Gale is already waiting for me when I reach our favourite spot in the woods just outside of town. I think we meet here because it reminds us of our rock outcrop and meadow back home. The one we spent so many long, lazy afternoons together in as teenagers.
He's a tall, broad-shouldered man with kind eyes and a wide, easy grin. He's that brooding type girls love so much, the kind that's always smouldering just under the surface about one injustice or another. The kind who's passionate about human rights, angry at the world and seemingly completely oblivious to the effect that he has on just about every female he comes into contact with.
I say 'just about' because Gale has yet to have this effect on me. I don't know if it's because we've been friends for so long and I was too young or naive in the beginning to see it or if it's because I have yet to feel anything romantic for anyone at all. I know it's strange - many girls my age are starting to marry off, most have been having sex for years and almost all revolve the vast majority of their time around something to do with boys – but there's always been so much more to worry about than the attention of some guy. What place does romance have in my world?
"Beautiful day for a lunch in the great outdoors."
I take in the spread he's laid out for us and can't help but nod my head and smile in agreement. He's brought good cheeses, some fresh baked bread and a container of delicious looking mixed olives. All delicacies I can never afford to treat myself to.
I pull a brown paper bag out of my backpack and lay out some cured meats and blackberries I brought home from work the day before.
"I love it when you get the good salami," Gale says appreciatively, popping several pieces at once in his mouth.
I grin back at him and begin helping myself to the food with the same enthusiasm. I'm careful to savour the olives slowly, otherwise I'd finish the container in minutes. I take my time spreading the soft cheese across the bread and chew it more than is necessary, stopping to eat the berries one at a time in between each bite. I've learned these little tricks over the years to prolong the enjoyment of special food in limited quantities.
Who knows where my self-restraint was at Peeta's yesterday, there I didn't even stop to breathe. I can feel myself reddening a bit at the memory. I must have seemed like such a glutton.
"Whatever you're thinking about must be good, Catnip, you're blushing."
"What? No I'm not," I say more defensively than is needed.
"Does it have anything to do with your date with that snobby bakery kid?" Gale teases with a sneer.
It rubs me the wrong way, so I answer bitchily, "There are like ten things wrong with that question, Gale, and you know it. It wasn't a date, he's not a snob and he's not a kid either – we're the same age!"
"Geez, okay, I didn't realize you guys were friends." This also pisses me off and I'm not even sure why.
"We're not friends! We're in the same class and doing an assignment together, that's all. And he's a nice guy, so just back off."
"Done," Gale says haughtily then says nothing further.
We eat in silence until the food is gone. It's warm for a late October day, so I take off the hoodie I'm wearing, sit back and stretch my legs out in front of me.
"Are we talking again?" Gale asks, his voice back to its usual casual tone.
"I guess," I answer and give him a half-smile. "Let's just not talk about Peeta, okay?"
"Peeta! That's his name. I couldn't remember..." Gale exclaims, but I see right through him.
"You're so full of shit, Gale. You know what his name is. But it doesn't matter, we're not talking about him anyways."
"Okay, I got it. Peter's off limits," he grins. I roll my eyes and punch him lightly in the arm. We're back to being us and I finally feel comfortable again. In my woods with my best friend. It's a beautiful day.
When Gale leaves to head to work, I'm left thinking about our day and the night before with Peeta.
I wander through the dense forest, ignoring marked trail signs that at this point I have no need for. As I do I play back some of the stand-out moments with Peeta and start to compare my interactions with each.
Gale is home and comfort and we're so, so alike. Peeta is...what is Peeta? He's confusion and contradiction and warmth and strength and we're incredibly, irrevocably different...aren't we?
I get frustrated with my inability to get a handle on my thoughts so I push them out of my mind, tilt my face a little more towards the sun and put all of my concentration into a vigorous hike.
My lungs expand to take in as much fresh air as possible. I feel my muscles straining to propel me up the steep path I've chosen. I start to tune into the sounds surrounding me: the birds, the rustling of the leaves, the swooshing sounds of clothes moving with my body.
I'd love to be hunting right now, but don't really do it while I'm away at school. I'm not really equipped for the aftermath in my tiny apartment. I should be able to when I'm home for Thanksgiving though.
Thinking about Thanksgiving gets me a little stressed again. Seeing Prim is always so bittersweet. I miss her so much and I love my time with her, but it's just as hard to leave her every time. Christmas is good, the break is longer. Thanksgiving always feels like I'm being cheated out of real time at home.
It's been weird going back for holidays without Gale being there anymore. His family comes to Oak Hill sometimes during the summer to visit, but it's not the same as having access to him all the time like in high school. I spend even more time alone now when I go home for breaks.
Peeta will be there though. I wonder if we'll see each other back home. Would we say hello? Talk? Hangout? I can't picture it, but think I want to. Maybe I do want to be friends...
It still pisses me off that Gale was such a jerk about him. Granted, we're usually on the same page when it comes to the Oak Hill upper crust so I get his attitude, but he doesn't even know him and anyways I'm allowed to have other friends.
I sigh incredibly loudly to no one in particular. This is why I don't bother with this crap most of the time.
When I wake up Monday morning, I'm already looking forward to the afternoon. I'm anxious for Peeta's company, which is a surprise, but not an entirely unwelcome one. It's nice to not be spending so much time alone.
My morning classes drag. I'm distracted and not really listening. You'd think they'd make classes designed for people who want to make their living outside a little more exciting. Or a little more outside.
At long last 3:30 arrives, signalling the end of my academic day, and I head to the women's bathroom before going to meet Peeta. I find myself standing in front of the mirror, trying to decide whether I should re-braid my hair or let it hang loose. I'm also uncomfortable with the fact that I even care, but I can't dwell on that now. I end up going with loose because I haven't brought a comb or anything and trying to do anything with my hair might be a disaster without one.
I comb my fingers through it, surprised to see that the loose waves my braid has created actually look good. I frown at my clothing, but get over it quickly. I don't have the money or inclination to bother trying to change my casual, outdoorsy style.
I walk quickly across campus to our agreed meeting place. It's a student lounge that has comfortable seating and access to microwaves for those who bring their food from home. It will serve us and our leftovers well.
A quick look around tells me I have beaten Peeta here. I think carefully about where I'd like to sit and choose two comfy armchairs on either side of a small table, tucked away towards the back of the space near a window.
I take off my jacket and pull my books out of my bag. I look up from my now organized pile and see Peeta walking towards me, his face made friendlier by his big grin and bright eyes.
I smile back, the feeling of warmth spreading through me almost completely foreign.
"Hey, you beat me here," he says while unpacking his bag. He removes two containers of stew, a bag containing two cheese buns and a single plastic-wrapped cookie. "Are you hungry now? I'll go heat these up."
He doesn't really wait for a response, just heads off towards the microwave. I consider doing the polite thing and waiting for him to return before I bust into the cheese buns, but saliva is already filling my mouth like a hungry dog. I open the bag and within seconds I'm sinking my teeth into the soft, salty bread.
When he returns with the steaming containers he looks back and forth between me and the bread then back to me again and laughs softly.
"So, you are hungry now then," he says, nothing but a genuinely delighted tone to his voice.
I nod then realize I haven't spoken out loud yet. I swallow and say, "Yeah, I guess I am. Also, hi."
He's still grinning and replies, "Hi. How was your day off yesterday?"
The question is innocuous. It's polite small talk, yet I'm still taken aback, not used to casual conversation with new people. "Uh, it was good...thanks."
"Get up to anything special?" He still sounds casual, but there's a hint of something else I can't quite make out.
"Not really, spent some time in the woods...had lunch with a friend."
"Sounds like a great day off." When he says this his voice has changed a bit, has lost some of its lightness.
"How about you?" I ask, because it seems like the appropriate response.
"Caught up on some homework and worked on a new painting." His cheeks redden enough when he mentions the painting that I both want to ignore the subject completely and beg him to tell me more. I play it safe.
"It's amazing that you could be inspired to paint and do homework on the same day."
"It was an inspiring weekend." He says it quietly and averts his eyes, but his cheeks are still red and I can see the ghost of a smile playing on his lips. What I see in his face and hear in his voice convinces me I'm not prepared to hear anymore about the painting. I'm out of my comfort zone and feeling that all-too-familiar urge to run.
"Katniss," he says and the tone of his voice pulls me out of my panic. It's firm, but somehow still kind. "How 'bout we just eat and get to work?" He looks me straight in the eye and holds my gaze. It's reassuring and I relax a little again.
I nod and turn my attention to the container of stew in front of me. It's as good as it was on Saturday and I'm happy to completely shift my focus back to devouring it. I can see out of the corner of my eye that Peeta stares at me a moment longer before also starting in on his food.
We eat in silence for a few minutes before I finally look up. Peeta catches my eye and nudges the second cheese bun towards me, gesturing for me to take it. I hesitate only for a moment, then grab it, smiling at Peeta with the biggest grin I can manage around the too-big bite I take.
He laughs lightly again and I'm surprised to realize that I'm feeling comfortable, enjoying myself even. And that this isn't the worst assignment ever, I actually like spending time with Peeta. Maybe I do want to be friends. Maybe I... nope, too much. It's a big enough realization for today and all I'm prepared to deal with, for now.