Title: What Hurts The Most
Author: anatagasuki
Genre: Romance/Drama
Summary: What hurts Gale the most is being so close, and yet never quite close enough.
Notes: EDITED. Motivated by the reviews concerning the grammar (once more, my deepest apologies), I decided to take a shot at being my own beta. It's still far from perfect, but I hope (for the sake of my sanity) that it's better. I'm a Peeta fan, but this song reminds me sooo much of Gale. I just had to add parts of the song. I highly recommend that to all KatnissxGale fans out there.
Disclaimers: The Hunger Games trilogy belongs to Suzanne Collins. And I just realized I can't remember who sang What Hurts the Most, but it's definitely not me.

What hurts the most is…watching you walk away

I can't believe how rotten odds had been that day.

At that very moment, at the very moment that Katniss reached out to Prim and grabbed her blouse and volunteered to take her place as a girl who was about as good as dead, my world froze. Almost literally. Everything was black and white and numb. Slow, everything moved so slow.

Instead of sobs or protesting words or obscenities that I usually throw at the Capitol's hateful injustice, all that I could muster was how everything just went wrong. For an endless minute all I could think of was how despicably rotten it was that it had to be Prim, out of a thousand lots, out of all the chances in this world. How Prim just had to be Katniss' sister. How stupid we were to not run when we had the chance.

And the fact that I hated myself. The fact that I can do nothing.

Why try to stop her? It's not as if she'll ever refute her statement. She will go. She will go inside the arena in place of her feeble twelve year-old sister. And I'm sure the Peacekeepers will be ready to kill anyone who tries to take her away. So I blindly pry the poor girl off her. She walked away, still shocked, but brave. Straight and dignified.

And that was the first time.

It was a feeling so different from everything I'd ever felt before. I'd known pain. I had been attacked by animals, beaten by local boys, and driven desperate by starvation. I'd known the pain of a hollow stomach, a bleeding gash, a bruise.

But that was not a pain I know of.

It was the pain of loneliness crushing your entire being. It was the pain of losing someone to something you cannot fight. It was the pain of knowing that things will never be the same again.

A pain that doesn't heal.

If I can do it over

I would trade, give away

All the words that I saved in my heart

That I'd left unspoken

Life has to go on.

So Katniss Everdeen is almost officially out of my life. I have lost my only hunting partner, my best and only friend. So there's about a hundred percent chance that she'll die soon. Maybe that's an exaggeration, but it's always better to add a little adjustment on hopelessness. Optimism only brings disappointment. I hoped life will be better, that one day I'd wake up with food on the table and safety for everyone. That day never came. I hoped my father would come back. He didn't.

In fact, if I were optimistic, my family and I might be dead by now. Pessimism is the thing that brought direction to my life. Because I lost hope, I have learned to move on from my father's death. Because I lost hope, I have been able to gather the guts to go beyond the Capitol's bounds, to find the determination to learn how to hunt.

If I lost hope on Katniss, I would learn to forget. I would learn how to not hurt. I would learn how to move on.

And I will see her for one last time. I will have the courage to do so.

But of course, all that's easier said than done. Once I see Katniss, I forget everything I have told myself. It's as if I haven't seen her in a decade. It's as if she'd been so far away. I've always thought of her as self-sufficient and mature, but right then all I could see was a young girl of sixteen years who'd been stripped off of her family, her friends, her safety, her future. I wish I didn't have five mouths to feed. I wish I am the male tribute. To protect my helpless, unfortunate little Catnip. Which is foolish; why would I throw my life away like that?

"Listen," I say. "Getting a knife should be pretty easy, but you've got to get your hands on a bow. That's your best chance."

"They don't always have bows," she protests.

She is right. But for some reason, that simple statement annoys the hell out of me. I shut it out. "Then make one. A weak bow is better than no bow at all."

"I don't even know if there'll be wood," she said in a calmly bleak voice.

Again, I had the strange impulse to tear at my hair in frustration. "There's almost always some wood. Since that year half of them died of cold. Not much entertainment in that." Even my little comment I can't fill with hatred for the Capitol enough.

"Yes, there's usually some," she agrees. But I there's still something about her tone that ticks me.

"Katniss, it's just hunting. You're the best hunter I know," I say in my most encouraging voice. But it sounds like pleading. I get the feeling that I am the one desperate for encouragement, not her.

We are able to talk some more, yet I still am not able to find in her what I am looking for. Whatever it is.

The damned Peacekeepers come in, and a surge of panic wells up inside me. Too soon. I want more time. I need more time.

"Don't let them starve!" Katniss yells after me. Why? Why waste her time on that?

"I won't! You know I won't!" Which is the obvious. "Katniss, remember I—," but the door shut behind me and the Peacekeepers forcibly drag me away.

"Let me go!" I demand as I struggle. Only two men are holding me, but I'm not strong enough to overpower them. "Katniss!" I call out desperately. I face something at the very back of my mind, something I tried to throw out of the window and ignore. And I shout it to the face of the Peacekeepers.

I am such an idiot. Forget about Katniss? Just stop caring about whether she lives or dies in the arena? Hah! I can't give up on the girl. It will hurt, but what choice do I have? No matter how good or slim her chances are, I will always be betting on Katniss Everdeen.

This is what I wanted her to know, what I wanted her to remember. In all those four years. I've loved Catnip all along.

I can take a few tears now and then

And just let them out

I'm not afraid to cry every once in a while

Even though going on with you gone still upsets me

The very first hunt is the hardest.

I've been hunting with Katniss for so long, I decide. The woods' silence, which comforted me years ago, now haunt me. It is suffocating, without her smiles which only I and this forest bear witness. Without her voice to keep me company.

The time comes that I am so distraught that I begin talking to my very own imaginary Katniss. What does she think of our hunt today? Why does she look slightly off? How can I make her laugh?

I tell her I loved her. I ask her if she loves me.

There is never an answer.

One day, I am staring out the window. Somehow I am able to hope that I may see a familiar form running towards here, back to me. Then out of nowhere, Hazelle pops up and hugs me tight.

And for the first time since Katniss volunteered to be a tribute in place of Prim, I cry. I cry and cry in my mother's arms.

It's hard to deal with the pain of losing you everywhere I go

But I'm doing it

I am eager to see the interviews.

Three minutes. I'd get to see her again, to hear her talk and watch her move. Is she doing okay? Is she ready for the Games? Would she look that much different? Does that even matter?

Then she comes out. Katniss Everdeen, the girl on fire, in a fancy dress with dangling jewels and weird Capitol shoes.

After a few introductions courtesy of Caesar Flickerman, Katniss can twirl the Capitol audience by her fingertips. When she twirls, her dress makes the impression that she is engulf in flames. Which, no matter how I hate the Capitol's fashion sense, I cannot call anything less than beautiful. Katniss is beautiful.

"So, how about that training score. E-le-ven," Caesar enunciates. "Give us a hint of what happened in there."

Hesitantly, Katniss replies, "Um…all I can say is, I think it was a first."

That's my girl. The one who can impress anyone and conquer things that almost no other sixteen year-old girl can even think of. A flicker of hope rises inside me. Being the highest scorer, she must at least have a chance. And everyone adores her. Everyone will want her. Which is a good thing, but somehow I hate the thought of it. Katniss and I are only officially friends, but aside from the fact that I love her more than a friend, I've always felt that she somehow belongs with me. She is the only one in this world who can be like this for me. And I feel I have a special place in her life no other man can ever fill.

"Let's go back then, to the moment they called your sister's name at the reaping," Caesar starts. "And you volunteered. Can you tell us about her?"

Katniss expression becomes genuinely grave. "Her name's Prim. She's just twelve. And I love her more than anything."

"What did she say to you? After the reaping?" Caesar asks.

She swallows, "She asked me to try really hard to win."

"And what did you say?" Caesar pries.

Finally, I see in Katniss what it takes to be a victor of the Hunger Games.

"I swore I would."

The buzzer soon goes off, and Katniss leaves the stage, leaving the audience applauding.

I lose much of my concentration as the male tribute from District 12 steps on stage. I know him as the baker's son, the one Katniss and I sold goods to, but I don't even know his name.

The audience seems to be having fun, but suddenly, the male becomes fidgety and silence falls in the interview hall.

"Handsome lad like you. There must be some special girl. Come on, what's her name?" Caesar tries to coax an answer out of him. But somehow, I don't think that boy is hesitating at all. He wants the interview to go to this direction, and he surely has a plan. But what?

He sighed, "Well, there is this one girl. I've had a crush on her ever since I can remember. But I'm pretty sure she didn't know I was alive until the reaping."

Abhorrently, the crowd sympathizes. What fools the shallow Capitolians are. "She have another fellow?" asks Caesar.

"I don't know, but a lot of boys like her," says the boy.

"So, here's what you do. You win, you go home. She can't turn you down then, eh?" Caesar says encouragingly.

"I don't think it's going to work out. Winning . . . won't help in my case," he continues. What is he playing at?

"Why ever not?" says Caesar, baffled.

His face turns into a tomato as he stammers out. "Because…because…she came here with me."

My mouth falls open as his words sank in. Katniss! He meant Katniss!

I decide I hate Peeta Mellark.

Am I wrong? Is hating him so wrong? Before him, Katniss was mine. Even though we had nothing romantic (or so we thought), her smiles, her laughs, her hands I sometimes held, they all used to be for no other man but me. Then he walks in and tramples all over us? Steals the hands I held, the smiles and laughs I loved? And worse. He does worse. Every time he hugs her, every time he is fed and taken care of by her, every time he sleeps beside her, every time he kisses her, my hatred grows. He has everything of her that it infuriates me.

The encouragement from the Capitol citizens makes me a mad man, literally.

I hold nothing; I don't own Katniss, but is it so wrong to want her to be mine? We had been together for four years, we are both fatherless and the breadwinner of our families. We hunted together, fished together, traded together. We had each other. I thought there is an understanding at that.

But no one else understands. They are all going for Katniss and Mellark. How silly they all are. It sounds plenty arrogant but everyone knows that if I were in his place, I would be a lot better. I would be a lot more useful, and if by some circumstance I got wounded by a Career, I would be less of a burden to Katniss than he is.

Yet I know at the back of my mind, I can't blame her or even the boy. What are they to do? Playing the "tragic lovers" angle is their best chance at getting sponsors. This is vital for their survival. If they ride along, they could get out alive—and together—so why wouldn't they?

It's hard to force that smile

When I see our old friends and I'm alone

I have four other mouths to feed. I can mope and watch them die, or hunt and mope at the same time.

The look of pity in the eyes of everyone in the Hob recklessly throws fuel to my fire. They say there are a lot of other girls out there, most dying to get me. Don't they understand? Can't they ever understand? There can't be anyone else. There's no one else who knows me like Katniss does. It sounds like a cheesy Capitol soap opera line, but the best way I can put it is that I never open my heart to trust anyone in this world, because no, no one helped me when my family was starving. No one helped us but me. Yet Katniss has learned how to pry it open and stick herself in there. So no one can ever take her place.

But it's not as if I can actually say that. So I just shrug all the comments off and continue trading. I tell myself a thousand times over that I have to be strong, not only for my family now, but for Katniss'. I remind myself I have seven people all in all to feed. I can pretend. I can appear to be enduring and level-headed. When in truth I'm losing my head every time Katniss becomes injured in firestorms or bitten by nasty insects.

Still harder getting up, getting dressed

Living with this regret

There are days every now and again

I pretend I'm okay

She comes back.

With him.

Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark make it out of the arena alive, as victors. They each get ownership of luxurious houses in the Victor's Village.

What about me? I am promoted. From best friend to cousin.

I force myself to deal with it. With Peeta and Katniss being neighbors and lovers. With them practically living together everyday. I can live with it, if it helps her, if it keeps her alive.

What hurts the most is being so close

And having so much to say

And not seeing that loving you is what I was trying to do

Katniss' eyes meet mine on that train platform. She is so different, with her smooth skin and silky hair, and yet much the same. Still the Katniss Everdeen I loved. The Katniss Everdeen I can't have.

How come that just in a period of weeks, we've become so different? She is rich, popular, wanted and loved. She doesn't need to hunt. She doesn't need money. She doesn't need me. Not anymore.

Suddenly, I can't find the motivation to try to get to know her again. Suddenly, I feel like there's no place for her and me, no place for Katniss Everdeen and Gale Hawthorne, in this world. No hope.

If only I told Katniss how I felt before she left. If only I didn't wait until the very last minute, plunging myself into denial because I am scared to get hurt again.

I have so many things to say. How come I only found them when it's already too late?

What hurts the most is… never knowing what could've been

After a few weeks of havoc and mandatory ceremonies, almost everyone in District 12 is back to normal.

I am hesitant to go back to the woods. It feels stupid. Hunting like nothing ever happened, when I can't even look at the woods without hurting. I work at the mines now. Why tolerate this masochistic streak?

I work my back off at chopping wood for the fireplace—which, because of the heat, I know we don't need anyways, my brain taunts me—until sweat shakes off my every pore. Rory and Vick start looking at me funny. I ignore them.

After an hour or two, however, Posy comes up to me and tugs my trousers.

"What is it?" I ask her. She looks at me with wonder.

"Aren't you supposed to be with Katniss today?" she innocently asks back.

I don't know what got into me, but I drop my axe and run back home. I quickly wipe my sweat off with a towel and put a shirt on. Taking my empty bag for game, I spring out of the house.

There is suddenly a ravaging feeling inside me. A desperate, urgent calling to see Katniss again. Because no matter how much I try to suppress it, I can't give up my feelings for her. I think I even cried like a baby somewhere along the way.

When I finally come to our place, I see her.

How I miss her. How could I have convinced myself I can deal with everything? I stare and stare at her, her form, her face, her eyes. Eyes filled with part despair, part anticipation. Eyes filled with tears. For me. Just for me, this time.

She runs toward me and throws her arms around me and my mind moans her name over and over again. I hug her back just as tightly. She sobs and sobs and I can't let her go.

We go through the day like it was an ordinary Sunday, before the Reaping, before the Games, before Peeta. We eat, we hunt, we fish, we gather. We talk about everything but mining and the Games, which suits me just fine because I want this day to be about us, just us and our lives before all this shit happened.

I don't want the day to be over, but she says she needs to go back home without trading. Away from me. Back to him. I think I'm getting too emotional and out of control these days, but I don't care. I can't let her go without doing something because I can't, God knows I just can't live with one more regret.

I take her face in my hands and kiss her. She moans and I lose it. Her hands find the front of my shirt and her fingers stay there.

"I had to do that. At least once," I say breathlessly. Then I run away.

I am so close, so close at having her. Yet not quite close enough. If I kissed her before the Reaping, would she have responded? Would she have loved me back? Would we have ended up together?

The truth is, it hurts that I can't be with her. It hurts that the circumstances made us live lives so miserable, so controlled by the Capitol. It hurts that I didn't take a shot when I could've.

Now that I think of it, what hurts the most is never knowing what could've been.