I'm sitting behind a chair in a spare room when realize someone's found me.
"Did they tell you we were playing hide and seek?"
I'm relieved it's not Peeta as I look up to see Gale. I’m not exactly sure I’m happy to see him either. He joins me on the floor.
“You’re not forgiven.”
“Good,” he says with a faint smile that confuses me, “because I’m not asking for forgiveness.”
Maybe it’s because I’m all out of anger for the night, or maybe it’s because this is what I like most about Gale—how he does what he thinks is right and makes no excuses. For whatever reason I laugh.
He moves closer to me. “Do you want to talk about it?”
"No." I say flatly. But he looks at me, he eyes almost pulling the truth out of me. "I just can't do it Gale. Any of it. I can’t live in this house and not think about what I did to get here. I can’t sleep without being haunted by the Games. And I can’t be with Peeta….He wants to be together so badly. He wants to be happy and I hate him for it. Because I can't be happy. And because to me it's like admitting that everything that happened to us is okay. It's not right what happened, and I don't want it to be!" Something's stirring in my chest now and my voice rises. "I don't want to pretend, and I don't want to lie, and I don't ever want to be grateful for going to the Games. And if I try and love him, then to me, it's like saying that I am. And it makes me sick. So sick sometimes I can barely look at him. Because he thinks he loves me so much. He doesn't even know me!" Gale's expression shifts with his body as he moves to lean his back against the wall so he's sitting next to me. "I don't even know who I am anymore." I finally admit with resignation. "So how can he? But he's so nice and sweet and gentle and caring, and I owe him so much…" Gale puts his arm around me. I lean my head against his shoulder and welcome the closeness.
"You don't owe anyone your heart, Katniss." He only uses my real name when he's serious. But I'm not sure I understand and don't want to think about it anymore.
"But I'm not being fair to him. He's such a nice guy."
"I’m a nice guy," Gale says.
"But you're different Gale. I can be myself around you." He smiles at this. I guess it is a compliment. "But with Peeta..." I don't know how to finish my thought, so I change the subject. "How long are you guys staying here?"
"We're trying to wait out the storm," he explains.
"It's raining?" I hadn't noticed at all.
I feel Gale chuckle. "Yeah. It has been for quite some time." I'm glad he's not leaving anytime soon and scoot closer.
I don't know how long we sat in the corner of that dark room. But the rain didn't seem like it was going to stop.
"Where's everyone else?" I finally ask.
"I think the kids fell asleep in the living room."
"How'd you finally get them to leave you alone?"
"We finished the game. Vick won."
"What exactly is that game?" I ask him. "How do you win?"
"Victory goes to whoever climbs up to my head first."
"Oh," I chuckle.
"Yeah, it was a lot easier when they were all small. It's a Hawthorne family favorite. I used to play it with my dad when I was little..." Gale hardly ever talks about his father. I wait, wondering if he'll add more, but he changes the subject. "Then they begged Haymitch to tell them a story."
"What?" I'm sure the only stories Haymitch knows are not appropriate for children.
Gale senses my concern. "Don't worry. It wasn't that bad. At least, not in that way. It was called The Kingdom of the Rabbits and was about a magical princess who has to do an angry dance to save her people from an evil toad."
"Sounds awful," I say through a laugh.
"It was. But Haymitch's reenactment of the princess's angry dance was pretty good."
I try to imagine Haymitch hopping around, shaking his limbs to amuse the children and them trilled with laughter. "Oh, poor Haymitch," I say laughing.
"Don't worry," Gale says, "I don't think he'll remember any of it in the morning."
I agree, thinking of all the empty bottles I threw away. "I'm sorry I missed it though." I lean my head back against Gale's chest. "Wait, how did the rabbits fit in?"
"I don't know. He passed out before he got to that part. You know," Gale continues, "I never thought I'd like that man, but he seems all right."
"He is all right," I agree.
We sit in silence for a while longer before we hear someone approach. We quickly separate as my mother pokes her head in the door. She arches her eyebrow but doesn't say anything. "There you two are," she says not pressing it any further. "I don't want Hazelle and the children walking home in this weather. Katniss," she asks, almost cautiously. "Could I get your help making up the beds?"
"Of course," I say, rising quickly. "Where are we going to put everyone?"
"We'll your friend's already claimed the couch…" There is just a hint of annoyance as she says this, and I know she means Haymitch, "but I've decided Hazelle and Posy can share my bed with me and Prim." I know it might seem odd to many, but in the Seam there are entire families that sleep in one bed every night. To women like my mother and Hazelle, it is not out of the usual. "That gives the boys Prim's room. I'm not sure where we'll put Peeta…"
"Peeta's still here?" I'm suddenly wondering what he's been doing the entire time Gale and I sat in the spare room.
"It's raining buckets out there, Katniss, it's only a short walk, but the boy would get drenched."
I wasn't trying to complain and don't know how to explain myself, so I don't respond.
For the first time, I'm thankful my mother spent so much time fussing over sheets and curtains and pillows because we have just enough blankets in the house for everybody. While we were getting everything together, Haymitch got up, scratched his stomach, belched, and walked out into the rain. It looked like he was heading in the direction of his house, so we decided not to worry. And it freed up the couch for Peeta. Not that I really cared because I suspected he only wanted to stay the night because Gale was.
Most of the children were already passed out on the floor of the living room. Gale and his mother scooped them up and put them to bed. Prim yawned, insisting she could last a little longer, but my mother shooed her off as well. I realized that Peeta and I were the only two left downstairs.
"Will you be comfortable enough on the couch?"
"I think so," he responds coolly.
"Good," I couldn't think of anything else to say, "Well, good night," I say, leaving him alone. I feel a little bad, but I just can't deal with Peeta's… I don't even know the word. But I've no patience for it tonight.
Upstairs I walked past my sister's room. Vick was fast asleep, but I stopped to watch Gale try and tuck Rory in, who was complaining about going to bed. Both boys fit in my sister's bed, and I could see Gale only had a pillow and few blankets on the floor to make himself comfortable.
"Now Rory," Gale says, and only after years of knowing him, do I detect the hint of annoyance in his voice. "You have to be quiet so that everyone else can go to sleep." He wrestles his younger brother into the bed, pulling the covers up to his chin.
"But I don't want to!" Rory protests, trying to lift his head. Gale effortlessly pushes him back down so Rory can't move. He grunts frustratedly, but Gale is unmovable. "Why do I have to listen to you anyway?" Rory pouts.
"Because I'm bigger than you are," Gale say sternly.
I turn and start walking towards my room as I hear Rory mummer, "Okay, okay," in defeat.
I touch my hand to my lips to make sure I'm really smiling, and as I climb in my bed, thinking of all the good people in my house, with full stomachs and happy smiles. Things might not be so bad after all.
I raise my bow to take perfect aim. A large deer is standing only a few yards away from me in a green clearing. It's almost too easy a shot. I narrow my eyes and release my arrow. Not even a second later, the animal falls breathlessly. I skip happily over to the clearing, thinking this will be enough food for my family, and Gale's, for the next few weeks. I can probably use certain parts to make good trades at the Hob as well and try and list what supplies I need most. But as I approach the clearing, it's not the body of a deer on the ground, but that of a boy. I run over and turn him over, heart racing. I see Peeta, fist closed around my bloody arrow. Oh no, I think, what have I done? I frantically look around for something to stop the bleeding.
"It will be okay, Peeta." I try to keep my voice calm and sound reassuring. "It'll be okay."
But Peeta's lips form a snarl. "Liar!" he screams, pushing me away. He transforms into a mutt, like the ones at the end of the Games. He's got the body of a dog, but more than just his eyes remain human, it's almost his whole face. He's got a wolf's teeth though, and he bites after me. I try to run and scream, but every time I look back, his blue eyes burn me and through his sharp, bloody teeth, he screams, "LIAR!"
"No, no," I whimper.
"Katniss," Someone calls my name.
"No," I struggle.
"Katniss!" I open my eyes. Gale is sitting on the side of my bed but I haven't shaken the panic from my dream.
"Don't hurt me!" I plead, still unsure of where I am.
"Hey," he says calmly, tentatively reaching out to comfort me, but I jerk away. "Hey, I'm not going to hurt you," he continues soothingly. "It will be all right."
I focus on his eyes and try to calm my breathing. "Gale," I finally manage. I'm not sure if it's a question. I think his name over and over again until I remember who is his and believe that he won't hurt me.
"I'm here." He sits next to me and I practically crawl in his lap. He begins to rock me back and forth and traces small circles on my back. It calms me.
"He was trying to kill me, Gale."
"I won't let him hurt you."
"How can you be certain?"
"Anyone ever wants to hurt you again, they'll have to go through me first. I promise."
And as he cradles me and I listen to that strong beat of his heart, I realize that I believe him. "Gale?" I look up at him urgently.
"Yeah?" he responds in a whisper.
"Do you have to work in the mines every day?"
"Not on Sundays."
"Do you think we can go hunting this Sunday?"
"I'd love to."
I mumble my happiness as I fall back asleep listening to his heart.