A/N: Thanks you all for reading and letting me know what you thought of the story. It's been fun.
Chapter 23 "Epilogue"
Stay With Me, Go Places
Meanwhile…back in Twelve.
Gale rubs his forehead, hoping to wipe away the headache forming there. Between having to listen to Ain't No Rest for the Wicked drifting back from the Hobgoblin's cockpit for the dozenth time and the Mellarks arguing in circles, he's a frazzled man.
"But Katniss, we can't live away from the bakery. That's unheard of," Peeta tries to explain calmly, even as he starts mangling the paper bag of frosted cookies he brought for Prim.
In District 12, merchants always lived above or behind their shops. Nobody could afford to keep two buildings, but that's not exactly a problem for Family Mockingjay with the government subsidizing their existence.
"A Mellark always lived in the town bakery ever since the Dark Days."
Katniss and Gale glance at each other over the map they have unfolded across each other's knees. They sit next to each other in the row of three seats, leaving Peeta pressed up against the window. At least the view is nice.
"I don't want to live in town," Katniss repeats blandly.
The sound of a cookie crushed to crumbs comes from inside the bag on his lap, a bit like Peeta's sanity and dreams. "But the bakery, Katniss…"
"Nobody's going to walk off with it while you're asleep." She takes the bag away from him and stows it under the seat in front of Gale, which means he can't put his feet there anymore. He glowers, then thrusts his left leg under the seat in front of Katniss's and his right leg out into the aisle. It's not like anyone's coming anyway.
"But where will we live?" Peeta continues plaintively.
Gale clears his throat and points to a ridge on the west side of the district. "They're selling parcels here."
"In the woods?" Peeta asks.
Katniss and Gale glance up again.
"Peeta," says Katniss reasonably, "the woods aren't as dangerous as you think. It's not like in our Games when Gamemakers stocked it full of monsters."
"I'm not afraid," he says stoutly. "I just think we need to be near our business. Plus, there's the baby. Living that far away from town and all…did you know that the slightest change in body temperature could indicate a fatal infection in a newborn?"
Katniss touches her barely-discernible stomach underneath her tunic. There's the slightest wrinkle of worry on her forehead. "Peeta, that's still a ways off."
Peeta's deaf to her reasoning. "And then we'd need medical assistance," he continues. "Which, yeah, I guess we could trek through the woods with a sick baby to get to your mother – who lives in town." Peeta knows Katniss's weaknesses, one of which is caring for the ill. Her stony expression belies a cold dread, Gale bets. "I mean, unless you can handle a crying child with a raging fever…do you even know where to check for a temperature?"
Katniss stares at Peeta, then narrows her eyes. "Do you?"
Peeta pushes his hair off of his forehead. "Yes. You aren't going to like where it is," he says earnestly. If Gale had said that, it would've been a taunt.
When she turns to Gale to enlighten her, he jabs his thumb in the air, in the exact same gesture he used to mean Up yours, Peacekeepers.
Katniss glowers at Peeta like it's his fault. "In the backside? No."
Gale starts folding up the map because the planning session has officially dissolved into nonsense. "Other option: have Prim move in."
Katniss and Peeta don't look at each other. "That could be awkward," says Peeta.
Gale blinks as the implication sets in; the Undersees are contagious that way. "Hell's teeth," he grouses at the both of them. "Show a little restraint."
Katniss glares at Gale, but Peeta says, "We were finally going to have uninterrupted evenings again—" He stops, realizes who he's talking to, and stuffs a cookie in his mouth that managed to fall out of the bag when Katniss snatched it.
Okay, so Gale and Madge were maybe a little enthusiastic about getting free meals and more pastries than they had a right to eat when they started dating. The trouble is, Henry kept getting underfoot. If they made dinner together, Henry'd be there. If they wanted to christen more of Gale's unwrapped furniture, he'd bring over the Rob the Hob board and insist they play. (Gale still doesn't know how Henry got his apartment number. Madge wouldn't look him in the eye when he asked.) They'd run out of options! Gale knew Katniss probably wanted to move into a secret broom closet after the first month of them always dropping in, but Gale figured Peeta at least had to enjoy having company around. Guess he figured wrong.
Gale's half-tempted to tell Peeta that his feelings are hurt just to jerk him around, since Peeta probably cares about that kind of thing. But then he'd have to pretend to be a marshmallow around another guy and he can't stomach it. Katniss would see right through him anyway.
"I'm heading back to my seat," he says instead. "You two figure this housing thing out on your own."
Just as he stands up with his map, the pilot calls back to warn them all to keep their seat belts on as they hit some mild turbulence. Gale ignores it in typical fashion and cracks his skull on the overhead compartment when it feels like they just ran over the atmospheric equivalent of a cow. Gale swears and rubs the top of his head while he shambles back up the aisle to rejoin Madge and Henry. Whoever put the hovercraft together didn't have the tall Hawthorne men in mind.
Gale shrugs back into the aisle seat next to Madge. She folds up a Panem newspaper and tucks it in the chair pocket in front of her.
"I'm back," he mutters.
She squeezes his hand where it lies on the armrest between them. "Any progress?"
He pinches the bridge of his nose while he answers. "Nope. They still don't know where they want to build a house. Or if they want to build a house. Or if Katniss will be able to take PeeWee Mellark's temperature."
"Haymitch said that many of the Victor's Village houses are still vacant," Madge replies.
Gale pushes against the headrest, which is more like a neckrest to him. "Sounds like paradise," he mutters.
"I know they'd hate the idea," Madge continues despite his surly tone, "But they already had homes there, it's not quite in town and Katniss can still disappear to the woods when she needs to. I doubt anyone would contest their claim to the houses."
Gale could rag on about the Victor's Village, but relents. She's only trying to help. "They're running out of time, so they might not have a choice unless they want to rough it at the hotel or live with her mother again."
The hotel isn't for tourists, of course. Panem hasn't improved that dramatically and there's nothing of interest to attract anyone in Twelve anyway. The "Mockingjay Birthplace" obviously burned with the district. So much for the tour. The hotel was built for refugees needing a place to stay while they find out if they can or want to move back again and where to build.
Although, some like his family just squatted on Victor Village property until their homes were built. The Everdeens were already lodged in Katniss's home and Hazelle took over management of Haymitch's place where she had worked for a short time as housekeeper instead of using one of the vacant lots. When Gale questioned her about it the wisdom of that choice, she claimed she already knew her way around the house – especially all the best hiding places – which she used to hide the money he sent her since district security hadn't quite caught up with the returning refugees. And then, Haymitch clearly wasn't coming back anytime soon, so she didn't have to worry about fighting over the place.
Of course, that's what Gale always used to think about himself, too. Not coming back. Goes to show how wrong a guy can be.
"Look at how much they've rebuilt of the square," Madge exclaims at the view from the hovercraft window, giving them a panoramic view of the district. The town looks dusty as ever, but not with soot. They can see the outlines of finished buildings and the skeletons of new ones, homes most likely.
Madge frowns. "The square looks so strange without the Justice Building."
"Well, it's been several years since they started building again, my dear," Henry points out. "And I think that structure will hardly be missed."
Despite the relative emptiness of the patch town sprawl in the Seam and the row houses in Town, Twelve looks just how he remembers in the early autumn because he's looking beyond the border of the district: it's sunny still, a little warm and dusty because the rains haven't hit yet. Gale's eyes hungrily take in the cool hills just starting to hint at golds and russets, wondering if the current citizens of Twelve have maintained the fence or pulled it down for good. Some of the perimeter around the district shows scars from the fires, but the forest recovered quickly over the last five years, drawing the wounds into itself and covered them in green. Hazelle said the Meadow came back right away, somehow healthier for the fire. The colors of autumn wildflowers choke the stretch of grassland with whites, yellows and purples. He can already hear it calling his name.
The hovercraft dips to the side as the pilot circles the landing pad, losing altitude and speed.
"I think our house got knocked down, Daddy," Madge continues quietly. "Something's there, but I can't tell what."
"I doubt much could be saved," says Henry resignedly. He stopped looking out the window first.
Madge leans back in her seat, squinting at the seat in front of her while she tries to school her features into indifference. She slips a couple of times. Gale bumps her knee with his, but she pretends not to notice. She can't possibly have thought that the mansion survived the incendiaries, but knowing about something doesn't always mean the one's prepared for it.
"Okay, Madge?" Gale whispers.
"Fine," she replies crisply. She starts gathers their things before he can get her to tell the truth. She pulls her carry-on out from under the seat. "Dad, I think we'd better apply sunscreen before we land. After living underground for so long the doctor said our skin will be extra sensitive."
Henry turns his nose up at the bottle she tries to hand him. "How's a lotion supposed to protect against the sun better than staying indoors?"
"You won't want to stay indoors all the time we're here, Daddy," she points out. Then she turns to Gale. "Do you have the hotel reservation?"
Gale frowns. "It's in my pocket, Madge. Like I said when you asked the last two times. It'll be fine."
"And the gifts for your mother and brothers. You packed those right?"
Gale gently grasps her chin. "Madge, it's your day off. In fact, you have an entire week off. Stop being the manager."
"I'm not being the manager," she sulks.
Managing's what she does when she's nervous or agitated, Gale's learned. And to think she'd called him bossy, once.
"I was never good at taking time off either," Henry remarks, earning a reproachful frown from his daughter.
"They never let you have time off, Daddy," Madge says sharply, freeing her chin from Gale's grip.
Henry purses his lips. "Well, there is that."
"Everyone just sit back and relax," Gale orders, shuffling his long legs around the tiny space between him and the seat in front and growing exasperated. He noticed that Henry had the same problem during the flight. "We're just going home."
That doesn't help much. This is the trip they've been avoiding for half a decade. Madge reaches out to hold her dad's hand while the hovercraft touches down. Then she reaches for Gale's. He gives her hand a gentle squeeze, letting her know he's all right and she should be, too.
"I could get used to flying," Henry observes when the pilot gives them the clear to get out of their seats, "if I didn't have the peculiar feeling that my stomach's in my throat during the landing."
Amen, Gale silently agrees. His stomach still feels like it's stuck in his throat. Although, that could be because he just glimpsed his family for the first time in far too long. And not just his family, either. The Everdeens have come out to welcome Peeta and Katniss home. His adrenaline kicked in as soon as he saw that group of black and gold heads, making it hard for him to think past the cloud of nervous energy surrounding him.
Gale unbuckles himself and gets up to stretch while Madge tries to force antiemetic pills on her father. He glances at the window across the aisle from their seats, where he can see them all standing at the edge of the landing pad. Prim, the shortest blond stick figure, alternates perching on one leg, arms hugged round her middle and seeming to bob up and down.
"You better get off first," Gale calls back to Katniss and Peeta who are already on their feet and their things gathered down from the overhead bins. "Prim's going to fly away any moment."
Katniss bends at the waist to look through her window and grins. "Poor little duck."
"When will you tell them?" he asks, since Peeta and Katniss made a point to keep the baby a surprise for when they got to see her family in person. He wouldn't admit it out loud, but Gale would kind of like to see their faces when they find out. He always liked to eavesdrop on Prim's happiness back in the day; it made Seam life less grim.
"Tonight, I guess," Katniss replies, still watching Prim bob up and down. "We're supposed to have dinner with your family."
Makes sense, Gale reflects. Their families sort of blended together when they started hunting years ago. Hazelle always acted like Katniss was just another daughter. The fact that she looked more like Posy than Prim helped the illusion.
Peeta takes Katniss's bag and nudges her toward the exit. "If we get out there you won't have to look at Prim through a window," he laughs. "And Prim can give her legs a break."
Gale ducks into the row of seats so they can pass him.
Captain McFarlane, who also serves as flight attendant and purser, appears from the cockpit to open the door for them and signal to the ground crew to help him lower the airstair. He hands off the Mellark's bags to unseen hands and ushers them out of his fuselage.
Peeta and Katniss disappear with a jaunty, "Thanks for flying Quintus Airlines! Keep flying with me and one day I'll be able to afford a stewardess."
Gale turns back to Madge and Henry with a grin. "Wanna see this?" He gestures for them to look out the other windows. Madge squeezes in next to him in the same row so he snakes an arm around her waist, wrinkling her blue linen dress while they witness the first reunion.
Prim bounds across the tarmac, leaving her mother in her wake, and bowls into Katniss, who trips backward into Peeta. Fortunately, he catches her. Gale can't hear, but he imagines that there's some happy bawling on Prim's part and affectionate yet wooden, "There, there's" on Katniss's. Peeta makes a remark that they both laugh at just as Mrs. Everdeen finally catches up. After a brief hesitation, she gives Katniss a hug, then Peeta.
Mrs. Everdeen's eyes narrow shrewdly at Katniss once she steps back. With a glance at Peeta, she says something that makes Peeta scratch the top of his head and Katniss's eyebrows shoot up. Peeta glances back at the hovercraft and says something to the others and ushers them off of the landing pad, possibly averting having to reply to whatever Mrs. Everdeen said. Prim snags Katniss's hand and her mother's, towing them along before remembering that Peeta might need help with the bags.
"Chalk one up for Mrs. E," Gale laughs. "I think she figured out their big surprise. Didn't take too long either."
Henry gives Gale a knowing look. "Parents are occasionally perceptive," he remarks.
Gale's smile droops. Doesn't he know it?
Madge gulps. "I think it's your turn now," she says to Gale. He follows her line of sight to where his family still waits, making his chest stutter. He doesn't know what Madge is so nervous about; he's the one with a reckoning to face.
He rubs the back of his neck. "I guess."
The pilot clears his throat, making them all jump, having forgotten about him. "Thank you for flying Quintus Airlines," he calls. "Please get off my hovercraft."
Gale has to let go of Madge so they can edge between the seats, back into the main aisle. He pulls down their bags from the overhead compartments and passes them to Madge and then to Henry.
"Feel free to leave the blonde," Captain McFarlane quips. He leers as Henry leads Madge and Gale to the exit. "Er, the short one."
Madge blinks before it occurs to her that she's the short one. Then she blushes and follows her father out onto the airstairs. Someone from the ground crew takes their luggage so they can climb down using the railing.
"Quintus," Gale grouses as he passes.
The pilot quirks a studded eyebrow and smiles pleasantly. "Hmm?"
The pilot winks at Gale and ushers him out the door with a little extra oomph.
Gale blinks in the sunlight for a second while his eyes adjust to the brightness, then he takes the stairs two at a time. Rory crows to get his attention. Gale nods stoically in his family's direction, hoping for an orderly and understated reunion. But once he reaches solid ground, he's immediately swept up by his rowdy brothers and sister. Good thing the Undersees ducked out of the way. Katniss only had Prim to contend with, but Gale has these three scamps.
Posy leaps at Gale when he's barely managed to get out of the Hobgoblin, but she's twice as big as she used to be. She knocks the air out of him when she faceplants against his stomach and grips him around the middle like a vice.
Oof! Her wiry little arms sure have a strong grip. "Posy!" he gasps. He makes the mistake of exhaling, which allows her to squeeze him tighter like a boa constrictor.
"You're home! You're home!" she chants excitedly while he gets vision spots.
Yeah, and he's now seriously reconsidering the wisdom of this decision. He chooses to blame it on Madge for bewitching him. Especially when Rory and Vick hold an unspoken contest to see who can pound his back harder. He'd never sign up for this kind of abuse. And since when did Vick have biceps or know how to throw a punch? The kid always got his nose wiped in the dirt at school, and Rory and Gale had to dust him off and take care of the bullies. But one wouldn't know it from the very real – ow – force he's using right between Gale's shoulder blades.
"He's so clean and shiny," Rory says to Vick, teasingly as he gets Gale in the kidney.
"Smells good too," Vick remarks with a wry curve on his lips, "that's a nice change around here."
"All right, knuckleheads," Gale grouses, still being suffocated by Posy and having his teeth jarred by the thumping on his back. "Cut it out."
Rory laughs. "Make us, Shorty."
"I'm still taller, stronger and meaner than you," Gale boasts, though Rory gives him a pretty good thump on the back that makes his head snap back. Darn kid.
Rory's about as tall as Gale now, just eighteen years old. He's a little unnerved when he remembers that that's how old he had been when the Capitol reaped Katniss and their lives changed so dramatically. He didn't think he looked as young as Rory does. And then there's Vick, seventeen, who had been standing quietly next to their mother during the landing. He's the most sensitive and serious of his brothers – of all the kids – but you couldn't tell right now. Posy's as high-strung as Gale used to be. She's nearly eleven and looking more like Hazelle every day. That's worries Gale quite a bit. He'll have to speak to Rory about keeping a sharp eye on her.
"Vick, Rory, let your brother alone."
Hazelle approaches Gale slowly, wearing a pretty kind of dress that he always associated with the ones Mrs. Everdeen kept hidden away when they were younger. He'd seen a lot fancier, but on his mother it looked almost formal. It feels nice to think that she could buy herself something like that now. Her hair shows the first signs of gray Gale's ever seen though, and her pale eyes water. He thinks the latter that might be his fault.
Rory and Vick have the sense to get out of their mother's way. Hazelle pries Posy off of Gale and then she clasps his face between her soap-and-water-rough hands.
"Hh," he greets between squished cheeks.
"Don't you ever wait this long to come home again," Hazelle admonishes, never blinking her stern, gray eyes. "Do you hear me, Gale?"
Gale feels the alarming hint of a blush creeping up his neck. "Shrry, Mhm."
Like Posy, Hazelle hugs him tight enough to crack a rib and Gale lets her. When she lets go, she wipes her eyes, making him feel like a two-inch-tall jerk. Albeit, deserved.
"We've discussed it. Vick will stay in Posy's room, so you can have his bed," Hazelle tells him, getting down to business now that the emotional nonsense is out of the way. "Posy will stay with me."
"I have pink sheets," Posy giggles, making Vick scowl at her. She grabs Gale's hand, just like years ago after she annoyed the younger boys. He was always base, like when they played tag. Her brothers couldn't touch her if Gale was around.
"I'm sharing with Rory," Vick grumbles.
"Who cares if she has pink sheets. We didn't win this war so I could go back to sleeping with your knees in my back, Daisy-May," Rory snipes.
Rory thwaps Vick upside the head.
"Boys," says Hazelle, putting an end to the bickering.
Gale glances in Madge's direction. Henry and Madge stick closely to the hovercraft and luggage, trying to politely pretend that they aren't eavesdropping on the Hawthorne family reunion. He frowns before he has to disappoint Hazelle.
"Look, Mom, Vick can keep his room." All four of their heads snap to attention. "Er, I'm staying at that new hotel you told me about."
Hazelle stares at him in surprise. "But why?" she asks. "We have room and it's so expensive to stay there."
Gale runs his fingers through his hair, scrunching it in the back. "Well…this is just a short visit. It won't cost that much," he says, glancing at the hovercraft again. "I'd stay with you, but I'm not alone."
Hazelle's perceptive eyes scan the young woman who Gale's eyes keep wandering back to. "And who's that?"
Gale glances back over his shoulder, then clears his throat. "Uh. You remember the Undersees," he says stupidly. Of course she remembers the freaking mayor. He tucks Hazelle's arm through his and leads her toward them. Posy trips along beside them, still holding Gale's other hand. Madge smiles shyly when they're near.
"Mom, this is Henry Undersee," he says. "Henry, this is my mother, Hazelle Hawthorne."
Henry holds out his hand to shake Hazelle's. "It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance, ma'am. Gale has told us quite a bit about your family."
Hazelle is a bit thrown off by Henry's formality, and perhaps by the fact that he was once the mayor. The only time he'd ever shaken her hand was after her husband had been killed. But she gives him a gracious smile and welcomes him back to the district.
Gale touches his mother's shoulder to direct her attention to Henry's daughter, saying, "And this is Madge Undersee."
Hazelle studies Madge closely. "I think I remember seeing you once or twice in the Seam," she says thoughtfully. "With Katniss. I thought you were Prim the first time, although you were taller."
"You have a good memory. Katniss took me to the woods with her and we had to cut through the Seam." Madge turns her smile on Gale, "I'm hoping to see more of them this week."
If Hazelle had any suspicions about Gale and this young woman, they are confirmed by this. She waves over her other two boys who have been standing off to the side.
"These are my sons, Vick and Rory, and my daughter Posy."
Henry shakes hands with them, and then Madge holds out her hand to do the same. Vick looks like he's never seen a woman's fingers before. Rory smirks and doesn't let go until Gale thwaps him upside the head.
"I like your dress," Posy croons, which is a welcome distraction for Madge from the mildly violent nonverbal communication between the Hawthorne boys.
"Thank you," Madge replies with one of her slightly confused smiles. "You have a pretty dress too…and I have just the thing…"
Madge fishes around in her purse before pulling out one of the ribbons she bought as a gift for his little sister. It's purple, just like the little flowers on Posy's cotton print dress.
"For your hair," Madge explains.
Posy's eyes grow round like saucers. "For me?"
"Can I help you put it in your hair?" Madge asks.
Posy turns around for Madge to gather her blue-black hair into a ponytail and tie the ribbon around it. When she finishes, Posy turns around so Hazelle and her brothers can see. The boys are not impressed.
"You look very nice," Hazelle tells Posy, though she glances up at Madge with amusement. "Now, what do you say to Madge?"
"Thank you for my ribbon." Posy beams as she fingers the knot of satin at the back of her head.
"I hope you'll both have dinner with us tonight," Hazelle says to Henry. "The Everdeens will be there. I'm sure you remember Katniss's mother and sister."
"We'd be delighted," Henry replies after a nod from Madge. "Mrs. Everdeen was a childhood friend of my late wife's."
"Well, we'd better show you where you're going then," Hazelle continues. She turns to Gale. "Of course, we'll have to show you our new place, but you'll want to see the hotel first."
"That's right," Gale replies, shouldering his bag. "We want to drop off our things before we do anything else."
"Boys, help the Undersees with their luggage," Hazelle orders.
Henry and Madge try to protest, but their luggage makes it halfway across the landing pad without anyone paying attention to them. Henry shrugs and offers Madge his arm. Posy snatches Madge's free hand, which means she's found a new best friend.
Gale frowns as Madge gets snapped up by everyone out from under him, but shrugs it off and starts walking with his mother. They fall behind a ways, but Posy seems to know where she's going and his brothers aren't that far ahead, so he lets it happen. Besides, he needs to talk to his mother.
"So, what's it really like living here now?" Gale asks. "Your letters were sort of vague."
Hazelle looks over at him with an arched brow. "You mean you actually read them?"
"Just because I didn't always reply doesn't mean I didn't read them," he grumbles, attacking the hair on the back of his head. She probably thinks her letters are all in a pile in a mailbox somewhere.
"Stop that," Hazelle orders. "It makes your hair look a mess."
Gale drops his hand. "So?"
"So…it's different here." Hazelle sighs. "Emptier. A bit chaotic with the clearing away and building. But…I don't know how to describe it. I suppose it feels like we don't have to hold our breaths all the time."
"The indoor plumbing certainly doesn't hurt either," she continues with a laugh.
Gale grins. "Sitting in the lap of luxury."
"We are," Hazelle agrees with a small smile. "The boys have taken to carpentry, though I don't know if Rory will stick with it. Posy has school to keep her busy now and there are plenty of construction workers who are willing to pay for laundry services. I'm satisfied."
They walk on through the dusty road leading toward the new buildings. Gale shoves his hands in his pockets while he takes it all in. The few new roads could use some trees to keep the sun from beating on everything. In fact, he'd say the place needed more greenery in general. Maybe it wouldn't be so dusty if it had something to hold the ground together. That's something the district always needed. Ahead, the new village sticks out of the earth like a butte on a plain. Seeing it looming closer with each step makes him feel uneasy because he just doesn't know what to expect. Maybe that's what kept him away this whole time. He's from Twelve, but this place isn't his Twelve where he used to know the system, even if it had been a lousy one. Now he has no idea what the system is and how it all works. He's a stranger.
"Gale?" Hazelle murmurs, his name full of meaning.
"I don't know what my next move is, Mom," he answers the rest of that unspoken question. "It depends."
Hazelle sighs. "We're doing very well here. It's still a bit barren, but it's home." She pauses and sighs again, causing Gale to cringe. "But it doesn't feel right when you're gone."
"I know you want to keep the family together, but—"
"Not just for my sake, Gale," she tells him. "Your brothers and sister need you too. And I'm worried about you. Gale, you've been running from one thing to the next ever since the war. That can't be good for you."
"I'm not running around anymore."
Hazelle gazes thoughtfully ahead, willing to let him have this round. He'll be her captive audience for the rest of the week anyway. "So, you've brought your friends."
Gale clears his throat. "Yeah."
Hazelle laughs. "You aren't going to admit anything, are you?"
"I don't have to," he groans. "You always guess."
"That's my job," she says, patting him on the back.
Hazelle just shakes her head and lets him keep himself to himself. She never did push him, even if her letters could sometimes come across a bit strong.
"Catch up, slowcoaches!" Rory yells back.
Gale and Hazelle both pick up the pace. The road narrows as it heads into the development. A boardwalk begins where the first building stands leading into the square. Gale and his mother soon overtake the Undersees and Hawthorne kids. They're in time to hear Madge explaining the role of the District Outreach Office in supplying the construction companies in District 12 with lumber, bricks and other supplies needed to rebuild. Anything from nails to guns to generators are approved and moved through their hands.
"After the war, it wasn't clear who owned what. The Capitol, of course, controlled the industry in every district beforehand. In order to keep industries running and workers paid, the new government still maintains that control until they can come up with a democratic method to open up these companies to workers who can then become shareholders and have a say in how the businesses run."
"When will that happen?" Rory asks thoughtfully. "As far as we know, nobody's even talked about reopening the mines out here. It's like Twelve just fell off the map."
Madge shakes her head. "I'm not sure, Rory. Unfortunately, the only people who can afford shares right now are the jerks who oppressed the districts to begin with. We maintain the contracts between districts so that everything is distributed properly, but we don't involve ourselves directly in the industry."
"What do they expect us to do then?" Rory grouses. "If folks keep building out here but can't make any money, we'll be worse off then before the war."
"That, unfortunately, is true," Henry says cryptically.
Rory's eyebrows furrow angrily. "What I want to know is—"
Gale clears his throat and everyone looks back at him. "Maybe some other time," he says to Rory. "Madge is supposed to be on vacation this week, not holding an expo for her office."
Rory shrugs indifferently and keeps plodding on down the boardwalk. Eventually the buildings on each side of the road fall away to the new square. Some of the lots still stand empty, while others have signs and clean windows and merchandise. Gale marvels at the brightly painted doors and pristine facades. It's nothing like the faded and worn-down square he remembers. There's a post office, grocery store and Peeta's empty bakery. Even a butcher shop, but he doesn't glance inside to see if Rooba made it or not. Lists were made at one time with the names of district survivors, but he never could finish reading them.
"This is near the spot where the sweet shop used to be, I think," says Madge sadly as she passes in front of a green door.
It opens and a woman with blond hair scraped into a bun on top of her head steps out with a broom in her hand to clean off her section of the sidewalk. She steps back into the doorway to let them pass, nodding in greeting.
"Hazelle," she says. "Warm day, isn't it?"
Hazelle nods graciously. "Good afternoon, Dinah. The breeze is coming out of the south."
Gale cranes his head around to look again. "Is that Mrs. Prewitt? Her family owned the hardware store," he says when they're out of earshot. "You speak to her?"
"Her family still owns the hardware store," Hazelle replies casually, pointing at the window display of home repair kits. "As you can imagine, they're doing a good bit of business."
Gale gapes at her. "Her husband tried to thrash me once when I came in to trade a couple blackbirds for hammer. He didn't give me time to explain that I had something to pay with. After that I always went to the Hob for broken tools."
"We're a smaller community now, Gale," Hazelle reminds him. "It's different. Nobody really thinks of anyone as a townie or from the Seam."
"She means we're all poor now," Rory gripes. "No matter where we live."
Gale gives him a stern look. "I thought your carpentry apprenticeship was going well, though."
"Apprentices don't make anything." He shrugs.
"Meaning, Rory spends anything he does make," Vick chimes in.
Henry and Madge stop suddenly and Gale has to pull up short to avoid plowing into them.
"What is it?" he asks.
"Well, I'll be darned," says Henry. "That's a sight."
"That's the New Inn," Posy whispers loudly. "It's like a palace."
Gale doubts that, but it does look nice.
The New Inn is a two-story whitewashed wooden pile facing into the square, situated in the exact spot where the Justice Building used to loom over the cobbled court. A bunch of terracotta flower pots line the edge of the long covered porch, filled to bursting with yellow and orange marigolds, and some with red and yellow centers. Cheery.
Madge follows Henry up the three steps into the shade of the porch. It's lined with rocking chairs and a bench swing at the end. Three ceiling fans swirl the warm air around over their heads.
"This couldn't create a more opposite and inviting atmosphere than that awful building," Henry remarks. He stands in the center of the porch with a stony expression on his face, no doubt remembering the years he spent in the confines of the Justice Building, dispensing the Capitol's so-called justice.
The Hawthornes wait outside in the chairs while Gale and the Undersees check in with their bags. The warm September air stops at the threshold of the dim lobby. A long desk commands the center of the room with stairs leading to the second story rooms on its right and a hallway leading back to the kitchen and dining room to the left. No one's commanding the desk, and Gale's just about to shout for someone when Madge points out the bell.
Gale eyes it with disfavor. "Fancy."
Madge rolls her eyes and rings it. "You said you liked fancy."
"Hang on out there!" A blond man who's thin as a rail and twice as tall appears. Madge leans into Gale to whisper that she recognizes him as the old deputy who used to work for her father. He approaches from a back room, coming around the desk. Before looking up, he pulls out a plastic bin full of hats, throws one on that reads Manager above the brim and then finally extends his hand in welcome to his hotel.
"Bless my soul. Is this Mr. Undersee?" he exclaims with genuine delight once he's bothered to actually look at his guests. "I wondered if you'd ever come back. How are you, sir?" The man shakes hands with Madge's father.
"Tolerably well," Henry replies. "Good to see you, Knotts. What's the news around here?"
Knotts taps his nose and shrugs. "We've been busy. I'm a member of the district council, hotel manager, fire brigade, and I run the bingo club." He jabs his thumb at the bucket of hats. "Bureaucracy around here dictates that I wear appropriate dress for each one."
"That's a lot," says Henry sympathetically.
"Well, we had no idea you were coming back," Mr. Knotts says brightly.
Henry nods. "Just a short visit with my daughter. You remember Margaret?"
The hat on Knott's head lifts a bit, like his eyebrows pushed it up. "Of course. How are you, young lady? Quite grown up." Before Madge can form a polite reply, Knotts rushes to the banister along the stairs. "Just wait till my sister…Maudie?" he shouts, "Maudie! Get down here! Look who's turned up."
Quick footsteps patter down the floorboards upstairs as a middle-aged woman with streaks of gray in her blond hair appears at the top. With a feather duster in one hand and a small trash bag in the other, she stares down at the group at the front desk. "Well, I'll be," she breathes. "It can't be the old mayor, can it?"
Henry gapes. He stares like the feather duster just told him the time. Eventually, he clears his throat. "Hello, Miss Knotts. Er, Maudie. Er, what a lovely…hotel."
Gale glances at Madge who blinks back at him. She shrugs.
Maudie discards the feather duster and trash bag, then smoothes the fabric of the cotton smock buttoned over her dress. "Thank you," she says as she descends the stairs. "We're rather proud of it. You look well."
Henry's ears turn pink. He's at a loss to reply, so he doesn't.
"Hello, Madge," Maudie says with a warm smile, unperturbed by Henry's behavior. She turns her eyes on Gale and he's surprised to see that they're gray rather than blue. "And who's this young man?"
"I don't suppose you ever met my boyfriend," says Madge. "This is Gale Hawthorne."
Maudie's odd eyes light up with recognition. "The hero of District 12."
Gale swallows, understanding Henry's discomfort all of a sudden.
"Gale, this is Maudie Knotts," Madge continues. "She worked as my father's secretary."
"Pleased to know you," Gale says, shaking her hand.
"Likewise," says Maudie. "Welcome back."
Then she turns to Henry, saying, "We began to fear that you'd never come back."
Henry twiddles his thumbs behind his back. "Well, it's been a difficult few years."
Maudie nods gravely. "We heard about poor Marigold. I'm so sorry for you both," she says, giving Madge's shoulder a squeeze.
Brother Knotts sputters back into motion, as though recalling something. "We've put in a district memorial garden where your house used to stand," he explains to the Undersees, more enthusiastic than rational. "You'll want to see it, of course. Come with me."
For an awkward moment Madge and Maudie both hesitate, before Madge steps in to save her father from an uncomfortable situation. "Perhaps some other time, Mr. Knotts." She tucks her arm protectively around her father's. "We only just arrived—"
Henry brushes her away. "Nonsense, Margaret, I would like to see the memorial very much," he tells the Knotts. "Lead the way." He holds his arm out for Maudie before turning to Madge. "Coming?"
"No, thank you," Madge says weakly.
Madge watches them walk out of the hotel with obvious concern on her face. She takes a step toward the door, but doesn't make it farther than the bags they left on the floor.
Gale comes up behind her, squeezing her arm. "He'll be alright." In fact, it seems to Gale that she's the one having trouble with the idea of some memorial where her house used to be.
"And if he isn't all right?" She bites the inside of her cheek to stave off the sudden anxiety.
Gale turns her toward him and gently squeezes her arms. "Well, then he has two of us watching out for him." Out of sensitivity to Madge, he refrains from pointing out the noticeable spark between Henry and his old secretary, which seems to suggest that a third person might have an interest, as well. "And I'm watching out for you."
Madge's eyes water. "Thank you."
"I'm more worried about your father walking off with the people who are supposed to give us rooms," Gale jokes, lifting a heavy eyebrow toward the desk. "Do you think Henry'll be upset if we change the reservation to only two?"
"Of course not," she replies with a knowing smile, finding her sense of humor again. "He'd love to have you for a roommate. It will save money."
Gale's smile droops. "Not what I had in mind."
"You can stay up all night playing Rob the Hob and telling each other secrets." Madge laughs, feeling much better at Gale's expense.
"Hurrah," he mutters.
Madge pats his cheek. He waves her off and reaches over the counter for the register showing the diagram of available rooms. "We could just sign ourselves in," he says. Then he looks up with a wolfish grin. "Honeymoon suite."
He turns the register over for her to see.
Madge folds her arms across her chest, squints at the register, then laughs. "It's already reserved," she points out.
Gale's eyebrows scrunch together. "What? For who?"
Madge points to the corner of the square indicating Room 306. "Mr. and Mrs. R. W., see?"
Gale snorts unhappily, then his eyes widen. "Wait, they're not booked until the end of the week—hold on a minute. What are you giggling at?"
Madge bites down hard on her bottom lip, but laughter keeps escaping. "N-nothing."
"Madge," he growls in warning.
Madge covers her lower face with her hands, eyes trying desperately not to give anything away but it's no good.
Gale crosses his arms and gives her a stern look. "Out with it."
"It was supposed to be a surprise," she garbles into her hands.
"What?" He peels her hands away so that he can hear her clearly.
Gale studies her carefully, which causes her to nervously fiddle with her hair. "Madge, who booked that room?" he asks steadily.
"Um, good question," she says breezily. "Ha ha."
He nearly steps on her toes as he inches closer to loom over her. "Do you know who R. W. is?"
"Um," Madge swallows, "Maybe Reginald Winterbottom?"
"Reginald Winterbottom?" he repeats with complete surprise.
She shrugs. "Maybe he found a wife after all?"
Gale gives her a shrewd look and she gives him a crooked smile, complete with her nose wrinkled up in embarrassment.
"Maybe if you ask very nicely," she teases, tapping his chest with her finger, "he'll let you trade rooms? If you want."
"That depends," Gale's voice reverberates in the scant space between them. "Does the room come with Mrs. Winterbottom?"
Madge laughs, a low sound in the back of her throat. "I doubt she'd have you."
Gale grabs Madge wrist, pulling her flush against him for a kiss, which seems to suggest that he believes she will have him. Madge yields and lets him part her lips…
Footsteps over the floorboards announce the arrival of another person in the lobby. Gale shoots an annoyed glare toward the door while his lips are still playing with Madge's. It's his sister. He didn't reckon he'd been back long enough for her to start bugging him, but he figured wrong.
Posy Hawthorne puts her hands on her narrow hips, and says in a matriarchal tone, "Gale, Mom wants to know why you're still in here when the Knotts have gone." And then she squints her eyes at the gloomy room and says, "What are you doing?"
Gale pulls away from Madge and clears his throat. "Scram, kiddo."
"Not until you come," she snipes. When she doesn't leave, Gale kisses Madge again, with sound effects.
"Ew." Posy grimaces, sticks out her tongue, then spins around to go tell on them.
Madge steps away from Gale, fixing her hair. "Was that really necessary?"
Gale smirks, making a grab for her. "Yep."
"Gale," Madge scolds while rolling her eyes. "How old is your sister?"
Gale purses his lips, doing the necessary calculations in his head. "About eleven."
"We've ruined her," Madge groans, pulling away from his grabby hands. "We'll check in later. Let's not keep your family waiting." Then she adds, "You know, I think your mother suspects that we're together – I have a feeling Posy's about to confirm it."
"That's obvious." Gale laughs, picking up their things to pile behind the desk until they come back. "But I bet she doesn't know we're here to announce a toasting."
Madge grows quiet again. He straightens up when the last bag's in place. She's staring out of one of the windows. The tip of her tongue smooths over her reddened lips in an artless way that Gale finds distracting.
"What are you thinking?" he asks her.
"Gale," she says pensively. "If this trip goes well…maybe we'll come back here?"
Gale's eyebrows shoot up to his hairline. "To live?"
Madge nods. "With Katniss and Peeta here eventually, and your family, too," she says. "I didn't expect to feel this way, but now that we're really here and seeing it again, well, it's home." She shrugs. "Maybe."
"What about your career, Madge?" he has to ask. "You don't want to throw that away, do you?"
Madge gives him a sheepish look. "Would this be a bad time to tell you that I gave notice?"
Gale looks confused. "Did you have something else lined up?"
"I've thought about that… and I talked to Peeta. I'll have an aneurism if I work for Haymitch much longer." She says self-consciously, "I've been thinking about reopening the sweet shop my family used to own. Peeta and I want to go into business together."
Gale kisses her forehead. "Well, it's an idea." He'll give her his conditions later – no living above the sweet shop. His manhood would die if his brothers started calling him the candy man.
"And you'll have the woods to keep you busy," she adds quickly, holding is arm. "With all the building around here, I bet they'd like a surveyor they know and trust."
"You've got this all worked out," Gale quips. "You know, I thought I'd have to convince you."
Madge blushes. "Well?"
Gale isn't Bristel. He doesn't want his kids learning about the trees through storybook pictures or thinking they come in pots. He's tired of breathing canned air. Even with nineteen years of bad District 12 memories up his sleeve, living with Madge in these rural foothills would be an improvement over living in the woods with the Flannel Shirt Squad or living in the sewers of Thirteen with a fancy job.
And maybe it has a lot to do with coming home and the autumn and the way Madge looks at him, but he has a feeling that this is just the end to the story that he wants.