A drink. What I need is a drink, I think as I make my way through a dimly lit tunnel. I ignore the grimy floor and occasional guttering fluorescent lights. Neon signs flicker on filthy doors, proclaiming the establishments open, advertising various forms of liquor, and boasting of girls, girls, girls. In the back of my mind, I know that this place would have horrified me three years ago, but after all I've seen fighting in the war, I'm used to such places. Places where I can forget.
In the back of my mind, I know that after the hovercraft landed in District 13, dropping me off after an eighteen-month tour of duty, I should have gone to see my family. I know they must be wondering if I have come home this time, if I'm hurt or alive or left in some ditch with the other dead rebels in what's left of the Capitol.
I was resolved, excited even, to hug my mom again, twirl Posy in the air, and wrestle with my brothers. But then Katniss ran off the hovercraft, shooting past me, and flew into the arms of Peeta Mellark. They were a jumble of twirling arms and laughter and kisses. And Katniss was smiling. Not the bemused smile or sarcastic grin she throws my way when we make grim jokes on the front lines. No, this was a smile of pure joy, her eyes alight with love.
I had known for years that Katniss was in love with Peeta, ever since he had been rescued from the Capitol and she wouldn't leave his side until he was healed. I had long ago given up hope that she would ever love me the way I had loved her, and so I went back to being her friend, burying my feelings until I thought they no longer existed. But now, three years after Katniss had started the rebellion by destroying the Quarter Quell arena, feelings of loneliness and betrayal bubble hotly inside me as I see Peeta swing Katniss in a circle and hear her laughing in his arms.
At that moment, I turn away from the corridor leading to my family's rooms. Instead, I punch the elevator button down to the depths of District 13, down where unsavory pursuits flourish, where men like me go to drink. And to forget.
A momentary twinge of guilt swoops through my stomach. Rebel soldiers sign up for eighteen-month tours, and I have just completed my second. I haven't been home, as far as District 13 can be called home, in a year and a half. And that too was only a brief visit after I had completed my first tour of duty. I know I should go see my family since I have been away so long, but all I can think of is Katniss kissing Peeta, and I continue my search for a suitably quiet bar, a place where I can drink away my sorrows without seeing a familiar face.
Back in District 12, I could never have imagined that I would ever turn to alcohol for comfort. I had been too focused on survival back then. But once I entered the war, I began to focus on survival of a different kind, a mental survival. There were horrors in war I couldn't have begun to imagine in my worst nightmares: political prisoners mutilated beyond recognition by the Capitol, women caught in crossfire, children accidentally maimed during fire bomb drops, and friends and fellow soldiers killed in battle, their intestines spilling out of their guts or their limbs blown off.
I think back to nights in the barracks, hearing soldiers screaming in their sleep, thrashing about, and even crying. I had learned at an early age to control my emotions, but even I would wake with a start in the middle of the night, tense and sweaty, head pounding from the nightmares. Alcohol became a necessity to get through the war. And women became a necessity too, to help me forget my anger over losing Katniss. There were never any serious relationships, just occasional quick flings in the back of a truck or on a mess hall table, to work out my frustration and loneliness.
I shake my head, trying to push back all the thoughts swirling through my mind. I stop in front of a seedy establishment with a painted wooden sign reading The Black Heart. It looks fairly quiet, perfect for my brooding mood. I push open the greasy wood door and make my way straight to the bar.
"Whiskey," I tell the bartender, a fat man with an oily face, filthy apron, and bristly, untrimmed black whiskers. "Leave the bottle," I say as he drops a glass full of amber liquid in front of me. He shrugs, and the bottle drops next to the glass with a thud a moment later.
I take a long pull from my glass, closing my eyes and grimacing as the whiskey burns down my throat. A moment later I begin to feel a pleasantly fuzzy sensation and smile. I pour myself another glass. I allow myself to think of Katniss and Peeta. I know that I am only hurting myself, but the pain feels grimly satisfying, like picking at a half-healed scab or worrying a swollen tooth.
I've made my way through my third glass when I feel a suggestive rub on my shoulder. "Hey handsome," a woman purrs in my ear. I turn slightly to give her a look: half drunk, teased brown hair, small waist, and fake curves. Typical barroom fare. "My name's Starla," she hiccups, "mind if I join you?"
"Sure," I say, pouring her a drink in my glass. I take a pull straight from the bottle as I push the glass towards her. Time to forget about Katniss.
"Thanks, stud," she says, plopping herself straight into my lap. "I do love a man in a uniform…and with stubble," she adds, sliding her hand along my cheek, roughened with two days of growth. I catch a glimpse of myself in the glass of the bottle I'm holding. My black hair is disheveled under my tilted sergeant's hat, there are dark shadows under my eyes, and my uniform jacket is unbuttoned revealing a white undershirt. I look like a mess.
Starla giggles boozily as she drinks, clearly not put off by my uncouth appearance or lack of conversation. Suitably relaxed after drinking the half-bottle of whiskey, I finally take a moment to look around the place. There are several solitary drinkers like me at the bar, a few groups of two or three drinking in the dark corners of the room, and a table in the middle where a group of men play a rowdy game of cards and laugh loudly at their own jokes. A solitary waitress makes her away around the bar in a tight black dress and knee-high black boots. Only her long, wavy blond hair stands out in the smoky room, a bright spot in the dimness.
"Hey Margie!" one of the men playing cards calls to her, slurring his words. "Another round!"
The waitress waves to the man, indicating she's heard him. She walks to the bar, balancing a tray heavy with empty glasses, half-finished plates, and crumpled napkins. She sets the tray on the bar and begins to empty it while the greasy bartender fills mugs of beer for her to take to the men.
"So what's your name, handsome?" Starla asks, pulling my face back towards her.
"Gale," I say absently, taking another pull at the whiskey.
"Well, Gale," she says, taking my hat and putting it on her own head, "you want to get out of here?" she winks slyly from under the lip of the sergeant's cap.
"Sure," I say, not really listening. "Let's get some more whiskey first." I turn to the barkeep in order to ask for another bottle. The waitress has just finished loading her tray with mugs. She hefts the tray, and as she does, flips her hair back to reveal her face.
I squint in surprise, not sure if I'm seeing things. She looks older and tired, but I know I'm not mistaken. I look at her for a second more before I blurt out, "Madge?"
AN: I know there isn't a lot of Gale/Madge love out there, and I am more of a Gale/Katniss person myself, but seriously people, these two are fun to write together! Thoughts?