He can't remember when it was that he started seeing her in that way. All he knows is that when he did, he couldn't stop. The niggling feeling, the weird buzzing in the back of his brain – they started whenever she was near. His hands want to know how it would feel to caress the rounded curve of her ear, cup her jaw and draw her close for a kiss. Anything beyond that makes him tremble.
Before the Reaping when Katniss is picked, before she becomes a tribute, Gale is sure that he's mapped out his life. It's okay. It's not the best. They'll never be rich, but his family won't starve. He can picture their wedding, their first child. There's no question of who he's going to marry.
It's only after, once she's gone on that train instead of Prim, gone away to the Capitol that it occurs to Gale that maybe it's not going to be that way anymore.
The thing is – the way they look like they could be related? It doesn't bother Gale. In fact, he kind of likes it. It's Katniss, after all, he likes just about everything he knows about her. And anyway, she's from the Seam, right? It's what they all look like.
He's seen their hands next to each other, their bare arms under sunlight. She's evenly tanned all over, and their color almost match. The day he notices, the day he starts looking for whenever their hands are close, makes his breath catch. It's like they're already one entity.
Three days later he almost bungles a snare when the breeze whips her dark hair off her forehead, catching wisps from her braid. She asks him what the matter is and he can't find an answer.
When Gale closes his eyes at night, he doesn't need to imagine what their children would look like. He already knows and the piercing gaze of their grey eyes follow him in his dreams.
When she comes onscreen in the Opening Ceremonies, that vision aflame, Gale can only focus on her thin face and her hard eyes set alive by her outfit. The reds and oranges are jumping around her body. They're all quiet there, gathered in the square, and he can hear the bare hint of a murmur threading its way through the crowd. He squeezes Rory's quaking shoulders with his hands and hopes they're steady.
"They're holding hands," his brother says, tipping his face up.
It's only then that Gale can take in Peeta next to Katniss, the colors reflecting off his crown of golden hair. He follows the strong line of Peeta's arm, slow, until he can see their hands. They're gripping each other like anchors, like partners, like lovers. Gale keeps his breathing slow, but his chest unexpectedly aches.
It's only during Peeta's interview, when he drops the bombshell, that Gale ducks away into the shadows. All these years of hunting illicitly in the forest have given him a taste for stealth. He steals through the silent streets of the Seam until he finds Katniss's house, the windows darkened.
He thinks about the home he's dreamed for them – somewhere impossible, with a yard brimming with wildflowers and sunshine – and stands there until voices chase him away.
Every day he watches there's a new development in Katniss and Peeta's epic love story. The press have started streaming into the District, searching out members of Katniss's family and friends to talk to. Prim scurries home from school with her satchel across her face. She runs into him when she's rounding a corner, her eyes still watching for people with microphones.
"Careful!" He catches her in his arms, a squirming bundle of girl.
She bursts into tears and doesn't manage to say a word, not even when Gale picks her up and carries her gently back to her house. Her mother receives Prim at the door, silent.
When he turns to leave though, Katniss's mother stops him with a hand on shoulder. She gives him the smallest wheel of goat cheese, but the tangy aroma makes his mouth water immediately.
"Katniss is coming home," she says, but her chin shakes.
Gale closes his fingers around the cheese. "I know."
If he weren't pretending to be her cousin, if he could be Gale Hawthorne – lover, sweetheart, suitor, whatever – he would have told the press that he would do anything to see her home safely.
"I'm waiting for her," he would say into the cameras, his image flashing across screens all over Panem. "I'm waiting for her right here. We're going to get married, raise children, live our lives. Please, leave us alone."
When he has to watch her onscreen, the cameras following her as she weaves her way through trees, and especially when she's in the cave with Peeta, Gale lets his mind wander. He tries not to see the way she touches Peeta, their mouths fitting together.
There's the night that her finger trails up the side of Peeta's jaw and something inside Gale breaks.
He's always been so sure that he would be the one she'd love. He hadn't counted on Peeta Mellark. But, really, he shouldn't have been surprised. Life has been pretty good at disappointing him so far.
The noise is deafening when they're declared winners, the poisoned berries dropped from their hands. Gale can still see the way they held each other though, the kisses between Katniss and Peeta.
He doesn't think that him kissing Katniss would look much different. His kiss would be just as full of desperation, but of a different kind.
On his way back to his house, Prim catches his eye and offers him a smile. He gives her one back. Right. His friend is coming home and he should be a little more relieved. Truth is, though, he always thought she would.
It's Katniss Everdeen. Was there ever a question?
Correction: he does remember the moment he fell in love. It's late spring and they're in the forest. Katniss sights a turkey along her arrow, and he suddenly sees her – the strong curves of her body, the edged fineness to her frame, and he's dizzy with it.
His foot suddenly jerks backwards and they lose the turkey. Katniss gives him a hard time about it, but he doesn't regret it at all.