The man who comes and stands by the door still has eyes the color of coal, still turns out to be the mirror she can't face when her daughter comes crashing into her knees to point ecstatically. "Mommy, mommy, there's a man over there!"
She sees the surprise alighting on his face: this is the daughter Katniss Everdeen became a mother to raise, a beautiful little thing, fragile and blonde, wearing a green dress and smiling widely. She is not holding a bow. She is not gnawing her way through a rabbit. There is no dirt smeared across her cheeks.
Katniss looks at her daughter, smiles, nods her head – and sees, for a moment, her sister. She looks up at Gale, across the room in a space that may as well be another universe, and she knows he sees the same thing. Something inside her dissolves.
"I just wanted to say hello," he says, clearing his throat because the words all but catch on the end of it. She doesn't move, but keeps staring. Keeps staring. He has a scar across his chin, large enough that it could be ugly, but it suits him well, like he was meant to have it. Her daughter shifts within her arms, realizing this is not ordinary, and now is maybe a good time to fetch her father or brother, even if they're all the way at the bakery, because they'll know what to do. Gale doesn't smile at her – he smiles, first at the floor, then at the ceiling, and it is years of drowned apologies (while she was burning, burning, burning) that gurgles out of his mouth when he does that stupid thing he always did, being clever: "So. Hello."
She doesn't hit him, even if that's still her first instinct, so many years later. He taught her well. All the reflexes she still has, worn down from years spent broken, crying, lying half-awake in her bath, scrubbing at her hands to let the blood drain from them – if they aren't her own inventions, they're his. Things he told her in the humid air of a forest where they crouched, trying to ignore their hunger. Things he passed on because he had younger siblings himself, people to care for. (Haymitch had given her another set of skills for the Games – how to live for the cameras – but those disappeared when the war ended.)
Her son and daughter fill in that void Prim left – the one she used to arm with reflexes, with a string pulled taught and her eye trained to skim the horizon for visible movement. Food. Survival. No longer the same thing. She is no longer the same thing. Has not been since. He knows that. She still can't admit it to him. It just – makes her tired, but hasn't it been long enough?
Hasn't it been long enough, Katniss?
"Gale," she says, and it comes out softer than she intended, a strange breath, one alien syllable. You aren't welcome here, she finds herself thinking.
Where have you been.
"Do you want some water?" She asks instead, and watches him rip himself into shreds, sees the realization this was a bad idea travel to his eyes, his mouth.
It has been too long, but still not long enough.
Peeta sleeps in on weekend mornings, but after their children were born, Katniss couldn't do that anymore. Too many nightmares resurfacing, thrilling her nerves. She awakens, lets her eyes focus on the ceiling, carefully lifts Peeta's arm away. Kisses him on the cheek when he murmurs, tells him to go back to sleep. She crawls out of bed, slips into her children's room to make sure they're still there, little heads poking out of their blankets. She has to trace the sheets with her eyes, fill the rest of their outlines, because a head is no proof that they're still around, right? But they always are, even when she expects them not to be. (It could be anything. Death could come from anywhere.)
If there's enough time between making coffee – Peeta does breakfast, he's good at that – she wanders outside to the garden, crouches by the little patch of flowers they planted over Buttercup's grave. He never lost his bite, even when he was old and his eyes were full of cataracts, uglier than ever. But he became the friend she never dreamed of, had somehow slipped through the wall even her mother couldn't get through – Prim being the one diaphanous curtain in their relationship, the only thing that let the light in.
If their mother hadn't been a healer, would Prim still be alive?
That's not a question she still asks, really. (There were so many reasons. She catalogued them in her head, endlessly, almost unconsciously, those first few months, years. None of them sufficed; none of them ever would.)
Buttercup was one of only three things she saved from the war. Three things she brought home, cared for best as she could, neglected for long periods of time and then took in her arms again, trying, because they were all she had. Buttercup didn't resent her for the neglect, at least not more than usual, and for that Katniss was grateful. She was not inconsolable when he died, buried him with a minimum of tears. But she found herself unable to speak properly that week, pausing over the kitchen sink, wincing at things that moved out of the corners of her eyes. (And when she dropped her plate Peeta held her, and she cried into his shoulder, cried and cried.)
Buttercup was one of only three things she saved from the war. Her broken body was the second, and Peeta was the third.
She could have loved Gale a lot sooner if she let herself. There were so many moments it might have happened, but Katniss only had two priorities back then: filling Prim's stomach, and her own. (In hindsight, the third priority was not to let herself or Gale be caught, but that was only because of the consequences.) No matter how close they had become, Katniss could never shake the awareness of how other girls looked at Gale; how she didn't want to become them, because that was stupid, even if in the pit of her stomach…but that was just hunger, right?
Hunger for what?
Not Gale's attention, she already struggled to snatch that from him so that the better game could be hers, but no, he wasn't the type to be distracted.
She tried not to be distracted, either. Not even when he held her hand, winded bandages he'd politely asked from her mother over it, after she cut her palm open scraping it against a tree trunk (trying not to fall, it was a long story). That was the first time she heard him laugh – his eyes snapped shut and his mouth opened wide and the sound that erupted from him was different, no longer so controlled. "You act like a tough girl, but you are such a baby," he said. Being an unintentional jerk, because she was thirteen, and resented that. She bit back her tears, because the antiseptic stung, and distracted herself by looking at the space between Gale's crinkled eyebrows. Wondering if he was really worried about her – a mystery she never could solve, until it was too late.
He taught her how to strike fire with wood and stones, how to aim better. How to not hope for things that weren't going to happen. How to stick her neck out for the people she loved. Too bad he never taught her how to reel her neck in, before it got hacked right off her shoulders.
She taught him how to tie tighter ropes, make delicate traps, tell edible mushrooms from poisonous ones.
There was a lesson they both never dared start, until it was impossible. Instead, Peeta did that for her, stepped in and reminded her when the last threads of her rationality, her being, were unraveling to nothing: this is how to love, without thinking, without asking why, his chin on her head while she held on to him more tightly than must have been comfortable. This is how to love. This is how not to let go of that love. This is how to make something good come of it – I know you're not sure, but we can try, right? We can try.
So she agreed to have the children, eventually. Because Peeta, who gave her everything he could (nearly nothing, but that was already the world to both of them), deserved that much at least. She knew he would continue loving her even if she didn't. Loving her, wanting children, loving her enough not to mind wanting children he would never have.
It might have been pride, in the end, that she sacrificed. There were only two things she knew with certainty, her whole life: that Prim was everything (still was, even after she died, and Katniss tried so hard). And that she never wanted children to be born in this world.
"I know it's not that world anymore," she whispered to him one night, her hands clutching the arms he had coiled over her belly. "I know it's not."
He didn't say anything, but she felt him nodding against her shoulder. Yes. Okay. You're right.
"So maybe it's all right," she heard herself say, all the old doubts surging, crashing against what she knew was just another broken promise to herself. But Peeta was more important, and maybe…maybe it would make the mornings easier. Give her another reason to put the next foot down, avoid the shards of broken glass. "Maybe," a little desperate, she turned to face him, kissed him gingerly on the lips. "We can try."
She was only echoing him, but Peeta gave her that smile – you are everything to me, I'll do whatever you want. He slid his fingers over the patched skin of her shoulder, buried his nose in the crook of her neck, and after a moment's hesitation, kissed the blue veins that showed beneath her skin, so that her blood thrummed hotly. He wasn't overeager, either, like she might have once imagined him to be. He was just tender, gentle. Like he knew how long she had to come, to say yes to this, and he was going to do things right, to make sure she didn't regret it.
Katniss gives Gale a glass of water – nothing better to offer – and her daughter sits at the table, alternately looking out at the window and looking at them, swinging her short legs. Katniss watches his hand grip the glass and notices that there are no rings on his fingers, then realizes that he doesn't actually have a ring finger on that hand. She drops her gaze, but not before she sees his eyes flicker towards her. No eager interest, just the same frozen feeling eating her up inside – melting, just a fraction, when he sees the hands she has crossed in front of her, the wedding band.
"The garden…it's really well-tended," he says, and it's one of the few times she has heard him unsure. Even when they were fighting together, he always seemed to know things – like what she wanted, better than she herself did.
"It's important to me," she answers, surprised at how distant her voice sounds. She notices her poor manners. "Do you want to take a seat?"
"Sure, I – thanks. Don't worry, I won't be long. I've stepped in town tonight to pick something up for Arras." The secretary-general in Thirteen, Katniss notes; she keeps up with the news on television, partly out of boredom, partly out of paranoia. "I'll be out on the last train, too."
This is the table where he had once been stretched out, bleeding from lash wounds that her mother had touched unflinchingly. Katniss has a faint memory of realizing, in that moment, how Gale belonged to her; he was something she owned. Something she wouldn't let go of. But everything was severed when the parachutes fell and the world erupted in flames, Prim in the midst of them.
Gale asks her how she has been and she replies carefully: her daughter is six and her son is four and they occupy most of her life. There doesn't seem to be much else to say. Gale tells her that her daughter is beautiful, that he wishes he had one of his own, but – noticing her unintentionally questioning look – he doesn't have any. He's still doing what he can in the other districts. He spent the last two years in District Four, darting through the fields, getting browned by the sun. "There's always fighting," he admits, and Katniss can see the row of stitches over his collarbone, and another scar she missed earlier, above his left eyebrow. His hair was partially covering it.
If Gale is married now, Katniss wonders how his wife can live with the constant threat of him dying. Or he might not be married, for that reason. Even broken as he is, Gale is still handsome; someone out there, inevitably, still wants him.
The sky outside is starting to turn pink and her heartbeat flutters a little, against her will. Peeta might be coming home from the bakery, walking through the rebuilt streets of their hometown, smiling at the villagers who are clinging to their peaceful leaves with all their might.
Katniss parts her lips, involuntarily.
Her daughter is much better at dealing with the question – no suspicions, nothing. "You know Daddy?"
"Sure," Gale answers, laughing. He always loved kids, always loved his siblings with a burning tenderness. He loves the same way Peeta does, almost – but more furiously, savagely. If someone crosses the line, Gale has no problem blowing all of it up, making things even. He deals with the consequences after the smoke has cleared.
That's how he was, at least. Now – she has no idea what he's like, now.
Katniss stands behind her daughter and plays with her hair, absent-mindedly. "He's fine. Doing well." Most of the time, they alternate with nightmares. The one who isn't having them holds the other close, tries to help the keep away the darkness, the horror story that plays in sleep. "He runs the bakery and sometimes he'll visit the orphanage, the hospital." She doesn't talk about how, despite their years together, there have still been moments when he looks at her with a strange, suffocating hate, and his hands twitch like they mean to kill her. He always catches himself. His face crumples, and he kisses her gently, worshipping, whispering apologies.
"We're happy," she says at last, and lets the words hang between them for a moment.
Prim liked Gale. It occurred to Katniss one day, while pulling weeds out of her garden, that Prim might have been dead long before the accident, if not for Gale. Of starvation, definitely, those years when she was still learning how to handle a bow. While she was away at her first games, with no one to look after her family. When the bomb was going to descend on District Thirteen – after Peeta's public announcement had stirred them all to evacuate – and she had returned for Buttercup. Katniss had actually felt her heart banging against her ribcage when they finally pushed through the clanging gate, sweat on both their foreheads.
"Thanks," Prim had said, panting, to Gale.
"Don't mention it." His eyes were on Katniss, but one hand was firmly on Prim's shoulder, to steady her. Gale knew she was the only thing that really mattered to Katniss – the one thing worth keeping safe. The anchor that kept her from being rocked away, violently, to the jagged stones that could dash her to pieces if she let them. (And Prim went up in flames, and Katniss was loosed, and she broke over the rocks, she broke apart.)
Gale liked Prim, too. It hadn't just been for Katniss. Prim was like Rory, Vick, and Posy. The beacons in their miserable, grief-stricken, hungry childhoods. He would have done anything for Prim, but he couldn't control what happened in a war, and there was a bigger picture that he had chosen to see. Katniss didn't give a damn about that. Gale knew what she gave a damn about – knew she was looking at the world through a microscopic lens that had narrowed with every year in her life. There was no saving the world for Katniss Everdeen – there was only saving her mother, Peeta, Haymitch. Prim.
Does it matter? His lips on her forehead, so light it was like they weren't even there. You'll always be thinking it.
"Gale likes you," Prim had told her once. Katniss was fifteen and didn't know that everything was going to change in just twelve months; she had stared at her sister in shock for a moment, then realized that Prim probably had no idea what she meant, and laughed.
"Sure," she replied. "We hunt together. I taught him how to make really good rabbit traps."
"No, I mean…he sees you, Katniss." Always the paragon of infinite wisdom. She tried not to let Prim notice the way her breath caught, because she was suddenly hoping. What did he see? The same hate, the same desperation and anger that flared up so curiously inside him, in such unexpected bursts?
"I'm his partner," Katniss said firmly. "That's all."
But Prim was right, of course. She always was.
Someone had sent her the little things she left in Thirteen: the hairbrush Effie had given her, Cinna's book of sketches, a small pack with leftover cat food for Buttercup, and a little folded bag with Prim's hair clips, which Katniss held in her hands, trembling, grieving. There was also a pair of battered gloves that she didn't recognize, until she turned to her fireplace and imagined a house in the forest, the dead promise of running away. There was no note. Nothing. That part of her life was closed and she was never going to get it open; there was nothing to dredge up the sunlight when lifted her eyes. She didn't say goodbye to her mother. As for Haymitch…she knew that they had both hurt each other enough, so it wasn't him.
"Gale," she found herself whispering, tracing along the crumbled kidskin of the gloves with her fingers. He didn't need to be a part of her life anymore. He didn't need to do anything. He already knew he was never going to be forgiven: Gale, who knew Katniss better than she herself did. During that last battle, they had both let each other down. (She remembered him calling, as they dragged him away – to die would be better. She had betrayed him.)
Now that it was over, he alone could survive, because he never had illusions about what survival meant.
It took that long for Katniss to realize what she needed, ages after Gale had already figured it out.
Peeta arrived a few days later, carrying the flowers for her yard, and that evening he made her soup. After dinner she lay in his lap, not sobbing, her head turned towards the wall. His hand smoothed over her back, again and again. He didn't say it was going to be all right. She didn't say anything, either.
"We're happy," she says, and it's the closest thing to truth, the most honest lie she will ever tell this man, who fought for this world they now lived in.
Gale, she wants to say, I have been as happy as I'll ever be for years now.
He holds her gaze for a moment, sizing up her utterance, deciding for himself whether she's making it up, if she's still crazy and shattered. (It's probably a little bit of both.) But Gale doesn't know her anymore. He can't.
"That's good," he says, his expression – she doesn't want to call it soft, but there's nothing else for the smile that lies across it, just a little hurt. It makes her feel better and worse at the same time. He looks at the window, to school the smile away, let it fade into easy nothing. "Well, it's getting late."
Gale stands up from the table, heads for the corner where he left his pack when he came in. There is nothing in there that might scare her daughter – no guns, unless he has a micro one on him. She is almost sure there is a knife tucked into his belt, stashed under his boot. (If a stranger comes inside her house, Katniss can pick up her kitchen knives, but that's it. Her bow is trapped in the closet, hasn't sang for death since the War. She can no longer make it sing, nor does she want to.)
"Thank you," she says, not moving closer, as he walks to the door.
He glances at her, and in the disappearing sunlight she sees the years carved onto his face, years of running after things. This is the better world Gale created, accepting the bloodstains and ashes. It is no work of the famed Mockingjay, the war hero, the girl who was on fire. She only wants to live in it, hold her children, sleep at night.
"What for?" He is still smiling, but it's tired now, edges around the softness.
"For visiting," she says. There is no more fire left in me, Gale, and no reason for me to possess any. Even if it would give you peace to see me fighting, that is no longer what I do. "You should come again sometime, stay for dinner…" she wonders how much of this Gale is digesting; how much he will believe. "Peeta would be happy to see you. He'd have a reason to make dessert." She smiles back at the boy who she once loved, the motion unpracticed, miles apart from her face.
"Thank you," Gale answers. The way he says it makes her think he'll never return.
Her daughter clambers out of her chair, moves uncertainly, then seems to come to a decision. She waves at Gale from a safe distance. "Goodbye, mister!"
(A sharp memory cuts across Karniss, of Prim the first time she met Gale – almost scared of him, huge as he was. She had stood behind her sister, smiled a tiny smile because he put meat on their table and he had bandaged the scratch that ran down the length of Katniss's forearm, "Goodbye, Mr. Hawthorne, it was nice to meet you."
And Gale had said, "Just call me Gale," and Katniss had rolled her eyes, thinking, hands off my sister, but then he turned to her and said, "That goes for you, too.")
"Give your Uncle Gale a hug goodbye," Katniss says, ignoring the way Gale's eyes widen, how looks at her like he can't believe it. Like she wouldn't trust him to hold something precious to her, not anymore. (Prim died, and Katniss shattered, and she didn't look to see who had been cut against the pieces she left on the floor.) Her daughter doesn't care about any of this, so she runs over and throws her arms around Gale's knees, because how often do they get visitors?
Gale crouches so that he can hug her back. Katniss catches him bending close to her daughter's ear, tucking her hair behind it. Her heart counts out the seconds before he straightens up.
"Be safe, Katniss," he says, and leaves.
Peeta comes home that night looking the way he does almost every other night: worn but cheerful, glad to be home. Katniss doesn't kiss him at the door, because she never does that, but she smiles at him warmly, and this time it feels connected to her face. The way he smiles back holds it there. He moves over to the refrigerator and pulls out last night's soup, while their son jabbers away to his sister, filling her in on what happened at the bakery.
"Well, today, we -" her daughter says, then shoots a look at Katniss, because she is careful like that. Just the way her aunt was.
"We had a visitor," Katniss says, setting out the plates.
"Who?" Peeta asks, only mildly interested. Their daughter has a lot of friends from school, and sometimes they come over, the mothers always polite and deferent to Katniss. She doesn't know if it's because of the way she looks (fire mutt is a phrasethey never say), or who she is.
Katniss hesitates, but just for a moment. "Gale."
There might have been a pause in Peeta's stirring, but not long enough to be noticeable. Katniss crosses the room towards him and leans her head against his back.
"Ah," Peeta says. "How is he doing?"
"Fine. And I told him we're doing fine, too." She wraps her arms around his waist. Two honest lies. There are more important things to protect, now. Peeta turns from the stove and kisses her quickly on the forehead, like he's doing it without thinking, but they both know better.
The room is suddenly silent, the fluorescent glow a little too dim.
"He told me to take care of you," their daughter pipes up, always the brave one. She isn't cunning enough to make these things up, and Peeta and Katniss look down at her in one motion. She stares back, cheerfully. "To take care of you both."
(When Prim was alive, Katniss had often said to her, laughingly, what am I going to do with you? And during the games, she had clung to that mirage: their better, happier, future together. But in reality, the answer had been the farthest thing from her mind, as if she didn't believe that future could actually happen. When Prim died, she realized there wasn't any answer; it just didn't exist. So when the new answers came along, it was like being thrown a rope, from purgatory back into life.)
She squeezes Peeta's hand and bends down, and her son and daughter readily gather themselves into her open arms.
Be safe, Gale had said.
She already is.
So we meet again after several years,
Several years of separation.
Moving on, moving around.
Singing oh, oh, I could never belong to you.
- Boat Behind, Kings of Convenience