Into the Woods

Chapter Eighteen

The map machine tells us, once I got it to work again, that the next house, or blinking dot, I hope it's a house, is a five day's hike away. Gale and I try to be frugal with our supplies, because we don't know for sure that our next hosts will be generous. Luckily, Brillow gave me an old bow of his, and why it's not nearly as up to par as my own, I'm itching for a chance to use it.

Spring is finally setting in, and it's still painfully cold at night, but at the brisk pace of our hike, we get warm enough to shed our outer jackets. The ground is starting to grow green again and the trees are filling with leaves. I hope this means we'll start to see more animals around to hunt and maybe find some fruit and nut trees to scavenge.

"We're going to need to find water soon," Gale says on the second day.

I nod, taking out the map. "Find nearest water," I say clearly into the screen.

"Finding nearest water source…" the electronic voice reads, "calculating best route…." A little purple circle spins around the screen until a blue line appears, jutting above and away from our yellow route. "Closest water source…six miles north by north west…approximate time of travel, three hours…"

"Damn," Gale swears under his breath, "that takes us back a bit in the opposite direction."

"At least it's only a few miles," I offer. But there is nothing either of us could do about it, so we start off in that direction.

"Tell me something, Gale," I ask, trying to break the silence, trying to find some way to get him to open up to me.

"I hate pickles." He says without hesitation.

"What?"

"Yeah, I hate them. I hate most pickled things."

"But I've seen you eat them." And I realize the stupidity of my statement as soon as I say it.

"Of course. Because I was hungry. When this is all finished. When the rebellion is over and the Capitol is gone, I want to live in a world without pickles."

I can't help but laugh. "Pickles, hunh…I never knew…Anything else I should know about you, Mr. Hawthorne? Any secrets or stories?"

He says without looking back. "I think you know all my stories, Catnip, you were there for most of them."

"And your secrets?"

"Jeez, Catnip, I'm beginning to think you think I lead some sort of double life…" He turns around playfully.

"You could…I'd be the last to know."

"That's for sure," he says, almost under his breath, "What exactly do you think I'm keeping from you?"

"I don't know…Something rougeish."

"Rougeish?" He laughs, "I'm not sure that's a word."

"It is," I assure him, "and you could be off rougeing all the time, for all I know."

"I could," he admits, "I sneak off every night, you know, and go rouge with the squirrels…"

"Not now, of course," my tone says that only he is being silly, "but before."

"Ahh yes, after all my shifts at the mine you mean?"

"Maybe…" I think he sees that I am actually serious. "Or before that…"

"Ahh, you're right," he says, his tone somewhat of a mystery, "I was a rouge back then."

"You were?" He smiles because I believe him.

"Lots of people thought so," he confesses honestly.

"Why?" I really want to know.

"Because," he pauses, making sure he catches me eyes, "I spent all my free time out in the woods with you."

Oh. I think. What did people think we were doing out there? "What did people think we were doing out there?"

Something sparkles in his eyes, some little mischievous glow. But I still look at him blankly. "Well, I guess no one would have said it to you."

"Said what?"

He laughs and I start to get angry. I jog up next to him so he can't ignore me. "What, Gale?"

"They just thought we were…." He pauses, shaking his head and carefully considering his words, "you know…." My eyes widen at him, waiting instead of understanding. "Just…like really brave and stuff…for going out in the woods…trading at the Hob…taking the risks and stuff."

"Oh," I say, that makes sense. But he quickly darts his eyes away, and I know he's hiding something. "Wait," the gears in my mind are turning. I never bothered to think what people thought we were doing out in the woods because, well, I knew what we were doing. "There's something you're not telling me." That wasn't exactly a question, so Gale doesn't answer. I huff in frustration. "Gale!" I demand.

He chuckles and looks at me slyly, but doesn't offer anything more. I remember Madge asking me once what we did out there. There was an excited sort of tone in her voice, and she rolled her eyes when I told her all we did was hunt.

"Really?" I remember her saying, like she couldn't believe me.

"Of course," I insisted. "What else would be we doing?"

"Oh, Katniss," she sighed, "You've got Gale Hawthorne all to yourself. And all you do is hunt!"

Of course, I thought, what else would we be doing?

And Peeta too. He never lost that jealous edge no matter how many times I told we were only friends.

"Sex!" I blurt out, as soon as the thought hit my head.

Gale stops in his tracks and turns to look at me. "Excuse me?"

"Sex." I repeat.

"That's what I thought you just said," but this doesn't seem to help his understanding.

"They thought we were having sex!" it suddenly makes sense to me. I kick Gale out of frustrating and shove his chest. "You let people think we were having sex!"

"I can't control what people think, Catnip."

"But you knew that's what some people were thinking!" I accuse him.

"Yes, I knew that's what some people were thinking," he admits.

"Gale!"

"What?" he's trying to hold back his amusement, "did you want me to go knock on everyone's door or something," and he continues in a mocking tone, "'excuse, me, sorry to bother you, but I just want to make sure you know that I'm not sleeping with Katniss Everdeen.'" He looks at me, grinning as he finishes, but it falters as he sees I'm upset. "What? Why does it bother you so much?" he actually sounds a little hurt by this.

"Because, that's not what we were doing!" He nods, seeming to understand this. I can't quite explain why it bothers me so much, but I'm angry. I guess firstly because it's a lie, but mostly because it reminds me of people thinking I was in love with Peeta when I wasn't, and that upsets me. Not that I ever had to pretend I was in love with Gale. And now I'm just angry because I'm confused. "I guess I just don't like people thinking I'm something I'm not. After the Games, there were so many lies...So many who think they know me and don't…"

"I understand that," he says genuinely, and I'm thankful he gets it. I'm not trying to insult him. "But you have to remember, those people don't matter," he tries to comfort me. I take a minute to consider this.

"It wouldn't bother you if people believed a bunch of lies they heard about you?"

"Depends on the lie, I guess," he honestly thinks about it.

"But not this one?"

"Katniss, I know you don't realize this most of the time, but I am a guy."

"I know!" How could I not? "I just didn't think...you wouldn't want other girls to think you were with me..."

"Why not?"

I am not oblivious to everything. I know Gale is just about the most handsome boy in the Seam, possibly in all of District 12. I heard what all the girls said about him. I knew how many wanted to be with him. There had to be at least one that caught his eye, and if she thought he was with me that would sure complicate things...I am thinking about how to explain this to him when we hear their voices.

Mine and Gale's instincts both kick in. We freeze, frantically looking for their source. Both our ears, trained to pick up on the slightest sound, hear the crackle from the left. We barely have enough time to dodge behind the nearest tree as we see the two men in Peacekeeper uniforms coming.

"This way," one first man calls. "I thought I heard something from over here!" He motions to his companion to follow.

"Are you sure?" the second one has doubts. They continue walking towards us, weapons raised, searching around. "I didn't hear anything. Let's just keep heading for the water."

"No," he is firm, "I know I heard voices."

"It was probably just the birds…" But they keep coming towards us.

I hold my breath and try to stay small behind the tree. They are only a few yards away, we'll have to be very careful so they don't see us. Gale has silently placed his backpack on the ground. He slowly pulls out his long hunting knife. I grab his arm and look up at him, hoping he understands me. Best not to attack, if they think we're not here. He looks down at me and nods. He isn't going to do anything rash. I nod, thankful, hoping we can get out of this without risking any lives.

"There!" the first man screams. They've seen us.

No quicker than he's said it does Gale aim his sharp knife and throw it at the man. He falls to his knees, unable to stop the red from pouring out of his chest.

"Katniss, quick," Gale commands me, "your bow!" I raised it in a second, taking aim at the other man whose weapon is also pointed at me. But he's looking to his friend, sputtering on the ground, and to both of us, weapons in hand. He shakes his head, desperately, eyes wide with fear, and lowers his gun.

"Katniss!" Gale sounds desperate, "shoot!" But I can't shoot a man in the back. He's not a threat to us now. I lower my weapon as the man starts to run away.

Gale curses as he lunges over to the dead body. He wrenches the weapon loose, studies it for a second, points it at the fleeing man, and fires. There's a strange electric noise, and Gale jumps back, unprepared for the weapon’s recoil. The second man crumples to the ground.

"Why did you do that?" I scream, "he wasn't going to hurt us!"

"No," Gale says coolly, "he was going to run and tell his friends, and they were going to hurt us."

Oh, I hadn't thought of that.

I know Gale is right. That man would have gotten us killed, for sure. I try and make myself remember that as I shake the image of his wide, frightened eyes from my mind.

"Are you okay?" he asks me, seeing my worried expression.

"Yeah," I finally mumble. "Are you?" I look at him full of concern, trying to figure out what he's feeling, remembering the first time I had to take a life. "I – I just…I know how hard it is to kill somebody…I know…how it can haunt you…"

Gale doesn't look at me when he crouches down to the body. "When I was about ten years old," he says, ripping his knife out of the dead man's chest, "I was walking home one day. It was cold and rainy and I remember my feet were all wet," he wipes the blood on the white uniform, "and I saw this boy. Curled up, under a tree. I thought he was hiding from the rain, and I went over to him, ready to share my umbrella to get him home. He couldn't have been more than eight…" Gale puts his knife in the sheath he wears at his hip. "But when I got close to him, I saw his eyes were closed and first thought he was sleeping…" He turns the man over and begins to go through his belt, looking for anything useful. "But as I got closer, I saw how his skin stuck to his face, how his body looked so pinched, and I noticed…" he pulled what appeared to be some type of ammo off of the belt, "…how he didn't move." Gale gets up, and studies the weapon. "I reached out to the boy, hoping that he'd wake…" I look at Gale with horrified eyes, but his haven't left the weapon yet. "I took just one finger and touched his face… The boy's eyes jumped open." I exhale in relief, and he looks at me. I can't quite read his expression. "But they never closed again." My jaw drops in horror. "I sat there, crouched next to him for minutes, shaking him, screaming at him, but those big, round, gray eyes never closed…" He takes the weapon and slings it over his back. "If anybody's face is going to haunt my dreams tonight," he finally catches my eyes, "it's that boy's…not his." And he kicks the dead man's body.

He says this with such finality I don't know what to make of it. Gale has never told me this story before. I want to say something to him. Extend some form of comfort. Find some way to make it all better. But I know I can't.

"I heard him say something about water," Gale says in a tone that is nothing more than matter-of-fact, "So we should turn around. We don't want to run into any more of them out here."

I can think of nothing to say so I nod and follow him back the direction we came.


Gale doesn't talk much for the rest of the evening. He insists we get as far away from the water source as possible before making camp. We walk well on into the dark. There's a cold northern wind carrying the remainder of winter, and I suggest we make a fire.

"Shouldn't risk it. Someone could see us." I nod because he's right. Too dangerous since we don't know who is around, how many, or why. So I tuck my legs up under my chin and make my body into a ball as I try to stay warm, and Gale sets up the tent.

Gale partitions some of the bread Brillow gave us, some dried meat, and a very small cup of water. I didn't realize until I see it how thirsty I am. We huddle close and eat our small meal. Both of us are used to the hunger. Food was often in short supply back home in Twelve, but never water.

"My first few days in the Games, I didn't have much water…" I let the sentence hang in the air.

"I remember.”

"You saw that part?"

"I couldn't avoid the Games entirely, even if I wanted to."

"It was bad."

"We'll find some water tomorrow." He's trying to reassure me. But that's not exactly what I'm after.

"It's okay," I say, almost offhandedly, "Thirst was hardly the worst part of the Games." Our eyes catch for a moment. He's not sure where I'm going with this. To be honest, I'm not either. But for some reason, start telling him things. All sorts of things. I don't know why; I guess now, maybe I think he'll understand. I tell him about massacre at the Cornucopia. About the fire, and the parachute, and getting chased up the tree. I tell him about the Careers, and the trackerjackers, and Rue. I start crying when I think of Rue. I tell him about blowing up the food pyramid, and about the boy who killed Rue. About the boy I killed. About how there are nights when I wake up and don't think I'll ever be able to wash their blood from my hands. I tell him about finding Peeta. About drugging him and sneaking out to get his medicine. I tell him about the notes Haymitch sent me, and the rules changing, about the mutts attacking and about killing Cato. I tell him about the rules changing again, and I tell him about the berries.

Gale sits and listens, he doesn't say a thing, as I finish my story. He waits for me to be done, and it appears I am because I can't think of anything else to say. He's silent as he considers.

"Do you think you would have eaten the berries?"

"I don't know," I tell him honestly, "maybe. I was so tired and exhausted and drained from the Games, in that moment, I just wanted them so desperately to be over, I very well might have...But I also promised Prim I'd come home…But, I guess, Peeta would have taken care of her, if he won…And you too…" I meet his eyes. Perhaps that sounds too much like a question.

Gale shakes his head as I say that. "You know I would have," he says with something sad in his eyes.

I look over at him, uncertain. Not that I don't believe him, but I know there is something going on that I don't understand.

"Katniss, do you sometimes wish that you had taken those berries?"

"Yes," I answer too quickly, and Gale looks worried. "Not too often anymore, but I did a lot, especially at the beginning."

"I'm glad you didn't."

"I know." It's the only thing I can think to say. I lay down because I want to do something, and it's the only thing I can do in this tiny, stupid tent. Gale follows. I can feel him next to me, eyes on me. "You really won't have any regrets about killing those two men today?"

"I'm not saying that it was easy, or that I enjoyed it, Katniss. You can go ahead and think it's sad if you want, but know it was also necessary. It had to be done. Those two men signed up to wear that uniform. They knew the risks that went along with it. And they knew what wearing it meant." I feel his eyes on me and roll on my side to look into them because I'm not sure what he means. "It meant that it was their job to kill us." That is true. "I'm certain they would have done it, and I'm not going to regret stopping them."

I search his gray eyes, trying to figure out if he means this, and I think he does. I wish I knew how. I must stare at him for quite some time, because he finally asks me, "what are you thinking about, Catnip?"

"You need to shave," I tell him because I'm not sure what's going on inside my head, and it's the first thing that comes into my mind.

Gale takes his hand and rubs his chin, "yeah, I guess I do. It comes in a lot thicker and quicker than it used to…"

I nod to show I'm listening as I wonder what happened to those children who met in the woods so many years ago. The scrawny, spiny girl who thought she had so much to prove. The boy who was taller than he should have been, stronger than he knew he was, and who hungered for so much from this world…

I know I'm not that same girl. And it's foolish of me to try and hold on to that boy. He's gone too. Or maybe not gone, but changed. It's not just age that has transformed them. But life. I guess there is no stopping that, and I wonder if I want to as I look at my best friend….I try to find the boy that I know so well in the dark features that lie before me. But the person next to me is no boy. It's more than just the shadow of a beard that has changed him. Its hardship and sacrifice and hunger for something more from this life. He's a man now. And I don't mean just his body. Or his age. But in every sense of the word. And I realize, as I look at him succumbing to sleep, that I'm jealous. Not of what he is but that he is. That he knows it and respects it and is certain. It's been a long time since I've been certain about anything, least of all myself.

It's time I moved on and changed too….for a long time, I thought that the best was to cope with the horror of the Hunger Games was to try and go back to before they ever happened, try and recapture the girl that I once was, the life I once had. That if I could find her again and hold on, maybe I'd be able to get through this. But there is no use trying to go back. That life in gone now, there is no place for that girl. And for the first time I realize that even if I could return, maybe I don't want to. Maybe it's time for me to move on, grow up, and embrace the things that have happened to me and try to find a way to be better for it. Like Gale does. I'm not sure how exactly to do this. Part of me wants to curl up next to Gale and find comfort in his strong arms. But that's something that the old Katniss would do.

"What's wrong, Katniss?" he mumbles from behind closed eyes.

"I'm just so – so uncertain…"

"About what?"

"Everything."

He does something like a nod and reaches out and takes my hand. "Just try and find one thing you know for sure, one thing you're certain of, and try and hold on to that tonight."

I squeeze his hand thankfully and am silent for minutes as I think.

"You," I barely whisper, not knowing if he is still awake to hear. "The only thing I'm certain of in this world is you, Gale, I don't know what I'd do without you."

And for the first time, looking at my best friend in the dark, I wish he would do more than just hold me to get me through the night.



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