I don't know how long we stood there. My head was pressed tightly in to his chest, and I was listening to the strong beat of his heart when it occurs to me I should let go. I will my muscles to release, but I can't make them move. He smells of soap and coal and pine and it makes me feel safe.
"I can't let go," I mumble into his shirt. His arms tighten around me.
"You don't ever have to," he says, holding my head against him, "not again."
I focus on the sound of his heart and the strength of his arms. Nothing else matters.
"Hem, hem," someone has cleared their throat. I look up. Peeta stands in the door way wearing a strange look on his face, not quite of disapproval, not exactly jealousy.
Gale's my best friend, I want to say. But I shouldn't have to defend myself.
"Dinner's just about ready," he says, turning curtly and walking away.
"Think you're ready to let go?" Gale asks, stroking my hair. I nod, and slowly loosen my arms. Gale follows my lead, though he lets his hands trace down my back and along my arms so we are holding hands as I take a step back.
I look up, almost ashamed to catch his eyes. "I was afraid you wouldn't come."
"Free food's pretty hard to resist." I'd forgotten how Gale could always make me laugh.
"Thank you," I say, trying to keep the tears from running down my cheeks.
"Everything." And he squeezes my hand reassuringly as we turn to walk in the door.
We take our seats at the table, and luckily the food was ready so we are able to avoid any awkward conversation. Peeta's family brought fresh, steaming bread that is passed around as I sliced the turkey. Gale helps the children scoop vegetables onto their plates. The food is excellent, but the best part is listening to the children squeal in excitement when they realize they can have seconds. When my mother told Posy she could have another spoonful of potatoes, her little face was taken over by wide eyes and a beaming smile, and she looked down at the smile pile of potatoes like it was the greatest treasure in the world.
Bowls are passed from hand to hand as plates are emptied and filled. We are all lost in a delicious silence.
Maybe it was all worth it, I think in that moment, looking around to see the children giggling and play-fighting over bread. Peeta's father talking to my mother about recipes as Mrs. Mellark pushes her empty glass towards Haymitch, eyeing his wine. He chuckles as he uncorks the bottle to fill it. Prim gushing to Gale about everything he's missed in the few weeks since they'd last spoken. Gale (pretending?) to be interested.
I forgot how good Gale was with children. It was natural, of course, him having so many younger siblings. He not only was their main source of sustenance, but of entertainment too. And I'll never know where he found the energy to be both. The solemn young man I knew in the woods, brow fret with worry, gaze clouded with concern, and eyes often angry, is nowhere to be found when with his family. Tonight, he makes silly faces and tickles Posy until she squirms. He taunts Vick by stealing his bread when not looking and stuffing the whole thing into his mouth.
"What?" I question when I realized my mother was looking at me. Did she want me to start cleaning up the table or something?
"Nothing," she says, shaking her head. "You're just smiling. You haven't done that in a long time. It's nice."
I usually say something snarky or snap at my mother when she talks to me. But she looked at me so fondly, I felt for the first time that maybe she really did care. "It is," I agree.
"Now that was good food." Peeta says, as the sound of scraping spoons was replaced by silence. Many mumble their accordance.
“Yeah it was!” Haymitch enthusiastically agrees and unbuttons the top of his pants. Mrs. Mellark looks away, horrified.
"Did you catch that turkey, Katniss?" Gale asks, “or was it you, Prim?” She beams as he looks at her.
“Is that a serious question?” I almost chuckle and say dismissively and take another sip of wine. I assume this is a joke I don’t quite get, but Prim’s eyes meet mine and I realize she doesn’t think this is funny.
“Gale taught me how to hunt.”
“He what?” My smile fades.
Gale must sense my anger before anyone else does. “I only took her out a few times and—”
“Out where?” My tone is no less forgiving.
“To the woods, Katniss.” Prim’s looking me directly in the eyes. Her tone is almost condescending. “Because I asked him to.”
A feel a fire start to build inside of me. I don’t understand what is going on, and it makes me upset. I don’t think and just start to spew my anger. “You took my sister out in the woods? God, Gale! What were you thinking?! You said you’d keep my family safe and you take her to the second most dangerous place in Panem! Anything could have happened!”
“Come on, Catnip.” Gale has to work to compose himself. He reflects for a moment, probably considering whether he wants to provoke of placate me. I hope he chooses the former. “She was safe. And I only showed her the basics.”
He doesn’t. And for some reason, that upsets me more. “It’s dangerous, Gale!”
“Really? We’ve been going out there since you were that age, and she was with me the whole time.”
“That’s not the point!”
“Then what is the point, Katniss?”
I open my mouth to challenge him. He doesn’t understand why I’m angry when he put the life of my sister in jeopardy, when I was off risking my life save hers, by taking her out into the woods, into our woods? I feel betrayed and replaced. “It’s no place for a child, Gale.”
“I’m not a child.”
My head snaps in Prim’s direction. I’d almost forgotten she was in the room. “What?”
“I’m not a child.” Her words fell heavy like bricks. Her tone is final and commanding. This is not a side of Prim I’d seen before. I start to realize she’s not the same little girl I went off to protect less than a year before. I can feel my chest heaving as I consider my response. I want to make Prim realize how naïve she’s being, how reckless and stupid. I want to scream a Gale for endangering her. I try to calm myself, to recollect.
“Damn, this one’s got spunk too!” Haymitch says excitedly, pointing at Prim with his fork. “I like it!”
We both glare at him. The anger in the room is palpable, and I don’t think anyone else in the room could have stood it. But Haymitch had either become accustomed to my fury or was too drunk to notice our rage.
“Well, next time either or you young ladies is out hunting,” his hand sloppily gestures to the two of us with his fork. “Remember that I prefer goose to turkey.”
Is he serious? I’m about to yell at him when I realize what he’s doing. He’s trying to diffuse the situation.
I look around the table and realize everyone is uneasy. Peeta looks nervous; he was probably trying to think of a way to intervene before Haymitch did. Hazelle and her youngest look tense. Gale looks drained. Peeta’s mother looks bored. Mine embarrassed. And Prim looks furious. I can’t believe this. I’m about to ask what is wrong with everyone when Posy pipes up.
“You’re silly,” she says to Haymitch.
“What?” A look of confusion wrinkles his brow.
"You're silly," she repeats. And Haymitch looks at her sternly for a moment, then crosses his eyes and she dissolves into giggles. I miss my moment.
Mrs. Mellark seemed to think this was inappropriate or not worth her time, but everyone else joined in and laughed, lightening the moment, though some did so less easily than others. Mrs. Mellark thanks us politely for the food and says to her husband and Peeta that it was time to leave the first opportunity she got. She seems to be in a hurry to get home. Her husband doesn't argue, but Peeta says he wants to stay and help us clean. Haymitch has moved over to the couch and opens his third bottle, and the children jump at Gale to play with them. He stares a me for a few moments before he agrees and is lost as several tiny pairs of hands go after him. My mother and Prim get up to clear off the table, and Peeta asks what he can do to help.
“Oh, you don’t have to do anything, dear,” my mother insists. “Katniss and I can do it.”
My eyes dart up to hers antagonizingly. I wasn’t planning on doing any helping, but she doesn’t look away. “Whatever,” I say as I push out of my chair, snatching the dishes from Prim’s hands. “Why don’t you go play?”
“Because I’m not a child.” She repeats with the same severity. If anyone other than Prim had challenged me like that, I would have already taken their head off. I can’t help but suspect that she knows that, and I’m about to put her in her place when my mother steps in.
“Katniss, kitchen.” Her eyes are steely and don’t release me.
“Are you serious?” My voice is something between a laugh and a bark. Who do they think they are to talk to me this way? “I can’t believe what’s going on in this house right now. Is everyone mad? Or is it just me?”
“It’s just you.” Prim says in an instant.
My muscles move involuntarily, out of reaction, and I seriously think I might take a swing at her.
“Katniss!” I don’t even recognize that as my mother’s voice. It strange and strong and frightening. All the eyes in the room are on us again.
women!” Haymitch caws, “Haha! I love
these women!” He’s clearly the only one
who finds any of this funny. My mother’s
gaze is relentless, and Peeta takes the moment to put his hand on Prim’s arm
and gestures that they go into the living room where everyone else is. She looks at him and silently agrees. Without even glancing back at me, takes a
seat next to Haymitch.
I disappear into the kitchen. I hear the door shut behind me.
“I can’t believe you---” I spit at my mother, sounding more wounded than I mean to.
“Enough, Katniss.” Her voice is calm and even.
“What else did you let her do while I was away?”
“Katniss, enough.” I should sense the rising anger in her tone, but don’t.
“I mean, seriously woman, what were you thinking? You let her—”
This time it’s not my mother’s words that interrupt me, but her hand. She’s slapped me square across the face and it stings. I’m so shocked, I lose my train of thought. My hand flies to my burning cheek.
“Look,” she says, her calm and even tone returned. “I know that I don’t know how hard being in those Games was, so I’ve let you do what you need to get by, whether it’s disappearing in the night to do God only knows what or rifling through my medical supplies to steal alcohol and sleep serum.” I gulp uncomfortably when she says this. I didn’t know she knew. “But you need to remember you aren’t the only one who suffered.” She reaches a finger up to wipe a tear from my eye but I jerk away. “Katniss, you don’t know how eager she was, how determined…She watched you sacrifice yourself in a heartbeat for her and it…it inspired her. She wants to be like you, Katniss, don’t you realize? How she watches you? How she studies you? To be brave, strong, fearless…” I take a step back, hardly comprehending what I’m hearing. “And I’m sorry, but I don’t think that’s such a bad thing,” she says, respecting my distance. “But I think this attitude of yours is one trait of yours she doesn’t need to pick up on, ok?”
I think I nod in agreement. My mother wipes her hands on her apron and leaves the room. As the doors slides open, the sounds of screams and giggles flush into the dark, empty room from the living area where the kids are all playing with Gale. For an instant, I see a flash of happy faces. The children chase him around, kicking him, grabbing at him, hopping all over him in an effort to paralyze him. I watch as Vick and Rory sit on both his feet as Posy trying to climb, grabbing and squashing his face. Gale teases them, making slow movements and pretending like it's really hard to move. Then using his strong arms, he plucks them off and starts to run away. They all looked to be having so much fun before the doors close and they disappear.
I listen to the laughter and excited shrieks as I clean the plates in the kitchen alone in the dark.
“Can I help?” It’s Peeta.
“I can do it.”
But Peeta insists on helping me, and the room grows tense as he steps over. He always wants to talk whenever we're together, and I'm not really sure what else I have to say.
“Are you okay?”
No. Obviously, I’m not okay. “I’m fine.”
“Here, let me.” He takes one of the plates I’m drying from my hands, but I hold on to it firmly.
“I can do it.” Our eyes lock as we pull either side of the plate. Peeta’s eyes are filled with sympathy and he doesn’t let go. “Damn it, Peeta, why won’t you let go!”
“Katniss…” He still doesn’t let go.
“Fine.” I let go of my end and the plate tumbles from his soapy hand onto the floor. I’m out the back door before I can even hear it crash.