Interlude Three: A Father —

The shame burns.

I hate it.

But there are people watching.

So, I hold my head high and I don't scowl.

I reach the head of the line, and the Peacekeeper grins at me.

"Gale Hawthorne. Five tesserae." My voice shakes.

"First time?" The Peacekeeper eyes me through his visor.

I nod, no longer trusting my voice.

The Peacekeeper makes a notation in his paperwork. "You can pick them up there." He points with the tip of his pencil. "Enjoy." He elongates the last syllable, eyes still on me.

I lick my lips and walk to the end of the table. Another Peacekeeper eyes me up and down, and then hands me a dusty sack and black canister.

My stomach growls. He grins.

I would give anything to punch him right now.

I swallow the feeling.

"I need five tesserae, not one." I hold his gaze.

"That is five." His grin grows. "See you next month."

I don't have a choice. I hoist the sack and clutch the canister, calculating how long the precious grain and oil can last. With three growing boys at home, I know it won't last the month.

The heat hits me hard as I shoulder out of the building. I refuse to look left or right as I walk through the square, past the merchant shops and market. I feel gritty with sweat and shame and rage.

It isn't my imagination. I know the merchants are staring, sneering. Laughing at the scruffy boy from the Seam, clenching his sack stamped TESSERAE in black letters.

I don't know which burns worse, the liquid heat of the afternoon sun, or my humiliation.

The anger does not ease when I enter the Seam. Here, there are looks of pity and understanding. There is sweat dripping in my eyes and trickling down my back. Everything grates.

Ma is pressing clothes when I arrive. The iron glows red from the fire. The house smells soapy and steamy and close.

"Gale," she smiles at me. But then she sees the sack of grain and her face falls.

"So little?" Her eyes hold the same dread I feel in my bones.

"Five extra slips for Reaping Day," I grit out. "Not so little." I watch her face flash with guilt, fingers clenching on the iron.

"We'll make do, Gale. We always have." Her voice doesn't waver. "Go wash up out back. Your father has water."

The sun is setting, setting light to the scrubby grass in a rainbow of orange and pink.

Dad is in his shirtsleeves, scrubbing coal dust from his face and hair with vigorous swipes of a yellow soap cake.

I stare at him, scrubbing and humming. How can he stand it? I'm so angry I could hit him. My teeth are grinding together and my head throbs with suppressed rage and sadness.

"Son." He is looking up at me, smiling.

I look at his artless grin and mussed hair, so similar to mine, and I can't help it. Something bitter crawls up my throat and along my tongue before I can stop it.

"How could you do this?" My fists are clenched. "Five extra Reaping slips. Every year. Why do you keep having kids? Why did you make me do this?"

The air between us goes still.

I am shaking. I can't make it stop. His face, the grin is gone. He looks into me, suddenly solemn. There is no apology in his gaze.

"Family is everything, Gale." His voice is an impenetrable wall. I have never heard him speak with such hardness.

"We make sacrifices for each other. No matter what. There is nothing more important. Life means nothing without family."

Suddenly his face softens, an imperceptible melting of his features. "Would you trade Rory or Vick for those slips in the Reaping Ball?"

Of course not. It is not even a thought in my mind.

I always begged my parents for a brother, when I was too young to understand. I would see the other boys wrestling with each other, while I was alone, helping Ma hang clothes on the line. Finally Rory came when I was six. Rough and rambunctious, he was always following me around, holding onto my leg when he couldn't keep up. We could play endlessly, and I would have done anything to hear his laugh.

And then came shy little Vick, who took two years to say his first word. He was the quietest, sweetest baby with his dark mop of curls and smile bright as the sun. I would rock him to sleep and marvel how small he was, at all his tiny, miraculous translucent fingers and toes.

"No. Never. Of course not." I shake my head.

I feel his hand on my shoulder, dampness cooling through the fabric of my shirt. "Nothing will make you happy like family, Gale," he says. "No matter how hard it seems, we protect them. Every sacrifice is worth it. For them." He smiles.

Of course he is right. I feel small, selfish. Choosing myself over Rory and Vick.

I look down and swallow.

"I remember the night you were born."

My throat catches in surprise. His finger is light on my cheek.

"It was storming. The wind was howling, the windows shaking. How your mother was screaming. I thought she would die from the pain. I have never been so scared in my life." He smiles fondly. His eyes are so gentle as he looks at me.

"The storm ended right as the sun was rising. I'll never forget it. There was sunlight on the horizon and the world was scrubbed fresh, birds were chirping, the whole thing. And that is when I heard your first cry."

I feel so ashamed of how I spoke to him before. I cannot face what I see in his expression.

"You opened your eyes and curled a little hand around my shirt, and my heart…it cracked open in the best way. I can't explain it, Gale. The joy of being a dad."

There are tears in his eyes.

"Your mother and I, we knew then to name you Gale, after a storm. A storm that gives birth to beautiful things."

I feel my heart thudding in my chest.

"I'll take care of the kids and Ma, with you, forever. I won't disappoint you again." The words come out of me on a rush of air.

"Gale." His voice stops me.

I look up then, and see my own eyes staring back at me.

"Son, nothing you do could ever disappoint me."

I feel the summer heat in my chest, expanding inside me, spreading warmth along my skin.

He smiles at me, and I wish it could always be this way between us, his gaze warm on me, like the sun.

I make a silent vow, then. I feel it swelling in my chest.

I will never let my family down again.

Six Years After The War —

I wake with a start.

It feels like it used to waking up during the war, muscles tight, exhausted knots, my mind grappling with panic, trying to figure out where I am and what I should be doing.

The wood floor is hard and creaking under me. I must have slumped over while I slept. My head throbs, my mouth dry and cottoned. I can smell the gasoline scent of old booze on my skin.

I must have… fallen asleep.

On the floor.

I cannot remember what it was like to sleep so deeply.

I stagger to the shower. The hot water is galvanizing. I will always hate the Capitol, but they were on to something with showers. Unlimited hot water steaming and streaming down my back. I don't think I never knew what it was to be clean, until I moved here.

I still find it strange not to have black-grit coal dust under my nails. To smell so fresh.

I think of last night, Madge standing at my door, nervous. Her eyes on my things, like they might actually interest her, her finger running along my books.

And all the things I said to her, about Katniss, about my family.

I should feel ashamed, to want to hide those things from her. But Madge knew me before I was grown, saw me when I was just a scruffy kid in Twelve. There is almost a comfort in being with someone who knew me as a kid, I decide, like I could not look any worse to her than I already did growing up.

Telling her those things, it makes me feel almost a bit free.

Rolling my muscles, wrapped in a soft towel, I feel more refreshed than I have in weeks. I pad my way to the kitchen, stomach growling. It is so much easier to feed myself now, with food delivery and electricity always running. Maybe I am getting more used to the Capitol than I'd like to admit. Right after the war I would still take the time to drive out beyond the city limits. There were some decent woods and streams a couple hours away where I would fish and rock climb and just think. But slowly my government duties began taking over, and damn it was just so much easier to have someone deliver raw ingredients to my door than to drive all the way out there to hunt and forage.

And if I'm being really honest, the hunting I used to do, it was about survival, not enjoyment. Hell I figure I've earned a little ease in my life. We all have.

And the food in the Capitol. Anything and everything is just...available. It's unbelievable. I love the feeling of baby-soft flour in my hands. The methodical kneading of dough. Cracking eggs and silken milk and oil as much as I want, everything fresh and fragrant and abundant. I can eat until I'm full. I never knew what it felt like not to be hungry, could not even imagine what it would be like to stop eating before the food finished.

There's a creak on the wood floor, and I whip around lightening fast, fear hot along my spine.

There stands Madge in the entrance to the kitchen, hair mussed and white top crumpled.

My mouth falls open.

"You're still here." I am in shock. I didn't even think to check the couch when I woke up.

She looks pink and flustered.

"I'm sorry. I… I fell asleep on the couch." There is something endearing about the way her neck blushes, for once she is uncomfortable instead of me.

Her eyes are on me, only for a moment. They dart away, and a blush blooms along her cheeks.

Suddenly I realize with a kind of spreading horror I am only in a towel, the fabric slung low on my hips. My chest, my arms, my back — they are covered in scars, ugly under the bright kitchen lights.

I feel myself scratch the back of my neck, a nervous gesture Ma used to nag me about. My hair is wet, falling into my eyes.

I hate my scars.

The hideous lashes on my back, shrapnel wounds scattered across my chest, a jagged cut from collarbone to neck Mrs. E sewed up during the war, two ugly bullet holes, purple splatters on my stomach and ribcage.

I hate my scars, but the girls I've been with, they always love them. A treacherous thought bubbles to the surface, maybe Madge likes them too.

Madge cannot look at me, her eyes darting like minnows in a stream.

She is breathing quickly, and her fingers clutch the counter almost desperately. There is something about it. Under the embarrassment, I almost find it funny how uncomfortable she looks.

I think I like Madge like this. Off kilter. How she always makes me. I can't help it, I grin. I don't think I've ever made her speechless.

Her eyes are bright and cheeks pink and suddenly I want to talk to her.

"Stay." I grin. "Have breakfast with me." The words come out before I realize. But it is true. I want her to stay.

She turns slightly, eyes skating across my chest and sliding to the waffle iron, hot and sizzling with butter.

Her eyebrows fly up.

"You can cook?" Her voice is incredulous.

I laugh. "Madge. I have four kids. Of course I can cook." I turn back to my bowl of batter.

"Four?" She bites her lower lip and her eyebrows scrunch in confusion.

I scoop batter out of the bowl and it sizzles on the hot iron. "Yeah. Rory, Vick, Posy, and Pr—." I stop suddenly, jaw tight.

"Prim," she breathes out, finishing the thought for me. "Of course." She smiles at me then, tentatively.

I release a tense breath. She does not know the story, about the bomb. No one does, besides those of us directly involved. Plutarch thought it was better that way, couldn't have his handsome war hero marred by murder.

I, selfishly, did not fight his decision.

"It must have been hard," Madge is murmuring. Her eyes are focused on the bubbling waffles. "Raising your siblings. Growing up without your dad." My throat suddenly constricts. I am not sure I can breathe.

"I saw your family at the ceremony. After the accident in the mine. I was there," Madge says. Her fingers are twisting the hem of her shirt. She takes a deep breath and her eyes meet mine. "I'm sorry that happened to you."

My mind blanks.

There are certain things I just don't talk about. Not even with Katniss in the woods. Not with Ma in Twelve. Things that are better off buried. Prim and my dad. The dead that refuse to stay dead.

But Madge, always tight-lipped with her secrets, somehow she is always prying at mine. Stabbing at my softest parts, finding the truths I've worked so desperately to conceal.

"Your mom showed me a picture of your dad once." Madge is speaking so earnestly. "You look just like him."

Ma always said that. That I looked just like him. Her boys, she used to say. And she would smile.

Ma stopped smiling after dad died. I would catch her looking at me sometimes though, her gaze steady as I was threading a tricky snare or in my shirtsleeves washing up after coming from the mines. I knew that look, and I was not sure if I hated it or if I loved it. As if she saw him instead of me.

"I'll just go then." Madge turns. I realize with a start that the silence has dragged on too long. The waffle is starting to smoke alarmingly.

"Shit, no stay," I say before I can change my mind. I burn my fingers on the hot iron as I scramble to throw out the burnt waffle.

Madge turns, her eyes on me. I pop the tip of my burnt thumb in my mouth.

"Seriously, stay," I try again. I take a breath. "I'm just not used to talking about my dad. That's all. It took me by surprise."

Madge refuses to meet my eyes, her gaze instead hovering somewhere around my chin. Or maybe she's looking at the finger in my mouth. I pull it out, feeling like a scruffy Seam kid again. I feel hot. Why does she always make me feel so off-balance?

Madge blinks and nods.

"Alright," she says. She pauses. Her eyes slide away. She seems dazed. "Let me go wash up."

I let out a puff of air as she slips through the door.

"Idiot," I mutter, turning back to the batter.

By the time Madge returns, I've managed to get dressed and finish a stack of waffles, which somehow I managed not to burn. Thank the Capitol for small miracles. Madge looks like she has gotten herself together as well, her hair once again up in a high ponytail and the wrinkles brushed out of her top.

She sniffs hungrily at the waffles, and I have to admit they smell delicious.

We don't speak, which I think is for the best. She just slips into her seat and thanks me with a murmur as I pass her the serving platter. The sounds of clinking dishes and scraping forks is calming, lightning the pressure of having to find something to say, to smooth over my previous awkwardness. I'm reminded again of why Katniss enjoyed Madge's quiet company.

"Thank you, that was wonderful," Madge says at last, dabbing her mouth daintily with her napkin.

"You still haven't lost your manners from Twelve," I raise my eyebrows at her. Her eyes meet mine briefly and she laughs.

"No, I suppose I'm still Twelve at heart." Her eyes are soft and unguarded. Perhaps she feels she can relax, now that I know the truth of her. Maybe like me, she feels a bit free.

"It feels nice," I gaze at her. "It feels nice to be with someone who knew me then. Before everything.

Madge hums in agreement. Her head is cocked to the side and she looks thoughtful.

"I don't miss my life there, not really." I am surprised at her words. "Still, the New Capitol, it doesn't feel like home. Not like Twelve does. Even now after everything, Twelve still feels like home."

"I hated everything about Twelve." I feel angry, but the anger isn't sharp. Just dull like an old ache. I take a breath. "That's not true, actually. I hated everything about Twelve after my dad died."

Madge's eyes slide to me. She nods but doesn't speak, still tentative after this morning.

I look at her and breathe steadily. I feel I owe her. For being here. For coming to me last night and for asking about real things, things no one else has bothered to ask me. I want to tell her and I am scared to tell her.

I remember the Madge of last night, gentle and tipsy and looking at me as though she saw me.

And she didn't run. Not after all the times I was cruel, all the times I was thoughtless. She didn't run even after I asked about her parents. I can see the pain that was on her face, even now. She did not answer, but she also did not run.

I owe her for that.

"He died right before winter." I cannot meet Madge's eyes for this, so I stare down at my hands, nails trimmed neatly, tanned fingers curled inwards and threaded with scars.

How can I describe those days, the dark and the cold and the grief? The fear most of all, gnashing at my heels. My shaking hands were often too cold to set snares, and there were so few animals to bite. I remember the kids shivering and crying at night, and each morning I would huddle in my dad's coat, his scent fading as the weeks wore on, and I would sneak into the forest and check the frozen snare lines or scrabble in the snow for mint leaves and squirrel holes.

I stole too. I never told anyone, not even Katniss. Late at night when my stomach would ache, I would sneak out in the dark over to the Merchant side of town. I would creep from house to house, the growls of my stomach the only sound in the dark, and I would dig through the Merchant's trash.

It was disgusting and terrifying, but those trash bins saved our lives that winter. I never knew what I would find: a head of radish tops for soup, blackened bread crusts we could soak in water for gruel, or a discarded blanket that Ma would patch. Sometimes I would find a wax paper outside the butcher's shop and would lick the bacon grease and bits of fat off, not caring about the stink or the Peacekeeper patrols.

I don't know how to say any of these things to Madge. She must see something on my face though because she doesn't speak, she doesn't even seem to breathe.

"It was the worst winter of my life," I finish lamely. "Then came spring, and Katniss. I guess I've been fighting ever since."

Madge is looking at me. Not behind me or out the windows. At me. I feel brave and terrified at the same time.

"I don't know how to be like this. I don't know how to be when I'm not fighting."

I feel something heavy lodged in my throat. I can't say anymore. My heart is beating so hard that my chest hurts. I hope that is enough. I don't know how to say anything more.

"Katniss told me the woods were the only place she felt free." Madge's smile is reassuring. She is helping me, and I feel grateful. I wonder when I became so soft.

"Katniss loved the woods, but I never felt free there." The words surprise me, but I know they are true once I have said them. I would rage at the Capitol, at the weather, at the world. Katniss would just tap her foot impatiently until I blew off the rage, ready to hunt, annoyed I was scaring the game away. "I was just hungry, all the time. And angry." That is what I remember most from Twelve. Hunger. And anger.

My eyes flick to Madge. She does not look scared at the hard words. She looks soft, eyes almost misty. I clear my throat.

"You should visit." Madge is smiling so gently, and I do not know what to do about it. "Your family would want to see you. They may not say it, but they would want to see you."

I don't believe Madge, but I desperately want her to keep speaking. No one has spoken to me like this since the war, like I am wanted. I don't want to destroy the delusion.

Ma and I were inseparable after dad. We would sit at the table every week planning our finances, heads bowed and hearts heavy, trying to stretch what little we had, trying to make sure the kids were fed.

I can still feel the warmth of her hand in mine when I passed in and out after the whipping. How she held me after they took Katniss for her first Games, hands gentle on the ridge of my spine as my shoulders shook and I tried not to sob.

My heart aches knowing those days are gone.

"That's not true, Madge." I let out a puff of air and look away. I don't know why Ma won't see me now. I feel ashamed my own family does not want me.

"I've been back to Twelve." Madge's voice is a whisper.

"What?!" My head whips up in shock. Her eyes are downcast and she fiddles with her napkin.

Madge clears her throat. "I've been back a few time. To see Katniss and Pee— " She shifts awkwardly. "— and others. " She pauses and I can barely hear her. "To see where my parents— where we used to live."

She stills. Takes a breath.

At last she looks up at me. "I saw your mother a few times. She really misses you."

I cannot believe what I am hearing. I blink like an idiot for a moment, unable to form words. I have only one thought.

"You know Ma?" It comes out more accusatory than I intended.

Madge's eyes slide away from me. I feel lost, like she is hiding something from me. It reminds me of visiting her apartment all those months ago, smoky sideways glances and half truths. I thought we were past that. I cannot tell if the thought makes me sad or angry.

"We met before the bombing." Madge finally answers. She picks up her napkin. Puts it back down. She stares intently at that spot above my shoulder. Like she's afraid to look at me.

"I saw her the last time I was in Twelve. You're all she talks about." Madge is suddenly smiling, and her lashes flutter. "Just call her, tell her you want to see her. I know she would say yes."

I swallow. Madge looks so sure, blue eyes wide and earnest. She almost makes me want to try. I know another rejection from my family would break me. My chest already hurts, knowing what they will say, but somehow I do not want to let Madge down.

I find myself nodding.

"Alright." I hear myself say the word, but it feels like someone else is saying it.

"Alright. I'll ask her."

Interlude Four: Loss—

There is bowl in the sink, dried porridge skin flaking around the edge. And a small glass, lip-rimmed with milk. The beds are stripped clean and the cabinets are bare except for my own army-issue essentials. Posy has left her stuffed rabbit, thoughtlessly squished under my pillow from when she snuck into my room and burrowed in with me last night.

The pain is like a hammer, threatening to to break me from the inside out.

I thought when the war was over we would be a family again.

I could watch the boys grow.

I could sleep at night, knowing the kids wouldn't be Reaped.

I could buy Posy a real dress. And a ribbon. More than one.

A breath stabs my throat.

They left. They left.

The walls blur.

I fought a war for them. And they left.

There is a wet, gasping noise spilling out of me.

I thought we had time, always thought we would go home together.

Then too, I thought we had time.

As his shifts got longer, I never worried.

When he was too tired from work.

I always thought we had more time.

A memory of snares and smiles and my father's face looking back at me in the mirror.

Would he be proud of me for winning the war or just disappointed I couldn't keep the family together?

My hands are on my eyes, trying to shove the water back in. To block out the emptiness.

"Son, nothing you do could ever disappoint me."


He lied. Then he left.

And they left.

I am a disappointment. And I am alone.

Six Years After The War —

Madge is stacking the dishes in the sink, humming to herself.

It is nice. I can admit this to myself now.

It is nice to have someone home with me. Someone quiet and comfortable, washing the dishes while I wipe the table. It is nice not being alone.

"What's this?" Madge says suddenly. I look up and she is grinning, pointing with her chin to a drawing pinned to the fridge, a mess of squiggled stick figures by Posy, each family member labelled in her crooked lettering. And there at the far right of the drawing under a messy block-letter Gale is a figure, easily double the height of everyone else in the drawing, a cloud of black waves covering the face, wearing only a bright green triangle from neck to knees, bare brown legs and eleven stick toes.

"Pretty dress," Madge says, and then she laughs, eyes meeting mine like we have a joke. Like we've known each other for years and have the kind of relationship where we smile to ourselves over things that only the two of us understand.

She giggles. It is contagious as fever. I smile back at her, alive in the moment.

Her head tilts. "I've never seen you smile." A pause as she studies me. "It suits you, Gale."

Oh, Gale.

She smiles. Like spring blossoming.

I'm staring.

There is a ringing in my ear.

Madge turns away.

The ringing seems louder.

"Your screen." Madge is not looking at me.

Everything slides back into focus as she points to my ringing handheld.

"Your screen, Gale. I think your mother is calling."