For Jacky06 – thanks for slogging through all my Madge/Gale fics. I hope you enjoy!
A/N: This is an AU Catching Fire scenario. What if Katniss had slipped out to find Gale after the banquet at Mayor Undersees instead of waiting a couple of weeks to meet Gale at the cabin. Fanservice ensues.
I See You
End of the Victory Tour
Peeta's chewing the inside of his lip. It's something I've noticed he does when he's thinking hard about something. He doesn't say anything, though. His hands barely touch my waist, my hand. Even though we have the majority of the Undersee's dance floor, we move within the space the size of a pie plate. It's the distance between our thoughts that keep us leagues apart. My eyes wander from his grave face to the rest of the large banquet room. My sister and mother are talking with Mayor Undersee and his wife, who is able to come down for a short while. On the other side of the room, Hazelle hovers over her children, who are taking small helpings of dessert even though the platters are heaped with cakes and cookies and rare, expensive fruits stacked into pyramids or in bowls with heavy cream. More than anyone could eat tonight. Rory stuffs an orange into his pocket. Maybe he's saving it for later. Maybe he's taking it for Gale?
Peeta sighs. It isn't his fault we're silent. I can't help myself. I'm still waiting for Gale to walk through the open double doors, even though it's futile to hope for it. Not after the engagement. Instead, I see Madge's worried eyes scanning the room just like mine do. Eventually she collapses on one of the fancy velvet-upholstered couches, wrinkling her dress and looking for all the world like she doesn't care.
I wonder what she's looking for. Or who? I have no idea. We talk, but not about anything too close. She's a beautiful girl. I guess it'd make sense if she felt interested in the boys in our class, maybe someone who showed interest in her. She's not like me, never made a vow never to marry or have children. The mayor's daughter shouldn't hide, forgotten, on a couch in the shadows like that. But what do I know?
I check the door again.
Peeta's hand slips from its place on my hip, around my back. It startles me when he presses himself closer till we're chest to chest. We haven't been so close since our last night on the train. He whispers in my ear.
"He isn't here."
"What?" Something like guilt causes my face to flush.
"Your…cousin." Peeta's cheek rests against my own. I can't see his expression. To everyone else this must look like an intimate moment between lovers. But I can hear the disappointment in his voice. He pulled me close to help me keep Gale's true connection to me a secret.
Peeta's been looking for Gale for me. He's so good it's crushing. I don't know how he can be such a saint when it must hurt him so badly. When I always run away from the things that hurt me. He just stands it somehow.
I wish he'd fall in love with someone who deserves him. Haymitch is right. I don't. And probably never could.
"I don't blame him," Peeta continues softly. I know he means the engagement without him saying it. His hand slides back down to my hip and he gives me space. Always polite. I wish he hadn't because now I can see the hurt in his blue eyes. "I wouldn't want to come either." His face momentarily twists with pain. It reminds me of Haymitch's words about our engagement, and perhaps about our whole relationship. He wanted it to be real. Real. What is that anymore? And the truth is, I don't know if I love Peeta or not. I don't know if I love Gale that way or not. All I know is that Gale and I have a history that has nothing to do with putting on a show. There's no need to sift through every memory and emotion to find out if it's sincere or staged.
"But you would come anyway," I murmur, knowing that, at least, is true. "If you were in his shoes."
Peeta looks down at our feet, making his sandy hair fall over his eyes. "If I thought it'd make you happy? Yeah."
The last of the guests leave when Mr. Undersee's enormous grandfather clock tolls one. Peeta and Haymitch walk us home. Or rather, we walk Haymitch home. With him, it's more of a jaunty stumble. My mother keeps her arm firmly around Prim's shoulders as if she could block her little girl from viewing the victor's drunkenness. His habits are so old hat to me now that I forget that he and his habits are all but forgotten by the citizens of Twelve until the spring rolls around every year. He pleasures us with a limerick at Effie Trinket's expense.
Peeta says goodnight at our front stoop, walking the rest of the way down to Haymitch's house to make sure he gets in all right. We've also taken turns making sure there's heat to keep Haymitch from freezing to death before he's sober enough to check for himself. It's supposed to be my turn, but Peeta waves me off. I watch them leave a narrow trail in the newly falling snow. Peeta's straight footprints, Haymitch's staggering every which way.
When they reach Haymitch's yard I follow my family through our door for the first time since stepped out and I fell in the snow with Peeta right before the Victory Tour began. Exhaustion falls over me like a sheet when I walk into the foyer.
I have a foyer.
It's the size of our front room in the old house. Gale's entire family could live like kings in my foyer. They'd have to share with Buttercup in the evenings, but they'd live like kings.
The Hawthornes would never move in, though. Even though we have more spare rooms than they'd need, and enough money to pay for the additional groceries. Instead, they go home to a cold, two-room shack. The thought makes me tired.
Gale never did show tonight and that makes me feel even more tired. I don't know what I expected, but somehow, not that. Somehow his absence feels worse than seeing the look of betrayal on his face, him believing that I've betrayed him by promising to marry Peeta. He wouldn't understand or care that it's to save his life. It stings to think that Gale's given me more power to hurt him than he's allowed President Snow, who wants his life now that I've failed to discourage the rebellion.
Hazelle said Gale was sick.
Vick said he went to the woods.
I guess they're both right, in a fashion.
"Katniss, you look pale. Do you feel all right?" my mother asks tentatively, as if waiting for me to snap at her for asking. I'm still in the foyer with all my outer garments on, while my mother and sister have warmed up in the kitchen. Now they're waiting for me at the foot of the stairs.
I bite the inside of my cheek while my mom waits sheepishly for a reply, because I do feel something in me rising up. Something fierce, ready to slam all the doors that allow my mother to see anything vulnerable in me. To protect myself from depending on her, only to be abandoned again. But on the train ride home from the Capitol the first time, I determined that I'd stop shrugging off her concern and her desire to mother me. But I also know her limits, so it's still difficult. My mother's so lost, how could she possibly help me?
"I'm fine. I just need a minute to adjust to being home again," I lie, loosening the choke-hold of my scarf and hanging it on the fancy oak coat rack. I drop my fancy wrap and coat on the bench even though they're both wet with snow. "I think I'll sit up for a while. Read or something."
Mother simply nods even though she knows I'm not much of a reader, and together she and Prim climb the stairs to get ready for bed. I watch them go like a shy deer with her fawn. I feel more like a bear the Capitol trussed up for baiting. It reminds me how other I am from them now.
When I figure they're settled in their beds, I feel like the walls are closing in around me in this still-strange house. I want solitude and I want a room full of people to distract me. It's absurd, but I'm too exhausted to try and puzzle it out.
Reclining on a couch I've never sat in before, we've got so many, doesn't ease my nerves. Drafts come in through the living room windows. I'm not wearing anything but Cinna's silver dress. It's pretty, but useless against the night air.
We have a fireplace in the kitchen where I can warm up and try to fix my mind, so I slide off the couch, away from the cold.
Something in the hallway catches my eye, something flashing just on the edge of my vision. Hanging on the wall in the middle of some recent photographs of my family, and some of Peeta's framed sketches that he made for Prim, is my father's shaving glass. How it got here, I don't know. But there it is, right next to a miniature watercolor of Buttercup and a coal sketch of Lady. It doesn't seem right to carry it away from our home in the Seam. In fact, I asked my mother to leave it behind. What I caught my eye was actually my own reflection passing by. I stare into the glass and see someone who would look in complete contrast to her surroundings in a humble shack in the Seam. Though she fits in with this strange house, dressed in silver and iridescent powders. Make-up. Hair unbraided and flowing over her shoulders. Like Madge said this afternoon, I look like I stepped off the streets of the Capitol. Cinna made me radiant as the sun for the Capitol, and luminous as the moon for home.
I am beautiful.
I am...someone I don't recognize.
It's only a little mirror, but it's enough of a litmus test to prove that something about me is out of balance. Maybe everything.
A thrill of panic bolts through my torso in an invisible line. I don't know how to get back to where I started from. How do I find me?
I think I know. Maybe it's more of a hope than a knowing, but I'm in the foyer again, tugging on my wool coat and slipping into those uncomfortable dance shoes.
I'm at the backdoor when I hear the footsteps. My mother and Prim stand just inside the kitchen, bundled up in nightgowns and housecoats. Did they hear me stirring around?
"You're going out?" she gasps. "Dressed like that?"
"I'm getting dad's coat," I say. It's enough to tip her off.
"Be careful," is all my mother says. It still startles me, the few moments when she's so clear-sighted.
And yet, not.
She knows where I have to go. And yet we are so far beyond careful now. I don't tell her that though. Her shoulders are too narrow for that knowledge.
"You're going to find Gale?" Prim sidles up next to me. She looks troubled. In fact, she probably knows better than anyone what Gale feels; she's a natural empath.
And then, maybe she's thinking about Peeta, alone in his house, and what my going out might seem like to him. I try to stab at the guilt that's stabbing me – there is no right choice here. Only a toss-up between two evils. Two hurts. Two things I never wanted to begin with.
And tonight isn't about a choice. It's about finding out if Katniss Everdeen is still alive or if she died in the Games. And for that, I need to find the one person who really knew who she was to begin with, in the one place where she felt free enough to open up.
I leave a kiss on Prim's pale forehead. I'm surprised when I feel her press something into my hands that she must've hid in her bathrobe. I slip it under my coat in case she didn't mean for our mother to see. "I'll be back soon, little duck. Don't wait up."
The lights are out in Peeta's windows. For some reason, that's the first thing I look for. I'm barely down the back stoop when I pull the object out of my coat. It's my father's mirror. I stare at my reflection again for all of two seconds and hastily flip it over so I can't see the stranger staring back at me. My mouth pops open because a brass key is taped to the backing. The key to our house. I didn't even think about it being locked up. I never really bothered. Thank you, Prim.
I also read the invisible message, to please put this mirror back where it belongs. So, with my father's mirror tucked under my new wool coat, I make for the Seam with the snow falling around me like goose down.
The door is locked, sure enough. It takes a little coaxing to get the key to turn properly and the lock to sluggishly slide back. My bare fingers are stiff and clumsy with cold and I drop the key onto the snowy stoop when I pull it out of the lock. I scoop it up and hurry inside, out of the wind and snow.
Inside of the house isn't much of an improvement on the temperature. It's pitch dark in the front room, but it hardly matters. There's nothing left for me to stub my toes on or bruise my shins. I feel my way to the bedroom door and push it open. My fingers scrabble for the light switch. I flip it up and down a few times. Nothing.
Of course not. That's all right. If I can find the closet, then I can find my flint and tallow.
My old clothes are stashed in a pile on the floor of the closet, too. My dad's hunting jacket hangs on the one hanger my mother left behind when I refused to bring dad's things. There isn't anything else to set my things on except the skeletons of our beds. We gave the two mattresses to the Hawthornes to use rather than leave them here to be vandalized. They didn't have space for the bed frames though. The silver dress slips out of sight between the frame and the wall when I fling it aside. I don't bother with my hair, or the paint on my face, just pull on the worn, familiar trousers, flannel shirts and wool stockings on, ignoring the high-tech outfits from Cinna that I left behind in my ridiculously huge walk-in closet in the Victor's Village. He's my friend, and I trust him implicitly, but it's too much of the Capitol, for my refuge in the woods.
Before I close up the place, I use the little candle to carefully replace the mirror in the front room. It settles crookedly on the little nail embedded within the one square of clean wall in the house, where the wooden frame protected it.
I slip occasionally on the wet, snowy ground within the tunnel of trees and bushes. It's totally dark except for the stars like cold pinpricks in the black sky coming into view between the latticework of bare tree branches. My feet climb the steady incline without the help of my eyes. They know where they're going. A thicket of naked blackberry bushes crowds the scant deer trail, pulling on my loose hair and the threads of my trousers. It's only a few more steps to our usual place.
The ledge and the blackberry bushes protect a small patch of ground from the snow. I see Gale before he sees me. I duck behind an old tulip tree just to watch and see if I can observe the things he might not tell me. He sits on an old piece of tarp we use when it rains or snows. Despite the protection from the ledge, his shoulders look wet. I guess he's been out here for hours. By now he must know that his family has returned from the banquet, and I can't understand why he'd wait so long to return.
Firelight illuminates Gale's face. Shadows dance over his body, filling in the circles under his eyes and the hollows of his cheeks. Gale looks tired, hunched down in his patched up coat and frayed scarf. He should; it's nearly two in the morning. His eyes look black against his skin; they focus on something in his hands, a ball of hemp he's working into a sturdy enough rope to lift heavier prey off the ground. Strands of dark, straight hair fall over his face from beneath his wool cap and I find that I want to brush them away for him.
I step around the tree and his eyes shoot toward me in an instant.
"Catnip?" he breathes.
"Mind if I sit by your fire?" I ask, keeping close to the tree in case he says no. The thought that he might reject me hits me like a punch in the stomach. In the few seconds it takes for him to answer I'm already tying myself into emotional knots and backing up into the trunk.
But Gale takes in my hands in my pockets and the snow melting in my hair with his dark eyes and says, "I think you'd better." He doesn't ask what I'm doing out here and I don't offer.
Gale throws a few more irons on the fire and stirs it up with a stick. I make room for myself on the tarp and lap up the heat while the new wood catches. Since he didn't send me away, the silence isn't quite oppressive. I leave it alone and watch Gale cut two pieces of bread from a loaf he has with him. He toasts them on the end of a fresh hazel switch. I feel a twinge in my stomach because this simple task reminds me of the morning we spent out here before the reaping that changed everything for us.
When the slices are golden-brown, he hands one to me. Our fingers don't meet during the exchange and that seems wrong. I take a half-hearted bite of dry toast and study the ends of his scraped knuckles sticking out from his fingerless knit gloves. My stomach still feels full from the dinner tonight. I let the piece of toast cool next to me.
"I ate the last of the cheese," he apologizes when he sees I'm not tempted by the bread.
I hug my knees to my chin. "I'm not very hungry." He knows why and won't approach the subject himself. So I do it for the both of us.
"You didn't come to the banquet tonight," I murmur, more to the fire than to Gale. He doesn't respond, just picks up the ball of hemp again and stares at it. "Hazelle said you were sick."
"Let me guess," he quips with a sour smile, "you didn't hesitate to run over and find out for sure?"
I couldn't leave and he knows it. Not with Effie Trinket and a host of Capitol attendants keeping track of my every move. And I might as well admit that I couldn't leave Peeta there on his own. Gale knows all that, so I say, "Well, Vick told me you were in the woods. I didn't think you were in danger of dying."
Silence. I think maybe Gale is as lost as I am right now. Or maybe it's that he's at a loss where our friendship is concerned. He's seen me promise to marry someone else and he doesn't know that it's an act. Gale doesn't know how I feel about him, and I guess I don't really know either, just that I miss him. Maybe that's the place to start?
"I wish you had come," I murmur. "It's not the same without you."
Confusion makes his eyebrows dip together, but then his face hardens to stone.
"It's not really my scene, you know?" he jibes, disgust curls his lips. "Mayor's house, fancy clothes. Maybe I am feeling a little under the weather. I don't think I could stomach seeing Love Triumphant tonight. Not for all the rich food in the Capitol."
Love triumphant. His barbed words sting as all the censure falls on me. He'd stomach the fancy evening if he thought I was there for him, not hanging on Peeta's arm. I can't throw that in his face. I don't know how to respond to his anger - I don't even know my own mind. So I change the subject.
"How long have you been out here?" I ask, throwing a wet leaf into the fire. It gutters until the moisture evaporates. Then orange, fiery tongues consume the leaf, making it curl and blacken till it's gone.
Gale's watching the leaf too, and twiddling a piece of twine between his fingers, when he answers. "Since late afternoon."
Something in me clicks into place. Amidst the confusion of blurrily defined relationships, this at least makes sense. You don't waste a day of hunting, the practical voice in my head resurfaces long enough to remind me.
"Then why sit out here in the cold for so long?" I ask bluntly. "Did you check the snare lines, at least? Or-"
Gale holds up a hand to quiet me. "Yeah, I wasted a hunting day. I know," he says, nearly groaning. "I wanted to be here in the off-chance that you'd show up."
My mouth forms a surprised O. I was starting to get the feeling that he didn't want me around, yet he waited for me all along? I thought he came out here to hide from me.
"Well, I did come," I whisper.
"Eventually." Gale shrugs his shoulders. "After you put your fiancé away for the night," he says wearily. "I guess I'll take what I can get."
Ow. ow. ow. "Gale, you know what you mean to me-"
"It's all right, Katniss," he says, and I know he's lying because he can't quite keep the hurt out of his eyes. "I'm used to being a second-class citizen."
"Stop," I hiss. We both fall silent, our eyes locked and unyielding.
It's clear to me that the two of us won't have a civilized conversation until Gale knows the truth. His feelings are too raw and new for him to put them aside for the sake of old friendship. I don't blame him, even if it hurts. I'm sure I'm hurting him far more.
"It's a phony engagement, Gale," I stammer. "It's not real. But it needs to look real so that the people I care about, like you, don't end up in the ground. I'm in a real bind, not trying to hurt you."
Gale's eyes narrow into calculating slits and I can tell he's struggling with his doubts.
"What are you talking about?" he asks, curiosity getting the better of him.
I exhale one long, shivery breath and watch the cloudiness billow in the cold. "I'm talking about Snow not appreciating my stunt with the berries. About how I need to fake a relationship with Peeta so it looks like an act of love, not rebellion. And Snow's afraid that my friendship with you will blow the whole thing. It doesn't matter to him."
Gale stares into the fire with unblinking eyes.
"So, this all boils down to what President Snow wants, doesn't it?" he mutters eventually.
The wind picks up, carrying Gale's words with it and making me shiver. I wrap my arms tighter around me knees for warmth and a little security. "Doesn't it always?"
Gale gives me an appraising look. "What do you want?"
"What do I want?" I laugh bitterly. It carries beyond the circle of light into the dark trees. What a lovely, delusional question. There isn't a market for what I want anymore. My body feels like it's falling apart around the reality. I cross my legs beneath me and my shoulders curl inward like the burning leaf. "I want the feeling to come back to my fingertips," I murmur stupidly.
Gale rolls his eyes, but accepts that I don't dare get to close to truly answering his question. Too much pain lies behind that door.
"Where are your gloves, anyway?" he grouses, though he pulls my hands out of my lap. He takes his own gloves off and kneads warmth back into my fingers with his. Just like old times. Gale's always warm. It doesn't take long before the sharp tingling sensation begins at my fingertips.
"At the house. The big one," I clarify. "I sort of rushed out."
He snorts. "That's not like you, Katniss. Where's your head?"
"I don't know what's like me anymore, Gale, I'm so lost." I try to laugh, but my throat's too tight. Gale doesn't laugh either, just keeps working on my fingers. The burning wood crackles and sometimes the wind whistles through the treetops. Somewhere the snow slides off of branches and falls to the ground with soft pfffs.
When Gale's fingers still on my raw-red hands, I start to pull them away, but he grips them more. I look up, confused, and notice that he's staring at the perfect coat of clear polish on each nail.
"I figured girls like your friend Madge wear this stuff, but I never thought I'd see it on you," he admits with a wrinkled up nose.
"It's the price I pay for surviving the Games," I mutter, feeling defensive. I didn't ask for a prep team to color my nails. And honestly, it's an improvement from my blackened, broken ones. The kind Gale will always have.
"I guess so." Gale lets go of my now very warm and tingly hands. He removes his hat and scratches the back of his head while the thinks. "Katniss, you know I've got your back, it's just…."
Gale shakes his head, then puts his cap back on. His breath comes out in misty puffs while he thinks some more. Once in a while he glances my way and studies my face, then looks away again out into the forest again. "I guess I'm being hard on you. It's just, it seems like I'm talking to someone they made in the Capitol. I know Katniss Everdeen is here," he says, pointing to the ground between us, "but I can't see her."
He can't know how his words pierce my heart with more force than one of Cato's spears or he wouldn't have said it. I can't argue with him, though. I can barely speak as he vocalizes the very core of the problem. I feel like a product of the Capitol. My life, my engagement, everything I say is part of a script, a television program devised by invisible puppet masters far away from District 12.
I must be overtired. I'm never this demonstrative in daylight. A gasping sob breaks through my lips. The others I try to muffle between my fists, eyes squeezed tight against the warm tears threatening to escape. I don't know why I thought coming here would help me feel less lost. If anything, I feel it more than ever, the contrast between who I am now and who I was when I left home. The girl I can't go back to being.
"Hey, Catnip, don't," Gale pleads. I can hear the repentance in his voice. He looks surprised, and I guess he would be. I don't like to cry in front of anyone.
I elegantly wipe my nose on my sleeve. "I have to go, Gale." This is all wrong. But when I try to get up, he reaches for my arm and won't let me.
"Hold on a minute," he says. "It's not that hard of a fix."
"It isn't?" I sniffle. "How?"
Gale thinks about it. "Well, maybe not, but I know where we can start."
Still holding my arm he uses his other to fish around in his game bag. He produces a clean rag, the kind you use to blow your nose. Hazelle always had some for us to use. And I'm curious to see what he'll do, so I stay. He tips some liquid from his flask onto the rag.
"It's water," he tells me. "Not tea."
Then with one hand he's cupping my cheek, and with the other, he's cleaning the makeup from my face that I've forgotten about. Warm hands that I know and trust. Rough and scarred from heavy labor, but also gentle and precise. He touches me where he's never had occasion to touch me before. My cheeks, my lips, my nose and eyes. He wipes away the eye shadow, the foundation, the running mascara and other goop from my face. When he lowers the cloth I see the ugly mess of it all mixed together. I frown at it. Really, all mixed together, the colorful paints and pressed minerals that made my beauty stand out are so…garish.
"That's...disgusting," he says tactlessly, tossing the rag in my lap.
My nose wrinkles up in agreement as I pick the cloth up by the cleanest corner and take a closer look. "I can't believe it was all on my face." My voice still sounds a little watery, but there's a trace of laughter in it too.
Gale laughs softly and I glance up from the cloth to see why. He's smiling that same smile that first made me want to know him more. And the first genuine one he's given me in a long time.
"I'm sorry I didn't come to tonight," he apologizes quietly as his face sobers a little. "You know I couldn't, not knowing how things were."
"I know." I swallow thickly. "I'm sorry too. Believe me, I'd rather stay here on this ledge than give it up for all the food in the world."
Gale nods because he feels the same. I feel relieved because maybe we can mend our friendship despite what the Capitol has done and despite the harsh words we've spoken, and feelings of betrayal. If we can compromise-
"So, it's not a real engagement?" he asks, interrupting my thoughts with the hint of that smile still lingering on his face.
"No." The question startles me and I answer automatically.
Gale purses his lips, then drawls, "So, if I kissed you, I wouldn't be-naw, to hell with it." He's on his knees, pulling me up onto mine with the sound of the tarp crinkling beneath us. His warm lips cover mine. I still have the cloth in my hand and it's crushed between us while his arms press me into his chest.
At first I'm so flustered I can't think. My eyelids droop in an automatic response to the contact, but I can't seem to move voluntarily. Gale's nose brushes against mine, trying to find the best angle for tasting me. I hear his breathing and my blood rushing in my ears. Then he whispers my name, the way he's said it a thousand times, and something wakes up inside of me. An arching, coiling warm sense of well-being, like the way I feel when I wear my father's jacket, only stronger. The smell of wood smoke, musk, flannel. Smells of home - where I come from. Gale's scent. The tang of his lips.
My lips finally move with his, but not long before Gale's hands settle on my hips and create a distance between us. My eyes flutter open as the chilly air and our own cloudy breath fills the empty space. At first I think maybe he's angry with me, or that he doesn't like my kisses, but there's a light in his eyes that's been missing and an easy grin on his face.
"What is it?" I rasp. Something's wrong with my voice, but hearing it makes his eyes grow even darker.
Instead of answering, Gale picks the cloth from my hand and pitches it into the fire before turning back to me. The light dances in his dark eyes. When he kisses me again, I feel the fire melt into my skin and curl in my stomach.
"Now I see you," he murmurs when his forehead presses gently against mine and we're both remembering to breathe.
He sees me.
I see him too, for what he truly is. My best.
So, admittedly, this is OTP adultery and I totally cried on the inside for Peeta and Madge. But I hope you all enjoyed. ;)