Gale has never, ever witnessed this level of joy among the citizens of District 12. In the town square, an impromptu band strikes up a happy jig below the large screen, now being utterly ignored, the analysts' commentary irrelevant to the only fact anyone cares about: both of the District 12 tributes are coming home.
Peeta's brothers are distributing the inventory of the entire bakery - all the pastries and breads and cakes - to everyone in the square. People are dancing, people are singing, kids are chasing one another… The Peacekeepers keep telling people to get off the grassy area, but nobody listens to them. Ripper breaks out her stash and shares it with anyone within toasting distance.
It's overwhelming. Gale's mother and siblings find him and maul him in their exuberance. Rory keeps saying he knew she could do it and insists that Gale start to teach him how to hunt, too. "If I have to go next year, I want to be just as tough as Katniss." Rory sounds inspired and hopeful, but his words chill Gale. As joyful as today is, it also means they're that much closer to next year's reaping. Gale won't be eligible anymore to volunteer in Rory's place the way Katniss did for Prim…
But Gale doesn't let on how terrified he is. He just nods and says, "You got it, Roaring Lion." He looks around at the hordes of people in the square and thinks about what they could do if they all banded together at the next reaping… They do have numbers on their side. As long as the Peacekeepers and their guns could be eliminated from the equation, the residents of District 12 might be able to protect their children next year…
He slips back from the throngs to consider his idea more carefully. As he's mulling it over, he spots a blonde figure also hanging back, her arm wrapped around one of the thin trees lining the square. She's swaying in time with the music, and when he gets closer he can hear her humming quietly.
When she sees Gale, her slight smile bursts into a beaming grin and she lets go to the tree to throw her arms around him. "They did it. They really did it." Madge is talking into his shoulder but he can practically hear her smile and does hear her happy incredulity.
"They did," he laughs, feeling lighter now than he has in weeks. Months, really, if you count his newfound optimism in the possibility of District 12 unifying in defiance against the next reaping… He hugs her back and grabs her hand to lead her into the throng of dancing celebrants, where they join a fast-paced jig.
"It was quite subversive, if you think about it," Madge says later that night. It's late in the evening now and the festivities are starting to wind down. She and Gale had danced with the other celebrants for hours, and then Madge's father had come looking for her and she disappeared to help her parents with something. She turned up again later, hovering like a stray cat where Gale and some friends had been listening to Orey play his fiddle. He thinks she has a knack for worming her way into his business, but nothing bothers him right now - it's the best day he can ever recall in District 12. And maybe Madge isn't as prissy as he thought before - she got right into those dances along with everyone else and was even chatting with some of his friends before they left.
"What do you mean?" Gale is lying on his back - on the precious grass in the town square, long since trampled - relaxing and trying to recall the names of the constellations. His father had taught him some on their late night hunting trips before the accident, but the names are starting to fade… If he holds his hands in the air and squints a certain way, he can almost see his father pointing to the various formations in the night sky…
Madge is sitting next to him on the grass, rolling and unrolling a streamer someone had tossed into the air. "I mean, Katniss and Peeta. Being happy for a while, finding ways to laugh in the middle of the Hunger Games, of all things… The end moment with the berries, which was brilliant, was subversive of course. But even before that, they were breaking the mold. Showing that an exercise in horror doesn't have to be as horrifying as might otherwise be intended."
Gale notices she's careful with her pronouns about who exactly is to blame for the 'horrors' she's talking about. He wonders if it's a defense mechanism because she knows her father is complicit to some degree.
"I don't think they were being intentionally subversive," he says. Mellark was being a lovesick fool and Katniss to her very core will do whatever it takes to survive and protect her friends and family. Somehow the combination synergized into an unprecedented two-person Hunger Games victory. Although, Gale will forever give most of the credit to Katniss.
"That's what's so great about it," Madge sighs. Gale braces himself for a swoony declaration of how romantic it all was, but she surprises him. "They were just being themselves. They were able to retain a piece of themselves in an unreal situation… I mean, not entirely because they had to experience things they'll definitely wish they could erase. I know I wish I could erase having seen some of it."
Gale does, too. The barbaric deaths and suffering heaped on the tributes… The excessive amounts of kissing… Then it occurs to him that Madge - the mayor's daughter - is being awfully frank with him about her admiration for what she perceives to be subversion of the Capitol.
He sits up to get a better look at her expression. She's hopeful. Brighter than she has been for the past few weeks. Well, everyone is happier. Throughout the impromptu celebration, Gale felt like he was rejoining the land of the living, catching up with friends at the festival. It turned out a lot of people had felt that way, once they started talking. But he senses a certain determination in Madge's optimism that reminds him of his own spark of hope that there might be some way to end the Hunger Games.
Madge notices him inspecting her and blushes faintly. "What?"
He shrugs. "Just surprised. And wondering: do you share these thoughts with certain members of your family?"
Whatever happiness he'd spotted earlier drains. "Of course not," she says quietly, turning her head in the opposite direction. Gale is distracted from responding by the smooth lines of her neck and the low collar on her dress. Her skin is probably even softer than the worn leather on his hunting satchel…
He quickly averts his eyes when she looks back at him. She takes a deep breath. "My mom's twin sister was a tribute. My aunt. She died well before I was born."
"Her twin? That's brutal." The Brickley twins on his block each swear they feel pain when the other does; he can't imagine those two separated for even a few minutes, much less a permanent separation brought on by something as awful as the Hunger Games.
"I think that's why she gets so many headaches. There's a piece missing from her… She… had a bad afternoon. I think she was wondering what could have happened if her sister could have survived… If there could have been two victors from District 12 that year, too."
Gale thinks about his father, permanently gone due to the mine explosion, and then about Madge's mother, who sounds like she's only partly present in her daughter's life. "I'm sorry," he says, not sure what else to say. Even after what he's gone through in the past weeks, he can't actually say he lost someone - permanently - to the Hunger Games. Katniss seems to be lost to him in other ways, but he will actually see her alive again.
Speaking in barely a whisper, Madge looks back at him with an intensity he's never seen in her before. "It needs to stop."
Gale matches the intensity of her gaze and calmly says, "I agree." He glances around to double-check nobody is within hearing distance and then takes the extra precaution of scooting even closer to her. Their faces are only inches away now and he can smell something floral - her soap or shampoo, most likely. Something expensive, no doubt, but pleasant. He leans in so he can whisper into Madge's ear and proceeds to tell her about the realization he had earlier when he saw everybody from District 12 spontaneously pouring into the town square and ignoring the Peacekeepers. "There might be a way to stop the reaping next year. I don't know what to do yet, but I plan to figure it out."
Madge shifts so she can whisper back into his ear. "I'm in. Whatever I can do. We need to end it." Gale shivers at her breath on his ear. He doesn't know if he's more affected by her proximity or by the prospect that someone else understands the urgent need to take action. He wasn't asking for her help but he realizes he wants it.
A/N: Continued in "Rebel Like You." This was essentially a prequel. Thank you everybody for reading and following and reviewing!