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the woods are lovely, dark and deep

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Gale is gone, she tells herself. It isn’t real.

Peeta is real, lying beside her, warming her bed. Peeta, who came back from the Capitol mangled and saw her with fresh eyes.

(Gale, who left months ago for District 2, is not.)

And yet - she struggles to fall asleep at night. Knows what waits for her.

+

He carries the question around with him, day and night, work or leisure. There’s little to focus him now that the war’s over – the Capitol overthrown – Katniss gone.

(He finds himself floundering.)

But Gale is not alone; a hero of the revolution never could be. And it’s easy for him, easier than he thought, to let himself be seduced. Maybe one day he’ll stay with one of them.

(But some nights, when it's not enough, he stumbles towards the woods outside District 2.)

+

Sometimes Katniss stays the night in the woods, and Peeta doesn’t ask why. She’s tired from hunting - doesn’t fear the forest alone – she’s too far out to make it back by dark. Some nights, Katniss climbs a tree and falls asleep.

(Here or in the house, the dreams come when they will.)

And Peeta would never understand that even if they’re not real, they are.

+

He wakes with Katniss curled against him and his heart’s beating so hard he’s sure it’ll burst from his chest, but he doesn’t want to wake her yet. The dark hair he dreams about is coming out of her mussed braid, and he can only imagine how it got that way – hunting, or him, probably – but her breathing is steady and he lets the moment linger, reaches out to clasp their hands together.

“Don’t be silly,” she says sleepily and here, for a moment, nothing is awry. Nobody is dead who shouldn’t be, and Gale and Katniss are not separated by miles or people or blame.

(At least not enough to matter.)

“I’m not the one who overslept,” he says, and Katniss pulls the blanket back up. They’re in the forest again – their old haunt – and she turns to face Gale, eyes narrowing. “It’s not even morning,” she says pointedly, but there’s doubt in her voice. Even here, in his dream, Katniss is nothing but herself.

(It makes him wonder.)

“That never stopped us before,” he replies and lets himself lean down to kiss her, his blood flying as Katniss pulls him closer, a trail of kisses falling lower and lower. His scars twinge under her hands but she's moving too fast (it’ll be over too soon), so Gale rolls them over, drawing out his luck.

“I miss you,” he whispers against the shell of her ear (wishes he could just say it, really say it) and Katniss shakes her head, arms wrapped around him. "You left," she reminds him. As if he had a choice.

He doesn't protest, just twists his hand between them to settle between her legs, and smirks at her when she shudders, pulls her legs tighter around him. A little of the guilt slips away when she gasps and pushes against his fingers, and he murmurs her name like a chant while she doesn’t say a word, just leaves half-moon nail marks on his shoulders and kisses him hard when she comes.

(She carries more guilt than he does, he thinks.)

“Did you?” she asks, when she finds her voice again, and when he looks away, can’t face her – he doesn’t know, why does she keep asking? – she takes the blanket and stands, looking down at him in the lightening gloom.

“How can you not know?” she asks, and it almost seems like she just wants him to lie, like it would be easier, but Gale – he’s never wanted to lie to her. There were no lies in the woods.

There's a long pause before she says, strain in her voice, "I miss you, Gale."

“It’s still my fault,” he says, curling up and avoiding her gaze. “She’s still gone.”

“So are you,” she says, and after a pause she stretches out her hand. “Gale, please.”

But when he reaches out –

+

The woods are empty when she wakes, and Katniss finds herself curled tightly against the tree. Real or not real, she's left empty, carrying her doubt like a shroud. Nothing answered.

But District 12 is still waiting for her, and she slips back to Peeta, to routine, to familiarity.

(The woods will wait for her.)

+

He wakes up, in a cold sweat and hating himself, hating the woods and the false hope it gives him. Heads back to District 2 and tries to wipe the night from his mind. When his shift ends, he heads to the tavern.

His eyes fall on a girl with dark hair and grey eyes. Maybe this time.

Finis