This is wrong. I know it's wrong, and Gale knows it's wrong. And yet, neither of us are doing a single thing to stop it.
He's still kissing me. His lips are warm and soft against mine, expressive in their movements. His arms are strong as they embrace me, pulling me closer, but not forcing me to him; Gale is more respectful than that, taking heed to the fact that I could - and should - shove him away at any moment now. But all it would take would be the slightest puckering of my lips, a gentle inclination towards him and I would be kissing him too.
Instead, I do nothing. I wait for Gale to finish, for I am powerless; too stunned to make a single move.
Eventually he does pull away, and my lips grow cold again. He studies me, holding me at arm's length for any sign that I've had an emotional reaction to him. But instead, I remain blank; no good, no bad. For I don't know how I'm feeling after all this, and apparently neither does he.
"So... uh..." Gale's breathing is warm and heavy, his words breathless. "Tomorrow. Same time, same place. Bring your bow." And without another word he releases me completely, and is whisked out the kitchen door.
My mind is reeling; my body still sings, searing, although there is nothing restraining it. Gale is no longer at my lips or wrapped around me but I feel him as if he were; he is everywhere.
Hurriedly I collect the tea pot and our half empty cups in my arms and dump them into the sink. Warm water streams from the faucet and I scrub at the china crockery without mercy; Gale's lips were here, I think. Before they were on mine, they were on the rim of this cup, and no amount of scrubbing is going to disperse that blistering warmth that's erupted across my skin.
I only hope that when Peeta returns in the evening, he cannot see this blooming case of the Seam that's colored my flesh.
But all I think about as the sun creeps over the other side of the house is Gale; how he had so smoothly appeared to me again, after all these years, and just as easily he's fled again. But I will see him; I'll see him in the morning, and the very notion terrifies me.
What if he's not there waiting for me? It's entirely possible after what he did today that he'll leave the district, never to face me again. Gale knows the boundaries, and he knows he's overstepped them. Though I'm not sure if he knows just how lenient I was in letting him.
He'll come. I know Gale. He'll be there.
Somewhere in my chest, an old and out of tune note of excitement strikes loud and clear.
It's not until seven-thirty until Peeta returns home with the children, is arms laden down with bouquets of bread. It's gotten to be laborious, but I appreciate the gesture; whenever he hurts me, he mends my wounds with icing and pastries. Cheese buns, fresh loaves filled with fruit and nuts, sweet rolls and sticks; my children have grown on a diet of bread and game, and not one of us has ever served to complain. When I accept the bread from Peeta, the hesitance in his eyes melts away to reveal bright and blue sincerity that is overjoyed that for the moment, I still love him.
Even as the night passes and I am surrounded by my family, arms deep in the life I have resigned myself to, my mind remains in the woods. It yearns for what awaits, and relishes the fear that pounds in time with my heart into the night. Once or twice, I'm sure that Peeta sees it; that my eyes are vacant and my heart is hollow of my involvement with him and our children.
He has the sense not to unearth it, but that night when we go to bed, he winds his arm more tightly around me than usual.
When morning comes, I find myself completely unprepared. I'd spent the entire night restless and rigid, my eyes tracking the journey of the moon across the sky, reliving the agony of the past. Gale's face is in all of my memories; swooping Prim away from me, and urging me to the stage that would begin my journey to death. Bound to the whipping post, his back stripped of skin but his heart never stripped of its dignity. His hands on either side of my face, holding me fast and steady, as he dared to place his lips to mine at least once more.
Outside, the grey of dawn holds a new tension as it spurs me. The morning is crisp and cool as I slip into my hunting gear and fasten my quiver with trembling fingers, willing myself to focus on the warm of my jacket than the coldness that emanated from Peeta's arms as I slithered free from them. He does not belong out there, with me, beyond the bounds of this house. So with deep and tremulous breaths I leave him behind.
The waiting arms of the trees greet me as old friends, and usher me among their number. I slip silently into the shade of the greenery and turn my feet lightly, not wanting to disturb the calm that they so graciously supply. It feels strange to return to the woods with a sense of purpose; my haven of survival, preserved as lush and powerful as the day I first entered it, entraps me. I am no longer in control of my stride. The breeze guides me as the canopy draws me further towards the place where I'm sure that Gale will be. Just as he always was.
It's not long before I reach our ledge. I have rarely returned to it for fear of the agony it would cause me, but to see him waiting, dressed smart and warm with a sleek new bow under his fingers, draws all feeling entirely. I can no longer feel my heart as I turn to it for guidance; usually it will tell me to run in either direction. But the fact that it is dormant tells me I mustn't run, for there is no point.
Gale is here. I am here. That means it's time to hunt.
When he sees me approach him, his face warms. But as he stands and scoops up his equipment, he is guarded and reluctant to be near me, as if being within a breath of me could elicit a replay of whatever incurred between us yesterday. I smile, thankful for the space; even so close I feel heated and airy.
Wordlessly, we set off into the forest to reignite our former ritual.
It's strange how effortless the morning is for us. I had thought it would be awkward and strained, but instead I feel as natural as I ever have with Gale by my side. Once again we move as two parts of the same being, silent and wary of the forest all around us, scoping prey and working in tandem to become a singular flawless entity. The precision with which we hunt is unrivalled; I know I will never be able to find anyone like Gale.
It is after we've brought down three pheasants, a handful of squirrels and a sizable buck that we finally notice how the day has begun without us; the sun is high and the atmosphere warming. Everything is becoming lazy and comfortable, evident by the ever-present smile on my lips.
We sit by the creek, enjoying this complacency between us, when suddenly Gale speaks for the first time all day. "What're we going to do with this?" he says, his eyes roaming the game sprawled between us.
I merely shrug at him. "Sell it, I guess. People still pay good money for game like this. Unless you want me to roast it for you." When Gale's brow creases in disbelief, almost disdain, I feel myself flush.
"What?" I demand.
"You? Cook this?" His smile is jeering.
"What's wrong with that?"
Gale raises his hands defensively, his grin growing ever wider. "Nothing, nothing. Just never picked you for being Supreme Housewife Katniss."
Although I flare with rage for Gale's indignant remark, I'm not as offended as I feel I should be. His smile is too boyish, grey eyes bright and challenging. I try so hard not to smile, but he coaxes one from me anyway. Biting on my tongue, I turn away. "Don't start," I warn him. "You'll spoil today."
I'm as surprised by my remark as Gale is. I'd not yet verbally acknowledged how... natural I felt. It was as if we had never left, and all the wounds between us had never been inflicted. The welcome calm of the woods has been amplified, and it is only just now that I'm realizing that feeling has returned to my body. I question when it left me, and how long I have lived without the awareness of every nerve and every sensation.
Embarrassed by my admission, my attention turns back to my arrows as I profusely clean them in my lap.
"Call me stupid," Gale says after a while, "But I don't think anything could spoil today."
Finishing the last of my arrows, I carefully slot them one by one into their quiver. "Well, then, you're stupid." But he and I both know that nothing really could ruin today.
So when his hand finds mine among my arrow shafts, I don't object. In fact, I don't even object when he pries them away from me, or when he shifts himself a little closer to caress my cheek. My eyes meet his, and he's not a stranger anymore. This is Gale, the young, frightened boy I was drawn to because he alone held my salvation. He is the best friend I had lost, the love I never knew.
I'm not even surprised when his lips once again find mine, because the furious drumming of my heart has been crying to warn me of it. Now that I am alive, I am able to feel.
Gale's lips are soft and full and warm, and not at all demanding. In fact, they linger against mine, hesitant to move any further. Still as a statue, I note how fine this feels; his fingertips gently skim my skin and it burns beneath his touch. A match strikes within my chest and my body screams for me to do something, and do something now so that it may continue to feel and touch and smell and taste and experience what it's like to be alive.
All it would take is the smallest parting of my lips, a gentle pucker of mine to his, and I will be lost to sensation.
In this moment, nothing else matters. Not our lives beyond the woods or the people that may be hurt. There is only me and Gale and the promise of a fire that will not burn me. So when I give in, I kiss him with all the ferocity who realizes just how dead she had become.