woods one day, at the hunting partner who, with her, ensured that both their families never went hungry anymore. At the brilliant grey eyes of the most natural hand at snares and traps she'd ever seen. Stared, and tried desperately to believe.
"Katniss, we'll kill them all," he said quietly. "You and me, until we're the only ones left." He pulled her close and whispered in her ear, under cover of her hair. "And then I'll sit down and let them starve us to death before I'll raise my hand to you."
Fear - and alcohol - blew away. Katniss felt suddenly calm. "No," she whispered back, tucking her head to hide her lips and murmuring so quiet the hum of the train seemed loud. "We'll find a way to make them pay, first." The tightening of his arms were all the answer she got. It was enough.