"You really want to do this?" Gale says.
Katniss looks up at him from her perch on the sofa, flicking her braid over her shoulder in annoyance. It's the third time he's asked her since they took the deer meat to Peeta that morning.
"He lives here now," she says flatly. "We can't just all avoid each other forever."
"We don't have to pretend like we're best buddies, either."
She stares at him for a long moment. "You don't have to come if you don't want to."
Gale snorts. "Oh, I'm coming."
Katniss twists around in her seat, fully facing him. "What exactly is it that you think is going to happen?"
He'll steal you. The thought rises in him with such force it's all he can do not to say it out loud.
"I don't know what's going to happen," Gale says, folding his arms over his chest. "I don't know if he's…better. Neither do you. That's the problem."
Katniss purses her lips. "I can take care of myself," she says, turning back to the book in her lap.
"Now you don't want me to come?"
Katniss sighs heavily. "I didn't say that."
So they go, together, at six p.m. precisely; he's glad to find that Haymitch is there already, halfway through a bottle of white liquor. The older man takes one look at them and leans back in his chair. "This is going to be a fun night," he drawls. For the first time ever, Gale wholeheartedly agrees with Haymitch.
"It will be fun," Peeta says neutrally, pouring them each a glass of water. "I made pot pies with Katniss' venison, and cookies for dessert."
The little pies are good. Better than something similar that Gale's mother used to make out of tesserae grain in their rickety, old oven. He watches Katniss as her eyes flutter shut in pleasure with the first bite, and he can see from the corner of his eye that Peeta's watching, too.
Peeta turns his gaze to his plate and clears his throat, poking the top of his own pie with his fork so little curls of steam can escape through the crust. "I baked a lot, in the Capitol. Dr. Aurelius thought it would…help. I didn't know how to make these at first, but I remembered them. From the train." He pauses, his eyes flicking towards Katniss, then away again. "Those ones had chicken in them, I think."
"Real." Katniss' voice is so soft that Gale barely hears it, though he's seated right across from her. Peeta's mouth twitches up into an almost-smile, and Gale's fingers curl against his palm beneath the table.
Haymitch lets his fork drop to his plate, the clatter startlingly loud. "You got any more of these?" he says. "They're damn good."
"Of course," Peeta says. Gale can barely stop his eyes from rolling as Peeta folds his napkin before stepping away to the kitchen. A Capitol habit, most likely, though Gale had seen one or two kids from town do it over the years in the school cafeteria, too.
Table manners were about as useful as an electric toothbrush in the Seam. If there was food on the table, you ate it – end of story.
"Can I have some of that?" Gale says, nodding his head towards the bottle of liquor on the table. He can feel Katniss' eyes burning into him as Haymitch shrugs, pushing the bottle an inch towards him.
"Be my guest."
"You don't drink liquor," Katniss says, her voice low and accusing.
Gale drains the remaining water from his glass, then fills it halfway with the potent liquid. She's mostly right. But back before the war, he'd sometimes spend Friday nights with some friends in the meadow by the Seam, passing around a bottle from whoever had scrimped together enough coins for Ripper's bathtub gin that week. And once he started working in the mines, it wasn't uncommon for a flask of the stuff to make its way around an hour or two before closing time.
Gale was never fond of the taste. But that burn in your throat, in your gut…something about it was invigorating. Comforting, too, that even if your feet hurt and your back hurt and your throat was coated with ash, there was still something that could dull your senses and make you forget, if only for a moment.
"You don't know everything about me," he says, and throws back a long sip of the liquor, grimacing. He turns to Peeta, who's been silent through the entire exchange, chewing slowly. He pushes the bottle towards the blond boy. "You drinking?"
Peeta glances at Katniss, but seems to recognize it for the challenge that it is. "Why not," he says after a pause, and accepts the white liquor, tipping the lip of the bottle into his glass.
Katniss gapes at him. "I know you don't drink," she says.
"So you're all just going to get drunk," Katniss says, crossing her arms over her chest.
"I'm already there, Sweetheart," Haymitch says, punctuating the words with a loud belch.
"You're disgusting," she mutters.
They eat in silence after that. Gale finishes his drink and pours himself another glass; soon after, Peeta does the same.
"Well, Peeta," Haymitch says suddenly. "Is this the warm homecoming you were expecting?"
Peeta sets down his fork and is quiet for a moment, like he's actually thinking about it. "I wasn't expecting anything," he says.
"How could he? He didn't even tell anyone he was coming." Katniss doesn't even try to temper the bitterness in her words. Gale snorts. He's just tipsy enough to find the tension amusing, instead of unbearable; and not a moment too soon.
Peeta groans a little, dropping his face into his hands. "I don't think this is the right time to talk about this," he says, his voice muffled against his palms. His glass is near empty, and Gale can't help but feel pleased that the liquor is clearly hitting Peeta harder than it is Gale.
"I think it's a great time," Gale says.
"Gale, stop it," Katniss warns him.
"Lighten up, Catnip," he says, settling back in his chair. "We're all friends here."
This time it's Peeta who laughs. "You're not my friend. You hate me."
"Sure as hell not my friend," Haymitch grumbles.
"I don't hate you, Peeta," Gale says. He pauses. "I don't have any reason to hate you."
Peeta's ears flush red, but before he can respond, Katniss is on her feet, pulling on her jacket. "I hate all of you right now," she says through gritted teeth.
Gale stands to stop her, but it's too quick, and the ground shifts beneath his feet for just a second as he catches his balance. Okay, maybe he's a little more than tipsy. It's been more than a year since his days of passing whiskey around in the mines, after all. "Catnip, wait."
The front door slams behind her, the sound hitting him in the gut like a sucker punch. He turns around slowly; Haymitch is taking it all in with barely concealed amusement, but Peeta is facedown at the table, his head buried in his arms.
Haymitch shakes his head. "You don't know how to quit when you're ahead."
"Shut up." Gale turns back to Peeta. "Look, Peeta –"
"Please go home." He doesn't lift his head. "It's okay. I shouldn't…I shouldn't have even come here. This was a mistake. I'll leave. I'll go."
Gale rolls his eyes. "Would you quit being such a fucking martyr? We're in your house. You don't have to go."
"It's okay," Peeta repeats, mumbling into his arms. "Just…go home, Gale."
Haymitch stands then, and the older man is surprisingly steady on his feet. "Do what he says for once," he tells Gale wearily, lowering his voice. "Go home to your girl."
Gale looks at Peeta for a moment longer, but the younger boy doesn't move. "I would if I had one," he mutters, and grabs his jacket off the back of his chair.
He expects to return to a dark house, Katniss closed up in her room. But she's waiting for him in the kitchen, a glass of water on the island before her.
"Drink this," she says stiffly, pushing it across the counter towards him.
Gale chugs it down dutifully. "Thanks," he says.
"You're an idiot," she says, and there's none of the playfulness in it that's been there before.
"I know," he admits.
"Is Haymitch still over there?"
Gale shrugs, watching the water droplets drip down the side of the empty glass. "Guess so. Why?"
She hesitates, and he looks up to meet her eyes. She looks away. "Peeta can't hold his drink," she says. "They'd give us wine on the Victory Tour and he'd get all…loopy."
A smirk slips onto his face before he can stop it, and Gale rubs his hand over his mouth to hide it. "Yeah, he was getting there."
Katniss shakes her head slightly. "I don't know why he'd agree to drink white liquor, of all things." She sounds irritated.
He slides the glass back across the counter, and she catches it just before it sails over the edge. "Maybe he forgot," he says. Maybe it was a memory they'd tampered with. Maybe Peeta didn't think he'd been drunk those nights. Maybe he thought he'd been drugged by Katniss, and maybe once he had enough in his system it would trigger an attack.
That's the problem. It's always a maybe, until it's too late and suddenly it just is.
Her face hardens. "Maybe," she says, voice clipped. "I'm going to bed."
"Katniss, wait." Gale catches her by the hip as she tries to slip past him, her skin warm beneath his fingertips, even through the fabric of her pants. "I'm sorry."
She tilts her chin up to look at him. "Are you?"
The weight of it all hits him at once. He's ashamed, and exhausted, and scared, and just drunk enough that it seems like a good idea: he kisses her.
Her lips move back against his for just an instant, but then her palm is there against his chest, pushing him away. His heart thuds painfully beneath her touch. "What are you doing?" she asks quietly, her eyes sad.
"I don't know," he admits, his hand falling away from her waist as he slumps against the counter.
Katniss stares at him. "Go to bed," she says, dropping the empty glass in the sink.
The sun is bright when Gale blinks back into consciousness sometime the next morning. It feels like there's a pickaxe lodged in his skull. I probably deserve it, he thinks, pressing his face against his pillow.
Katniss is already gone when he stumbles into the kitchen. He makes himself eggs and toast, and crawls back beneath his covers for a nap when they settle like lead in his stomach.
Gale drifts in and out of sleep throughout the morning, just barely aware of the sound of the front door opening around lunchtime, and Katniss moving quietly around the kitchen. He lays on his side and imagines her coming into his room to check on him, with a glass of juice and a few pills for his head, and the way her lips would twitch as she tried to suppress a smile.
But his door never opens, and eventually he hears the front door shut again, leaving him alone in the silence.
By the time he drags himself out of bed again, his stomach is growling, his head throbbing, his limbs achy and awkward. He grabs the telephone from its receiver on the wall as he shuffles down the hall, dialing as he falls back onto the sofa.
A little girl's bright, chirpy voice greets him. "This is the Hawthornes, Posy speaking."
Gale's lips curl up in an instant smile. "Hey, Rosy-Posy," he says, his voice still gravelly with sleep.
He had always loved all of his siblings, but Posy the most. Posy was his – the way Prim was Katniss'. After the accident his mother had never shut down completely, the way Mrs. Everdeen had. But when her daughter was born a few weeks later, there were days – especially at the beginning – when she couldn't leave her bed, consumed by an overwhelming grief. Gale would skip school those days, making sure the baby was fed and changed.
The weight of that responsibility had never really left him. His mother was a good mother, to all of them, but it was Gale who told Posy her bedtime story each night, Gale who tweaked her nose teasingly in the morning at breakfast, Gale who took her on walks to the meadow and pointed out the squirrels and birds on the other side of the fence. All the things their father had done, and could never do for the daughter he never met.
No one loved Gale the way Posy did: innocently, freely, unconditionally.
"Gale!" He flinches but smiles even harder, tilting the phone away from his head as his sister shrieks into the receiver. "Hi hi hi!"
"Hi!" he repeats, laughing. "Hey, are you old enough to be answering the phone now?"
"I'm seven," she says, and he can picture her perfectly in his mind, her eyes rolling in exaggeration. It was a habit she'd only just started to develop right before he shipped out with the Star Squad, and it reminded him so much of Katniss that it almost hurt.
She launches into some disjointed story about one of her friends in Thirteen, and little by little Gale feels the tightness dissipate in his chest. He closes his eyes and listens to his sister ramble and he can almost pretend that he's lying on the lumpy, cheap sofa in their home in the Seam, and not the fine, plush furniture that fills this hollow, too-big house.
Finally Posy pauses to take a breath, and Gale hears his mother's voice in the background, lilting up into a question. "It's Gale," he hears Posy say, and then, "Mom wants to talk to you."
"To what do I owe the honor?"
He smiles. "I just talked to you last week."
"I'm kidding. How are you? How's Katniss?"
Gale pauses. "I'm good," he says.
"You don't sound so good," she says.
"No, I'm just…a little under the weather today." He swallows. "I miss you guys."
His mother sighs, and he imagines her settling into a chair in the tiny living room in their compartment in Thirteen, tucking her gray-streaked hair back behind one ear. "We miss you too," she says.
She tells him about Rory, who's been learning to shoot with the old wooden bow Gale left behind now that outdoor recreation time is allowed, and Vick, who's been spending all his free time with a pretty girl whose family lives in a compartment just down the corridor.
"Have you thought any more about moving back soon?" he asks when she's done, trying to quell the little seed of hope swelling in his chest. "There's more people already, even since we talked last week." Nevermind that people means Peeta Mellark. "There are some families here, I think."
Hazelle doesn't answer for a moment. "Honey," she finally says, her voice quiet. "We've talked about this."
His pulse picks up, like maybe if his heart beats fast enough it can outrun the inevitable disappointment. "Yeah, but you aren't here. You haven't even seen it," he argues, pushing himself up on his arms to sit upright. "It's getting better."
"It's not a stable environment for kids, Gale."
"It's never going to be if the people who belong here are too chicken to come back." Gale bites down on his tongue immediately after saying it, cursing silently.
"Don't you dare speak to me like that, Gale Hawthorne." His mother's voice is sharp and brittle through the phone line. "Try raising four kids on your own, and then talk to me about who's chicken."
"I'm sorry," he says. "I am, I'm sorry. I just really miss you guys. I miss…having a family."
There's a pause, and a note of hesitation in Hazelle's voice when she speaks again. "Is everything alright with Katniss? You haven't said much about her lately."
"It has nothing to do with Katniss," he lies. "Look, I have to go."
"I'll call you soon, okay? Say hi to Rory and Vick. I love you."
Gale clicks the off button and tosses the phone onto the coffee table.
Hello hello! Thank you for sticking with me, despite the time it took to get this chapter up. I hope to be updating more frequently, at least for the next few chapters. :) As always, thank you so much for the thoughtful comments, and I'd love to hear your thoughts on this chapter, especially as it's very Gale-heavy.