Disclaimer: I'm not Suzanne Collins and don't claim to own The Hunger Games. Whew. Title and inspiration credits go to the song "Total Eclipse of the Heart" by Bonnie Tyler. I deleted the quoted lyrics to be on the safe side, but it is recommended listening.
A/N + warning: The first chapter is all angst and hurty-comforty talk, fanservice ensues later.
Also - hiatused for now, will be edited before continuing.
I've been gazing into the abyss for a long, long time and when the abyss gazed back into me through the blue eyes in which I thought I'd finally found salvation, something in me broke. The glare replete with murderous hatred and the subsequent pressure of Peeta's fingers on my throat haunt my nightmares and sinister daydreams alike. I doubt that even a miraculous return of his old self could dispel the horror.
Even though Peeta bears no actual fault for the incident, I find the images very difficult and very painful to disengage. When the gentle boy with the bread – whose love I'd recklessly began to take for granted – turns into a spiteful Capitol-monster in the darkness behind my tightly scrunched eyelids, I feel as if I were hijacked myself. Unable to discern what's real and what's not, I blunder in a vicious circle of fear and heartbreak, forever looking over my shoulder. I don't have anyone to do it for me here.
The Capitol hijacked me apart from Peeta, used whatever love existed between us for show and twisted it for vengeance before ultimately killing it with a lethal overdose of hallucinogenic venom. In an attempt to escape the decaying memory of our relationship that pursued me incessantly in the dark underground corridors of Thirteen, I asked to be relocated to the still unconquered District Two.
Besides whatever contributions to the actual war effort my presence could bring, I concentrated on my own battle and struggled to ward off the blackness that threatened to engulf me. I believed I needed to do it alone. Gale had offered to accompany me to Two, completely disregarding the projects he's been working on with Beetee, but I declined. I'm not even sure on the exact reason why. Maybe I feared that his company would tempt me to take a too easy way out. Or maybe I dreaded finding no way at all, and wasn't ready for another loss.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Thirteen's been steadily hijacking my best friend away from me, our perfect cooperation deteriorating after we found ourselves in a vast underground trap from where we tried to fight in a war beyond anything we could truly fathom. We became prey at worst and weapons at best, but struggled to remain hunters, each in a different way, and ended up exchanging unnecessary verbal blows with misplaced malice and forfeiting whatever little comfort we could've found in each other. Sometimes, I wish to take it all back and regret that I left Gale in Thirteen. We used to be good at coping together, and now I find myself failing miserably more often than I'd like to.
When duty finally brings Gale to District Two, my doubts reappear and I stubbornly avoid him to the best of my ability, but I'm not surprised when he knocks on my door after curfew. I can't find the heart to pretend I'm not there, so I call him in. I've deceived him one too many times already.
Gale strides across my long, narrow room in the military facility we had only recently taken over and silently joins me on the windowsill where I've been pensively sitting for some time. There are two beds lined along both walls, but I have the room all for myself, by special request. The whole building is too large for our group anyway.
"Hey, Catnip," he says as he settles opposite me, studying me intently. "How are you… coping?"
"I'll survive. At least as long as necessary," I answer with a shrug, but I feel the corner of my mouth involuntarily twitching upward as I return his gaze. I haven't seen him for weeks and even after our disagreements in Thirteen, his presence lightens my mood. For a moment, I wish I could just fall into his arms to forget the past and to seek conviction that the future will be better. But then I remember why I think I shouldn't. Memories of loving eyes turned alien and of gentle fingers turned murderous make me shudder, but still… could I give Peeta up this easily?
"How is Peeta? Have you seen him?" I blurt out, instantly turning Gale's answering smile into a frown.
"Hasn't Haymitch told you? He is improving." Gale bites his lip, but continues. "As long as nothing reminds him of you."
I look down, wringing my hands in my lap. The odds are I'd be dead before the war ends and then Peeta will have no reason to fear and hate me, neither real nor unreal. And he'll be happier with no reason to miss me. Why do I find the prospect of him being eventually able to live normally without as much as a memory of me so terrible? If the hijacking leaves no other lasting damage, he'd be better off than the eleven years I'd ignored him. But the notion still hurts and I'd do anything to push it from my mind.
"But even Prim is trying to help, so I guess it's not entirely hopeless." Gale interrupts my dismal thoughts, probably hoping to cheer me up.
It works, because when he reminds me of my sister, I can't help but smile. I'd already talked about her attempts to help with Haymitch on the phone, but the news sound even more convincing when Gale tells me face-to-face with familiar confidence in her abilities, despite the fact he may not want them to prevail this time.
"Do you truly want them to succeed?" I ask.
"Yeah. What they've done to him… it shouldn't happen to anyone. Besides, if nothing else, I'd want him to get better for your sake."
I raise my eyebrows. I don't know for certain if I'd ever bring myself to be alone with Peeta again, but Gale doesn't know that. And I don't want fake comfort, not from him. "Really?"
"I mean it. Why are you wondering?"
"You as good as lied to me about him once," I snap without provocation, bringing up the bone we've never truly buried.
Gale just sighs exasperatedly in response. "Right back at you, Catnip. You as good as lied about not having seen the propo in the first place."
"Hey, but I was just-"
"Just what?" he cuts across me. "Is it different when you do it, Mockingjay?"
I gape at him, speechless and hurt, and he frowns as if deep in thought. "Were you really trying to do what Peeta asked you, Catnip? Checking your allies?" he says finally.
"He might well have had a point, huh?" I spit, regaining my fight.
Gale waves the accusation away. "Not even you can fight the world all alone, Catnip. You should pick your battles a bit more wisely." Then his expression softens. "And about the propo, I really had no idea what would hurt you more. Looking out for you is damn much harder down in Thirteen than back in our woods, but trust me, I'm still trying to do it."
"I don't remember asking you to-" I begin, but Gale interrupts me again.
"What makes you think you had to? I thought we were a team," he says. The veiled hurt in his eyes almost makes me want to take the words back, but I make no attempt to. Better clear things up once and for all.
"Does that involve being all friendly with Coin? I don't believe her intentions are entirely good, either."
Gale nods seriously and leans closer to whisper. "I'm with you there. But you know as well as I do that we'd never defeat Snow without her. And last time I checked, she wasn't hiding any evidence of wanting to take over his agenda in supply closets."
The subtle jab stings and I grit my teeth. "What can you know? You keep hanging around with Beetee in the Weaponry anyway."
"He has her office wired. Just in case. And if remember correctly, I asked to come here with you and you told me to sit with Beetee in the Weaponry. Why?"
"I... I... " What? Wanted to mourn Peeta without any distractions? Probably. But that would be too wrong to say aloud. "You were more needed there, weren't you?" I say, deciding to elude the question with repeating an old lie.
Gale leans closer, his eyes intent on mine. "Catnip, you are more important to me than some weapons. Just in case you doubted it. "
I draw back and throw my hands up in frustration. I don't like it when he makes an uncomfortable point I can't refute. "What the hell do you want from me, Gale?"
"I just want to help you. Besides, aren't we are long past the point when I could want anything from you?" He keeps his voice devoid of sorrow, but I know him too well not to notice the effort. Should I count it as another lie for my sake? Or just an attempt not to burden me with his emotions because he knows I can't even deal with my own? Too bad he's right on that one.
"Have we ever been?" I mutter, more to myself than to him, but I still see how deeply my words cut and bow my head to avoid his intense gaze.
The pain of having lost me over and over again after bursts of false hope is so evident in his eyes I can't bear to look at it. When Gale gently wraps his fingers around my chin and coaxes me to face him, I shut my eyes tightly enough to make colorful fireworks erupt in my self-imposed darkness. I'm shutting him out even now as he tries to reconcile with me and comfort me… Is he losing me again? Am I losing him? Are we losing each other even without real venom polluting our brains?
"I don't know anymore. But if you wanted anything from me, do tell. I've still got your back, Catnip," Gale says softly and I feel his lips press against my forehead. A light and friendly kiss, reminding me of that bygone era when life used to be a straightforward and sane struggle for survival. Back then, we had no problem to stay on top of it and get along together in the process.
How I miss those times…
Then Gale's hand slides from my face and I feel him rise and walk away. I refuse to open my eyes and my ears detect no trace of his furtive tread, but the lack of sensory evidence does nothing to lighten the void opening in my heart.
As far as I am concerned, Peeta is gone.
Gale is leaving and he might not return, not if I keep driving him away.
After all the time I'd spent dreading their deaths, the imminent threat of losing them both just as definitely while they are still alive stabs at my heart with steely barbs of irony.
Maybe I could cope with everything alone, but I'm sick and tired and so lonely I can't stand it and I don't want to be anymore.
Before I can fully process my thoughts, my feet are sprinting towards Gale's slowly retreating figure. I collide with his back just as he reaches for the doorknob and throw my arms around his waist to steady myself. He maintains his balance with little effort, but literally flinches at the contact.
Does even he find me repulsive now?
The very notion is unbearable, but before the irrational hurt settles in, I notice that Gale still wears a bandage under his shirt, an evidence of the injury he'd sustained when he volunteered to rescue Peeta. He did it for me, regardless of what Peeta's return may mean for our relationship or whatever remained of it by that time. Meanwhile, I worried back in Thirteen, saying few lines for the camera and then proceeding to bloody my fingers with pointless knots.
I wasn't there to guard his back.
What has become of me? What have I allowed myself to become?
"I'm sorry, Gale. For everything. I've got your back too," I mutter into his shirt, holding on tightly and shifting my head to press my cheek against his uninjured shoulder.
His muscles ripple under my palms as he chuckles. "I guess I can't argue with that."
Gale gently loosens my clutching fingers from his shirt to lace them with his own and I relish the contact, unwilling to pull away. The world feels very close to alrightthis way and that's about as good as it can get after everything we've been through.
"Does it hurt much?" I ask, lightly shifting my head to indicate what I mean. I've never thought to ask him before. I hardly cared and that hurts to admit.
"It's almost healed, so not really," he answers dismissively. "Unless something unexpected happens."
"Sorry," I repeat contritely.
"I'm not complaining," he says with a hint of a genuine laugh in is voice and turns in my embrace to enclose me in his arms properly.
"What's become of us, Gale?" I mutter into his chest and instinctively breathe in his scent. I hear and feel his heartbeat, as strong and fast as I remember from every time I'd gotten really close to him. I force myself to pull away far enough to look into his eyes. "We are fighting in a war…"
"We are fighting for freedom. That's what we always wanted, haven't we?" he says softly.
"Yeah, but… I never imagined the price could be so high. Is this what we wanted? I just wanted to save Prim. And then Peeta. And then..."
Gale nods just as my voice trails off. "And then Panem. It's bigger than you and Prim now, Catnip. Bigger than us." He hesitates for a moment. I brace myself for his next words, but they end up hurting a little less than I expect. "Bigger than you and Peeta… The whole country is fighting, on one side or another. All we can do is to see it through without losing ourselves in the process."
"It almost happened." I shudder. That's not what I wanted, definitely not.
Gale's lips twist into a smile, wry with a mixture of joy and sorrow. "Almost being the key word? I don't want to lose you, Catnip."
I just nod to indicate I feel the same about him and bury my face in his chest before my eyes brim with tears.
Gale holds me in silent comfort, his arms taut against my body as if he wanted to prevent me from disappearing again with all his strength. I return his fierce embrace and when I shut my eyes tightly enough and inhale deeply enough, I feel safe and warm and home and I want to stay there.