The shadows grow long and Gale and I wordlessly agree to head back to town. We can still do that, even after all that's happened. My eyes dart up to his and he nods, reaching out to take my bow and hiding it in one of our secret hollows, a place where we keep important things hidden. I trail close behind him as we walk back, not saying much, not sure what to say, if there's anything to say. When I first saw him, I hugged him and cried, and he held me. I'm not if that answered questions or raised more. I think I should say something, though, try to tell him how much I thought about him, how much I still think of him. I've almost reached out to grab his hand when I hear the dog howl.
Mutt! I think, I maybe scream, turning in terror, waiting for one with human eyes to attack me. I instinctively run back towards my weapons, but it catches me before I get there.
"No," I scream, violently kicking, tearing at the monster's face. "Get off of me, get off!" I'm back on my feet and running when I hear my name.
"Katniss! Wait, please, Katniss!" I turn around. It's Gale. Not a mutt. I think this, but don't believe it at first. I close my eyes and then look again. It's Gale.
He doesn't have the face of a mutt, but he does have the face of something. I see it crossed with confusion, concern, maybe alarm. He's walking slowly towards me, speaking softly, arms held open, as a sign of peace. I notice a scratch on his face. A scratch I must have caused. I can't help but twitch and look away. Maybe I'm the monster.
"Katniss, hey, it's okay, will you look at me." He's close now, arms still out, gently moving in, trying not to scare me. I need to say I'm sorry, but I can't choke the words out. Gale hasn't seen me like this yet, I've tried to hide it from him, not wanting to burden him with one more of my problems after he's done so much. I keep trying, but I fall into his arms, gasping, pulling him down with me. He takes me into his arms and rocks me gently. I keep trying to say I'm sorry but it catches in my sobs, and I bury my face in his chest and listen to his heart until its steady rhythm brings me back to the world.
It's dark out when I come to. Gale's still holding me and I don't know how long we've been like this. I jerk alert and pull out of his arms.
"Hey, it's okay," he says with that same, smooth voice, "Katniss," his voice draws my eyes into his.
"Oh, I'm…I'm sorry." I look away, ashamed. "We should, we should get back," I push myself up trying to distance myself from the whole matter.
But Gale grabs my hand and stops me. "Catnip," there's more than a question written on his face.
"We need to get back, Gale."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
I don't answer and start walking.
As if our bodies were connected by some invisible force, he behind me in an instant, we move in line.
"Catnip, hey," he grabs for me again, I jerk away and then apologize. "You said it wasn't that bad."
"It doesn't look that way to me."
"I didn't want…" I can feel myself slipping again, and I take a deep breath to reclaim myself. "I didn't want to bother you. You've done enough." I look him in the eyes resolutely and squeeze his hand.
"I can do more," I know he means it, though I don't know how it's possible. He took care of my family the whole time I was away, on top of his, and now he works six days in the mines...
"You shouldn't have to," I tell him. I mean it as well. I hear him sigh, deeply, though I don't know why as we start walking back to the fence. Gale takes my hand and guides me through the fence and even walks me to my home, even though Victor's Village is past his house and he'll have to double back to get home. I tell him it's unnecessary. He looks at me like he doesn't believe it. I then tell him he doesn't have to.
"I know," he says with the faintest of smiles, "but I want to."
For the first time, in a long time, I want to smile too.
Gale has to work in the mines the next day, so I'm surprised to see him at my door.
"Hi," I'm silent longer than I should be. "What do you want?" I'm ruder than I should be too. But he only laughs.
"I just wanted to see how you were doing."
"Oh," I say, and stand back so he can see me. That seems to be the best answer I can give. "Do you want to come in?" I finally ask, moving aside as he does.
I show him around the house, and he pretends to care about all the nice new things much the same way I do, and we end up in my room. He sits across from me and looks at me with eyes like clouds and light.
He comes back the next day and does it again, and the next, and before I know it, we're talking. Or I'm talking, telling him things, moments at first, and then everything, and he stays and listens until I fall asleep. I don't know if I dream it, but I feel a soft kiss on my forehead each time before he leaves.
. . .
That next Sunday, we're out in the woods, and I'm determined to be my old self. I'm not only determined, but I'm able, and I think to tell Gale he was right, that talking about it really did help, but I figure, he already knows. He always knows.
We meet at our usual spot and I bring him and orange and some bread which we share before our hunt. Gale grabs our weapons from the secret spot and we head out.
The day is clear and bright, and though it's not quite warm, there's a noticeable absence of cold. Gale and I make a good haul that day. His snares hold two rabbits, I get three squirrels and he shoots one too. The bow feels right in my hand again and I think I smile for the first time when I shoot.
Gale collects the killings and throws them in his bag and takes our weapons again and hides them in a hollow tree. I find myself wishing I had a safe place to hide everything dear to me, a safe place to hide him, because the chambers of my heart aren't safe enough. As we head home, I consider asking him if he'll stop by after work this week too, but I don't want to impose. Before we head through the fence, our eyes catch. No, they don't catch, they lock, and as I look into them, there's more than a question on my lips, there's a want. I'm trying to figure out what I want when Gale leans into to kiss me.
His lips are warm and soft and he tastes like oranges and I don't know if I like it or what it means, but I know I don't want it to stop.
"Sorry," he says, and I don't know why, "I just, I had to do that, at least once."
. . . .
There's nothing for me to do on Monday, no need for me to hunt, nothing for me to clean, and I find myself remembering the taste of orange and wondering whether Gale will come by after work. It's the first time in a long time that my mornings aren't preoccupied with worrying about the Games, and I'm not actually sure if this worry is any better. But as the evening starts to set in, I decide I can't wait anymore. Ill go crazy, or crazier. I throw together a basket of food and head to the Hawthorne's house.
"Oh, Katniss, hello," Gale's mother says, surprised to see me.
"Hi Mrs. Hawthorne. I came by," I find myself peering behind her to see if Gale is home, "I brought by some food for you guys."
"Oh, thank you," she says, eyes genuinely widened by surprise as she opens to see a few loaves of fresh bread, a jar of jam, and two rolls of seasoned meat. "Katniss, this is…"
I wonder if she's about to say too much.
"This is so nice of you."
I wonder if there's anything I could do that Hazelle would consider too much.
I smile. "It's the least I could do. I mean, after everything Gale did…"
Hazelle looks at me as if to say she knows very well everything Gale did, and I think I'm going to have to bring her several more baskets. But I don't mind.
"He's not home from the mines yet," she says and I wonder for the first time in my life if I'm being transparent. "But he'll appreciate this, I'm sure."
"Oh, right." I say. I don't know why. "The jam's strawberry."
"I can see that, dear, thank you. I'm sure it's wonderful."
"Do you like strawberry?" I don't know what I say that either.
"I love strawberry."
"Does Gale like strawberry?"
"Gale like food," she says with a small smile.
"What about the boys? And Posy?" Now she's looking at me curiously.
"We all like strawberry, Katniss." I'm not sure if she's annoyed or concerned.
"I can get you something else, you know, if you'd prefer. Like raspberry, or blackberry. They probably even have stuff that's not berry..."
"Honestly, Katniss, this is lovely. Would you like to come in?" she's concerned, not annoyed. I'm not sure which is worse. "Can I make you some tea?"
I'm inclined to say no, but I don't and after a few moments I realize Gale's mom is still looking at me and I mustn't have said anything at all. She finally takes my arm gently and guides me inside. She's still making tea when the door opens and Gale walks in. He greets his mom and kisses her on the cheek. I see her take his arm and alert him to my presence. I can't hear what she says, but he looks over at me.
"Hey Catnip," he says, sitting next to me and setting down two cups of tea.
"I brought jam," I say, as if that explains everything.
"I heard," his mother must have expressed her concern, "strawberry," he says with a smile.
"Do you like strawberry?"
"Catnip, what's wrong?"
"I didn't know if you'd come see me."
"Did you want me to?" Gale seems surprised.
"Oh, I didn't know if you would…after yesterday." He looks away and I wonder if it's with regret or shame.
"Do you regret it?" I ask.
"What? No. Katniss, of course not. I just…"
"I didn't know if you wanted me to."
"No," I say immediately, and he looks at me as if he'd prepared himself to hear that. "But I never thought about it," I add, trying to make it better. I'm not sure I did, so I continue, "But now I have."
Gale arches his eyebrow as if to say, and?
"And now that I have," I smile, "I want you to do it again."
I think Gale has to stop himself from kissing me right there in front of his mother. Instead of forming a kiss, his lips form a smile. He quickly calls to his mother, "Hey, mom, I'm going to walk Katniss home."
She surveys us both suspiciously, "okay," she says with a resignation that knows there's not use saying anything to Gale when it comes to me.
He takes me by the hand and we walk to the door. I feel the need to say something to her. "I'm sorry about the tea," what I mean is, that she made it and I didn't drink it, but she doesn't seem to understand. "I'll bring you more," I promise as we head out the door.
As soon as we're outside, Gale holds me by the side of his house and kisses me. This time I reach up for him and kiss back. It's strange, but this time I almost expected him to taste of strawberries.
. . . . .
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