AN: Forgive me. Not trying to write a MarySue!Madge, but she doesn't strike me as being street smart…to an extent. Do I think she's involved in the rebellions? Yes. But she's not Katniss, either. So, that's where I'm coming from. Also, I'm new to the fandom and haven't got a THG beta, yet. I apologize for any errors I've missed while proofreading. ;)
"I didn't even know Madge knew Gale," says Peeta.
"We used to sell her strawberries," I say almost angrily. What am I angry about, though? Not that she has brought the medicine, surely.
"She must have quite a taste for them," says Haymitch.
That's what nettles me. It's the implication that there's something going on between Gale and Madge. And I don't like it.
"She's my friend" is all I say.
Even now I cannot recall which hurt worse, Gale Hawthorne's hostility toward me or owing him. Some part of me realized that his anger was directed toward the Capitol, that the merchant families of District 12 received the brunt of it merely because we were within reach – that it truly had nothing to do with me personally. But somewhere along the line it had become personal, simply because I started to care about what he thought. Specifically…of me.
When I found myself in his debt, I knew it would be difficult to repay him. Our relationship at that point was comprised of a series of business transactions in which both parties always came out even. Strawberries or game for a handful of coins. I would meet Gale and Katniss at the back door of the house, we'd exchange, then they would leave and I'd close the door behind me. The end. But he wouldn't accept coins for this favor. He wouldn't even accept thanks.
The end of the 74th Victory Tour drew near. Father had gotten up before dawn, running back and forth between the Justice Building and home. Preparations for the Victory Banquet, which would be held in our home, as well as answering the daily demands of the Capitol kept him more than busy. Mother was lying in bed with another one of her headaches, so I volunteered to run errands. Most of the arrangements for food had been made by the Capitol, but there were a few odds and ends, pantry items to restock.
The brisk morning air made my nose tingle and the walk to the market left my hands and cheeks stinging despite my warm, wool coat and the new boots I wore. Not many people were out in the square, even though it was a weekday and the shops were open. Perhaps they were sleeping in, a rare opportunity. School let out and the mines are closed for an extended holiday. The last time District 12 won the Hunger Games had been twenty-five years ago, and most folks were in a festive mood. The banquet promised to be the first of many favors from the Capitol this year, with shipments of sugar and extra rations to follow, presumably.
Men and women were hired to clean up the square, around the Justice Building, and the grounds around my father's house. All of these places would be seen by viewers all over Panem. The Capitol did not approve of the coal dust that provided a constant, dull cover over every building, tree, and which stained every snow bank. The Hob remained just as it always was, filthy and derelict. As the Tour came closer to District 12, it became an inside joke amongst the people that soon the Capitol would send in teams to personally wash and groom every last citizen before they would be satisfied with the appearance of their poorest district. Honestly, I felt an urge to brush coal dust under my fingernails just thinking about it.
I stopped inside the fruit stall first, browsing through wrinkled summer vegetables. These were the last of a late shipment from the Capitol, which receives the first pickings of every district. We were usually the last to get anything and the prices were high. Many of these vegetables did not grow in the woods outside of the fence, not that anyone was available to gather them anymore, and I longed for fresh produce. The merchant's wife put the vegetables in a bag for me while her two small children stared up at me from under the counter. I smiled at them as I left; one giggled and the other hid.
The bakery came next on my list. The cow bell on the door tinkled as I stepped inside. Warm, yeasty air enveloped me, causing the blood to rush to my cheeks. I breathed in deeply before my nose lost its sensitivity to the wonderful smell of things baking. This is the one place in the District where the flour isn't coarse or mealy. Strawberries aside, bread is my favorite food. In the morning the fine, crusty miche; rolls with herbs or cheeses; and filled pastries were still warm and I struggled to curb my appetite when I placed the order. We needed extra bread and sweet rolls for any officials who would be staying with us during the celebrations at the end of the Victory Tour.
"Morning, miss," Mr. Mellark, the baker, greeted me.
"Good morning," I replied as I handed him a slip of paper with my order. "Have you been very busy?"
"Busy enough. We could use Peeta, of course, now that we haven't got him," Mr. Mellark said jovially. I laughed. He told me about the pastry orders his family raced to fill for the banquet, remembering the last time the bakery had to fill an order so large. That had been nearly twenty-five years ago when Haymitch Abernathy won the 50th Hunger Games Quarter Quell. The Capitol hadn't skimped on anything.
"I was much younger then and still working for my father," he said as he scratched his head, laughing shyly.
Other shoppers came in as Mr. Mellark wrapped up my order. They asked about the televised engagement between Peeta and Katniss, which had been announced to all Panem during the interviews in the Capitol. Mr. Mellark offered a few non-committal replies. The baker's wife came in then and everything went back to business. I left the shop with my head full of talk of Katniss's return.
The warmth from the bakery quickly faded in the chill. My arms were full and I felt hungry and ready to get home. As I passed an alley on my way around the square, a gust of wind blew my long hair around my face. I struggled with the packages, trying to free a hand to brush the hair away. My foot caught on a raised cobble and I lurched forward. The packages fell to the ground at the feet of a group of young men who I recognized for Peacekeepers, off duty judging by the disarray of their coats and uniforms. One had hair like bleached boar bristles that washed out the color in his round, fleshy face. I did not remember his name, but the pink flush of his skin made me think of a pig. Gaius's coat hung open, despite the frigid air and his shirt had been buttoned wrong. His white undershirt had come untucked and I was more than a little surprised to see that his shoes were properly laced, at least. Behind them, a man named Felix reclined against the side of a shop. He looked handsome, but like Head Peacekeeper Cray, had an unattractive reputation for harassing women.
Gaius whistled and the others made ribald remarks as I stooped to pick up my things before the snow soaked through the paper packaging. My face flushed, but I pretended not to hear.
"What's your name, pretty thing?" the one with bristly, ash blond hair – Piggy – asked.
I froze and looked up. A mistake.
"Don't you know her? She's the mayor's daughter," Felix drawled, arms crossed. His eyes were fixed on me in a way that made my cheeks flush deeper, running down my throat and burning my ears. My winter coat didn't seem modest enough, the way he looked right through it. I didn't know exactly what sort of ideas were developing in his mind, but I felt sure I wouldn't like them. "Can't you tell by her fine clothes?"
The subject of my clothes was a sore one. Ignoring the packages, and regardless of my original intent to ignore them and get home quickly, I nearly remarked that I wore the exact drab school uniform as everyone else my age in this District. But Piggy grabbed my arms and started dragging me toward him before I had a chance to open my mouth.
"Oh yeah, Maggie or Midge or something," Gaius supplied.
"Mayor's daughter? Huh, I've never been with a posh lady before. You're cute," he said with a nasty grin. "Think he'll mind, princess?"
I tried to pull my arms away. "My father—"
Piggy kissed me roughly and that's when I smelled the white liquor on his breath. The taste of it lingered on my lips after he stopped for a breath and I choked.
Gaius guffawed. "Don't think she likes you," he told Piggy. "My turn."
"Nope." Piggy tried to kiss me again, but I dodged. His flabby lips fell on my neck and he bit me. I cried out and tried kicking his shins. He just laughed, not minding, and pulled me closer.
"Is there a problem here?"
The Peacekeeper froze. My eyes grew wide and I bit my bruised bottom lip.
I don't know where Gale Hawthorne came from. An alley? A shop? Somehow he had stalked up behind the Peacekeepers without their notice, but I could see his face behind Piggy's shoulder. He stood a head taller than most folks and these three were no exception. But then, there were three of them. His grey eyes looked menacing underneath his heavy, black eyebrows. I noticed that his clothes were worn but neat compared to the disheveled Peacekeepers, though he had not shaved his face in a few days. The dark stubble made him appear older than eighteen and rough enough to take on Felix and his friends.
He looked wonderful.
He was also the last person I wanted to see at that moment. Piggy still clutched me, practically dangling, in his arms. I had lost control of the situations, plainly. My humiliation increased, embarrassed by the men who leered at me, and mortified that the one man who made his disgust for me very plain had arrived to witness it. I flushed anew thinking about one of the last conversations we'd had over my stupid dress six months ago. I could not help but compare how Katniss would have handled herself in this situation and I felt ashamed of my weakness. Gale would despise me even more, I felt certain.
"Move along. There's nothing for you here," Gaius sneered, getting up in Gale's face.
Gale knocked past Gaius with his shoulder, sending the Peacekeeper careening into the bricks.
"Come on, I'll take you home," he growled, his voice gruff with displeasure. He said it like I had a choice, but Piggy still had me by the arms. Judging by the way a vein popped in his red forehead, he did not feel very happy about being interrupted.
I wriggled my arms. "Um…"
"She's with us, mate. Time to move on," Felix said in a low, menacing voice. He hadn't moved away from the wall, but his body looked as tight as a wire, ready to spring if Gale interfered with their fun any further.
"I see," Gale replied with a calm that belied the smoldering expression on his face.
Panic made my heart race, thinking he would leave me with them, when quick as lightning he sucker punched Felix. The Peacekeeper fell to his knees and blood dribbled from his nose. Piggy let go of me, but he was too late to help his friend.
Shocked by Gale's behavior I only stared at the Peacekeepers who were keeping their distance, for now, and I wondering what sort of trouble Gale had cooked up for himself – or us.
Gale grabbed my arm and strode away at a pace I struggled to keep. There wasn't any gallantry in the gesture, but I briefly forgot my humiliation and instead felt pleased by what he had just done for me. Being kind to a rich girl despite his prejudices, because he could not stand the thought of the strong bullying the weak. I wondered if he would hold it against me later on.
And then I remembered that something was missing. I stopped short and he let go of my arm. "But my packages, I have to get them back."
He looked over his shoulder briefly then kept walking. "Leave them."
"You can afford to buy more later – or send someone," he snapped.
I hated the way he made me feel ashamed of myself for something completely out of my control, such as my father's income. I thought we could be friends if he would only realize that I had as little choice over living in town as he did over being born in the Seam.
Gale kept walking without me and I jogged to catch up. He said nothing and I began to feel awkward. We did not know each other. Maybe an even more unfavorable opinion of me was beginning to form in his mind?
"I'm sorry! This sort of thing doesn't usually happen." I felt the need to explain myself, to make him understand that I did not invite their actions. "Especially during the day – I didn't know."
"I know," he replied stiffly. "They were drunk."
"You shouldn't have done that…beat them up," I whispered as I looked behind me at the Peacekeepers. I expected that they would either pursue us or rush off to report Gale's belligerence. Instead they were ripping open my packages and stuffed the warm pastries into their mouths. Anger boiled up inside of me and I felt tempted to go back and try punching them, too. Felix used a piece of the brown paper to stuff his bloody nose. Ugh. "They're awful – "
"Gale, I hope you haven't gotten yourself in trouble on my account…Cray won't –"
He shot me an annoyed look. "I said forget it."
Well, I couldn't, but I dropped the subject for the rest of the time it took to reach home. I pulled the collar of my coat higher around my neck, wishing I had worn a scarf to cover up the mark Piggy left. The skin felt tender and I blushed when Gale gazed at where my fingers probed the wound. He looked away quickly and his hands balled into fists. I bet coal dust clung to the every crevice under his fingernails – and I mentally kicked myself for being stupid.
"Are you all right?" he asked gruffly.
He sounded angry, but I could not figure out why. "Yes…are you?"
"Nothing wrong with me."
Except that maybe he'd just spent more time than he cared to with people he did not enjoy, I secretly amended.
Maybe he always glowered like this…
Maybe it was the engagement…
At the door I turned to thank him, but he was already half way down the sidewalk. I hoped he would make it back to his house all right. Gale was too smart to go back through the square – I knew that. But I worried.
Opening the front door, I let out a frustrated huff, still quaking from the assault and confused by Gale's surly, unpredictable behavior. A proper thanks would have to wait for another day when I could repay him and he could not walk away from me.
I worried about that, too.