Chapter Twenty Two
My eyes are fixed on the hole in the world where Gale used to be. My heart is somewhere tangled in my throat.
No, I think, This can't be. This didn't happen. What just happened?!
"Gale!" I scream. I think, but I can't hear my voice. "Gale! Gale! Gale! Please! No! Gale! Gale! Please! No!" I can't lose you. My mind races. I can't lose you!
My hands fly to the ground and I violently push myself up. My legs scatter beneath me until I found the ground.
"Gale!" I scream again and again. "Gale!"
I'm out of touch with reality. The world is moving so slowly. I can't hear a thing. I try to make sense of what happened. But my mind is moving both forward and backward. I'm flooding with worry about all the possible outcomes and at the same time I try to figure out what just happened. The thoughts collide and nothing makes sense.
Please be okay, please be okay.
Where did that cat come from? How did Gale know?
Please be okay. Please.
I start running towards the cliff's edge and see blood smeared on the ground.
That's from the buck, right?
It's too far from the deer. It's not his blood.
Then is it his blood?
Please don't be Gale's blood. Please don't be Gale's blood.
Why did he try and save me? Why does he always have to try and save me?
Tears stream down my face as I realize I might have just lost my best friend. No. Not my best friend. Gale is the most important person in the world to me. My mother and Prim, they are family, but there is no one closer in the world to me that Gale. No one who's done as much for me as Gale. We know each other better than we know anyone else. In better ways than we know anyone else. He's not just my best friend, he's my soul mate. I love him, and I can't imagine a world without him. I can't imagine a world without him knowing this.
"Gale," I cry as I approach the cliff's edge. I barely stop myself in time to not go falling over the edge myself.
I might as well, I think, if Gale's…
Don't think that. He's not…
Dead. The word hits me harder than a stone.
You can't be dead, I think angrily, I can't live without you! I don't know who I am without you! These words tear through me like a bullet, ripping at my insides. I feel like I'm falling apart. Like every atom is crumbling and I'm going to implode like a star.
Please, Gale, you can't be dead. I can't live without you! I love you!
The words and the thought explode from me as if somehow they can move faster than time. Reach back to before this happened. Let Gale know. Maybe change what happened.
How can I have been so stupid to have not realized this before? How could I have wasted so much time? Made him go so long without him knowing?
"Gale!" I scream. I prepare myself for what I might see as I look over the cliff. I take a deep breath and gulp as I peer downward.
"God, no. Gale"
He is laying about ten or fifteen feet below me.
Surrounded by blood.
With no regard for myself, I carelessly jump over the edge myself and nearly break my ankle as I fall. I don't notice any pain, but stumble as I scramble over to him.
"No!" I cry, "Gale, no!" Tears are streaming down my face. "Gale, please!"
Please, I need you so much! I never told you, I need to tell you. Please, please.
I thought I'd known true fear in the Games. Nearly dying of dehydration. Being hunted by the Careers. Loosing Rue. Looking for Peeta. Being chased by the mutts. Fighting Cato. Killing Cato. Winning. Facing Snow. I thought I knew everything there was to know about fear.
But until I face this moment, staring down at Gale' body, covered with blood, tears pouring down my cheeks, and about to turn him over to see…to see…to see if…
I'd never experienced fear before compared to this.
"Gale," I repeat again and again as I crouch down next to him. He's lying on his stomach. One arm tucked beneath him, the other bent in an awkward position. I place my hand on his shoulder.
"Gale?" I sputter between my tears, lightly shaking him. "Gale?!"
There's no response.
I start to wail louder. I can barely stop my body from convulsing there on the spot.
"Gale!?" I'm whimpering. I take a deep breath and force myself to turn him over. Gale is heavy and I struggle to turn him. I have to move in him two parts, first his torso, then his legs and hips. He's clutching a knife in the hand that was caught beneath him. It too is covered in blood. I wonder if he was able to get the lion or if he only hurt himself. I don't have time to search for a wound.
"Gale!" I scream again as I press my ear to his chest. I frantically search for a heartbeat. I listen closely. But my heart is beating so rapidly, I can hardly hear anything else in my ears.
I try not to panic. You can check his mouth and nose to see if he's breathing.
I try. I place my fingers by his nostrils, but I can't tell. Is that a breath? Or is it the wind?
Calm yourself, Katniss, calm yourself. I tell myself again and again, but I'm not sure it's working. I start to cry harder, I'm so frustrated.
I place my head back on his chest and strain my ear for any sound of his heartbeat. And motion of his breathing.
Oh my god, I think, he's dead.
No he's not. Was that a breath? Was a heartbeat?
He's not moving! He's not breathing! He's dead.
My mind is torn. I feel so helpless and useless I don't know what to do. I pull myself up and look at my friend's body…
No, not his body! Him! Him! Gale! Not his body!
If I hadn't lost it yet, I do at this point. I'm trembling. Convulsing. Nothing makes sense. I sob. I cry. I scream. I lamely try to check for a pulse in his wrist.
"Please, Gale!" I beg, "Please, don't be dead. I can't lose you. I can't!"
My mind tears in different directions.
It's okay, it's okay. He's not dead. It's okay.
I can't hear his heart. I can't feel his breath.
It's okay. Just check again. Check again.
He can't be dead. He can't be.
"Gale, please!" I howled and fold myself on his chest again. "I need you. I need you so much! I love you, Gale!" I plead. "I love you!"
I start to shake his body. I start to scream.
Not his body! I curse myself again. I hate myself. How could I have never told him! How could I have never realized how much he meant to me!
"Please, be okay. Please," I whimper as the voices in my head war.
He's okay, Katniss. Just check again.
He's not okay. Start to accept this.
"Please, be okay." I beg.
He's not okay, Katniss.
He is okay. Check.
"Please, please, please, Gale, be okay."
He has to be okay.
He might not be okay, Katniss.
"Please, Gale, please."
Suddenly something reaches up and touches my head. I jump. "Gale!" I feel like my heart explodes within me again.
His eyes open and a weak smile crosses his face.
"Oh my god, Gale! I was so worried! You're okay!"
"Well, I wouldn't go quite that far, Catnip," he says as he begins to prop himself up, grunting in pain.
Gale's okay. Everything is okay. I feel about a thousand pounds lighter.
"I thought I'd lost you!" I scream at him, almost like an accusation.
"You didn't," he reaches to reassure me.
I fly to him, unthinking. I'm overcome. It probably wasn't even five minutes ago that I shot down the buck, but in that time, the whole world has changed. I take his face in my hands and kiss him. I stop crying and I don't know how much time passes.
"I'm so sorry," I blurt and break away. I can't believe what I just did. Gale doesn't like me this way. I may have ruined everything! As I begin to curse myself for being so stupid I realize that Gale is smiling. That doesn't make any sense. Why is he smiling?
"I shouldn't have done that," I try to recover, "I was just, I just thought you'd…" I don't know how to make this better. "I'm so sorry."
I realize his hands are cupping my face. "Katniss," he says.
"Don't be sorry."
"Don't be sorry."
I don't understand what is going on. "But I shouldn't have done that!"
He's grinning. I feel like I'm about to die and he's grinning. I open my mouth and search for the words to explain. "Because…" I fumble, "because I…because you…"
"Do you want to kiss me again?"
"Yes," I admit, a bit sheepishly,
"Then shut up and kiss me."
I'm caught completely off guard. I was preparing myself to hear that he doesn't think of me that way. For his rejection. Instead, Gale pulls me to him. Our lips lock and move fervently against the others'. Softly at first. Sweetly. And then deeply and passionately. I realize that while my lips have may have touched others in the past, this is my first, true kiss.
I don’t know how much time passes by. Gale’s lips are soft and warm and I like the way he touches me. One hand cupping my face, flicking my ear as he pushes my hair back; the other, supporting and somehow caressing my back. He moves it slowly, gently. It excites me. Everything is perfect. I’m lost in a haze of taste and touch.
That is, until I start thinking.
Does he like this?
Do I like this?
I like this.
What are we doing?
What does this mean?
I need to keep kissing him.
Does he want me to keep kissing him?
Wait, where should I put my hands?
What will we bring back to Sylvie?
These thoughts that tangle my mind. I’m no longer in the moment with Gale. No longer in the thrill. The rush.
“Oh, Katniss,” he breathes heavily. His hot breath touches my ear. His lips brush past my ear.
My skin rises as he says this and I feel a warmness rising with in me, pulling me back to him. I move closer to Gale and let his voice drown out the one in my head. My lips return to his frantically. Suddenly, I’m not thinking about kissing Gale anymore, I’m just doing it. And it’s wonderful.
I really like this, I think, pulling myself over top of him.
“Oh, Katniss!” He repeats. I feel myself sizzle again. But something seems different this time. “Ow, Katniss…” This time he groans. And painfully.
“Oh my god, Gale!” In the heat of the moment, i totally forgot about his wounds. “You’re hurt! I wasn’t thinking.”
“No, it’s okay,” he says, pulling me back to him and shifting slightly, “just got to find a different position.” He nears my lips to his.
“Gale, no, you’re hurt! What were we thinking?”
I pull myself away from him and sit at his side. He has a gash on his face, but it doesn’t look deep. There’s a bit of blood and gravel mixed in. His one arm is also scratched and it looks like it will be deeply bruised, maybe sprained. Again, the wounds don’t look too severe, but he’s got several cuts and scrapes. A few are bleeding. There are tears in his pants, which tells me his jeans have suffered a similar fate, if not worse since he landed on them.
“Oh, Gale,” I say with concern.
“It’s nothing, Katniss, I’m fine.” He reaches for my face again.
I fret my brow and challenge Gale, swatting his hand away. “How can you be thinking about that right now? Now let me see your arm.”
“Katniss, do you have any idea how long I’ve waited to---oww!”
I’d grabbed his arm and stretch it out. He grimaces. “How badly does that hurt?”
“It’s not broken,” he says, but his words betrayed his anguish.
I touch it gently, to make sure nothing feels broken or out of place. I try to wipe the dirt out of his gash and then slowly move each of his fingers, all of which feel fine, and then roll his wrist. He grimaces again. “It’s your wrist.”
He breathes deeply and only nods.
“What about your side?”
“Bruised ribs, probably.”
I move to pull up his shirt. I can see the scratch marks dabbled in blood. As I pull it off his shoulders careful not to hurt him, he starts to laugh. I stare at him like he’s gone mad. “What’s so funny?” I almost accuse.
“It’s nothing,” he says between sighs of pain and laughter. But my eyes don’t let him go. “It’s just,” he tries to explain, “you taking off my shirt after what we just…” He chuckles and then moans in pain. “I was just thinking…” My eyes hold his, still not comprehending.
“I had to take off your shirt! How else would I tend your wounds?”
Gale sighs again and shakes his head. He opens his mouth, but says nothing, clearly reconsidering. “You’re clearly not thinking the same thing I’m thinking.”
My eyes tell him I still don’t understand, but he doesn’t give in. So I return to his injuries. His side is already bruising, deep and dark, he’s probably broken a few. I press against them slowly. He inhales sharply and doesn’t move. This clearly hurts a lot. I take one of our water bottles and dampen a clean part of his removed shirt. I try to clean the scrapes on his ribs and his arm. Once cleaned, I move to his forehead. My face moves close to his as I gently pull the gravel and grass from the cut. I’m so close I can feel his eyes on me, feel his breath as it touches my neck, and I suddenly remember that we were kissing a few minutes ago and we’d never done that before. And now there’s this silence. It’s awkward. And for some reason I think talking will make it less so.
“So,” I begin, dabbing his now clean wound, “That thing...”
“You know,” I’m staring at his face trying to look anywhere but his eyes, searching for another wound to clean and something to say, but all his wounds are tended to so I just wipe some of the dirt off his brow. “You know, that we were doing before…”
“You mean kissing?”
“Unless you’re talking about the hunting?”
“So the kissing?”
“If that’s what you want to call it,” I look at him sheepishly. “I just want you to know I wasn’t really thinking…”
“I was scared and it was so sudden and I thought you might have been dead…” I’m starting to fumble. “Because you know, you fell off that cliff…”
“...So, you know I kissed you…”
“…Yeah…I guess. I was just wasn’t thinking. I was so worried and caught up….”
“Katniss, you realize I kissed you too?”
“Yes. Of course.” What am I trying to say? “I just….I guess….I just want you to know you didn’t have to.”
“Katniss,” he laughs, and he slowly pulls himself up so he’s sitting more upright. My eyes get large as I worry, uncertain what he’s doing or what he’s going to say. “Katniss,” he repeats, taking my hand in his. My heart begins to quiver. This is getting serious. He stares at me intently. “You really don’t have any idea, do you?”
“What?” If I weren’t so nervous, I’d be insulted.
“How long I’ve wanted to do that? How many times I’ve thought about…How many times I’ve had to stop myself…” He’s starting to struggle with his words. “All the things I’ve—All the times I’ve—All the…?” He continues to fumble.
I stare at him like he’s speaking another language, not quite comprehending.
“Gale, are you
okay? Did you hit your head?” I’m
beginning to worry about his attempts at labored speech.
“God, Katniss, No! I mean, yes, I did, but…but no, that’s not why…that’s not why I’m…Katniss… I’ve…I’ve wanted…you…I’ve wanted this…” he stops trying to explain. He takes my face in his hand and kisses me. It’s passionate, almost desperate, and I like it.
“So, you mean, does this mean, you like me?” I blurt out after what have been minutes
“Like you, Katniss?” Gale is still exasperated, “Katniss, I l—” he pauses, “Yes, Katniss. I like you a lot.”
“Then why didn’t you ever say anything?” My question is honest. Gale practically rolls his eyes.
He laughs again. My eyes demand a response. “You’re serious?” I pull away from him and nod. “Katniss, you told me not to!”
“When?” I’m incredulous.
“Well, you told me that you never wanted a husband, family or kids about a thousand times since I’ve met you.” That is true, I realize, but also, kind of irrelevant. “You also said you never wanted a boyfriend and that you thought that having one was, and I quote, ‘a waste of time and gross…’”
“That was at least a year ago!” I interrupt. Though that is also true.
“You’ve also said romance is stupid and love is a waste of time. And you explicitly told me when you climbed into my room after I found you in the woods that you didn’t want anyone to like you or touch you at all. Ever.”
I guess he’s right about that. “Well, yeah….” I fumble. “I…” My mouth hangs open as I try to explain. “Why did you listen to me?”
Gale just smiles. He leans in and kisses me again. “I kind of figured that this was important for you to figure out yourself.”
And as we lose ourselves in each other again, I think he was right.
“Sylvie is probably worrying about us,” I finally say to Gale, who is dozing in my arms.
He makes an indistinguishable sound. It’s unclear if he agrees with me.
“We should probably head back soon.”
He mumbles again.
“Gale?” I start to shake him until he opens his eyes. He wraps his uninjured arm around me and pulls me down to him. I put my hands out to stop him. “Don’t you care?”
“Gale! We’ve got to get back.” Our eyes meet and he knows I’m right.
I fashion a sling out of his torn shirt and secure it around his neck to cradle his wounded arm and find a sturdy walking stick. With it, he seems to handle himself pretty well. I know the long journey back will be a challenge on him, though I doubt he’ll confess his suffering.
We’re both sad to leave the deer meat behind, but there’s no way either of us could carry it. I remind myself to keep my eyes alert for smaller prey as we begin our trek.
I try to make this task occupy my mind, but it’s hard to concentrate. I can’t stop thinking about Gale. About what we just did. And about what it all means. My mind is almost dizzy with thoughts.
What did I just do?
I just kissed Gale. I kissed my best friend. I kissed him a lot.
Are we still best friends?
What does this mean?
Does Gale really like me?
Why does he like me?
Is that why he’s out here?
What does he want from me?
Did everything just change?
“Tell me what’s bothering you.” Gale interrupts the torrent in my mind.
“I know that look on your face, Catnip. Something’s bothering you. Do you want to talk about it?”
“Well—I gue—I mean—not really—I’m not—” I gargle incoherent words. Gale’s look is something between amusement and concern. I take a moment to figure out what I want to know. “So is this…is this why you’re out here?” I ask after a stretch of silence.
“Is this why you’re out here?” I repeat, gesturing to the woods around me.
“Oh, I heard you. I just don’t know how you think I’m going to answer that question.”
I stop and swing around and look at him not understanding. “With words?”
“No, Catnip,” he says, shaking his head and chuckling. “I mean, I don’t understand what you’re asking.”
And I realize that Gale wasn’t privy to my internal monologue though he clearly knew I was having one.
“Is the only reason you’re out here…Because you wanted to be with me?”
Gale takes a deep breath, almost as if he’s inhaling my question. He shifts his weight as he considers my question. He finally nods. “That depends what you’re asking. The answer is both yes and no.”
Now who’s the one being confusing?
“On one hand, yes, I’m only out here because of you.” My face must betray my alarm because Gale quickly continues. “But it’s not what you’re thinking. I’m not out here because I want to be with you. I’m not chasing you through the forest because I’m hopelessly in love or on the off chance it’ll get me laid. But yes, I’m still out here because of you. Because someone had to get you away from Twelve, away from the Capitol because you’re important to the rebellion and the rebellion is important.”
I stop and stare at him not quite certain how to respond. At first, I was nervous about the prospect that Gale might only be here because he liked me. It made me feel pressured or responsible or something. But now? I’m a little taken aback by his, I’m not sure what the right word is, professionalism? His measured, certain response makes dozens of more questions fly through my head.
“I’m doing it because I care about the rebellion and because I care about you. I’m also doing it because it needs to be done, and because I’d rather be doing this than working in the mines. And honestly, I’m doing it because I don’t know if I could’ve handled anyone else being out here with you and not me.” Gale’s studying my face as he says all of this, he’s gray eyes searching mine. I can’t help but wonder what they see.
“So…you’re doing this for the rebellion? Or you’re doing this for me?”
“Now don’t go doing that, Catnip. Questions like that will get you in trouble. But I suppose if you really want an answer, I’m doing it for me.”
My eyes must widen in complete incomprehension because that concept is completely foreign to me. Gale registers my look.
“You don’t owe me, Katniss.”
“What?” I don’t understand why he’s telling me this.
“That’s what you’re trying to figure out. Why I’m out here, because if you think I’m out here for you, you’ll think you’ll owe me. And I won’t have that.”
My nostrils flare as my first instinct is combative. What does he think he is to tell me what to do or how to be? “You won’t have that?” My tone is challenging. “Who do you think you’re talking to, Gale? You don’t get to tell me what to think or what to do.”
“That’s just it, Katniss, I’m not.” He smiles as he says this, which pisses me off more. “I’m saying that’s what you get to do.” He steps closer to me, taking my hand in his and looking seriously into my eyes. “You get to think for yourself. You get to do what you want—and because you want to. Not because you think you owe anybody.”
I open my mouth to challenge, to protest, but I’m not sure what to say. Half formed questions swarm my mind mixed with my piqued rage, and while I’m still inclined to contest Gale, what he said is sinking in.
“There’s only one question you need to ask yourself, Katniss.” He raises his hand to my cheek. “And I know you well enough to know it’s the only one you haven’t asked yourself.”
My eyes don’t leave his, waiting for his response. He’s silent longer than I expect, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s because he’s hoping I’ll figure it out for myself. I don’t.
“Do you like me, Katniss?”
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