A/N: Today (the 5th) is my birthday! I decided to post to celebrate. Also, endless thanks to the ladies at the Quarter Quill for pre-reading! Enjoy!
Double Date – Part II
We walk a few paces from the house. The ground is cold and rocky, but I'll gladly go barefoot rather than walk in shoes that don't fit. "So, where are we headed?" I ask.
Gale shoves his hands in his pockets. Looks to his right. Looks to his left. "I don't know." He takes off to his right. I guess we're winging it.
"Where would you go when you were twelve?"
"The woods," he replies automatically. "It's too dark now, though. Plus Rory wouldn't take Prim there. She's terrified of the woods."
"Hm," I think out loud. When I was twelve I liked to visit my father in his office at the Justice Building or accompany Faunka to the market. I never went anywhere unsupervised. And no place as dangerous as the woods. I wouldn't consider going there now at age sixteen without Katniss. I'd have to think twice about whether or not I'd go with Gale. I can't be sure he wouldn't abandon me out there.
"There's always the mine, but that seems even more unlikely." Gale smirks to himself.
My jaw drops open a little. I can't help it. "You went to the slag heap when you were twelve?" I know it's not right to judge, but…twelve years old? I didn't even know what going to the slag heap meant until I was in the upper school. He must be joking. I can't see his mother allowing him to do such a thing.
Gale peers at me through narrowed eyes. "What do you know about the slag heap?"
There is simply no good way to answer that question. "I know what goes on in my own district."
Gale stares at me for a long second, thoughts spinning behind his eyes. Slithering nerves slide around my stomach. It's so much easier to hold his gaze when he's saying something nasty. Quiet, thoughtful Gale is surprisingly intimidating. He's never taken so much time to come to some conclusion about me. He usually comes up with those before we meet up. "Fair enough," he finally says, looking back to the path ahead.
What does that mean? I don't hold his reputation as the so-called make-out god against him. So he shouldn't hold it against me that I've never been to the slag heap with a boy. Gale judges me all the time. Why does this instance bother me so much? "True. I don't have much practical knowledge—ouch!" I yelp when my foot lands on a sharp rock. I balance on one foot and grab the other to knock the rock from where it's embedded in my skin.
"What?" Gale asks. He sees me holding my foot off the ground and his tone changes from indifferent to something between surprised and annoyed. "Madge, where are your shoes?"
"I should have noticed you had gotten shorter."
"You can't walk barefoot around here!"
I set my foot tentatively back on the ground. "I couldn't exactly walk in the shoes I was wearing."
Gale huffs dramatically, running a hand through his hair. Poor Gale. This night is not going at all like he planned. He taps his fingers against his leg while coming to some kind of decision. Then he kneels on the ground right in front of me. "Here. Jump on," he says over his shoulder.
He can't be serious. I haven't ridden piggy-back since I was…I don't even have a definitive memory of being carried piggy-back. I must have been as a kid. "Uh…? Are you sure?"
"Unless you want your feet torn up then jump on."
I feel about as graceful as a hippopotamus as I put my hands on Gale's shoulders and press my front against his back. "Oh!" I can't help but squeal when he pops back up without warning, grabbing under my legs. My skirt rides up past my knees. I wrap my arms around his neck out of instinct. "Sorry," I mumble
"What are you apologizing for?"
"I'm not heavy?" I don't give much thought to my weight on a daily basis, but being carried makes me appallingly conscious of it.
"Heavy? No. But I'm not sure about your common sense."
"Hey! I'm quite sensible."
"Says the shivering girl with no shoes."
"I would have been better prepared if time had not been of the essence," I insist. "And I only shivered a little." I thought I hid the shivering rather well.
Gale laughs, low and rumbly. I feel it just as much as I hear it. It's so strange to be so close to him, or anyone, I suppose. It's not like boys are offering me piggy-back rides right and left or anything. But this is Gale. The boy I despise most of the time. His rough, canvas jackets smells like laundry soap. His callused hands, which are under my thighs, are warm. It may mean nothing. He may only want to avoid allowing the mayor's daughter to injure herself while in his company. And after years of ridicule I'd be foolish to think the gesture means anything beyond that. Then why does my stomach feel packed with butterflies?
"Where are we going?" I ask aloud.
"You'll see soon." We bounce along the road for a while. Gale walks confidently with only the moon, the stars, and the occasional overhead street lamp to guide him, if it hasn't burned out. The gravel crunches loudly with each step and I'm even more grateful he offered to carry me. I hope he's not expecting compensation.
We drift further from the tight clusters of houses. At one point Gale cuts behind a house and we end up parallel with the fence. No surprise Gale would find the scenic route. I still feel a bit strange about being carried and silence only adds to the awkwardness, so I say the first thing that comes to mind. "I like the woods."
"Yes. They are pretty to look at."
I barely resist the urge to pinch him. I hold off only because I don't want him to drop me. "I've been in the woods to forage and hunt," I say proudly. "I even had shoes then."
"No kidding?" he laughs, as though he doesn't believe me.
"You think I'm full of it. I went with Katniss. She said my modified rabbit snare was remarkable." This is only a partial lie. The truth is I botched the snare with overly complicated knots that fell apart with the tiniest breeze. Katniss mentioned it was "remarkable" that I had messed it up so thoroughly.
"Katniss took you into the woods?"
"Yes," I repeat.
"Who doesn't she take into the woods these days?" he says under his breath. I only hear because my ear is right next to his mouth. So much for trying to start a conversation. He's still in too foul a mood. I decide to focus on the search instead. "Rory brought us mushrooms just two days ago. Maybe he—"
Gale comes to an abrupt halt. "Wait. What?"
"I said Rory—"
"I heard what you said," Gale snaps. He sets me down a tad roughly. Thankfully, the ground is grassy enough not to injure my naked feet. "What do you mean he brought you mushrooms?"
"I paid him of course. Last Friday," I explain. Gale rubs at the aggravated wrinkles lining his forehead. My suspicion about Gale's lack of knowledge about Rory's new foraging business is more or less confirmed. "You didn't know?"
Gale sighs. "I figured he's been sneaking out. I keep telling him not to go by himself. He's not experienced enough, but I work twelve hours a day." He moves on without another word, plainly preoccupied with what I told him. He reminds me of my father when he's pacing back and forth in his study, trying to work out the district's problems in his head. Gale would be offended if I told him that.
"I didn't mean anything by that offender comment I made earlier, by the way," I say in apology. "What you and Rory do to keep your families fed is a talent, not a crime. I wouldn't buy from you if I didn't think that, nor would my father condone it. The curfew is just to keep people safe. Things are…out of the norm…right now." Unfortunately, that's as specific as I can be on the topic.
Gale nods. I take that to mean he accepts my apology and I can't help hoping he'll apologize for calling me prissy. But then a shiver runs down my back and I know there's no chance of that happening. Gale removes his jacket and drapes it over my shoulders without making a comment. I murmur my thanks. Tuck one arm in one sleeve. Then the other. It's much too big on me and I have to push up the sleeves to free my hands. I feel worlds better wrapped up in the rough yet warm material.
Eventually we come across a well-packed down road, which poses minimal risks to my feet, other than getting dirty. It takes me a moment to recognize where we are in the dark. The scene is illuminated by a few scattered streetlamps lit for safety's sake, though only when the power is on. I've been here a handful of times. Never at night.
"So, this is it?" There's not much to say. It's a slag heap; well, several slag heaps with a rather salacious reputation. Nevertheless, it's merely piles of debris taken from the mine. Not exactly the picture of romance. We follow a rut dug into the road by carts until it leads past the mountains of rocks to the smaller mounds that will grow up to be the size of their sister mountains one day. There's a pile of old railroad ties stacked up to about three feet off the ground. I climb onto the stack for a better look. "No Rory. No Prim," I observe. Not another soul.
Gale surveys the heaps as well, but from the ground. He has enough height all on his own. "I'm glad. If I found them here I'd have to kill my brother."
"And no one likes a hypocrite," I say under my breath. Not quietly enough however, because Gale turns and casts an annoyed look at me. It's nothing like his scowl though. It's too playful. I bite my lip and shrug.
He shakes his head and leans against the stack of railroad ties. "You never go easy on me, huh, Undersee?"
"Goes both ways." And has for several years. I carefully squat down beside him, letting both legs hang over the edge. I take a deep breath of cold autumn air. Then I cough repeatedly when I choke on it. This place is awful. "There isn't really much to it, is there? The woods are far more charming."
Gale snorts. "No one goes to the slag heap for the atmosphere."
So they come to inhale coal dust and risk contracting tetanus?
"You being here is bizarre to be honest," Gale admits.
"Oh really? And what would I need to make the image less 'bizarre'?"
"I don't know. Maybe if you had some coal under your fingernails to start."
Oh, well if it's as simple as that! I jump off the railroad ties and march to the edge of one of the piles, being careful to watch where I step. I lean down, push up the jacket sleeves when they fall down, and pick up clumps of dirt until my hands are coated with black. I smear it down my cheeks and across my forehead like war paint. I stride to Gale and plant myself firmly in front of him so he can get a good look. "There! Better?"
He smirks, but doesn't laugh. He reaches up and covers my cheek with his hand; his thumb either brushes some of the coal off or pushes it around the apple of my cheek. "Yeah. I can barely see your halo," he says quietly. It's a good thing there's dirt all over my face or my blush would be embarrassingly obvious. I step out of his touch before he feels my face heat up.
"My halo is no brighter than yours," I mumble, trying to brush the dirt from my hands without getting it on Gale's coat.
"I think not," he says derisively.
"Why? What do you know about me?"
Gale's jaw snaps closed and I nearly regret asking the question. What does Gale Hawthorne really think of Madge Undersee? Spoiled. Privileged. Ignorant. The prissy comment is the only time he's directly insulted me, but his backhanded compliments and sarcasm have been enough to make his feelings known. I'm always the mayor's daughter to him.
And I'm tired of it.
"Before tonight, you didn't know I'd gone hunting," I say, my voice a bit shaky. I swallow to steady myself. "Before tonight, would you have expected me to follow you around through the Seam?" Gale stares at the ground between us. "And hosting that party tonight wasn't motivated by some frivolous desire. We risk exposing ourselves to the Capitol's scrutiny, something my father wanted to protect the citizens from." I take several deep breaths in quick succession. My breath manifests as faint white puffs. With all the coal in the air one would think it would be black like smoke.
I hug Gale's coat around tighter around me. Vesta and Delly would be so shocked to hear he offered it to me. They think Gale is a scary ogre who lives in the woods. If only they saw the way his sister adores him. "Besides, you're not exactly a villain. Posy would agree with me." I can't help but smile thinking of the way he teased her with a pet name and kissed her goodbye before we left his house.
"I don't know anything about being a villain. I known lawbreaker however…"
A laugh bubbles up from my throat. Gale's gaze shoots to me and I can't help but turn away. I'm not laughing at him. I'm laughing at the way Gale clings to his crimes like he's actually going to convince me he is the bad guy, like so many townies believe. Just by looking at our surroundings I know that's not true. "Laws imposed by a corrupt dictatorship that controls, starves, and murders us for entertainment. You may break the Capitol's laws, but only after they've broken every moral law. Your act of rebellion hardly compares to that evil."
I peek back at Gale. His eyes are wide. His mouth hangs open a little bit. He looks…stunned. But not appalled. Saying such treasonous words would shock most people and I wouldn't say them in front of just anyone. I doubt Gale feels any loyalty to the Capitol, so what may have actually stunned him is how it was me that said it. The townie. A feeling of pride warms me from my fluttery stomach to my cold, aching toes. It feels incredible to finally one up Gale Hawthorne. "But getting back to the point," I fumble on. "You're not a villain and you're not the embodiment of some Seam stereotype. In fact, the worst thing I've ever observed of you, other than constantly belittling me…" I pause to consider finishing my thought. While the events of this evening give evidence to the contrary, I'm hesitant about meddling. I press on because I so desperately want to know Gale's side and because I believe he wants someone to know it, too. "How could you say what you said to Katniss?" I finally ask.
I barely blink before Gale's internal walls go back up. "We are not talking about this," he says with a tone of finality. He stands up, but I block him before he can move.
"She's your best friend. How could you let her believe you hate her? Because I don't believe you do." The way he spoke to her was cold and cruel, but he seemed more than just angry. He seemed hurt. I might even compare his behavior to Peeta's at the tavern; except, Peeta was melancholy-sad whereas Gale is angry-sad. Somehow, he pulls it off. I tried to be gentle with Peeta, but knowing how Gale appreciates boldness, I speak daringly. "Are you in love with her?"
"She's got a boyfriend," he recites.
"That's not an answer."
Gale's eyes remain hard and determined, but I've still got enough adrenaline running through my body to help me stand my ground. Though I admit I probably don't look very formidable in bare feet and a coat that isn't mine. The battle of wills ends when Gale slumps wearily against the railroad ties. And why not? This is obviously something he's been carrying since…who knows how long?
Sensing he's no longer planning to take off, I perch beside him on the stack again; set my feet on a spot they do reach, and wrap my arms around my knees. "Tell me," I all but whisper.
Gale leans his hands back and looks up toward the black sky. "When Katniss was fourteen years old," he says, "she decided she was never going to get married or have kids. No romance in her future."
I know this from what Peeta told me during our date, though I didn't realize Katniss had made her decision so young. "What did you think?"
Gale shrugs as best he can with his arms behind him. "I agreed with her some of the time. I mean, I've got three kids as it is." For a split second I want to commiserate. I also share the burden of caring for my mother. But it's not the same, and every time I ever complain to myself about her situation, I always feel guilty about it afterward. So I hold my tongue and listen. "But I don't know…," Gale trails off. "I think back to when my dad was alive. We were poor as dirt, we still are, but we were happy. Sometimes."
My memories of the memorial service for victims of the mining accident are few. I was present for the memorial, but I kept my head down during most of it. Seeing all those weeping women and children made me sad and uncomfortable. I do remember Gale. He was one of the few who didn't cry when my father presented him with a medal. And when that same skinny, dark-haired boy appeared on our front doorstep the following summer, I never stopped noticing him.
"Anyway," Gale continues. "Katniss stuck to this idea for years. And then…" His voice drops into a menacing tenor. "The bread boy started hanging around. Giving her cookies. Flirting with Prim. Kissing Katniss in the meadow. She took him into the woods. To the cliff over the valley. That was our place!" His voice cracks on the last word. He glances at me and then looks away, apparently embarrassed by revealing so much.
"Peeta suspected you were the reason they broke up before the Games," I prod.
"Maybe. But not in the way you're thinking. I reminded her of the promises she made to herself. If I had been in her place I would have wanted someone to remind me of my principles."
"But you would have been glad if she ignored her principles had she been in love with you," I declare as a statement, not a question, because it is obviously true.
"I never claimed to be ethical," Gale replies, a slight smirk crossing his lips.
I roll my eyes. I felt so badly for Peeta, but all's fair in love and war, I suppose. And if Katniss could be talked out of a relationship with Peeta by her own arguments then maybe that's fair. "What happened after that?"
"The Games happened," he says frankly. "And I lost her."
I scoot a smidgen closer to him, close enough that our shoulders are almost touching. Gale and I may only know how to be enemies, but hearing the pain in his voice chases away any feelings of competition. Vulnerability looks good on him. "I'm sorry you feel like you lost your friend." Your closest friend. While he would never admit it, he needs someone to lean on. The relationship he had with Katniss before the Games simply can't be what it was before. I believe Gale sensed that prior to the Games when she was falling in love with Peeta. He's only now coming to terms with it. "I'm glad they're in love," I confess. "Could you imagine if they weren't?" If it had all been some sort of a ruse or act? "They'd both be miserable." And what they have going on now isn't rainbows and sunshine, not with the Capitol breathing down their necks.
Gale leans his elbows to his knees. His hair falls into his eyes. He needs to get it cut. And he needs a shave. He's about as scruffy as Rory. "You must think I'm pathetic," he mutters.
Pathetic? Not a word that's crossed my mind in relation to Gale. Prickly. Rude. Overly-critical. Snobbish. Those have all come up.
But also brave. And honorable. I wouldn't pay attention to someone for this long if he was some horrid batch of nature. "I think you're a boy who got his heart broken. That doesn't make you pathetic. Given how difficult your life has been, it's remarkable you have a heart big enough to break." I lean forward to pat him on the shoulder at the same moment he turns his head. Suddenly, we're so, so close. And all my lessons on manners scream that I should lean back and give into a convention for personal space. Yet somehow, I'm frozen. Gale isn't moving either, aside from his eyes. His eyes flicker over my features, from my eyes to my mouth, and back again. For the first time, perhaps ever, his stare doesn't make me feel small. I feel…exposed, which is odd considering he's the one who's been pouring his heart out.
"You should be careful," he whispers. "You're going to get a reputation sitting this close to me."
The moment feels too intense and too intimate for words. And for goodness sake, as long as I'm here… I close the distance and kiss him.
The kiss lacks all finesse and style. It's not so much a kiss as it is pressing my lips against his unmoving ones for less than a second. I do it all wrong. I must. I've never done it before. What the hell do I know? It doesn't even make a proper kiss sound.
Gale continues to stare. His eyes blink slowly. Seconds turns into days as the silence carries on. However, I think I prefer he notsay anything. Especially if he's going to say something horrible like, "is that how they teach kids to kiss in town?"
I'm not so lucky. Gale wets his lips and whispers with honest curiosity in his voice, "Why?"
Because you're the only boy who I know anything about, even if it's not a result of you being forthcoming.
Because I like you, even though you've treated me poorly in the past. I think you can make up for it.
Because you carried me on your back and that's the kindest thing anyone's ever done for me.
"Just trying to get the full slag heap experience," I lie. Sort-of.
He smiles, amused, but not mocking. "Not even close, Undersee." His hands skim over the sides of my face, cupping it gently. He moves closer until our noses are a breath from touching. Some instinct tells me I should close my eyes, but I can't stop staring. This can't be real.
And then he brushes his lips against mine. Not once, or twice, but over and over in soft, tender pecks that get my heart pounding so hard I hear my pulse in my ears. My eyes close under their own power. I have an urge to tell him I've never done this before, but he can probably guess that, and if he doesn't, it sounds so desperately unsexy to admit it. The pressure increases in small increments while his hands move to the back of my neck, down my shoulders, until they're tucked under my coat, his coat, and splayed over my lower back. My hands feel useless lying in my lap, so I lift them to his face, because I liked it when he did the same to me. He pulls me closer and my fingers comb through this hair; then wrap around his neck. I'm practically sitting in his lap.
I follow his lead like a puppet on strings, which isn't a comparison I like to make of myself, but the feel of his hands and his mouth distracts me enough that I can't work up the proper indignation.
And oh god…his mouth. Who knew the same mouth that has so strikingly offended me in the past could also leave me feeling dizzy and stiflingly hot in my oversized jacket? When his lips part, his tongue touches my upper lip and I let out a little squeak. I swear I feel him smile. Not one to be outdone, I answer by parting my own lips and tentatively sliding my tongue against his. He doesn't smirk at that. He groans and embraces me tighter.
It feels incredible. Hot and demanding and a little scratchy where his shadow of a beard touches my chin. I surprise myself by thinking I wouldn't mind more; that I want more. I want to experience what's beyond my imagination. Hawthorne boys are such bad influences.
Hawthorne boys. Weren't we looking for a Hawthorne boy?
I pull away, out of breath and disorientated. It gives me a pleasurable thrill to see him looking a little dazed as well. And with small traces of coal on his cheek and forehead from where his skin touched my face. I swallow and focus on finding my voice. "We're supposed to be looking for someone. Prim, I think. And Rory."
"Right," Gale breathes. He peels his hands away from my back and waist. I scoot away so I'm no longer in his lap, my face flooding with heat. I point to my own cheek and forehead, indicating where he's got smudges. Gale wipes it off gruffly with the palm of his hand. "There's one other place she might go. Though I don't know why she would be there."
Thank God he has an idea because I wasn't completely out of plans. "Is it far?"
"Not at all."
Gale doesn't carry me like he did before, but he keeps a keen eye out for anything treacherous. He has better eyes than me and guides me away from jagged rocks and broken glass more than once, usually by touching my elbow or shoulder. I feel him squeeze my elbow before he lets go, like he doesn't want to release me. The air feels heavy, but in a completely different way from before when we were fighting. I can barely stand to look at him without blushing. Each glance and touch brings back the warm, buttery feelings of the slag heap. And while I'm never going back there for any recreational reason—it's too dangerous a place for making out—with an experience like I just had I get why some people consider it special.
To distract myself, I focus on figuring out where he's taking us, and I realize there's something vaguely familiar about this string of Seam houses. "This looks familiar," I muse.
"Katniss' old house is just up this way."
Of course. Katniss and I stopped at her house for supplies before going to the woods a few times. Not far in the distance I see two figures speed walking down the road at us—one blonde, one brunette, and both too well-dressed for the Seam. For District Twelve, really. "Looks like Katniss had the same idea as you," I murmur to Gale. His face hardens and any of the vulnerability brought out at the slag heap fades away. It makes me sad for both him and Katniss because she doesn't deserve it and I suspect Gale is tired of carrying a grudge.
The four of us arrive at the gate in front of Katniss' old house at virtually the same moment. Gale and I wait for Katniss and Peeta to go first since it is her house and her sister after all. The front door seems stuck, but with a strategic shove Katniss forces it open. Immediately, all our eyes are drawn to the floor where a single candle burns. And there as well, is Prim dressed in a scarf and warm wool coat, and Rory, huddled over something.
"Prim!" Katniss exclaims, throwing her arms around her sister. Then she leans back and grips Prim's shoulders. "Are you alright?"
"I'm fine, Katniss," Prim says, sounding bemused. "How are you?"
"You had us running all over the district looking for you."
"Why on earth did you do that?" Prim laughs, like it's a joke. She looks over everyone in the room. Her eyes go wide when they land on me. "Madge, what happened to your face? And your shoes?"
The whole room turns to me. Katniss' eyes go as wide as her sister's when she finally notices the state of my outfit. I hide my chin in the collar of Gale's coat and tuck one foot behind my calf. "Um…," I stammer. Why don't we have Gale field this one?
"Why did you sneak out?" Katniss asks her sister, staying on topic. "You know better."
"I didn't sneak out!" Prim shouts, her delicate feelings clearly affronted. "Momma knows where I am."
The room is effectively silenced.
"She does?" Peeta pipes in.
"Yes. She suggested I come here. I would have told you, but I had to leave right away and you had left the room," Prim explains.
Peeta, Gale, and I look over at Katniss for an explanation. She didn't ask her mom about Prim's whereabouts? Katniss' mouth seems to have clamped shut. "And your mother knew the whole time?" I ask Prim.
"It would be hard for her not to. Rory came to the front door to ask for my help." She smiles sweetly at Rory, who purses his lips and looks away. I wonder where he picked up such a hot and cold attitude?
"Ask for your help with what?" Katniss questions.
Prim and Rory lean back from whatever they were so intently huddled around. All four of us peer over Rory's shoulder. There's a small wooden box, a drawer I think, filled with old clothes and something with feathers. "Is that an owl?"
"Just a barn owl," Rory explains. "I found it on the ground. I thought it was dead, but it was breathing." The owl's eyes are barely open and I can barely make out the quick rise and fall of its little chest.
Gale moves in closer so he's standing over his brother. "And where did you find this owl?"
"By the fence line," Rory answers quickly. For a lawbreaker, he's a terrible liar. "I didn't know what to do with it, so I went to Prim's. Then I remembered you were having that party with the mayor and went there. It was either that or eat it."
"Rory! You can't eat an owl!" Prim exclaims.
Gale folds his arms and raises his eyebrow skeptically. "And you came here and looked after this animal and that's it? That's all you did?"
Rory swallows hard. "Y-yeah," he stutters. Prim looks at the two of them with confusion written all over her face with no idea as to what Gale is insinuating.
Unbelievable. Giving his brother a hard time. And after everything we did at the mine.
"Do you think you can save it?" I ask.
"Yes, I think so. "Her wings seem okay. I think she may have eaten something poisonous. A couple days of hand feeding ought to set her right." She strokes the owl's head, and while I wouldn't have guessed owls to be very friendly, it seems soothed by her touch.
Peeta lays a comforting arm around his girlfriend, whose face is tinged with pink embarrassment. I'm sure she's mostly relieved. He turns his attention on Gale and me. "What happened to you two? You get into a bar fight or something?"
I try in vain to wipe off the dirt from my face with my hands. "Something like that," I mumble.
Suddenly, Gale slides in next to me, so quietly I didn't notice until he speaks. "Katniss, can I ask you something?"
Peeta grips Katniss fractionally tighter. Gale couldn't possibly want to continue the fight now. Not in front of the kids. But then I notice the relaxed state of his shoulders and the lack of tension in his jaw, which makes me wonder what it would feel like to kiss him there… But getting back to the point, Gale isn't poised for a fight right now.
"Rory is sneaking out more than I would like." He casts an accusing glance at his brother. "Would you mind checking on him, make sure he doesn't get mauled by wild dogs?"
"Hey!" Rory hollers.
Katniss and Gale ignore him. "Of course," she promises.
"Thank you," Gale replies. He glances at me, as if looking for approval. I smile back. It's not much. There's still much that needs to be said, but it's something. An olive branch of sorts. I'm proud of him for stepping up.
"Prim, it's getting late," Katniss says to her sister.
"But the owl…," she protests.
"We'll keep an eye on her. She'll be safe here," Gale tells her. Prim dotes on the bird a bit more before she and Rory gently place the drawer back into an unused dresser, leaving it open a little so it doesn't suffocate.
"I'll be back to check on her tomorrow morning. Before school," Prim pledges.
"I'll come, too," Rory adds enthusiastically. "Then we can walk together."
Gale puts his hand on the back of Rory's collar and lovingly shoves him toward the front door and away from Prim. "Maybe you'll actually get up on time for once," he says.
Before we leave the house, Katniss offers me her shoes. She apparently has a pair of boots stashed here for her own use. Prim regales us with the details of her night as we walk down the front path. And by the way she describes it, it sounds as exciting as ours. I pause at the gate to Katniss' front yard where Gale waits, leaning against the fence. He's always leaning against things. Faunka would scold him for his bad posture. Rory stands a few feet off, pretending not to watch Prim. Katniss comes to a halt when she notices I'm not trailing after her. I try to convey with a wave of my hand that I'll catch up, which doesn't work because she stares at Gale and me with a bewildered expression. Thankfully, Peeta gets it, takes her hand, and tugs her away to give us some privacy.
I turn back to Gale. "So. An interesting night." And then some.
Gale wets his lips, as if recalling the finer details. "It was memorable," he says with a devious grin. My heart does something funny. When did his sly smile stop annoying me?
"Do you think you'll be back on speaking terms with Katniss soon?"
Gale's smile levels into a straight line. What a mood-killer I can be. "I wasn't giving her the silent treatment. I just had—"
"Had nothing to say. I remember," I cut in. "However, it seems you had a lot to say down at the mine."
"You mean the slag heap?" And now the smile returns.
"I'll keep your secret if you keep mine," I propose.
"So now I'm a dirty secret?"
I groan in annoyance. That certainly didn't take long. The banter feels different though. Less cutting. More teasing. I could get used to it. After lifting his jacket from my shoulders, I hold it out to him and say, "I'll see you around?"
Gale takes the coat, tucks it under his arm, and puts his hand casually in his pockets. "Yeah, I'll watch out for you next time I'm strolling down an alley." He hits me with one more smile before turning to join his brother. I do the same, looking to catch up with Katniss and Peeta. A flurry of thoughts flies through my head, overwhelming me with the events of this night. How will I ever explain my dress to Faunka? And my shoes? And is there anyone I can tell? I told Katniss about my last date and that didn't exactly go over well. My last date…
"Gale! Wait!" I call out to his retreating form. He faces me without hesitation. He waves Rory on then covers most of the distance between us by himself. His legs are ridiculously long. I'm a little out of breath when we're close enough to speak. "Did you know I once went on a date with Peeta?" I blurt out. Gale was remarkably honest with me at the mine. If this is the beginning of something…be it a friendship or something more…I have to repay him with the same honesty, especially considering how he feels about Peeta.
Gale blinks as he considers this. My stomach tightens with anticipation, preparing for the brush off, the scathing insult. Then, miraculously, a crooked smile lights up his features. "Now you're just screwing with me, Undersee."
I see no reason to correct him.
A/N: Poor Madge! Her dates take her to the seediest places in D12! However, I felt like the First Date series couldn't be complete without someone going to the slag heap.
PSA: Don't make out at slag heaps! It's really not safe. Mwah!