As with all stories on this site, this is a work of fanfiction and I do not own any of the characters. The Hunger Games and characters belong to Suzanne Collins.
A/N: Firstly, a warning. This story is slash. If you don't know what that is, look it up then come back if you want to read. Please don't read then flame me!
I've written this in third person, which I know isn't the de facto viewpoint for Hunger Games fics. I hope it still works.
Mint Tea and Firelight
Gale wakes at a sound in the night, turns, and almost falls off the couch he is sleeping on.
"Damn," he whispers, gripping the plush cushions and he pricks and ear for whatever has woken him. He tells himself that maybe it was just a fox in the bushes outside, but he knows better. There's a reason why he's been sleeping in this room, on the couch, for three months, and it isn't because his family's house has been completely destroyed. Well, not completely because of that.
That's the noise he was waiting for. Definitely not a fox. Gale slides quietly off the couch and walks over to the large bed that dominates the room. Peeta turns restlessly in his sleep, clutching the covers as Gale approaches, muttering a constant stream of pleas for help mingled with small yelps of pain.
The nightmares come at the same time every night, when the moon is about to dip below the great mountains that edge District 12 and used to provide a livelihood to the miners who spent their days deep inside their dark tunnels. The sun is still a long way from rising, and the darkest part of the night is about to begin.
Gale puts his hand on Peeta's brow, smoothes his hair, and mutters in what he hopes is a soothing way.
He wonders how he has come to be here, caring for the ruined shell of what used to be Peeta Mellark, hero of the revolution, out in the ruins of District 12.
Peeta Mellark. The boy that Gale has spent most of his life detesting, a feeling that has only intensified in the three years since his name was drawn in the reaping for the 74th Hunger Games. He never thought that he would be jealous of anyone who had been selected to face the torment of the arena and the bloodbath inside, but that year he had wished more than anything that it had been his name that had been called, so that he could protect her. Protect Katniss Everdeen. Katniss. He never says her name, hardly even thinks it to himself, but she is the reason that he is here now, comforting the poor, addled shell of a man that was once just a simple baker's son. He remembers her last words to him very clearly, before she walked off into the forest, never to be seen again.
"Look after him, Gale, Help him to remember. You owe me that much."
He had tried to follow her through the woods, had thought she might even be waiting for him at their rock, their favourite place. But he could find no trace of her anywhere.
"Shhh," Gale whispers again, smoothing the hand that is clasping the sheets until Peeta lets go. Satisfied that the nightmares are over, at least until tomorrow night, Gale allows himself to drift off to sleep curled next to Peeta, arm outstretched to calm any more terrors that might come.
He is woken by the sunlight hitting him in the eye as the curtains are drawn back by Peeta's housekeeper, Verbena.
"I'm going to be cleaning out the fireplace today, so no coming into the living room and trailing soot everywhere, okay?" She turns around and her face softens a little. Gale thinks he knows why. She probably thinks they are a cute couple.
It wouldn't be the first time that people have assumed that he and Peeta are lovers, for a lack of a better word. How else could people explain the way he suddenly moved into Peeta's house? The way that Peeta never goes down to the markets or out to his father's old bakery without Gale hovering close by?
About a month after 'That Day', as Gale has come to call it in his head, his mother and younger siblings came to the door of Peeta's house, and then proceeded to sit down at the rough wood kitchen table and tell Gale how excited they were that he had finally found a way to be happy. Gale didn't know what to say, didn't want to tell him that this didn't make him happy, that it was his punishment for what he had done during the war. So he just sipped quietly on his tea and offered them more sandwiches. It seemed the proper thing to do.
Now, two months after his family's little 'talk', Gale is used to the subtle smiles of congratulation he sees when walking around the ruins of District 12 with Peeta, trying to figure out which parts need repairing and which ones are quite beyond anyone's help. He is also used to the not-so-subtle winks and nudges from shopkeepers when he is out buying supplies by himself, when Peeta is too tired to leave the house. Those are the most uncomfortable times. Most of the time spent out of the house is uncomfortable for Gale, because nobody knows the real reason he sticks to Peeta like the sap of a freshly cut tree sticks to an axe.
"You owe me that much."
The debt he has to repay.
Nobody can tell whether it was his bomb that killed her sister, along with all the children she was trying to help. Gale thinks it probably doesn't matter now. If her love for Peeta, which he accepts exists, though it hurts him to admit it, couldn't keep her here, then the unknowable answer to this question probably would have had no effect either. He had been willing to sacrifice children, and anyone sent to help them, in order to win the war. Well, now the war was won, and Gale had to pick up the pieces.
"So, down to breakfast, then?' Peeta smiles brightly up at him, his blonde hair fanning out across the pillow, blue eyes slightly clouded with sleep.
Gale nods, and drags himself off the sheets so that Peeta can get out of bed. He's always bright like this in the morning, almost painfully so, like a flash of light bouncing of a piece of cut glass. Gale sometimes thinks Peeta knows why he stayed; why he keeps such a close watch on him; why he holds his hand tightly when they walk around the markets, like a child that might run away if not kept close. At these times Gale feels like he has to be bright too, as if they are both actors running through a script that neither of them believes in.
"I wonder what's arrived for breakfast today?" Gale splashes some water on his face and pulls on a jersey. It's not warm enough in the mornings yet not to need one.
He hopes the tone of his voice was cheerful enough, and didn't catch on the words. Gale still finds it hard to accept that food is delivered to them on a regular basis. He spent so much of his life being the sole provider, bringing home illegal spoils from the woods to ensure that his family did not go hungry. He feels like he is taking advantage of the service that people are doing to Peeta. This is meant to be his punishment. Why should they make it easy for him?
"I hope it's some of that new season stone fruit," Peeta's response breaks Gale's train of thought, "did you hear that there's a massive harvest of plums this year? It seems they grow better in District 5 than they did in District 11."
Peeta's knowledge of the activities in the other districts surprises Gale for a second, then he remembers that Verbena sometimes likes to turn on their seldom-used television while she cleans.
"Have you been watching the news again? Anything else interesting happening?"
Gale asks, but doesn't really expect Peeta to volunteer anything. The mental torture inflicted by the Capitol during the war means that he can't remember much about people he once knew, so the majority of the news programmes being broadcast across Panem mean nothing to him.
Fixing that is part of Gale's job.
Breakfast turns out to be plums, just like Peeta predicted. Served with some bread that Peeta baked yesterday and butter from the cows that live out behind the houses in what used to be the Victor's Village, it is a far more luxurious breakfast than Gale enjoyed at any time before the war. Except maybe before that Reaping that changed everything.
"The benefits of living with a baker," he smiles, holding up a slice of bread as a salute to the master baker himself. He quickly lowers it and chastises himself. He does not live with Peeta. He is only here to look after him, to keep him safe. What she wanted.
Peeta smiles back, unaware of the mental war that is raging inside Gale's head. He puts a plum in his mouth and chews slowly, spitting out the clean stone at the end.
"Since the living room is out of bounds," he grins playfully, "where are we going to have our 'lesson' today?"
Ah, the lessons. Peeta's acceptance of the need to rake through his memory still surprises Gale, even after months of the same routine. He doesn't think he would be quite so sanguine about having his memories twisted and warped so that all he remembered as good turned to bad, let alone having to re-live all his most private experiences in order to sort out the false memories from the truth. Then again, Gale thinks, Peeta probably wouldn't do a lot of things that Gale has done in his life. Sacrifice children, for one.
He shakes his head. Dwelling on memories of Prim and the war never leads anywhere worth going to.
"I don't know," he looks out the window, "The meadow is probably nice enough if there wasn't much dew last night." He picks up their plates and carries them to the sink, brushing the crumbs out the open window for the birds.
"How about the forest?" Peeta suggests, and Gale turns to look at him suspiciously. He stares back, eyes wide and guileless, and his smile hesitant. Is he suggesting this because he knows the forest was their special place, where Gale could be alone with the real Katniss? No. Peeta just thinks the wooded area that borders District 12 is a nice place to be on an early spring day.
"Sure, why not. Grab your things and we'll go."
Peeta ambles upstairs to his room and Gale goes to his. He ignores the bed, freshly made ever since that first night when he found Peeta crying out in terror while he slept. He thinks about her, and how they must have slept curled together to protect each other against the world, for him to reach out like that in his sleep. A tight feeling starts to rise in his chest, and Gale pushes it down. Don't think about her. Think about Peeta, and how he needs repairing. Think about his kindness, and his generosity, and all the things that made her fall in love with him. A warm feeling replaces the tightening in his chest, until a thump from downstairs sends him hurrying out of his room.
Peeta is standing at the bottom of the stairs, looking at a large book with thick, yellowed pages that is now lying on the floor.
He smiles sheepishly up at him, "Guess my arms just couldn't hold it."
Gale picks up the book and puts it in his own pack, "No problem, who knows what that venom is still doing to your system." He smiles like it is no big deal and leads Peeta out into the sunlight and the path that runs in front of the houses that make up the old Victor's Village. Inside, he is mentally filing this information away, right next to 'Peeta still has night terrors'; 'The Tracker Jacker venom still sometimes affects his muscles.'
Peeta doesn't show any more signs of pain or spasm all the way to the edge of the town, where the remains of the fence that used to hold them all captive still sit rusting into the ground.
In the forest now, Gale lets his hunter's instincts take over for a second. Are there any animals near by? Any pairs of eyes looking out on them from a bush? No. Everything is silent, probably scared away by Peeta's loud footfalls behind him. At least Gale knows he could never lose Peeta in here. The moss on the trees and leaves composting on the ground send out a wet aroma as they walk, and the treetops rustle, blown by a breeze that does not make its way down to the forest floor.
Soon they come to a clearing in the trees, and Gale realises this is where he has been walking to without even meaning to. In fact, he isn't even sure he wants to be here. It was mainly just reflex that guided his footfalls through the trees.
A flat rock sits among the bushes, slightly raised and giving a good view of the surrounding area. Gale stops. This was their rock, and he feels somehow that he shouldn't have brought Peeta here. It feels wrong. One look at Peeta tells him that this is probably correct.
He has his eyes closed, and beads of sweat are starting to form across his upper lip and at his brow. He clenches his fists at his side and rolls his head around, as if trying to stretch away some invisible demon clinging to his back. When he opens his eyes, Gale realises that he can breathe again.
Peeta always looks like that when he is fighting against the false memories implanted in him during his time as a prisoner in the Capitol.
"This was your place, wasn't it?" His tone is hushed, would be almost reverent, if Gale couldn't hear the strain in his voice and he tries to keep it level, "I mean, you and her."
Gale has already gathered from the way he said 'yours', and wonders if Peeta is saying that just to rub it in. Katniss and Peeta had loved each other. They had shared everything, even things that Gale had thought she would never tell anyone.
He tries to clear his head. Thoughts like that are bitter, gaping holes that he has spent years trying to close. Even though stitching himself together every time gets easier, he doesn't want to go through it again.
Instead of answering, Gale just nods and pats the rock, sitting down and taking out the thick book. It was hers, originally, but Gale can hardly see that now. So many of the pages are covered in Peeta's colourful drawings and smudged sketches, with his own scrawling hand marring the pages at intervals, that he can almost forget how it had started.
Right after the war ended, when she was still around, Peeta was almost going insane from the venom injected into him to alter his memories. Anything to do with his friends, his family, the rebellion or its organisers had been steeped in a haze of waking nightmares and pain. He could no longer trust his memories, because they had been specifically engineered to feed him lies. It had been her idea to make the book.
She suggested that Peeta draw things that he remembered, and the new things that they saw as they toured around Panem watching the districts rebuild themselves and start to heal. 'Help him to forget,' she had said. Gale didn't know how to make anyone forget, so he helped Peeta to remember. The book helped. As long as neither of them mentioned where it had come from.
"Let's start with this," he opens the book to a sketch of a baby running through long grasses, with sand dunes looming in the background. It is lightly coloured in chalks, Gale notices, and he is not sure whether it is something Peeta has added since they last looked at it. The woman behind the child, presumably his mother, smiles after him with a faraway look in her eyes.
"That's Annie Odair," begins Peeta, pointing at the woman, "and her baby. His father is," he corrects himself, "…was, Finnick – Odair!" He gasps and reaches out for Gale's hand as his altered memories rise to the surface.
"He was a … a… TRAITOR!" He spits the words out, like poison sucked from a snakebite, startling some birds in a nearby tree. Gale puts his hand on his back and moves it in small circles. Peeta is shaking from the effort.
"No, that's not right, he was… a friend. An ally," Peeta manages to grunt out. Gale squeezes his hand to let him know he's on the right track.
"He was a champion. He was from District 4. He was a good swimmer. He helped… us in the Arena," he pauses on 'us', as if the memory has become thicker to work through, like wading through a mud puddle. Probably because he has to think about her, Gale reasons.
"Yes, you're getting better," Gale never really knows what to say without sounding like a schoolteacher. Peeta is doing well. Far better than he was with her, Gale thinks with a little malice. How could she leave him to suffer like this?
In the early days, every session with the book ended with Peeta on the ground, writing in pain and clawing at the horrible images in his mind. Now any images that don't relate to her, or the last few months of the war, come to Peeta with no trouble. Gale tries to save these ones for the end, for Peeta to have happy and easy memories to end their work for the day.
"That's District 12," Peeta points to the picture of trees in glowing autumn colours, with rows of small wooden houses lined between them. "That's where Rue was from."
Rue. Gale watched her die, like all the citizens of Panem did, forced to watch as the competitors in the 74th Hunger Games slowly eliminated one another. No, Gale corrects himself, as they were forced to murder each other. That had been the seeds of the revolution.
"That was the Hob," Peeta is now looking at a sketch of District 12. A District 12 before the fire that ravaged all the buildings in the Seam, the semi-shanty town that used to be Gale's home, and forced them to rebuild.
"That's my father's bakery. Those are the mines. District 12 used to only produce coal."
When Peeta has finished going through most of the images with no more problems, he shuts it with a thud and rests his head against Gale's shoulder.
"I think I'm getting better," he sounds pleased with himself, and Gale can't bring himself to bring him down by acknowledging that yes, he is better, but it will probably be more than a year before his memory is back to normal, even with this little left to do.
"Let's go back, it's getting dark." Gale shoulders his pack and makes sure that Peeta has his jersey on. The sun has gone behind the clouds and the once-bright day is grey and gloomy.
Later that night, sitting in front of the fire, Gale can almost forget about the reason that he is here, and imagine that he and Peeta are just friends, lovers, acquaintances; anything but two people tied together because of the horror that they faced during the war, and their love for a girl who couldn't love them back.
Night time is the easiest. The false brightness of the morning is gone, when Gale always fears that Peeta knows why he stayed and only keeps up the charade because he wants Gale to help him get better. At night they relax, talk about plants, books, what Peeta wants to bake tomorrow. Gale likes it.
Peeta takes a sip of his tea, infused with mint that Gale picked on the way home. He has his feet tucked under him on the sofa like a cat, and Gale's arm is resting along the back, ready to grab Peeta at any sign that something is wrong. That seldom happens, though; more likely is that Gale will wrap his arm around Peeta's shoulders if he falls asleep, or push his hair back when it falls in his eyes.
Peeta sighs and puts his tea down on the low table in front of them. Gale thinks this is strange. Peeta always finishes his tea before putting down the empty mug, as if the heat from the liquid inside will soak into his body and burn out the poison. He shifts uncomfortably.
"I know why she left," Peeta begins, then pauses to pick at the blanket on the arm of the sofa. "It was because I couldn't love her anymore," the matter of fact way that he says this tells Gale he has been building up to this for a while. Why didn't he notice it earlier? He watches Peeta constantly. Surely there would have been some outward sign that he had been thinking of things like this?
Gale feels the words like a slap in the face that comes each time he is reminded of her and how she chose Peeta, when it came down to it.
"She came to me, right before she left. To make sure that I couldn't remember all that time together. I told her I did remember, but it still didn't matter. I guess she could see it in my eyes. Something happened to my brain when they… altered it."
Gale can see that this is hard for him, almost as hard as their session of remembering today, and squeezes Peeta's hand for strength.
Peeta takes a deep breath and continues, "I can remember everything, but it feels like it happened to someone else. Like a television highlights reel playing inside my head."
Gale opens his mouth to stop him. Peeta doesn't have to explain. Why now? Why the sudden need to share? But Peeta barrels on, apparently having gained momentum.
"She never touched me unless she had to, you know," he has changed track now, and Gale isn't sure how this is relevant, "Not unless it was for the cameras, or to hold herself up, or to help the revolution… or to save my life," he murmurs quietly.
"I can look back at it all, I know that she loved me, but it didn't seem real, would never seem real."
He closes his eyes, and Gale is about to tell him that this doesn't mean he was the reason she left. Why would she tell me to look after you, if she didn't care? Peeta shouldn't be so self-centred. Then his brain processes Peeta's words. She only touched me if she had to. What would Peeta say if he knew the reason Gale had stayed? That he was only here because he was told to, guilted into it with the memory of the children and the rebels that he may or may not have killed? That keeping Peeta safe is the way that he is paying off his guilty conscience.
He doesn't have to think for long, because Peeta is talking again, looking down at his hands.
"I told her that three months ago. She left the next day," he breathes out through his nose, as though he has been holding his breath. "I just wanted you to know that. In case you wondered." He twists his hands together and looks up, and suddenly Gale is aware of how large and blue Peeta's eyes are. They make him look younger than he should, someone who has lived through a war, who has killed people.
"I just want you to know I…" Peeta pauses again and shifts closer to Gale, "I know the reason you stayed," he is very close now, and Gale wonders if they normally sit this close, or if it is just his imagination. Then it registers. Peeta knows the reason why he stayed. Crap. Double crap.
He opens his mouth to apologise, to try to explain, at exactly the same moment that Peeta leans in and presses his lips to Gale's.
His lips are warm and soft against Gale's already-open mouth, and Gale leans into the kiss as Peeta gently touches the side of his face. Then his mind catches up to his body and he realises that Peeta probably doesn't know the reason why he stayed after all.
Just a hunch.
With his mind now out of panic mode Gale is free to think about more pressing things, like Peeta's fingers gently stroking his cheek and the back of his neck, or the warmth where their thighs touch. Now, Gale wants to be closer. He runs his hand around Peeta's waist, between the rough leather of his belt and the soft cotton of his shirt. Gale made Peeta that belt, one night late in the winter, and the memory of Peeta's face when Gale gave it to him makes him smile against Peeta's lips.
Now he has his hand on Peeta's back, with no clothing separating them. He strokes the soft skin in small circles, much like he does every night to stop Peeta's tremors, but this time his fingers are probing, inquisitive. Like he can memorise the shape of Peeta by tracing it with his fingertips. The other boy's hands are inside his own shirt now, and Gale feels the cool sensation of air against his chest. Peeta's hands trace around his stomach, gently up and down his sides, then move to his back…
Gale flinches. Peeta pulls back from nibbling the side of Gale's throat, the action that had distracted Gale so much that he had almost relaxed completely. "What is it?" He murmurs, pulling his shirt closed nervously.
"My back," Gale breathes out, unsure why he is whispering. There's nobody else in the house, and the words are almost lost in the crackling of the fire.
"Your scars?" Peeta lets his shirt hang back open, now certain that Gale wasn't flinching because he wanted him to stop. Peeta knows about the scars, of course. Everyone who lived in District 12 before the rebellion does.
Before the Quarter Quell, the Games that marked the beginning of the end for the Capitol, the Peacekeepers had begun to keep a tighter watch on District 12. Gale had been unlucky enough to get caught with a wild turkey he had shot in the woods, and was punished with a whipping so severe that he passed out when his mind could not process the pain any more.
As a reminder, his back is covered in a lattice of raised scars and twisted flesh, and every time he catches a reflection of his back in a mirror or a pane of glass, Gale is reminded of the day that he got those scars. He had been weak, wanting to run away with her when she told him of her plan to flee. He almost had, right there and then, left his family to fend for themselves and hurried off into the woods, to escape the control of the Capitol and just be with her. Of course he stayed, once he heard about the possibility of an uprising, and fought like all the rest. But the scars are his reminder of that moment of weakness, when he would have given up everything for her.
"We all have battle scars." Peeta pats his own leg, and Gale remembers that the bottom half was amputated after the Hunger Games and replaced with a prosthetic. It's easy to forget, since he walks so well. It has become an extension of his leg by now. Gale exhales and moves his eyes back up to Peeta's face, flushed from the kissing and looking at him with concern. He shifts slightly to get some space, then pulls his shirt off in one swift motion, throwing it onto the floor at their feet.
At this sign of surrender, Peeta almost pounces on Gale, sliding quickly along the couch to close the distance between them in seconds. He places light kisses along Gale's cheekbones and down his jaw, concentrating on the slightly rough underside of his chin where it meets his neck. Gale takes his hands and places them on his back, pulling Peeta tight enough to smell the sharp citrus of the soap he uses to wash his hair mixed with the fresh green smell their time in the woods has left almost imprinted into his skin.
Peeta's hands on his back are like nothing he has ever felt before. He felt Prim's hands, and of course her mother's hands when they healed him. He doesn't want to think of them now, but the difference forces him to recall their touches. Healing hands. Soothing the pain from the lashes and cooling the inflamed skin. Peeta's hands are healing in a different way. Instead of cooling they trace hot lines of fire against his back, as though his fingers are tipped with coals.
The pleasure is so strong that Gale finds it almost impossible to pull himself gently back from the embrace of the now shirtless Peeta, but he does, slowly. He wonders where Peeta's shirt has gone, until he sees it hanging over the top of the tall lamp behind them. Did I do that? He wonders. All the kissing seems to have started to freeze his mind, so that his thoughts move slowly like a stream starting to ice over. Gale uses the distance now between them to study Peeta. He traces his hand over Peeta's jaw, glowing yellow and gold in the firelight. The skin is soft and free of hair. Ever since he went to the Capitol, the hair on his face has refused to grow. This makes him look young, vulnerable, even though Gale knows that he has killed people, that this boy – or more correctly, man – sitting in front of him has come closer to death more times than Gale ever expected to.
As if sensing the dark roads Gale's thoughts are leading him down, Peeta stands up, pulling Gale with him with his right hand, which is tightly locked with Gale's. "It's getting late. I think it's time to sleep now."
Peeta leads Gale upstairs, and Gale follows him, his feet grateful to be treading a path that he has been following for months. He is surprised that this new development with Peeta hasn't thrown him off balance already, forcing him to stop and think about how his life is going down a path he never imagined.
When they reach Peeta's bedroom, Gale starts to move towards the couch he has been sleeping on for the last six months. It's like putting a hand up when the glare from the sun hits you in the eyes – automatic. His hand still locked in Peeta's stops him, and he looks down as if surprised to see that they are still touching. Peeta's hand just feels like a natural extension of his arm, instead of an intrusion into his personal space as Gale usually views most touches.
"You don't need to sleep there tonight," Peeta whispers, curling hair falling into his eyes and making him look more modest than he can claim to be, for someone who almost tackled Gale off the couch mere minutes ago. "Or any other night."
He begins to undress, although there isn't much left since Gale ripped off his shirt in what would probably be described as an 'uncontrollable fit of lust', if anyone were there to see it. Gale smiles, and looks up to see Peeta strip off his underclothes and slip quickly between the sheets of the turned down bed. He slowly begins to remove his own clothes. The worn belt, light trousers, underclothes. He tries to make light of the situation as he climbs into the bed, aware of his own nervousness but not keen to let Peeta know.
"At least I get to sleep under the covers tonight. I was beginning to think you'd never share."
Peeta gives a small giggle, but Gale can hear it hitch at the end. He reaches out and touches Peeta's upper arm, and can feel a light trembling running through his body. Peeta is scared. He has faced countless attempts on his life, torture at the hands of a despotic regime, and yet he is nervous to be in bed with Gale. Someday, Gale will drag this memory out every time he needs to boost his ego. But now, all he can think of is calming Peeta.
"It's all right, it's just me." He whispers, shifting his arm underneath Peeta so that he is supported. This time he is the one to initiate the kiss, gently at first then with more passion as Peeta stops trembling and begins to relax against Gale's broad chest. After a few more kisses, Gale can feel that Peeta is beginning to get sleepy. He kisses each of his eyelids and murmurs, "Sleep. I'll still be here in the morning." He is just about to drift off himself, when he hears Peeta whisper, just louder than a breath of wind,
"I know. You're always here."
Peeta does not wake in the night.
The next time Gale is aware of his surroundings it is when Verbena comes in and opens the curtains, same as every morning. She smiles down at the two of them, Peeta's head pillowed against Gale's arm, which he seems to have lost all feeling in, then makes her way out of the room to prepare breakfast. Everything for her is the same as it always is. Except it isn't for Gale.
He looks down at Peeta, who is beginning to turn in his sleep, roused by the light streaming in from the window. Peeta is smiling slightly, all the lines of worry erased from his forehead. Then he stirs, and his brows crease in distress. Gale rubs his side, the small of his back, up to the pale shoulders topped in small freckles. Peeta's face softens again, and he leans back against Gale.
"I thought you'd left." Peeta mutters into the pillow, clearly a little embarrassed at his display of insecurity.
"Never," says Gale, and takes the opportunity to hold Peeta tighter, to feel the full length of his body pressed against his own. Here are the bones of his spine, so familiar to Gale from the nights spent quelling the nightmares, but so different now that he is touching them for a different reason.
Or is it a different reason? Gale looks down at Peeta, sleeping soundly in the early morning light. Gale remembers all the times that he has pushed Peeta's hair back, or casually looped an arm around his waist while they are out walking. She never touched him unless she had to. Gale touches Peeta all the time. He justified it as helping Peeta heal, but Gale can't think now why smoothing Peeta's burnished gold locks back would ever be something someone else had told him to do. Maybe he hasn't stayed because she wanted him to. Maybe the reason is a lot simpler than that.
Gale remembers Verbena's smiles whenever she comes to open the curtains and he is lying there next to Peeta. The winks and nods as he holds Peeta's hand through the markets when they go out to buy supplies. They definitely think he stayed for a different reason. Peeta thought he stayed for a different reason. All these people think they know why Gale stayed, and he starts to think that maybe he's the one who didn't. His mother and siblings told him they were glad that Peeta made him happy. Gale wonders at this now, as he looks down at Peeta resting softly against his side, how his family had seen what it has taken him so long to.
She wasn't the reason that he stayed.
Gale stayed because he is happy.