Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
Author's note: So I know this isn't twific, but I couldn't resist the urge to make these two slashy. That being said, this includes a pairing involving two men. Nothing too graphic, but if you don't like two lovely boys falling for each other, don't read. Thanks to sweetp-1 for helping me each step of the way! She was persistent that this story needed to be written, and for that I am ever grateful. :) Enjoy!
The City Circle is chaos. The distorted, shiny memories that surface when facing the carnage disorient me. I stumble through the crowd, pushing towards the source of the explosion, the scent of burned meat and singed hair filling my lungs. The flames seem to devour everything they touch, orange and red lapping the skin off nameless faces. The smoke is dark and thick, but it does not attempt to overtake the firelight; it works with it, facilitating death by suffocation if the flames don't accomplish their job. I try not to look them in the eyes as they die. In my head, those that are suffering seamlessly intermingle with the faces of my father, my brothers, my mother. But that was another place, another bomb. I shake my head. What am I looking for?
Her. I am looking for her. Katniss will be at the center of this chaos.
Stretching my arms out in front of me, I know that I am no longer wearing the Capitol's handcuffs but am still bound by their memory, my wrists remaining next to each other. I start to scream her name. Before I see her, I see Prim. Why is Prim here? She is surrounded by children in various states of mutilation. They wail and beg for help, for their mothers, for someone to rescue them as they are eaten alive. The sound is deafening, and I am overcome. Whatever shreds of my sanity I've managed to cling to are melted by witnessing this agony, and I'm on my knees, retching.
Somehow, over the rush of blood in my ears and the sounds of suffering, I hear Katniss. Calling for Prim. Then the world is enveloped by flame from another explosion, a fresh wave of fireballs jumping into the crowd.
Everything is quiet after the sound of the second blast, so close to where I crouch. I look through the smoke and confusion to see Katniss. She is on fire, but this time the flames are real. Where the synthetic flames designed by Cinna made her fierce and strong - a force stronger than life or death - this fire wants to strip her of everything.
The first time we were sent into the arena, Katniss leapt amongst the fireballs, not escaping unscathed, but escaping nonetheless. I remember being worried about what was happening as the foliage was consumed, presumably Katniss amongst it. I remember loving her. There was no cannon blast when the fire stopped, and the relief I had felt could barely be concealed. That memory is real.
Without imagining the consequences, I go to her, and I'm on fire too. I don't care. For a moment of insanity, the part of me that the Capitol owns rejoices at the dying girl. I swallow down the wicked chuckle that bubbles in my throat. Her mouth moves, but I have no hope of hearing it. It's doubtful that she can make sound at this point, and all I hear is ringing. I try to extinguish the flames with my body, but then I remember my hands aren't actually cuffed. I frantically take off my coat and make futile attempts to snuff out the eager fire.
What's left of her face shows grief, horror, but her eyes show resignation. Once again, she's the skinny girl outside my father's bakery. Giving herself over to the idea of death. But now she has no Prim to look after, no reason to consider fighting. Prim is already ash.
I feel the heat racing up my arms, melting my right ear. Now the burning flesh I smell is my own. This fire won't be put out.
The ringing in my other ear has stopped, but I wish it was still drowning out the sounds of the dying. Katniss is still trying to speak. I begin to panic as she gasps for air, her scalp a mass of popped blisters, all traces of hair gone. Looking around for help, I balk at how out of place the mutilated bodies look, littering the City Circle of the Capitol. Blood and flesh spattered across colorful tiles and mirrored windows. I catch sight of us, of Katniss and myself, reflected in the glass. The first time we entered this circle, we were alight with a very different kind of fire, our fingers intertwined just as they are now.
Quickly, I turn back to her. "No more...b-bread," she mutters, almost indistinguishable but, to me, unmistakable. I open my mouth to cry or scream but am choked by my misery. Ever since I was a child, all I wanted was for Katniss Everdeen to live. She remembers the bread, and she knows I'm out of options to save her now.
Pain from the fire. Pain in my chest. Pain in the memories the Capitol ruined for me. I hate the Capitol for stealing my grief from me. What I feel now is nothing like it should be as I watch the girl I've loved since childhood slowly burning alive in my arms. This can't be real.
Unconsciousness beckons to me. Perhaps the sweet grip of death will be kind and follow. I succumb to the balmy blackness, but not before I see the life leave her eyes. I try to wait for the sound of the cannon but it never comes. Somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, I wonder where they found flames to put out the girl on fire.
I'm in the arena again. The cave. I wake up and see Katniss, unconscious in a pool of blood with a gash across her forehead. For long moments, I stare at her, waiting to see if her ribcage will rise and fall as she breathes. I panic as my grief becomes a living thing. In the cave, in the mildewed darkness, I am able to put a voice to my desolation and I sob. Unsure of what to do with my hands, I finally check her pulse. She is alive. But I continue to weep uncontrollably, desolation giving way to relief. Eventually, I calm enough to find something to staunch the bleeding.
When she awakens, her skin takes on a clinquant glow. The puddle of blood has an unnatural, glossy sheen. She looks at me with her face covered in blood and laughs. Swirling her finger in the puddle, she continues to chuckle at me. She begins tracing her bloody finger across the trails that my tears have left on my face, mocking me and my misery. The gleam in her eyes is jarring, her pupils appearing to reflect a reddish tint. Everything about her is wicked.
The rocks surrounding us have become loaves of burned bread, charred and black. Katniss picks them apart and begins forcing the burned crust into my mouth. I try to stop her, but she's so strong, and I'm choking, the bread turning to stone again in my throat, my stomach. All the while, she laughs.
This isn't what happens, I tell myself as the shiny Katniss continues to jeer at me while smearing the bread with blood, shoving it into my mouth fistfuls at a time.
"Not real," I say aloud. "Not real!"
I wake myself up shouting.
Untangling myself from my sweat-soaked sheets, I find my way to the bathroom. I don't turn on the light. I took off my shirt before going to bed and I have no desire to see my maimed flesh under the harsh fluorescent light. Reaching out for the sink, I turn the knobs. Splashing cold water on my face helps me to remember where I am, helps me stay here, instead of in my nightmare. I am not in the arena anymore. I'm in District 12.
I can still feel Katniss's fingers on my cheeks, my stomach is still heavy. I turn on the light now, even though I don't want to. I have to make sure it wasn't real. Gazing at myself in the mirror, I know the dream was false, because the reality is that Katniss is dead and my face is covered in scars, not blood.
I know I was in that cave with Katniss at one point. Without her here, I can't ask what actually happened. A new kind of selfish grief wraps around me like a vise. I turn out the light hoping to escape it. Continuing to stare at myself in the darkness, I swirl my finger over the nonsensical patterns of scar tissue across my forehead.
"Maybe the Capitol did me a favor," I mutter. If most of my memories of her remain skewed, maybe this empty, aching place that resides inside me will go away sooner.
That's a ridiculous thought, because I remember loving her, and now that I've remembered it's impossible to forget.
It's been six months since she was killed. Six months since the Capitol fell, since Coin was elected president. She had wanted another Hunger Games played with Capitol children. The mere mention of it started different kinds of nightmares for me. I don't have those as frequently as the ones about Katniss, but they are no less horrific.
Coin had been disappointed when, of the remaining victors of the Hunger Games, only Johanna and Enobaria had voted to carry out her proposal for a final round of Games. I'm glad that the others understood that one more time would have meant there would never be a final time. I hate admitting that I was relieved when the former president - Snow - strangled Coin during the transfer to where he was to be executed. From what I had heard, she had not been able to resist the urge to mock him. It is definitely not standard procedure for the president to escort a convict. Snow murdered her with his shackles and brought on his execution a bit early.
Of course, I got all the information third hand from Haymitch who heard it from a man from District 8. Someone from that district is president now. I can't make myself care. Not when my scars are so numerous I can barely move for fear of knocking something loose - a patch of skin, a fake memory, a real memory.
When they released me from the hospital at the Capitol, telling me I could go home, the reality of what I had been through and everything that had happened came crashing down. I felt like a twelve-year-old at my first reaping again, thrust out into the world with no one to guide me, nowhere to go. Frightened and feeling completely alone. It wasn't just a feeling anymore, though. This time I am completely alone. Well, I have Haymitch. Haymitch who mourns Katniss just like I do, who is as homeless as I am.
The choice to go back to District 12 was not difficult once I found out the Victor's Village was still standing. Even though I had always felt like a visitor in the large house assigned to me, Katniss's had felt like home. I yearned to see it. To my surprise, Haymitch volunteered to go back, as well. I know that he came to that decision solely for my benefit, although I hardly see him now, except to make sure he eats at least once a day. But knowing he is where I can find him, knowing that the only person I have left is safe, is a comfort. He feels guilty. He shouldn't. I forgave him for the lies he told me. I can't help but feel he blames himself for something more than just keeping secrets.
I walk back into my bedroom, look at the twisted sheets and comforter discarded on the floor. Sleep won't be something I will find anytime soon. Standing by the window, I notice movement outdoors. It's late, after midnight. Squinting my eyes, I know immediately it isn't Haymitch. The shadowy form is too lithe to be him, even on his best nights. As though the figure can sense me watching, it turns towards my window and looks up.
Last I'd heard, Gale had been approached for some political job in District 2. It had sounded like a glorified peacekeeper to me, and I had assumed he would have snatched it up quickly. Greasy Sae had seen something about it on the television. Seemed like a done deal. Apparently not, because here he is, gray eyes turned silver by the half-moon.
I wonder if I'll ever be able to look into a pair of gray eyes without seeing a ghost behind them.
Dark hair, tan skin, gray eyes, more torment.
Gale turns and goes to the house next door to mine. The few seconds I saw him were enough to make me upset. What does he have here? I bake. Haymitch drinks. Greasy Sae cooks. What can he achieve in this barren place? District 12 is for ghosts.
When I had been so horribly burned, I feared that I would never bake again. That the reminder every time I opened the oven and saw the flames would cause me to cower. Not because of the memories of the physical pain, but because of what the fire had taken from me, what the fire had once stood for. I had been pleased when the first time I was faced with fire after that day in the City Circle, I did not recoil. I welcomed the heat, the perspiration, the light that remained in my eyes even after I closed them. She had been real, and the fire helped me remember what it had been like to hold her.
The summer grows hotter by the day, and this morning, although I started early, is scorching. By the time I prepare enough bread, pastries, and sweets for the day, my shirt clings to me with perspiration.
I catch Haymitch before he goes to sleep, make sure he eats something. Each time I see him settling down to rest during the day, I can't help but think he's onto something. Darkness after a nightmare is suffocating. Who would make sure everything was taken care of, though? Who would feed Haymitch, or make bread for the brave people who've returned to 12? I'll keep my restless nights.
Gathering some food together, I walk to town. There are several men that assist with the clean-up who begin work as early as I do. They have to. I've a feeling that seeing District 12 as a heap of rubble is just as disconcerting for them as it is for me. At least they've been able to bury all the bodies. In the beginning, they appeared in random places, each one a macabre surprise. I hope they don't find anymore. The first week I was here, I was looking through the mess that used to be my father's bakery. I lifted up a plank of wood and found an unrecognizable corpse. I swiftly walked away, lost my breakfast in the street, and tried to think about anything but who that had been.
I think about that day as I pass the old bakery, pondering rebuilding it. Would there ever be enough people in 12 again to warrant the place?
When I turn the corner, lost in thought, I see Gale. Well, I see his back, covered in scars. He's talking to Thom who's been here cleaning up since before I came back. They must have known each other from the mines. I stop walking, lost in the patterns on Gale's flesh, like someone had flung pink and red paint haphazardly across his skin. There is a perfect circle made out of puckered, raised tissue on his shoulder. A rising sun over a broken sky.
Thom sees me, knowing I've brought food. "Hey, Peeta. You have any of those rolls with the raisins?" He gestures with his head towards the bundle in my hands. It's not until he raises his eyebrows at me I realize I've been silently staring.
Gale turns around and looks at me, but I turn my eyes to Thom. "Yeah," I answer.
Thom hurries across the few feet that separate us and finds what he's looking for. Gale remains rooted in the spot. Waiting on something. I'm not sure what.
"Gale?" I ask, holding out the bundle of bread in my arms. What else is there to say? What else can I do, besides offer food to someone that shares a loss with me so momentous that words could never begin to approach it? I owe him so much more than what I can offer, if I'm being honest. He helped keep her alive, before the Games and after. More than I could do. Maybe, if it had been him in the City Circle, if he had been the one to find her burning...
I can never allow my thoughts to go there, even though they already have, and do, more times than I'd care to admit. Perhaps it's because of those thoughts that I was so upset to see him last night. Left over bits of jealousy, inadequacy. It's not his fault that I wasn't enough.
He stares at me, a knowing expression on his face as though he reads my thoughts. He walks towards me slowly. I'd seen Katniss use a similar pace many times when approaching a wounded animal. "Thanks," he says.
That's it. That's all he says. He doesn't ask me how I'm handling things, doesn't inquire as to what I've been doing with myself. I appreciate it. Although he has done me a favor by not asking me questions I have no answer for, I can't keep from asking what his purpose is here in 12.
"Why did you come back?" I blurt. He doesn't get angry, just looks at me a moment. A sad smile curls his lips and he shifts his gaze to his feet.
"The same reasons you did," he answers. His reply is cryptic; there are many reasons I came here. I've nowhere else to go. This is where I grew up; this is where she grew up. Suddenly, I understand with overwhelming clarity. We have much in common, Gale and I.
"When did you get back?" I ask, wondering how I could have missed his return. I realize how much I have overlooked in my less than healthy mental state.
"Just yesterday. It was a last minute decision." Biting into a roll, he chews thoughtfully. "You should rebuild the bakery, Peeta. This is really good."
"I was just thinking about that," I reply. "The bakery. Not about how good my bread is." I smile for the first time since... I can't remember.
We don't talk much, not about things that matter anyway. When I see Gale, we exchange short sentences about the weather, the state of District 12, new politics. He helps restore, and I help to feed people as they return to town in a steady trickle. With his scarred hands and broken spirit, he helps to rebuild my father's bakery. It doesn't take long, not when I still have resources from being a surviving tribute. I wanted it in the same place as before, and it's remarkable how similar it is, complete with living quarters above it that I never intend to use.
I plant an apple tree behind it, remembering the waif of a girl that leaned against one similar in another life.
Gale starts hunting again, now that all the rubble has been removed. Sometimes, he quietly leaves me small game for meat pies, and I always deliver them to him without looking for thanks. There are times we share the pies, but the air around us always seems thick with words unspoken, thoughts unshared. We take turns seeking the other one out, only to end our meetings with awkward goodbyes. I don't know if I can stand it much longer. The conflicting urges to speak and remain silent are sickening.
Perhaps that is why I've decided to follow him into the woods today. I'm in town, waiting. I've already made everything I need for the bakery. One of the advantages of waking at all hours from nightmares is the early start I get on the day. It also means I have time to talk to him. I'm wary of going into the forest, afraid to disturb some sanctity of the place. I know that was his place with Katniss. Everyone that lived in District 12 knew that. But if I'm to speak to him openly, I want it well away from prying ears.
Once I see him going through town, I try to follow as quietly as possible. It's difficult considering it is late autumn and the ground is covered in dead leaves. We walk for awhile before Gale approaches a rock ledge that overlooks the valley. He pushes through a thicket of what look to be berry bushes and sits down, virtually disappearing from sight. I stay several yards away, suddenly feeling ridiculous that I followed him out here, wondering why I feel the need to speak with him so badly. I'm about to turn around, go back to what I know and understand in the bakery, when he sighs.
"You're not fooling anyone you know," Gale says, his voice rising enough so that I can hear him. "The sound of that fake leg is unmistakable. Come on out, Peeta." His tone is resigned, tired. I know how he feels.
"I should've known better," I say. "Stealth has never been one of my strengths." Gale stands when I step out from behind a tree and motions me over.
"Come have a seat," he replies.
Once I'm seated, I can't help but hum appreciatively at the view, even with skeletal trees as the main component. The early morning light makes the frost on the naked branches shimmer; the sky seems so blue and clear. This is the first time I've ever ventured into the woods here. I begin to wonder what's taken me so long, but know it was the fear of punishment. Only recently has there been the freedom to go where I please. It takes a lot of getting used to. Would my father have brought me out here if he were alive? Would I have learned to hunt with my brothers?
"I miss Katniss more here than anywhere else," Gale says, pulling me from my musings. His face is pale except for a few red splotches on his cheeks from the trek to this place. "We always met in this spot."
Just as I'd thought. I'm an intruder to a private misery. "I can leave. I-"
"No, it's fine." Finally, he looks at me. "This is the first time I've said her name out loud in...months," he adds. I see his jaw flex. He's clenching his teeth.
"Katniss," I say. It's been even longer since I've said her name. The shape of it feels foreign in my mouth, and regret for things I can't remember tightens my chest, burns my eyes.
"Did they really offer you a job in District Two?" I ask. He nods. "Why wouldn't you take something like that?" It would be a good life, structured. A chance for him to use his brain.
"Before, I would have loved it." He looks into the valley. When he says 'before' I know exactly the before he's mentioning. Before Katniss died. Before the rebellion. War brings more casualties than death.
He continues, "You know, I think it was my idea that killed her." Looking at me, he ducks his head, trying to gauge my reaction. I'm sure he finds incredulity.
"Impossible. It was my fault," I say.
Gale shakes his head. "I thought about it for a long time. I think Coin ordered those children bombed. If the Capitol had a hovercraft left, it would've been used to take Snow away, and Beetee and I had made plans for lots of different traps. One of them waits for help to rush in to the wounded after a bomb detonation and then explodes again. That was what happened, wasn't it?" he asks.
My vision darkens as I stare at him. I close my eyes and see visions of red, orange and yellow. I can almost hear the screams. Anger flashes through me. Only for a moment at Gale. It easily shifts to Coin, and I've never been so glad anyone was dead. I know he's right in his assumption, know it without a doubt. How had I not understood before?
"Peeta?" asks Gale. My face is in my hands, and I'm concentrating on breathing.
"It's still not your fault," I affirm, because I know it's what he needs to hear. I keep my head down, unable to look at him.
"I wish I felt that way. Before, when someone was hurt or people were killed by the Capitol, all I wanted was revenge. All I wanted was to seek out the person responsible and watch them die. With this, with Katniss, the person responsible was me. I realized, when you have a hand in politics, no one is blame free, no one person can make penance. I can't be a party to it ever again."
He's been staring at me while speaking, waiting on me to look up. I can feel it. Eventually, I do. I can't think of anything to say, knowing everything he said was true. "She loved you," I mutter, the cold stone below me sending a shiver up my spine.
Gale nods and for some reason I feel sick at the affirmation. I try not to let it show on my face. "She loved you more," he replies. I don't believe him.
"You would've killed me if she had wanted it," I say.
"Yes," Gale replies, unblinking.
"I would've done anything to keep you safe for her."
"I know. That's why she loved you more."
I begin painting again. Time makes the overly bright colors less frightening, and putting them to canvas seems to purge them from my nightmares. I begin by painting the twisted and horrifying memories, trapping them in a contained space. Following that, I recreate them the way they should have happened, the way I hope they happened. Having something tangible to examine has been much more therapeutic than chasing demons in my dreams.
The pictures I create don't always make sense when looking from the outside. A broken bow with discarded arrows. Green roses. Shriveled berries. There's something freeing about having my emotions so plainly displayed yet hidden.
Between painting and baking, I don't sleep much. This is fine with me. Gale comes over, sometimes early evening, sometimes late at night. I think he's looking for something to fill his time; he doesn't sleep well either. We talk or we don't, the silences between us no longer loaded. It's nice to spend time with someone with no expectations. Neither of us feel obligated to become friends, although I guess that's what we are. It's easy. Uncomplicated but still invested.
Tonight, there is a celebration in town. They are celebrating spring, rebirth, the return of life to the forest, to District 12, to the nation. I don't want to go. It's been over a year since I came back here, well over a year since the Capitol fell. There are reasons to celebrate but I can't seem to feel them. I already promised a few people I'd be there, so I can't back out.
When I get there it's worse than I'd imagined. There's a bonfire going in the square, music, people smiling and dancing, and huge banners hanging from the new buildings with Katniss's face plastered all over them. The image doesn't even look like her; it's one of those overly made-up ones. I try to leave, silently slip away before anyone sees me. I bump into Haymitch.
"Whoa, boy," he says after I've elbowed him in the gut. I almost get the impression that he was waiting on me. He sees my expression and huffs. "I told them it wasn't a good idea. Nobody listens to me, though." Taking a swig of his drink, he uses his other arm to push me into the square. "Drink enough and you won't see them anymore."
Haymitch leads me around, prods me into interacting with people. I'm having a half-hearted conversation with Greasy Sae when I catch sight of Gale, kneeling by the fire, eyes lost in the flame. He's angled just so, and one of the banners of Katniss seems to be perched behind him, peeking at me over his shoulder. The only thing that reminds me he's real and she's not are the shadows cast over his face in the flickering light. He's shadowed and she is alight. They belong next to each other.
I want to go home and paint.
"You know," says Haymitch, "the two of you holed up together isn't helping our population problem, but you're welcome to try." He guffaws at his comment, and I abruptly turn to face him. Of course, he's good and drunk.
"What do you mean?" I laugh. He rolls his eyes and smacks his lips. Suddenly, he looks serious and pulls me close, placing a hand on my shoulder.
"When you take away the apex of a triangle, the only other path the two points can take is to each other." He traces out a triangular shape in the air. I gape at him.
"You're so drunk," I say, shoving him off. I can't help myself and I laugh at him again.
"True," he replies. "Just like a regular day." Haymitch pats my shoulder a final time, and I turn and walk away.
"I'm heading home," I say. The thirty minutes I've spent here seem long enough.
"Fine, fine," Haymitch says. "Whatever."
Gale catches my eye as I leave. I wave and nod.
Once I get home, I paint for several hours before Gale shows up. He always rings the doorbell and waits for me to answer. Normally, Gale doesn't mind to sit and watch me paint, but I'm not sure I want him to see this. I cover it quickly and go to answer the door.
"It's late," I say.
"You weren't asleep," he replies. "Working on something?"
"Yes." Walking inside, he immediately heads in the direction of my studio. I catch up with him.
"Can I see?" He proceeds to pull the tarp off my canvas without waiting on an answer. My cheeks feel hot and I look out the window. I don't think I can handle his reaction. The moments seem long while he stands in silence.
"Peeta," he says, voice low. He's afraid of spooking me. "This is...amazing. If grossly inaccurate." Glancing at him, I realize he's serious, those familiar gray eyes troubled. Turning my gaze to the painting, I take in the scarred flesh of his back, the curve of his waist as he turns so that the viewer can see his profile. His arms are wrapped around Katniss as she is bright with fire, the shadow of his nose and chin on his shoulder. In the painting, Katniss doesn't burn; the black locks of her hair intermingle with the vibrant flames and create a perfect contrast of light and dark, the same contrast Katniss's fire makes between herself and Gale. Her eyes are closed and her head thrown back, the column of her throat strong and lean, her expression blissful. He holds her and they are beautiful and damaged together.
"I know it might seem strange, b-"
"I never could have made her look like that," he interrupts, finally ripping his eyes away from the canvas to look at me. "She saved that for you."
"That's not true, Gale."
"You really don't know, do you? Have you ever watched the footage from the games? Of the two of you together?" I shake my head. "Why? Aren't you curious to know what really happened?" Gale goes to the corner and sits on the floor, his back against the wall.
"Wasn't it all an act anyway?"
"Katniss wasn't that good of an actress," he replies. For the first time in a long time, I'm curious.
"Finish. I do love it." Gale nods towards the canvas, settling in and making himself comfortable.
I get back to work, soon forgetting that Gale sits behind me; he's so quiet. A significant amount of time passes, and I finally turn around and see him there, sleeping. I walk towards him, intending to wake him, and notice moisture in his lashes. I hadn't meant to upset him.
Daylight is almost gone, and I'm closing up the bakery. Gale comes by and asks if he can come over later. I tell him of course, he can, but I think it's odd because he never really gets my permission before ringing my doorbell.
Even though he asked to come over, Gale still doesn't show up until nearly midnight. I answer the door and he stands there with his hands behind his back.
"It's late," I say.
"You weren't asleep," he replies, smiling. This is our standard exchange when he decides to come over well into the night or wee hours of the morning. He walks into the sitting room, surreptitiously keeping his hands hidden. Once I've followed him into the room, he stands in the center quietly, giving sidelong glances to the television. I have a horrible sinking feeling.
"What?" I ask, unable to keep my eyes off the television, wondering what's going on in his head.
"Don't be mad," he begins. Immediately, without even knowing what's going on, I start to feel angry. I open my mouth to say something and he continues. "I have some tapes of the Games. The last two." He holds up two tapes. Again, I open my mouth, but he talks again. "I know you're scared. I know it's hard. But you just don't see yourself the right way, Peeta." He takes a step forward, grabs my hand and squeezes it. "It'll be okay. I'll be here. There's only a few clips I think you need to see."
My mouth opens and closes several times, and I'm sure I look like a fish out of water. My appendages seem to double in weight and my stomach churns. The Games. I haven't seen any clips of the games since the Capitol forced me to watch them. I sit on the couch because I can't stand anymore. Gale sits next to me, takes my hand again. I look down at our clasped fingers, and I'm somewhat bolstered by the strength and warmth of his palm. I only manage a weak "Okay" before Gale slips in the first tape and it starts to play.
Gale makes his own commentary as we go. Saying things like, "Oh, that was completely forced," when Katniss first kissed me, or "You can tell she's really confused there," when we exchange short kisses later. He's honest. That's what I need.
It's when we get to the part after the cornucopia when Katniss drugged me that I get particularly interested. This scene seems to star in my nightmares frequently, and Gale knows that. When she wakes up, she is not cruel. We talk about Cato and Thresh, about repaying debts, about Haymitch using a lot of resources to help knock me out.
"No! Just don't, Katniss! Don't die for me. You won't be doing me any favors. All right?"
"Maybe I did it for myself, Peeta, did you ever think of that? Maybe you aren't the only one who . . . who worries about . . . what it would be like if. . ."
"If what, Katniss?"
"That's exactly the kind of topic Haymitch told me to steer clear of."
"Then I'll just have to fill in the blanks myself."
I watch as I lean in to kiss her. I didn't know how incorrect my memory was of this, but now that I'm seeing it, hate myself for forgetting how it truly happened. That time with Katniss, the rain, the seclusion, was the happiest I'd ever been. I remember not caring if I died afterwards.
"See her face?" Gale says. I look down at our hands and realize I'm holding his again. I can't move my eyes to the television or him; he'll know I'm close to crying and I don't want to do that in front of him. "Look at her, Peeta."
I make a pitiful sound and look at the television in time to see the kiss. On Katniss's face, there is an expression of bliss that rivals the one I gave her in the painting. Her head wound opens again and we break apart.
"She wanted to kiss you again, you know," he says, clicking off the television.
"Mmm," I say, eyes on the blank screen. Watching these clips is like watching someone else. What happened to that boy who knew what to say? Perhaps he is not a survivor after all. "I'm not sure who I am anymore." The silence that follows my statement stretches on. Seeing myself has completely drained me. How can I ever find that again? Be that person who seems so comfortable in his own skin?
"You can't be that person again," he answers.
"Too much has happened, Peeta. That person had a father, mother, and brothers and loved a girl that's unreachable now. No one expects you to be the exactly as you were. Who you are now is fine. You make sure Haymitch eats. You give Thom those rolls he likes and never ask to be paid, not to mention all the others you feed. You give me a place where I can remember without feeling guilty. You might be damaged, but you're far from useless. You're still looking out for everyone but yourself." His tone is insistent. I try not to flinch at his mention of my family.
"I wish I could accept it as easily as you," I reply. I keep looking at the screen, the image of Katniss still so fresh in my memory. I nod towards the television. "I was going to tell her soon, you know. Before I knew we were both going into the games. Before the reaping. I was going to steal her away from you. Do you think she would have loved me back?"
Then, without any kind of warning, Gale's lips are on mine. Maybe I should be shocked. Maybe I should push him away, but his mouth is as firm and warm as his fingers that still rest against mine. It only feels natural.
I turn towards him, letting go of his hand but wrapping my arm around his waist. I slide it under his shirt, my fingertips tracing his marred flesh. Gale's palms go to my face and I realize it's wet, his warm thumbs wiping away the moisture. I pull back to look at him and know it's okay, because the salt I tasted wasn't just from my tears. We're both missing something.
My fingers on his back continue to explore the textured skin, and he runs the pads of his fingers across my forehead before his lips take their place. Wrapping his arms around me he holds me close, and the scent and heat and proximity of his body makes me feel safe, a feeling I've long forgotten.
"Will you let me sleep here?" asks Gale, the words spoken against my skin.
"You usually do," I reply.
"I mean...with you?" He loosens his grip and backs away to look at me. "Just sleep," he adds. I nod and he kisses my lips again, sweet and brief. I lead him to my room and we get into bed. Sighing deeply, Gale turns off the light before tangling his arms and legs with mine, kisses my cheeks. I feel as if I can breathe for the first time in months.
We go to sleep, and I place my hand over his heart, the steady rhythm ever-present. We rest without waking until the sun is high in the sky.
Haymitch had been right after all.
Although things between us are different, the ease I feel in Gale's company remains the same. I still have terrible memories, in sleeping and waking hours, but they are offset by beautiful ones as well. I'm still fractured, but I'm not completely broken. The loss of Katniss is still significant, still what brought us together, but no longer the thing that keeps us this way. The ghost that haunted his gray eyes no longer looks at me from behind them, and all I see is Gale.
Today is his birthday, and I'm certain he thinks I've forgotten. It's been over eight months since Gale had me watch the tapes from the Games. We kiss, we touch, we spend our nights sleeping together, but few know this. I'm certain that Haymitch knows, although he's kept his mouth shut about it. What started as comfort, something we both knew we needed, has changed exponentially for me, and I want to tell him. I'm petrified. We don't spend words discussing what we are. In the beginning, that was fine and understood. It was okay that we thought of her when we were together, that at times we imagined kissing a different pair of lips. But, now, it's him. All him.
There are moments I look at him and wonder why he needs me. Gale is strong, sturdy, confident, handsome. Why waste time with a crippled, scarred person who could never be whole for him? Then there are nights when he wakes up, arms reaching frantically before they find me, pull me close. The first few times it happened, he said her name, not mine. Now, he calls for me. Things have changed for him too.
Recently, Gale began working at the newly built factory in town that manufactures medicines. He'll be getting off soon, and I've planned a special meal, complete with birthday cake. I managed to get into the woods today and actually shot something. Turns out Gale is an excellent teacher, and miraculously my skills with the bow and arrow are passable. I don't hunt often; it's impossible not to feel Katniss's presence like a third arm out there. On days like today, though, I can't seem to mind. I miss her; that will never change.
I'm slicing into a pie when Gale comes in the bakery a full hour early. Looking up at him I groan. Distracted by his arrival, I cut my thumb. Promptly I begin bleeding all over the food. Glancing at Gale, I see his confusion. I hold up my injured thumb and he finds a towel to staunch the bleeding.
"Surprise!" he laughs, eyes going to the bloodied pie.
"I wanted to surprise you," I grumble, trying my best not to smile back at him. I find it impossible. "Happy Birthday."
"I knew you wouldn't forget," he says. Gale leans in and brushes his lips against mine. "Well, that pie looks like it would have been delicious."
"It's ruined now," I say. "At least your cake is far enough away so that I won't bleed on it."
Gale sees the cake and smiles. "I like dessert better anyway. You know I'm the better cook." He can be so arrogant, but in this case, he is correct.
"Why are you out of work so early, anyway?" I ask.
"Not happy to see me?"
"That's not it at all," I say. "I just had big plans." Gale looks across the counter at the preparations I'd been making.
"Did you go hunting?" he asks, quirking an eyebrow as he turns back to me. My thumb has stopped bleeding now, but I continue to let Gale hold pressure against it.
"I did. And I actually shot something," I reply, sounding a bit arrogant myself.
"Ah," he replies. "I knew I was the perfect teacher."
I'm about to retort but he interrupts me. "Sit on the counter and hold this," he gestures towards the towel he has clasped around my thumb, "and I'll find something to patch you up." He leaves a moment to find my first aid supplies and returns, still grinning.
I've perched myself on the counter and he stands in front of me, gently removing the towel and inspecting the cut. It isn't deep. Gale places tiny kisses all around it before cleaning it. As he's bandaging it he begins talking.
"Peeta, I've been thinking." His tone sounds ominous and his features abruptly settle into a grave expression. Maybe he's changed his mind about our arrangement? Maybe he's realized that I can't possibly give him everything he needs?
"Y-Yes?" I stutter.
"I don't really want to live in the Victor's Village anymore."
My heart plummets. Here I was, about to make some kind of declaration and he's planning on moving back into town. He doesn't want to spend his nights with me anymore.
"Really?" I ask dumbly. "Why?"
"It just doesn't seem right to me. The only reason I ever lived there was because there wasn't anywhere else, and, come on, it's a nice place, right?" I nod, pursing my lips. "Why do you look so pale?" he adds.
"I-I had hoped...well...I thought that maybe..." The words I had planned seem so stupid now. So lovesick and ridiculous. Of course, this was merely about convenience, a temporary comfort. He thinks I'm better now and he can pursue other things. Gale continues to stare at me, confusion on his face. My cheeks begin to flush and I look away.
"Oh!" he exclaims, squeezing my hand. "You think I'm trying to get away from you."
"Aren't you?" I ask. He laughs and I feel worse.
"No, Peeta. Not at all. I just wanted to be closer to town, be in a place that was more like a home. A place without baggage. I wanted to ask if we could move in here, you and I, above the bakery."
"Look, I know we're both men, and we don't really talk about our feelings. I know this is different and probably weird and people might think we're odd,but...surely, you know...don't you?" His words take me from the pain of loss to soaring joy. I'm afraid to be presumptuous, but I think I do know.
"Know what, exactly?" I ask, noticing he's bandaged my finger and has moved between my knees where I sit on the counter. The heat radiating from his body warms my thighs. He's quiet for a moment, fingertips brushing a few stray hairs from my forehead. He swallows and I see his jaw flex.
"That I love you," says Gale. "I love love you. I understand I'm probably not what you pictured when imagining someone to spend your life with. I'm pretty damn certain you never thought you'd have a husband, and believe me, neither did I, but-"
I kiss him to stop his rambling so I can tell him I love him back.
Gale helps me clean up and we take the cake back to my house in the Victor's Village. I'm still giddy from his request to move above the bakery. I'd honestly never imagined living there, but what he says makes sense. That place can be ours, only ours. And Gale loves me. I love him and he freely returns it.
I go into the kitchen to put the cake down and Gale follows. As soon as my hands are free, he wraps me in the warmth of his familiar arms and peppers kisses across my cheeks, my chin, my throat. Seeking out his lips, I find them with my eyes closed. The kiss is lengthy and firm, the only movement I make is to circle my arms around his waist as his hands go into my hair. It ends and we both pull back to look at each other with raised eyebrows. I laugh with him when we realize we're wearing identical expressions. As is normal with us, we don't need to speak the words out loud when it's so clearly understood what we both want.
We find our way to my room side by side, birthdays, cakes, and hesitations forgotten. We undress each other, late afternoon light streaming through the curtains. I had thought, at one point, that the idea of myself naked in front of Gale would be terrifying, with my torso marred by wounds that still appear angry, my prosthetic leg awkwardly slender next to my real one. Yet I'm not. Gale is beautiful, but just as scarred as I am. Regardless, I can't feel awkward when Gale looks at me the way he is now, full of love and desire.
Again, our lips find each other, his nakedness matched against mine quickly making the kiss progress into something more, yet, just as tender. Never had I imagined that another person would be so warm once their flesh was pressed against mine. His hands are everywhere, reverently smoothing over my imperfections and making them perfect.
I remember Gale rescuing me from the Capitol. Seeing him, even as skewed as I was, made me feel hope. Hope that my life would be okay, again. I underestimated how big a part he would play in the return of hope.
In Gale, I've found everything.
We find our way to the bed and, for the first time, do more than sleep.
Time passes, as is common with time. Gale and I move in together. People talk, as is common with people. Most are happy for us. In the beginning, it wasn't uncommon to pass by and witness someone with a watery smile. I know what they're thinking, and try not to be offended when they don't see us for what we really are. They think we remain close due to a mutual need, an empty place that needed filling. Although that could be considered true, we both understand it's more than that. The loss of Katniss is no longer a gaping wound; it's scarred over, healed as much as it will. You can still see it, but it doesn't hurt all the time anymore.
Eventually, we start a family. Plenty of children, orphaned or displaced in war, now need a home. We find that we have enough love to spare, Gale and I. Life has never been anything but full to the point of bursting with him.
There are times when I have nightmares, but Gale is there every night to remind me of what's real. The flashbacks come and go in waking hours, but I have a firm grip on where I am now, what's true and false.
We spend years together, and I never once have to ask myself if Gale is real or not real.
We grow old. Gale asks me if he was enough, and I answer him without hesitation, "Yes. More than enough."