The feeling is familiar to Gale: a singular focus on only what's necessary to secure the minimum for survival. When his father died, he barely even mourned because he was so preoccupied with his mother giving birth to a screaming, hungry infant and with having to take care of his two brothers who were so scared and defenseless they might as well have been confused little kittens. The month's worth of 'compensation' awarded to their family was an insult. His mother thought so, too, which is why she was looking for work so soon after delivering Posy. Gale was out in the woods within the same week, setting up snares his father had taught him and willing as many animals as possible to die at his hands.
He's doing the same thing now. Willing animals to die. Big ones, preferably, because their meat goes further, but small ones are welcome to expire before him as well. He's got hundreds and hundreds of hungry people and virtually no hope of feeding all of them, but he keeps going. Mostly out of habit.
His only acknowledgment of the horror of the past night is to deliberately keep his back to the still-smoking remains of District 12. He's not thinking about all the harrowing, progressively more disturbing trips back into the district through the night to rescue the injured, the trapped, and the almost-dead. That final, gruesome sweep once daylight returned to be sure they hadn't missed anyone—surely just injured slightly or trapped under some of the rubble from collapsed buildings (the mayor's house) or hiding in the safety of the Victor's Village homes (no luck)—had nearly destroyed him. He kept ending up back at her house to overturn just one more hunk of charred, ash-covered debris, and finally one of the miners who specialized in tunnel rescues had to pull him away, citing pointlessness and the instability of the wreckage. Gale may have punched the guy, but he doesn't really remember through the blur of swirling ash and smoke and arms dragging him and voices yelling at him to stop—
Not thinking about it. He'll think about all that later when he can't help it. Maybe. Right now he has to teach these people how to skin a rabbit and show the next group how to empty and re-set a twitch-up snare.
He'll never admit it, but he faints when they tell him on the hovercraft to 13 that Katniss isn't actually dead. Only for a second and he didn't actually fall, it was more like he leaned against the wall briefly. But fine, yes, his vision blurred temporarily. That's bound to happen when you don't eat anything for three days straight after surviving the annihilation of your home at the government's hands.
Katniss isn't dead, but she's a disaster. Damaged. They all are, every single person who was dragged or dragged themselves out of 12 past all the burning bodies, flaming buildings, and splintered wreckage. Katniss is damaged differently—betrayed, used without permission, missing something (someone) vital to her… But she'll survive. He'll make sure of it. That's what they do, he and Katniss: survive. And keep their families alive. It's been their joint mission for years.
Mission accomplished, Catnip, he thinks ruefully as he sits in the medical bay of the hovercraft, waiting for her to emerge from her drug-induced sleep. He's never felt like more of a failure in his life and suspects Katniss can relate.
One thing he knows for sure is that now that their families are safe, they have a new mission: overthrowing and destroying the Capitol. And he's done failing.
There are so few fair-haired people in 13, and so few town inhabitants from 12 who escaped, that whenever he sees a blond head, he can't help himself from hoping for just a microsecond it's her, that she reached 13 some other way… Even though he knows better. Prim breaks his heart on a regular basis until he programs himself to remember she always wears a braid and is much shorter.
Once he gets his family moved into their compartment in 13 and actually starts to believe that they really are going to be fed regularly (for nothing!), the images and thoughts he's been suppressing start dislodging from the corners of his mind. Sometimes they sneak up on him like ghosts softly tapping his shoulder, but usually they knock him over with a club…
That feeling of dread that grew steadily heavier as other people from town—but not her—started arriving at the fence. The panic of not being able to go back and look for her once the firebombing spread to the Seam, igniting entire blocks and burning people alive as they screamed for him and the others to get the fence down faster. The frantic dash to the lake to outrun the fires that had spread to the trees outside the fence. Backtracking as soon as humanly possible, making a thousand horrible choices along the way to not help the struggling, limping, mutilated people in between him and her house.
Mutely absorbing the horrible image of the top half of her house missing, the rest barely visible through the red and yellow flames and black smoke. Ignoring the fierce heat as he ran into the yard, yelling for her even though she could have been anywhere in the district because he stupidly let her run around when there were bombs falling from the sky instead of keeping her with him.
Freezing in shock at the distant sight of Simon's body, sprawled at a disturbing angle near her garden. Not realizing Orey had trailed him until he was being pulled back, barely out of range of the bomb that knocked both of them over and impaled Orey's leg with a metal firepoker, leaving a jagged, gushing gash. Hauling his unconscious friend back to the lake to Katniss' mom, praying he wouldn't become one more casualty. Frantically returning to Madge's house only to find it had been leveled and transformed into a massive funeral pyre, wreckage spilling from the yard into the road…
He couldn't even get to where he'd seen Simon to properly bury him. Simon had been Gale's last hope: even if he was a Capitol slimebag, he seemed to have had a decent streak when it came to Madge and might have had some trick up his sleeve to get her out of 12. Maybe he'd even been part of the rebellion and hadn't told them…
Not that it matters anymore. And not that Gale feels any less blameworthy.
It really hits him when some sap tries to compile a list of the dead. Seeing 'Margaret Undersee' third, right below her parents' names, knocks the air out of his lungs and leaves him wishing he could punch someone. The obvious target is the list-maker, a pasty-faced merchant girl named Delly who looks like she's never gone hungry in her life. He hates her on principle for being the wrong blond-haired, blue-eyed town girl.
It's possible he doesn't handle the situation well. He demands she change the list to read 'Madge' instead of Margaret and when Delly tries to explain that Margaret was Madge's official name, he overreacts; a glare would have made his point just as effectively as biting the poor girl's head off about Madge not liking her formal name. She meekly agrees to fix Madge's name and Gale considers the near certainty that he is a Bad Person for momentarily wishing she had died instead of Madge.
Adding to the girl's crimes, she doesn't have any useful information about Madge's fate. Like the other survivors from town, she can recount only total chaos and confusion. That fool from Madge's father's office who was supposed to spread the word about the evacuation was apparently useless and actually told people they would be safe in their cellars. No miner would ever voluntarily trap himself like that, and no one with any sense would sit and wait for the Capitol to destroy them… Gale wants to be furious, but there's no point; he hasn't seen that guy amongst the survivors. So he channels his excess rage toward the Capitol, and conveniently, that actually means something now.
Peeta's entire family is on the list, too, which reminds Gale that Peeta would be better off dead compared to what he's probably enduring as the Capitol's prisoner. He walks away from the list with the despairing knowledge that as much as he's suffering, Katniss always seems to have it worse.
That evening during 18:00 - Reflection, his thoughts are filled, despite his best efforts, with images of a beautiful, brave girl who died in a firestorm. He buries his face in his pillow to hide his tears and pretends to sleep, but his mother notices and herds the rest of the family out of their compartment, touching his shoulder gently as she leaves. In the echoing silence that follows, thoughts he knows are useless keep assaulting him, like how Madge was tempting fate by saying she never gets caught. How worried he was that standing on the Undersees' back porch with her would be the last time he'd ever see her and how badly he wanted to kiss her before she ran off, but stopped himself because it would have seemed like a permanent good-bye and he couldn't let that be even a remote possibility.
And he keeps thinking about kissing her and she's dead and is that sick, that he wants to kiss a dead girl? Only he doesn't actually want to kiss a dead girl—he wants her to be alive and curled up next to him on this bed, smiling at him in her gentle, trusting way, and leaning into him the way she does right before she kisses him, when he feels her soft breath mingling with his and he gets so lost in whatever that scent is in her hair or skin that he temporarily believes she's all that matters in the world. Instead, what he gets when he closes his eyes are images of her burning or trapped, asking him why he couldn't save her. Not accusing—that's not like her—but confused, like she can't believe he let her down. He can't believe it, either.
She was supposed to break free from the Capitol. She was supposed to outsmart them. Knowing how close she came to succeeding somehow makes it even crueler, but the true worst of it is that if he hadn't failed her, she could be here with him right now plotting ways to win the war, like they'd done all year but for real. She could have helped the rebel leaders strategize ways to disrupt the Capitol's supply shipments—she knew about that stuff from working in her father's office. If her parents had survived, they also would have been huge assets.
And he and Madge both had those identification papers Simon had made them! Since he's fantasizing anyway: they could have gone on undercover missions with their alternate identities—Madge would use her gift for sneakiness and Gale would do the quick thinking if they got caught… Like in the Justice Building back home. They'd get away with whatever it was, and then they would slip off somewhere private to celebrate their successes, even though they wouldn't have to hide anymore because they'd be free from the Capitol's twisted control and here in 13 there are no such things as divisions between town and Seam or mayor's daughter and miner. They would seek out dark corners just for the fun of it…
He sighs and pushes himself into a sitting position to lean against the wall, slightly disgusted that he keeps indulging in these kinds of thoughts. Plus, in reality he's nowhere near field-ready and had to turn over his false identification papers during Intake. He told anyone who'd listen that he wanted to be involved in rescuing Peeta, and despite his dubious status as a hero of 12, he hasn't heard of any plans yet. His best connection to the upper ranks, Haymitch, has been locked away in detox since they arrived.
Climbing off the bed, he opens the top drawer of the dresser and pulls out the one personal memento he was allowed to keep during Intake: the key to the cemetery shed where he and Madge used to meet—it was in his pocket like always when he escaped. The authorities in 13 wanted to recycle the metal, but he convinced them to let him keep it as a sentimental item. He cuts a few thin strips of leather from the top of his boot to make a necklace for it. If he keeps his shirt buttoned up all the way, nobody will notice he's wearing an unauthorized personal accessory. He just needs this evidence that she existed and that she mattered, and the cold, constant reminder against his skin that he can't let anyone else down.
When he's finished making the necklace and has collected himself enough, he leaves to meet his family for dinner. He lets Posy sit next to him and tell him stories about what she misses most from home. Her favorite rag doll, Mr. Bunny, didn't make it out of 12, either.
"He helped me feel better when I was sad," she tries to explain, looking up at him with eyes that have seen too much. "So how can I feel better without him helping me?"
He hugs her and says that at least she still has their mom, brothers, and him. But he understands her point all too well.
Soldier Hawthorne. It sounds good. And weapons training is a dream come true. All of the military training, actually, but learning how to use real, deadly weaponry is magnificent. Training and the other classes also become a welcome distraction from the mess that constitutes the person he formerly knew as Katniss Everdeen.
The real Katniss is still in there, popping out occasionally and often only for him, so that's somewhat encouraging… But so much of the time she's unconscious the way Madge's mom used to be—not participating in the world—or doing strange things like hiding in supply closets and staring at walls. Her mother and Prim are healthy and safe, which is why Gale guesses Katniss allows herself to indulge in this behavior. Maybe she can't help it. Whatever the case, he finds it disorienting and spends a lot of time worrying about her, but he also knows instinctively that his undemanding presence is a comfort and a reminder of normalcy for her. Like when they were younger and could spend hours together in a blind without speaking, passing a thermos of hot tea back and forth whenever they needed to warm up. Words were Peeta's specialty, anyway. (Are. Are his specialty.)
It takes a trip to 12 and Peeta's appearance on a Capitol propo to convince her, but Katniss finally agrees to be the Mockingjay. When they let her be herself, he can see why she'll inspire the rest of the country, and he feels renewed hope that they'll win this war. Most of the time, though, she struggles through each day and he starts to notice how they aren't as in synch as they used to be. Their disagreements now feel more like actual fights that they never really resolve, just mutually gloss over afterward. And their second trip back to 12 is awful for countless reasons—over seven thousand, to be precise—but one of which is that he and Katniss are barely on speaking terms during what should have been a day when they could draw strength from one another. She's furious with him for not telling her about Peeta's second propo and he's mad right back at her for not even trying to understand why he had worried that confirmation of Peeta being tortured might trigger her to relapse into a zombie state, which she seems to forget is how she's spent most of her time in 13.
And he honestly was not looking for more proof of how she didn't want him, but there she was, kissing him in the kitchen of her house because he was mourning what they could have been if not for the Capitol and what they can never be as long as Peeta is captive. He knows she was just trying to make him feel better, but it backfired and reminded him that she doesn't want him, she wants him to not feel bad. He can't even blame her for being confused—the Capitol apparently made screwing with her emotional reactions their number one national security priority—but the fact that she doesn't care enough to try to understand is frustrating.
After that, Gale finds himself at the District 12 cemetery, not missing the irony of the entire district being a cemetery now. The cemetery shed is still there behind the gravestones, badly charred and with all its contents burned—he doesn't need the key around his neck to gain access, but he grips it anyway. He remembers there's still a crate of medicine he and Madge hadn't been able to retrieve after the Peacekeepers started patrolling so heavily, and starts digging through the blackened, ashy soil with his bare hands until he hits the familiar container.
Hefting it out of the ground, he explains to the camera crew that he and "the other District 12 rebels" (might as well imply they were something more than Gale Hawthorne and Madge Undersee) had been stockpiling food and medicine for an uprising, and their efforts were only thwarted because, unlike the Capitol, they cared about their fellow citizens and distributed the supplies to keep people alive when the Capitol cut off shipments to the district for absolutely no reason in the middle of winter. The producers in 13 will love any bombast he can muster, and the story doesn't undermine 12's image as the innocent victim of the Capitol's cruelty because the infant underground movement didn't accomplish much. The other districts can also undoubtedly relate to having their food supplies arbitrarily terminated. He wonders briefly if Katniss will ask him for more details when she sees the footage, but that would require her to be even minutely curious about him, which she doesn't seem to have the mental energy for lately.
Cressida motions for him to keep talking, but he doesn't know what else to say. He's drained from the onslaught of memories of That Night and hates the cameras; he's only tolerated this much filming because it's directly supporting the war effort. So he looks away and starts digging through the container of pills, some of which aren't expired and could be used in 13. He thinks about how surprised he was to discover that Madge had started moving the leftover parcels here on her own, and how shocked he was when she suggested they steal the medicine from the Justice Building. By the time he learned she'd also distributed nearly everything during the security crackdown without getting caught, he thought he should have been used to how she operated but he'd been surprised yet again…
Somewhere in that crate he finds the words to keep talking, and glances back at the camera. "Not all the other rebels in 12 survived the bombing, but they deserve credit for putting their lives on the line, even though we didn't have much hope of success. I know it can feel that way in other districts, too. But that spirit is exactly why we're going to win."
He believes it: if there are Madges in the other districts, the rebels can defeat the Capitol. Katniss is essential as the symbol and the spirit of the revolution, but equally important are those people being inspired by her, fighting block by block in obscurity in the districts and taking over Capitol-controlled buildings and supply lines... Or acting like Madge did That Night and knowingly endangering herself to increase the chances of others escaping.
He's so caught up in his thoughts, he doesn't notice Cressida speaking until she asks the question a second time. "Soldier? Any last messages for your fellow rebels in the other districts?"
"Yes," he says as trains a steely gaze on the blinking red light next to the lens. "The Capitol kept the districts separated, but we do all have something in common: they stole people we loved from us." In his case, through mine explosions, the traumas of the Hunger Games, and murder by firebombing… "It ends now. We owe it to those we lost to win this war."
He knows he doesn't have the same inspirational flash that Katniss does, but he knows just as well how widespread the Capitol's evil is. The entire day's footage has been a reminder of that. He slaps the lid shut on the crate, picks it up, and retraces his steps through the graveyard past all the ghosts.
THE END. SORT OF.
A/N: So, this story has been my attempt to fit Gale/Madge into canon, inspired by my frustration with both of their fates in Mockingjay. Originally, the idea ended where this story does: Gale fell for Madge in 12 and her death contributed to how extreme he becomes in Mockingjay. I figured that even if Madge died, she had influenced Gale in good ways that would help him better deal with the aftermath of the war. Neither explanation was necessary, but they fit. And then the idea evolved… Since Katniss' POV narration leaves a lot of wiggle room, I decided that I could continue weaseling Gale/Madge into canon by saving Madge and trying to give them both happier endings than SC did. So there will be a sequel to this story where Madge lives. (And she might not be the only person who appeared to die but didn't…) Things that seemed like loose ends will be resolved in the next story, but this one ends here for thematic and chronology reasons. [Update: I started the next story; it's called "On What Grounds" and can be found on my profile page.]
Thank you all SO MUCH for reading and for sharing your reactions with me. I sincerely appreciate the feedback and have enjoyed chatting with so many of you in reviews and PMs. And thank you as well to those without accounts who I haven't been able to thank personally (or whose accounts don't accept PMs; the Review Reply feature has been broken for a while, ARGH). Thanks again for all the support and for sharing the Gale/Madge delusion with me. ;)
Edited in April 2012 to add: 1) I wanted to share a couple of songs that go along with this story and especially this chapter. First song: "How It Ends" by DeVotchKa - I couldn't mention this song before this chapter because it would spoil the ending, but it's beautiful and haunting and fitting. Second song: "World Spins Madly On" by the Weepies - aww, poor Gale. (I hadn't heard this song until after I wrote this story, but Medea Smyke brought it to my attention and it's scarily perfect.)
2) Please take a moment to review. There's a strange tension in the fanfiction world between authors wanting reviews for the encouragement to keep writing (it makes a HUGE difference, believe me), and readers preferring to invest in reading completed stories - yet once a story is completed barely anyone reviews. :( So, if you appreciate completed stories and enjoyed this one then please leave a review.