. . . .
Gale is lying on top of me, my legs wrapped around his, and he nuzzles my breast with his face and takes my fingers in his mouth, sucking on each one softly, igniting a spark that turns to a flame and runs through me.
Oh god, I think as my head rolls back and I lose sight. All my senses crash into one and even though my eyes are closed, I think I can see and feel Gale's kisses, colors bursting like fireworks that escape my mouth and breaking before me each time he touches me. "Oh, god, Gale," I try to say this time, willing myself to look up at him even though my head feels heavy and my eyes don't want to open, not wanting the show of pleasure to end. I force myself up though and look at Gale, who's still lavishing my body, and I can almost see my skin shatter and crackle each time he kisses me, my nerves electric. "Gale," I say again and he looks up at me, flashing a smile, knowing the effect he has on me. There's something about that smile, I think before another wave of pleasure washes over me.
"Do you like this?" he asks me, kissing my hand again.
Yes I say, though not so much in words.
"Do you know what that means?" his voice is almost teasing.
I look down at him as his tongue twists around one of my fingers. I'm thinking about other parts of my body I'd like that tongue to twist around and don't answer.
"It means," he says, almost wickedly, "that this is one more thing that they can use against you...one more thing you can lose."
I pull away, horrified, and look at him as he breaks into cruel laughter. I see what's wrong with his smile now-his teeth are pointed into fangs, and he lunges at me, grabbing my fingers again into another kiss that's more like a bite. I feel his teeth snag into me and pull away. I look terrified as I watch my skin fall away from me, as if it were a glove.
"Gale," I try to say, not understanding, and kicking to get away, I look for him, knowing whatever is before me can't be him.
The monster before me keeps grabbing for me, snarling, trying to bite and tear away my skin. It's a mutt! I realize, and kick and scream, feeling pain as I see my skin shred. "No! Gale! No!" Where is he? What have they done to him?
"Katniss," it laughs wickedly, and I realize the Capitol must have gotten Gale, must have gotten him because of me, and turned him into this, or this into him.
"No," I sob, kicking again to get away, "No!"
"No, please, don't, don't hurt me, please! What did you do to Gale?!"
"Katniss," Gale grabs my face, I see the flash of monster in his eyes. I push away and fall to the floor, but he's on top of me, attacking me.
"No! No, stop, please, Gale!"
The voice sounds different this time.
"Katniss, hey, it's okay, Katniss!"
I clinch my eyes and am afraid to open them.
"Hey, hey, it's okay."
That voice doesn't sound like it's going to hurt me. I open my eyes and am on the floor, tangled in my bed sheet. Gale's next to me, looking completely concerned.
"Hey, it's okay, you were having a nightmare." He reaches out to me but I involuntarily shudder, pulling away. He looks more alarmed, but the dream rushes back to me.
"No, no," I whimper. "Don't hurt me…"
"I won't, hey, Catnip, it's me. I'll never hurt you."
I slowly come back to myself, realizing what the dream meant. "You can't promise that!"
"Hey, hey," he's crouching down next to me, uncertain if he should reach out.
"Gale…" I start to cry.
He tentatively puts his arms around me, pulling me into his lap. "It's okay…"
"No it's not," I sob, finally giving into him. I wrap my arms around him and bury my face in his chest as I cry. I shake and shiver as I remember everything that happened, "they could hurt you," I finally say. "They're going to hurt you."
He takes my face and guides it up to him, "No they won't," he says shushingly.
"Yes, Gale, they will. You don't understand…"
His hands run up and down my back, in a steady rhythm, trying to stir confidence in me, security.
"I can't protect you…"
"You don't have to, come here," he takes me in his arms, pulling me on his lap and I feel all his strength around me. I think it might be the only thing keeping me together. I'm afraid that if he lets go, I'll unhinge. But that's not enough of a reason to keep him around.
"You need to get away from me," I say into his skin, shuddering, "I'll get you killed…if anyone finds out…" I choke on my sobs.
"Katniss," he tucks his finger under my chin and tilts up so I meet his eyes. He takes a deep breath, sucking in all the things he wants to say but can't—that it'll all be okay, that I don't have to be afraid, that I don't have to worry. But he can't say those things because it'd be a lie. And Gale never lies to me. "I love you," he says, leaning his head against mine, "and I'm not leaving you. You just tell me what you need," he kisses me softly, "and I'll do it."
"You should leave," I say, turning away head away, not able to say it while looking at him. "You'd be better off without me."
I hear something shake in his chest, it's not quite a laugh, but it's rattling, maybe a breaking. He forces my chin back up, making me look at him this time. "You think I'd be better off without you?" He asks it as if I'm crazy.
"Yes," I say so quickly and honestly that it's like I've shot him. "How can you not see that? If it weren't for me, you'd be safe…"
"Safe? From what? Hunger? The mines? The peacekeepers?"
"You'd be safer," I insist. "And you could be with someone better…"
"Better?" he is laughing slightly now.
"Yes," I say as if it were obvious. "You can have any girl you want…"
"I want you!"
"You deserve a girl who can be with you…"
"Do you want to be with me, Katniss?" there's a serious edge in his voice.
"That's not the point," I try to look away.
"Then what is?"
"You deserve better."
"Better than you?"
"Yes!" He could do so much better, how can he not see that? "A girl can who can't sleep next to you without having nightmares, are girl who can sleep with you the way you want her to…"
"Is that what you're worried about? Sex? Katniss, I don't want to have sex with you—"
"Yes you do!" I say it as if I'm accusing him of something more awful.
He takes a deep breath and prepares himself, "I don't want to sleep with you if you don't want me to, Katniss, I'd never want that. If what we're doing is making you uncomfortable—"
"No! I like what we're doing." It's true, and I don't want him to think I don't. "But Gale, I love you, and I should be thinking about protecting you not putting you in more danger." Tears are spilling over my eyes now. "You'd be so much freer if it weren't for me. You wouldn't have to look out for me, or my family…"
"Katniss, do you think you're a burden?"
The words don't leave my lips, but they don't need to. Gale knows I mean: yes.
"Katniss, my love for you isn't a burden. It's not a chore or a task. It doesn't hurt me or make my life harder. It makes it better. It makes me better. Katniss," he takes my hand in his and raises it to my lips, "it's a gift," he says, kissing me softly.
I look at him like he's said something scary. I've never thought of love this way before. To me, loving meant taking care of others, putting their needs before my own, and doing whatever I needed to to protect them. Like volunteering for Prim.
"You in my life, in any way you can be in it, in any way you want to be in it, is a million times better than a life without you. I love you, Katniss," he kisses my hand more fully this time, more tenderly, "and I don't love you because I want to have sex with you, or because you make my life simpler or easier—"
"Don't you want an easier life?"
He looks at me and laughs slightly, "Nah, that'd just be boring."
I'm only aware after the fact that a faint smile is flickering on my lips.
"You make my life better, Katniss," he says and I can feel his hot breath flush over me, "you make it everything." Gale leans in kisses them, very softly, very sweetly, but his lips are also warm and wet and I want them so badly. I wrestle with my impulse to protect him and my desire to hold him.
"You make my life better too," I say, perhaps a bit weakly, and he laughs again. I think he knows as much as I do that that is an understatement me for what Gale does for me. "I do love you."
"I love you too."
"But I can't…" I'm not ever sure what I want to say, what I'm thinking.
"You don't have to." He kisses me again, very softly.
"Hold me," I say, because that's all I want even if I shouldn't.
He wraps his arms around me even tighter, tucking my head beneath his chin and kissing me softly. "Of course."
This feels so right, I think as I press my head into his chest and fall asleep listening to his heart.
. . .
The next day, Gale's absence is palpable. It's not that I miss him but that he's missing, like he's suddenly become a part of me and now something is gone that shouldn't be—like a fresh gap from a newly lost tooth that my tongue finds, unaccustomed to the space, having never felt it before, and knowing instinctively that it shouldn't be empty.
I can't even stay in bed because it reminds me too much of him, because I think now that he should be in there with me, that I need his arms more than I need the pillows or sheets.
The midmorning light is too cruel, illuminating all that isn't there—his face isn't here, his arms, his shoulders, his laugh, his kisses. It's almost boasting, as if it had a point to prove.
I won't have it. I throw myself out of bed. I will not be defined by Gale's absence.
I've decided to be empowered by my love for others, not afraid and constantly on guard, treating it like a chore.
I go downstairs and for the first time hope to see my mother and sister. I want to look at them from this new mindset. They're not there though, and I realize it's late in the day and that Prim is at school and my mother perhaps in town or making a house call.
I walk outside and look at Haymitch's house and even Peeta's. I raise my eyes up and think of not what I owe them for once, but what I feel about them.
I think I'll have to stand here for hours to figure either of them out.
I walk around town and force myself to face everything with new eyes, looking at the world like it's a gift and not a burden.
I'm not really sure it looks any different to me, to be honest, but it certainly feels less heavy.