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"Well, somebody had to save your ass," Katniss said offhandedly to her friend as they hiked to the snare line by a small stream.
"You could have been hurt," Gale continued, trying to make her see the danger in the situation.
"Well, you were hurt," she returned, ending the argument. "I still can't believe you went down there. That was definitely one of your dumbest ideas," Katniss said, tossing her head back with a small laugh as she looked at her partner, arm still in a sling and scowling, as she checked his snare lines.
"No it wasn't," he mumbled defensively.
"Yeah it was. Top five for sure," she said, untangling the foot of a trapped rabbit.
"Oh please," Gale huffed, like he'd never had a bad idea.
Katniss turned to him with a bit of fire in her eyes, tossing the rabbit which he had to scramble to catch one-handed. Her hands now free, she lifted one up and started counting with her fingers. "Let's see," she said moving on to the next snare.
"Wait. There are a lot to choose from," she said in a way that was almost too serious to be considered a tease, though her wide smile told him she was. "Okay, in no particular order, there was that time you insisted we track that animal into its burrow…that animal you insisted was a fox but turned out to be—"
"A skunk," he said abashedly with her.
"Yeah, a skunk."
"Okay, okay," he tried to stop her, "I was young and still learning."
"True," she said, trying not to laugh, "and thanks to you we now know that there're aren't black foxes, especially with white stripes on their tails."
The look she gave him said she knew. "Two," she flashed two fingers from behind the dangling possum, "there was the time you tried to get the honey comb."
He rolled his eyes and let out a deep breath. He these were his most embarrassing moments, not his dumbest.
"And you just reached right in the buzzing hive…" She couldn't stop herself from laughing now, remembering how he cursed and then screamed and then ran frantic as the swarm chased him.
"Hey, if I recall correctly, you said you thought that was a good idea."
"Well, you recall incorrectly." She tossed the dead possum to him. "I said I thought honey was good—not reaching into a hive to get it." She was still laughing.
Gale had a sour look on his face. He didn't want to tell her that her comment was the reason he tried to get the honey in the first place.
"It's okay," she said as she reattached the snare line, "we learned another valuable lesson." She flashed another smile before turning to walk towards the stream.
"Yeah," he said so low that she couldn't hear, "not to do anything nice for you."
"Three, and this one just might be my favorite, there was that time you wanted to get a hunting dog…"
"I wasn't serious."
"Oh yes you were!" she turned to meet his eyes, "you took me to see McGillert's pups. You'd even picked one out!"
"Okay," he admitted, "I was thinking about it more before I met you. I thought it'd help and be nice to have company…"
"And then you met me!" she piped.
"Yeah," he scoffed, "and now I know it'd be better to be alone."
"Ha ha," she said with mock laughter, bending down to cup some of the cool stream water and splash it on her face. "But seriously," she said, splashing herself again, "you couldn't have fed that dog, or kept him quiet out here. It just would have drawn attention to what you were doing and gotten you in trouble."
"I know. I haven't mentioned that in years…" he defended himself as she walked back to him. And that one, he didn't think was dumb or embarrassing. Part of him still wanted a hunting dog, and he was convinced he could train one.
"For four, we've got the Holly and Callie Weathers incident."
"Oh god," Gale flushed, "you know about that?" That one, he had to admit, was one of his dumber moves.
"Everyone knows about that," Katniss teased, recalling when two years ago Gale had a nasty break up with one of the Weathers girls only to then ask out her sister, not knowing they were related. "In fact, I think we can count that as four and five, one for each Weather, it was so bad." She laughed again, remembering how upset the girls were with Gale and how miserable they made him at school.
But as Katniss approached him, Gale suddenly wasn't thinking about the Weather incident or why he was ever interested in either sister. He was watching the small drops of water trace a path down Katniss's cheek and neck and all the way under her shirt and remembering how her lips felt pressed tight to his forehead, as warm and wet as her skin now, he imagined. He was thinking that tumbling down an elevator shaft was worth it in the end, for the feel of those lips on his skin. And now all he could think about were her lips and how he wanted to kiss them with his this time…
"Gale?" she called him, no longer able to read his expression and pulling him from his reverie. "Ya there?" She waved for his attention.
"Yeah?" he said, trying to appear normal. He shook his head and shifted his stance. "I was thinking…we should probably head back so we can get cleaned up before we have to go to the solstice celebration."
Katniss let out an annoyed breath and rolled her eyes. "Oh, god, don't remind me. Can't we just stay out here?"
"I think our absence will be noticed."
"Only yours will by all the girls who want to dance with you." He winced slightly, ashamed that Katniss was thinking that.
"I think more people notice you than you realize," he said, looking into her eyes before picking up their hunting sack now full with game.
"Please," she scoffed and turned away, swinging herself around a tree branch as they headed to the fence.
Gale just shook his head and muttered to himself, still unable to believe how oblivious she was to the effect she had on people.
"Vick, Posy, come on, we're going to be late if we want to meet the Everdeens!" Hazelle shouted at her children as she walked out of her house. "No, go back in there an comb your hair," she said fiercely, pointing at Rory as he ran up to the front door. Her words caught him like a hook, and he stopped himself and marched back to the bathroom with a frown. "Children, come on!" she tapped her foot annoyedly. "Oh, Posy, you look precious," she said, grabbing her youngest's chin when she walked up to her.
Gale tucked his shirt in his pants as he walked out to meet her. His hair was still a little wet from the quick shower he'd taken after returning from the woods, but he'd combed it, so he didn't think his mother would complain.
"Gale!" she almost barked, startling him as he appeared in their common room. "Sling."
He cursed under his breath as he turned back to his room. He hated wearing that thing.
"Language!" Hazelle screamed, covering Posy's ears. "Vick! Rory! Come on!"
"You said I had to comb my hair!" Rory wailed like it was an excuse. Hazelle's tone said she thought otherwise.
"Oh, goodness, you don't have that much of it. Hurry up. We're going to be late."
Gale's youngest brother almost crashed into him as they made it to the front door. Hazelle looked the both up them up and down. "Put the sling on, Gale," she said, eyes still pouring over Vick, clearly looking for some flaw. When she didn't find any, she huffed. "Rory!"
"I'ma coming, I'ma coming," he said, appearing from the bathroom with his hair combed, but parted ridiculously down the side.
"Oh my god…" She sighed exasperatedly, wondering what on earth the boy was thinking, but she realized there was no more time. "We'll just…fix it on the way," she huffed, eyes scouring over each of her children and silently counting to make sure they were all there. "Okay, let's go." She handed the food she'd made to Gale. He hadn't put on his sling and took it with previously injured arm, hoping she'd notice, but she didn't, her attention immediately going to Rory's hair as they started walking to the Everdeens.
As they approached Katniss's house, they heard her mother calling in a similar, though somewhat less frantic, manner as their mother.
"They're here!" Prim called happily from the window, flying to the door to greet them.
She was wearing a blue dress that she'd worn to the Reaping the year before and would probably wear to the Reapings this year since they didn't have money for many dresses. Prim wasn't one to let such things bother her though.
"Posy! Hazelle!" she called excitedly, "I made these for you," she said, presenting links of flowers she'd woven together for them to wear.
"Ohh, wow!" Posy said with big eyes making Gale smile.
"Thank you, dear," Hazelle said, taking the two links from Prim. "You look lovely."
"Come on, Katniss!" Anise Everdeen called, walking to the door and waving, "the Hawthornes are here."
"I'm ready," she said, turning out of her room and not quite in view yet of the crowd outside.
"Oh my god, Katniss, did you even shower?" Her mother called from the doorway.
"Yes." There was a noticeable pause as Katniss slowly became visible. Her mother looked her up and down and sighed heavily. "I mean, I washed my hands and face."
"What?" she swatted her mom's hands away as she quickly ducked past her and made it outdoors.
Mrs. Everdeen shut the door and followed her daughter out. "You didn't even do your hair."
"Yes I did. I braided it this morning," Katniss defended.
"Yes, but did you brush it?" Her mother asked as they started walking.
Katniss was noticeably silent.
"At least she's not wearing her hunting boots," Rory snickered. Hazelle smacked his shoulder. "What?" he mouthed.
Katniss met Gale's eyes, hoping he'd say something to save her. But Gale didn't see her silent plea—he was too distracted by the light fabric of the white dress she was wearing, how it hugged her figure, how the light almost shone through the shirt as she walked, and the space between the buttons that clasped over her bust.
"Hey, Gale's not wearing his sling," she called him out, eye narrowed and flashing anger at him. He flushed, initially worried that she'd caught him starting, but he quickly realized it was just because she was determined to get the attention off her.
"Gale!" Hazelle said frantically, snatching the food from her son and still not noticing he was using his supposedly injured hand and thus not giving him the opening to insist he was better. "Language!" she said shrilly, before Gale even managed to get a swear word out.
"I didn't say anything, Ma."
"You were about to." Hazelle warned.
Gale made sure to keep his cursing to himself this time as he put the sling back on and adjusted it around his neck.
All out of the house and ready now, they began moving to the celebration. Prim excitedly told Hazelle and Posy about her flower-braids until Hazelle was guilted into wearing one, and Katniss's mother kept fussing over her hair.
"Just let me undo it at least, dear, it's coming apart."
"Mom, it's fine," Katniss tried to fend her off, but failed.
"Now that's better," Anise said, like it made a world of difference, "and now you can wear this," she said, draping the link of flowers over her.
"I don't want flowers in my hair," Katniss said, trying to swat them away.
"But I made it," Prim said, sounding legitimately hurt.
"Oh," Katniss responded, feeling bad. "They're beautiful." And she let her mother put them on her head as they reached the fairgrounds.
Gale was stunned when he turned around to see her. Katniss's hair fell in gentle waves around her face and over her shoulders. And the link of flowers Prim had given her fitted tight on her forehead like a crown. Gale could see the stiff vine she had braided to make the shape, but it was barely visible beneath the wildflowers she'd woven into it—mostly white, though bits of green leaf pushed through. They were mostly small daisies, from what he could tell, with some honeysuckle spun in, and, he thought, some hawthorn flowers too.
Katniss caught him staring at her as she walked up to him. "What?" she said, almost accusingly and feeling self-conscious.
"Nothing," Gale said, dropping his eyes and shaking his head. "You just…you look really nice."
"Oh, please," she scoffed, dismissing him.
And for the first time, Gale imagined her saying that word with a different tone, and a different meaning. He was still imaging that, remembering her lips pressed tight to his skin, and her name was on his now when suddenly the sound of his brought him to reality.
"Gale?" Only, it wasn't Katniss saying it. He wasn't certain how long ago she'd left.
"Oh, hey," he said, collecting himself, "Nelly, how are you?"
Gale wouldn't exactly call Nellie a friend, but he did make out with her at the slag heap from time to time. She was beautiful, blonde, and shapely, though, Gale was pretty sure she had a boyfriend right now. One of the older Mellark brothers, if he wasn't mistaken.
"I'm good. I just wanted to see how you were…you know…after the accident and all." She bit her lip as her eyes roamed over him.
"Oh," Gale said, looking down at the sling, "I'm fine. Almost all healed, in fact."
"Good. I'm glad. You know…it was so brave of you…to go down there."
Gale knew the look Nelly was giving him, and he knew it well. His free hand unconsciously went to touch the flask he kept in his back pocket. It used to be his father's, and his uncle gave it to him after his father died, filling it once for him every year with moonshine for his birthday. He always drank it at the Solstice Festival, sharing it with whatever girl he was seeing or liked best when they'd disappear from the dancing and the crowd. He'd done this with Nelly more than once.
When his mind realized what he was reaching for and what Nelly was thinking, still biting her lip, Gale shook those thoughts off. "Not really. Men go down into the mines every day. And I'll be doing that too soon," he said, trying not to sound too bitter or harsh, "you know, if I make it through this Reaping."
Nelly looked a bit shocked. Gale almost wanted to laugh, but stopped himself. Nelly was nice, and he knew Katniss would tell him it wasn't her fault she had a good life. Though Gale always wondered why the rich's circumstances could excuse for their ignorance when his circumstances couldn't excuse for his anger.
"How's…Crem?" he hoped that was the right name, "you're still dating him, right?"
"Yeah," Nelly said, nodding her head and no longer biting her lip. "He's good. His brother just had a baby."
"Nice," Gale said.
"Yeah," she said again as both became aware of how awkward this was. "His family's really happy."
The look on her face made Gale want to ask if she was happy, but that wasn't really his concern anymore. "I hope you two have fun at the dance," he said, hoping she'd take that as her exit cue. And she did.
Nelly wasn't the only girl to come check in on Gale that night. Robin Ackers was the next to stop by and then Lilah Jessup, whom he'd actually used to date and just seemed legitimately concerned, but she was followed by Misty Harkrader, who wouldn't leave him alone. Gale was about to ditch the sling completely just to stop drawing attention to himself until he realized it gave him the perfect excuse not to dance.
"Sorry," he told Misty, for what he felt like was the twentieth time, "I can't," he looked down at his arm with a smile, "doctor's orders."
"Oh," she pouted, slowly walked away. Gale kept the smile on his face as she turned away.
"Liar," he heard from behind him.
"Christ, Catnip, you startled me."
She laughed as she walked in front of him. "Not interrupting anything, am I?" she said almost coyly.
"God no. I'm so glad you're here." When Gale'd said that, he wasn't thinking it was because she looked so amazing, but now that he saw her, that was the only thing on his mind. Her hair was tumbling wildly around her face and her skin was glistening with a soft sheen of sweat.
"You know, I can ask my mother over here if you want. I'm pretty sure she'll approve you for dancing."
"Misty bothering you?" She half-teased.
"Uhh…" he made an uncertain sound.
"Well, maybe you shouldn't have made out with her at last year's Solstice Celebration."
Gale cursed to himself. He'd just come out of a bad break up with Willa Mayhew, and he'd drunk a bit too much of his uncle's moonshine too quickly and made out with Misty at the festival. She took that as a sign that they were dating things got complicated quickly.
"Now that night definitely counts as one of my dumbest ideas."
"Oh, are we bumping the Weather sisters off the list then?"
"No," Gale admitted honestly too quickly before he realized that his list was suddenly filling up with stupid decisions involving women. He looked over at her nervously, but she was just shaking her head and smiling.
"Well, maybe you should try not kissing anyone for a change this year, that way you don't have to add anything else to your list."
She knocked his shoulder playfully, and he could tell she was joking. At least mostly. But before he could settle on a response, Prim called out:
"Katniss," she said excitedly, "come dance with us!"
"Now there's a girl you can't say no to," Katniss laughed as she ran off to join her sister dance around the fire.
"Yeah," Gale said, but he was thinking about an entirely different girl.
His hand again unconsciously moved to the flask, and for the first time in his whole life, Gale wanted a drink.
"The dog," Gale said when he found Katniss again. She was sitting by herself on a bench, drinking water and fanning herself.
"What?" she looked at him utterly confused.
"That's the one we're bumping from the list."
"Not that stupid dog again," she scoffed.
"Hey, be nice to Cooper," he teased, sitting next to her.
"Oh!" she laughed so loudly she almost snorted, "I forgot you named him!" She grabbed his shoulder and doubled over.
When she recovered, he reached forward and tucked her hair behind her ear. Their eyes locked meaningful, and Gale wondered what she was thinking, hoping it was the same thing he was.
"Don't get too comfortable," she said, playfully swatting his leg and causing a spout of hope to rise from his stomach. "You wouldn't want any of the pretty girls to get the wrong idea."
He had to swallow that hope, and it tasted bitter. Apparently, she wasn't thinking what he was at all. Gale suddenly thought that he must have done a lot of stupid things for Katniss to think that way about him…and none of them involving bees or skunks or foxes.
"Hey, do you want to get out of here?"
"Yes!" she said emphatically, jumping up. "I'm so over dancing."
Gale was suddenly glad she was so inexperienced she didn't realize what a cliché he'd just been and smiled listening to her as she complained about the heat.
"Tell me, whose great idea was it to lite a bonfire for the summer?" she wondered as they headed away from the celebration, ending up at their spot watching the sunset.
"Oh," Gale said after a few moments of silence, "I got this." He made himself leave off the "for you," part.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a peach. It was large and soft and fragrant and shone like the sun as it turned pink-orange on the horizon.
"Oh my god, Gale! Where'd you get this?" She eagerly grabbed it and held it to her nose, taking in the sweet scent. She'd always loved the way they'd smelled. And Gale knew this.
"I won it…at, uh, one of the games."
"You won a peach?" She couldn't believe it. Peaches were rare and pricey in their District. They only fruit they usually got were apples and oranges. And even oranges were too much for their families to afford. "How?"
He made up some story about getting the highest score in a ball tossing game, but he'd really traded his liquor for it.
Gale'd briefly considered sharing his moonshine with her, but quickly realized Katniss wouldn't want that. And he didn't want that either…to do with Katniss what he'd done with so many others.
"It's so beautiful…I don't even know if I can bite it," she said, still holding it to her lips.
Gale laughed, "well if you don't, I will."
"Okay," she said, handing it to him, sounding almost scared.
"No, go on," he said, pushing her hand back to her.
"I can't…it's yours," she insisted, handing it back to him.
"No, Gale, please?"
That word again. He'd do anything for it. Gale took the peach from her, his fingers sliding past hers, and she watched him almost trembling as he put the soft skin of the fruit to his lips and took a bite. It was delicious, he thought, as the sweet flavor flushed over his tongue, but it wasn't its taste he craved on his tone, it's softness he wanted on his lips.
He handed it back to Katniss now.
She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. One of her first memories was smelling peaches at the summer market and begging her mother for one. She'd cried all the way home when her mother told her she couldn't have one. There, her father comforted her, promising he'd get her one one day. He never did, though she always believed him when he'd said, next summer, next summer….
She opened her mouth softly and put the fruit to her lips and bit delicately. Sweet juices poured into her and she was hit with heavy sensation. "Oh my god, Gale, this is so good."
She opened her eyes only after she'd swallowed, licking her lips and realizing the juices were dribbling down her chin. She quickly wiped it away with one hand and handed the fruit out to Gale. "Thank you."
Gale was looking at her intently when he reached out, savoring her expressions the way she was the taste. His hand didn't grab the peach, but went up to her face, and he brushed away one last drop of juice that she'd missed.
"Oh," Katniss's said, a bit embarrassed, bringing her own hand up to wipe away anymore mess and knocking into his.
Gale let his fingers brush against hers before pulling his hand away and smiling at her. The sun had dipped below the horizon now, but the last rays of gold light fell on their skin, illuminating everything before the shadows folded them in. And as he felt the heat from her skin fading from his fingers just as the heat of the sun faded from his skin, he wondered how high kissing her would rate on his list of dumbest ideas.