Disclaimer: Don't own, don't sue.

beat weighty tests with lofty cries

lofty cries with trembling thighs

weepy chests with weepy sighs

weepy skin with trembling thighs

you must be hovering over yourself

watching us drip on each others sides

He didn't actually watch it happen until he next morning. And by then, she'd been dead for almost three hours.

In those long days that she was in the arena, Gale's hours went a little like this:

He would wake from a restless sleep to a cold morning, earlier than early, so that he could hunt before catching the first recap on the projector at the Hob. He didn't waste time in the woods; they didn't feel right when he was all alone. But all the same, the woods made him think of her, and he'd touch the trees, wondering how the trees in the arena felt compared to these. He wondered if she was scaling the trees and thinking of him, too.

He'd kill a thing or two and listen, listen, listen for anything- a hovercraft or a whizzing arrow. In the early morn, it was too quiet. The birds weren't up yet.

Around five, the only one at the Hob would be Greasy Sae, getting started on whatever stew was selling that day. So he'd normally go over to her and they'd exchange a few words that were all full of anticipation on his end, then Sae would fire up the portable projector while he helped her gut squirrels. He'd watch out of the corner of his eye for the Capitol seal to come up, and he'd be filled with a mixture of dread and urgency that tricked his brain. Did he want to watch the Games? Hell no, but he needed to see her.

His hands would still on the carcass as he watched what was happening on the projector. It was always bad, always worse.

Worse especially when the frustration set. He felt the ice layering over and over in his heart. He watched Peeta Mellark touch his girl (who was never really his girl). People in the District really loved Mellark. They talked about him like he was a fucking toy bear, a little sad thing that was so brave, putting up such a fight (of course, when they talked about Katniss, they usually said things like, smart girl, she'll win, she's strong). Mostly, they talked about the two of them as a pair. How they could both come home. It was such an unprecedented thing, the two victor rule. All anyone talked about was them.

It was perverted. She wasn't herself in that cave, and that thought stabbed at his heart because he didn't understand. She was so indifferent to the boys at school who he'd caught leering at her meaty hips. She ate better than most in the Seam, and it showed in her ass and he curves. The schoolboys weren't used to that- the fullness of a merchant and the darkness of a Seam brat. They loved her and she never noticed them. And she never noticed him, or that he looked at her the same way.

On the day she died, he woke from a nap. The light told him it was mid-afternoon, that they all had slept through lunch. It was too late to go hunting, too late to meet up with Sae, and the words "too late" reverberated again and again. His stomach lurched and he groaned.

This morning, the big dark guy from Eleven was run through with a sword, which meant there was four left. The Career from Two, the Redhead, Mellark, and her. Anything could've happened while he was asleep.

Prim, who was sleeping next to him, woke when he did. She blinked and looked around, finally finding him with her bleary eyes. Posy slept tightly against her chest. Rory was on the floor beneath the bed. They were all up late last night watching, trying to fight away the nervous energy with hot tea that only kept them up longer. And Hazelle suggested they all try to get another hour of sleep while they could.

"What should we do?" Prim whispered after a moment, after rubbing her eyes.

"We should watch."

Prim sat up a bit to lean against Gale's side as Posy gave a little snort of discomfort. All three of them in the bed had made it sweaty in the afternoon heat.

He didn't mind having Prim here. Her mother didn't seem to be such great company in those days. So she sometimes slept here, in the bed that everyone in Gale's family frequented. There was only two beds- one that Hazelle would share with the kids and one that Gale would. Prim read stories to Posy, helped his mother work the washing rack, and was teaching Rory how to make cheese. At the designated times, she would return home to watch the Games with her mother, but come back with some kind of token; an extra banket, a cup of milk, an old toy for the kids. He didn't know if this was meant to be a payment for their kindness, or a token of celebration for Katniss living though another day. In any case, he promised to look after her.

"Should we wake them up? Should I get Mother?" she asked. He realized, with a sickening lurch of his stomach, they had slept through the mandatory viewing hours. It was strange that Sabina hadn't come knocking, looking for Prim, but Sabina Everdeen was passive looking to Gale while the world seemed to unravel into chaos.

These were undoubtedly the last few days of the Games. Maybe they should all watch together, weather the storm with each other. He thought about it, but a thin calmness was in the room with them. He heard his mother snoring on the other bed and decided not to disturb the peace.

He picked Prim up, light as a baby bird, and carried her out to the kitchen where the old television sat on a table. Normally it was coal-dusty and forgotten, but the dust had been cleared from the screen. It was in much more use theses days. He sat with Prim, sleepy in his lap. Already the Capitol seal occupied the screen because the televisions were automatically programmed to run the mandatory shows like Snow's announcements.

And the Hunger Games.

While Gale glanced at the pale blue Seam outside, Prim didn't avert her eyes from the screen at all.

The Capitol anthem interrupted the quiet with it's crass horns and percussion. They showed the streets outside with the screaming citizens flooding the City Circle, songs playing, flowing drinks, and the lights relentlessly studio was all lit in colors that illuminated the kitchen. Switching, red to purple, off and on into the dark space, on Gale and Prim's faces.

Peeta Mellark's head was also flashing on the screen, the caption reading "VICTOR". The celebration had been going on for hours.

Prim whimpered.

"But- but what about her?" he started. "What about her?"

"The trick with the berries was very smart, don't you think, Finnick?" they heard Claudius Templesmith ask. He sat inside the large studio with a handful of past victors on the lush interview couches. Behind them, banners were hung with Mellark's face.

"She definitely had the skills and to take Cato down, no doubt. It's a shame it wasn't enough, but the strongest fighter wins," the pretty guy replied.

"Or the most handsome in your case, right Finnick?"

And they laughed like the world wasn't ending.

Prim wept as they began the recap. They watched it all. It started with the Redhead eating those berries Mellark picked. She dropped to the ground, convulsed, and her eyes rolled back in her head. It only took a moment for her to die.

Katniss taught Gale about Nightlock. Not too long ago, he did the same thing that Peeta did, picking the whole bush, thinking that the berries were going to be a rare sweetness. When she saw them, she yelled, never let him hear the end of it. After that he became more familiar with her family book, the one with the plants and herbs in it, because she insisted that he learn basic forging skills. He taught her how to set a fowl trap in return. His eyes began to sting as the nostalgia rolled through him.

At this part, Rory came into the kitchen with Posy tucked in his arms. She began to babble the way that young things do, a sound that momentarily blocked out Katniss screaming Mellark's name. Rory watched the screen with bewilderment, like it was a crime to be viewing the Games on their own.

"Shouldn't we get the others?" asked Rory, but Gale ignored him, watching the screen feverishly. He still clung to the smallest sliver of hope that wouldn't be diminished by the corner of the screen, where Mellark's face was reminding everyone who the Victor was.

Rory sat in the chair beside Gale. He asked,

"Is she okay?" Rory's voice was small, like he didn't want to really be there. After a few moments, he fell into the silence with them, pulling Posy onto his lap.

Katniss stowed some of the poisonous berries in her pocket. The camera froze in on this moment.

They made a big deal about this year's muttations in the commentary. Each mutt in the likeness of a dead tribute, they were the most terrifying beasts he'd ever seen. The sickest one was small and dark, snarling with the brown eyes of that little girl Katniss allied with earlier. They made it to the Cornucopia just in time for the mutts to snap their jaws at her foot. One of them bit in, and she screamed, and the scream would stay with him forever.

Peeta tried to pull her up, and got her halfway there before the Career sneeked up behind him and landed a blow to his head with the butt of the sword. Somehow he made it up the other side of the Cornucopia before them. Peeta fell back and blood sprayed.

Katniss scrabbled up the metal. She had just enough time to get herself over the edge before the Career yanked her up by the hair, and her bow fell to the ground to be torn apart by the mutts. The Career punched her face hard while she tried to grab an arrow from the sheath still on her shoulder. When she did, she drove it into his arm, but he didn't seem to feel it because his other arm went around her neck in a choke hold, almost mechanically. There was a sword in his other hand.

"No," Peeta yelled, words slurring. "Leave her alone."

He tried to get up, but his head was bleeding badly and his leg was useless, and he just stayed lying in the blood watching the sword raise. He raggedly yelled the career's name.

She struggled, kicking, screeching sounds coming from her mouth, one hand hitting and the other snatching at her pocket.

It happened quickly. Too quickly for Gale to cover Prim's eyes. The sword came down into her side while her hand came up to the Career's face. She twisted, her fingers digging deep into the Career's mouth, deep enough that he gagged violently and let her go. The sword came out of her, bright red, and clanged to the floor. It took Gale a second to see that the Career's mouth was bleeding. Another second for him to see that it wasn't blood, it was more purple than red, and it was stained on her hands- on his mouth- Nightlock.

"Oh," Prim whined. "Oh."

She fell to the metal, near where Peeta was lying. Then the Career fell down much in the same way that the Redhead did, with convulsions, but bloodless and clean. Not like Katniss, whose blood was emptying onto the shiny surface of the Cornucopia.

Maybe if the Career had died first, she might have been saved by the hovercraft, and they might have fixed her up. She might have come home, and she might have come back to the woods with him, and they might have hunted together once more, and he might have kissed her under the trees, toasted bread with her by the fireplace. But she died first because the sword had gone deep. She died with he eyes open.

Katniss was not the first dead body that he'd ever seen. They showed him his father before he was buried, mangled and black with coal like a charred piece of meat.

"You're lucky," Katniss had told him.

"How's that?"

"You got to see him."

He never told Katniss that she was the lucky one, for them never having found her father under all that rock. He never talked to her about the nightmares, the ones where his father became an undead monster, spewing coal dust so thick that Gale would wake up feeling choked. He would have liked to keep his father fresh and alive in his memories, but when he closed his eyes and thought about his Pa, he thought about the body that replaced him. There was nothing left of those coal dusty and calloused hands, his taller-than-trees demeanor, dark eyes that were kind and hard.

He saw the body of Katniss at her burial, inside the wooden box with a white rose in her hands, and she looked so different. The Capitol dusted her off, cleaned her wound, hid it underneath a flowing white gown that Katniss wouldn't have been caught dead in (though she was caught dead in it now).

The burial took place after the homecoming celebration of Peeta. The train platform was flooded with Twelve's miners and merchants alike, bustling with excitement, which was fine because Peeta's homecoming meant food and riches. Only a handful of people looked solemn in the crowd, traders at the Hob who knew Katniss. He wondered what they would miss more; Katniss or her full game bag.

From all the way at the back of the platform, Gale could only see the top of Mellark's blonde head. He didn't watch the post-game interviews, so he didn't know what Mellark looked like now. He only had the lasting image of his face lying in a pool of both Katniss's and his own blood, saying her name over and over as his voice broke and the hovercraft approached.

It wasn't exactly hate he felt for Peeta Mellark. He didn't have a name for it.

The burial was a short ceremony where loved ones would gather around in the graveyard that had already swallowed the bodies of a few hundred children. They dug the hole weeks ago, a gaping spot in the earth where she would stay forever.

He was surprised by the amount of people who came. Girls and boys from school, her neighbors from the Seam, Merchants who traded with her at their doorstep. Madge gave him a sad smile that looked dull on her face with tears.

They all stayed while a Peacekeeper recited the typical speech on sacrifice and bravery, and they cleared out as the box was shut and lowered into the ground. Prim's crying was relentless, and as Rory held her while she sobbed, her mother went to the edge of the grave. It looked like she was going to pitch herself in to be buried with her daughter. Then, after a moment, Sabina turned sharply and took a very long breath.

Hazelle came to her side, stretching her arm around her. They called for the kids, all of them ready to go home and grieve in private. Gale was probably expected to go with them, but he didn't move from his distanced spot facing the grave. When they passed by him, he met Sabina's eyes. They were so dull and sunken. He wondered if she had anything left to give Prim.

When their footsteps receded, he found the world to be quiet. He might have been deaf. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the plant that took him all morning to find in the vast woods. Each step toward the grave felt dreadful. It was worse than that. He could feel her presence under the soil.

He dug a small hole, dirt under his nails, frantic and slow at the same time. If he kept digging, he might find her hand and hold it. He buried the katniss root and covered it with earth. It wouldn't grow here, but he thought only of when she told him about her namesake. He salivated over her description of the dinners made of tubers and duckling, gravy and greens. She said how she always felt rich when they had the thing for which she was named. Her eyes lit up when she told him about it. The katniss root. There was secret pride in her voice. She was always so determined to beat the hunger, so appreciative of those memories, with her voice full of nostalgia and excitement- he loved her from then on.

"What's that?" asked a voice behind him. Gale snapped up, only now feeling the tear tracks on his cheeks. Mellark stood there, eyes red and face haggard. A little ways behind him, the omnipresent camera team stood filming the moment.

Gale waited to speak, considered just turning around and leaving without another word. He would much rather pretend that Peeta Mellark did not exist. Instead he said,

"Katniss root."

Peeta nodded. The wind blew strong at that moment, sending a chill through Gale. He eyed the victor up and down. Peeta Mellark was just another merchant kid from his school who he steadfastly ignored like all merchants, a boy inconsequential to him, a nobody. Why was he what District Twelve got in return for Katniss?

"It should have been you," he found himself saying.

"I know it." The reply was almost immediate. In his voice, there was a degree of longing. His eyes never moved from ground Gale stood on, the fresh earth under which his District partner was.

Gale walked away from the grave, silently promising he'd visit her again soon. The camera men seemed to inch closer when he moved, but he wasn't going to hit Peeta Mellark or scream at him or kill him dead like that arena should have. He brushed past Mellark who was still staring. He was glad not to meet his eyes.

Sometime later, Gale rolled on the soft, wet ground of the woods. He forgot how he'd gotten there exactly, but now he was deep and far into them. If he kept going, could he reach another district? Some place where Katniss never existed. The whole forest smelled like her, the air tasted of her. He couldn't catch his breath, and he didn't know if it was from the exertion or from the gaping hole in his chest that was swallowing up his organs.

He banged his head against the ground, snapping a twig. He hit his face with his fists. He screamed,

"No, no FUCK," and then whispered, "no no no no no no no," like the words might do something to bring her back or erase her completely.

Three weeks passed without him stepping foot in the woods again.

Now that the Games were over, another year gone, it marked the end of Gale's school career. He wasn't very sentimental about it. His school was a daily joke, the classes just white noise, the lessons useless. History of the Games, of Panem, of technology that was out of his league. Rules and regulations that had already been drilled into him.

A job was waiting for him, and if he just went down to the Justice Building and signed his name, he'd be another one of the early rising coal miners of the district. There would be blackness under his nails and eyes. His back would nearly break down there, pitching axes and rigging mines. The coal would have his lungs eventually, turning them from fleshy pink to brown, black useless things.

He couldn't bring himself to do it just yet. They were getting by alright on the food rations given from the Games, though he hated eating it. It felt like the bags of Capitol brand meat and cheese were drenched in blood. He swore he tasted it.

She never said so, but he knew Hazelle was worried. The crease on her forehead etched itself deeper. She worked her fingers to the bone on the rack still, doing all she could, finding herself suddenly on her own without Gale's weekly game and trading profit, but she never pushed him to go back to being the provider. Maybe it was because she thought he was too fragile at the moment, a thought he laughed off, no matter how true it was.

The problem was that he didn't know what was worse; going down into the mines, or going back to the woods.

So in those weeks that Katniss was dead, Gale's days went a little like this:

He would wake from a slumber, delirious, usually finding that it was past noon. He couldn't dream and he didn't know why. Every night it was the same; he closed his eyes and sleep came, then an instant later, he'd wake, eight hours gone in the blink of his eye. He wished for dreams, for nightmares even. Without them, he might as well be dead in the night.

He would go to the Hob without breakfast, where Sae would take pity on him and sometimes give him a bowl of Stew if he helped scrub the pots. He wasn't scared of the Hob the way he was scared of the woods. There was too much activity, too much fluidity in the traders that frequented the place. Noise and business offered a nice distraction from the thoughts that made his stomach ache.

After the Hob had cleared out, he'd go to Prim's and help her with whatever she needed. Being inside Katniss's house was like wading into ice water, but he would never abandon Prim. If Katniss did have one dying wish, it was that Prim was taken care of.

She was getting by on the rations as well, but soon, she might not have such frequent meals. Sabina still ran the apothecary, from what he could tell, but each time he passed through the Everdeen's threshold, she would excuse herself to tend to the goat or an imaginary chore in the other room. One day, he asked Prim,

"How's your mother doing?"

She shrugged as she penciled in the answers to her homework page.

"Okay, I think."

"She makes you food? Makes sure you get to school?" he asked. It was hypocritical of him to accuse her of negligence since he was no longer providing food for his siblings, no longer walking them to school.

"Yes." And Prim looked at him with narrowed eyes. "I know how to take care of myself, too."

He patted her head.

"I just want to make sure you eat. She-" he broke off, unable to say what he wanted. She wanted me to make sure you eat.

He would leave and see Sabina through the window, sitting with Prim as soon as he was gone. He could guess why she was avoiding him. It was for the same reason he avoided the woods.

At home, he might eat a bite or two and give the rest of his meal to the kids. His mother would ask him a few questions that he'd hardly register. He would help her do the wash without saying a word, and he would ignore her worried glances until it was dark enough to justify going to bed. He'd slip into that dreamless sleep and wake in the morning to do it all over again, with no idea of how to change it.

One morning at the Hob, Darius was trying to tell a joke to Gale about a turkey and a slag, but he was only half listening as he handed him a bowl of the beaver stew.

"So the turkey turns to the girl and says, 'those aren't giblets!'"

Sae gave a wheezy laugh and shook her head. Gale missed the beat, so his forced laugh was late and not very convincing.

"Go on and git, you ol' wise-ass," Sae, said, shooing Darius with her hand. He lapped up some stew and gave her a disgusting show of the chewed food in his mouth. Like always, she reminded him that she wanted that bowl back as he sauntered away.

Gale hung back on the stool and surveyed the large ramshackle building that held the underground market. Wiley, a man who sold clothing and pelts, was walking toward him from his stand. He had Seam grey eyes, but greying blonde hair. Gale used to sell him whatever pelts they would get from some of the game.

"Hey ho, Gale." He inclined his head.

"Hey ho, Wiley."

"Any good catches lately?"

"Not many, Wiley," Gale replied. Wiley was not the only one who wondered when the game shortage would end.

"I just gotta get preppin' for winter, ya see, and well, I don't know any one else in the district who's got supplies..." Of course this was true, because there were only two poachers in town and one of them was dead.

"You'll be the first to know if I come into any...supplies." He said this meaning to dismiss Wiley, but the old man wasn't hearing it.

"A lot of us here have gone without for a while now, you know. I'm sure we'd all be more than generous if you were back in business again," he said.

"Wiley, you leave that boy alone," Sae pitched in.

Gale was about to tell Sae that it wasn't a problem, that he could handle it, but he was distracted. Over by Ripper's table, he noticed Peeta Mellark's blonde head and coal dustless hands passing Ripper coins. She slid a bottle of white liquor across the table. Odd to see Mellark at the Hob, or any merchant, for that matter. Odder that he was buying Ripper's stock.

Gale pictured Haymitch Abernathy, who had been in the Hob no more than an hour ago making the exact same purchase.

So Mellark was going drown his sorrows? Did he think it was that easy? Gale'd considered it himsef, but he knew that Katniss would have killed him twice if he became a drunkard.

But Katniss coudn't kill anything anymore. She couldn't make any judgments of the sort. He didn't know what the purpose of her death was, but it sure as hell wasn't for there to be more wasted District men wandering the streets.

"Hey," he shouted across to Ripper. He slid out from behind the table and made a beeline toward her.

Peeta's looked up when he saw Gale encroaching upon him. He was holding the white liquor in his hand, white knuckled. Almost everyone in the Hob turned their heads, all of them just realizing that the victor was here.

"Put that back," he ordered, pointing to the liquor. He didn't make a movement, so Gale grabbed the bottle from Peeta's fist and slammed it on the table hard enough that it shattered and spilled. The smell of it burned his nostrils.

"Mind your own, Hawthorne," said Ripper, but he wasn't looking at her. He was looking at Peeta's eyes as they struggled to be harder. His jaw was set, but the facade was translucent.

"What's it to you, anyhow?" he asked Gale, voice low and quiet.

Heat and anger flared up in his chest. He gritted his teeth, balled his hands into fists at his side.

"You don't get an easy out."

Peeta's face dropped momentarily, revealing a deep, sad expression that was not so easily hidden. A second later, the face was gone, replaced by anger. He shoved Gale's chest and Gale tripped backward one step.

"Why do you care what I do?"

It was a good question, he had to admit, and the answer was more complicated than the one he gave while pushing Peeta's chest back.

"Because she," shove, "didn't die," shove, "so that you could turn into Haymitch fucking Abernathy," shove.

Peeta's jaw looked like it was going to unhinge. He stepped forward, pushing Gale back with a force.

"You don't know anything about why she died," he yelled.

And Gale swung at him, fist colliding with nose, cartilage crunching. The next thing he knew, he was on the ground, and Mellark was on top of him, holding his neck with both hands like he was going to choke Gale, but he didn't. He looked into his eyes to see what was there, trying to figure out why he wouldn't squeeze his neck, just choke the life out of him. His fingers stayed slack. Gale kicked to get him off, but it didn't do anything to move Peeta's heavy fame.

After a moment, someone pulled him off and another someone was hauling Gale to his feet. Darius held Peeta by the arms, and a couple of men restrained Gale as he spit out curses and threats, struggling for another swing at him. His anger roared like a beast that had been pent up, starving more than the Seam brats in winter.

"You better clear out, Peeta," someone said. Peeta shook out of Darius's arms, brushing himself off. Blood ran in rivers from his nose all the way down to his neck. It stained his shirt red. He stared at Gale for a long time, and so did all the vendors of the Hob, before he disappeared behind the crowd, slipping out of the door as Gale huffed and puffed and watched after him. Like letting a deer run off without making the kill.

"Geroffme," he growled to the men holding his arms. They let him go, and he stumbled forward.

Darius approached him like he was wild animal. His hand was protectively on the baton on his belt, and it must have been the first time he ever thought about using it.

"You calm?" he asked. He didn't condescend to answer. "It ain't like you, sticking your nose in other people's business."

"Are you gonna arrest me or what?" Gale spat.

Darius raised his eyebrows. He knew Darius didn't have it in him to send him to the whipping post. Hob men didn't betray each other so easily. He just stepped out of the way, saying,

"Stay the hell away from Peeta Mellark."

That night, he went back to the woods and it hurt like he feared it would.

In the cover of darkness, he cried against a tree while ignoring his hunger. He had not eaten since yesterday morning at the Hob. He had not cried since they buried her.

Pieces of Gale were starting to float out of him, starting to drift up. He could catch them and put them back in their place, but they wouldn't stay. He lost his gravitational pull when she died. It was the thing that held everything down.

When he closed his eyes and breathed in the forest, he saw the red apple blood that seemed to flow from her. He saw his father's empty shell, dead eyes in his mind, and then her dead eyes and white flowing death dress. He heard the dying words that were some other boy's name.

Peeta Mellark everywhere; the ghost he couldn't get rid of. Even his blood had dripped onto his cheek when he was choking him and now it was smeared on his fingers.

Had the situations been reversed, and Gale was the tribute, would he have been the star-crossed boy from District Twelve? Would he partner up, playing out a romance for the world to see? Risking his life, his important fucking life, so that his partner could live? Even if Katniss was waiting for him, watching him at home?

He hated her for it. He hated her for not living.

Later, he climbed under the dead electrical fence and back onto the coal covered streets. Delirium and ,violence under his belt, he wondered if maybe he was going mad. It happened sometimes. There was an older guy who lost himself down in the mines a few years back, tried blowing up the entire team until someone was forced to hit him with a pickaxe. Gale wanted to know who was going to bring the hammer down on his head.

He didn't bother knocking on Prim's door. She looked up from her small barrel of goat milk and weakly smiled. Prim didn't smile much these days.

"I need to borrow something, Prim."

"Okay," she said.

"Can I look through your mom's supplies?"

Prim bit her lower lip, but stood up to lead him over to the shelves in the small kitchen area. The apothecary was better stocked than any food pantry of theirs might be. Gale saw what he was looking for and picked the bottle up. He uncorked it to smell it, to make sure it was just white liquor, and his nostrils burned.

"What are you going to do with that?" asked Prim's small voice.

"It's not for me. I just...owe someone." He shoved the bottle in his back pocket. "I'll get you more," he said, though he didn't know how he would afford it.

Prim looked at him with maybe a speck of skepticism, but she was not one to voice objections.

"Do you need anything?" he asked for good measure.

She shook her head. He gave her shoulder a gentle shove and was led to the door. In the threshold, she grabbed his shirt to stop him.

"Rory told me you're never home anymore," she said.

"Did he?" His heart started the hammer inside his chest. The pieces of him, in particular, his family floated out into the thick autumn air.

"Where do you go when you're not at home?" Her voice trembled, timid, small, baby-bird girl.

"I go nowhere, Primrose."

But that night he went somewhere. That night, his feet led him to the alien row of houses called Victor's Village. Most of the large homes were black and dark, with an abandoned quality. One house had a bit of litter and a small fledgling of geese trotting in the yard, and the other occupied house had a single light on in the far right window.

He picked that one. Even if Mellark didn't answer, he could always pass the liquor off to Haymitch and call it a day.

No flowers in the garden. No warm welcoming mat. He tried to peer inside the window, but there was nothing to see, no lights. He knocked twice.

He came to the door wearing a different shirt, one without blood on it. His eyes and nose were bruised, probably broken, grisly blue and purple .Gale remembered hearing his fist collide with it, and he felt a little sick.

Peeta sagged against the doorway, closing his eyes and sighing like Gale was a minor annoyance; a flea he couldn't kill.

"I brought you this," Gale said to fill he silence. He opened his eyes and glanced at the outstretched bottle.

"I don't want it."

"Look, it's only fair. I smashed the one you paid for."

"I can afford it."

Gale laughed for some reason. It was an odd sound, a sharp bark of a thing. He had not laughed in weeks, so the moment struck a chord in him. But then the silence after grew awkward, so Gale hardened himself and said,

"Just take it."

"Why don't you smash it over my head or something?" Peeta said. It was probably supposed to be a joke, but it didn't sound funny when it was coming from a bruised face.

They both stood there unwavering until Gale said,

"I think I need a drink."

Peeta took the bottle, and Gale felt his strangely smooth fingers touch the rough calluses of his own hand. He turned the bottle over and over, glancing at Gale, at the bottle, at Gale. He opened the door a bit wider.

"Come in, then."

At this moment, Gale had the choice to leave, to spare himself. Something made him pass through the threshold, something deep and buried inside, embedded in him like the the coal down in the mines.

The house was a dark cave devoid of light, but with adjusted eyes, he saw that it was in perfect condition. Inside, the surfaces were clean. Counters bare, walls bare, furniture not an inch out of place. Gale expected disarray, apathy, filth. He expected Mellark's house to be as messy as his life, but it was spotless, like no one lived here at all.

"Nice place," he commented, and Peeta grunted, not agreeing or disagreeing.

A low fire was dying in the living area so that shadows filled the room. Gale stood in the kitchen, a little lost for words, a little lost in general.

"So where's your family?"

"They stayed at the bakery."

Peeta walked to a pantry and retrieved a few glasses. They clinked on the counter, the cork popped from the bottle, and the liquid ran in a deathly stream.

Gale drank liquor with a few school kids when he was younger. It made him vomit up the meagre meal in his belly, made him go hungry and thirsty for a whole day, and since then he vowed he wouldn't drink again. As Peeta slid him the glass, eyeing him with suspicion, he felt the promise break.

"I'm not sure who to toast to," Peeta confessed.

"Don't toast to her. She'd wring your neck."

"I deserve it anyway," Peeta said after a moment, raising the glass. "So here's to her."

They clinked and swallowed down the alcohol, like lava down the throat. Gale coughed, shook his head, curbed the sudden warmth in his belly. He set the glass down.


Peeta gave him a heavy look, one that was loaded with something, but Gale didn't know what. He poured them a second drink and didn't toast before swallowing it down again.

"I'm sorry I hit you," Gale blurted out. The low lighting made the bruises on his face even look even angrier.

"You're not," Peeta said through a dark chuckle. "You've been wanting to hit me for a while now."

"Since I saw you two holding hands. At the Tribute Parade," he said.

"Yeah." He sucked in a sharp breath. "That was mostly for the cameras, anyway."

Gale helped himself to a third drink as the fire ate away the knot in his stomach. Peeta tapped his glass and Gale poured him one as well.

"Was it all for the cameras?" he asked.

Peeta leaned his elbows down onto the counter and Gale mimicked him, leaning in close, so not to miss a word. He felt he was learning secrets, answers to important questions, like he was finally joining the conspiracy. Peeta brushed his hand over his face.

"I don't know if it was real or not real."

It wasn't good enough.

"But did you think she loved you?" Gale asked. He didn't even try to mask the urgency. Peeta met his eyes, looked at him like he was crazy. He shook his head a few times.

"Did you think she loved you?" Peeta asked. "Everyone in the Capitol thinks you're her cousin. But that's not true, is it?"

"I was never her cousin," Gale said, hating the label. He could remember when they wanted to interview him for the Games. The freakshow parading into the Seam, asking all these questions. He tried to refuse , but masked threats and a persistent Effie Trinket subdued him into sitting down in front of he weird camera men who wore gear that made them look like giant insects. He tried to brush them off with curt answers and angry looks. They made the interview look decent on television with their tricky camera editing. He looked just like her cousin, their Seam eyes and coal-dark hair.

Peeta dropped his chin into his hand and said sadly,

"You were too handsome. It wasn't helping our star-crossed lovers story."

"We were never together like that." Gale hated to say it despite how true it was. He hated how true it was. "If I had more time...maybe .."

"I'm sorry," Peeta said.

Gale pushed himself from the counter an ran his hands through his hair frantically.

"It's just...I just don't understand it."

"Understand what?" Peeta's voice never changed, stayed monotonous while Gale's reached another octave.

"I don't understand why she would die for you."

When Peeta shook his head again, Gale got the impression that he was asking the wrong questions, but the dead girl had woven some kind of tangled mess in his head, and he just wanted to know why she gave up on District Twelve, her sister, and him. She promised she would do everything she could to come home, so why wasn't she home? Why couldn't she have shot everyone off from the top of a tall tree? She would be the one with him in the victor's house. She would make the woods beautiful again

"What you don't get is," Peeta said slowly. "Is the arena. It doesn't matter if everyone in there wants you dead, you still...you still don't want to be alone. I wished she would come and she did."

"She would have lived if she stayed by herself."

"I know. But we thought there could be two Victors. We thought we could go home."

"You're home now," Gale said. He didn't know what he meant by it.

Peeta looked at his feet shamefully, took a long breath, and Gale decided to occupy the silence by having another drink. This time, he just took a swig from the bottle, then passed it to Peeta.

"She didn't die for me," Peeta said. "It's just what happens in the Games."

After a moment, Gale took the bottle back and sipped it. He was getting used to the taste.

"I know," he whispered.

They didn't talk about the Games, or Katniss, or anything after that. The drink made his footsteps land strangely in front of him. He walked around, following Peeta up a flight of stairs, falling into the wall a few times. It was darker than downstairs without the fire tricking his eyes, but he could see the white of Peeta's shirt in front of him so he followed. With a jaded sense of time, it seemed to take hours before they were at the end of the hall. Peeta opened a door and the light turned on.

So this was where he was keeping the mess.

Everywhere, paint stained the walls and the floor. Canvases were thrown, some in tact, some ripped from their frames. Splinters of wood were difficult to sidestep. Full jars of color were thrown around, emptying and dried on the floor into puddles that looked like spilled milk and spilled blood. Gale squinted, crouching down to pick up one of the mostly in tact paintings. It was Katniss with half her face buried against a sleeping bag. This was what Peeta saw when he was lying next to her in the cave. Gale dreamed of this painting, of what it would be like to watch her sleep from so close.

He felt Peeta's warm breath behind him, on his shoulder.

"Did you ever get to kiss her?" Peeta asked.

"No. What was it like?"

"Like...the forest. Like drinking from a stream in a forest."

Katniss was the woods and the stream and the arrows and the wild animal all wrapped in one. What would it be like to taste that?

He felt Peeta bring up the bottle, tipping the last of he drink into his mouth. Gale lowered the painting, looked around at the other ruined ones. There were pictures of death and blood, the Cornucopia, the cave, and Katniss, Katniss everywhere, her dead eyes watching them.

"You painted all these?"

Peeta sighed from behind him still, and he leaned his forehead to rest between Gale's shoulder blades. Gale didn't even jump at the feeling. The weight settled there. Peeta breathed hot breath on his back. He said,

"I dream about it every night."

And Gale said,

"I can't dream at all."

He left Peeta in the painting room, walking blindly through the uncharted house again. He ducked into a bathroom to take a piss. After, he stared into the mirror at his reflection, seeing himself through the fuzzy vision of drunkenness. Peeta's footsteps sounded outside in the hallway. They walked past and reminded him he wasn't alone.

How did he even get here?

A few minutes later, he felt even more drunk. He felt the fire in his stomach turn to fire in his veins, in his head.

Walking through the Victor's house, the endless hallway, he found a clean room, one with a bed in it. His brain briefly registered that Peeta must be the dark figure on top of it. All the same, he was suddenly tired, eyes itching for sleep. His feet led him clumsily to the bed and he sank into it.

Gale rested against the feathery pillow under his head, the alien softness of the mattress, the weight of someone much larger than Posy beside him. Head spinning, he turned and faced the left side. Blue eyes were watching him.

Seam eyes were grey. It was the only color that was ever prominent in his part of the district.

Yet here were blue eyes.

That night he dreamed of the blue oceans of District Four, the one's he only saw on television. He dreamed of a starfish curling around him. It was stuck in between his shoulder blades. He dreamed he was dreaming, and the dreams went deeper than that. He would wake to find himself in another dream, then wake again to the same thing like waves coming to the shore and being pulled back again. Always blue oceans and blue skies as the night wore on.

In the morning, he woke first to untangle himself from the sheets and the mysterious limbs. His head pounded, his limbs shook with dehydration, a feeling he'd known from the summer months. It took a few nauseous seconds for his head to clear enough to notice the brightly lit room he was in was not his home.

And then his thoughts went to the dream that was starting to get foggy. He closed his eyes and remembered, forcing the dream back to the front of his mind so that it wouldn't slip away because it was the first thing he'd dreamed in weeks.

Peeta woke, but stayed with his head half resting on the pillow.

Gale glanced down at him. It was odd that they were sharing the bed, and he hardy remembered getting here last night, but before he could say anything about it, Peeta said,

"No nightmares."

In those weeks that Peeta Mellark became a curse on him, Gale's days went a little like this:

He would hunt because he had to. Reluctantly, he'd venture into the woods to set his snares early. He'd hike around, chewing the bread that Peeta always left on the counter for him. Sometimes, he'd get lucky and shoot a pheasant or a turkey, but most days he returned with squirrels and rabbits in his bag. Again, he wasted no time in the woods. There was nothing he loved about them anymore.

He made his doorstep rounds, getting this or that from whoever needed squirrels. Then it was to the Hob, where he was receiving generous payments from the traders who'd missed the taste of wild game in the last month. Sae would give him stew which he could now pay for with bits of squirrels and turkeys.

Afterward, he'd let himself into the house where his mother was working the rack. She would ask him how his day went, and nothing more, since he stopped answering her heavy questions, like,

"Where have you been sleeping?" and "What are you doing, Gale?"

He would be pleasant with his mother, always, even if her looks made him clench his fists. When his father died, he became more than her son, more than a brother to the kids. She knew it and he knew it, and it made them special like Katniss was special to Prim. So maybe Hazelle was very hurt by his absence, but Gale couldn't keep on pretending that he was the same. He wouldn't pretend that he could sleep easily next to his siblings in the bed. He didn't try to fix anything, and he knew that, but didn't know how to start.

He would clean the animals alone, lay them out for his mother to cook for dinner. The kids would come home from school, happy to see him, climbing on him and begging to play. They rambled about the goings on of school and what this person said to that person in their lesson. Except Rory. Rory would give Gale a dark look and go outside to avoid him.

Gale wouldn't try to fix that, either.

When it was dinner time, he would slip out the back door without really saying goodbye. He would walk the few narrow Seam streets, stopping by Prim's to deliver a meal. He was teaching her how to clean game, a task she found horrible but necessary. It was odd to see Prim with her hands on a knife. She made a bloody hack job of the last squirrel. Her hands shook so much she couldn't keep the cut steady. And when he asked her if she wanted to stop, she shook her head vehemently.

"No, I have to learn."

By then it would be dark, and Gale's stomach would rumble for dinner. He would walk up the main artery through District Twelve, past the unused whipping post, the rarely entered butcher shop. Sometimes the butcher would be outside, pulling on a pipe, and he'd give Gale a dirty look as he passed.

Victor's Village was still formidable. He would drag his feet until Peeta's house came into view and look up at it with the sense that everything was still a dream.

He didn't have to knock. He always kicked off his shoes and rested his coat on the chair by the door. Sometimes Peeta was baking or cooking, sometimes he was nowhere to be seen. On those nights, Gale would prepare a small meal himself. It didn't matter if Peeta was home or not, there was always bread. Eventually he would come out from whatever hiding spot he was in, or come home from whatever place he was visiting, and they would eat together.

Usually it was standing over the counter. Sometimes there was chatter, and Peeta would tell him a few things about this or that, but most nights they were just quiet and thankful for the food.

"You should let me pay you for this," Gale said one night, his mouth full of sunflower bread. Sunflower seeds were hard to come by, having been shipped from Eleven, he knew the price was high.

"I don't need your money." Peeta surely didn't mean to sound insulting, but Gale didn't like the tone.

"Well, I don't need your charity." He threw down his last piece of bread.

Peeta groaned. When he accepted food from him, Gale had that uncomfortable feeling in his gut similar to what he felt when putting his name down for tesserae. Every night they would eat together, always Peeta's food. With every free bite, the discomfort grew, but he didn't mention it too often for fear of disrupting the

routine. And what a strange routine it was.

When dinner was finished, Peeta would light a fire. Gale always cleaned the dishes, dried them, stacked them away so that everything was impeccable again. He tried to make himself scarce.

They would sit by the fire. He would sharpen his arrows, practice his snares, tie knots and play with bones. Peeta read books or sketched unknowable things with a charcoal pencil in a book. He didn't ask to see the drawings, and Peeta never offered to show him.

They never drank the white liquor again.

Later in the night, the ascent to the second floor would be the most palpable moment for Gale. Avoiding touching, avoiding eye contact, they'd trudge up the stairs and through the hallway. Now sober, the hallway wasn't nearly as endless as he'd imagined. Peeta's bedroom was the farthest room.

Going to bed with Peeta Mellark should have made his stomach ache. It should have sent alarms through his head like the ones they sounded during mining accidents. He would strip down to his underclothes while Peeta threw on a nightshirt, and he'd sink into the bed that had become more familiar than his own. With his eyes closed, he'd feel Peeta's weight shift on the mattress, the covers draw up, and he'd twist a bit into the natural curve of two bodies close together. Legs thrown over each other, arms splayed this way or that way. They didn't say goodnight, they just fell asleep like that. And Gale's stomach never ached. It was the one moment in the day, before slipping into unconsciousness, that his chest relaxed, and the gaping hole there filled up with Peeta's snores and the promise of dreams.

He always dreamed now.

One night, Gale returned from town with a few turkey legs that he'd managed to hold onto for the day. If he wasn't paying for the food, then he could at least contribute to the meal.

Peeta was not in the kitchen; nothing new. He wondered which room he was holed up in, or if he was over at Haymitch's, or down at the graveyard visiting her. He moved around the kitchen, grabbing things, knowing where the spices were and where knives were stored as if it was his own kitchen. He was about to start frying the turkey when he heard a loud bang from above him.

His eyes went to the ceiling. Another crash, another bang and stomping that sounded like rolling thunder.

Then yelling, an unfamiliar scream. Peeta didn't yell. He was always so calm.

Abandoning the turkey, he took the stairs two at a time. He remembered the drunken night in the room with the paintings, the room with Katniss everywhere. Though it had been a month of their arrangement, he never step foot in there again. He avoided it, calling it the room of horrors. So his hand hesitated when he went to turn the knob, but he heard another choke from inside, a kind of sob that he couldn't ignore. He opened the door and forgot to be tentative. He forgot that Peeta probably wanted to be alone and probablyneeded to be alone while he was in there, but Gale hated the sounds. Strangled animal cries.

Peeta stood, chest heaving in the center of the room. His hands were dripping blood- but he saw after a fearful second that it wasn't blood. It was paint. The brush in his other hand looked like it had been through hell. On the easel sat the latest painting of a long gash, a wound on the side of someone's body, clotted with dark fabric. Katniss's blood.

"What are you doing?" he asked him.

Peeta didn't answer. His breath hitched, a sob caught in his throat.

Gale walked toward him as gently as he could. He was a startled deer. He was afraid to sending him running. He looked from the horrible painting to Peeta, and reached his hand out. He made hi m let go of the brush and it fell to the already stained ground.

"Stop," Gale whispered.

The sound that escaped Peeta's lips was so pathetic, so small. He pulled on Peeta's neck, forcing his face into the crook of his own shoulder. Peeta's hands went around him. They pulled down Gale's back as he cried. They grabbed at him, staining red onto his cheek and his neck, red handprints all over his chest. Gale gripped him tighter and tighter, like he was holding him together.

He didn't know how he ended up here. Holding Peeta Mellark as he cried. The air was so tense and so thick that he couldn't escape it. The hate and resentment dissipated for as the poor victor in his arms tied a knot that connected them. He couldn't let go of him.

"Can we just sleep?," he whispered in Gale's ear.

"Yeah," he mumbled.

Peeta stopped making the awful sounds by the time they got to the bedroom. Gale didn't turn on the light, but the window had the curtains drawn and moonlight was enough. He pressed Peeta onto the bed, noticing red paint stained them both. He supposed it didn't really matter.

He slipped out of his shirt, and where he'd normally fold it, put it in a neat pile on the chair opposite the bed, he just let it fall to the ground. Peeta sat hunched on the edge of the bed with the heels of his hands pressed against his eyes. Still seeing the horrors and the blood.

Gale crouched down, so much taller than him, he had to kneel to be at equal height.

"Give me your shirt," he said, but Peeta didn't listen. He kept his eyes covered. Gale sighed softly, reaching out to pull the shirt off Peeta's back himself. "It's all covered in paint."

It was when he got close that Peeta reached out for him, pulled him back into that embrace with his head in the crook of Gale's shoulder. He didn't feel tears this time, just hot breath making his skin sweat on that spot. He felt the warmth of what could only be lips on his collarbone.

His stomach did a flip, but it didn't seem to protest. Gale wondered what that meant. He didn't say anything as Peeta's lips traveled north to his neck. His jaw. His ear. His cheek. His lips.

And they were kissing.

Gale was used to kissing. He kissed lots of girls behind the school, in the slag heap, in their own bedrooms. He felt breasts and touched the soft spot between a girl's legs. The last kiss he felt was Madge Undersee's small lips, but his was not like kissing Madge, who had been strawberry sweet and soft. This was hard. Stubble and tongues, breath and teeth. He liked this better, it made his stomach boil in a way that wasn't really pleasant, but not bad. He reacted to it, became a part of the push and pull that went along with tangling lips.

He knew there was a difference between kissing boys and kissing girls. The merchants who watched more Capitol TV than him were seen in the halls of school sometimes, two boys with their arms looped together, two girls holding hands. The Seam was a bit different. If rumors sprang up that two boys or two girls were kissing in the slag heap, the other kids would murmur about it like it was a character flaw. The old men and women would give them strange looks, say that in the old ways, only boys and girls were meant to do that. They said that two boys and two girls was a Capitol thing.

When they stopped, Peeta put his head back on Gale's shoulder, and exhaled against him.

Peeta did not taste like a stream in the forest. He wasn't a body of water at all, not a blue ocean or a pond. He was hard and solid, earthy like dandelion soup, hot and thick in his mouth.

They slept in the bed, in the same tangle as every night, but now Peeta kept his head closer to Gale's. Peeta looked at him for a long time, red rimmed eyes intent on his, but they didn't kiss again. He was asleep in a matter of minutes, eyes finally slipping shut. Gale's fingers shook as he touched his own face, his whole body tight and tense. It took him a while to fall asleep, and when he did, he dreamed the kiss again and again. His subconscious didn't even have the decency to twist the memory into something else.

In the morning, Gale woke to an empty bed.

It was cold, the autumn light was pale in the room, and he was hard. With a groan, he shifted his hips. Only wearing undershorts, his hips were exposed, and pressed down on his erection, palming it through the fabric with an absent mind.

There was nothing to be excited about, really.

Whatever was going on was severely fucked up and he knew it.

Hunger was something he was accustomed to. He was used to those pangs, to the rumble underneath the emptiness. Gale used to be hungry like that until he went into the woods. It was a kind of hunger that was making him hard, a different kind off starvation that he would feel when Katniss wiped sweat from her neck or puckered her lips accidentally. It was a familiar ache.

The bed felt cold as a breeze blew in through the open window. His hands stopped moving on himself long enough that he went soft. He couldn't stay in the bed all day, he couldn't avoid anything, he'd have to hunt and carry on.

His clothes weren't where he left them on the floor. They were gone and so were Peeta's. Confused, he left the bedroom. Goose bumps raised on his skin as the draft hit his nakedness. He slipped down the stairs in an effort to be quiet.

Peeta stood at the sink of the kitchen with the tap running. On the counter beside him were several soaps and cleaning supplies. He rubbed at a shirt with vigor, a brush scraping against the fabric. It was Gale's shirt. When he lifted it up, he saw the pale red lines of handprints on the back; the place that Peeta held onto when he found him last night.

"Just toss it," he told him.

Peeta looked up at him with surprise. His eyes were tired, deep set bags darkening underneath. He didn't hear him coming down the stairs. Gale moved into the kitchen to shut off the loud tap, feeling that it was a waste of water.

"I ruined it," Peeta said, dropping the wet thing in the sink.

"Make some dish rags out of it, then."

There was bread on the table. A loaf of dark cinnamon rye filled the air with the spicy scent. Gale's mouth watered and Peeta seemed to notice he was looking at it. He went into a drawer and pulled a knife, began slicing it into thick pieces. They smothered it in precious butter and sweet jam.

They ate against the counter as they normally did, no chatter, mouths full. Gale knew what they were both thinking of, but it seemed custom to not speak about it at all. They were both very good at keeping up facades.

"You really should let me pay you for this," Gale said after a minute. The bread was delicious. Two and a half months ago, cinnamon rye would have been a pipe dream.

When Peeta looked up, he looked like he wanted to say something.

"What?" Gale asked.

"The company...is enough." Peeta's eyes seemed to glaze over.

That day, Gale didn't leave to hunt. He didn't check on his family, Prim, or any of his customers. Peeta loaned him a shirt that was a bit too small and he decided that today, they would clean out the room of horrors. Peeta looked shell shocked when he suggested it.

"You can't leave it like that," he told him.

"I don't want-" Peeta tried, but Gale cut him off.

"If you're going to paint her, you have to do her justice. She can't be...lying on the ground all ripped up like that."

They spent the afternoon clearing out the room. First collecting the ruined things, the busted wooden frames. They put them in a pile in the backyard to burn later. Then Peeta very carefully saved the few paintings that he hadn't destroyed yet; a portrait of Rue with the flowers around her head; the muttated eyes of the dog that was meant to be Glimmer. His hands shook.

Gale mopped all the paint as best he could, but the floor was still a splattered mess that would stay that way forever. It almost looked interesting.

He watched to see if Peeta would do anything- cry, scream, cover his eyes, or kiss him, but he just did his work quietly. His eyes lingered on a particular portrait against the wall. It was Katniss, her face smiling shyly in the dim light of the cave. Gale came up behind him to look at it closer. It was a beautiful portrait of her. It was all Katniss, the way he remembered her, always smiling uneasily.

"You're good at this," he said. "That's almost perfect."

Peeta breathed in a bit of air, a shallow breath.

"Almost," he said.

They burned the broken frames and canvases when it got dark. It was a small fire in the backyard that made a lot of smoke. Smoke made Gale nervous. It made him think of the billows that came with the mine explosion. The whole town stank of smoke for weeks after the accident.

They stood side by side, watching the flames, and Gale was sure both of them were trying not to think about The Girl on Fire.

Haymitch stumbled out of his house at one point to investigate the smell. He kicked a goose and cursed at it when it got in his way, honking at him and disturbing the quiet. He came near and Gale could smell the liquor seeping out of his pores. He shifted uncomfortably under the drunk's gaze. Once or twice, they'd ran into each other at the Hob. He sold him some rabbit once, he thought.

"What are you doing here?" he asked accusingly. Peeta didn't try to help. His eyes were glued to the burning pile.

"Having a fire." Gale tried not to look at him in the eyes, as if he might give himself away. He wasn't sure how good he was at lying.

"Well, I can see that." Haymitch sniffed the air.

The conversation died down as the fire did. Peeta waited until the las of the wood was a charred ember, and then he turned around and walked back into the house. Gale was left with Haymitch and his stink. After a long minute, where neither of them said anything, Haymitch simply stalked away to return to his house as well, and presumably, his booze.

Inside, the lights were already turned off, the first floor quiet.

Peeta was already in bed.

Gale did what he always did, removing his clothes, folding them, putting them in a pile, and twisting into the covers. He could tell by Peeta's breathing that he wasn't asleep yet. Gale wanted to say something, but instead he just turned his head where Peeta's was facing him. Carefully, he kissed him.

His lips were colder against Gale's, but then it was quicker. tongues slid against each other, tasted like cinnamon and sour breath. Peeta made a sound in the back of his throat. The kiss was sweetness, soothing, trickling down his spine to the the lake of sadness. It soaked up the sadness while they breathed against each other, fighting for air and not wanting to let go.

When he did let go, Gale only let himself have one moment to catch his breath. Peeta looked at him with a kind of confusion. He smashed their lips together again and it wasn't enough.

There were hands on him. Hands all over him. They smoothed the line of his back, touched his neck, his hair, his face. Gale didn't know what to do with his own hands, so he held Peeta's head. This way he could tip it back to reach deeper in his mouth as deep as he could go. It still wasn't enough. He pressed him into the bed, he ground himself into him, the fabric of Peeta's shirt smooth against his chest. He couldn't be any closer, but he pressed on and on, hoping that he might get swallowed up entirely.

Everything stopped when he felt his pelvis slide with Peeta's, when he felt that Peeta was hard. They both were hard. They both felt it.

Gale stopped kissing him. They froze, chests heaving for air. There just wasn't enough air.

And because it made him feel better, and because it felt good, Gale pressed his pelvis to Peeta's again and shifted. He kissed him and kissed him and their hips did the same sort of dance, restless for relief. Gale groaned when his dick slid across Peeta's through the barrier of their shorts. It wasn't enough, it was never enough.

He didn't stop to think about what he was doing, he was just lost in heat of it. Something instinctual made him reach down under his shorts, and grab his himself. His hand was caught between Peeta and himself.

And he felt Peeta do the same. Both of them moved on themselves as they frantically kissed, and the wetness of the kiss made Gale ache from deep in his abdomen.

At some point, it wasn't his own hand in between his legs. It became a thick, Capitol-smooth baker's hand. They were larger than any girl's had ever been, taking all of Gale in one grip. He noted the difference, but was too far gone to feel any worry about it. Nothing really existed except the feeling that kept coming in waves. He was close. It felt like pure electricity running through him and making his chest puff and heave.

Peeta accidentally caught Gale's lower lip between his teeth and it made him come.

"Fuck," he hissed against Peeta's forehead. He pulsed. An evangelical zeal seemed to make his chest cry out as everything and everything burst from his pores. All the wrongness burst and rained down on them as he came and went, his body arched, his eyes watering.

"Fuck," he said again, drawing the word out.

Peeta shifted his hips, still hard, still breathing rapidly.

Gale was not fearful, not even embarrassed that his boxers and stomach were damp with himself. He pressed his bare hips to Peeta's clothed ones and slid down Peeta's shorts so that he could feel all the warmth radiating against him. He pressed against him again, made his hips buck. The only dick he knew was his own, but it couldn't be that different.

He touched Peeta with his hand and Peeta sucked in air through his teeth. His own hands were rough and calloused against the silky thing in his fingers. He wondered if Peeta used to have scars on his hands before the Capitol smoothed him down. He noticed that there was no hair on Peeta either, not like Gale who had never shaved an inch of himself before. Peeta's cock was as smooth as the palms of his hands.

"Does it feel good?" he asked in a whisper. Their foreheads stuck together with sweat.

"Yesss," Peeta hissed. Gale's hand moved more rapidly. "You make it feel so much...so much...better."

Gale put his tongue inside his mouth. He licked and sucked and tried his best to do whatever it was that send him off the edge. He wanted Peeta to feel the elation; he wanted the weight off them both.

When his thumb brushed over the most sensitive spot, Peeta grunted and came, squeezing Gale's hip and kissing him one more time.

"You make it better," he gasped again as he relaxed.

For a while, not much changed. They spent their days occupying their hands, setting snares, baking bread, skinning deer, painting pictures.

Gale got curious one night, and tried to catch a glimpse of what Peeta was drawing in that sketchbook of his. Peeta raised his eyebrow and angled the book away.

"What? I've seen your pictures," Gale said. He scooted closer to him on the rug.

"This is different."

Gale didn't understand how, but he let it go and returned to the hide of deer that he was trying to dry and flatten.

At night, they curled into each other. They would no longer sleep apart. Gale was taller, so he naturally fit around Peeta, knees bent inside his, arm bracing him to his chest. Peeta seemed to like it this way. Peeta would usually fall asleep first with his lips open against the skin of Gale's arm. Sometimes he drooled, but Gale didn't care. He would look at the line of Peeta's silhouette, bundled and snoring like a wounded animal, and feel that instinctual pull to protect him.

It was like when he found her in the woods all those years ago, a sprite, a skinny whip of a thing, arms so awkward on that oversized bow. He wanted to intimidate her, and then he wanted to protect her.

But of course, they had always protected each other.

Gale wasn't sure what Peeta was protecting him from.

On a cold early winter night, Gale woke up for an inexplicable reason. He laid there for a while, blinking, alternating from looking out the window and looking over at the mess of blonde hair on the pillow. An hour passed and he didn't fall asleep again.

Slowly, he extracted himself from the sheets, tip-toeing to the bathroom. In the mirror, he saw the shell of himself. For all intents and purposes, he was still Gale Hawthorne. Nothing much had changed except the length of his hair which Greasy Sae cut for him last week.

He wouldn't begin to list the things that were different about him. None of them could be seen in a mirror.

Suddenly, a noise cut abruptly through the silence; Peeta's strangled, sleepy voice

"Stop it," it called.

Gale slipped out of the bathroom and back into the bedroom where Peeta was flailing his arms in several directions. After a moment, he sat up, wild-eyed and panting. Already sweat made his forehead sheeny in the little bit of light coming through the window. He sat back and breathed for a moment, pressed his hands to his eyes and rubbed them. The nightmare was slipping away, but Gale saw him shaking with fear and anxiety.

"Hey," Gale said. He crawled back into the bed where it was feverishly warm

"I thought- I thought-" he gasped.

"It was just a dream." Gale awoke from many nightmares, but never screaming like this. It made his heart race.

Peeta relaxed against the headboard, trying to calm his breathing. He took a few large breaths, running his hands over his face again and again. Gale reached for him to touch his hair softly like he might break him if he was too harsh.

"I woke up alone," Peeta said quietly.

"I'm sorry."

It was less than a whisper when Peeta said,

"I need you here."

Gale touched Peeta's chest, smooth and sweaty. He rubbed circles into it, leaned in to kiss the middle of it where his lungs were inflating. He'd never put his lips here. He kissed it again slowly, wetly. He kissed from one side to the other. His skin was salty tasting and he liked it.

He tried to figure out the reasons for why he was here and still doing this when it was probably wrong. But when Peeta told him he needed him, Gale understood. The only person who ever needed him was Katniss, for their weekly hunting days, for his company. His siblings only needed him for his game and provisions.

Peeta needed him for other, unknowable reasons. Maybe Gale needed him, too.

If they shifted the pieces of themselves together, they were almost fine. They were almost something. They weren't just the ashes of what the Girl on Fire left behind.

He kissed his stomach, feeling Peeta's hands as they rubbed through his hair slowly. Gale nervously kissed down the hairless stomach. Peeta's chest shuddered when he did this. He pulled away the bed sheets. In the dark, he could see the fine scar that went around Peeta's thigh in a perfect circle. Here, the Capitol leg they gave him was attached. Gale skipped past Peeta's hardness and kissed the scar. He heard Peeta sigh.

"You don't have to," Peeta whispered. He was probably nervous. The times that they'd done this, it was with their hands only.

"It's okay," Gale said because it was. He felt a little humming in his stomach, the same kind of dull excitement that he got when he first kissed the inside of Odele Huddle's thigh.

He got Peeta naked, placed himself between his legs. It was the first time he'd seen Peeta up close, thick and pale, devoid of any hair.

He took him in his mouth. He didn't taste like Odele had.

He felt Peeta get stiffer as his mouth covered more territory. Peeta hissed. He knew what places were the best to touch, so he licked the areas slowly and tried to take all of him. Peeta's hips struggled to remain still. He cursed and drove his pelvis up a bit which mad Gale gag once or twice, but he didn't stop because the sounds Peeta made were making him hard against the mattress. Guys at school used to brag and tell stories about which girls had gotten to their knees, and how they'd done it, but no girl had ever gotten to their knees for him before. When he went down on Odele Huddle those years ago, nothing much happened. She'd sat there and shifted her hips a little while he wondered if he was doing anything right.

But this was easier somehow.

He licked the underside, closed his lips tightly around the head of his cock, and Peeta made a fluttery sound in the back of his throat. His breath hitched as he mumbled out Gale's name and a series of things like "God," and "fuck," and "please."

"I'm gonna come," he said quickly when Gale tightened his lips again.

The words made his own dick twitch. He kept going, hummed a bit when Peeta hit the back of his throat. He didn't mean to graze him with his teeth, but he did, and then Peeta shouted, a guttural noise. He didn't have the sense to take him out of his mouth as he came in waves. It filled his mouth and tasted alien and metallic.

It was awful to swallow. He did, though, gritting his teeth.

Peeta's breathing was heavy as they lay still for the moment. He looked worn out, but his hands were strong, grabbing Gale by the shoulders and pulling him down with him. Gale fit himself against his arms, and Peeta pressed his face against his chest. Gale was the one who always held him, not the other way around, so his chest tightened in an odd way as Peeta ran his fingers through his hair. He tried to relax.

"Um..." Peeta started. "Thank you."

"It's not so bad."

"Maybe I could..." Peeta trailed off, let his hand stay still in Gale's hair.

"Maybe," Gale said, but he'd gone soft. It was calm now. He didn't feel the electricity, just the quiet hum of the nighttime; the beat of both their hearts in the background.

"They look down upon it...in the Seam?" Peeta asked. Gale sometimes forgot that he was with a merchant boy. "If you're a man and...you're with one."

"They say it's Capitol act."

"But there were lots of women with men in the Capitol. I turned on the television a man was fucking a girl in front of an audience."

"I saw FInnick Odair fucking a man on television once," Gale said. "It's the older folks in the Seam. They think it's strange. If you're with someone and you can't make babies with them, they think there's no point."

"I'd rather not make babies with anyone. Not here."

Gale's mind went alight with a memory.

"Katniss said she would never have kids."

He felt Peeta's chest tighten and he instantly regretted mentioning it. After a minute, Peeta said,

"She was right, though. It's better not to bring them...into this...into this place."

"I know."

Peeta sighed as Gale's lids went droopy. Sleep was close again even though it was probably only a few hours until sunrise. He smelled Peeta's salty skin; saliva and sex and the ever present buttery aroma of baking.

Hazelle asked him one day when the kids were still at school.

"Is it true that you're staying with Peeta Mellark?" Her voice was slow. She had the words caught in her throat. At the sound of Peeta's name, Gale wanted to sprint, but he didn't.

"Is that the talk around town now?" he asked. He meant to phrase it lightheartedly, but it came out sounding choked. He rinsed the blood from his hands until they were clean, and then kept them buried in the water so that he looked busy, so that he wouldn't have to look at her. He felt her watching.

"It's easy enough to spot anybody in this town. Even in Victor's Village." She stopped looking at him, returning to her rack.

"He's my friend," Gale felt the need to say.

"And you live there now, Gale?" Her Seam eyes looked at him again. He wanted to peel her gaze away from him. His mother saw all. She knew her children through and through. "Is it because of Katniss?"

"I have to go."

He dried his hands on the rag. He scrabbled for his full game bag, the reliable old coat he had to wear now that it was cold. Morning frost turned to all-day frost, crunching underfoot. Winter loomed, and Gale hated how the sun stayed away, far beyond the ashy clouds. A winter in District Twelve meant grey, endless, endless grey under your feet, in the snow, in the sky, all around. He held the doorknob, ready to flee into it.

Then Hazelle let out a sob. It was powerful, crushing. It had been bottled up forever and was popping like the tabs of those fizzy drinks Peeta made him try. It reminded him of the sounds she used to make after the mining explosion.

"Ma," he started, but really, not knowing where to start.

Her shoulders shook and shuddered. Gently, he set the gear back down on the floor. This was new to him, this comforting thing, and he didn't know if he should put his arms around his mother because he was most likely the cause of her suffering. Nonetheless, he approached her and touched her arm.

"Ma," he said again, and this time she turned around. Her tired face looked more haggard than ever. When was the last time he really looked at his mother's face?

"Why don't you come home, Gale?" she said quietly. Her hand reached up to caress his cheek.

At this plea, his defenses went up. He could not come back home in the same way he could not bring Katniss back from the dead. It was an impossible thought.

"But...everyone's fine, aren't they? Everyone's doing just fine." The kids were fed, the chores finished, everything was fine.

"What do you mean fine?" She shook her head, pressing her fingertips into the corners of her eyes. "It's not 've left us, haven't you?"

He wanted to say that everything left him, not the other way around. He would hold ontoresponsibility, the need to keep his family alive, but it was true that he felt separated from them in a way he couldn't begin to describe. The Seam died inside him, the haven of the woods, the sweetness of hunted animal flesh, the warmth of a nice evening fire- all dead like her.

Hazelle undid him. He could feel the gentle patchwork inside him coming apart at the seams. The patchwork that Peeta worked so hard on.

Katniss in his mind, Katniss in the paintings, always looking at him, always wondering why he was treating his family with this reckless abandon. It's because of you, he thought to Katniss. It's because of him.

"I feed the kids. I take care of them, same as always, so what do you want from me? What do you fucking want from me?"

"Don't you speak to me that way, Gale Hawthorne-"

"You want me to be Dad, is that it? " he shouted.

He slammed his fist into the counter and she jumped at the violence. Then her face hardened, and she slapped her son across the cheek like she had not done since he was a boy. The sudden stinging pain of it, the shock of it, made him step back from her until he was pressed to the kitchen table.

They stared at each other for moments that felt like days until Hazelle wavered and she reached out toward him. He held still. She ensnared him like he would ensnare a rabbit. She sighed low and heavy against his arm, rocked back and forth until he felt it was safe to put his arms around her as well. When he was young and Rory was just a bump under her dress, she would rock him like this and he would wrap his skinny legs around her swollen belly. He could fall asleep to that motion.

"I'm sorry she died," Hazelle said. "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry, baby."

Gale's muscles tensed. Hazelle must have felt it because she held on tighter.

"Don't go," she said.

"I have to go."

Gale untangled himself from her. He left her reaching out for hi m. Nothing was fair, of course, he knew that. She just wanted her baby back. She wanted for everything to go back to the way it was.

But everyone wants for something in District Twelve.

The first time Peeta got a phone call, his mouth was around Gale's cock.

It was a delicious mixture of pain and heat and overwhelming wetness. Gale died a little when he finally shouted, coming all over the hollow of Peeta's neck.

And then the phone rang as he was coming down, as his hardness ebbed away in Peeta's mouth. It was a ring that he'd never heard before; a sharp sound that cut through the heat and made everything go cold. Peeta sat up, the sheets bunching around him.

"What's-" Gale started, but Peeta was already getting out of the bed. He walked out of the room wearing nothing. He heard him thumping down the stairs. Gale heard a faint, "hello?"

While Gale was alone, he thought about what his mother was doing at that moment. Asleep, or maybe soothing Vick who had a chest cold. He hadn't spoken to her in a week, he only dropped a half-full game bag on the back doorstep and left without saying hello.

It was a short phone call, whatever it was. He came back into the room only a few minutes later. He didn't catch Gale's eyes when he walked past the bed, he just moved into the bathroom and shut the door robotically.

Worry planted itself like a bulb in the pit of Gale's stomach. He kicked away the sweaty sheets, feeling as though something was wrong. The sound of the phone itself felt wrong. Naked, he hovered by the bathroom door and heard the shower turn on.

Inside, Peeta was in the glass box. Showers were a new thing to Gale, who always had to take uncomfortable baths with cold water and use eucalyptus plant for scent, but Peeta had a shower that ran hot water. There was a dispenser installed that spat out all sorts of powerful smelling soaps. Peeta turned to look at him as he opened the door. He backed against the wall a bit so they could both fit inside.

"Who was calling?" he asked. Warm water hit his back and he tried hard not to sigh. Peeta didn't answer. "You gonna talk to me?"

"It was Portia."

"Who's Portia?"

Peeta stuck his head under the rushing water to muffle the sound of him saying,

"My stylist."

Gale remembered if he thought about it hard enough, which he didn't like doing. Portia was the one who set Peeta on fire. Before Gale could ask, Peeta just said it.

"The Victory Tour is soon."

It felt like a little kick to the heart. His pulse started to thrum against his chest. He forgot about it. He forgot that he was only in this shower because it belonged to a Victor. Peeta's face flashed at him from distant memories, VICTOR, VICTOR, VICTOR.

"I forgot about it," he said.

Peeta nodded, shaking the water from his hair only to soak it again.

"So did I."

How many weeks would it be? He already felt the emptiness easing into him, an old familiar friend. He did the only thing he could think of to stop the losing feeling from taking him over. He bent his neck to rest his forehead in between Peeta's shoulder blades, much like Peeta did that first night. His arms snaked around to his stomach and pressed Peeta against him. He held on tightly. He held on tighter than his mother had.

"Don't go," he said.

"I have to."

They spent the day before the tour in bed. They ate toast and jam for meals. Around noon, they got bored and took off their clothes, trading orgasms and kisses, napping after, and waking up to hunger again. When night finally came, they tossed their arms and legs together to rest against the pillows.

"On Tv," Peeta said suddenly. "They might make me...they might make me say things."

"What kind of things?"

"Things about Katniss." His voice dropped to a whisper when he said her name. He took a shaky breath. "In the Capitol, they think that I'm the Victor because she sacrificed herself."

Neither of them knew if this was true or not, but Peeta kept talking.

"It's because I didn't kill anyone. And there's never Victors who just win by..." He trailed off, but Gale knew he was going to say win by luck.

"What about that girl from Four?" The one who the cameras never showed until the arena flooded. It was years ago, but he remembered her because there had been little killing that year. When they did show her, it was the hours upon hours she spent treading water. It was the most peaceful games he'd ever seen. "From a few years back. She just had to swim to stay alive."

"They don't like it," Peeta said, shaking his head.

Maybe Gale understood. The Capitol wanted a reason for why Peeta won as much as they did.

They tried to stay awake with drooping eyelids and tight chests. Peeta let his head fall onto Gale's shoulder. After a while, he started to snore softly and Gale tried to hold onto the moment. He wished it would be enough to last through the weeks soon to come, but he knew that old habits of loneliness die hard. He kissed Peeta, waking him up with his mouth.

He took in the blue eyes. He hoped they would be the same when he came back.

The next day, another Capitol parade would invade the town with the camera crews, the makeup, the costumes, the lighting, Effie fucking Trinket. Peeta told him he should stay away until he left. There would be cameras and there would be questions. He dragged his nails in circles around Peeta's chest. They said goodbye without saying goodbye.

A/N- The fic title and excerpt at the beginning is from a song called "Lofticries" by Purity Ring. Part two will be up soon. Thanks for reading this far!