I can't help but glance at the clock for the fifth or sixth time in as many minutes. My heels, beating out a steady rhythm on the tile floor, count down the seconds until the end of the meeting. My toes hurt from my shoes' pointy tips, and my heels are sore from standing. I shift my weight from one foot the other, wondering why I couldn't have been born naturally tall so I could wear a pair of flats without feeling juvenile among my towering co-workers.
Suddenly aware of a silence in the room, I look at the speaker in anticipation. I bite back a groan as the red-haired man at the end of the table flips the chart next to him, revealing another page of diagrams and explanations.
"Investigations done by the Department of Public Relations shows that Panem citizens were more likely to embrace increased interactions and more open travel between districts after the Diplomat's Convention at the Capitol and the steps those present took to ensure inter-district unity," he says, using his pointer to direct our attention to two complicated looking pie charts.
I love being a diplomat, but sitting through pointless meetings like this sometimes makes me wonder why I bother. I swear, I do more filing and daydreaming at the office - trips like the one I recently took to the Capitol don't come more than a few times a month, if that. And the rest of the time? Clock watching. Fantastic.
The guy putting us to sleep at the front of the room seems to be taking a breath, and my eyes automatically flicker to the square clock on the wall behind him. He's already fifteen minutes over the scheduled end time, but everyone seems to be too lethargic and too polite to point this out to him. I know I would be embarrassed if I accidentally kept everyone from going home and bored them to death to boot, so I keep my mouth shut, but I resolve to mention it in another five minutes.
He clears his throat and starts droning again about post-war tensions. Finally, he sets his folder of papers down and checks his watch, probably mortified that everyone in the room is drooling or spaced out. He looks at the table and back at the group, but in the pause that follows his obvious hesitation to bring attention to himself, I pointedly close my briefcase, causing those surrounding me to start with surprise.
"Six twenty, guys," I say loudly, my voice carrying to the corners of the room. "Meeting's over." I don't mention that the meeting should have ended twenty minutes ago, but I know by the scoffs and muttered complaints that it hasn't escaped anyone's attention.
Just a normal Thursday afternoon, I think grimly, anticipating a hot shower and dinner. The latter thought makes me straighten up, feeling slightly better, because tonight's dinner promises to make up for my terrible day.
I rush to my apartment complex, my heels clicking on the newly settled pavement, and pray I have enough time to get ready before my date with Philip. Smiling as I remember his letter, I reach my door, room 371, and push it open. I take a moment to read it again, relishing in the sight of his words on paper.
Dear Madge, it starts, it's been ages since I last saw you. I'm in District Twelve again, and I hope you can meet me at the new restaurant in town. It's called The Hob, and my friends swear the meat melts on your tongue. Will you meet me for dinner at 7:30pm on Thursday, May 7? We have a lot to catch up on, and I hope you can make it. Love, Philip.
It's typed, which initially made me slightly wary of accepting his invitation. I suppose the rebel in me would be suspicious of his change in behavior, but I'm so eager to see him again that I write it off as a newfound desire to send legible letters. I wonder what else has changed. Deep in my heart, I hope he's ready to treat me like I want to be treated.
If he has, I try to make sure he doesn't regret it. After a quick shower, I stand in front of my closet, debating if I should dress up or go in more casual clothes. I finally settle for a pale green dress silver flats, leaving my blonde hair in ringlets framing my face. With the slightest touch of makeup and a last-minute decision to put on my mother's emerald earrings, I'm done dressing. At 7:15, I stand in front of the full-length mirror on the wall, considering my appearance.
With the slightest bitterness, I take in my thin frame and lack of noticeable body figure. Shrugging, I pull my purse of the hall table and leave, refusing to allow myself more than a second of self-pity for my plain looks.
It's only as I step into the elevator that I realize that I have no idea where The Hob is, other than that it's somewhere in town. Grinding my teeth in frustration, I try to remember what any of my coworkers might have said about it. I'm so caught up in thinking about what an idiot I am that I don't notice someone join me on the second floor.
"Pretty dress, Undersee." A deep voice interrupts my self-deprecating train of thought and I look up at the man besides me. It's obvious who he is - his face shows up on television all the time, and everyone in Panem can recognize the famous war heroes. I'm instantly uncomfortable. He used to come to my door every week to sell me strawberries. And I used to anticipate that day every week, just to see him.
Old feelings resurface at the sight of him. The flustered feeling I was plagued with when he sold me the fruit, the embarrassment I got when I thought he might have caught me looking at him. I thought what I felt for him had passed with the war and the years following it, but evidently not.
I study his disheveled hair and crooked tie, wondering why he's dressed up. And how does he remember my name? "Hot date, Hawthorne?" I reply. I'm rewarded with a grimace as he shifts in the elevator, looking every bit as uncomfortable in the stiff clothing as I imagine he must be, seeing as he's so used to the hunting attire he donned all those years ago or the military uniforms he frequently appeared in during the rebellion.
"Hardly. I'm meeting some friends," he says, although his tone suggests that it was his friends' idea, not his. "I could ask you the same, though." He scrutinizes me much like I did only minutes ago, his eyes lingering on my blonde curls. His lips turn upwards in a smirk.
For some reason, I blush, not used to being checked out. I feel like running my hand through my hair to make sure it's sticking up or ridiculous. But I hold my ground, shrugging. "He's cute," I say noncommittally. "Nothing spectacular, but he brings me flowers."
Gale laughs, a rich deep laugh, and shakes his head at me. "You're more corrupt than I gave you credit for," he says. The elevator stops and the doors open, and he waits for me to leave first before exiting himself. We stand awkwardly in front of the closed doors for a few seconds, not sure how to conclude our unplanned encounter, before he gives me a little half-smile. "You wouldn't want to be late for your hot date, would you?"
I smile in return and wave my goodbyes, checking my watch as I walk briskly off. Damnit, I think. My first date in months with Philip, and I'm about to late unless I find the restaurant in the next five minutes. I curse again under my breath and scan the town square.
"Do you know where The Hob is?" I ask a boy standing at the entrance of the bakery. He laughs and I look at him, puzzled. Dark skin, olive eyes. Seam coloring. It's only at that moment that I make the connection between The Hob and the black market I heard bits and pieces about when I was still the mayor's daughter.
"Sorry," he apologizes. "I just forget sometimes that some townspeople don't even know what The Hob is. It's where the old one used to stand."
Well, that's a lot of help, considering I had never been to the old Hob. I'm just as lost as before. "The old Hob...?"
He points to the left of me. "Down the street," he directs me. "You can't miss it."
I leave, thanking him for his help, and almost run down the street. I'm sure I look ridiculous and out of place, with my Capitol dress and fancy shoes, but no one gives me a second glance. I soon reach the restaurant, worried that I'm way overdressed for what might amount to dinner at a black market.
At 7:33 exactly, I open the doors, staring in wonder at the beautiful facade. I'm not overdressed at all - what used to be the Seam people's way of survival has been recreated as a tribute to those dedicated enough to their families and friends to brave the harsh consequences that could fall upon them should their activities be discovered. There's definitely that feel to it, the Seam feel, but as a restaurant, it serves everyone in the district, rich and poor. And it amazes me that the potential disparity between the two doesn't seem to be a source of resentment here.
Once more I find myself standing awkwardly at the door, waiting for Philip. He should be waiting here, or has he already found a table? I quietly ask a passing waitress if anyone by his name is waiting for me, but she shakes her head and continues on to a couple seated further in, presumably taking their order. Annoyed at Philip's tardiness, I lean into the wall, hoping to blend into the shadows so as to not attract attention to myself. Instead of melting into the darkness as I hope to, I hit something hard and firm.
Hard and firm... and warm. With a yelp, I jump away. These are no ordinary shadows.
I was surprised to see Undersee at The Hob. For some reason I couldn't reconcile in my mind the restaurant that I stood in today with the run down shack Katniss and I traded in. What was a blonde-haired, dressed up town girl doing at the center of shady business and illegal transactions? It took me a few minutes to realize the smell of stew coming from the kitchens wasn't for the traders who used to come here daily. No, this is a restaurant, and Undersee has every right to be here.
Unseen, I watched her ask a passing waitress where some guy named Philip was, smirking at her obvious irritation. So she had just gotten stood up by her cute date. Upon realizing this I'm hit with the overwhelming urge to punch this guy's lights out. Appalled at my reaction, I straighten up and flatten myself against a wall, hoping she doesn't see me. No such luck, because she sighs softly and leans into me.
Instantly I'm assaulted by the smell of flowers. Somehow, her perfume doesn't bother me, and I find myself angling my face to catch more of the scent...
Ah, shit. So she recognizes me. So much for copping out in the shadows. I take in her half-open mouth and wide blue eyes. And again I'm wondering what she's doing here. Who would have thought that after not seeing her for years, and even then only interacting with her when I sold her strawberries, I'd see her twice in a day?
"What happened to your hot date?" I ask. It's probably not the best question to start out a conversation with an old acquaintance, if she can be called that. I suppose old customer would be more accurate. I wince when she narrows her eyes suddenly, losing her innocent, rabbit-caught-in-the-path-of-an-arrow look. Or rabbit-caught-in-a-snare. My snare, specifically. Although probably Katniss' arrow.
I wonder if the Hob is bringing out the hunter's tendencies in me.
She frowns at me, as if it's my fault her date ditched her. "What happened to your friends?" she throws back, catching me off guard.
Right. My friends. Where the hell are Katniss and Peeta? It's their fault I'm here to begin with. If it were up to me, I'd be at home, sleeping after a long day at the office. Instead I'm here, with the mayor's daughter. I think back to the conversation we had a week ago, at their house in the Victor's Village, and I silently fume at them, wherever they are.
"Gale, can you meet Peeta and me at The Hob on Thursday?" Katniss asks, clearing the table to make room for Peeta's dessert.
I'm confused. "You still go to the Hob?" I thought she didn't need to trade for goods anymore, seeing as the new Capitol still paid for the remaining Victors for the rest of their lives. Lucky them, I suppose. Sure, they survived the Games, but all those soldiers who actually fought on the front lines of the war were forgotten in this little deal. I'm more bitter than I realize about it, and I shove the thoughts out of my mind.
She laughs, one of her rare laughs. She laughs more these days, although almost always for Peeta. I still feel malice towards Mellark for this, even years after the war and years after I gave up on Katniss, and making her truly laugh is a small victory for me. "No, silly, there's no Hob anymore. Not that Hob, anyway."
I'm even more confused than ever at this. "There's a new Hob? What? A new black market?" Now that I think about it, I wonder why Twelve would need a black market. Everyone can hunt, although few people do, and the trading that used to be illegal is legal now.
"It's a restaurant, in honor of those who did use the Hob." Katniss smirks at my face. "You should come with me and Peeta next week."
Well, you know what they say - two's a couple, three's a crowd. A polite refusal is already on my lips when she shushes me and shoves a plate of red velvet cake at me.
"You're coming. Be there at 7:30. And dress nicely."
I sputter my complaints, but they fall on deaf ears. I guess my Thursday's not free anymore.
And I was really looking forward to that nap.
I realize that Madge is still waiting for a reply, a smug look on her face when she watches me realize that I've been stood up as well. It's not like Katniss to back out on a promise. And you can bet that Mellark, the vision of goodness and all things polite, wouldn't not come, especially after inviting me specifically. The only reason they wouldn't come is if...
"Shit. Something must have happened to them. Katniss and Peeta." I look around quickly, my war instincts kicking in. They're still no here, and it's already 7:40. Already? It's barely been ten minutes since they were supposed to arrive. I briefly consider the possibility that they're just tardy. It wouldn't be the first time, either. I vividly remember the time they were supposed to meet me at the sweet shop to buy a present for Prim's birthday. They walked in fifteen minutes late, hair mussed and clothes crooked.
Madge - when did she become Madge, not Undersee? Must be thinking too much about Peeta's perpetual insistence on etiquette - nudges me to get my attention. Her eyes are wide again. "What do you mean, something's happened to them?" When I don't reply, still deep in thought, she shoves me. "How do you know?" She's clearly worried, and at first I think it's just another Panem citizen's worry for two of their favorite Victors when I remember that she was Katniss' friend.
"Calm down," I say, trying to placate her. "Most likely they're just late, doing who knows what instead of getting themselves over here like they should be." I snicker at the blush that rises on her cheeks again, remembering how red she turned as my eyes raked over her figure.
She relaxes, leaning into the actual wall. "Oh. That's... good." Her blush doesn't let up, and she looks at her shoes, shifting her weight from one silver clad foot to the other. She's cute when she's flustered.
"But I think I'm going to check on them anyway. If they're on their way we can walk back together," I say, already moving to inform the waitress that if certain Mellarks come looking for me, I'm busy finding out whether or not they plan on showing up for the meeting they set up. I stop when I feel Madge's hand on my shoulder.
"I'm coming with you," she says.
Right... she got ditched by her date as well. Although in her case, I doubt her guy ever plans on showing his sorry face. It's already been fifteen minutes. I briefly consider making her stay here, on the pretense that she has to inform Katniss and Peeta where I am, but I decide that her company wouldn't be undesirable at all. "Fine, then. Are you going to tell someone to make sure your date doesn't think you ditched?" If he ever comes.
She rolls her eyes. "He's not coming." She states it as if it's the most obvious thing in the world, and the surprising part about this whole situation is that she looks like she couldn't care less if he came or not. In fact, I get the feeling that she's glad she got stood up.
I shrug, not showing how confused she makes me. "Your choice," I say before making my way to the waitress. I tell her that both Madge and I are going to find Katniss and Peeta and to tell them if they arrive before we return. Her auburn hair swings as she shakes her head vigorously, much to my surprise.
"No! You two can't leave!" She all but screams it at us, taking our arms and attempting to pull us into a secluded room to the side. I try to wriggle out of her grip, but her light green fingers cling to my wrist, amazingly strong for a woman so delicate. Light green? I take a good look at her face, but I can't place it. I've seen her before, I know it...
I roughly shove her away, leaving her slightly off balance. "I don't know who you are or what you want with us, but we're going!" I say, backing away and reaching out for Madge's hand. We run for the door, not stopping until we're out of range of the crazy lady.
"Katniss said...!" she yells. Are those tears I see? Her statement is confusing enough that I want to go back and ask her to explain, but I have a feeling that she'll try to shove me in the room again.
"Gale! Who is she?" Madge asks, a little out of breath from sprinting away. "For a second it looked like you recognized her."
She's more perceptive than most people. The flash of recognition that crossed my face couldn't have been visible for more than a second. "For some reason I feel like I've seen her before. It's probably nothing - I must have seen her in town or something."
Madge nods and pulls her hand from my grasp. It's only then that I remember that she was holding my hand before. I immediately move to grab it again, but I consider who I'm with and jerk my hand back. Hopefully she didn't notice. I stand a while to regroup and decide what to do next, because my ultimate goal is to drag Katniss and Peeta out of their love nest so they can pay for making me run around the district looking for them.
One day, I'll get them back for this.
"We're going to their house. If we meet them on the way, don't prevent me from slapping them silly, understand?" Because she can bet I'll slap them. First I'll slap Peeta for seducing Katniss. Then I'll slap Katniss for being seduced by Peeta. Then I'll slap Peeta again just because I can, after which they can come back to the Hob with me, sufficiently humbled.
Madge laughs. "I don't think you'd slap Katniss," she says. "But Peeta... I expect you to slap him, regardless of the reason or lack thereof."
She's right, of course. The most I could ever do to Katniss is glare at her and hope the full force of my irritation bears down on her via my eyes. "That's besides the point. We need to go, we look ridiculous standing here in the street plotting the demise of the two most celebrated heroes in Panem."
"Okay," she agrees. "Let's catch us a pair of lovebirds."
The walk to the Victor's Village is largely uneventful. I can't help but wonder at how my evening has gone. I don't regret a single moment - this is better than any night with Philip could have gone. I've written him off already as a bad loser, and all his future letters - should there be any - are going straight into the fireplace. They'll make wonderful fuel for the fire. I'll definitely appreciate its warmth on colder nights.
Gale and I walk side by side through town and what used to be the Seam. It's a much nicer place now, although those considered traditionally Seam still live there and still live by the customs established before the war. I see goats behind some houses and clotheslines in the front, despite the increased availability of washers and dryers straight from the Capitol for everyone.
Our hands brush against each other sometimes, and I have to fight the urge to grab it. Holding his hand as we fled from the green skinned woman seemed more natural than I ever expected, but I was loathe to act like it meant anything more than it seemed to on the surface, so I pulled away as soon as I could. I caught him reaching for me again, but he pulled back a second later, much to my disappointment.
Well, could I really be surprised? Everyone can see how much he loves Katniss. Compared to her, war hero, Victor, hunter, and fiercely loyal family member, I'm just a town girl. A town girl not good enough for anyone but a town boy. Just like I was all those years ago. Just to get my mind off Gale and Katniss and my inevitable fate, I say the first safe thought that comes to my mind.
"What happens if they are doing... whatever they're doing? Do we just leave them alone?" I ask him, breaking the silence that has fallen between us during our walk. I watch as he runs his hand through his hair, contemplating my question. "I don't fancy walking in on them, if you're right about them, do you?" I add.
"The idea sickens me as much as it does you," he replies. His hair is messy now, but even more attractive than before. I want to shake some sense into myself for noticing. I realize he's talking again, and I see him looking towards the fence surrounding District Twelve. "Is the electricity ever on anymore?"
"Wouldn't Katniss know?" I say, slightly bitter. I want to take it back as soon as the words leave my mouth, because I have no right to feel anything of the sort towards her. I doubt Gale notices, because he answers me without skipping a beat.
"We don't talk hunting much anymore. It's been a long time since we've done anything like that together." He pauses and does that thing with his hair. "To be honest , we're not as close as we used to be. So I'm not really sure what Katniss does these days." The bitterness is palpable in his voice, woven into every word he says.
Another silence while we both get caught up in our own little worlds. "I remember that you and Katniss used to bring me strawberries. I still miss them, the ones grown in Eleven aren't nearly as good as wild strawberries." As soon as I've said this I regret it, because I'm afraid of bringing up old memories Gale doesn't want to linger over right now. But it doesn't faze him a bit, except to bring a slightly wistful look to his eyes.
"You were just the mayor's daughter back then," he says quietly. "I resented you for having less reaping slips than I did at twelve."
I remember that day as if it was yesterday. That day haunts me at night - everything changed in a matter of minutes. It's impossible to forget. "You told me I looked pretty." Immediately I mentally slap myself. Of all the things to bring up about reaping day, I choose that.
He doesn't seem to mind it, taking it as a cue to lighten the mood. "You did look pretty. You look pretty now," he says, smirking again and feeling the material of my dress. "What is this, silk?"
It's not, actually, although I'm not sure what it really is. It's a light, airy fabric that's easy to move in. "Who knows," I say, letting it pass through my fingers. "It feels nice, though."
"It does," he replies. "So, Ms. Undersee, are you going to give me the story behind such a pretty dress? It couldn't have been solely for the cute boy who brings you flowers." His tone is faintly teasing, although he adopts a mock serious look as he continues to finger the dress.
I can feel my face burning up. What do I tell him about Philip? And why should I answer his question honestly, anyway? Obviously, I will, because I can't bring myself to deceive Gale or anyone undeserving of deception like that. "Philip is... my boyfriend," I say carefully. Is my boyfriend? Is my boyfriend? There are so many things wrong with that simple statement. But for now, that's all it is - the simplest response to his question.
He catches my hesitation. "Is he really? Pretty lousy boyfriend if he didn't even show up for a date."
And here I am, hoping he wouldn't remember. "We have our issues," I say, not elaborating any more than I need to.
"Like what?" he asks. He seems to sense that it's a touchy topic for me, because he's backed away to give me a little more space, and he's dropped the serious act.
What should I tell him? About the months we spent in Four, by the ocean, happily in love? The year that followed when I was stationed in Two while he was at the Capitol? The present, during which we're both in Twelve but haven't seen each other yet?
Dear Madge, The Capitol is nice enough, I wish you were here though... Dear Madge, I can't come to Two this afternoon like I planned, sorry if I kept you waiting... Dear Madge, I thought you lived in Eleven, not Twelve. Well, I'm glad you're home. See you soon... And then the inevitable Dear Madge, I couldn't make it to The Hob today. Business calls, you know? Maybe another time...
"Long-distance relationships are hard to manage,"I say. "It strains things." I hope I get the message across to him that I really don't want to talk about Philip, not when it only makes me remember how he's jilted me in the past and the growing dissatisfaction I feel when I think about our broken relationship.
There's a somewhat awkward silence after I say this. I'm still stuck in the past and hating myself for not knowing what to do about it, and Gale's probably figuring out a way to change the subject.
"We should go to the woods and see if the strawberry patch is still there." He grabs my hands, not noticing the thrill that runs up my spine at his touch. And we're not even running from crazy waitresses anymore - this is completely of his own free will. It drives every Philip-related thought from my mind.
"Strawberries? Like the ones you used to bring me?" I ask, stupidly. The change in plans is a tad overwhelming, seeing as we planned to check on Katniss and Peeta first, not go off gallivanting into the woods in search of a berry.
He squeezes my hand, already tugging me towards the fence. "Do you know of any other strawberries?" He's already looking at the bottom of the fence for a weak part so we can crawl under, pulling me along when he sees that it's not in this vicinity. "I only wish I remembered where Katniss and I used to enter the forest..."
At least I can help him with that. "We don't need to go under the fence," I say, mentally shuddering at the thought of crawling through the dirt in my green dress. "There's an opening that we can just walk through. It was put there a while ago, because there were requests to hunt."
The way he eyes my dress tells me that he's come to the same conclusion I have: I shouldn't be anywhere near the dirt in these clothes. "Sure, I guess. But that means the forest is overrun with inexperienced people with knives," he says, his brows furrowing in distaste. "And bad snares." This last thought gives him even more reason to be irritated than the last one.
"No one really hunts though," I say, hoping to placate him. "Everyone's still scared of the woods, because of the animals. And those people that do go in occasionally don't go far from the fence so they can run if they need to."
He smirks. "Cowards. I'll take you deeper than anyone else could. The strawberry patch isn't anywhere near the fence." He glances at me, mistaking my badly hidden excitement for nervousness. "Don't worry, I'll protect you from the big, bad, scary animals," he adds, still smirking.
I slap him with my free hand. "I've been to the words before, I don't need you to protect me." I grin with satisfaction as his eyebrows raise with obvious surprise.
"You? Why would you need to go to the woods? I would have thought that with you mayor of a father the Capitol would have given you anything you liked?" His voice takes on a new tone when he talks about the Capitol - like the flame of revenge still burns inside of him. His old prejudice against what used to be the better part of town is clearly still there as well.
"Katniss took me sometimes," I say. I begged her to bring me to the forest on those days we couldn't play the piano because of my mother's debilitating headaches. It took a while, but eventually I persuaded her to lift the fence for me. She never shot anything in front of me, just showed me some of the more common herbs she found in the woods. And soon I was helping her avoid patches of poison ivy or finding patches of burdock and yarrow.
Gale looks at me, and for a second I'm worried I've offended him by somehow suggesting that he wasn't Katniss' only hunting partner, but his face just breaks out in a smile. "Then you won't need my help fending off lynxes and bears, will you?" And he forces me into a run. "Where is this opening?"
He lets me lead while I try to remember the last time I went here, right after I got back to Twelve. "There," I say, spying the door a little ways before the path leading into Victor's Village. "But I thought we were going to look for Katniss and Peeta..." I don't really want to, now that he's bringing me to the woods, but I think I should remind him of that so he has the chance to take back his offer if he wants.
He scoffs. "They can handle themselves. And that waitress will tell them where we are if they do show up. Which I doubt, by the way. It's safe to say that this date is off." He pauses right in front of the fence. "What about you? Want to go back and look for Philip?"
"Not even in your dreams, Hawthorne." I drag him through the gate myself, eager to revisit the forest. "Watch out for poison ivy," I say cheekily.
"I'm going to push you in poison ivy if you're not careful."
I'm not sure what prompted me to suggest the forest. I just wanted to make her happy again - she looked so sad telling me about Philip. She's still a town girl, still blonde-haired and blue-eyed and most likely wouldn't appreciate the woods the way I do. But she seemed eager enough when I brought her to the fence, and she didn't back out when I gave her the chance to. I suppose it helps that she's been behind the fence before.
It bugs me that Katniss brought her to the woods before I did. To be honest, it bugs me that Katniss brought anyone else to the woods other than me or her sister. Who else has she allowed to tag along with her while she brought food and greens back to our families? What have I eaten that was picked by a set of hands other than hers or my own?
I'm still as possessive of my hunting partner as ever, even when we don't hunt.
It takes me a few minutes to regain my bearings when we're farther from the fence. But soon the memories of past years threaten to overwhelm me. My first snare. My first kill. Where I met Katniss. Her first (passable) snare. Madge is silent while I pause at certain trees or look around a certain clearing, remembering the days I spent here. I think she's remembering too, because she sometimes reaches out to touch clusters of herbs growing in the rich soil.
I don't like letting the past take over me so completely, not when I'm with Madge, here and now. "Watch out for that poison ivy," I say, pointing in a random direction. "Wouldn't want you to itch underneath that dress."
She whips her head around, and her blonde curls catch me in the face. "What? I thought there weren't any over there!" She peers at the area I pointed at. "Leaves of three... Gale, you're such a liar." Fingering the soil, she turns and frowns at me.
Shrugging, I kneel down beside her. "Sorry?" Her face is ridiculously close to mine, and I smell that perfume again. Flowers. Somehow her fancy Capitol stuff isn't out of place in a forest of plants. Part of me is screaming at me to pull away, give her space, but she isn't moving. And neither will I. We stay there for a time, just looking at each other, until a mockingjay causes us to jump up and hurriedly brush ourselves off.
She's embarrassed. I can tell by the telltale redness on her cheeks and the way she looks at her shoes, determined not to chance looking at me. "Where's the patch?" she asks in a casual voice, not hinting at what had just happened minutes earlier.
I'm willing to let it go for now, so I just gesture with my hand. "We're not far, Katniss and I went here so often we left a road." We walk on a well worn path, straight to the strawberry patch I protected with nets and leaves. I wonder if it's still there, if we'll arrive to partially eaten fruits and deposited seeds.
The rest of the walk is silent, marred only by the mockingjays' songs and our feet on the soil. She's much more quiet than I thought she could be, definitely better at this than Mellark ever could be. Her silver shoes let her tread lightly on fallen leaves and branches, and I can see why Katniss might have brought her into the woods. I think of Peeta's clumsy gait and almost laugh when I compare it to Madge's soft footsteps.
"Strawberries," Madge says. She rushes past me into the patch, obvious in the distance now.
Happy at her excitement, I follow her, noting proudly that my protection has held up and the strawberries are at their ripest. Plucking one off the vine, I take a bite. Sweet as they've always been. Some things never change. "Did you taste these yet?"
She shakes her head, sitting in the soil and smiling. She has this grin on her face and faraway look in her eyes. The strawberries are untouched, although they're the reason we came here. "Not really," she says. "Are they good?"
"As good as they've always been," I reply, tossing the leaves behind me and throwing the berries whole in my mouth. I remember gorging on sweet berries with Katniss, laughing at the red juice staining our hands and clothes. We'd always take anything we were wearing back to my mother because she was the only person in the Seam who could scrub the spots out of the fabric.
"I never liked strawberries," she says, that look still in her eyes. "I was the only person in my family who ate them, but I didn't enjoy the taste much. I asked my father for more allowance just to buy strawberries... but I didn't buy them because I liked them."
Madge confuses me more than any other girl I've met, with the possible exception of Katniss. And even then she was very clear about food she would and wouldn't eat. So she wasted the mayor's money on strawberries? He must have not known, otherwise I doubt he would have let her. "Why'd you buy them, then? We could have managed without your daddy's money," I say, unintentionally letting a note of anger sour my voice.
Her eyes flash. She's definitely pissed now. "I didn't buy them because I wanted to give you money, you idiot. Just because I didn't like them doesn't mean I leeched off my rich father. I wouldn't do that just to make sure you were well provided for." The sarcasm and hurt are evident in her face, and she turns her head towards the ground, letting it fall through her fingers.
I already feel terrible about annoying her. But I can't help but wonder why she would buy and eat something she didn't like. Katniss and I didn't sell the strawberries cheaply, either. "Why, then? Why buy strawberries if not for the taste?"
Suddenly she blushes and ducks her head even further. "I liked buying them," she says, not offering any more insight than that. All traces of malice are gone, replaced by a shy, embarrassed girl.
I have to know, now that she's being cryptic about it. If she had just eaten the strawberry I wouldn't have bugged her about it, but I sit down next to her with a handful of the fruit. She makes a point of staring at her feet, but I force her chin up. "Come on, Madge, I don't bite. I don't even mind it, selling stuff to you was just a little extra money for us."
"I told you, I liked buying them. Just not for the taste." She takes a strawberry from my hand and bites into it. "Although these aren't so bad."
I have to roll my eyes at her attempt to draw the conversation away from her unknown motives. "They're exactly the same as the ones we sold to you before. The ones you bought and ate, for no particular reason at all. Did you have that much money to throw around?" I almost clap my hand over my mouth after I say that, like I did when I was ten or eleven and worried about getting caught saying something bad.
Madge is the one rolling her eyes at me now, and I'm relieved that she's not mad at me. "Just because I was the mayor's daughter doesn't mean we had any money to spare for frivolous things like you think. You have no idea how much the Capitol taxed my father, and there was also the expense of maintaining what was essentially a hotel for officials when they came to Twelve."
My old self would latch on immediately to what she said about taxes and the Capitol, but right now I only want to know one thing. "Why, then? I don't get it. Even rich - better off - people don't buy, let alone eat, stuff they don't want.
A loud, huffy sigh. Exasperation sets in. "I bought them because I got the chance to see you and Katniss every week," she finally says. "Now can we please do something with these strawberries or go back to the restaurant?"
She's lying. At least, she's not telling the whole truth. I can tell by the rushed way she stands up, brushes herself off, looks at me expectantly. She's avoiding any further questioning. I've seen that look on Katniss often enough when she's trying to hide something from me. "Is it just because you wanted to see us?" I force her against a tree, my arms preventing her from moving.
Madge mumbles so softly I can't hear her. Then she clears her throat and gives me the most baleful glare she can manage. "Accept it as it is, Hawthorne. And let me go."
"Just because you wanted to see me? What an awful lot of money you spent just to hand me coins at the door," I say, looking her in the eye. At her reddening cheeks I know I'm right. Victorious in wheedling the truth out of her, I decide to make her stay just a little longer.
She doesn't struggle though, just looks at the ground like she has resorted to doing too often since we got here. "So what if I did? Like you say, we could manage some coins every week." More mumbling follows this statement, but I honestly don't care what she's saying. I've heard all I need to hear.
"You're so cute when you're pissed," I whisper.
I've kissed a lot of girls. Even before the war, there was no shortage of girls who'd kill to press their lips to mine. It sounds conceited, but they followed me to the slag heap like bees follow honey. But this kiss is different from any other I've experienced. Kissing those girls was messy, satisfied only the girl. Katniss was still as a rock, making it feel too close to kissing the same. But Madge...
She smiles against my lips, draping her arms around my neck and rising in her flats to press herself against me. I tilt my head and she responds instantly, allowing herself to be lifted off her feet. For a few minutes there's nothing but Madge, nothing but her soft lips and warm body. Every other thought vanishes from my mind. She tastes like strawberries - sweet.
"You're too good at that to have done it only this once," I say when she breaks away, grinning at my dazed expression. "Tell the truth - who else have you kissed?"
"I could say the same for you," she replies, leaning against the tree, her eyes sparkling with mirth. "How many girls did you convince to join you on the slag heap?"
"Psh, I didn't need to convince a single one. They were falling over themselves to get to me," I say haughtily. I want another kiss. I wonder if she'll comply...
She pushes me away gently with her hand. "Don't you think we should be getting back to finding Katniss and Peeta now?" she asks, although I can tell she doesn't really mean it. She's trying too hard to fight back a smirk. Oh, I'll wipe that right off her face.
I hold her hand, preventing her from pressing it against my chest. "Not a chance, do you think I care what they do?" More smirking, and I resolve to kiss every single one away.
"Peeta! Get up! You don't want to miss this," I say, pulling him up from the leaf collage he's making in the soil. I love him to pieces, but his idea of art sometimes baffles me. Leaves are for camouflaging the hollow where I keep my bows and knives. Leaves are nuisances to my hunter's tread. But in Peeta's hands, leaves are an instrument with which to make a masterpiece. I think I prefer paint.
He brushes off his pants and peers out from behind the tree. "It worked," he says, surprised. "I thought after Octavia failed to keep them there, they'd come immediately to our house..."
"Looks like they figured it out all by themselves, didn't they?" I lean against the trunk, satisfied with my work.
"They have the right idea, you know," Peeta says thoughtfully. "What do you say?"
I take a last glance at the couple kissing outside the fence. One tall, with telltale messy black hair and a smaller, more petite, blonde-haired figure, holding onto each other, probably unaware of the set of eyes watching them. I feel more and more like a stalker every day.
"I say you're right." I let him pull me closer to him, smiling. "Can't let Gale and Madge have all the fun, can we?"
A/N: Madge's dress - goo . gl / Im HgL (remove all spaces)
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Also, if you liked this, please check out Seasons, the "sequel" (of a sort) to this fic.