Prologue: Things We Lost in the Fire (Pre-Rebellion)
The words fall out of her mouth as gracefully as anything she has ever told him does. She’s teasing him, which is evident through the slight smirk curving her mouth and lifting her features. He’s learnt to search for these hints, as it’s been far too often when her words can mean the opposite of what she says. When she tells him she hates him, she looks up at him through fluttering lashes and a wide grin, the breeze causing her hair to brush against his skin. There are times, though, when he misinterprets what she says. He’s grateful she never seems to mind explaining and has even trained him to stop himself from arguing with her about everything.
After the months he’s learnt to read her, one thing is clear: there is something wrong today. She doesn’t look the way she usually does, with a bright smile on her face that threatens the sunshine—the very smile that makes him want to become Icarus and fly toward her, even if it means he’ll crash and burn in the end. Instead, she resembles Atlas, with the world on her shoulders weighing her down. His mind races, thinking of every potential possibility of what might have been the cause of this abrupt shift in her demeanor. But for now he chooses to save his questions.
“I know, I’m sorry. I was just bringing the food back to my family.” He doesn’t need to explain, he usually doesn’t. But given how she looks, he doesn’t want to add any stress or any reason for her to feel worse. “Are you ready to go?” He gestures toward the gap in the fence with his hand, and she crawls through without so much as a word or acknowledgement of his apology. He can’t help but frown at the unusual silence.
He watches her as she walks, keeping some distance between the two of them. This way, it’ll be harder for her to look at him, to watch him attempt to figure her out. He knows he’ll never solve the puzzle of her, even when she isn’t acting this way. But it doesn’t take long for the frustration to eat away at him, causing him to want to stop her, and ask what it could possibly be that’s dragging her down.
He draws in a deep breath, walking faster so they are side by side. He looks at her, studying her features one more time before he grabs her by the arm and allows the question to fall out of his mouth: “Madge? What’s wrong?”
She stops and looks at him. Her eyes wander from his eyes to the rest of his frame, as though she’s searching for something. “Let’s just get there first, okay?”
There. A lump forms in his throat, right by the strawberry patches, a place in the woods that welcomes lovers, or friends, or two people in the hazy in-between such as the two of them. Her desire to wait until they’re somewhere safe, a place that involves him, is frightening. But he waits, afraid that if he pushes, she’ll run away from him.
Thankfully, she’s the one who breaks the silence first.
“Gale?” Her voice is soft, a whisper meant only for him. She isn’t looking at him; her eyes are fixated on the laces of her shoes as her fingers fiddle with them. She presses her lips together, heart pounding against her ribcage, afraid that he can hear it. She’s always been aware of the risks they’re taking by being in the meadows together, beyond the fence that is meant to keep them safe from whatever the Capitol is afraid they’ll find on the other side. She also knows the more personal risks of being with him, of being vulnerable and allowing him to see the real her, the person beyond the polite smiles and quietness. There has always been a risk, but she hasn’t felt nervous about it until now. Until she wants him to tell her what she means to him.
“Yeah?” He answers, watching her closely, hoping for a sign that things are going to be alright for the two of them, hoping that she isn’t going to tell him she can’t be with him anymore, that their time has run out and he has to be alone again. He hasn’t been alone here since Katniss had to leave for the games. While he doesn’t mind the solitude, it’s Madge’s company he’ll miss the most.
“Don’t freak out, okay?” It isn’t clear who she’s warning: him or herself.
Nevertheless, her words make him nervous, his heart beginning to palpitate. “Okay.”
“Um.” She lets out a soft nervous laugh. She almost stops herself, but the words come out before she could bite her tongue. “What-what are we?”
“We’re-.” He stops himself in his tracks, his words coming out before he could even think of what to say. Telling her they were merely friends would be a lie. People who are just friends don’t spend hours together in secret, don’t kiss under trees and in between bites of strawberries. Friends don’t lie in each other’s arms and talk about everything there is to talk about. Boys who are just friends with girls don’t smell their hair and memorize it along with their body language. But saying they are lovers might be wrong, because while he’s spending all of his time with her, and while he does have feelings for her, there is someone else that comes to mind when he thinks of the topic of love. Someone they both know is a roadblock between the two of them, and because of that, they rarely mention her. It isn’t that he loves Katniss more than Madge, it’s that he’s never tried with Katniss. And to watch her be with another guy during the games hurts him, a wound he hasn’t gotten over yet. “We’re two people who care a lot about each other. At least, I hope so.”
She raises her gaze and looks at him, her eyes meeting his. She understands that this response could have been worse, and that this is the closest to satisfaction she will ever get from him. Perhaps it’s her fault for falling for someone who’s spent most of his life in love with Katniss. “Do you care? About me, I mean.”
He shifts so he’s closer to her, their shoulders touching. “I do.”
She draws in a deep breath. “Prove it.”
With this, he holds his breath and leans his forehead against hers. His heart races against his ribcage as the space between them thins. Slowly, their lips find one another, and he pulls her closer to him so she’s sitting on his lap. His hands are around her waist now, and he can taste the strawberry-flavored lip balm she’s always worn.
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