Disclaimer: I do not own the Hunger Games.
In the month since I had returned home, I came to realize something. Everything was different.
Home did not feel the same anymore. It felt strange and foreign as if all its familiarities had long since flown away, leaving in their place the hollow illusion of what had once been. My own home remained the same as always - large and imposing, the only warmth being in the kitchen - but even that felt different now. It felt tainted. I soon came to realize that it wasn't District Twelve that was different. It was me. I had changed since I had left, and now nothing seemed right.
Moving away from home was a strange experience. My father had helped me load my possessions into two battered suitcases, and together we walked the mile to the Victors' Village. The houses here were as large as my father's but they lacked life. They seemed stagnant and empty. The Capitol had paid some people from the Seam to come and clean the houses thoroughly prior to Gale and my move-in date. They had opened the windows and aired out all of the rooms, and paint had been smeared on all the walls, erasing the mildew that had grown there over decades of neglect. My suitcases and I safely delivered, my father had turned to leave, but I had grabbed his hand and he had paused.
"We're not that far away, Madge," he had reminded me, "and you are welcome anytime you want. It is still your home too." I had clung to his arm for a moment, and he had waited patiently for me to relax.
"I know, Dad," I said. Satisfied that I was going to be okay, he had pressed a tender kiss to my forehead and waved goodbye, leaving me in the too large, too empty house. I felt truly alone then, for the first time in my life. I was sixteen years old and no one wanted me anymore. Not my parents and not Gale. What was wrong with me?
Rationally, I knew that I was depressed. It was obvious, even if only to me. On the outside, I feigned indifference to people's distance. Why would I need company now when I had never outwardly wanted it before? Why would I want someone to comfort me and talk to me about what happened when most would have just wanted to forget? Someone who would ask if I was able to sleep through the night without waking up drenched in sweat and a scream still lingering in my throat?
When I was younger, I had marveled at my mother's ability to stay in bed all day when she was troubled with her then infrequent migraines. It had seemed unfathomable to me that someone would choose to spend their existence cooped up in a dark room under a mountain of blankets, but now I could see the appeal.
I spent the first fortnight in my new home cocooned in my bedroom, only leaving when absolutely necessary. My thoughts and I needed to be alone for a while; we had a lot to think about. However I soon grew resentful of my own desire to separate myself from the world. I may not have wanted to leave my room but I had to.
I soon settled into a careful routine. I spent my days like I had spent them before the Games – in solitude. I woke, alone, after an unsatisfying night's sleep, dressed and prepared my breakfast. Most mornings I couldn't eat, though I always prepared the food. it had become a sort of ritual- the cutting of bread and spreading of butter.
Mostly I sipped black coffee and nibbled on the crust of the bread that I had purchased the day before at the Mellarks' bakery and stared out of my sitting room window toward the circle of houses that made up the Victors' Village. Haymitch's house always sat dark and unwelcoming like it had since Haymitch had moved in twenty-five years ago. Weeds grew up around the base of the house and dead ivy hung around each window frame. Every morning, I made a mental note to remind him to get someone in to fix that up when I next met him, but I hadn't seen him in weeks.
The Hawthornes' house was the perfect antithesis to Haymitch's. Every morning, no matter how early I got up, I could see welcoming, buttery light spilling out of every window. The garden was neat, and there were even a few shrubs growing in the earth despite the fact that we were now facing into winter. Every morning at precisely eight-thirty I would watch as Gale's siblings, Rory, Vick and Posy, whose names I had come to learn, would leave the house together. Their mother would stand on the doorstep in her dressing gown and wave them off to school. Gale would sometimes walk with them, but I would find myself unable to watch those mornings, turning away from the window as soon as I saw his tall figure emerge from the door frame.
Gale's rejection still stung, made even more painful by his lack of attempts to make contact with me. I might as well not have existed in his own personal universe anymore. How could he forget so quickly what had passed between us? I certainly hadn't. The moments that we had shared together were forever imprinted in my mind, and no matter how much I tried, I could never forget the feel of his lips on mine or the comforting words he had whispered in my ears. He had promised to protect me, sworn that we would stay with each other forever. How was I meant to know that all that was lies?
The worst were the mornings that Katniss appeared with Gale and his siblings, obviously having spent the night or at least arriving earlier than I had risen. I tried not to let this bother me, she was his 'cousin' now after all, and it would not seem strange that she spent the night at his home. Whenever I thought too deeply on the topic, which was embarrassingly often, I felt my cheeks burn with shame. I sounded like a clingy-ex that the girls in school had often bemoaned. They used to throw around words like "creep" or "stalker" and at worst, "obsessed". I didn't want to be one of those girls, so blinded by my misguided love that I read too far into everything, but sometimes I couldn't help it.
Katniss had been acting different toward me too since my return, a fact that hurt me more than I would've thought, especially since I had already guessed at Gale's feeling toward her. We had been friends before the Games; well, at least I thought we had. I had assumed that she would at least want to know about what had happened between Gale and me in the Games, but she never asked. Now, our exchanges were limited to that of polite nods and tense smiles when we met on the road - her heading toward the Victors' Village to visit the Hawthornes and me toward Town. Could she sense that I was tainted now? A killer after the Games?
After my coffee, I would go for a walk, generally toward Town and visit my old home. It was a nostalgic thing mostly, considering my dad was at work, my mother in bed and the cook busy with one task or another. I would sit in our parlor and play the piano softly so as not to disturb my mother. My fingers would run over the keys, bringing my heartache and nightmares into manifestation. I felt at peace then, these stolen moments where I could forget that everything was changed and I was no longer the Victor, simply Madge, the Mayor's daughter, quiet, unassuming and impossibly innocent.
On my walk home, I would stop into the grocers and buy something for dinner that night. Then I would stop in the Mellarks' bakery. Stepping into the warm, bread filled room was always a pleasant change from the cold, sooty air outside. One of the baker's sons, Peeta, the youngest and one that I knew the best, would smile and say hello before wrapping up my usual order. I was careful here, like in the grocery, to give him more than the bread was worth and then shake my head when he moved to return it. As the Mayor's daughter I had never worried about money, but the money I had was never mine. Now that I had access to my own funds, I did not hesitate to give generously to those around me. They needed it more than I did.
My evenings, I spent in my house, the wood that was delivered to my house each week stacked in the fire and lit. I would sit on the couch, wrapped in a warm blanket reading a book about a faraway time, before the dark days when things were simpler and there was no such thing as the Hunger Games.
I closed my book with a snap when I heard a knock on my front door. Why would anyone be at my door? It was cold and the first snowfall of the winter had occurred the night before, covering District Twelve in a fluffy white blanket. It made everything look beautiful, but no one in their right mind would trek the mile from town out to the Victors' Village in such adverse conditions. I walked to the door and opened it.
A boy stood on the other side of the house, his nose red and his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his warm coat. It was the elder of Gale's two brothers, Rory.
"Hello," I said, unsure of what he was doing here. Like Gale, the Hawthornes had kept their distance from me mostly, though Mrs. Hawthorne had once extended an offer to come over for coffee. I had declined on the grounds that I had arranged to meet my father that evening for dinner, and she had never offered again. I had assumed that Gale had ordered them to stay away from me.
"Can I come in?" the boy asked, and I moved from where I stood, unconsciously blocking the entrance. I closed the door behind him and followed him into the sitting room, where he was looking around curiously.
"This is weird," he said. "Your house is exactly like ours." I looked around at the plain sitting room, empty save for the couch and a small bookshelf that I had set up beside the fire. I doubted that the Hawthornes' sitting room was as bleak as this. It was no doubt full of life and the sort of warmth that only family and good company could provide.
"I guess so." I said despite my belief, "They were all built from the same plan I suppose." I watched the boy and couldn't help but think that Rory looked so much like Gale that it hurt. He had the same dark hair and square jaw and even the same serious eyes as his older brother. Rory was practically his brother's double, give or take a few years.
"My mom said that I should come over and check that you were okay," he said, sitting down on the couch and extending his hands toward the flame. "She said that she wasn't sure if you had enough wood and stuff."
"That was kind of her," I answered, more than touched at the gesture but trying not to show how much it meant to me. "I've got more than enough wood. It was delivered yesterday before it snowed."
"Okay, then," Rory said, standing up and moving toward the door. Suddenly the thought of spending the evening alone seemed too much. I wanted some company, and Rory seemed like the best option.
"Can I get you a cup of tea?" I asked him, hoping that the desperation in my voice escaped him, and he turned to me, surprised. "I got some cheese buns from the bakery earlier today." Rory's eyes lit up and I was reminded again of Gale. I tried to shake off this association. Rory was not his brother; he was a person in his own right and didn't deserve to be seen as an object associated with Gale. Besides, I couldn't take the comparison for a moment longer. I hadn't seen Gale this close since our final public dinner in my father's house the week after we returned from the Capitol.
"Yeah!" Rory said and then cleared his throat which caused his voice to lower. "I mean, yes please, if you don't mind." "They're my favorite. Can I call my mom and let her know that I haven't died in the snow?"
I laughed at his enthusiasm, the sound strange and unfamiliar to this new brooding me. "Sure," I said, gesturing toward the phone on the small table by the door. It was coated in a thin film of dust; I had never used it. Who would I call? I guess maybe my parents but I visited them every day, we never had anything to discuss that couldn't wait twenty-four hours. Rory scurried into the hallway and began dialing.
I made my way to the kitchen and filled the kettle with water from the tap. I laid it on top of the hob and began unwrapping the cheese buns from the grease-proof paper that Peeta had wrapped them in earlier in the day. Rory joined me at the counter before the kettle was done boiling.
"She said that she's glad you're okay and that I could stay as long as I wanted." I smiled at him and offered him one of the cheese buns which he took eagerly.
"Have one now and then you can have another with your tea," I said, and Rory beamed at me, telling me that at home his mother only let him have one. Maybe that was where I had gone wrong with Gale. Good food might really be the key to all boys' hearts…
With cups of teas warming our palms, Rory and I sat on the couch in the sitting room and settled into a not all together uncomfortable silence, both of us content to simply sip our tea.
"Madge," Rory asked after a time, "why are you living here all alone?" I grimaced and Rory, obviously seeing my expression, proceeded to backtrack like his life depended on it. "I mean, why didn't your mom come up here with you? I know that your dad probably has to stay at the Mayor's house but why didn't she come?" I smiled at him. He might look older than his age, but he was surprisingly naïve.
"She's sick. She needs to stay at home so that the people there can look after her." Rory nodded seriously, his brow furrowed.
"But aren't you lonely here?" he asked, watching me carefully. I shrugged.
"I guess so, but I won't force my company on anyone if they don't want it," I said, thinking back to the night on the train before we reached District Twelve. No, I would not go where I was not wanted.
"You should come over and visit us," Rory suggested as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. "I'm sure Gale would like to see you after…" He trailed off obviously realizing what he had just said was at best a little odd and at worst a complete lie. Why would Gale want to see the girl that reminded him more than anyone else of the horror that he had to live through?
"I don't think he would," I said with a smile and took a sip of tea to hide my emotions.
"No," Rory said, now pretty sure in his conviction. "You're friends. You must be after the Games. Besides, I know that Posy wants to meet you. She keeps asking Mom if she come over here and play. She says that she wants to see you in real life." I smiled at this. Posy was a cute child, and if she was anything like Rory, I was sure that she was just as sweet as she looked.
"Why don't you, Posy and Vick come over here after school tomorrow for a visit?" I suggested, surprising even myself at my offer. "We could bake, make some cheese buns ourselves." Rory nodded eagerly, completely missing the fact that I had declined his offer to go to his home. I didn't want to bump into Gale, and I'm sure that I was the last person he wanted to see too.
"That sounds fun," he said. "They'll definitely want to come." He stood up then and took our empty cups to the kitchen and rinsed them out. When he returned, he looked apologetic.
"I should probably go now," he said. "Gale said that he wanted to check my homework." He scrunched his face into a ball as if the concept completely repulsed him.
"I hate homework," he said with a sigh.
"I did too," I agreed, and he looked surprised.
"Really?" he asked.
"Oh yeah, especially math."
"Me too!" Rory exclaimed. I waved goodbye to him and watched him scamper across the snowy gap between our two houses.
When he was gone, I reflected on our evening together. It had been strange but not forced, almost natural as if we had done it many times before. It had been so long since I had spent an evening talking to someone, even if that someone was a thirteen-year-old boy. I found myself already looking forward to tomorrow evening, and tearing a page from my notebook I began preparing a list of what I would require to make Rory's favorite cheese buns.
Thank you everybody for reading the first chapter. I know not a lot happened but I do think that this was necessary. The scene needed to be set.
Huge thanks to Project Team Beta for their help. Those guys are great.
Review and let me know what you think. 3