By Tinsadisaster

Summary: After a year of silence, Peeta reaches out to Katniss and makes her realize that when it comes to him, she was and always will be a goner.

Author's Note:

I am very aware that it has taken me more than six months to update this story. What got in the way? 1) Major writer's block, 2) full-time job, and 3) a break up of sorts.

I've started three drafts of this chapter, but none of them were good enough. I didn't want to lose my stride and become the typical filler story. It was never my intention when I started writing this story and I refuse to let it degrade to that.

Thank you to everyone who reviewed and encouraged me to keep going.

I'm reading your words. I'm listening. I'm still here.

Is it too late to remind you

How we were

But not our last days of silence

Screaming, blur

Snow Patrol, "You Could Be Happy"

VIII: Phantom

Katniss knew of sadness and fear, was an old friend of hunger and rage, and encountered jealousy and happiness on occasion. These were emotions she was familiar with and internalized, and sometimes even held onto for dear life with her pale, grasping fingertips. She knew how ragged their edges were, how the hairs on her arms raised and goose bumps prickled her skin when these emotions came whizzing by her, and was a master in studying their consequences as every point in her mundane life crumbled or intensified in their passing by.

Loneliness, however, was an old friend who decided to come back in town for the holidays but chose to stick around longer. Being abandoned, being left behind for good, was a foreign feeling to her. In fact, she usually was the one doing the leaving.

Leaving is simple; staying is the challenge.

This is how you leave: Keep your head up, eyes staring forward. You tell your feet to move and you tell your heart to keep going forward. You convince your head to never look back, whisper false stories about something big and bad chasing you and that you need to escape or else you'll be swallowed by the darkness. You smother the voice in your head screaming that you hurt, that you are hurting others, and that you are affected by all of it. Eventually, it becomes background sounds, like the muffled mumbles of a TV ad promising youth and beauty in return for your money and your soul when all you really want is to sleep.

Katniss wore loneliness like a comfortable, bulky winter's coat, regardless if it was pouring cats and dogs outside or buzzing with heat on a hot Indian summer evening. She wanted to shed it off, but she didn't know where to leave it.

Someone had come along, a man from her past life, to shoulder some of the weight of it, but she knew eventually he would have to leave her too. She knew his absence would magnify the weight of gravity, adding rocks to the secret pockets she didn't know existed until it was too late.

Katniss couldn't discard her loneliness, couldn't leave it in a crowd and try to outrun it, so she embraced it. Maybe there would be an opportunity to free her from this burden, but who's to say she would choose freedom?

After all, loneliness was Katniss's only constant friend.

The visit to the cabin left Katniss in a dizzy state. All her doubt and insecurities were brushed into a closet, and replaced with something new: false security. In ignorant bliss, she imagined plot twists where Peeta had never left, that he was so in love with her that he instead chose to hide away from her sight, with the hopes that distance would make her cold heart grow fonder. She imagined herself stumbling back to that place where she found happiness, to see his face when he opened the door, holding two cups of coffee and her heart in his hands.

"I've missed you terribly," he would say. "Forgive me, come in … stay."

Her dreams projected her newfound state of semi-wholeness. At night, she spent hours with him, falling in love the way they should have, the way the Capitol had imagined… with blushes, tingling hands brushing against each other accidentally and then intentionally, of innocent kisses that led to hot hunger for more, and that mutual understanding that something was changing between them and that change was good and right and destiny.

Unfortunately, her happiness did not last very long. She returned to the cabin and found the remnants of someone who had moved on. The jacket and boots were nowhere to be found. Dirty dishes stunk in the sink and a foul smell permeated the atmosphere. The cabin was empty of soul and substance.

Her body shook as she stood in the doorway. Her eyes were on fire. Exhilarated nerves sent signals to every cell in her body. Disappointment settled in before sadness could, and she felt her breath escape her.

She ran, in order to breathe, to continue. She ran through the forest, past the old gate, and into the Seam. She kept running until she came to his door. Frantically, she raised her arm and knocked, screaming his name.

"Gale! Are you in there? Please answer the door. Please!"

He swung open the door, a greeting on the tip of his tongue. This was Katniss's first visit since his arrival. He wanted to milk it for all it was worth.

He stepped out of the doorway just in time catch her.

She collapsed in his arms, finally crying and trying to speak. Instead, she blubbered nonsense and wailed, delivering sorrow into the world, straight from the bottom of her gut or wherever it was the soul called "home" in the human body. Surprised and very worried, he held onto her. She was broken and needed him for once.

He carried her into his temporary home, dropping both of them on a couch. She continued to express her grief over something that was a mystery to him, clawing into his skin as she held onto him like a rock in a storming sea. He told her that everything would okay, though he wasn't so sure it would be, and soothed her as she let every ounce of hurt out of her system.

He forced her to lay down in a guest bedroom and rest. Meanwhile he brewed some tea and gathered together any hint of food left in his cupboards in order to revive her. By the time he returned to her, she was already asleep.

He pulled up a chair and set it by the bed. One of her arms flailed out, asking for a companion. He didn't reach for her hand though. He was afraid to wake her up, to bring her back to whatever was haunting her.

So he waited until she did it on her own.

She woke up three hours later.

The room was unfamiliar to her, but the man she faced was not.

"Good morning, Catnip," he joked.

Her eyes flew to the window. The sky was dark. How long had she been asleep?

"My throat hurts," she complained. He pointed towards a cup of cold tea on the bedside table. She reached for it and drained it in a few gulps.

"You must be hungry too. I decided to save you some trouble and put together a measly meal for you. I taste-tested it, just to make sure it was still fresh. It is. I hope you don't mind."

"My head is killing me," Katniss said, as she finished the last of the small platter of food.

"Yup. I have something for that, if you want. Let me grab it for you.

She watched him leave the room, sitting still until he was out of her view.

Her head was telling her to swing herself out of bed and leave, but her legs refused to comply with the command. Pain shot up the side of her ankles. She hissed as she massaged her muscles.

Gale returned with two tiny pills and a cup of cold water, which she accepted without a word.

"My gut tells me you're in a lot of physical pain and possible emotional turmoil. I can help with the physical pain part – I can run a hot bath for you and make you some more tea. I have nothing edible left to eat, but with your permission I can grab some stuff from your house. Yes? Okay, thank you because I'm also starving."

Katniss suppressed her desire to roll her eyes.

"As for your emotional turmoil… that is something I cannot help you with. I don't have the expertise or the motivation to delve into that basketcase head of yours."

"I won't subject you to that," Katniss said, frowning as the day's events came to light in her head.

"But I do feel like I've earned an explanation. Did you see an orgy of spiders in your bathroom? Might've caught a glimpse of Haymitch's rare naked walks through Victor's Village? I've been sitting by your bedside for three hours now, wondering what could have driven you to my door."

"Something happened," Katniss offered after a bout of silence.

"Okay. We're getting somewhere. Tell me your interesting story about the 'something' happening."

"I can't," Katniss exclaimed. It was directed more towards herself than to Gale.

"Yes, you can. Just tell me. I won't judge you … too much …" he claimed, hoping to keep the mood bright to avoid another episode of broken, messy Girl on Fire.

"I want to go home," Katniss said. She made gestures of leaving, but pain kept her where she was.

"That's not really an option for you, now is it? I see the way you're flinching right now. You're in a lot of pain and you're going to tell me why," Gale demanded.

"I ran. I ran from the forest."

"… You're insane. Do you know how far away the forest is from here? No wonder your legs are like jelly right now!"

"I had to get away or else, or else ..." She started her sentence, but failed to complete it.

"Was someone chasing you?" Gale asked. His tone was no longer humorous – his face showed concern.

"No one. I was alone."


The word was enough to trigger the waterworks.

"Oh geez, Katniss, you're wetting the bed."

For a split second, Katniss's cries were interrupted with laughter rising up her throat but not successfully making it out of her mouth. She gagged on her own air. Gale's hand immediately clapped her back forcefully. She told him to stop.

"Are you going to keep crying or will you move onto choking now? Make up your mind, woman! I don't know how I should respond! Do you need a tissue or the Heimlich maneuver? Tell me which will make you feel better. A or B? Paper or squeeze?"

"You're killing me!" Katniss exclaimed as she tried to control her breathing.

"No. You're killing you. You better stop choking or else."

"Stop it, Gale! You're not helping my situation." Katniss pounded her fist against her sternum.

"Don't tell me all of this mess has to do with womanly problems. First you're crying, then you're hibernating like a bear, and then you're eating all my food. After all that, you're sitting here telling me a story so lame that you eventually start half choking and half laughing… all the while you're still crying?! You're really scaring me. I will lock you in this room until you make sense again. I swear, I'll do it."

Gale's observations and empty threats brought Katniss out of her gloom and doom. She laughed at herself and at him. The elephant in the room was still sitting right between them, but Gale didn't prod and Katniss didn't continue her explanation.

"I would offer up a bottle of rum to keep this night lively, but you've just taken medication and I'm still hungry. I'll run that bath for you and I'll grab the food from your house. Don't even think of crawling out of this house, Catnip. I don't think you even can, in your state, so please be a good girl for once and do what this funny, smart, handsome, and ever so humble man says!"

"Humble, my ass," Katniss replied, smiling.

"I'll pretend that I didn't hear that. Now let's get you out of bed. Use my shoulder if you need to."

Gale helped Katniss limp to the guest bathroom. She sat on the tub's edge while he turned the knob to fill it with warm water. He checked the temperature of the water to make sure it was just right.

"You don't have to do this, Gale," Katniss said. Her fingers dipped into the water. She didn't look him in the eyes. For some reason, she couldn't.

"I do," he said earnestly. "I have a lot to make up for."

The light, fun banter between them was replaced with an awkward silence punctured with the sound of water filling the tub, splashing and roaring in the same intensity as the unspoken words stuck in their mouths.

Gale cleared his throat and excused himself from the room.

"I'm going to run over to your house now, okay? Promise me you won't slip and hit your head on the tub. I won't be long. I'll grab some fresh set of clothes for you too, now that I think of it."

"Thanks," Katniss replied before closing the bathroom door.

Gale waited a few moments at the door, a little weary about leaving the girl in the bathroom to her own devices. Though he was sure she wouldn't do something stupid like drown herself, some part of him refused to go. The girl who flew to him like a bird in distress and the girl in the bathroom were one and the same, two sides of the same coin. Which side would she land on when he wasn't around to watch?

He left when he heard whistling come from the other side.

It was a dark yet comforting melody.

She was safe from herself.

He could go now.

On the short walk to Katniss's house, Gale wondered about the unraveling events of this strange night. For one thing, he didn't expect a visit from Katniss. He also didn't expect her to be naked in the guest bathroom.

"This girl is really something. Even after all these years…" Gale whispered, smiling to himself.

He used his key to open her door and made a beeline for the kitchen. He found a basket holding knick-knacks and emptied it to fill it up with anything edible that he could find. He raided her cupboards and refrigerator. He let out a victory shout when he found some meat in her freezer. He rushed up her staircase to grab some of her clothing so she would be comfortably dressed after her bath. He kept these articles in his hand in order to avoid getting any stains on them from the food in the basket.

He fought the urge to linger and snoop around Katniss's house. In fact, his growling stomach persuaded him to leave. He used his key to lock the door and made his way back to Katniss. He thought he heard movements in the nearby bushes, but he decided it was just critters jumping around or his active imagination triggered by starvation. It also could be Haymitch enjoying a naked night stroll. If that was it, Gale didn't want to be a witness. He whistled on his walk back, trying to mimic Katniss's melody but failing completely.

Unbeknownst to him, a pair of blue eyes watched Gale retreat to Peeta Mellark's former residence, now Camp Hawthorne. The person in the shadows waited until Gale entered the house before whistling the same tune perfectly.

Just like Katniss taught him.