The words startle me. I've been lost in contemplation - the blank wall offering just as satisfactory a thing to be eye to eye with as any splendor of the Capitol. District 12 is gone, the revolt is in full swing, District 13 is real and full of flourishing survivors, and my sister and mother are safe only by the actions of Gale. And Peeta, god Peeta is in the hands of the Capitol. None of it seems real.
It is Gale that's found me.
I force a weak smile, but my heart isn't in it. I might have stopped the violence, but that doesn't mean I'm at peace. I hate them, those who have effectively doomed Peeta, and think of me as nothing but a pawn. I'm alive for my mother, and for Prim, and they are the only thing really keeping me going. Otherwise let them have their rebellion, I might be the mockingjay, but it's beyond me now. It always has been, even if technically I was the spark. Haymitch will realize that soon enough, and then he will stop caring one iota for my welfare.
We are still on our way to District 13, the slow roundabout way to avoid detection.
"They figure," Gale says, making his way in and sitting down beside me, "that I'm the only one you're not going to try and mutilate."
"Like you've never tempted me," I retort, a ghost of a smile.
For not the first time, I notice his injuries. I see the burn, I see the bandages, and I see the sling that supports his left arm. I've seen them before, but I haven't really noticed them, haven't thought about them. I haven't asked any questions about him, about his family, about most of the rest of our District. I haven't asked about those, and what exactly brought them about.
I've never pretended to be anything but I am. There is a reason there is unanimous agreement that I'm not worth to breathe the same air as Peeta, even if I'm the more important one to keep alive.
I motion awkwardly towards his face. "What happened?"
"The Capitol happened," Gale says dryly.
I look pointedly at him, and he sighs. "What more detail do you want?"
Gale isn't one to keep secrets, but he has become one to shelter me from the truth - at least the truth when it comes to him. He won't tell me how much he has suffered, he won't tell me of the pain, he won't tell me of the fear he must have felt. He has more pride than anybody else I have ever known. There will come a time when I need to know more, but I have a feeling that truth will come more from my mother or from Prim. They will tell me more than he ever will.
"Your family?" I ask quietly, the more important question regardless.
"I got them out," he says. At least I won't have that guilt to bear, his siblings and mother while mine are safe due to him.
My hand slips up to cup his cheek. It startles us both. Still, I'm gentle against the skin there. I wonder how it will heal. The things my mother is able to do are nothing in comparison to the medicines they have access to here, even if it certainly doesn't rival the Capitol. My touch though isn't clinical; my blood is more my father than my mothers, I am not a healer. My touch is to reassure myself of something that I don't even know how to voice. I thought I had said goodbye to Gale forever, and now that I haven't I don't know quite how to respond.
Thinking of him, there while the District was bombed, it's like the moment I heard the jabberjay with his voice - wondering how they got the tortured screams. Except this time I know he's fine.
My hand drops back to my side. There is so much more to go, that I can't foresee.
Gale catches my hand in his though, and doesn't let go. There is something in his eyes that I can't quite place. If I had to try though it would be to compare it to that moment before he first kissed me, back in the forest. This time though there is something else mixed in; there is a certain desperation there. His hand, rough from setting traps and hunting, is warm against mine. I should pull it back, but I don't. I should say something, but I stay mute; knowing me it would be the wrong thing regardless.
"Twice," he says, "twice I've watched you go off and expected you never to come back."
"Glad you had such faith in my abilities."
We both know there was more there this time, more risk than an entire group of tributes gunning for me. This time there was the fact President Snow and those in charge wanted me dead; this time there was Peeta, and the fact I would have sacrificed anything to save him - including myself. This time it was a near certainty I wouldn't be coming back. My heart isn't in my dry comment.
Gale clears his throat, but still he isn't releasing my hand. His gaze drifts down to my midsection. "Another ploy?"
For a second I don't get it, and then I realize he means the 'pregnancy' - Peeta's ploy to keep me safe. Unlike our romance where fact mingled with fiction, that is an entire fallacy. For a moment I allow myself the amusement of my mother's panic when she would have seen the interview. I know though, that Gale needs the confirmation even if he's assuming it was just another in the long line of games I've been playing to stay alive. I've half forgot about the pregnancy lie, especially now because there is no need to pretend at the moment. I might be angry, I might be depressed, but at the moment I can take solace in that. Haymitch for example knows my secrets; he created half of them.
"A lie," I confirm. "Peeta and I we. . . we never. . . " No, I'm going for complete honesty, because I can't do anything less with Gale anymore. I tell him about the times we slept together, but that it was literally just slept - to fend off the nightmares that were inevitable. The only intimacy was emotional, not physical. To some, that might seem worse. Gale isn't completely different; I can feel his hand tighten slightly. Still though, he doesn't pull away.
"I like him," he says, after a few moments of silence, "this would be so much easier if I didn't. If I could hate him, your fiancé, I could work against him. I'd feel vindicated in so much. The thing is, I can't, I won't. I have never wished his downfall on him, and I'm worried after his capture. The only thing I hate about him is that I'm not going to be him. I'm never going to be that good, that worthy. Is that what it takes Katniss?"
I find everything harder to ignore right now. I have always known that I've loved Gale, I've just never been able to pinpoint the type of love. I've known too that he's loved me, even before he said it outright. This time it doesn't catch me as much off guard, even if we've gone from talk of rebellion to talk of love with little preparation. This time I'm prepared for it, steeled for it, because I've been thinking about it.
"I'm not perfect either," I say quietly, "I'm never going to be."
"Don't I know it," a faint smile.
I squeeze his hand reprovingly. I don't know how to say what I mean though.
It's not just because I've been trying to forget about Peeta to escape the worry and the grief. It is that I've realized exactly how much I do love Gale, and not just as a friend, not just as my pseudo-cousin. Part of that stems from the fact that I am like Gale, we are both of us imperfect. I am not on a pedestal, nor do I feel like I come out the loser in every comparison. I will do anything for Peeta, and I will still - I will die for him, he was ready to the same for him. The thing is, is that I love Gale and can accept all that entails.
It may come to nothing. There is a rebellion, we are hunted. I may be forced back into the role of the dutiful, and pregnant, fiancé at some point. I might be able to actually do something good in my life through martyrdom.
Still, I can't just ignore it.
"I love you," the words come out awkwardly. I say them too quickly and stumble over them.
Gale smiles, but all he says is, "I know."
For a moment I feel hurt, but then I whack him when I realize he is echoing back my own response when I was offered the same sentiment from him. He winces, and his eyes narrow. "No Catnip," he says quietly, and the nickname feels comfortable to hear on his lips, "I didn't know, and that where the problem was. But yes, I love you too, your imperfect and impossible self. I'm going to be by your side from here on out, no matter what comes. I don't think I can take it watching you go off into mortal peril again, and being on the outside."
It's not that simple, and it's not that easy, but his lips are on mine before I can open my mouth to speak. They are soft, and they are gentle, and it's like coming home. I can feel every part of the kiss, from the pant of his breath to the rough skin of the burns that adjoins the soft tissue. I have no desire to pull away, and right now I don't have to. It's a moment to allow ourselves before reality sets in.
The first time I worried about not being able to go back. Now though, with him, with the rebellion - going forward might not be entirely a bad thing.