The remainder of the dance hurtles onward in a kaleidoscope of spirited music, airborne dust kicked up by pounding feet, and shrieking laughter. The twisting and twirling warm bodies conspire together to fend off the chill of the autumn night air, and in what feels like no time at all to Madge, people slowly start retreating from the clearing and the songs melt into a soft trickle. When the last dance disbands, Madge feels a sweet disappointment that the music and the fun are over, although the nostalgia is almost immediately replaced by rising anxiety as she looks around and doesn't see any other townspeople—she'd been hoping to walk back with some of her classmates. Then she remembers Gale's promise to get her home and to her relief she sees that he hasn't left yet: he's reclining on his elbows in the grass with one of his friends they'd walked here with, looking relaxed and content in the low light from the dwindling bonfire.
He grins when he notices her approaching and sits up. "Guess your headache went away?"
Madge feels her cheeks warming at his reference to how she ditched Harold. "Who knew dancing could cure headaches?"
She doesn't even mind the triumph in his answering smile; she can't begrudge him a valid victory, not when she had more fun this night than she can ever remember. Wistfully watching the last fiddler leave the clearing with a friendly nod at Gale, Madge wishes there had been a way to record some of the songs so she could listen to them again later.
Gale and his friend stand up and lazily brush dirt and pine needles off their clothes. "Come on, Undersee, we'll walk you back," Gale says.
"Actually," his friend says, glancing at a dark-haired girl leaning against a nearby tree, "I'm going to—" He trails off when the girl waves at him and doesn't bother making the rest of his excuse because he's already walking away. Gale laughs indulgently and doesn't seem to mind being left behind.
"Where are they going?" Madge asks. They're holding hands and walking toward a narrow pathway through the trees, but there aren't any houses in that direction, just the mines.
"Probably the slag heap," Gale says with a shrug.
That doesn't make any sense, but Gale's already leaving the clearing for the road to town so she hurries to catch up with him. Away from the bonfire the darkness seems to leap forward, with just enough light to make out the rough outlines of the narrow road, and they have to walk slowly to avoid the largest rocks. Gale treads so quietly she can barely hear the pebbles shifting below his shoes. She can't see his expression, so she fills in her mental image with the memory of the tender way he'd looked at her after they had fallen on the ground together. What a contrast he is tonight from the stone-faced boy who visits her house with Katniss.
"Those musicians are really good," she ventures, feeling the need to fill the silence.
"They're the best," he agrees, pride evident in his voice. "They get a lot of time to practice when the electricity's off," he adds.
She detects a hint of bitterness in his comment and isn't sure how to respond so she tries to steer the conversation back into positive territory. "You know what my favorite part of the whole night was? That people from the Seam came to the play in town, and people from town came out here for this dance."
"Well… I think it's good to not let the divisions isolate us."
"You know why that happens, don't you?" Gale asks.
"I guess partly it's because we don't have much in common," Madge says thoughtfully, thinking about how tonight was the first time she's had a full conversation with anyone from the Seam other than Katniss or her family's staff.
"No, it's because people from town can't look people in the Seam in the eye and know that they're letting them starve," Gale says bluntly.
It feels like he's accusing her personally of causing his neighbors' hardships and she feels instantly defensive. "That's the Capitol's fault, not the people in town!"
She immediately clamps her hands over her mouth, surprised she blurted out something so treasonous. On instinct, she scans for nearby people who might have overhead, but the dark outlines of trees and the distant weak light from the streetlamps up ahead are all she sees.
"Um, you won't tell anyone I just said—"
"Who would I tell? Your dad? I'll try not to mention it the next time I sell him illegal berries," he mutters.
Madge feels stupid for even asking; of course Gale isn't an informer. But her bigger concern is revealing how easily she thinks treasonous thoughts, which he might connect to reflecting the general atmosphere in the Undersee household. Her father has always considered the Capitol a necessary evil to be consulted with as infrequently and disingenuously as possible, and Madge has to constantly remind herself not to let her disdain show when she's in public. 'Get what we can out of them and keep our heads down,' has been her father's attitude.
Deciding she's better off keeping her mouth closed, Madge abandons conversation and quietly follows Gale. She doesn't think he'd reveal to anyone that she doesn't necessarily buy into the Capitol's propaganda, but she feels uneasy giving away anything about her father.
As they pass the last houses of the Seam, the quality of the road improves and it's easier to see since more of the streetlights are in good repair. They're still not quite in town yet, though, and thin stands of trees line the roadside rather than buildings. She can see Gale's face more clearly now—he looks as serious as ever, though occasionally he glances at her out of the corner of her eye as though he's trying to figure her out. She's trying to figure him out, too.
Suddenly she can't see him anymore—the streetlights all winked off at the same time, leaving them in stunning darkness. By straining her eyes, Madge can only pick up the hint of a dim glow from what must be the town square over a mile away. It must be much later than she thought, since only Power Grid One—which supplies the buildings directly on the town square—is still active. Power Grid Two is off more frequently and always by a certain late hour each night to prevent people from frivolously using electricity, and she and Gale must be within Grid Two's territory.
She's never encountered darkness this thick and tries to quell the fluttery unease building in her chest. Instinctively she reaches out for Gale, needing him as an anchor against the void. She ends up with a handful of coarse fabric—his shirt—and steps closer now that she knows where he is. He reminds her of the bonfire from the dance: he's radiating warmth and even smells faintly like the smoke because he was sitting so close to the flames at the end of the night. She slowly releases his shirt fabric, but can't lose contact with him and for reasons she doesn't readily understand, lays her hand flat against his chest so she can feel the slight movement of him inhaling and exhaling. The stillness of the night hadn't seemed as severe while they were walking, but now the silence feels heavy and permanent, like something she can't and doesn't want to pierce. But she does need this reassurance that she's not alone in the darkness.
Gale isn't saying anything or backing away from her despite the fact that she's close enough to feel his breath lightly ruffling her bangs; it's like he's waiting for her to do something. She closes the remaining distance between them and realizes that she likes being this close to him. He feels safe and risky at the same time, like he'll protect her from whatever threats the darkness is concealing, but at any moment he might purposefully make her feel bad for being unforgivably richer than him. And even that volatility is thrilling because he's such a contrast to the calm of her life. He's the chaos of the Seam dances to her carefully composed intermission music.
Feeling bolder, she moves her other hand onto his chest as well and is rewarded by the light pressure of his hands on her waist, pausing and then slowly gliding up her sides, leaving a trail of tingling sensations in their wake. There's something freeing about the darkness and not being able to see what he's thinking, just exploring and being explored. She slides her hands up to the collar of his shirt until she reaches the skin of his neck, and tentatively runs her fingers over his prickly stubble, so different from her own skin. His hands migrate into her hair, already disheveled from dancing and falling out of the constraining ribbons into what she assumes at this point only counts as a partial ponytail.
Or a former ponytail: Gale unties the remaining ribbon, freeing her hair. Madge suddenly feels exposed, and even more alarming is how much she likes the feeling, as well as the soft movement of Gale combing through her locks. She tries to step even closer to him, but there's no space left and she realizes she's basically just pressing against him. A horrible thought occurs to her: does this count as being loose? Standing around in the dark with Gale Hawthorne? After she'd already collapsed on top of him in the dirt at the dance! Plagued by an onslaught of second thoughts about what she's doing, she quickly retracts her hands and takes a step backwards, relieved that her red face isn't visible in the darkness.
"I can't see anything," she says unsteadily. How did she lose herself so thoroughly in such a short span of time? She hasn't been acting like herself all evening.
Gale doesn't respond at first, though she can hear him breathing unevenly. Maybe he's surprised, too. Or maybe he does this and more all the time with girls and is just shocked that Madge is going along with it. Or maybe he's offended that she backed away from him.
But when he speaks, his tone sounds controlled. "Here." She feels him reach toward her and gently pull one of her hands into his. "I could walk this road blindfolded."
They might as well be blindfolded, it's so dark. Still, she clutches his hand and follows carefully behind him toward the faint glow of the town square. She's hyper aware of how right it feels to hold his warm, callused hand, in contrast to Harold's cold, sweaty hand, and wonders if they could pause and go back to doing whatever they were doing before she flipped out...
She doesn't realize Gale has stopped walking until she bumps into him.
"Shhh!" He reaches back to steady her, and she feels his hand on her waist as though it's burning a hole through the thin fabric of her dress. But he seems to be focusing on something up ahead that Madge can't see. Suddenly, he's pulling her off to the side of the road behind a tree. She feels panic start to rise in her chest—he said he'd protect her and here he is, roughly dragging her off—
He's not even touching her anymore. She sees him peering around the side of the tree into the shadows, and she can vaguely make out that some of the shadows are moving. Her eyes are slowly becoming better able to discern details in the darkness, and she realizes one of the shadows is wearing a Peacekeeper uniform. And the silhouette of the other figure is female. Skinny, for sure, but unmistakably smaller and curvier.
Madge gasps quietly when the Peacekeeper says, "Same time next week, girlie," accompanied by the clink of coins being exchanged.
She had no idea things like this happened in District 12, and the knowledge makes her stomach flip. Other districts, yes, but not 12. It's against the rules and her father would never stand for this kind of thing! Gale is still watching the road closely so she focuses on trying to breathe normally in case there are any other Peacekeepers nearby who don't want to be caught.
Gale finally turns back to her, the fury visible on his face now that her eyes are better adjusted to the low light.
"Did you see who they were?" she whispers. "We should report that Peacekeeper!"
"That wouldn't stop it from happening," he says sharply before slumping against the tree with a scowl. "She needs money, he has it."
Madge doesn't know what to say. She tentatively reaches for his arm because he looks so upset, and is encouraged when he doesn't pull away. But the contact draws his attention back to her. "That's something we don't have in common. You'd never have to do that."
She can't even imagine it. Doesn't want to. And now thanks to his comment, she probably will.
"You wouldn't either," she points out. Wrong thing to say, apparently. He pushes her hand off his arm and glares at her. It slowly dawns on her that he could be worried about Katniss. "Katniss would never—"
"No," he agrees, clearly not even considering the idea. "But I have a kid sister… I just hope she turns out to be half as tough as Katniss." He swallows anxiously and Madge pictures a miniature Katniss scowling the way Katniss does when they get assigned double problem sets in math.
"What if something happens to me?" he says quietly, his voice distant as though he's talking to himself. "What if she had to take out tesserae and it still wasn't enough?" He suddenly seems to register that he's standing in the dark with Madge, and emerges from his daze to glare at her again. "I bet you've never taken tesserae," he accuses.
Of course she hasn't; she's the mayor's daughter. "What, you want me to sign up for tesserae? That wouldn't change anything."
"You should do something more. Going to a play and to a dance don't count, in case you were wondering."
"I wasn't," she snaps. "But I do think our district shouldn't have so many divisions—the play and the dance don't solve anything, but they're a start and they certainly don't hurt."
"Empty gestures," he says sourly, still slumped against the tree and lost in his own thoughts.
"We wouldn't even be talking if not for the play and the dance," Madge points out. Not to mention doing whatever else they were just doing in the darkness together, which she doesn't even have words for.
But Gale doesn't respond, and when it becomes clear that he's just going to lean against the tree and stew in his frustration over things neither of them can change, Madge peers out on her own to see if anyone else is visible.
"I need to get home. My parents are probably worried." Understatement, but she doesn't dwell on that. Not seeing any other movement in the shadows, she leaves their hiding spot and starts walking back on the road, only progressing a few steps before Gale falls in line next to her. "You don't need to walk with me anymore, we're close enough."
She can see well enough now that she can avoid tripping and can keep her bearings toward the fuzzy, dark-tinged-with-yellow air up ahead. But Gale ignores her and keeps walking, which she decides to not fuss about because he seems like the stubborn type and the air between them already feels prickly.
Also, the idea of creepy Peacekeepers lurking in the underbrush is still unsettling. They're supposed to be the ones making sure everyone else follows the laws… Although she's also seen them in that dirty shack where Katniss and Gale sometimes go after they've been hunting—the Hag? the Bob?—so they do break some rules. And her father knows about that shack… With a chill, she wonders if her father does know about what happens between some of the Peacekeepers and Seam girls in the shadowy corners of the district. He gripes about the Peacekeepers periodically, and how he has no say over their activities—they're fully under the authority of the Head Peacekeeper. Maybe her father knows but can't do anything about it… It's a disturbing thought, and occupies Madge for the rest of their walk.
As they approach the lights of the town square and the Undersee residence, she starts to reconsider the wisdom of Gale escorting her. The lights are blazing at full force in her father's study as well as on the front porch and the living room; he is definitely waiting up for her.
She stops and faces Gale, who's walking with his hands in his pockets and appears to be deep in thought. "Go home."
"I said I'd get you get back—"
She gestures toward her brightly lit house. "Are you in the mood for a friendly chat with the mayor? There's at least the possibility he won't kill you, though he probably wouldn't mind throwing you in jail."
It doesn't take long for Gale to eye the house and the state of Madge's dress and then agree with her assessment of the dangers.
"Thanks for walking back with me," she says automatically, years of lectures on manners from her mother kicking in before she fully processes how awkward this situation is. How should she say good-bye? This wasn't a date, was it? Being pressured into attending a Seam dance, having fun at the dance, conversing with him about topics other than the price of strawberries, lying on the ground laughing with him... Exploring each other in the darkness of the no man's land between town and the Seam… It felt like more of a date than standing around with Harold in Georgia's basement had.
Gale seems similarly confused about what to say, and for a moment looks younger and more vulnerable than usual. Then the cold mask she's used to seeing slides over his features and he says stiffly, "Later, Undersee." He starts backing away.
"Bye," she mutters, taking his parting as confirmation that they weren't on a date. Then she turns to face the scolding of her life at home.
Her father flings open the front door before Madge even touches the doorknob, and after taking in her disordered appearance he wraps her tightly in a hug. "Are you all right? What happened?"
Guilt stabs her and she tries to look over his shoulder at the grandfather clock in the hallway. Nearly one o'clock in the morning. He probably started worrying at least around eleven… She takes a deep breath. "I'm sorry, Daddy. I didn't realize it was so late."
He ushers her inside the house and looks queasy at the sight of her dress. "Madge, what—"
"I'm fine," she says quickly. "Really. My dress got a little dirty, but we can send it to that washerwoman in the Seam who works wonders."
Her father doesn't look entirely convinced and she notices that his tie is loose and the long, thin strands of hair on his bald spot are flying in different directions. Which reminds her that her own hair is probably contributing to his concern so she reaches up to retie her ribbon before remembering she doesn't have it. It must have fallen off when Gale untied it, a fact she's not inclined to mention.
"I didn't mean to worry you," she says, trying her best to sound contrite. "Is Mom…"
"Sleeping." Her father exhales slowly. "I didn't want to disturb her after all the excitement this evening with the play." Madge translates that to mean her mother got a headache and had to take morphling to sleep, which means tomorrow will be another 'No piano, please, dear' day. Although that might be the least of Madge's problems tomorrow, because she notices her father standing up a little straighter. She braces for his transition from concern to anger.
"Margaret, I know you went to the Seam," he says sternly. "What have we told you about—"
"I was with other kids from town," Madge jumps in. "There were a bunch of us, we wanted to see what a Seam dance was like."
"I know, I spoke with the Mayfields and the Greens." Georgia's parents and Harold's parents; she can her the accusation in her father's tone at forcing him to call around to track her down. "But you could have easily stopped by to let us know where you were and when you would be returning. I could have sent Barry to escort you."
Madge tries to hide her horror at the idea of being trailed all evening by her father's assistant and feels a surge of relief that she didn't ask for permission to go to the Seam. She already doesn't fit in; having a babysitter wouldn't help. And she wouldn't have been able to see this other side of Gale…
"We were fine, Dad," she says in an attempt at a reassuring tone, noticing that he seems to be comforted by the knowledge that she was theoretically with a group of town kids. "The dance was really fun," she adds tentatively. "The musicians were so talented... Better than I've heard on the Capitol's broadcasts. And, Dad, nobody cared who was from town and who was from the Seam. It was like you wanted with the play…"
Her father sighs and rubs his eyes, looking older and more tired than before. "Well, that's something. Wages are dropping again in the mines. The orders from the Capitol came through tonight. We'll have to hope that the goodwill you saw tonight lasts…"
Madge listens quietly, hoping he'll continue, but he seems to realize he's talking to Madge as opposed to her mother or one of his staff members because he stops and steers her by her shoulders to the staircase. "Bedtime. We'll discuss your punishment tomorrow with your mother."
Grounded for a month—but where would she go, anyway?—and not allowed to date. Fine; that's a blessing rather than a punishment. She's hopefully leaving District 12 as soon as she graduates, and the only person she'd be interested in dating isn't an option for countless reasons, chief of which being that he's reacted to their impromptu evening together by escalating his previous indifference into outright hostility. She knows times are tough in the Seam lately because of the wage cuts at the mines—Katniss' increasingly skimpy lunches are further confirmation of the all-around hardship—but Madge also wonders if Gale is mad at her symbolically on behalf of his friend Nate, who'd been secretly dating Georgia until her parents put an end to it. That wouldn't make any sense, though—Madge barely even knows Georgia, and certainly can't control what Georgia's parents decree. Still, it wouldn't be the first time Gale had blamed her for something she symbolized. He didn't like her before their evening together and he doesn't like her now. The only difference is that now she cares.
Like Madge, her dress survived the Seam excursion, returning in sparkling white condition from the washerwoman. And it turned out her hair ribbon wasn't actually lost; it must have been tangled in the fabric of dress because it came back with the clean dress, too. All in all, Madge thinks she did pretty well at getting away with her trip to the Seam. She's especially grateful that her parents haven't figured out she was with Gale that night—Mrs. Everdeen apparently hasn't run into her mother—or they wouldn't even let her answer the door whenever Gale and Katniss turn up to sell her family whatever the forest is offering that day.
She starts to both long for and dread their sales calls. Gale is invariably a dark storm cloud of sullen silence in the background while Katniss chats with Madge about homework or with Madge's parents about how cold it's getting these days. Sometimes when Madge answers the door in the company of one of her parents, she watches Gale while Katniss and her mother or father conduct business and she sees that he's watching her, too. Whenever their eyes meet for the few seconds before Gale looks away, she feels that same sense of thrilling risk that overcame her when they stood together in the darkness in no man's land between town and the Seam. Madge even catches him staring at her chest once on a day when she's wearing a V-neck sweater, although when he realizes he's been caught he doesn't look anywhere near her for the next few weeks.
But most of the time it's hard to think that he's same person she saw smiling and dancing, the person she stood with in the dark who told her about his worries about his little sister… Who smelled like a dreamy blend of pine and the smoke from the bonfire… Instead, he's Other Gale, the standoffish one she prefers not to think is the Real Gale who she got a glimpse of that night.
One rainy day after the weather has turned cold, he arrives at her house by himself, armed with a pail and a scowl.
"Katniss is sick," he says in response to Madge's unasked question when she opens the back door.
"Is she all right?"
"Her mom's on it." He wipes away some of the water dripping from his hair onto his forehead. His eyelashes are clumped together and he looks miserable and she wishes she could get him out of the rain.
She opens the door wider. "Do you want to come inside?"
They could sit together in front of the fire in her living room so he could warm up. He could describe to her what the forest is like this time of year and she could give him hot chocolate… She could lay her head on his shoulder and he could run his hands through her hair the way he did before, and that would lead to—
He isn't even looking at her, focused instead on the pail he's carrying. His refusal echoes through the kitchen and she wonders how she could possibly forget that Gale Hawthorne is an expert at packing the maximum amount of hostility into the fewest number of syllables. What is wrong with her? They'll never snuggle by a fire. He would never even willingly step foot in her house. And if she gets her way, she'll be leaving for the Music Academy as soon as humanly possible. So why does her brain insist on concocting these scenarios?
She forces herself to comment lightly about Katniss being in good hands; everyone in the district is aware of Mrs. Everdeen's healing skills. And then she asks briskly, "So, what do you have today?"
"Mushrooms. Your mom wanted them." He's still looking anywhere but Madge, although it's clear from his tone that he wouldn't be here at all if not for her mother's request.
He tells her and she rummages through the drawer where her mother keeps the grocery money until she comes up with the right number of coins. Returning to the door, she presses them into his hand, which despite the cold and rain is as warm as she remembers. Instead of drawing her hand back, she looks up at him and feels something in her chest leap at how intensely he's watching her. It's not hatred; it's more like an accusation mixed with longing. She hasn't been imagining it. And she can't look away.
"Can't we be friends?" she asks softly, clinging to the tips of his fingers.
"I don't want to be friends, Madge," he says harshly. She sees his eyes widen briefly in surprise as his words shoot toward her, which makes her think that even though his tone is pure insult, his inflection, combined with the way he looks at her, could mean he'd rather be more-than-friends. Since that's impossible, he's left with hating her. That seems to be how his mind works: all or nothing, and since all isn't an option, nothing is what's left.
His surprise doesn't last long though, and seconds later he's pulling his hand back and scowling at her. He pockets the coins and abruptly turns down the stairs without saying good-bye.
She stands rooted in the doorway to watch him retreat into the rain and thinks about how strange it is to be encouraged by what he just said. But she is encouraged, and smiles softly as he glances back over his shoulder to look at her when he reaches the gate.
Because he called her Madge.
A/N: It feels VERY UNNATURAL to me to end this story without them snuggling by the fire. But alas, canon demands hostility and Gale's prejudices couldn't be overcome by one fun night. Still, in keeping with my life goal to warp everything into Gadge-friendliness, I'm choosing to interpret Gale's snarkiness on reaping day as an expression of his frustration that he is (or was at some point) attracted to her and that he doesn't think he should be/have been. Yeah yeah yeah he loves Katniss on reaping day, but he had a moment of Madge weakness in his past. ;)
Thank you everyone for reading, favoriting, and sharing your reactions with me. I'm happy to see how many people have been interested in this little diversion. Yay Gadge!