A/N: Here's take three on the annual Christmas HG story tradition. I hope you enjoy this bit of Gadge and that you all have a Merry Christmas or happy holiday.
Gift of the Madgepie
1.5 weeks to Christmas, Year 78 Capitol Reckoning.
December rolled into the northern reaches above the bunkers of District 13 with gusto, coating the boreal forests and clustered villages with snow and ice. Record-setting accumulation had been mentioned and bemoaned by refugees who had relocated from sunnier climbs, but as Madge picked her way along the unplowed road into town, the white-laced pines seemed to shield her from the wind. The dark clouds heavy with more snow made the world seem like it could fit into one of her snow globes on the mantelpiece at home. She tightens her hood and pushes on through a drift. It wasn't Christmas without snow, besides, Madge mused.
It also wasn't Christmas without giving. That troubled Madge, somewhat. She had agreed to meet Gale in the late afternoon for last minute Christmas shopping after his shift ended at the Department of Forestry and Wildlife, or DFW, as they called it. She didn't have to worry about what to send their family, who still lived in the underground bunker. Vick and Posy had even mailed her Christmas lists when she'd asked, and while Hazelle and Rory were coy about asking for anything, she knew she could count on…well, she hoped she could count on Gale to offer some insights.
The source of her concern derives from Gale himself. Madge wanted to give him something perfect to show how much she cared about him. This wasn't just any Christmas, after all. It was their first Christmas as a married couple. After a year of war and another year of national confusion, restoration and infrastructural befuddlement, when plans for resettling and refugees were made, unmade and remade on a constantly revolving basis – Madge and Gale had finally took the plunge and gotten to work building their home on the foundation where Gale had proposed to her two years prior, just after the war had ended.
They put off the toasting for a year. Everyone needed a little more settling after the war. Hazelle hadn't decided if she wanted to move back to Twelve or to the new town above Thirteen where Madge and Gale's property stood. She still hasn't decided, so the kids and Hazelle remain in the Underground. Madge is suspicious that she's waiting for Gale to break down and tell Hazelle to move up here.
Madge, though enjoying the privacy, sort of wishes Hazelle were here to give her advice about Gale. And giving anything to Gale was always a mental feat. A Seam trait, Madge reckons, remembering how Katniss had tried to give back the Mockingjay pin. Silly.
Gifts had to be practical or Gale wouldn't use them, which Madge couldn't comprehend. And that was part of the trouble right there – he always acted like he didn't need anything, unless it was for their house, which still lay in pieces. For his birthday, he asked for a new putty knife so he could get back to scraping spackle right after they had cake. Instead she'd bought him a monogrammed wallet (she stitched the initials) to replace the one he'd forced together with duct tape, which was still in the box. He said he was saving it for the day he'd have something to put in it since money didn't seem to stick around for long.
Then she'd gotten the putty knife for her birthday, along with the spackle and a few cans of paint.
Madge's sigh comes out in a misty puff of air lost in the swirling snow as the town comes into view. The chilly air smells like snow and road salt as she approaches the downtown area. The evergreen-entwined streetlamps glow with little white hallows in the early darkness outside of the five buildings on Main Street. It was the only street, in fact. Driving, you could miss the town entirely if you blinked at just the wrong moment. Madge passes the gas and service station standing a little off from the others, and then the open parcels where a school and a hotel were meant to go in order to entice more families to move up here. A cobbled sidewalk starts at the town hall that also functions as the post office, police station, fire station, and the garbage disposal service. She sees the jeep Gale drives for the DFW in the municipal parking lot alongside the garages, which means he's already across the street waiting for her at Stubb's Dry Goods and Grocery tucked in between the bakery and drug store.
Madge picks her way across the slushy street after a car passes, then throws off her hood and shakes the snow from her coat when she steps into Stubb's. Her sapphire engagement ring snags on her mitten when she tries to pull it off. After spending a chilly afternoon staining trim in the garage behind their house, her hands have gone stiff, but especially the one that she broke during the War when a Jabberjay smashed it with his gun. Madge flexes her fingers and tries to discretely do the stretches her therapist showed her as she deviates down an aisle.
A burst of scents accost her senses, which is why the candles and oil aisle is always empty. Nobody spends much time in this section without getting a headache. Madge messages her hand until the ache dulls, then she grabs a box of Christmassy-looking cinnamon votives. Her favorite. She justifies the extra expense as a celebratory necessity. After all, they survived their first year of marriage, putting together a house and, well, it's Christmas.
Leaving the candles behind, Madge finds Gale blinking suspiciously at a flock of frozen turkeys in the meat freezers. It's odd, because she felt certain Gale had put a ban on turkey and frozen food alike.
Gale's hands are balled up beneath his arms, which are folded over his chest. A plastic basket hangs from the crook of his elbow and it tremors just slightly. His nose and cheeks are red. At first she wonders if the sight of all the food has upset him like it used to, but as Madge gets closer, she notices the damp smell of his old wool coat. He's soaked through from the snowfall and tromping around in the woods all day. The chill from the open freezer display must be clinging to him like a fangirl on Finnick Odair.
Feeling guilty, Madge notices that the patch she tried to sew over the hole on the elbow of his coat has pulled out of its stitches. They both knew he could do a better job, but she wanted to try. She's silently grateful her mother-in-law is far away in the Underground so she can't see.
Gale's whole body relaxes when he notices Madge walk up beside him. She adds a box of matches and the cinnamon candles to his half-filled basket. Then she slips her hand inside of his. He glances at the brown splotches all over it from the stain.
"Thinking about what you want for Christmas dinner?" she teases, indicating the turkeys.
He glances away from her hand to the case. "I'm ruling out turkey. You?"
"I thought we'd have whatever you brought in." Madge shrugs. That's how it always worked, especially now that he'd gotten a handle on using the rifle that the DFW had issued him. He liked it so much, he bought it off of them so he could bring it home. On paper, he was meant to use it to protect the district from muttations. In reality, he uses it on dinner. Anything with fur or feathers within a reasonable weight – and given the district – doesn't appear to be radioactive. So far nothing on their table ever started glowing.
"Oh. Well." Gale uses his free hand to crimp the hair on the back of his head. "Maybe we should just buy something this time? I never had ham before." He points to a sale sign at the end of the case.
"Ham?" Madge peers up at him strangely. "Why?" Her fingers try to loosen where he's holding them so she can check his forehead for a fever.
Gale shrugs. "I thought I'd cut back on hunting."
"You're coming down with something," Madge says with wide, rounded eyes. "It's this wet coat. How are your lungs? Is it pneumonia?"
Gale's eyebrows pinch together in consternation. "I'm not sick. I just thought I'd use the extra time to get the house finished. I'm sick of breathing varnish."
"We'd better buy a thermometer." She slaps her hand on his forehead anyway.
"Cut it out, Madge. I don't have a fever," he gripes as his hand circles her wrist and pull them away.
Madge frees herself and puts her hands on her hips. "You're lying or you're losing your grip on reality."
She's been through enough of his monologues about his preference for game over meat from the feedlots leftover from President Snow's regime. When the report came out from District all the districts, Gale felt too sick to eat anything but toast for days after reading about the practices in District 10.
Gale pinches her chin between his fingers, which seems to stop her short. "So what if I want fancy store-bought food. This stuff's local." He winks at her.
They have a staring contest while Madge purses her lips and tries to figure out what he's really up to. But his stony expression gives away nothing.
"Alright," she says, deflating. "But it's a major paradigm shift."
Gale laughs. "Just forget it." Then he notices something in the basket. "We're out of smelly candles?"
"Scented candles. There's a difference, darling," she drawls, mimicking their friend Bristel.
"Sure there is. Paradigm shift," he mutters, though he doesn't know what that means. "I already picked out a few gifts while I waited for you."
Madge takes a cursory glance at his basket. "I thought you replaced your screw driver weeks ago."
"I did." He hefts the tool in his hand. "Vick might like one."
Madge nudges him in the ribs with her elbow. "I doubt it."
"Well, I don't have any other ideas," he says, looking down his nose at her. "Squirrels don't ship well."
Madge gives him a grimacing smile as she takes the screw driver away. "Vick's a little old to want a pet squirrel anyway. I ordered Vick a leather-bound sketchbook and a set of charcoals. Like he asked."
Gale snorts. Charcoal and paper, foreign tools to him.
"Who is the duct tape for?" Madge asks.
Images of putty knives and paint cans flash behind her eyes – Gale's practical side taking over. "You are not buying Rory tape for Christmas." She plucks the pewter-colored wheel of tape out of the basket and sets it back up on the display behind them.
Gale stares, no doubt thinking about the ratty rag he calls a wallet. "But it's useful."
"But not fun," she tells him. "Presents should be interesting and meaningful."
"Meaning he should get off of his lazy butt and fix up their house. When they get one," he adds.
"Your mother's waiting for you to tell her to get a house up here," Madge hastily points out. "In the meantime, pick out something else, please."
Gale sighs dramatically. Probably where Posy learned it.
"I'll find something for Hazelle and Posy, then take the rest of this over to the check out. Meet me over there?"
Madge watches Gale lope away, then goes in search of presents.
One purple unicorn Blanket Buddy and a set of soothing hand lotions later, Madge cuts across the outfitting section of the store and suddenly finds herself in the middle of a forest scene. Hunting outerwear. Madge pauses in the center of the jacket racks and runs her fingers down the strange-feeling outer shell of a camouflaged winter coat. If Gale had a coat like this, he could hunt more comfortably. At the park he has to wear his ranger uniform, but he can't hunt in it during his off hours. He'd never feel right buying something this nice for himself to go hunting in. For some reason he feels like his clothes should be worn and shabby, even if he wouldn't let her walk around in a coat like his - which is why he needs Madge to spend it for him. She could buy him one of those orange caps too hanging on a pegboard nearby, then she might not have to worry about him getting shot by other hunters. And he'd be warm. Even though he layers his clothing, she knows his old jacket gets damp and doesn't block the wind – it doesn't even block the draft in the freezer section! Maybe she could get him some new boots, as well. He complains about how his feet hurt wearing his old ones. The insoles probably have as much spring in them as a playing card.
Madge turns over the price tag hanging from the cuff and nearly drops their basket. $189.99!
The cost for that single item leaves Madge feeling dizzy. It has certainly been an adjustment, learning how much things cost in the real world. She grimaces just imagining the look on Gale's face if he were to see that amount of money disappear from their account. The coat alone waltzes painfully close to leaving their spending comfort zone, what with the expense of the house and her physical therapy for her hand, which requires her to travel to the Underground every six weeks. He'd want to know how she spent that money and she wouldn't blame him.
She's not even sure they have that much in their coffers. The gifts for his family will make a dent.
Madge regretfully walks away from the coat display to the checkout counter where a kid about Rory's age, maybe a little older, works the register. He's wearing a wrinkled apron and building a tower out of bubble gum packs. Madge supposes the other 228 citizens of this populous village have already been by the store today. When she sets her basket on the counter, he startles and the tower crumbles.
"Good evening, Mrs. H." He leers at her the way the way scrubby sixteen year old boys will do and she notices a few blemishes cropping up under his greasy nose. "It's a pleasure to see you for the third time today."
"Hello, Cole." She scooches the basket a little closer, but he doesn't seem to notice it.
"Forget something else this time?"
Madge smiles tightly. "Yes, the rest of our Christmas shopping."
"You know, we have these magnetic shopping lists for your refrigerator." He jerks his thumb at a cardboard display at the end of the counter. One she'd seen plenty of times with no interest. "They have the store phone number on 'em. We can pull anything you like and have it ready if you call ahead." He switches postures, leaning heavily on one hip while he skims his finger over the counter. "I'd personally be happy to pull anything you'd like."
Madge's lips twitch before she bites them. "No, thank you, Cole. We don't own a phone yet." Gale prefers to stay off the grid and use his office phone when he absolutely has to.
"Phones in aisle eight. Rotary or wireless. Rotary's on sale."
"Maybe next time."
While Cole rings up her items, Madge pulls out her coin purse and silently leafs through the bills and counts coins.
She eyes the register, then the contents of her purse. Her stomach wilts. She still has to buy Gale a gift and they don't get another paycheck until after the holidays. Her ears turn pink while Cole pretends he isn't watching her struggle. She ends up spilling some of her change onto the counter along with a few receipts.
"Getting ready for company?" he asks as he bags the candles.
Madge glances up quickly, then back down at the coins she's shoving into her purse. "No, my husband and I decided to spend our first Christmas alone at home. We haven't had time to enjoy it yet." Madge bites the inside of her cheek. "On second thought, why don't you put the candles back. And the matches," she replies calmly, despite her embarrassment. She can't justify the extra spending.
Cole bumps an acrylic sign holder with his elbow as he lifts the shopping bag for her to take. A wrinkled Help Wanted flyer was shoved inside of it.
Madge blinks at the flyer. The starting pay is awfully low, but then, Madge isn't sure what a good starting salary is, having never held a job before. She didn't even know how to pay a bill or understand how much things cost until she moved in with Gale. She simply hadn't had to worry about things like prices when she lived with her parents in Twelve.
She calculates the weekly rate in her head and feels a shiver in her spine. It wouldn't take too long to pay off the coat and boots and maybe something extra for Gale. With the house just a few project away from completion and Gale strangely determined to put aside everything to get it done – she'd have time to work outside of the house now.
Madge coughs to get Cole's attention. "Is the store hiring?" she asks.
"Uh." He scratches his head. "Yeah."
"Is there an application?" she prompts after he stares at her stupidly.
Cole pulls out a thick pad of yellow paper from a drawer. Blank boxes and small text completely cover the page. He tears off the first one and hands it to her. Madge quickly tucks it into a neat fold of the Blanket Buddy so it won't get ruined - and so Gale won't see and ask her about it.
"You know," his voice dips down to his toes, "we could work together. When there aren't any customers we can slide across the aisles in tube socks-Oh." Cole's voice loses its inflection. "Hello, Mr. Hawthorne." Gale always gets his full name. Madge never.
"Kid." Gale plunks down a summer sausage gift basket complete with festive ribbons on the counter. He throws down a few bills with it. Finally, something Rory will love. Food and something to carry it in.
Madge feels Gale's hand warm on her shoulder. She can guess the look on his face. She throws all the loose change and receipts haphazardly into her purse and quickly scoops up the bag with their things - all the better to get Gale home faster.
"Merry Christmas, Mrs. H." Cole makes a face at Gale remarkably similar to a frog. "I look forward to seeing you again tomorrow."
"Hell's teeth," Gale mutters, grabbing the handle of the cheese and sausage basket in one hand and steering Madge away from the counter and out the door. "He acts like he knows you."
"We are here every day," Madge points out. It's an unfortunate fact of building a home. You never have what you need on hand.
"What did he want?" Gale asks. "Sounded like I interrupted something."
"Oh, just to go tube sock sliding with me." Not strictly a fib, Madge pulls it off. She keeps the job opening to herself.
Gale's eyes narrow. "Wrong."
"Give me that," Gale grouses, taking the bag away from Madge. He stomps headlong into the snow-covered street toward the parking and woe betide the car that doesn't stop for him. "Kid bugs me."
Madge waves away his ire. "Oh, Gale. He's harmless." She tucks her hands deeply into her pockets and follows, picking her way carefully in case of ice and vehicles who won't hesitate to mow her down even if they veer to avoid Gale. Unfair, really.
"I know, Madge," he grouses, "but the kid's a classic example why animals don't let their runts live."
"Gale," Madge gasps, giving him a stern look, "it's Christmas, remember. Peace on earth, good will toward men."
"What?" she asks. "So Cole's a little strange. At least it's in a sweet way."
Gale stops abruptly in the middle of the street and Madge hastens can catch up. "Sweet?"
"Did you know he's willing to pull anything I want?" she says deadpan.
Gale snorts. "Punk."
Madge rolls her eyes upward as they walk under some telephone wires indicating the sidewalk that's buried in snow. She sighs.
"Let's face it, Gale," she tells him. "We're back to living in a small town with all the colorful, small-town people included."
"Whose idea was that?" Gale asks while he balances the basket on his knee and fumbles with the keys to their jeep.
Madge takes the keys from him and unlocks the hatch. Gale shoves the bag and basket inside the trunk and slams it shut while Madge hesitates to get in the front.
She loops her arms beneath his in a hug while their breath mists between them. "I want to talk about Christmas. Like how we're going to get these presents to your family, since we're not going to see them."
Gale shrugs. "I'll take them to the post office when I go to work tomorrow."
Madge nods. "Do you think we can sleep under the tree?"
Gale wrinkles his nose at the idea, but his arms are tight around her waist. "You mean the tree we brought indoors for no practical reason?"
"Not pra-?" Madge's eyes widen in shock. "Where else would we put presents?"
"I'm still getting over the fact that there are presents."
Madge bites her lip. There isn't one for him yet and they made a dent in her pocket money tonight.
"I saw you watering the tree this morning," she sniffs, trying not to think about money. "I bet you enjoy our tree just as much as I do."
"Do not," he retorts a little too quickly. "Dry pine needles are a fire hazard."
"So I'll make it worth your while," she promises, crawling her fingers up his arms.
Gale's eyebrows cinch together, interested to know what would make sleeping under a tree in his own house worthwhile. "Really?"
Madge grins triumphantly. "Yes, I'll pull anything you want," she says with a laugh.
Gale winces, then laughs. "Madge, you were brought up too well to talk dirty."
"I thought I was getting better." She sulks.
"Well, don't steal lines you heard in the general store, for starters," he teases as he gently pulls away and opens the door on the passenger side door for her.
After they get home, Madge wraps the gifts on the floor while Gale stretches out on the couch. She enjoys the quiet and the soft light from the tree. To save money, she tried to make a popcorn garland for their tree instead of buying store-bought decorations, other than a set of twinkle lights. Gale ate most of the popcorn before she could get it on the string. Apparently the lack of butter and salt wasn't a deterrent for a guy who spent most of his life without either. The rest of the ornaments were made from decorative paper and ribbon glued to round soup can lids.
Beside the tree, there's nothing else in the room but the rug and fireplace. Madge carefully stashes the application under the couch while Gale snores. Later, when he drags himself to bed, she'll fill it out. Madge wonders if it's silly to keep the job a secret from him, but then decides the extra income can be the second half of his Christmas present.
The jeep fishtails all the way home on the snowy road as Madge speeds back from Stubb's. The store closed at noon on Christmas Eve after the last of their customers were finally beaten out by the owner's wife, Mrs. Stubb. Madge just had enough time to wrap Gale's presents before the doors were locked behind her. But she had a little Christmas bonus in her pocket and the exact gift she wanted for Gale piled next to her on the passenger seat; that makes up for missing her morning at home.
She gave Gale some lame excuse as she was getting ready to go in for needing the jeep all morning, which she isn't sure he bought. It will be such a relief to finally tell him about the job. For the last week, she's made up every excuse she could think of for why she wasn't home this morning and why she's falling behind on their project schedule for the last week. Add the fact that she's living in constant terror that he'd show up at the store on his lunch break while she's there in her apron and going over their stock of canned cream of chicken soup, spoiling the surprise.
Madge pulls into their driveway at an odd angle and almost skids into the garage door. She balances the packages in her arms and carefully picks her way up their icy sidewalk leading to their front door. A nervous energy hums in her veins the nearer she gets and it takes all her willpower to force herself wait to make him open his presents.
Madge uses her elbow to knock on the door, since there isn't a doorbell and she can't let go of the boxes to open the door without dropping everything. Her coat muffles the sound, so she knocks again with her boot. She shouldn't have let Gale win that argument, but he felt dead-set against installing a doorbell.
The scent of roasting chicken, cinnamon and wood smoke issue around her in an invisible vapor when Gale finally gets the door. His hair still looks as tossled as when he woke up and his socks don't match.
"Where did you go? District 4?" he asks, taking the boxes without looking at them. "You were gone for ages."
"Sure. Finnick says Merry Christmas." Madge presses a kiss to his cheek while suppressing a smirk as Gale looks over her head to make sure the jeep is still in one piece. She slips past him into the foyer before she gives anything away.
Gale follows her toward the living room where a fire crackles and hisses in the fireplace. Madge stops dead in her tracks on the threshold barely recognizing her own living room. That is – the living room she has now.
Somehow Gale has transformed the space into a completely different room just in the six hours she spent at work. For a split second, she thought she had been transported back to the mansion in District 12 at Christmas time. Granted, one of the small anterooms.
"Gale – where did the smelly – er – scented candles come from?" she gasps as the fire and candlelight from the hearth make the shadows shift along the garlanded walls.
"I noticed you put them back the other day." He shrugs. "I knew they were special to you."
How? Madge never told him that her family always set out cinnamon candles at Christmas. While she'd spent the morning ringing up cans of cranberry sauce and wrapping boxes of cheap perfume in order to give Gale a good Christmas, he'd been doing the same thing for her.
"Do you like it?" Gale asks tentatively. His hand lights on her back, skimming down to the hollow.
Madge nods, taking in the evergreen garlands over the mantle and on the wall, the ribbons and even a little pair of stockings. Her eyes start to prickle with tears. The candles punctuate the either side of a line of Christmas cards from their friends on the mantle.
"Gale, room looks just the way it would when Hanna and I would decorate when I was a girl." Gale sets the presents down on the sofa in the center of the room while she takes off her coat. "How did you know?"
Gale crimps the hair on the back of his head. "I, uh, wrote to Katniss." He shrugs when she blinks in confusion. "I thought she might remember how your family did Christmas, since you two spent the last year in Twelve together so much. You seemed kind of down about something lately, so I thought maybe this would help."
Madge's lips part in surprise. She thought she'd been more discrete while she worried about not having money for his presents. She turns into him and he opens his arms for her.
"It's beautiful. Thank you," she murmurs into his chest. "But where did you get all of the boughs?"
"We had to thin out a stand of fir trees out near the power station anyway," he tells her. "I stored these in the shed while you were out somewhere the other morning." He gives her a mysterious look.
"Oh." Madge swallows, cursing secrets for being so hard – even more so when he's being incredibly sweet. She slips away from him and walks around the tree to put Gale's gift underneath so he can't look at her. When she steps back around, she says, "Dinner smells good. Is it almost ready?"
A muscle in Gale's cheek works a little bit before he answers. "Almost. I was about to do something before I heard you knocking – oh," he says. "Wait here. I'll be right back."
Madge watches him disappear into the hallway, then she hears the door open and close behind him.
While she waits, Madge wanders toward the warm fire and soaks in the festive air in the room. She picks up the first card and reads it again. Bristel and Tansy sent them a fruitcake with a homemade card taped to the wrapping paper. Madge met Tansy when they were both trying to flee from District 12. When they reunited in the Underground, Madge introduced her to Gale's best friend Bristel. That was that.
The card next to it came from Peeta and the Everdeens. He painted a starry night scene with watercolors on a folded piece of cardstock. They still live in the Underground, waiting for the massive cleanup project that is District 12. Madge wonders if that's why Katniss and Peeta haven't married. Though, while there might be peace on earth, both of them still need more peace in their own minds.
Haymitch even sent a note, but it was in a sympathy card with a Christmas tree scrawled on it with a black marker. Madge purses her lips as she looks at it again. It's the thought that counts, her father would say, if he could say anything at all. Madge quashes that thought. She wants to remember her parents on Christmas the way Gale did, by reviving their favorite traditions.
With a sigh, Madge props up a picture card against a snow globe that came from Quintus and someone who might be Nevada Rockbridge, but it's hard to tell because all you can see is Quintus dressed up like a candy striper tugging someone into the shot by a red and white elbow.
With the mantle in order, Madge turns back to the Christmas tree to add last-minute touches to the decorations. Gale did a nice job on the room, she muses, despite protesting that he needed Christmas decorations for weeks and though it seemed to physically pain him to bring bits of tree into the house. She realizes with a start that he had been laying the groundwork for a way to surprise her the whole time – just like she's been deceiving him all week so he would get to surprise him. Although, she doesn't think he was lying about the tree. The house was the house and the woods were the woods. He has a hard time blending the two, which is a source of amusement for Madge.
A timer goes off in the kitchen, distracting her from the tree. Gale's still nowhere in sight, so Madge wanders into the other room to rescue whatever he's cooking.
Just as Madge switches the oven to off, she hears Gale stomping his boots against the bricks outside of the front door so he doesn't track snow all over the hallway. The door creaks open on cold hinges, then slams shut.
"Madge?" he calls down the hallway.
"In here," Madge replies from the kitchen.
She passes into the living room as he appears holding a huge box in front of him like a square baby belly.
"What is that?" Madge makes room for Gale's distended false stomach as he crosses to the couch.
"Package from mom and the kids." He pretends to guess the contents by jiggling the box. He gives her a mischievous grin. "Christmas presents."
"Where did it come from?" she asks. "There wasn't any post today."
Gale smirks. "I hid it in the shed."
"The shed." Madge steps closer with a frown wondering what else is in the shed that she missed this week besides boughs and boxes while she wasn't doing house projects. "Why were you hiding it in the shed? We could've put the presents under the tree."
Gale laughs and sets the box down. "Because you're a snoop," he tells her. "Mom specifically told me over the phone - twice - to make sure you didn't sneak any peeks until Christmas."
Madge opens her mouth to argue this mar on her character, but she has too many hours logged listening at air ducts and through keyholes during her lifetime.
"She wasn't worried you'd peek too?" Madge sniffs when nothing better comes to mind.
Gale gives her a wry look, as if to say it should be obvious that he's got more self-control, before he pulls out a pocket knife and slices into the packing tape. A handful of foam peanuts spill onto the floor when he lifts the cardboard flaps, revealing smaller wrapped packages and a card lying neatly on top. Gale hands Madge the card to read. A crayon portrait of the Hawthornes in stick form drops out of the card. It has Posy's eight-year-old scrawly signature on the corner. Fortunately, Hazelle wrote the letter herself.
Dear Gale and Madge, We're glad to hear that your home is finished. We can't wait to visit and will miss having you home for the holidays. Enjoy the presents! Posy asks that you send her pictures of the snow. Merry Christmas ~ Mom, Rory, Vick and Posy.
Madge folds the letter and gives it to Gale. "Your mother took our request for a private Christmas pretty well," she points out with hint of incredulity. Hazelle is usually a stickler for family time, and after both she, Rory and Gale were involved directly in the war, it reached nigh on obsessive.
Gale glances at Madge. "I think the request coincides with another one of her objectives."
"Which objective is that?" Good housekeeping?
His eyes slide down her body, then away. "Just some senseless notion that those extra bedrooms aren't just for guests."
"We should put the presents under the tree," Madge suggests evasively, slightly mortified by every push her mother-in-law gives them to produce grandchildren. She can't even produce dinner without burning something. She shudders to think of what they'd do to a baby.
While Madge crawls under the lowest boughs to set out the packages in a tasteful pattern and gets pine needles in her hair, Gale gets busy in the kitchen. He pops his head out to ask when the timer went off on the chicken.
Madge has to back out from behind the tree. "Not long," she tells him while she untangles her hair from a branch.
"Oh." Gale shakes his head and retreats back into the kitchen. He comes back ten seconds later just as she's testing the adhesive quality of the tape on one of the gifts. She drops the box.
Gale's eyes narrow. But he asks, "Madge, you turned on a burner instead of turning off the oven. Again."
"Oops." She nudges the box back under the tree with her foot.
Gale rolls his eyes and disappears again for a split second before telling her she'd better come in to the kitchen where he can keep an eye on her.
Madge sighs resignedly and leaves the presents behind.
While Gale puts away the leftovers from dinner, Madge goes around re-lighting the scented candles in the living room.
When he rejoins her, he asks, "What's next?"
Madge blows a strand of hair out of her eyes, and glances around the room. "I thought we'd open presents."
"On Christmas Eve?"
"That's how we did it in my family."
Gale runs his hands down the sides of his trousers and glances toward the front hall. "I'm not prepared," he tells her.
"That's alright." She holds out her hand to him. "Come on. We'll open the ones from your mom and the kids first."
Gale joins her on the floor by the tree. She browses the packages with a finger on her lips, thinking a lot longer about which one to start with than he would've. She selects a lumpy package and hands it to him.
"You go first," she tells him. "This is from Posy."
Gale tears the paper in two and out falls a velvety red, triangular cap with white faux-fur trim and a tufty white ball on the end of the triangle. He stares at it hard.
"What is this?" he asks, holding it up between pinched fingers.
"A Santa hat," she tells him with a broad grin.
Madge takes the cap from him and fits it over his head. "There."
Gale glowers as the tufty pompom lands on his nose. "I look like an idiot in this."
"You look great," Madge giggles.
"Oh yeah?" he says darkly, "what did she send you?"
Madge selects another package and opens a box containing a brand-new doll. Madge laughs and hands it off to Gale. He examines the doll. "I can't tell if she's hinting about nephews and nieces or that she'll need something to play with when she comes to visit."
Madge shrugs. "Let's go with the visit theory for a while longer."
Vick's gift comes in a thin envelop with cardboard. Madge opens it carefully and pulls out a series of his own artwork for them to hang up in their living room called "Home."
They depict some of Vick's favorite scenes from Twelve. Odd angles and views painted from the perspective of a little boy. The first is a coal sketch of half-wilted tree growing in the lot behind their old home in the Seam. Then a view from just above the long grass in the Meadow. One that startles them both: Gale's back disappearing into the woods beyond the fence.
The final drawing shows a blur of children playing on the school grounds during recess. It directs the eye toward the left corner of the drawing to where a younger Madge reads a book on a bench by herself.
"Kid's observant," Gale whispers as he studies the woods through the blue-gray chain links of the third picture. "I didn't know he ever saw me leave through the fence."
"He even captured your swagger," Madge points out.
Gale swaps his picture out with the one of her on the playground. "You weren't very social, were you?"
"That's why Katniss and I got on so well." Then she adds, "It's hard to make friends when your dad's the mayor."
At one time Gale would've said something sarcastic, but he's developed some manners since they escaped from District 12. "Well, what did Rory send?"
"It's for both of us," says Madge. "You open it."
Gale unwraps a box and stares at it in puzzlement. "A mounted fish? Where did Rory get a chance to fish?"
Madge shrugs. "Take it out of the box."
Gale does and pulls off the bubble wrap around the plaque. "What does this switch do?" He flips the switch and jumps a few feet away from the tree when the fish comes to life. The fish lands on the floor, flopping feebly as it sings:
"Take me to the river,
Drop me in the water…"
"Hell's teeth, what is that thing?" Gale asks from behind the couch. "A mutt?"
Madge gives him a pointed look for leaving her defenseless with a potential mutt while she calmly picks up the box to read. "Big Mouth Billy Bass. Singing animatronics." She waves the plaque at him. "I think we're supposed to hang it on the wall."
Gale scowls. "Absolutely not."
"Come out from behind the couch, Gale," she orders, patting the rug. "You still have to open the gift from your mother."
Gale glowers suspiciously at the package Madge puts in his lap when he settles beside her, far away from where Billy Bass landed.
Luckily, he receives a pair of gloves and thermal underwear, neither of which sing at him. Fortunately.
Meanwhile, Madge frowns thoughtfully over Hazelle's gift to her.
"What is it?" Gale asks.
"Piano music," Madge murmurs. "Hmm." She smiles weakly, wondering what she's supposed to do with it. "Nice of her." Then she takes a deep breath and sets the music aside. "Well, that leaves your present."
Gale looks at her strangely. "Wait, let's do yours. I have to bring it inside though."
Madge blinks at him. "Let me guess…the shed?"
He gives her a self-deprecating grin. "Just wait here." He gets up quickly and strides toward the hallway. Then he stops and pivots around. "Maybe you should close your eyes."
Madge moves to the couch to wait and practice getting her face right when she opened up another box of floor tiles to replace the cracked ones for the bathroom or maybe a new furnace filter since they hadn't replaced this year's yet. It won't bother her, whatever he's gotten her. His real present to her was the effort he took to make her feel like she had a bit of home for the holidays. She closes her eyes and nearly falls asleep listening to the fire crackling.
Then something crashes against the front door and Gale's muffled curses cause Madge to peek in the direction of the hallway. A gust of wind blows out some of the candles.
"Do you need help?" she calls. It sounded heavy. Floor tiles.
After more grunting and swearing, Gale wheels a long cardboard box, cut out at the bottom and coming up to his hips, into the living room. His Santa hat sits askew and his clothes are soaked with snowmelt. In one movement, he wheels it toward the big picture window facing the river and the woods and removes box from the top of it.
Madge jumps up from the couch and circles a beautiful console piano. Much smaller than the baby grand she had as a girl, but much more welcome.
"Oh, Gale," she breathes as her mind does cartwheels trying to transition from tiles to pianos. Her fingers gently dust over the keyboard. The cold ivory feels intensely familiar, yet at the same time, completely outside of the life she's grown accustomed to with Gale.
"I thought we could keep it under the window here so you can see the woods when you play." He grins. "Like it?"
Madge cups her cheeks in her hands and stares at it. "Of course. But how on earth did you pay for it?"
She tears her gaze away from the piano when he hesitates.
"Er, it's second hand," he evades, squeezing her shoulder. "I figured now that the house is about done and your hand is on the mend, you'll have time to play. Maybe you can give piano lessons like you always wanted. One of the guys at the station is interested. He's got a little girl."
"Oh, Gale." Madge repeats, biting her lip. She'd signed away whatever time she had and, well, she'd rather not think about it. "I…maybe you should open your presents."
Gale makes short work of the paper and tape. As he lifts the flap on the box, his eyes widen just slightly.
He whistles. "A coat." He stares in awe at the tags for a while and Madge feels relieved that she blacked out the prices. "I've never had anything new like this."
Madge brightens. "I know you haven't," she says. "Try it on."
Gale reverently lifts the coat from the box and tucks each arm into the sleeves, letting her help him into the coat. Slowly, she zips it up to his chin and clasps each of the snaps. Then she rights the Santa hat for him.
"See," Madge points to the pockets and hide-aways. "It has all of these zippers so you can keep hunting…er, stuff…in them. And the outer shell is waterproof and can come off if you only need the fleece. Now you won't be so cold when you hunt."
His face pinches, but he quickly irons out his features as she smoothes out the material over his shoulders. "But where did the money come from? I've tracked every penny we've spent. This had to cost…" His eyes water a little as he calculates the possibilities.
Madge takes a deep breath. "Gale, I've been keeping a secret from you."
"I know," he says deadpan, eyebrow quirking upward as if on cue.
She twists her hands together nervously. "I-I got a job. It's a surprise for you."
Gale looks blinkered and sinks down on the couch. "A job?"
She nods. "At Stubb's. I didn't have any money to buy you a Christmas present and I wanted to get you something nice," she says in one long string of words. "With the house just about finished, I can help pay for expenses."
Gale scratches the back of his head, thinking. "That's what you've been up to." Then his eyebrows knit together.
Madge bites her lip. "You aren't mad that I kept it a secret?"
"Uh, no," Gale replies absentmindedly as he fiddles with the zippers on the coat. Then his eyebrows pinch together as he focuses. "So, no piano lessons?"
Madge shakes her head slowly as his train of thought collides with the one she had earlier. "Not until I pay back what I owe for your presents. I, well, I took it out on credit."
"Credit." Gale shakes his head, then lies back on the couch. He tucks his hands under his head and starts to laugh, which startles Madge.
She pinches her elbow. "What's so funny?"
Gale rubs his forehead beneath the hat, then looks at her affectionately. "I sold back my rifle to help pay for the piano."
"Y-you did?" Madge sits down by his side as the import of his words sinks in. "So, not much hunting?"
He shakes his head. "Not at the moment."
"Oh dear." She exhales. "We have muddled Christmas. We got it so right that it sort of went wrong."
"Not wrong, just…we'll figure it out." Gale pulls her down next him on the cushions. "In the end, we got what we wanted, didn't we? The house to ourselves." He smirks. "I can use the piano as work bench when you're at work."
Madge grins, although she'd never allow him to do any such thing with a nice piano. "And I'll know which hunting gear to recommend to customers," she tells him. "My husband loves gore-tex. It really holds up in the front closet."
Gale sits up on his elbows, nose to nose with Madge. "Wait, does that mean you'll be working with Cole?"
"Only on the weekends." Madge gives him a conciliatory kiss on his nose.
Gale gives her a sly look, in exchange. "I should let him know there's an opening at the park."
Madge's eyebrow arches. "Is there?"
"Yeah, we need someone to hold the targets up at the archery range."
"Gale," she scolds, but her heart isn't in it.
The fire crackles on the hearth and the sparks fly upward, the orange glow catching on Madge's hair. Gale's fingers smooth a stray strand of her hair as he cradles her against his chest. "Merry Christmas, Madge," he murmurs.
Madge rests her head on his shoulder, breathing in the scent of the pine tree and his warm skin. Even though their house has some more work, she feels like she's home. "Merry Christmas, Gale."