a/n; BEEN A WHILE.

Rated M for overall theme, a few rounds of nasty language, and most importantly, sex. It's not explicit, don't get too excited. Near plot-less. This is also super cheesy. Please consume Dulcolax before/after reading.

| winter chill |


Anyone who lives in District Twelve will tell you three out of four seasons in a year are boring, drab, and predictable.

Spring blooms like it should, and it rains like it should, off and on, crisp and warm for hardy crops to be harvested - dandelions, dill weed and masses of brush, hidden with rich, strong herbs. Chewy grasses sprout a deep green over the graves of the other, once beautiful fields.

Summer comes around in mid-to-late May, every day burning just a little brighter. Speckles of purple and yellow flowers peep up between grasses and brush, but you only see those if you dare to step in the forest. The sun drips from yellow to golden the further the year gets into the months, heating to a peak, then decreasing in speed.

The leaves transition to Autumn, into browns and reds and oranges, wind picking up enough to pluck the leaves off of branches, slowly undressing them to their bones. The sky goes from blue to a light gray, clouds arriving and refusing to leave.

Those seasons are all predictable - the same. Routines never have to change. Life in them always plows on with a sullen, sluggish perseverance, the sun falling because it has to, the moon reluctantly taking its designated throne in the murky blue depths of night.

But when winter comes, things change. Frozen dew makes the yellowing grass stand on end, like the hair on a dog's back, hyperaware and unprepared. The clouds flatten and scream white one day, then thicken and fluff and turn smoky the next. Will it snow or will it rain? It might hail, it may sleet. Wind will erode the sides of houses and branches, then it will still, as if the earth stops breathing. A giant pause holds every living thing in its palm, waiting for the signal to begin again.

Winter does not persevere. It watches, it bates your heart with ice, it stays for as long as it wants. It rains only to freeze the water to skin, frosts trees to take the place of leaves. It kills all the vegetation to paint the ground in the white it creates, ruling over the land. It's visceral and it's raw, cutting deep into the flesh of the people to watch veins constrict and cheeks pink, for lips to crack and eyes to glaze. Because winter likes what it can do, what it can make, what it can suffocate and what it can bring to life.

In the midst of the chill, it ignores the predictable. It lingers for the change.


It started when Katniss was fifteen. She remembers because it was two years after Katniss met Gale in the forest. But more than that, it was because Gale was very... well...

She couldn't pinpoint the right word. He'd always been a tomcat, following and leaving tittering, blushing girls in his wake. The ones she saw were pretty. Pretty enough from the pool of District Twelve girls. It wasn't as if there was an eclectic selection. She didn't care enough to take the time to size them up. In fact, most of the year, she didn't care much about anything except hunting and taking care of Prim. Gale and her were companions, possibly even friends if she was bold enough to admit that. But what she could admit was that he was reliable in the sport of surviving. They used each other to get what they needed, and their companionship grew from only that. She wondered, sometimes, if the hunt - the survival - ever gave out, if they'd still keep a routine with each other. If Snow's tyranny ever ended, would they acknowledge each other from a distance?

Katniss didn't think so. She didn't consider them open with one another. Would she tell him her secrets, if she had any? Her heart inclined more toward the no than the yes.

Perhaps the word she was trying to find was - inconsistent. Ever changing. Gale would smile at her one day, briefly, then they wouldn't speak a word to each other for a week. They would talk about small things, a few sentences at a time. Then he wouldn't be around to hunt with her the next days. He was aloof in the way his actions ranged. She wasn't an expert with things like emotional depth, but that, she could tell. She didn't spend much time thinking about it. It was just the way it was. And things like that, she got used to.

When winter came that year, it didn't seem like it would be a bad one. The wind was calm for the first few weeks, and the air still had some moisture. That was a good sign. It meant no one had to worry about an unexpected snowfall, even if the sky was cloudy. If it was dry, and still, and quiet, Katniss would worry.

But she should have known better than to dismiss the weather so quickly. A few days later, a light snow started to fall. Flurries that were a nuisance when she went out to the forest, sticking her her lashes. She had to keep wiping her eyes with her worn-out sweater, white melting into the lines of the stitches. It made her cold, canceling out the protection from her sweater. Her hands had a hard time closing, her bow's wood close to freezing her fingers through her old, knitted gloves. Her other arm didn't have enough blood flow to pull the string and give her enough power to kill any deer. Maybe not even a rabbit.

She hated it. She hated when it snowed. It usually meant no stew to curl up with. Not unless Gale's traps worked (and they usually did) but she hadn't seen him since the last of autumn, and if it was to continue like it had been between them, she probably wouldn't see him around for a few more days. At most, it'd be another week.

So, obviously, she expected to see him in a week.

Instead, she saw him in three days. That was the thing about winter. It changed the normal things.

"That's a shitty sweater," he said, words tumbling into her ear from behind. He made her jump and spin around, elbow just missing his jaw.

"Damn it, Gale!" she said back, the cold making her extra irritable. "I'm tracking my deer."

He smiled at her, then looked around. It'd been a long time since she'd seen that expression on him.

"Better hurry, then. The snow's gonna cover it."

He was right, of course. The flurries from days before had gone from skinny to fat. They now almost made the shape of actual snowflakes. The lip of her boot was a finger deep in snow, today. It was very frustrating. If it kept snowing like this, she wouldn't be able to hunt in a few days' time.

She glared at him, tempted to ask how much meat he'd collected, eyes defiantly avoiding his belt. Instead, she huffed and trudged away.

He followed her. She tried to ignore him.

A few minutes later, he said, "Aren't you freezing?"

"No," she snapped.

He took no heed of her direct anger. His steps remained light, close to silent even through the snow. "You look freezing."

She turned on him. "I need to hunt." Then she tried to lose him.

He easily stayed up with her. "I have plenty of food."

"Isn't that great."

"If you want some, all you have to do is ask."

Her fogged breath came out rapidly. "I haven't seen you in weeks, and you expect me to believe that you'll share your food? In winter?"

He looked at her funny. "Why not? We've split food before."

"Never in winter."

She heard him slow behind her, though she continued her pace. "So? I'll split what I have right now."

That made her stop. She turned to him, eyes still glaring and skeptical. She'll never know why she asked this, but she said, "Why?" Because he'd been so all over the place, she should have just agreed. It was against her nature to accept things, and pride was an issue she denied rather than dealt with. But he had this look on him, as he gestured to his animal-infested belt full of what looked like frozen rabbits and squirrels.

"'Why'?" he asked, though not with much surprise. "You need it. I've got more than enough."

It would be so easy to just take it... so she told him off. "I don't need your catch of the day. I can get my own fine by myself."

His gray eyes darkened like an oncoming storm. He crossed his arms, and she finally noticed the thick jacket he wore. As if she couldn't get any more envious or furious.

"You're going to freeze out there," he said, voice a deep, threatening rumble.

But she ignored him, whole-heartedly, and left.

Stupidly.

The snow became worse. More and more flakes fell, slow to rapid over the time she tried and failed to catch something. The white got blinding, collecting on her sleeves and pants like magnets. She soon gave up on trying to hunt, placing all of her efforts to find the right direction back to Twelve. But all the trees looked the same, dressed up in frigid white fluff. Nothing looked familiar. It was a different world.

Her hands were the first to go numb. Or maybe it was her nose. Possibly her ears. Then most of her face, then her feet. She was able to keep her panicking at a minimum, but only in cycles. She'd walk a while in one direction, tell herself she'd see something familiar soon. When she didn't, she panicked. Then she talked herself down again. Then it repeated. It was a vicious cycle.

After a while, the cold seeped into her skin, down to her core. It started to numb her emotions, too. She began to run on a mix of hopelessness and apathy.

She couldn't talk herself into anything positive. What did it matter if she didn't make it home? Her family would be fine. Sad for a while, but fine. What would she miss out on that she hasn't already experienced here? In fact, she'd miss out on the next Reaping. What are the chances of dying before getting Reaped?

She remembers laughing at that. Then laughing at a strange shape of snow beneath her boot. Then laughing at nothing at all.

And before she could really cherish the moments, Gale decided to appear, like some wannabe savior, right out of the thin, dry air. He was almost like an apparition, a dark figure surrounded by all the white.

He told her something, but she was far from coherent hearing. He curled his arm around her, leading her through the blaring, sickening white tree-filled maze into a low, small alcove underneath a hollowed out rock. It created enough shielding against the blizzard for her eyes to finally relax, the snow not as harsh from the angle. The rock wall kept out most of the snow, though some rebelled and entered the small cave.

Gale set her down against the back, curved wall of the rock, and her arms wrapped around her upraised knees, face pressing into her legs. Her teeth clattered like an earthquake, and she could feel every single piece of her creaking from an acquired stiffness from staying out in the storm too long.

"Told you that was a shitty sweater," he said as he sat beside her, going to peel his own jacket off. He laid it on the dirt floor, leaning over to reach her. She felt his hands try to pry her open, dislodge her arms from her legs. It didn't work. She didn't care. She didn't help. She didn't want him here. What did he think he was doing? Didn't he know she didn't care about what happened to her?

She felt her mouth ache to tell him these things, but the clattering of her teeth didn't allow it.

"Katniss," he said, almost scolding. "Relax your arms."

She tried to glare at him through her knees. That didn't work, either.

He went to pry again. She didn't budge. She felt more than saw his frustration.

Then he changed tactics, grabbing at her shoulders and back, shifting her to where her back faced him. He scooted himself to where he was right behind her, reaching back for his jacket. He placed his legs on either side of her, swinging the jacket around so it would cover her, then snaked his free arm in the vulnerable space between her stomach and her legs, securing her against him.

The feeling was so unexpected, her body jolted on its own, and she was suddenly unraveled. The jacket was almost big enough to cover all of her, even as her knees started to unbend. Her arms ached from the constriction of her muscles and the rattling cold of her skin, and her teeth were going to break soon from hitting each other so much, but the thing that...bothered the most was his arm.

His forearm spanned the length from her back to the other side of her opposite ribs, fingers running idly over them underneath her sweater.

The worst thing was that the sweater was thin - it was worn and old, as was her undershirt, which really shouldn't have been considered an undershirt. Clothing, especially tough, sturdy, thick clothing, was hard to come by. Vendors didn't want meat for their wares. They wanted gold, straight from the pocket. And other things were much more important than staying warm.

"Any better?" he asked. His breath was hot enough to bring life back to the shell of her ear.

She didn't answer. Not like she could. What would she say?

"You know," he continued, and her ear soaked up all the warmth he could give it. "The best way to conserve body heat is to get rid of our clothes."

She blinked a few times. It was the way he said it. She couldn't tell if he was serious. He'd never pulled anything disgustingly cheesy on her that he surely did with the girls he wanted.

Maybe it was just her being cold. Her brain was still frozen, after all.

Then she felt the arm that was curled around her torso move away, only to feel his hand inch to the end of her sweater, fingers brushing the skin right above her belt line. It was too light to feel it, but a nerve clenched in her stomach, darting white hot to her spine. She inhaled.

"Do you trust me, Catnip?"

He said it that way again, with the words trickling into her now defrosted ear. They were velvet words. They were like butter.

If it was anyone else behind her, manhandling her like he was, she'd do her damnedest to get away. But with him, even if they weren't really friends, and even if they didn't really know each other on any other level except survival, Katniss trusted him. He was reliable, and he was a good hunter. He helped her, sometimes, and in turn she helped him. His only inconsistency was in personality, but that never mattered much to her.

She forced her arm to move up, landing her hand on top of his, underneath her sweater. She guided him up, slightly, until his palm was at mid-stomach. Her hand shook and loosened, falling limply to her side. Her eyelids started to close against her will, body increasing in exhaustion and weakened by frost.

Gale took her motion as an affirmation, his other hand coming around from her side. He eased both hands up, underneath her sweater and shirt, pushing them gently as if she'd suddenly realize what he was doing and resist.

But she didn't. He peeled off her clothing with little difficulty, helping to raise her arms. Then he leaned forward and took off the cotton shirt that had been under his jacket, hurriedly wrapping his right arm around her, right underneath her bra line. Pushing her back against his chest, he leaned on the wall behind them.

She felt his warmth immediately. He was a heater - and she remembered wondering how he could keep his temperature so hot when she was so cold - but she quickly didn't care because coupling him and his jacket was absolute perfection. She didn't even care that she was topless, with only a ragged bra covering her. Maybe she should take the bra off, too, considering how cold it made her chest. The snow must have soaked through. It was damp and uncomfortable.

But his forearms were like bands of liquid heat, slowly seeping through the thick, chilled layer on her skin. The jacket trapped the warmth, curling around her like a cushion.

She sighed at the feeling, the rigidity holding onto her relaxing. She felt her head drop against his chest, her body rocking with his deep breaths. Then her eyes closed, and she fell asleep.

Katniss remembers that day clearly, even though it's been two years since. She remembers waking up, still wrapped up in his arms, with the snow blocking half the entrance. It wasn't snowing anymore. She could make out a circle or two of crystal blue sky in the midst of all the clouds. But she was still warm, and she didn't feel like waking Gale up, breaths still heavy and slow.

Then her eyes opened fast. She turned and pushed at Gale.

"Gale, wake up."

"Mm," he moaned, shifting and nudging her closer.

"Gale."

"S'matter?"

"I need to get home. You need to get home. Our parents are probably worried."

"No they aren't. Talked to your mom before I found you frozen."

She blinked. "You did?"

"Storm got real bad. You thought I'd just leave you?"

She glared. "If you knew how to get out of the forest, why'd you bring us here?"

At that, he looked at her, giving a sleepy smirk.

"How else would I get you to take off your shirt?"

Her cheeks reddened with a quick anger, pushing her elbow into his rib.

He winced. "God, kidding alright? I had no damn clue how to get out, and finding you was a miracle in itself. So you're welcome."

"And you just happened to come by a hollowed rock?"

"It's been around for a while," he shrugged. "And it was nearby. You were almost dead. What was I gonna do, let you die?"

Yes, she wanted to hiss, mostly out of spite. Partly with truth. Instead, she tried to push away from him and stand.

He wrapped an arm tighter around her, keeping her against him.

"Where do you think you're going? Two feet away?"

She huffed, going to claw at his arms. It didn't affect him like she wanted. Her hands ended up laying on his.

It would be cold if she left her spot, she reasoned.

"How long are we gonna stay here?" she asked.

His fingers started to make lines on her stomach. "I don't know. Not long. We can shovel out of here when we get too hungry. Or homesick."

She could hear his sarcasm at the end of his sentence. She looked down at his belt.

"Where are your kills?"

"In the snow. Keep them frozen 'til we leave."

They were quiet for a while. Then Gale said, "Do you always wear black bras?"

At the words, she felt a rush of awkwardness. She made a face.

"I don't know. I don't pay attention."

"You don't pay attention to what you wear?" he said laughingly.

She felt self-conscious. "Not all the time. I don't care what I look like."

"Mm," he hummed. Then he asked, "Ever kissed anyone?"

She recoiled. She had the odd sense of being encroached. He was being very intrusive. It was very unlike him.

"Is this what you do to make girls like you?" she said defensively. "Ask them stupid questions?"

He laughed lightly in her ear. "Does that mean you haven't?"

Her neck heated up. She kept her mouth clamped shut. Who did he think he was, asking her these questions with that tone, like he knew the answer without her confirmation?

"What is wrong with you right now?"

His hand inched up to the bottom of her bra. He ran a finger along the under wire. Her question didn't seem to offend him.

"Maybe it's because we're snowed in a cave and topless."

The answer confused her. They'd been swimming plenty of times, and she'd been in nothing but her underwear. And he never acted like this. They'd have fun, but they wouldn't touch each other like how he was now. Then she noticed how her hands were on the arm still wrapped around her. She dropped them.

"We go swimming all the time. You don't do this."

His finger gets closer to the cup of her bra. "It's not like I've never wanted to."

Really? She doubted that. He had girls on speed dial. What was the difference? All girls must be the same, with kissing and what they feel like and sex.

This was probably one of his lines. She didn't have a clue why he was using it on her. If there was one thing he knew about her, it was that she didn't like any of the I-love-you, let's-go-to-the-slag-heap stuff.

When she didn't answer back, he said, "You never told me if you hadn't been kissed."

"It doesn't matter."

"It matters to me."

"What? Why?"

"Do you want to be?" he said instead of answering her questions. She tried to turn to look at him so he could see her irritated glare, but he held her firmly in place.

"No."

His lips grazed her ear. "You sure?"

"Yes, Gale."

"It's fun," he told her. "You'd like it."

That bothered her. "You barely know me."

"I know you a lot."

She bristled, ignoring the finger now running along the top line of her bra cup. "The only thing you know is how I hunt."

"I know the way you talk," he countered. "I know the way you laugh. I know your favorite color. You're the strongest person in District Twelve. I know a lot."

She didn't know what to say to that. So she frowned and tried to cross her arms. When she couldn't do it without touching him, she frowned harder.

"You said you trusted me. Did you lie?"

She almost protested that she didn't say it. But she relented.

"...no."

"So trust me with this."

His finger was getting distracting. The feeling crept up on her.

"Gale - "

"If I'm wrong, tell me to stop, and I will."

She almost panicked, mind darting to thoughts about thrashing out of his grasp and running far, far away from him. She felt her stomach twisting with a sick sense of anticipation, but she wasn't sure what she was anticipating.

Then she felt his lips kiss the spot below her ear, simultaneously cupping her breast. His teeth cut against the soft skin like a whisper, tongue darting out to soothe the imprint. His palm kneaded her breast through the cup, his second hand roaming across her stomach.

At first, she tensed up, trying to hate what he was doing, hate how she wasn't fighting back against him like she so easily could. This was stupid. It was...not something she imagined them ever doing.

But when his teeth grazed her the way they did, something hot dashed through her stomach. It tightened her insides and relaxed them at the same time. She didn't know what to do with her hands, but they had minds of their own, one moving up on top of his on her breast. The other found his thigh, clenching at his pants' fabric.

His mouth moved down to her neck, operating slowly, digging into skin then letting go, sucking and licking until her head slanted to the other side, giving him a wider range to work. His hand slipped into her bra, fingers skittering over suddenly sensitized flesh, thumb flicking over her.

She didn't mean to make the noise that she made. It was so involuntary, it took her by surprise. But she didn't care because it felt good. She was on fire, like her neck was connected to her toes, burning from her sides to her legs, rippling out any inhibition that she had minutes before. The coldness was miles away. All that existed was the points his tongue touched and his callouses on her chest.

One hand reached up to his head, then his nape, grasping a tuft of his hair. He moaned into her shoulder, his warm breath hitting the slightly chilled skin his mouth left behind. Goosebumps raised in his wake.

His mouth reached her ear again, and he said, "Was I right?"

Even through her haze, her will wouldn't let her admit to him knowing that he was right. Somehow, she was able to get out a low sigh, saying something to the effect of, "I don't know, yet."

He smiled against her, his other hand coming up to her other breast. He started to move fingers on both, making every pore pucker, every hair stand on end. She thought she might start to sweat, back arching when he hit her just the right way. She was acutely aware of her thrumming pulse when her eyes closed, rushing through her head, her fingertips, between her thighs.

It was strange. It was new, foreign, and something needy. Her legs moved restlessly. But it was something familiar, too. She wasn't surprised at the feeling, as if it was instinct, a craving her body desired hidden away underneath every other instinct she had. But it was like a disease, taking over all of her thoughts. It screamed at her for being unaware of it for so long. The pulse tangled its way through every thread of her being, tightening, then releasing, again and again and again.

She knew what she wanted.

"Gale," she breathed, trying not to beg, but begging all the same. She wasn't even sure how to communicate what she was trying to beg. But Gale knew - he probably knew before she realized what she wanted.

One hand left her breasts. It started to trail down her stomach before he said, "Katniss..." as serious as she ever could have heard it. "I don't have to do this."

She wasn't sure what he had in mind about what he was going to do, but at the moment, it was scary how much Katniss didn't care what it was, as long as it was.

"Gale," she said again, impatiently. "I just want...just..."

"I know," he said, stopping her attempts to talk. His hand hesitated just a second before it kept climbing down, down to the button of her pants, to the zipper, to everything.

Katniss will always remember that day. Thinking about it still makes her flush, still makes her heat in her neck and her chest and between her legs. She still dreams about it, sometimes.

But the second winter was different. It makes her burn when she lets herself think of it. But it surely doesn't get the reaction from him.

Not from Gale. He's used to those kinds of things.


Gale thinks that this upcoming winter will be different. Not that it hasn't been completely and unexpectedly different the last two times, but...different. And surprising. Because they didn't ever once turn out the way he thought they would.

That first winter - he didn't mean for things to happen. At the beginning, he just wanted her to survive. Seeing her pale and lips blue and almost frozen finally made him realize how fragile she was. She may be the sturdiest girl he's ever met, but she isn't invincible.

He's always had a knack with keeping her safe. Hunting long enough to secure her family, making sure she'll never need another ticket of tesserae, covering the payments that she couldn't, even though he'd do it behind her back - yeah. Those were, and still are, easy.

It was the one and only time - if he excludes the Reaping, but he doesn't let the thoughts enter his mind - he wasn't able to keep her safe. Stupid Katniss was his first thought when he saw her, tripping over her feet in the snow.

Then Jesus, Katniss, when she was like a block of ice against him, frigid and closed up and secure. Body heat was the first thing he thought about, and visceral impulse led to the rest. He was well-rested and warm, hidden in a cave with her as if the world outside didn't exist.

He's never been in denial about his affection for her. Cradling her the way he was in that cave for so long - the needing and the wanting eclipsed. She almost died, and for what? A frail, underfed rabbit?

She didn't care if she died. She told him that later, a week or so after the night spent in that alcove. It was how easily she accepted life and death, that would make him wonder, at times, if she was crazy or rational to a fault.

His desire, bundled up with the need to make her feel something wonderful, something to remember, was one reason things went the way they did. The other reason? It was a wild fantasy. Hearing the noises she made was a lot more satisfying in reality. All those breathy hitches, the way her eyes fluttered - fuck, he could get off just thinking about it.

In a way, knowing how she acted and knowing what her skin felt like, tasted like, how wet she could get on his fingers - he hoped that would have been enough to stop his cravings for her. She was just a girl. And if he fucked her, even with his hand, that would solve all his problems.

His logic didn't quite add up to anything. But he tried to make it something. He did the same old thing with a girl here or there during spring and summer and autumn, thinking that it would work. That everything would go back to normal for him just like it immediately did for her.

That's what bothered him the most. Stoic, uncaring Katniss was still the same stoic, uncaring Katniss she had been since the day he met her. She still relied on him the same way, talked to him the same way, laughed and sometimes joked the same way. It was peculiar and exactly the same, in every single viewpoint. They didn't talk about those uncharted things, the scary things. Friendship and love and what if? Sometimes, he tried to talk about what they did, but she'd brush him off, turn her head and ignore him.

Whatever they were, he called them friends. Friends with that one benefit in winter. Friends where the guy fantasized about having sex with the girl all the time.

It was healthy enough. Not like his thoughts changed, except with her real-life moaning of his name injected into his dreams.

Healthy.

Then the second winter came. And it was like they gravitated toward that rock. It hadn't snowed that first week in winter, or the second, but finally, around the third week when a few speckles of snow made it to the ground, the rock loomed over them when they went hunting. It made them take a break from their long day of work, if only for a few minutes.

Gale remembers the moment when they sat down at the entrance, looking out into the straight lines of the trees, filled with knots on their bark. They looked like eyes, watching them with rapt attention.

All he could think about was how close she was, wearing that same shitty sweater and same worn gloves, her hair in a long plait, glistening with melting snow. Her cheeks were lightly pink, lips frosted. Her breath would come out in plumes of condensed vapor, like smoke, disappearing in front of her face.

It had been roughly twelve months since they did anything. His hands ached to touch her. He ached to watch her unravel.

She turned to look at him, catching him staring at her. She looked away.

She gave no indication that she was interested. But this time of year, things changed. It wasn't like the rest of the year, where they pretended to ignore one another. At least, where he pretended.

He leaned forward and softly kissed her cheek. Her body twisted a little.

"Gale, maybe..."

"Why do you keep wearing that sweater when you know it doesn't do anything?"

He moved down to her jaw. She tilted her head, forgetting whatever it was that she was going to say.

"I don't...have anything else."

"You can have mine."

"I don't...want yours."

"You sure about that?" he said, a lilt in his voice.

Her face turned toward him, hands coming up to grip his neck. For one panicked second, he thought she was going to kiss him. Instead, she only held his face where it was, urging him to continue.

So he did, trailing down until he reached the barrier of her collar. Her hands left him for a second, returning gloveless, nails digging into his jacket. Then she moved them down his chest, running them over his thick shirt. He shuddered at the feeling. Last time, she barely touched him. Now, her hands were trailing to the bottom of his shirt, hands slipping under it and up enough for her fingertips to push into his stomach. It was a feeling reminiscent to being punched. He lost his breath for a second.

He forced himself to recover, hands going to her sweater, peeling hers up before she could try for his jacket. She let him, hands leaving him long enough to raise above her head, the sweater thrown and disappearing inside the cave.

He looked at her, her eyes half-lidded, hands sliding his jacket off over his shoulders. It ruffled as it hit the ground. Then her hands went to the bottom of his shirt, inching it up to his belly button, then his chest, then she looked up at him, as if uncertain and completely sure at the same time. His hands were halted on her hips, strangely frozen with fascination. Being face to face was a different experience.

"Raise your arms," she whispered.

He felt a rush of something - like an epiphany, like he knew exactly what he was going to do.

"No."

Her eyes narrowed impatiently. "Gale, you have to - "

"No, I don't."

His right hand fell from her hip, going to rest on the seam of her pants.

"But you..." she tried, still resisting, hands still glancing over his stomach.

He unbuttoned her pants, then pulled down her zipper. He felt her breath against his neck. He reached for her hips again, leaning forward and lying her down underneath him. She squirmed for a second, then relaxed, looking up at him with a questioning desire. It's the look that gets him, makes him tighten, makes him want to lick every part of her.

He scooted down, kissing her stomach once, before going lower to take off her boots. He made fast work of them - they were laced loosely, as if she knew that this would happen today.

He rose up, hooking his fingers into her pant loops.

"Gale..." she said again, and he watched her mind work, thinking, maybe, of everything he could possibly do to her.

"If you tell me to stop, I'll stop." Just like he said the last time. He would quit, if that was what she really wanted. But he knew she'd never say it. Too much pride - or whatever it was that always made her want to one-up him all the time. But this, right now - like the time before - was the one time she'd lend herself to him completely. It gave him power, but more than that, it gave him her - for however long the day allowed.

He pulled her pants down slowly, watching her face as her eyes watched his movements. Then the pants were gone with her shirt and sweater, and she was underneath him in her underwear, vulnerable and far from being cold.

He went to kiss her jaw first, then her neck, her collarbone, the bone of her chest, down to the line of her panties. His left hand went to mess with the line of it around her hip, his right crawling up her inner thigh.

He heard her breath hitch, and she said, "You don't have to - "

"I want to."

"But - "

He placed both hands on her hips, and her panties vanished. Her legs were on his shoulders, and his head was between her thighs. Quickly, because he just couldn't wait anymore. And once her noises reached his ears, he couldn't quit. Tasting her and touching her, feeling her twitch, then relax, her hips raising and pressing harder into his mouth. Her tender flesh, her wet flesh. The innermost part of her. He rocked his tongue until she keened and grabbed his hair, until she didn't know who she was anymore.

When she clenched, and when it was over, he leaned on his elbows and looked at her face. He wanted to kiss her terribly, to press her lips with his to know if she'd kiss him back. But he didn't. He kissed her cheek instead.

Her eyes bored into him once he leaned back, her hand coming up to touch the side of his face.

It was the way she looked at him, with glassy eyes and flushed cheeks. It gave him terrible hope.

"Don't you need...it...too?" she asked him, glancing down, then back up to his face. He didn't doubt that she could see the bulge in his pants, or sense his impulses and his urges.

"No," he said. "I don't need it."

She was persistent. Her other hand trailed low to touch him over his pants. "But what about..."

"Ah," he breathed, reaching down to stop her hand. "No. You're not going to do that."

She blinked, eyes narrowing. "Why not?"

"Because..." he said, hesitating for a second. "Other girls can do that."

Her eyes averted from him. "Oh. You do this to the other girls, too, don't you?"

He guessed he might as well be honest about it. "No," he answered. "Never. It's what they do for me, not what I do for them."

Her eyebrows furrowed. "Then what do they do for you? Isn't...this...all the same?"

Who was he kidding? She couldn't even say the word sex without being uncomfortable. But it still made him mad - mostly at himself. Mostly for starting this. It was never going to go back to the way it was between them - at least, for Gale, anyway. And it was his fault.

"No, it's not the same," he said, tone slightly harsh. "Sometimes those girls suck my dick, and yeah, sometimes I fuck them. But that doesn't mean anything. It only means something if you care."

She was silent for a while, looking at him, thinking. "Did you care? When you..."

Gale remembers that moment, where it could have made him or broke him. To protect himself, or put himself in the hands of the girl he knew was the worst thing for him?

Well, he had always been a kind of romantic. Always dreaming of things that would never come to pass.

"Yeah," he said, the word coming out like a crackling whisper. "I did."

He couldn't tell if she believed him - her eyes were too penetrating to give him any indication that the words meant a thing to her. Maybe he wasn't looking in the right place. He hoped he wasn't, selfishly.

She turned her head away from him, eyes following the snow falling mere feet away from them. She remained quiet for a long time, and he rolled to the side, closer to the wall of the cave. He stared up at the ceiling, the ragged rock points illuminated from the white light outside. He wasn't sure what he was expecting, with the aftertaste of her still on his tongue.

He suddenly felt very cold, in his thick shirt and cargo pants.

It isn't Gale's proudest moment, when he thinks back to the end of the memory. But at least she'd known that he cares about her, a lot, for this long. And he'll always savor what happened that day, and the day the year before.

He still thinks about kissing her - really kissing her, with his lips on her lips. They've broken every other rule. Why not break that one?

Perhaps it's still the uncertainty about how she'll react. Fucking stupid, considering her reactions to everything else. But he can't deny their value, just like how he blows up with pride with the fact that he's the only one who's ever made Katniss moan that precise pitch. It's all so valuable. It feels like kissing her would be a linchpin to something...else. It's all about that what if? And with their standings right now, Gale can be happy with the way things are. If he dies tomorrow in a mine collapse, he won't regret.

At least, he doesn't think he will. Maybe he could have tried to pleasure her in the months beside winter. It's not like he didn't think about doing it. It's not like he didn't try. Though when he did try to be a slightest bit flirtatious, even when he'd lean into her, her reactions shut him out to the point where he didn't want to try anymore.

That's what happened after the first time. After the second time, he didn't have the heart to try. And now, rounding to the third with the autumn leaves swaying.

But there's something that's been giving him a valid incentive to start up again.

It's some bakery kid. Peter or Pita or something. And it's attention that Katniss gets, finally, as she breaks in being seventeen. Not like it matters all that much. It was bound to happen, sooner or later. He's surprised that it's been more toward the later than the sooner.

But the bakery kid does more than just look or say a frequent hi. He does things for her, and Katniss notices. The kid isn't very discreet about things, not like Gale, obviously since courting means doing blatant, nice, gooey things for the other person. But if Katniss ever found out that Gale delivered extra supplies to her mother when she wasn't home? Yeah. Guess who'd get a massive black eye?

No, the kid gives her free bread when his bitch mother isn't around, walks her home when he can (Gale caught wind of this when Katniss mentioned something in casual conversation), and gave her a cake for Prim's birthday.

The guy is a piece of work. He doesn't hide what he feels, and perhaps it's because he has nothing to lose. Gale's begrudgingly admitted that he admires that, even if he doesn't have to like it. It's not like Gale doesn't have something to lose. If he started up with the shit the bakery kid's started, he might lose her. All of her. And that's unacceptable.

Besides, giving cakes and blushing isn't Gale's thing. His thing is more like looking, grabbing, and taking. He's never spent the time to do all those things for a girl.
And Katniss would immediately think something was wrong with him if he tried.

It's the first day of the third winter when it happens. When things decide, like they do, to change.

It's a Sunday, the only time Gale's fully available ever since mining started. Besides the time cuts to hunting and seeing family and Katniss, it isn't the most terrible disruption to his life. But over the months he's had the job, waiting to hunt with her has gotten to be on the edge of unbearable.

And she isn't there at dawn. She isn't there five minutes or ten minutes after dawn. It's so unlike her to be late that it causes him to worry that something's happened to her - though what could happen to her at dawn on a Sunday completely eludes him.

He sets out for her house, taking a short trail to the outer fence. When her house comes into view, he can make out two figures standing a few feet from her front door. One's Katniss, and the other is a stocky boy, blond, from the inner District. It's a quick indicator. Gale starts to dislike him even more for disrupting his and Katniss' routine. What could he possibly want from Katniss at seven-thirty in the goddamn morning?

Then the boy kisses her.

Oh.

That's what the boy could want from her. What else would he want from her?

Katniss doesn't push away. A few, long seconds later, it's over. The boy must say something, shrugging, possibly smiling - it's hard to tell - and leaves her. She watches after him, stuck right where she stands.

Gale's one second away from following the kid and knocking him unconscious. But in that one second, he sees Katniss run after him. At the sight, everything stops. Gale can't even swallow. But he's able to turn away, to retreat somewhere, somehow, like he switches on some emergency lever, red flashes hitting the inside of his eyes.

He makes it deep into the forest before he realizes what he's doing. It takes him a while to get his bearings, and to realize that he ran away. Like a coward. But what else was he going to do? Wait around, watching while Katniss is taken away from him?

He sits, with his back against a sturdy tree, and wonders what would have happened if he was her first kiss. A real kiss. Would she have run after him, too?

The feeling of being robbed is very sharp.

Motherfucking kid.


It's a time before he hears a rustle to his left, Katniss appearing out of the brush.

"Hey," she says, shaking her head. "Why are you all the way over here? I know I was...late, but I didn't think you'd leave that soon."

He sighs when he looks at her, feeling irritable and angry and guilty. Who's he to begrudge her for one kiss when she doesn't begrudge him all the girls he screws around with?

The question nags him, but his anger comes out on top.

"I waited. You didn't show." He shrugs.

"I always come on Sundays."

"It's winter. I figured you decided to change your mind."

She looks at him, brows coming down on her eyes.

"Sorry I was a few minutes late," she says, pushing back a few loose bangs from her forehead. "Why are you so mad anyway? It's not like twenty minutes will set us back."

She watches him stand up, face contorted as if he had eaten something sour. She has to admit, she feels the same way. She thought the nerves that morning were more than enough, sneaking those herbs into her pocket without waking her mother. It was just Katniss' luck that her mom was the lightest sleeper the world had ever known.

And to top off that anxiety, closing the door just softly enough to keep her mother sleeping, Peeta had been there to greet her, pacing across her doorstep, a stern look on his face.

She had shoved the herbs deep into her pants' pocket. "Peeta?"

He looked up to her, surprised at her quiet appearance. Then he smiled.

"Katniss," he said. "Hey."

"What are you doing here?"

He looked to the ground for a second, then back up to her. "Listen," he started. "I don't have much time before the bakery opens, and I know you're meeting Gale, so I'll try to be quick."

He took a breath, and before she could protest, he said, "I know it's been obvious that I like you. And I know that you probably aren't interested, but... I'd like to try to interest you, if you let me."

She opened her mouth, flabbergasted. "What?"

He stepped forward, closing the distance between them. "May I kiss you?"

It was so bizarre, she almost couldn't keep up. He was interested? He wanted to kiss her?

She thought he had one of those dismal crushes on her, since he was so nice and thoughtful. At first, she thought nothing of the attention. It was just a thing. It was overmuch and kind of annoying. It'd blow over soon. She'd give him time to get over it before she scared him off for good.

And now it was the first day of winter. Of course. Why was she so surprised?

"Er...Peeta..."

Then he stepped up to her and kissed her, quick and fast. She didn't have time to react. And then it was over. She blinked.

"Think about it, okay?"

He turned around and started to leave.

She stared at his back before the anger bubbled up inside her. It lit her feet and she chased him, calling out. He stopped and turned around and once she caught up to him, she launched her arm back and punched him.

He stumbled a bit, hand going up to secure his jaw.

"What do you think you're doing?" she shouted. "I don't want to have anything to do with relationships or - or whatever you were thinking about. With anybody. And you, stepping up and kissing me like - "

"Like what?" he said. "What are you talking about? You have a relationship with Gale. You have the capacity to place trust in another person. You could learn how to do it with someone else, too."

Yeah, but - well...She hadn't spent much time thinking about her and Gale as having a relationship. The connotation of the word had too many strings. The word made her cringe, created an awful taste in her mouth. And they only did the more...risque things once a year. Was she a hypocrite because she let them do those things that only girlfriends and boyfriends and spouses and hook-ups did? She didn't think so. They weren't any of those things - boyfriend, girlfriend, least of all future spouses.

They were friends. It wasn't like they made eyes at each other or touched each other beyond the normal limit of friendship. And keeping it in that boundary made her comfortable, to the point where she didn't have to think about them being something...else.

But now, the thoughts ran away with her. The herbs in her pocket burned. She had anticipated this day with a vengeance, talking herself up to be bold enough to ask Gale about...sex. Close sex. The type that people died over in the years past that she couldn't understand. It couldn't have been that great.

Well, maybe here and now in the Districts, it was. Nothing here and now was very great at all. But before?

No, she didn't have a relationship with Gale. He never tried to kiss her so abruptly like Peeta had, and she'd known Gale much, much better and longer than she knew Peeta. Besides, she didn't fit Gale's demographic.

She hesitated too long, not sure how to tell the truth without telling a lie. "We...we don't...We'll never be what you think we are."

There was the barest hint of a smile appearing on Peeta's face, wry and knowing, and perhaps a little sad.

"Have you ever asked him?"

The sentence made her stomach grow cold. She looked to the ground, and Peeta took his cue to leave.

And now here she is, looking up to Gale, strangely still nervous, on edge, and already exhausted.

She may as well get it out in the open, if she wanted him to stop making that face. She sighs before beginning. "I was held up by Peeta."

He looks at her, a flit of surprise passing over his face.

"Oh."

"He said something about being interested, liking me. Then he..."

"Kissed you?" he asks, and his accuracy makes her pause. She glances at him, eyes widening.

"Yeah. He did. Then he told me to think about it and started to leave. I ran after him and punched him."

Gale's sour face loosens, an eyebrow raising as he glances over her. "Punched him?"

She shrugs. "I asked him what he was doing, and that I didn't want a relationship. And then he..." she pauses just for a second, anxiety building in her stomach. "He asked me about you."

Gale's eyes change. "About me?"

She can't look at him. "About...our relationship, I guess. But I told him we definitely weren't like what he thought we were like, and would never be like that."

He's quiet. She can't help but peek up at him. He seems to be thinking. He's got the look on his face where a thought is turning around and around behind his eyes.

"Right," he says.

She's surprised when her stomach deflates a little. "Yeah," she says. "Right. We're friends."

Gale starts walking, aimlessly, and she follows.

She tries to build up her nerve again, but it keeps falling flat.

"You ever wonder, though..." he starts, when they stop by a tree, him twining together one of his snares. "What it would be like..."

She watches his fingers tie the knots.

"What what would be like?"

"Us," he says, and that's all he says.

"Not really," she says, automatic. But it's partly a lie. Because she has wondered, if only very, very briefly.

His lips twitch. "Yeah."

"Do you?"

His fingers tighten one more knot before he glances over to her. His eyes dart to her lips, then up to her eyes again.

"All the time."

Perhaps this isn't surprising, but it sure feels like it.

"Oh..." she says. "What...do you think about?"

He steps forward then he steps back, as if thinking better of it.

"A lot of things."

He thinks about kissing - kissing on the lips instead of her jaw of her neck, she thinks, suddenly feeling that rush of knowing. That weird vibe she gets when they hunt together, when she knows exactly what they're supposed to do when they're tracking or hunting a dear. Her eyes fall to his lips, too. Maybe he thinks about what they do every winter, thinking of what else they could do.

"Do you think about..." she falters, annoyingly. She's got to get over this word phobia. "Sex?"

She surprises a laugh out of him. "Yes."

She blushes. "With me?"

He gives her an incredulous look. "Who else would I have sex with?"

"Those other girls you have sex with."

He rolls his eyes at her. "I haven't done anything with a girl since last winter."

Her eyes grow. "You mean - "

"Does that surprise you?"

Blood rushes to her head. Her eyes stick to his lips, and she wishes that Peeta hadn't kissed her earlier. She takes a step toward him. And one step more, because why not? She has the herbs in her pocket, and they, if nothing else, edge her forward.

"No," she answers him, a slight space between their boots. He's tall - he's at least a head taller then her, and she has to cock her head up at an angle to look directly at him. She can tell he's unsettled by her closeness, though she's not sure why; he's always the one to start these kinds of things.

Before he can answer, she pushes onto her toes and wraps her hands around his face. She kisses him.

For a few seconds. He breaks away and looks at her in shock.

"What are you doing?"

His tone is breathless, which means some part of him enjoyed it. His words, however, are discouraging.

"Kissing you?" she says.

"What the hell did Peeta say to you?" he asks, almost rhetorically, eyes taking on a slow burn before he kisses her again. Really kisses her. She feels it in her knees, then her head. It urges a moan out of her.

His hands hold her in place, then they roam, making quick work of her sweater, going for her pants. She tries to take off his jacket and shirt, but before she does, she stops him.

"Gale," she says. "I, um, I have something..."

She bats his hands away from her cargo pants, taking out the small bag quickly from her pocket. She avoids his eyes, toying with the tiny capsule of plastic.

Gale stares at her. "Is that - "

"I need to talk to you about something," she interrupts.

He snatches the bag out of her hand, grinning. "Why didn't I think of this before?" He glances back to her, and sobers up at her look. "Not that I would have asked you about..."

"Sex?" she tries, a slight, triumphant smile tugging at her face.

He keeps the bag in one hand, placing his hands on her hips and pushing her against him.

"Yeah, sex."

"The real kind."

He gives her a funny look. "The real kind?"

She falters. "You know...the kind where we actually..."

He lets her flounder for a few long seconds before he gives a short laugh.

"I know," he says, leaning into her further.

"I wanted to ask you about it."

He stares at her thoughtfully, before finally answering. "It's hard to explain..." he says. "But I can show you."

That is what she ultimately wanted, considering her vigilant laboring to get that damn bag. It seems he knows that, too, with the way his eyes rove over her.

She leans in a bit further to kiss him, but he stops her. "It - " he hesitates. "It'll change things."

His voice is hopeful, in its subtle way. His timbre gives him away, with how it lingers on the syllables.

Katniss hasn't thought too hard about the after. But if she's willing to admit, she already knew.

This was years in the making.

She answers by taking the small bag in his hand, slipping the tiny pinch of herbs between her finger and thumb, and she shoves it into her mouth, swallowing hurriedly before the bitter taste overwhelms her. He's watching her as if he's seeing her for the first time.

"Shit, Katniss," he breathes, and the bitterness on her tongue is taken by sweetness.

He isn't slow and gentle like the last two times. He kisses her like he's devouring her, taking over her mouth like he's been starving for a year. Their clothes rip off, neither sure nor caring where they go, as long as they go.

Her back is on the ground, then her chest is pressed against his, and she moves like she's stealing him from the world. Pressure building between their skin, on their skin, inside their skin. Her stomach drenches in heat, his own pushing against her with his quick breaths. Her mind doesn't know what she's doing, but her body does, and her hand grabs him as she watches his eyelids fall half-way, listens as he says her name with a low, primal pitch. She breathes it in, feeling it hit her heart and her stomach and the most intimate parts of her. Her back arches. His hands grip the back of her head as they fall into a deep kiss.

They show each other what the real kind turns out to be.

It's new to both of them.

"You think we can do that all the time?" Gale asks her as they lie together, free and open and dazed.

"Mm," she says. "I guess."

"You guess?"

"Those herbs were hard to get."

"...you know how sexy that was?"

"What?"

"Stealing birth control from your mom."

"...really?"

He looks down at her face, then at her body, then at her lips.

He rolls her around and kisses her. And they do it all over again.


Katniss caves later, when winter isn't around. And Gale's right. Things do change - if only a little. The only thing that really changes between them is the sex.

Gale would beg to differ. He tells her that she looks at him differently. Katniss still remains adamant that she has no idea what he's talking about.

But Gale knows.

So does winter.