Chapter 14- The Last Inch of Fuse
He looks out of place in our large kitchen. Pieces of coal black hair fall into his forehead, and his face is full of shadows. He looks around the room unfathomably.
“Do you want something to drink?” I ask, and he frowns a little, taking me in.
“No, thanks.” He says. The silence resumes.
I cross my arms and lean back against the counter, watching him. Trying to refamiliarise myself with the shapes of his expression, the harsh lines of his form. But I can’t, and I can feel myself growing colder with it. I had been so sure we could do this.
“You know why I asked you to come back,” I say, breaking the silence, and I’m surprised how unafraid I am. How bold. Almost as if the old Katniss has popped round for a visit too.
He appraises me, and then his eyes seem to soften a little bit. I go on.
“We need to talk.” I gesture to the door, and his eyes flicker to the stairs.
“Where’s Peeta?” he asks.
Probably painting in the spare room, I think, but I don’t say that. I just tell him he’s upstairs and make sure to write him a note telling him we’re going for a walk. And not to worry.
Gale stands up and follows me out the door. He never took off his jacket.
We hadn’t said much on the way back from the train station. I showed him his room in Peeta’s original house, having eventually decided it was better than sleeping two doors away from where Peeta and I would be lying together. The idea alone was too intimate.
Everything about Gale is unfamiliar. His posture, the way he walks, the timbre of his voice. I feel like I’ve been reborn in these past few months, and his presence is throwing me off.
Without even meaning too, I find that I’ve lead us to the fence. I look at him, but I can’t read him, so bend down and slip under the hole without hesitation. We’re going to the rock.
Once we’re seated he looks at me. Searching. I wonder if he finds me equally unrecognisable, a girl changed. And I realise it’s true. That he doesn’t know me anymore. Somehow, that makes it easier to say the next words.
“I made a gravestone for her.”
Grey eyes snap up to meet mine, and the expression in them is that of a tortured man who has turned pretense into an art form. I can tell how hard it is for him to open up even this much of himself to me.
“Where?” he asks.
“At the lake.”
He nods, and then he is frowning, and when he looks my way again I can see tears in his eyes. I feel my poker mask fall to the ground in shock.
“I hate myself for it, you know. I think about it every day.” His voice is filled with miserable fury. I stare at him, feeling a strange and fervent empathy suddenly twist in my gut. Silence crawls past our legs. He sniffs and purses his chapped lips, glaring at the forest around us.
“He loved her.” He says finally.
“Who did?” I ask, perplexed.
The pain that fills my chest is wholly unexpected, and is as sharp as a blade. It overcomes any sweet, and my hand finds the mossy surface of the rock, grasping at it as I keel over. I gasp quietly, shaking with sorrow.
Too young, I think. Much, much too young. The image of that forgotten boy’s face fills my mind, brown hair illuminated gold in the sun, eyes small and narrow, so much like his brother’s. His crinkled smile haunts me, the laugh of his not quite broken voice ringing in my ears.
Just a boy, I think, and then the image of another blond headed boy enters my mind, blue eyes open and steady as he took my hand for the first time. Just a boy.
“I didn’t know.” I whisper eventually.
“Me neither,” Gale replies, gaze weary and drained as it focuses on me.
“I’m not going to hold it to you.” I begin after another moment, voice cracking slightly. I take a deep breath and momentarily close my eyes. “I know it’s not what she’d want.”
He nods, eyes linking with mine, and then he breathes, as if it’s something he’s wanted to do for a long time. I reach out for him, and he holds me.
It isn’t awkward, and though the contact is brief, I know it’s what I need. Because the truth is, forgiveness heals both ways, and I’m tired of keeping score.
We let go, and the air is considerably lighter around us. “Want to head back?” I ask, and he nods, the first hint of smile warming the edges of his lips.
I ask him how his new job is in 2, and he answers, but doesn’t go into too much depth, because we both know I don’t really care.
“How’s Peeta?” he asks as our house comes in to view. I slow, glancing up at him.
“He’s good,” I say, hesitating. “He’s much better.”
I catch Gale watching me and it’s only then that I realise I’m smiling. Something seems to solidify in his eyes.
“And you two?” I blink, raising an eyebrow at the familiar phrasing.
“Good.” I say, and then Gale does smile. Not full on, not in the way that he used too, but a small, real smile all the same.
I nearly fall off the step I’m standing on.
“Good.” He says, and opens the door.
Having the two men in the same room is something I’ll never quite get used to. The thought strikes me again for the first time as I come quietly down the stairs, pausing upon seeing them interacting together. I freeze, feeling the wet strands of my just-washed hair swing against my bare neck.
They both stand with their backs to me, Peeta wearing that same navy blue jumper, Gale in a plain grey shirt. Their shoulder blades slide underneath the materials as they work on preparing dinner.
Gale is taller than Peeta, and generally bigger. The edges of his shoulders seem to be sharper, and where Peeta’s body softens and curves, he seems to have angles and points.
“Can you pass the pepper?” Peeta asks.
“Sure.” Gale reaches for the jar and hands it to him. His voice is lower, and has a much smoother and worn quality. Peeta’s voice is husky, and his breath feels like sunshine.
I swallow, and walk into the room, making my presence known.
Peeta turns around to lay the table, spying me first.
“Hey,” He says, his eyes flickering up and down me. “Dinner’s just ready.”
“Need any help?”
“I think we’re good, thanks.”
Gale turns round and starts passing plates to Peeta, who is nearest. I sit down and fuss with my napkin until everything is served and both men have sat down.
“Did you ask Haymitch if he wanted to join us?” I ask Peeta.
“Yes.” he says.
The dinner is inevitably awkward, but not as unbearable as I imagined. We eat in relative silence for the most part, though Peeta does ask Gale the same questions I’d asked him earlier about his job in 2. He does a better job of appearing genuinely interested.
Once we’ve finished I offer to do the washing and Gale excuses himself, leaving to occupy his room in Peeta’s house. I breathe a sigh of relief as the tension disappears with him.
Peeta walks over and starts drying the dishes beside me, but I shoo him away until he agrees to go and take a shower upstairs. I can tell the presence of Gale has tipped him a little off balance, see it in the too-reserved set of his mouth, the glaze of insecurity over his eyes.
“I’ll be right up in a second.” I say, embracing him with my eyes, and he disappears around the staircase corner.
I can hear the shower turn on upstairs a few minutes later, and my mind gets carried away with the image of water rivulets spraying down onto and over his unclothed body, glossy beads trickling across moonlight skin. I imagine his hair wet and splayed across his forehead, golden curls darkening and flattening against his scalp. I imagine the line of his jaw as he stares off at some point on the floor, and the streams of hot water rushing down the valley across his bottom lip. The shadows of his bare shoulder, naked arm, waist, hip. The soft trail of hair from his bellybutton and down, the droplets dribbling over the curve of his lower abdomen, weaving lower and –
I inhale shakily and scrub the plate in front of me with renewed vigor. He’s only showering. I am perfectly capable of keeping my composure. But-
The blue of his eyes as they peer into mine, no, pierce, sharp, as he pushes me back, shoulders curving over me, wet skin, so much skin, stretched across the expanse of his torso, which presses into me, my back against the hard cold tiles. The taste of his hungry mouth so vivid in my head, on my lips, my neck, the feeling of his drenched hair so real across my palms as I dig the pads of my fingers into his curls-
I gasp, dropping the plate in the sink and drying off my hands before letting my head fall into them. I clench my thighs together and swallow.
“Give me a freaking break,” I whisper to the counter edge.
Johanna’s arrival is at the very least distracting, if not a little entertaining. I manage to escape another morning with the two of them on each of my metaphorical sides, and spend my time instead walking abnormally slowly towards the train station. Johanna looks a little surprised to see just me when she gets off, a sharp brow rising in confusion as she walks towards me.
“Should you really be leaving those two alone?” She asks as I come into hearing distance. I scowl at her, not bothering to reach for her bag, knowing I’d risk losing a limb in the process anyway.
“Better than being us three alone.”
She laughs at that, hiking her bag up over her shoulder and running a hand through her hair.
“Is he that bad?”
“Actually, it’s not as bad as it could have been. And it’s not so much him, but rather, his presence. I feel like our worlds are colliding.”
“Thank god I’m here then.”
I roll my eyes.
Gale opens the door when we get back, and his eyes scale up Johanna, face trained into a poker mask. I had told him she would be coming, but his body language is still understandably cautious.
“Gale Hawthorne.” He says, reaching out a hand, but Johanna just appraises him, only the smallest of smirks playing on the edges of her curved lips.
“I know who you are.” She says, ignoring his offering. He crosses his arms over his chest and leans back slightly on the edge of the door.
“I guess you’re not one for mannerisms.” He says, eyes dark.
She walks in, brushing past him, and I follow, slightly at a loss of what to do but watch the scene unfold. She drops her bag at the end of the hallway and turns, raising an eyebrow at him.
“Johanna Mason.” She says, and then leans in and gives him a quick and forceful kiss right on the lips. Not even giving him time to push her away, she leans back and then prances off towards the kitchen, where I can hear her giving Peeta a warm greeting.
Gale’s shocked expression turns to meet mine, and if I wasn’t so alarmed, I might laugh. His jaw is unhinged and I can tell he hasn’t figured out whether he should be angry, irritated or God knows what else. I’m sure my eyebrows are about to fly off the top of my head.
“Well…” he says after a minute, scowling and rubbing his jaw as he leans back.
“She likes her entrances.” I tell him, and then hurry towards the kitchen, leaving him to brood in his traumatised state.
When I come down the following morning Gale is hunched over the bees-wax brown kitchen table. He pauses in slathering a slice of toast with raspberry jam upon my entrance.
“Good morning,” I say as I cross the room to the kettle, trying to look and feel busy.
“Morning,” he replies in a gruff voice, raw with sleep.
“Did you sleep well?”
He clears his throat. “Yes, thank you.”
Stiff. Formal. It reminds me of Peeta and Is’ mechanical interactions after our first games.
“Have you, um,” He falters as I pull out a chair from under the table. “Have you known Johanna long?”
I eye him over my steaming cup of tea.
“Since the Quarter Quell.” I say.
I’m downing the last dregs when he starts again.
“Katniss,” he says, causing me to look up at him. He takes a breath.
“How have you really been?”
I slowly exhale, running my thumb down the length of the ceramic mug handle.
“Tired.” I say finally. “Very, very tired.”
There’s a silence as he takes this in.
“But Peeta- he helps?”
I look at him. “Yes. Yes, he does.”
He nods, almost as if to himself.
“And you?” I ask. “How’ve you been?”
His dark eyes snap up to mine.
Just then Johanna comes prancing in, her bristle ponytail swinging between her shoulder blades. We avoid looking at each other as she makes herself an ash black cup of coffee. She turns around, and raises her brows as if noticing us for the first time.
“Morning,” she says, and smirks slightly into her mug. “Don’t let me get to you.” She brushes past Gale’s shoulders as she exits.
I look back at him after a considerable silence.
“Well,” I say, delving into his rabbit-fur eyes. “Count yourself the lucky one.”
And I set my cup down.
Johanna drags me out for a walk.
“Weren’t you the one that said leaving them together was a bad idea?”
“Well, they’re not really together, are they?”
She’s right. When we left Peeta was upstairs painting again and Gale was trying out my bow and arrow. I decided to succumb to her proposal, partly because I can talk to her about the one thing I can’t really talk to Peeta about (him) and partly because having a girlfriend, if she can be called that, makes me feel a little more normal.
“So,” she says, looping her arm through mine. “Are you and baker boy still just “friends”?”
I give her a look and roll my eyes, running my free hand through the mess of my hair. “You know what we are.”
“Sometimes I get the impression that you don’t like labels.”
She nods, and we walk in silence for a moment.
“So have you had sex?” she asks.
I pull my arm from hers and glare at her.
“Johanna.” I grit through my teeth, cheeks burning up.
“No! God, why is everybody always asking that?”
“Everybody? I thought you twelves were more reserved.”
I cast her a dark look.
“Alright, alright. Call me when you do.”
“What makes you so certain we will?”
I regret asking that the second it leaves my lips, and Johanna spins round to give me a devilish grin.
“Please don’t spell it ou-”
“The amount of eye-fucking! The unnecessary touching! The way baker boy is always blushing around you! And I totally saw you checking out his ass the other day.”
“You did not!”
I scowl and cross my arms.
“Well, what can you say? What sort of thing,” I gesture wildly towards the direction of the house. “was that?”
“What? Tall, dark and miserable? Oh, you know me. I wanted to fuck with his head.”
“It worked,” I grumble and she grins widely.
“It doesn’t bother you, does it?” she quips as we start to move again, and I glance over at her.
“Not in the way that you think.”
They leave together, the day after, and although I care more than the old me would have thought I should about them both, it is a relief.
Gale begrudgingly slings his bag around his shoulder and follows Johanna’s footsteps as she prances ahead. As we reach the train station he stops, and turns to me, a rare uncertainty dancing across his features.
“See you.” I say, the corner of my mouth lifting just slightly, and his eyes warm a little, acceptance palpable in the air. My hands stay in the pockets of my coat.
“See you, Katniss.”
He blinks down at the ground, and then looks up at Peeta, who is over my shoulder. He gives him a nod and accepts the offering of Peeta’s hand.
And then Johanna is upon us, smirking with soft eyes in the way that only she can, and her arms are around me and then Peeta.
“Stay cool.” She says, patting him on the back, and looks at us both and mouths “call me.”
I glare at her.
With one last snort she turns and hops onto the first carriage. She leans out the open doors, looking down to where Gale is getting onto the second carriage, and winks at him.
“Stay sexy.” She yells, and then in a flash of brown hair and smugness she’s gone, no doubt to mull over the fruits of her relatively productive morning.
I can see Gale scowling beatifically from where I stand, his cheeks aglow with irritation. He grinds his teeth and steps onto the train, hiking his bag up his shoulder and locating a room. I smile slightly to myself.
“I think he might just fall in love with her.” Peeta says as the doors begin to roll closed and the body of the machine begins to move. My head whips round to him, mouth hanging open.
“How can you tell?!” I exclaim, shocked and rather awed, and he gives me a secretive glance.
“She throws him off. He just doesn’t quite know what to do with himself when she’s around. Trust me,” he says, wrapping an arm around my waist and side-eyeing me a smoldering look as we start to walk. “I’m quite the expert in this area.”
I feel my cheeks get tinged with red, and roll my eyes for effect as I sweep the hair out of my face. “What about her?” I ask. “Do you think she’ll fall for him?”
His blue eyes warm like summery sea water on balmy sand, and he reaches for my hand.
“Not intentionally.” He says with the tip of a knowing smile on his lips, and presses a kiss into my palm.
It first occurs to me as I am watching him wash the dishes on a Sunday afternoon, and sparkles of glittery light fall and tumble down the long curve of his back like snowflakes. His hair is brushed forward in messy blond curls over his forehead, ringlets twisting madly behind his ears and the nape of his neck, and his soft jumper catches on the points of his elbows as he works.
“…but last time I tried that I ended up with it all over the table as well as the paper, and I had to start again completely. I suppose I could try…”
His back is to me, and his words rise and fall in my mind like a voice on the other side of a waterfall, echoing off the walls of my skull.
“…and it’s not like it’s that cheap either, though I guess I shouldn’t worry about that. But I still feel like it’s a waste, you know?”
“I’m in love with you,” I whisper, my lips brushing the sleeves of my maroon sweater, and the words taste like a prayer in my mouth.
“Sorry, didn’t catch that.” Peeta half-turns, looking back at me with soft features, his hands paused in the motion of drying themselves off on a towel. He stares at me expectantly.
I stare back at him, the walls around me seemingly inhaling, collapsing into us, into dust. The sun glows in through the window to my left, and it’s like we’re suddenly caught in a snowstorm of light.
“I love you.” I say.
Time seems to slow as Peeta stares at me in those moments, those seconds. I watch the expression freeze on his face, his arms still raised in mid-air, roses beginning to bloom in his cheeks. And then I watch something deeper, something wilder, something beautiful begin to swirl inside his eyes. He blinks, and the world is still in this moment.
I don’t know what the spouse of terror is, but I feel like I must be experiencing it now.
It’s not safe. It’s alive.
Then Peeta drops the dishrag on the counter and crosses the room in two long steps, leaning over the counter in front of me and clasping my face in his hands. He looks like he wants to say something, but what can you possibly say in a situation like this, and then he leans forward and kisses me. Kisses me wildly, crazily, madly and passionately and so so sweetly. His mouth is warm and soft and wet on mine, lips pillow-y and teeth hard and sharp, and then he pulls back and his eyes are alight, and he is positively glowing, shining, beaming so bright I can’t tear my eyes away. He laughs then, his face washed anew with a grin so large it might tear his face in half, but who cares, really, who cares, and then he pulls my face to him once more and starts giggling into my neck, and I’m laughing too, and he pulls back again and I swear he’s on fire.
“I love you too.” He whispers, faces inches from mine, eyes bottomless and hypnotising and I swear I can read every little thing he’s trying to tell me. And I’m telling him yes, yes, yes and me too.
And then he’s crossed round and is in front of me, on me, is pushing me back and kissing me with more fervor than I knew he had inside of him, and he is all over me, and my back is hard against the wall and I love it, and I smile and kiss him back, and his hands reach underneath and hike me up and I wrap my legs around his waist, and it all feels so good, and I can feel the soft of his jumper and warmth of him underneath it, the flesh and muscle and beautiful fragility, and he presses into me and I swear I never knew happiness until this moment.
And there are times when you can’t explain how or why you feel what you do, and all you know is that this is right, this is right right right, and bubbles are gurgling up your windpipe and stars are rushing through your brain, over the film of your eyes, and blood is in your lips and cheeks, and is pounding hard, and the air tastes like perfume and water and magic, and you are home.
And I am home.
So I tug the flesh of Peeta’s bottom lip towards me with my teeth, and he moans, licking the rows of my teeth and the top of my mouth like the wetness of it is wine, and I meet him in the middle and try to discover every single hollow and shape of his glorious mouth like an explorer in a dark cave, and then I push him back for air and he worships my collarbone, and I really push him back, two hands on his broad shoulders, and he’s almost confused, though the look on his face is dazed, certainly matching mine, and I take his hand and pull him to the stairs, and he gets it and pick me up in one fellow swoop and meets my lips again, feverishly, pausing half-way up to push me against the wall and press his hips flush into mine, and I’m sure we both almost lose it then, but we’re only halfway up, and so we both tear apart, so that for a brief few moments the only contact we have is our palms on palms, and then we’re at the top and he’s lifting up my shirt and I’m letting him and reaching for his, and we’re giggling and mad and in love.
And the touch of his hands on my darkened, scarred skin makes me, for this moment, something stunning, something bright and explosive and unbelievably desirable, and my every cell stretches towards him, rolling in pleasure and wonder at their good luck, and then he is half-naked, and there is so much skin, all pale and mis-matched and delightful, and there is more golden hair that I’d expected, some of it so dark and coarse it would be a stretch to call it golden, or even honey-coloured, though maybe bronze, and as I am thinking this he is kissing a line along all my scars, all the red, ugly ragged corners that seem to glow with flattery under his lips, burning up all over again, and then his warm hand shimmies up my arm and wraps around my small wrist and he presses his lips there too, tongue flicking out as if to coat it in a healing balm. And he looks right into my eyes as he does, and I didn’t even realise I still believed I had a soul, but I do, I must, because he is touching something so deep within me now that I could cry, could die in his arms right now.
“Katniss Everdeen,” he breathes, the timbre of his voice tickling my scar and sending ripples of liquid warmth through my veins and arteries, seeping into every capillary and organ I am blessed enough to possess like hot bath water through water pipes.
“You’re everything.” He says, and then we lose ourselves.
And you might think that it would be containable, bearable, or even a predictable sort of bliss. And you might think that it would be too perfect, or too awkward, or too physical for us both to be paying attention, to be drinking in the taste of the air around us. And you might think we have both been through too much, suffered too many pains, to have stars and suns and moons exploding in our hearts again. And you might think it would be too insane, too impossible, to fall in love all over again and again and again.
And you would be wrong. You would be so, so wrong.