AN: For Ceylon205, who asked for more Peeta/Katniss and Madge/Gale love. I am happy to oblige. Thanks for beta-ing!
Note: This story is a bit of fluff written for fun; please read it as such. I am in the middle of editing this story again. Thanks for your patience!
The Great Escape
The Underground, Former District 13
Year 78, Capitol Reckoning.
The canteen stands pretty empty tonight. And quiet. That's okay with me. Waitressing is not my idea of a good time, what with the aching feet and finicky eaters. Lousy tips. But I need the work if I'm going to pay for private quarters instead of the provided dormitory where most of the wards and people without families live. I tried that out for a couple of months, at first. But the large, crowded rooms filled with other young women sleeping, talking, shuffling around at all hours made me want to jump in front of a gun. So Haymitch helped me find a job, after I bullied him a little. Mentioned my aunt. Dropped the word duty.
He became my unofficial guardian when I reached the Underground with the other District 12 refugees. There wasn't really anyone else. I don't have any living relatives. The closest tie I have with anyone is Haymitch, because of my aunt. And he's not entirely reliable, but it's better than being a ward.
When the rebellion was in full swing, I worked in the infirmary. But now that we're on the brink of a treaty with the flagging Jabberjay forces, they don't need as much help from the inexperienced, like me. So, here I am at the Priest Hole, one part ritz, two parts dive, able to scrape enough together for my own quarters on Level 9, and save a little extra for something special: Aviation lessons – my ticket out of this underground metropolis I've called home for the last three years.
Tonight's shift is nearly over. I'm clearing off the last of the battered tables and booths of their peanut shells and crumbs, busing dirty dishes and napkins back to the kitchen just around the corner, when I see a young man wearing a black and white Mockingjay uniform I hadn't noticed before sitting alone at the bar. He's nursing something dark, while Bartel, the bald, gargantuan bartender loafs at the other end of the counter, wiping it down with a striped rag.
I smile to myself and walk over. "You're not usually here by yourself," I say, ditching the heavy tray on a chipped, wooden table with a mermaid carved into it by some amateur.
Peeta looks up from his drink, blond hair falling into his eyes. "Hey, Madge."
"Hey yourself." I slide onto a stool next to him. "What've you got there?"
"I don't know." He lifts the glass to his nose and sniffs the amber liquid, then hands it to me. "Bartel just took a look at me and handed it over."
"You're a trusting one." I take a curious sip. "Uck. Bourbon. You okay?"
"Just thinking." He shrugs, and tries to choke down a sip of his drink. It makes his face contort.
I chuckle. "Thinking about what?"
He runs his finger around the rim of the tumbler, weighing his words. "The usual."
A thin, self-deprecating smile barely creases his face. "Yeah, I guess."
Can I read him, or what? Not that it's hard. Peeta's always made his devotion to his girlfriend very plain. "Care to talk about it?"
Peeta quirks an eyebrow, then points at my apron. "You got the time?"
"I'm off in a few minutes." I gesture over my shoulder. "Let me get rid of that tray and I'll be right back."
"Okay," he says.
Bartel drops the rag and gives me a curious glance when I get up and step around the corner of the bar, but I wave him away. He shrugs his bulky shoulders, nearly tearing the silk vest he's wearing, and goes back to polishing. I grab a new glass and some ice, pump a shot of syrup, then fill it from one of the taps.
"Here you go," I say, sliding it to Peeta. "On the house."
Peeta blinks at the drink. "What is it?"
"Phosphate. Strongest ingredient is caffeine. Tastes better, too. A real, old-time drink." I grin. "We usually make it for kids when they come in with grownups."
"Kids, huh? Ouch." I throw a cherry in for garnish and Peeta smiles for real, making the skin around his blue eyes crinkle. "Thanks."
"Sure." I return the smile before I leave the bar. "Be back in a bit."
Once I step through the swinging door in the back, I yank at the strings holding the apron on, and throw it on a hook. My black dress and leggings need straightening, and a quick dusting off of crumbs that accumulated there. Then I bid goodnight to Sykes, the manager when I'm done cashing in my tips. He waves vaguely in my direction with his head bent over a stack of invoices piled on a small, creaky table.
"See you tomorrow, Prisca," I call to the cook, her frizzy white hair just visible through the window into the kitchen.
Now, time to find Peeta. He's still on the stool, but this time he's struck up a conversation with Bartel. The fizzy drink is half-gone and he's cracking open a peanut shell from a basket that Bartel put up.
"…so I guess that's why I never have to shave." He stops, throws a peanut in his mouth and chews.
Bartel purses his lips, nodding at whatever the reason is behind Peeta's unusual lack of grooming. The two make an interesting picture. Bartel, with his bulky body, and shiny pate. Scars on his cheeks. Large, meaty lips. Except for the wax on his head and the quality of his clothes, Bartel looks more like a moonshine-horking goon than a top shelf cocktail connoisseur.
Peeta, on the other hand, looks like the kind of guy that likes to drink cherry soda. He may not be built like Bartel, but his shoulders are broad, and his shirt doesn't hide the definition in his arms and torso. Not a bad looking guy, although my tastes tend to fall in the tall, dark, and handsome category. When his hair falls into his blue eyes, he still looks sixteen. And Peeta's smile is as sweet as ever. Maybe a little rarer, and his laughter is harder to come by, but he's still good. Despite everything.
"You ready, or do you want to find out what brand of wax Bartel uses?" I ask, leaning against the polished wood counter. Bartel gives a delicate, indignant sniff through his pug nose.
"Right. Thanks for the peanuts," Peeta says to the bartender, sliding off the stool.
"See you tomorrow night," I say, and Bartel makes a shooing gesture with his hand.
We walk for a little ways along the sterile, white corridors without a particular destination in mind. My eyes follow the irritating red line painted at hip level. I guess it's a warning that zoning out while staring at the white walls will lead to collisions. Thank you, Underground. At least they bothered constructing the smooth façade that keeps this place from looking like the cavern that it is and installed full spectrum lighting fixtures.
The levels of the Underground were constructed to mirror Panem, with thirteen floors that in some way reflect the corresponding district. Not all of them do, serving some other function. Right now we're on the fourth floor of the Underground. Not a lot of fishing or boating going on here. Apparently, District Four contributed its coastal drinking culture to the climate of this level, which has more taprooms and licenses than all the other floors put together. In fact, we're passing by the Broken Oar, named after its historic aboveground counterpart, with a chipped sign reading, "A sunny spot for shady people." Only, somebody took exception to the sunny bit, and hacked away at it with a knife.
Folks in the Underground don't have a sense of humor about things like that.
But enough griping.
"So, what's on your mind?" I finally ask Peeta.
He shrugs. "I'm sort of at my wit's end with Katniss. I guess I thought that since we're only weeks away from signing the peace treaty, that life would be better for her and me. That she wouldn't be so distracted, and I don't know, happier?"
"Isn't she?" I ask. I haven't really had a chance to see her yet.
"For a little while," he says. A worry line forms between his eyebrows. "She isn't under so much pressure. But the last month, it's like she's in a coma or something. She zones out for a couple of minutes, at first. Yesterday I spent an hour talking to myself while she gaped at the wall."
"Really?" Katniss can be sullen when she's unhappy – okay, even when she is happy (it's a Seam thing)– but it's not like her to check out. The only other time I remember her like that, she found out that the Capitol held Peeta in its clutches. "Maybe you should rethink your use of stimuli."
I blush. "That's not what I meant."
"It's not just her, either," Peeta continues, watching me from the corner of his eyes. "Gale's doing it, too, since he completed his tour."
My steps falter, but just for a second. I don't think Peeta noticed. I think.
Ugh. Gale Hawthorne. Talk about an infatuation gone sour. I've barely seen him in the three years that we've lived in the Underground after our home district burned to ashes. We'd become friends, I thought, after he saved me from burning to death. But we've barely spoken to one another since he found out Katniss was alive, and the war started in earnest. Once in a while he's home when I'm visiting Hazelle – the surviving D12 crowd tends to stick together – and he looks at me, and I think he's about to say something. But then this face turns to stone. He usually leaves after that point.
What could possibly come of that? I used to hope…I don't know what I hoped. After three years, you wouldn't think that I'd still be rehashing this in my mind. There must be something wrong with me. A chemical imbalance or whatever. A lack of UV rays? Maybe I need fresh air for fresh thinking?
"Um, Madge?" I snap out of it, realizing that Peeta has been talking to me. "Please not you, too."
I grin sheepishly. "Sorry. I'm back. How long have they been like this?" I ask.
"Like I said, about a month," he replies.
"Hmm." I purse my lips. "And it's getting worse?"
"I'll say," he groans. "I don't know what to do, she just sits there sometimes with no expression on her face. I try talking, but nothing works. Not even Prim can break through to her, and I don't have to tell you how bad it is if she can't get a response out of Katniss."
I nod. "Do you have an idea as to why it is?"
Peeta scratches his head. "The only thing I can think of is that they've been in the Underground longer than usual. I don't think Katniss and I have spent more than two, maybe three weeks down here at a time in the last three years."
I stop walking, and can't quite hide the sarcasm in my voice. "So…she's got a bad case of cabin fever?"
"Maybe," Peeta says, lifting his hands uncertainly. "Makes sense. She's cut out for the woods and open air. But if that's it, then I don't know what to do about it."
"Could you take Katniss to Level 11?" I ask.
"Yeah, get Katniss to hunker down for a picnic in an artificial cornfield." Peeta snorts. "I don't know, Madge. All she has to do is look up and see the cavern ceiling to kill the mood. If the irrigation system doesn't do that first."
I run a hand through my hair impatiently. "I guess."
We walk in silence for a while longer until we eventually reach the end of the Level 4. Instead of walking in a loop again, Peeta punches the button for the lift and we wait. When the door slides open, we step in and I hit the key for Level 9, one of the floors for civilian quarters.
"You headed home?" I ask.
"No," he replies. "I'll walk you back. Then I need to bug Haymitch. Maybe he'll have a suggestion."
I choke down a snort. "I'm sure he'll have loads of suggestions. But will they be useful?"
Peeta smiles. "Probably not. But I figure they gave him an office on Level 1 for a reason."
I bite my lip. Level 1 – of course!
Peeta jumps a little when I grab his arm. "Wait. I…have a plan. It's kind of illegal, and would require some creative borrowing –"
He balks. "You mean theft?"
"Whatever." I wave my hand dismissively. "But I think I can make it work. Here's the deal…"
To be continued...
Thanks for reading