A/N: *sigh* I'm out of my depth and out of my mind, and I'm VERY sorry. And very grateful to anyone and everyone who still has the patience with me and this story. Finally, here comes another chapter, covering half of what I originally intended, but it's long enough as it is, and it was either this or making y'all wait another eternity and a half. Hope you enjoy anyway. Dedicated to Twiss because closets and reasons ;)
After the lush forests of Two and the open horizons of Four, our descent back to the depths Thirteen felt like a burial, yet another death to be survived.
I'm still trying not to choke as I navigate the shadowy underground maze, but the stale air thick with foul memories is the lesser of my concerns. Anxiety has been constricting my throat ever since Haymitch told me Peeta asked to see me, and now the pressure increases with every step I take towards my destination.
I don't even know what scares me more: what will I see in Peeta, or what will he see in me?
Probably the latter.
Shuddering at the idea, I half-blindly turn a corner and stop short a step before colliding with Gale and Haymitch, engaged in a whispered debate. They both fall silent when they notice me.
"What happened?" I blurt, frowning up at their grave faces. "Is he… "My voice falters a little. "I mean Peeta… worse?"
Gale clenches his jaw, in a way I recognize as nerves rather than anger, but Haymitch just smirks.
"Oh no, Sweetheart, he's eager to see you. But no worries, all restrained so that he won't squeeze the life outta you. C'mon." He glances at Gale, and then turns on his heel with almost suspicious briskness and strides back towards the hospital.
Gale steps towards me instead, but I withdraw slightly and raise an eyebrow in a silent question. What was that about?
"I'll tell you right after, if you'd want to. Promise," he whispers. Then he looks over his shoulder to check the corridor behind us and offers me his hand when he discovers it's empty.
With a little hesitation, I slip my own slightly trembling one into it, taking comfort from his firm warm grip. "Fine." I hate not knowing about something important going on, but there's too little time now and I have too much on my mind as it is. I'll have to do my best to make Peeta see I'm not something to be feared forever, and undo at least a fraction of damage they'd inflicted on him on my behalf.
And I'm afraid that's more than I can do, even at full capacity.
"Are you going to watch?" I ask Gale tensely as we trail after Haymitch.
"I won't if you don't want me to," he says.
I consider it for several silent moments. Do I? "If you want to know, please do," I whisper finally, right before we pass though the last doorway.
Gale stops and frowns in confusion. He'd seen too many scenes between me and Peeta, and I shouldn't be asking him for another mandatory viewing, but I can't help it. "I guess I wouldn't be able to tell you anything after."
He nods. "Right. I'll be watching your back, Catnip."
I muster a tiny grateful smile and squeeze his hand in acknowledgment. Of course he will.
Then we let go and he lets me through the door first, following a step behind.
The room is milling with people and I push my way through them, suppressing a sudden urge to scream at them and kick them out. Rationally, I know they are here to help, that they have helped Peeta already, but the thought of him being observed all the time sickens me to no end. Just as much as the idea of talking to him in front of them all.
But I have to, both for his sake and my own. Like always. I can only hope some good can still come out of my efforts.
"Ready?" asks Haymitch , pressing something small into my numb and barely cooperative hand. The earpiece.
I don't reply and stare straight ahead, through the glass, forcing myself to face the horror of his change. Again, but at least I'm prepared now.
I find less than I expected.
At the first glance, Peeta looks… good. Calm, almost bored, no longer the glaring image of hatred that's been haunting me since I'd left him here.
Fine too. The medics of Thirteen have successfully erased the most conspicuous traces of torture, the bruises are gone along with the dismal purple pools from under his eyes, cuts have faded into barely perceptible scars, haggard features have filled to restore his familiar countenance.
But I know there's a deep me-shaped wound gaping underneath the surface. A chasm full of poison replaced something far more beautiful that I used to take for granted until it's been destroyed: love selfless beyond my understanding, and so tightly woven into the fabric of his being that he all but fell apart at the loss. It's not my intention to restore his sweet illusion of me in its entirety, after all, I've gone beyond a point I don't want to return from on a different path. But I have to try and imbue the void with truth we both could live with.
I'm not innocent and I've never been perfect, I'm neither the singing girl of his dreams nor the snarling mutt of his nightmares.
The truth is somewhere in the middle, buried deep, but hopefully not beyond discovery. Like the memory of the time when I imagined orange sunset at high noon and took Peeta's hand extended in pure friendship, holding it for a precious moment free of pain and pretense.
But it is gone from his mind, and I have a very painfully scraped tablet to fill.
Haymitch waves a hand it from of my face, tearing me from my thoughts. "Stinking underground calling, Sweetheart."
My head snaps sharply in his direction, a defensive frown subconsciously forming on my face.
"We don't need two of you spazzing out," he elaborates gruffly.
"Yeah, I'm ready," I snap, throwing the earpiece back at him. I'm as ready as I'll ever be, and I'm not going to cheat.
He doesn't try to argue, but his smirk falls before I turn entirely away and I catch a fleeting glimpse of my anxiety reflected in his eyes. We swore we'd protect Peeta, Haymitch and I, but we lost the first round and we still can screw up even worse.
But our mentor still trusts me, and I'll do my best not to disappoint him.
Right before the door to Peeta's room (or is it a cell?), I pass Delly Cartwright, Peeta's childhood friend who'd volunteered to keep him company and help him to restore his memory of a home long gone. Her pale face has the pinched look of a healthily plump girl who'd lost a significant amount of weight in very short time, and her once remarkably bright blue eyes are clouded with ashes of an incomparably greater loss. Yet she graces me with a soft, encouraging smile that effectively breaks through the gloom. Perhaps she trusts me as well. I really try to lift the corners of my mouth, but give up after a futile twitch and manage only a nod.
What do I mean to tell her? A 'thank you' for helping him when I can't? A promise I'll do my best not to send him over the edge and undo her success?
When I shut the door after me, slowly and with special care, I suddenly feel as if I were back in the arena, in a microcosm beyond a forcefield where nothing matters but the reality at hand.
I'd thought my final reality, my dying wish, would be saving Peeta. Converting it into a living wish feels much harder. And how can I help him now that nothing threatens his life, but the identity he'd prized much more has been tarnished?
Peeta watches me warily, his blue eyes cold and penetrating. No longer promising heaven, but giving me the hell I'd deserve from him.
I approach him slowly, refraining from sudden movements and forcing myself to hold his gaze.
He tenses as I near him, probably still half expecting me to sprout claws and attack him – restrained and helpless – at any moment.
I'm still an enemy to him.
I force a deep, calming breath into my aching lungs.
What is he to me?
Vivid memories of his kisses on my lips and his chokehold on my throat wash over my skin in tingling waves, confounding my thoughts into a bittersweet vortex. I'll have to find something else, untainted by the shadow of fear and fight. Something from beyond the games, something real, reliable, and free of the confusing web of truth and lies we'd spun to save each other from the Capitol.
An indestructible foundation to fall back onto when everything else crashes down.
It's almost laughable how easy the answer is.
He's the boy who'd given me bread with a side of hope in an unfathomable and incomparable gesture of kindness. That's what he's been to me even after the first reaping, when I believed he's out to kill me. That's what he still is, even now that he's been forced to believe I'm out to kill him. Even now that his memories of me are jumbled and my memories of him are overshadowed by the horror of the last one, that can't be taken away.
Unfortunately, even when I have a foundation, I don't really know how to build on it. Have I ever known at all?
"Hey," I greet him uncertainly, stopping a few feet away, not daring to invade his personal space just yet.
"Hey," Peeta answers, a slightly mocking edge in his tone.
"Haymitch said you wanted to talk to me." Peeta's always been the one to know what to say. Had been, I correct myself. Now I can no longer expect him to talk me out of trouble.
"Look at you, for starters," he says, giving me a quick once-over. Though fully clothed in a loose-fitting gray uniform, I feel far more exposed than in the jungle arena where we'd talked and touched only in our underwear. Perhaps because of the haze of infatuation has fallen from his eyes, revealing me as I am. And that's…
"Nothing special, are you?" he concludes.
Indeed. The confirmation hurts deeper than I should let it, making me bristle.
"Now you're talking," I say coolly, even though I know that's not entirely true. It's not exactly him talking. "Is that a promotion from being a mutt?"
He grits his teeth for a moment, so hard I can see the pulse of his jaw muscles. I shouldn't have used the word. No, definitely not. Why is it that I never know the right thing to do, not around him?
"And not even remotely nice," he comments. "Well, you weren't all that nice on the tapes they'd showed me either, so I guess it figures."
"You are the one known for being nice," I retort, harsher than I intended. I know I should tread carefully, but feel clumsier and louder than Peeta trampling through an autumn forest. "I just did my best to go along."
Peeta studies me with narrowed eyes, and then he closes them, opens and looks again, scrunches them shut and shakes his head. Mere few moments in my presence, and he's already falling apart. "And to think I went through that all for you," he mutters, seemingly more to the pictures in his mind than to me.
The accusation, fair or unfair as it is, cuts deep, especially because that's exactly what I've been thinking about for weeks. I open my mouth to defend myself, but no words come, my own breath got caught in my throat, choking me.
"I must have loved you a lot," Peeta concludes in a forlorn whisper, as if he couldn't comprehend the meaning behind the words anymore.
Images flash before my eyes, confessions and kisses and little gestures and bread, bread, bread, making my head swirl. "You did," I say faintly.
"And what about you? Did you love me?"
I don't know what to say. It wasn't the love he expected or the love I faked for the Capitol audience. I have no idea how to put my affection for him into words. Not with other people watching, not when he stares me down like this. All I know is that I felt it and I still do, so much it hurts. "I… I tried." I say finally.
It's not a good answer.
"Tried!" he scoffs. "It looked like you were trying to kill me first. When you dropped the tracker jackers."
"I was trying to kill all of you," I admit through clenched teeth. How ironic it is that I'd thrown a tracker jacker nest at him when I unjustly considered him my enemy, and now Snow imbued him their venom to make him consider me his enemy. Murder can take many forms. "You had me treed."
"And then there was a lot of kissing. Didn't seem very sincere on your part. Did you really want to do it, or was it all for the games?"
I think about the last kiss I'd given him in the Quell arena, the one with which I'd have given him my life if I only could. Of course, I wouldn't have done it if it wasn't for the games. But I wouldn't have done it if it wasn't for him either.
"Some were just for you," I say truthfully. "D'you know there are people watching?" I add. I don't want to elaborate on that, not now.
"I know. They are always watching, aren't they?" he scoffs and spasmodically clenches and unclenches his fists, his piercing gaze leaving my face for a moment and glaring at the one-way glass. "What about Gale?"
I purse my lips and draw a deep, slightly shuddering breath, willing myself not to blush. I genuinely didn't know what about Gale then, and I can't afford to tell him about me and Gale now, but I can't lie either.
Peeta grits his teeth audibly, eyes still fixed on the glass as if he sensed Gale beyond.
"This is about me and you, Peeta," I say finally. "Not about me and him. You know I did everything I did in the arena, even though I knew he watched."
And I know Gale is watching now, and I know I must be hurting him. I'd let him go in the arena, twice, and I don't want there to be a third time, but this is about me and Peeta again, and he needs to understand that. They both need to understand.
Peeta turns back to me and frowns, this time more confused than hostile. "What were you playing at, then?"
"What you wanted me to," I say softly, trying my best to prevent it from sounding like an accusation it's not meant to be. "As close as I could make it."
Instinctively, I step closer and reach for his hand, but he pulls away, as far as his restraints allow him, so I let my arm fall limply. Peeta's pupils are already dilated almost to the point of swallowing the irises, and his whole body, his whole being shakes slightly. Perhaps he doesn't believe me, perhaps my words clash too much with whatever lies they'd fed him, and his tortured mind can't make sense out of them.
I'm already outstaying my welcome, I can tell, but once I started, I can't stop. I need him to know at least one thing for certain, and the war may not grant me another chance.
As I lean closer, I can see my reflection in the moist pools of blackness his eyes have turned into. Yet a thin ring of blue still surrounds the tiny abysses, the familiar forget-me-not blue. I focus on that, the light lining.
I'll never forget what he meant to me, what he means to me, and I need him to remember that…
"I cared, Peeta." No answer, but I take the lack of protest as encouragement. "I still care and always will. You are too precious to be lost to their Games. In the first arena, I wasn't trying to save you for myself, but I wanted… no, I needed to save you. It wasn't my way, all the words and the kisses, but it was the only way that could work. And we made it. I saved you, you saved me."
I pause, studying his reaction. Peeta stares me down, unblinking, and air wheezes in through his parted lips. "In the Quell, I'd have given anything to save you. It was my dying wish to save you. And I…"
The long indrawn breath will explode soon, I can feel that.
I have seconds left.
My voice falters in fear of the word I must pronounce next, but I force myself on. "… failed in the end and I'm… "
His face scrunches up.
The scream chases me to the door, confusion and pain and sheer terror clawing at my heels as I flee from them, an unvoiced apology turning to ashes in my throat.
A blonde blur streaks past me, Delly rushing to comfort Peeta. Seconds later, I collide with another – Prim – and all but tear her to the ground as I crumple against her much daintier frame.
She wraps her arms around me, supporting me with strength that defies size. "Don't worry, Katniss," she whispers. "You did fine. It'll take him some time to… come to terms with it. It always does."
Same goes for me.
With a sigh, I squeeze her in my arms as tightly as I dare without crushing her. It's frightening how easily the most precious people can be lost, and being able to hold onto her provides at least some relief. She keeps muttering breathless encouragement, bandaging my torn heart to the best of her ability. That's what I can let her do, but I can't trap her under the weight of my own guilt.
Reluctantly, I straighten up, palms still on her shoulders – no longer as bony as they used to be, I notice with fleeting satisfaction. She's certainly bloomed in every aspect, even here, hundreds of feet under the surface.
"Will you be okay?" she asks earnestly. "Do you need me to go with you?"
"I'll be fine. I just… need a little time to… think," I say reluctantly. I'd want her company, but I have no excuse to take her away from her work that completes her so. I'd like to believe I'm not yet a patient, and I should straighten my thoughts myself before burdening her with the gist of them.
Prim nods and moves forward for another short hug. "He is getting better, trust me. He reacted better than we feared. I know it hurts you more than I can imagine, Katniss. But you can't let it beat you down. You can give him hope only when you have some yourself," she mutters into my shoulder.
"Too true, Little Duck," I sigh, even though I already know too well that something in her is so much greater than I could ever be. "I'll let you do your job, then."
She laughs at the old endearment. "We'll see each other for Reflection, right?" she says with a curl of her lip.
I roll my eyes and kiss her forehead lightly. "Sure."
Right now, I feel like I could reflect for an eternity, and it would be nowhere near enough.
Turning around, I almost walk into Gale, who stood near – at my back as he promised, pretty much shielding us from the gaggle of doctors and experts swarming in front of the one-way glass.
Our eyes meet for a moment, his radiating concern, my own I-don't-know what, because I can't quite think of any message to convey. But he understands anyway, and brushes his fingers against mine as I pass him, comforting and familiar. Letting me go when I need him to, and reassuring me he'll be there when I'll want him with me.
On my way out, I make a point of avoiding Haymitch, because I don't need my disappointment returned twofold with an extra dose of sarcasm. Luckily, he doesn't try to stop me and give a piece of his mind.
Right before passing out of the door, I dare a single look over my shoulder and through the glass. Peeta clutches Delly's hand in a white-knuckled grip as she leans over him, brushing damp hair away from his forehead. I can see just half of his face, but the corner of his mouth is up. A smile, mere shadow of his old one, but still a smile. Tiny and perhaps unremarkable under normal circumstances, like a dandelion shooting from frozen earth.
To remind me there's still hope. For him, for all of us.
Elusive like a ray of light, but just as indestructible.
I walk the corridors at a brisk pace, resisting the temptation to break into a run. The sooner I find a hiding place, the better. I'm doing my best to keep away from people and averting my face from the few I do encounter, since I'm not in a state in which anyone should see me. If I knew how exactly I feel, it would help, but I don't. There's loss and emptiness in a place that used to be full, remorse and heartache and guilt guilt guilt.
The first convenient-looking door that yields to my touch leads to some tiny storage closet; I notice outlines of shelves and dilapidated cupboards before slamming it shut after me and feeling my way into a corner to curl in through total darkness.
I don't even mind it, I close my eyes anyway and look only inward, digging through layers of wrongness. I tried, I tried in the first Games, I tried in the Quell, and the results were always pain. More for Peeta than for me, but his devotion seemed to cushion every impact, or at least make it worthy in his eyes. Until it's been stripped, leaving raw wounds I can't fully heal, but will do my best to alleviate if he lets me try again.
But we are outside of the arena now, and we aren't each other's only salvation. Even beyond the pain, there are pure memories unaffected by the Capitol, and hope that hadn't been fully crushed. Not when Peeta can still smile, even though it's not at me.
Perhaps I'm selfish when I let the thought console me and allow myself to believe I didn't betray him by finding my own solace elsewhere. But I just stayed true to myself, and now we might be free to reconcile the notions that used to be contradictory.
I can only wish the process won't bring even more pain.
After some time, I have no ways of telling how long as I might have fallen into uneasy half-slumber at some point, the door opens again and an emergency light flickers overhead. My instinct acknowledges the visitor even before my senses do.
I squint at him the dim yet too-bright-for-me light filtering through peeling red paint on a dirty glass ball. The first thing I really notice as my eyes travel upward is that he's not wearing his comunicuff. Very good riddance, however temporary. I make no attempt to greet him, but when he sits beside me, carefully leaving few inches of space between us, I immediately eliminate the gap and lean into his side.
"It was true, you know. What I said," I mutter after few silent moments. I wonder if there is some rift between us now, if there has to be. I certainly don't want that.
He raises his eyebrows in confusion. "I never doubted that. What exactly d'you mean?"
"That I care for Peeta. Very much. And that I tried everything to save him. No matter what."
Gale smiles slightly. "You don't say, Catnip. I must have noticed before you did." I punch his arm indignantly, but he just captures my hand for a quick squeeze and continues. "You showed them how good you are. I'm not telling you I didn't want to smash the screen and the arena and everything whenever I saw you two together. But… I also saw you when you had to kill… and that still hurt more."
"It did," I agree and shift in front of him to look into his eyes. "Still does. But then… you see where it all got us," I sigh, vainly attempting to push painful images of Peeta's suffering and change from the forefront of my mind. Then I raise my hand, lightly running my fingers over the light burn marks on Gale's face. "What I've done to the whole district. And… to you. "
"It wasn't your fault what they've done to him, Catnip. Or to Twelve. You've done what you could to prevent it. And as for me… you saved me more than once." He gently traces the whip-scar on my cheek to emphasize the point. "And it's not like I didn't repay you by being a total pain now and then."
"It wouldn't be us if we went too easy on each other, huh?" I say with a wry smile.
Gale mirrors it exactly, and his eyes sparkle a bit, and I know I wouldn't have it any other way. As I bring my other hand to his face as well and press my lips against his, the suddenly freed locket falls back to my chest, the pearl and bullet rattling inside. Our kiss lasts for a few moments, almost innocent, more an apology and a pledge to try better than an expression of lust. Gale pulls away first, but not too far, only to press his forehead against mine, and I let my eyes fall closed, breathing comfort from his proximity.
"I've been meaning to ask," he says softly after few moments, looking down and brushing his fingers along the chain of the locket. "What d'you have there?"
I hesitate, slightly embarrassed, but then open the locket for him. Why would I keep any secrets? The forget-me-not, already dried, has been ground to fine flakes between the pearl and the bullet that constantly moved with me.
To my slight surprise, Gale ignores the weirdness of the display and reaches straight for the bullet.
He frowns and stands up, holding it to the light and examining it.
"Where did you get it?" he asks tensely.
"They pulled it out of you," I say, as calmly as I can bring myself to. "In Two."
He mutters something nasty under his breath and then inhales sharply. "Katniss-" he starts earnestly, but I interrupt him.
"Hey, and what have you been talking about with Haymitch? You promised to tell me now." I still do want to know, before we get distracted with something else.
Gale clenches his jaw for a moment, as if steeling himself to speak. "This," he says finally, in a voice heavier than the lead he's holding.
"This," he repeats. "You know, from the way I got hit, I've always suspected you've been shot at from the wrong side as well." His voice drops to a grim whisper. "From our side. Haymitch tried to get uncut footage of the incident, but it's nowhere in the accessible records. Coin is keeping her own secret, but we haven't found a way to get to them without attracting attention."
Apparently, we've been right not to trust her. "So she wants to get me out of the way after my work for her was done?"
Gale nods grimly. "Yeah, that's exactly what we suspect," he squeezes through gritted teeth. "And this pretty much proves it, you know."
He gestures with his fist closed around the bullet. I raise my eyebrows questioningly.
"It was a prototype. Made here in 13. A bullet to penetrate standard body armor."
Or a mockingjay suit, he doesn't say, but we both know.
The realization doesn't hit me like a bullet, but sinks in slowly, leaving a cold, dull ache. I squeeze my eyes shut for a torturous moment, unable to respond.
"Was that your idea too?"I say finally, the words hardly making it out of my constricted throat. I don't even know if I want to know the answer.
"Not exactly. Even military research is team work, you know. But…" He bites his lip, hard. "It seemed to be a… useful one. To end the war more quickly."
"To end the war more quickly…" I repeat, spitting the words out like venom.
"Before more innocent people needlesly die, Catnip," he reminds me.
I shake my head, scrunching my eyes shut, explosions and gunfire erupting under my lids. Twelve. Eleven. Eight. Defenseless people dying in a war they didn't even truly fight in. And the bullets were designed against soldiers, Capitol soldier, armed and killing on the enemy orders. But are they truly the enemy? Are they guilty? Are they guiltier than we are? Are they guiltier than I am?
Reeling with questions, I stand and move for the door, desperate for escape, but Gale moves to block in my path, crouching slightly to look right into my eyes. "Katniss, we have to be careful. The war will have to end at our terms. If not…" He hesitates slightly. "You know too well what would happen."
"Yeah," I concede. Everything would be unimaginably worse, rendering every sacrifice vain. Surviving to see it would be the worst punishment. "But what are 'our terms'? If Coin tried to get rid of me, her terms would be different than 'ours'," I whisper.
Had the bullet flown few inches the wrong way, had Gale not saved me, I would have been already dead. Out of the way. But Gale did save me. My most trusted ally in a world of enemies. There has to be some hope.
"We can't afford to go against her openly. Not before we defeat the Capitol. And sometimes, you simply have to fight fire with fire," he adds.
"Yeah." There are moments when there's no other way, however much I wish there weren't. "But fighting on their terms… Coin's and Snow's... sacrificing others…" I remember how Peeta put it in the second propo, when he so vividly painted the picture of the arena with his words. "It costs everything you are."
Gale shakes his head dismally. He has seen the propo with me, he must remember. "Oh yeah, your Peeta was right on that one." He frowns and takes a deep breath. "Catnip, what on earth makes you think haven't figured it out yet?"
Unable to answer, I stare into his eyes, darkest grey in the dim light, dark like despair, dark like the ashes and stones and steel weighing heavy on his soul. A burden similar to my own, just on a different scale, and one he would never bear if I hadn't given him the opportunity. A burden I can't let him bear alone. We are friends who share everything, aren't we?
"But that's what I'm willing to give," he continues. "So that nobody else will have to go through what happened to us all." He touches my cheek gently. "What happened to you. And to make sure you live to see the future. It will have to be better."
It won't be better if I lose him along the way. I need him with me, both to make it through and to cope with everything after. Who else could I share my burdens with this naturally?
I sigh. "So I do matter, even in the grand scheme of things, right?"
Gale nods. "For everyone. While you live, the rebellion lives, Katniss. The real hope people have in you. Not Coin. You."
"And to you?"
"To me, you matter most. I love you," he says. Simply, openly, without a thought or hesitation.
It hurts so good.
"I know you love me," I say firmly, as if it was indeed that obvious, and Gale flinches slightly. I've said this once already, and that wasn't a good time.
I lay my hand on his chest, pressing my palm against coarse fabric and cold metal buttons, feeling the beating heart underneath. I couldn't bear it to stop, to become cold or tainted beyond saving, to become anything but mine. Somewhere deep inside me still remains a grain of selfishness, of unwillingness to let everything become a sacrifice.
Sometimes, I'm strong enough to leave it behind so that it wouldn't anchor me to the earth and hinder my Mockingjay-flight, but now I don't have to. I'm only with Gale now, and with him I can be myself, flawed and striving just like he is.
"I know," I repeat, softer, my fingers curling into his shirt, one slipping through a gap between buttons to feel his warm skin. I close my eyes under his intense gaze and tears inadvertently roll from under my eyelids. "I know. But who'd love me if I lost you? If you lost yourself?" I whisper.
I've just seen how easy it is, there behind the glass, I've seen how fragile we are, not only our bodies, but also the spirit inside that should be untouchable, how the war can take everything. And how I'm not letting it. Not while I can, but how long am I going to?
Gale doesn't answer, just leans down, lips brushing my face, kissing the tears away.
I taste them on his tongue when I pull his head down to claim his mouth in a feverish kiss, suddenly desperate to possess him, to make him a part of me, to make absolutely sure he won't slip through my fingers or be ripped from my grasp. At least for now, that forlorn little sliver we can steal from eternity.
Again and again, though.
Gale responds in kind, pressing me against him so tightly I can hardly breathe, but I don't care, his kisses fill with such vigor I remember the need for air only when my head begins to swirl. I push him away just long enough to inhale and far enough to start fumbling with his buttons, not content until I slide his shirt off his shoulders. My fingers, slightly numb from being scrunched between our bodies, tingle as I caress his skin, navigating along old and new and newest scars and carefully avoiding the deepest wound still hidden under a bandage. The wound that would have killed me, that is still killing me, even inflicted upon his body.
Especially now that I exactly know how.
I look up, still tracing the edge of the bandage, and it hurts me deep within as if I dragged my nail along my own naked heart.
"I'm not losing you to this," I whisper. I don't even know what I mean. War, weapons, murder, death?
His face is flushed and gaze wild with desire, almost frighteningly so, but my words stir up something in the dark depths, remorse and tenderness and so much love I futilely wish it could be a force used to win the war.
But I know well enough that's far beyond its scope. Love can save only ourselves, our own a golden buoy in an ocean of grey. And just likes he loves me with everything I've done and caused to get out of the arenas, I realize I love him with everything he's doing to ensure nobody else will have to go to an arena anymore. I just can't not.
Love is not a payment, but a gift, and denying it can hurt so much more than giving it.
Leaning forward until my lips touch his chest, right over his heart, I whisper into his skin, "I love you too, Gale. And I need you with me, as long as I live." And it's so true it hurts. Just like I wouldn't have won the Games if I'd lost Peeta, I wouldn't win the war if I lost Gale, not really. If there's any chance for us to survive our ordeal in this crossfire, we'd better do it together.
I feel Gale's heartbeat quicken, his sigh in my hair. "Anything for you, Catnip. Anything."
I know as well as he does how well-meant yet meaningless our words are, that the eye of the storm is no place for reassurance, but I take what I can get, give what I can give.
Sliding my arms around his waist, I splay my palms over his back, over the marks of injustice wrought deep into his skin. We're fighting so that nobody will have to go through that anymore. It's not only the Games, it's always been bigger than that, bigger than we can truly fathom.
And it feels so good to cling together in the middle of it all. Because that's what we do, don't we?
True, Gale's hands can trap and kill, just like my own, but when they caress me this way, warm fingertips lightly dancing over my cheeks and neck like the sunrays that can't reach me here, I feel as free and alive as if there was no reason to fear any kind of death.
My lips move on their own accord, caressing his chest and tasting his skin, and my fingers trace the scars on his back as if I could make everything alright, erase all marks that ever cut too deep.
Moments later, I gasp as he grasps my hips, effortlessly pulling me away and lifting me to sit on top of a stack of boxes that levels our heights so that he can reach me better. His lips travel along the line parting my hair, to my forehead, to my face, covering every inch of my skin with infinite gentleness, sliding along my jaw and leaving a tingling path down my throat.
When he starts to unbutton my shirt to gain better access to my collarbone, I don't even think about stopping him. I don't think about anything at all, and find sweet, selfish relief in shedding my garments along with my worries.
Gale is mine and I am his. I don't want anything dividing us, not now.
The ruddy glow of the emergency lamp turns our skin the same shade of burnished gold as we melt and flow together, our bodies merging in a whirlwind of desire. Tender kisses and touches soon turn ferocious, fuelled by the heat rising from deep within us, twin flames longing for the most intimate union. When the urge mounts beyond control, I drop my hands from Gale's body just long enough to brace myself up and allow him to slip my already unbuttoned pants from under me. His palms slide down my legs, pushing the fabric along with them, sending shivers of anticipation along my skin.
His lips soon follow them, tracing my now bare legs up to their junction and capturing my lower lips in a long, sensual kiss. The wet warmth of his mouth contrasts delightfully with the rough stubble of his cheeks that presses into my innermost thighs, and pleasure floods my body like liquid honey, spreading in hypnotic rolling waves. I gasp and moan Gale's name as he breaks each wave with a deft flick of his tongue against my most sensitive spot, letting pure sensation crash through my pliant shell and roar through my veins.
His lavish attention both satisfies and heightens my craving and I possessively tangle my fingers in his hair, pushing him closer and vainly pulling at it as he gives me a last infinitely teasing caress and attempts to resurface.
In answer to my indignant moan of protest he slides two fingers inside me, keeping me on edge with slow circular motion of his thumb right above the point of entrance. Graciously relinquishing my hold, I shift my hips to match his movement, back arching to demand more. Gale grins at my impatience, but his eyes mirror my lust and free hand fumbles as he struggles to get his pants out of the way.
I help him to speed up the process, and lift my legs to lock around his waist and pull him close, as close as humanly possible.
Looking down, I'm still fascinated to see him disappear inside; filling me until our hips touch and heaving chests meet with every breath before pressing together. It feels so right to let him in and become a part of me, to sink into his embrace and become a part of him, to lose myself in us when I choose to do so.
Our bodies always fit and cooperate perfectly, even more so in the breathless throes of love. We pick the pace quickly, both equally frantic and impatient as the friction between our bodies fans our flaming hunger.
Gale soon slides his palms down to cup my ass, all but lifting me up and holding me immobile as he drives into me, so hard I have to press my teeth into his shoulder to keep from screaming at every thrust. I make up for my inability to reciprocate by raking my fingers over his back, up and down and down until I slide over my own tightly crossed ankles and dig my nails into the lean, taut muscles of his hips, spurring him on.
And on and on, until I can't even scream, can't even breathe, and just cling to his shuddering body in erratic spasms, overwhelmed, vaporized and distilled into fluid rapture.
The sensory overload ebbs very slowly, and I fight the return of reality as long as I can, keeping my face hidden in the crook of Gale's neck, eyes closed, ear pressed over a strongly pulsing vein, nose and lips buried in his skin, fingers idly tracing the familiar scarscape of his back, now dewy with sweat.
As soon as I sense his attempt to pull away, I clench my slackened arms and legs around him, so tightly my already exhausted muscles ache with the exertion. Our bodies are still glued together in the most intimate way, wild hearts beating as one. I want to abide in this moment as long as possible, cherishing the comforting belief that we are something greater andmore alive than the sum of our spent body-parts and letting Gale's caressing hands dispel the fear of disengagement.
When we do pull apart, it hurts deeper than cramped muscles would warrant, and I find out I've been hugging him so tightly a shallow imprint of the locket I hadn't stripped away remained on both our chests where it's been pressed between our sternums.
I trace the temporary mark on Gale's skin and laugh lightly.
Gale smirks back. "Getting under my skin, huh?"
"Look who's talking," I shoot back.
Still grinning at how much we both like doing exactly that, we stretch and redress, reluctantly but well aware of the necessity.
Yet, I dread opening the door. The dim underground cell suddenly feels safe and welcoming, a place where home is not in ashes but in our hearts, a place where we can do no wrong and no enemy can reach us. Out there, though, only questions with no right answers await us, even more difficult now that we're certain we're fighting an insidious two-front battle.
Before I bring myself to turn the doorknob, Gale turns me towards him with a light touch and presses his lips against my forehead.
"We'll have to be very careful, but we'll make it alright, Catnip," he mutters against my skin. "I won't let anyone hurt you. Or Prim. Not anymore. I have your back. Whatever happens."
"I know. Thank you," I whisper and open the door. We've been hiding for too long already, and I'd told Prim I'll meet her before dinner after all. Even if I were to die, I'll do everything in my power to make things right for her sake.
The promise I'd made by volunteering for her still stands. It's one I can't break, and it's a relief that I'm not alone for the task.
I can only hope Gale and I will be enough.
A/N no 2: Thank you very much for reading. Idk if I broke my writer's block, or my writer's block broke me. Please tell me what you think :)