FYI – this story references incidents in my other stories, And So We Run Redux and Repaid. It's not necessary to read them to enjoy this, but it wouldn't hurt. Also, it's considered the backstory to Dustland Fairytale. My plotlines are a bit incestuous, as you can see.
And now we find out what it would be like to have dinner with the Hawthornes. :P
"Madge, are you all right?" One of the nurses, Chapel, waves her hand in front of my face.
I blink as her fingers flash up and down. "Hmm?"
Nurse Chapel blocks my view of the rest of the infirmary with her wide body. I'm sort of grateful for that, at the moment. The rest of the staff doesn't need to see me looking dazed. "You've been standing in the linen closet for nearly ten minutes," she says with concern written all over her lined face.
I gaze into the closet in front of me, seeing the piles of sheets, pillowcases and blankets for the first time. "Oh. No, I'm fine. Maybe I need a break."
Nurse Chapel nods her beehive-coiffed head. "You're shift is almost over, honey. Why don't you call it a day? Get some rest."
Get some rest. Yes, that's all I need – more time alone with my wayward thoughts. I close the door on the linen closet, unable to remember what I came for anyway. I'd gotten sidetracked by the memory of being alone with Gale Hawthorne of all people. Shirtless and at my mercy. My fingers trailing over his skin and the moment when he'd been holding his breath. He sighed. I looked up. Our eyes locked. Something dropped in my stomach. I started to lean in…
And then I asked if I hurt him. Ugh.
I shouldn't have let Gale effect me like that. You can't kiss your patients, Madge. And especially not Gale Hawthorne, Katniss's friend? Boyfriend? The man I'm not even friends with.
But maybe we will be friends? A silly grin spreads over my face as I walk down a row of beds. My cheeks feel sore and I realize I've been smiling a lot today. More than usual. It's not hard to figure out what's causing them:
Tonight I have dinner with the Hawthornes.
Then my smile falters. If he shows….
As promised, Gale stands outside of the infirmary when I leave at the end of my shift. When I see him leaning against the wall I'm embarrassed by how nervous I felt. In fact, I'm running a little late because I kept making false starts to walk out the doors before retreating back into the infirmary, sure he wouldn't show.
Gale pushes himself off the wall when he spots me. "You look surprised," he says.
Oh, bother. Does it show? "Well, I might be. A little," I admit. When he just stands there looking at me, I add, "How do your burns feel?"
"Good," he says by rote.
He backpedals. "For burns. You know."
"Yeah." I dig into the pocket of my smock, producing small square packets. "Here, I got these for you. Ibuprofen tablet samples. They should help minimize the pain." I press them into his hands.
"Are you allowed to take these?" he asks, though he pockets them without hesitation.
"No, but they don't pay me either," I reply. Fair's fair. "And when did you start worrying about the rules?"
His eyes glint, but with what I'm not certain. "I traded at the black market, Madge. I didn't steal."
I cross me arms and start walking down the hall. "I suppose poaching doesn't count as stealing, then? And they just call it the black market as a strategic ad campaign, not because the Hob deserved the name."
Gale rolls his eyes, then follows me. "It's a matter of perspective."
"Also, you're going the wrong way."
I stop in my tracks. "Oh."
"It's this way," he points over his shoulder with his thumb. "You really haven't been out much, have you?"
"Why would I?" I say. "Everything I need is in the infirmary." Except for friends and family. I feel a stab of regret when I think about my parents.
I try to shake it off. I promised myself to enjoy tonight and leave the ghosts alone. I'll dream about them anyway. Enjoy being awake, for now.
We fall silent as we pass through the corridors. Gale opts to take the stairs when we see how crowded the cars are with everyone trying to get to their suppers. That's fine. I could use the exercise. Now that we don't have a specific reason to speak to one another like we did in the infirmary, it's difficult to think of something to talk about. My social skills skitter away. Gale's no chatty Cathy either.
Fortunately, it's only two levels down to 4 where the corporate dining room and kitchens are located. I haven't been down here before. In fact, I haven't left Level 2 since I arrived. It's like a bazaar, with carts loaded over with wares standing outside of stores and hole-in-the-wall boutiques and tea shops. It looks so normal, like a market square above ground that for a moment I actually forget we're buried below the earth. Where does it all come from? The bustle on this floor overloads my senses and I almost bump into a stack of crates, but I decide that I want to come back to explore soon.
Gale leads me around till we approach the dining hall. He holds the door open for me, even though he's the one with the hurt arm. The vast room echoes with the sounds of cutlery, humming voices, and feet shuffling over the stone floor. I have no idea where to go. Tables lie in a grid pattern, but I can't seem to focus on anyone's face long enough to distinguish one face from another. I even have trouble remember what Hazelle Hawthorne looks like.
"This way," Gale says, pointing to the left.
A tall woman with long, loose black hair and a soft face waves to Gale from a table filled with kids. Ah, now I recognize Hazelle, but realize that I've never seen Gale's brothers and sister before. Gale directs me toward them. "This is my mom," he says to me when we reach the table.
"Madge and I have met," says Hazelle.
Gale's eyes narrow. "That's right."
She turns to me and smiles. "Hello, Madge." Her voice is surprisingly kind and open, completely unlike Gale, who's always so guarded and cold unless your part of his crew.
"Hi, Mrs. Hawthorne," I say, reaching out to shake her hand. Hazelle hesitates for a moment and I wonder if I've breached some Seam protocol I didn't know about. Don't they shake hands? When her hand slips into mine I'm surprised by the roughness of her skin. Looking down quickly, I see how red and chapped they are, even though she probably hasn't done laundry by hand since we've arrived. I bet there's something from the infirmary that I can get for her skin.
And then I see the half-healed scabs from the poison ivy and realize she probably thinks I'm still contagious and worried about touching my hand, not the other way around. Oops. A blush creeps up my cheeks and I snatch my hand back, wondering if I should explain that I'm not contagious.
"Call me, Hazelle. Remember?" she says kindly, referring to the night she showed up at my doorstep. The winter evening I brought morphling for Gale's back.
I glance at Gale, then back to Hazelle. "That's right. Sorry."
Gale clears his throat, giving us a calculated stare. A niggling suspicion tells me that he's on to the reason behind Hazelle and my acquaintance, which consists of only one meeting in my kitchen. But he doesn't say anything about it.
"These are the kids. Rory, Vick, and Posy," he finishes dryly. The suggestion hangs in the air, or have you met them without me knowing it, too?
The younger Hawthornes stare at me somberly. It's a little unnerving, but I smile and give a tiny wave. I recognize the oldest of them, Rory. Often times during a class lecture, I'd let my eyes wander to the field behind the school where the younger students got to enjoy a brief recess, wishing I could join them. Rory used to climb one of the half-rotten trees and get told off by his teacher. At least that's what I assumed by the frantic hand gestures and the way she dragged him away once he climbed down.
"You're friends with Katniss, huh?" asks Rory me, though he quickly glances at Gale.
"Yes, that's right," I reply, surprised. "How did you know that?"
Rory shrugs. "I saw you walking with her through the Seam once."
On the way to the woods. That's right. It hadn't occurred to me that anyone would watch us. Honestly, given the political climate, we ought to have been more careful.
"For a second I thought you were Prim because there's really not a lot of blond girls wandering around in the Seam," he continues bluntly. And then he blushes. "But she's, er, shorter than you."
I blink stupidly, not entirely sure how I should respond to this anecdote. "Oh."
"What were you doing in the Seam?" Gale asks. He makes it sound like I trespassed and that makes me reluctant to tell him that I was only there to get to the woods. I bet he'd flip.
"Um. Visiting Katniss?" I bluff.
"So, where have you been staying, Madge?" Hazelle asks, politely navigating the conversation to something else.
"I stay in the infirmary mostly." I grin a little, and say, "They have lots of beds."
"It must be hard to get any rest in there," says Hazelle thoughtfully. "All that constant commotion."
I scratch my arm absentmindedly, remembering the first few nights. "You get used to it."
"Are all the Hawthornes finally here?" someone asks behind me. I turn to look over my shoulder.
We're joined by a lanky young man who looks a year or two older than Gale. He has the same straight, black hair and olive skin as the Seam crowd. Unlike Gale's stony gray eyes though, this young man's eyes are laughing.
"I'm Bristel," he says to me with an easy grin. "Nice to see a new face around the table."
"Pleased to meet you," I murmur. "I'm Madge."
"Everyone's here," says Rory, standing up. "Can we get our food now? I'm starved."
Hazelle nods and everyone follows Rory's example. Hazelle has to take the little girl's hand because she keeps turning around to look at me solemnly while she walks and tripping over her feet. I give her a smile when she looks over her shoulder again and a huge, toothy grin banishes the somber look from her face. And then she trips again, but Hazelle's grip keeps her upright.
When we reach the food counters, I'm handed a tray, a plate, silverware wrapped in a pulpy-looking napkin. I stand back a little to see how the family handles it, with Gale's arm injury and having little Posy. Hazelle helps her daughter, pushing their shared tray along the steel counter while the catering service adds bits of the meal to their plates.
Something colorless and noodle-y plops onto my plate at the first station. My stomach plops along with it. This is food?
"Would you like more?" the server asks.
I've been staring at the food-like substance and hadn't noticed the one ladling it out. "Pardon?" I ask, glancing up.
The server's nametag reads COLE. He looks about my age but with black hair similar to Gale's and very pale skin. He leans over the food and the glass partition. With his hooked nose, he resembles a bird on a perch.
"Would you like some more? You look hungry." COLE smiles leeringly.
I feel my face heat up, though I don't know why. "Um, no thank you." I don't think I could eat more of this slop if I wanted to. COLE shrugs and continues filling people's plates.
I push my tray forward to the next station and catch Gale watching me closely.
His eyes shoot toward COLE, then back to me. "Nothing," he says stiffly. "Just that the servers are usually pretty strict about handing out extra food." He receives a roll from an elderly woman wearing fishnet over her hair and then pushes his tray forward again, looking stubbornly ahead.
I watch the straight line of his back in front of me. Was that censure for COLE or for me? Not that it matters. I turned down the offer. It's not Gale's business anyway. His comment shouldn't make me feel badly.
I'm given a roll as well, mixed vegetables and a pint of water. Nobody offers me extra portions, for which I am grateful. And that's the end of the line. Gale scoots his tray along and then Rory helps him carry it to the table. I trail behind, careful to balance my tray and not spill the water. I'm caught by surprised as a wave of homesickness makes it difficult to breathe. We had chicken and stuffing there and nobody comments about portion sizes. This stuff doesn't even smell real.
At the table, I settle on the bench seat across from Hazelle. Rory sets Gale's tray down next to mine, then saunters around to the other side. Hazelle parks Posy between herself and Rory, while Bristel and Vick try to squeeze onto our bench. Eventually, Vick gives up and has to sit next to Rory, who initiates an elbow war.
"So, how do you two know each other anyway?" Gale asks Hazelle and I with suspicion in his eyes. I should have known it'd come back to this.
My eyes travel across the table to meet Hazelle's. I asked her never to mention the circumstances behind our meeting the night of Gale's whipping. I didn't want it to influence Gale's opinion of me, one way or the other. So why am I disappointed that she's kept my secret? My finger traces the bumps on the rough paper napkins provided by the cafeteria, trying to think of an excuse.
"Madge and I had an enlightening discussion about tea. Did you know she is a connoisseur?" Hazelle says, mischievously leaving his question unanswered.
"You drank tea with Madge?" he asks skeptically. "Just randomly stopped by her house?"
Hazelle arches her eyebrows in a way only Gale's mother can. "Gale, you inherited your father's anti-social disposition. I have no trouble making new friends," Hazelle bluffs. It's incredible how easily she can tease Gale. He doesn't seem like the type that would handle it well. Like poking a bear. But he just scowls his usual scowl and lets the playful barb roll off his back.
What a strange family.
I stab the noodle concoction with my fork. Something resembling poultry comes up with it. I put the forkful in my mouth and chew as quickly as possible. The sauce feels sticky and tastes like nothing. The vegetables taste better, seasoned with salt and pepper, and only slightly rubbery. Nobody else at the table seems to mind the food. Even Posy packs the pasta concoction away in record time. It makes me quell my pickiness and try to be grateful that there's anything to eat at all.
"So, you're from town?" Bristel asks the obvious around a mouthful of bread. As if my hair color isn't an obvious enough tip. He leans over the table to see me around Gale. "Mayor's kid. Sorry to hear he didn't make it out. He did his best by the miners."
The praise makes me tear up a little. "He certainly tried," I say self-consciously. I don't remember most of the details, but I know that Mr. Hawthorne, as well as Katniss's father, didn't enjoy the benefits of my father's campaign to improve conditions in the mines. Not that his program reached very far, not with his hands tied by the Capitol.
"So, how did you run into Hawthorne then?" Bristel continues.
It feels impolite to talk around Gale, especially when it's about him, but I accommodate. Bristel seems kind and I'm grateful to anyone willing to lead the conversation around the table. "I helped redress his burns in the infirmary today."
"She threw my shirt away," Gale grouses before taking a drink from his glass.
"It was foul!" I retort. It was. Really. Stained, smelly. Naturally the stupid shirt is all he can think of.
Gale's eyebrows furrow like a thundercloud. "It could have been washed," he grumbles.
I snort. "Nobody should be forced to touch that thing – even to clean it."
As we exchange sallies, Gale's brothers' and sister's heads swivel back and forth between us like they're watching a tennis match. It's sort of funny. And it makes me realize that if this friendship thing with Gale does work out, it'll probably always include bickering, whether it's about awful shirts or reaping slips.
"It's not like I have an extensive wardrobe," Gale points out. His ominous eyebrows quirk up, but he's not really angry.
"And yet I see you've already replaced your old shirt," I point out. It's one of those standard-issue, coarse cotton ones. Not very thick material; cheaply made. In fact, I can see the outline of his bandages and the shape of his chest through it. Not bad.
"It's still gray so I fail to see why you're complaining," I add.
Gale scowls. I'm starting to get used to it. It's like that expression is his knee-jerk reaction to anything. Even if you pushed a fuzzy little kitten into his hands he'd make a surly face.
"Actually, I would have thrown that shirt away myself, if you'd only taken it off," Hazelle says to Gale.
"Mom," he grouses, looking scandalized.
"Maybe if you'd worn a clean shirt Katniss would finally agree to date you," Rory taunts around a forkful of food.
The atmosphere around the table suddenly freezes over. I stare down at my plate, appalled. I can feel Gale's body stiffen in response to his brother's barb. I don't have siblings, so I don't know the difference between simple rivalry and what constitutes as going to far – but anything about Katniss seems to be in the "too far" category.
"Rory!" Hazelle scolds. "Apologize to Gale."
"Sorry," Rory mumbles under extreme duress.
"Forget it," Gale says, shrugging it off, though it does nothing for the tension.
Hazelle steely eyes pass around the table. "Katniss is certainly in no condition to date anyone right now," she says, decidedly not forgetting it. "And it would behoove all of you," she chides to each of her children, "to mind your own business."
I feel two inches tall and I'm not even the one she's scolding. I wish I could slip under the table right now. I don't know the Hawthornes well enough not to feel invasive during a family spat. And well, the topic is a solid anchor to reality, where I'm Madge Undersee, Mayor's daughter. And Gale is Katniss's best friend...and admirer.
Not everything changed when we reached the Underground. It sort of takes the shine off of this morning. Thank goodness I didn't kiss him.
"It's okay, Gale," Vick soothes his older brother. "Rory likes Prim," says Vick out of the blue. It's the first time he's spoken a word.
Rory gapes, then socks Vick in the shoulder. "Two-timer."
"Ow." The younger boy winces and cups his shoulder, accidentally bumping little Posy.
"Boys," Hazelle warns sternly.
"Prim, huh?" A malevolent, half-grin spreads over Gale's face. "That's interesting. She's older and taller than you, you know."
"Barely," Rory grumbles at his dirty plate.
"Gale, that's enough," Hazelle breaks in. "Honestly, what do I have to do to get the three of you to cooperate anymore?"
It's clear that Hazelle is losing control of the situation. I look up and she gives me an apologetic smile.
"Just wait till Katniss finds out," says Gale, ignoring Hazelle in favor of teasing Rory.
Rory's eyes grow round as saucers, and I swear he looks paler than me. "You won't tell her." It sounds more like a question.
Gale shrugs casually. "She's very protective of Prim."
Rory bristles all over. "Well, I never said I liked her," he bluffs. Even I can tell he's not telling the truth.
"Yes, you did. You told me – ow." Vick gets another cuff on the back of the head. "He kissed her once. Ooof."
"Boys, do I need to remind you that we have a guest?" Hazelle's voice drops to a frozen calm, the sort that only mothers can achieve.
"Huh?" they say, almost in unison. Then they look at me, like they've just remembered that I'm here. A blush creeps up my cheeks as I become the center of attention. Not my favorite place to be.
"I don't need special treatment, Mrs. H.," Bristel says good-naturedly. All eyes zip to where he's seated on Gale's other side. "You don't have to spare my feelings."
"Like you have any," Gale mutters.
"Oh, and you do? Anyway." Bristel winks at the kids on the other side of the table while he and Gale continue to exchange insults, the Everdeen girls forgotten. Hazelle sighs and shakes her head, but smiles. I feel a rush of gratitude for Bristel breaking the tension.
"You're not really going to tell Katniss, are you, Gale?" Rory pleads.
Gale shrugs. "Nah. She just got out of the hospital. We wouldn't want her to relapse," he mutters, rolling his eyes.
"She's okay, then?" I ask. I work in one of the makeshift infirmaries scattered wherever space could be found, not in the actual hospital itself. The more severe cases are housed there, or the high profile patients like Katniss and the other victor-tributes who were rescued.
"I guess," Gale tells me. "As much as she can be, given the circumstances."
"You mean with her injuries from the arena and…um…," I stammer, unsure if it's okay to bring up…
"With Peeta being gone? Yeah," he says curtly, interrupting my string of ums.
Poor Peeta and poor Katniss. And by extension, poor Gale.
"Is anything being done about Peeta?" I ask.
Gale shifts uncomfortably on the bench seat. "It's a bit early to plan anything," he says uneasily. He glances up at Hazelle quickly. "But there might be some sort of rescue. If he's definitely alive. Haymitch doesn't even know that yet."
I nod my head, wondering what a rescue would entail – assuming Peeta still lives. Where would they keep him? How is Katniss holding up with all this uncertainty? Even if she faked all the things she said in the arena – about loving him, about…about their baby…she still cared about him.
My thoughts are interrupted when everyone gets up to put away their trays. I blink a bit, then slowly stand up, nearly upsetting my tray. Hazelle notices the hesitation.
"I'm sorry, Madge," she apologizes. "Where you finished?"
"Of course," I reply hastily. "I wasn't paying attention. That's all."
She nods and I follow her around to a whole separate counter with a conveyor belt set aside for folks to put their trays on, sending the dirty dishes back to some hidden room to be washed.
I follow the Hawthornes out of the cafeteria and then stop. Dinner's over and now I'm not sure what comes next. I don't even remember how to get back to the lifts.
When my hesitation becomes noticeable again, Gale says, "My family's going to walk around for a bit, if you want to come."
"I'd like to," I say, barely stifle a yawn at this point, though. "But I have an early shift tomorrow."
"I'll walk you back," Gale offers.
I give him a half-smile. "Thanks. That would be helpful."
I say my goodbyes to Hazelle and the kids, and Bristel shakes my hand again. Then we turn to make our way through the bazaar.
"If all the levels are chaotic like this, I'll never get my bearings," I say ruefully. Directions have never been a strong point of mine. But in a district as small as Twelve, it's never made much of a difference. Plus, I lived there my whole life, until a few days ago.
"You'll figure out how to get around eventually," he says. "All the levels have a similar basic design. Here's the lifts."
We stand in the crowd formed around the retractable doors and wait for a car to arrive. I find myself smiling at the strangers and noticing the different features of their faces. Since we arrived, I don't feel like I've really paid any attention to how one person distinguished himself from another, like I've been in a daze. I guess seeing someone from home makes a difference.
We pile in with the rest of the men and women heading to the upper levels, neither one of us saying anything in the cramped space. I notice Gale's expression seems particularly stony, even for him. He's staring straight ahead at the crack between the doors. My first inclination is to think he might have some residual psychosis from working in the mines for the last year…but I'm probably jumping to conclusions. Maybe the dinner didn't agree with his stomach? I know mine feels a little funny.
The crowd in the lift thins out with each level until only three of us get off at Level 2.
"Sorry about earlier," says Gale suddenly in the nearly quiet corridor. "Rory and I don't really mean it."
"I guess it's a sibling thing," I reply nonchalantly. Why extend the awkward? "Don't worry about it. I'm glad you invited me." And I shouldn't have to justify myself to Gale, but I don't want him thinking I'm privileged and holding it against me. I reach out my hand, touching his arm till we both stop walking. "For the record, I didn't ask for more food from that server tonight. I don't know what he was thinking."
Gale stares down at me with his usual half-surly, half-disinterested expression. "I know."
"Then why did you point it out?" I ask, trying to mask the petulance in my voice. "I thought you were upset with me."
"I don't know," he says too quickly for it to be true. "Just forget it."
I cringe. Like I'm going to if he won't give me the reason behind his behavior. "I'll just read into it," I tell him.
Gale rolls his eyes and starts walking again. "He was hitting on you," he says bluntly.
"What!" I gape at him, rooted to the spot. My cheeks heat up instantly. "I seriously doubt that."
Gale gives me a patronizing look over his shoulder.
"I think I would know," I say to his back. Wouldn't I? Who flirts with food?
Okay, Katniss and Peeta sort of had a strange food dynamic going on, but that those were not typical circumstances!
"So why were you mad at me then?" I ask, jogging a little to catch up with him.
"I wasn't. Just giving you a heads up about the," he thinks about it for a few seconds, "unspoken code of conduct around here."
"Well, thanks, I guess," I reply sourly.
Gale shrugs. He does that so much. I don't know how he isn't killing his injured arm. "At any rate," he says. "Thanks for helping me out this morning. You didn't do too badly."
I smirk. "That's praise coming from you."
"What's that supposed to mean?" His eyes narrow a bit.
"You were nervous. Admit it," I challenge with laugh. "I don't know what you were thinking, but I saw you looking over my shoulder like you were planning an escape."
That might have offended him because he walks on in silence, picking up speed with his long legs. I'm going to break into a sweat if I try to match his pace.
And then he says, "I toyed with the idea of locking you in a closet before you were able to damage anything vital." A small, somewhat impish smile breaks over his face. I think he's making a joke. How strange.
I gape at him. "You would have hurt your arm more doing that," I scold. "Because I would have fought you."
"I thought of that," he says without concern, "which is why you're here and not in a closet."
Cheeky, I huff inwardly. Then I remember what a baby he was about the shirt and feel less put out.
"Well, I guess this is it," he says all too soon in front of the infirmary doors. He puts his hand on the knob to open the door, but I stay standing with my arms crossed over my waist.
I say, a tad formally, "I enjoyed having dinner with your family." And with you, even during the awkward parts.
"Sure," he says. And when I still don't move toward the door, "Maybe we'll do it again sometime."
"I'd like that."
I don't know what makes me do it. Maybe gratitude for the kindness he showed me today. Maybe because I'd felt so lonely lately and our relationship is so tenuous that there isn't really anything to lose. Or maybe it was the memory of his skin beneath my fingers and the look in his eyes that one moment when I looked up this morning.
Either way, I stand on my tiptoes and quickly press my lips against the corner of his mouth. "Goodnight, Gale. Thanks for everything." I step back.
Wide-eyed, Gale crumples the long hair on the back of his head with his hand. He doesn't have a chance to say anything before I slip through the doors into the restless infirmary. But there's a lightness in my step and a curling sensation in my stomach that hadn't been there when I woke up this morning. What will happen next? Who knows. But, all in all, it's been a wonderful day.
A/N: Will this continue? I have no bloody idea.
COLE belongs to Geeky. Nurse Chapel belongs to Star Trek.