I'm terribly sorry for the ridiculously long delay in getting this final chapter out to you. This past year has been a very difficult one for my family. I appreciate all of the emails, thoughts and prayers.

As usual, anything you recognize isn't mine, but Suzanne Collins'.

I never intended to leave you all hanging so long with such an evil cliffhanger. You may want to go back a few chapters and refresh your memory if it's been a while since you last read. Lots to cover here. This is the second longest chapter in the story, coming in at around ten thousand five hundred words.

The Games have ended. We have two Victors. There was a big celebration in Twelve. Gale woke up naked in a strange room with fuzzy memories of the night before…

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Chapter 27

The morning after…

Sunday morning, Day 2 post Games

Why can't I remember? I bang my head against the wall in frustration, bringing on another wave of nausea. More roaring in my ears. I swallow down the grief and fear. Get a grip, Hawthorne. I glance towards the window. The sunlight is blindingly bright, making my head pound. The slant of the sun tells me it's still morning.

I'm naked. In Madge's house, I presume. This room is nearly identical to the one I used before. Have I been here all night? How did I get here? If the Mayor finds me here naked, well... he'll probably have me shot first and ask questions later.

I need to find a way out. A way home, undetected. Then I can try and piece together these fractured memories. If I can get myself home alive.

I push myself to my feet, sliding up the wall and take stock of my surroundings. The two windows overlook the Undersee's garden. I'm on what looks like the third floor and the windows won't budge. They're sealed.

The questions swirl in my mind. Not only how did I get here in the first place. Why am I here now? Naked? Locked in? A prisoner?

How am I going to find my clothes? Or something less conspicuous than a sheet, at least.

Varvara's face intrudes into my mind. Her lascivious smile. Too close. Much too close. Her hands on me. Too intimate. Much too intimate. Shouting. Confusion.

I hear a noise outside my door. Do I call out? No, remain quiet? I can't think clearly. Form a plan, Hawthorne.

The door abruptly slides open and the Mayor steps into the room, backed by a small army of Peacekeepers. This is not good. But, at least he'll put me out of my misery. He motions for them to stand guard in the hall and the door closes, leaving us alone. My first thought, oddly enough, is that I'm at a decided disadvantage standing here in nothing more than a sheet. As if there were any advantage to be had over the man who runs the whole District. Madge's father.

"Well Mr. Hawthorne, just what am I going to do with you?" The Mayor's patronizing tone is like nails on a chalkboard, setting me even more on edge, if possible.

Does he expect an answer or is his question rhetorical? Expecting the latter, I remain quiet.

"I don't need any more attention drawn to Madge than has already been. Her intervening on your behalf with Ms. Vamp last night was extremely embarrassing. Quite dangerous, her name being linked with yours."

What the hell did happen last night? "I'm afraid I don't remember what happened last night. How I got here, sir. How Madge intervened?" Intervened with Varvara? Oh, yes, please let her have intervened.

The Mayor's glare tells me he has no intention of explaining things to me.

"The specifics of last night are not important. What may or may not have happened last night is unimportant." Not important to him, obviously. Most definitely important to me. Hopefully, Madge will be able to tell me. "What is important," he continues, raising his voice "is that I have plans for Madge's future. Plans that you are not going to derail. She is going to study at the Capitol Music Conservatory. She will marry a man from the Capitol. She will be safe. Her children- my grandchildren- will be safe. I will go to any length to protect her. Any length."

My mind is still a bit fuzzy. "I would never do anything to hurt Madge, Mayor."

"You already have," he states, making my heart sink. Remembering her teary eyes in the garden yesterday when we argued. Wondering just how much he knows. "If she is in love with you, she's going to insist on staying here. In favor-forsaken District Twelve. She'll sacrifice herself for love. For you." He smirks. "Very romantic. I'll never allow it to happen. You are to make it quite clear to her that there is no future for the two of you. None at all. You are not to be seen as even friends, although we can't deny any level of acquaintance with you both being Katniss' friends. That and the very... heated embrace that was viewed by Ms. Vamp and others in this very house only a few short weeks ago.""

I cringe when he mentions our staged kiss. If he knew of the others... And, in love with me? He thinks Madge is in love with me? Will sacrifice herself for me? How? "Madge knows I plan on marrying Katniss, sir. I've been very honest with her. What exactly are you asking me to do?" I ask carefully. My head is pounding. Trying to follow everything is taking more effort than it should.

"Marry Katniss? They'll never let that happen, my boy. You're cousins, remember? But the only one I'm concerned about is Madge. You are ruining all of my carefully laid plans for her. She has known of my plans for years and never questioned them. Until you started spending time with her. Until you seduced her into your arms. So, you must do whatever is necessary to break her heart. To make her see that she cannot have a future here in Twelve. To make her anxious to agree to my plans to send her away. Away from you, and most definitely away from Twelve."

"And if I refuse?" I practically spit, before realizing I need to soften it, "Or I'm not able to since she isn't in love with me after all?"

"She is and you will. The mines are closed until the Victors are home. That should give you plenty of time to break her heart. Do whatever is necessary to make her hate you, short of bringing her physical harm. I know she has asked you to take her into the woods. Take her. Scare her. Show her that she doesn't know the real you at all. That she doesn't know the real world at all. That nothing is safe or predictable unless she is protected by someone with power and influence. And…I'll give you until Wednesday."

That he could talk so cruelly about his own daughter astonishes me. Perhaps it shouldn't, I realize. He is the Capitol's man, after all. "And if I fail?"

He smiles coldly. "Failure means you'll be going to the Capitol as Varvara Vamp's personal pet, and I'll see to it that the only name in the boys' reaping ball next year is Hawthorne."

Home Sweet Home

Sunday Afternoon, Day 2 post Games

Rory is angry at me. Still. Over Madge. Over staying out all night. Over who knows what else. I really don't have the energy for this talk right now. I have to figure out how to break Madge's heart in order to keep my family safe. In order to keep Rory from being reaped next year. For the Quarter-Quell. At least Rory will be happy when she hates me.

"Are you going to fight for her?" Rory asks accusingly, following me around the cramped house.

I know he means Katniss, but it's disconcerting to realize his comment could apply as easily to Madge. "For Katniss? You heard what she said in the cave. Mellark has no competition- anywhere. That was definitely directed at me."

"Yeah, I know she said that," he concedes. "But… that was in the Games. And you never even told her before she left how you feel, did you? What if she said there's no competition because she doesn't know that there is a competition? If she thinks no one else is interested in her… in that way. If she thinks you see her as nothing more than a hunting partner because she is used to seeing you with a string of other girls…" he trails off suggestively.

I loved her first. Well… I thought I was first. But… she knew me first. Spoke to me first. Smiled for me first. If only I had told her before she left. If I had told her, how would that have changed things? Would she have returned my love? Would she have been able to pull off the star-crossed lovers in the Games if she knew how I felt- or would she have ended up dead instead? Or maybe the sole Victor? In all my imaginings - in all of my nightmare scenarios about what could happen in the Games – I never considered this. I had never even considered that she might fall in love with another tribute. Why would I? It's inconceivable that love could blossom in such a place. At such a time! It's still impossible to believe they are both coming home. Or that they are really in love.

If we're not meant to be together then why do I know what you're thinking with just a glance, Katniss? He can't do that. Complete your thoughts. Synchronize with your actions. Complement your strengths. You're the only one I've ever pictured as my wife. My partner in life. My other half. Together we are more than the sum of our parts.

Monday, post Games Day 3

The mines are closed this week, which means we simply won't get paid. I can supplement my income by spending some of that time hunting, but most of the other miners don't have that option. We won't be paid, but with the extra rations we will be getting all year, hopefully no one will starve as a result.

The leaders of the rebellion do meet, as we do whenever we can find the time, to plan exercises on surveillance and the training for our men. We can make good use of this time given to us in celebration of the victory of our District. They are more hopeful for the chances of an all-out rebellion since Katniss' victory in the arena. They tell me that her Mockingjay pin was a secret sign of the old rebellion. That others will recognize it and remember. That Katniss' and Peeta's final act in the Games was a spark. That the time is at hand. That we must be ready to act.

If others know about the symbol Katniss wears, surely the Capitol knows as well. But, did Katniss know? And, how much does Madge know about it?

But, how can we coordinate a rebellion when we have no way of contacting those in other districts? How can we be sure the time is right? Look what happened to District Thirteen –and to all of the other Districts- when the last rebellion failed. The only ones who have contact with those in other districts are the Victors themselves. So then…could the Victors be a key to a successful rebellion? Would they risk everything they have gained to help free the masses? Would Katniss? In the past, my answer would have been an unequivocal hell no. Now, I'm not so sure I know the answer to that. I'm not sure I really know Katniss anymore.

I spend Monday afternoon with my family. Trying desperately to think how I'm going to deal with Madge. How to break her heart without hurting her? Impossible. Tell her the truth? Unthinkable- too dangerous. And trying desperately not to think about what Katniss and Peeta are up to in the Capitol, with Haymitch and Capitol showers and parties and colorful drinks and all kinds of unimaginable decadence dancing through my mind.

I take Rory and Vick out to the woods with me in the afternoon. What will happen in the weeks and months to come? Will the Mayor send me away to be Varvara's pet, even after I deal with Madge? My skin crawls at the idea. Will he reap my brothers? Maybe we do need to leave the District before the Quarter Quall reaping, no matter how things go with Madge. But, what of the rebellion? If there is any real hope of one.

Will Katniss come with me now? She wouldn't come before she was a Victor. Why would she now? She is promised a life of ease with Prim. No more starvation. No more freezing days and nights in a cold cabin. Surely, Prim couldn't be reaped more than once. They are actually safer in the District now, I grudgingly admit. She is a Victor. A Somebody. And, they'd hunt her down if she ran.

Would Posy even remember me if I were taken away? I realize that Vick barely remembers our father. And I've spent less time with him than I have with Rory. I have been inexcusably remiss in teaching him survival skills. He's going to need them if we decide to run. When we decide. If there is no hope of a real rebellion and real change then we are going to have to take matters into our own hands- in the forest. It can't be much harder than living in the District.

Tuesday, post Games Day 4

I step out of my door to find a young boy awaiting me. He hops up when I emerge and hands me a letter. I take it warily, recognizing the expensive stationary from the Undersees' despite the creases and dirt from the urchin's handling of it.

It is a short note from Madge accepting my invitation for an outing. Except - I never sent any invitation. I close my eyes. Take several deep breaths. Apparently the Mayor has decided to hurry things along. She'll be here in an hour. I send the boy to Dougray's to tell him I won't be meeting him this morning.

I sit on the steps waiting as if for the executioner instead of the prettiest girl in the district.

When she appears she looks as if she just stepped out of a propaganda video promoting the benefits of fresh air and exercise for the youth of Panem. She has on a lightweight pink button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up to her elbows, form-fitting khaki cargo shorts and hiking boots. Her skin glowing, her cheeks blooming. Radiating health in a way rarely seen in the Seam. Her smile would light up the sky if it wasn't already a brilliantly sunny summer morning. Her golden hair is piled up on her head in a riot of curls that immediately makes me wonder what it would look like tumbling about her shoulders. What it would feel like in my hands. Across my face. I don't wonder what it smells like. I know. Strawberries and an intoxicating scent that is Madge's alone.

She practically skips as she comes up the lane towards the house. Something so beautiful and sweet and pure is as out of place in the Seam as a rose in winter. A rose I'm going to step on. Crush beneath my boot. No- her father's boot. As everything in the Seam is eventually crushed by the greed and depravity of the Capitol.

"Morning Gale, I'm ready to go!" she practically chirps, reminding me of Posy in expectation of a treat. A dagger to my heart.

I stare at her a moment, wondering what I offer that produces that light in her eyes. As I sit staring at her, wondering if I'll ever see her smile at me again, her smile dims and finally … is extinguished.

"Gale?" she asks tentatively. "Are you well?" She looks concerned now. As my mother looks when she thinks one of her kids might be ill.

"I'm fine," I assure her, standing up.

Immediately her eyes are dancing and she is practically vibrating with excitement. And I know. I know what I offered. The one thing she has asked for that I have denied her. A taste of freedom. A trip outside the fence. Her father wants me to take her to the woods and scare the crap out of her. Break her heart. Crush her spirit. So that he can send her to the Capitol to marry some rich fool who cannot possibly deserve her. So that she will be content to be safe and rich- rather than free and loved.

But, no one is free in Panem. Is anyone ever truly safe?

I suppose he could have us caught and have me punished for kidnapping his daughter and fleeing the District. But she'd be sure to make a scene that no one would ever forget and wouldn't easily forgive him. Oh, how scandalized Twelve would be. That would inflame gossip, linking our names even more closely than they already are. Certainly not a Capitol man's plan.

"I can't believe you finally agreed. Am I dressed okay?" she asks.

"I can't believe it, either. I must be an idiot to have thought this is a good idea. We'll be breaking at least half a dozen laws." As if I would ever have agreed to take the Mayor's daughter beyond the fence- if free to choose.

"No backing out now, Hawthorne," she scolds me playfully.

Despite myself, I have to fight back a smile at her attitude. "You're sure to ruin that pretty outfit of yours, Princess. Crawling in the dirt and bushes is better done in dark colors, as a rule. Shorts and the woods are not a good combination," I say, looking at the exposed curves of her long, toned limbs. My mind threatens to drift. "You're going to have a heck of a time explaining your appearance to Annis or anyone else you might come across on your way home if I take you like that."

"I thought of that, actually. I have a change of clothes in my bag."

Of course she does. What else is in that magic bag of tricks, I wonder. I should always remember that Madge is usually two steps ahead of most people.

We go into the house and she uses the bathroom to change into a black blouse and green cargo pants. Her golden hair has tumbled down around her shoulders, I ache to touch it. I don't move a muscle. She looks even more attractive in the black and green. Less innocent. More grown up. Slightly dangerous, maybe. To my resolve, anyway. My mind definitely drifts. I jerk it back to reality. A cold reality.

I shoulder my forage bag and prepare to leave, only to find Rory glaring at us from the kitchen.

"What is she doing here?" he challenges belligerently.

Posy pops her head around the corner, "Miss Madge!" she squeals, launching herself into the air in Madge's general direction.

Madge snatches her easily from the air and watches Rory warily as I pull him into the kitchen, telling him to be silent.

"What is she doing here? Katniss will be home in a few days. You don't need her anymore," he hisses.

"Keep your voice down, Rory. She won't be coming around anymore after today. Don't worry about it. Now, I need you to help Mom look after Posy today while I'm gone."

"Don't tell me what to do, Gale! I'm here to help Mom every day when you're down in the mines. You're going somewhere with her, I suppose?"

"I don't need to explain myself to you, Rory."

"You're taking her into the woods, aren't you? The Mayor's daughter? Really? Don't you think that is extraordinarily stupid, Gale? Girls can never keep a secret. She's going to go blabbing to all of her Townie friends how you took her to the woods to do it."

"Would you just shut it, Rory? You don't have any idea what you're talking about. Madge and I just need to have a talk, so I can explain to her how it's going to be from now on."

"You're going to tell her you like Katniss and not her?" He challenges.

"Yes, that's exactly what I'm going to do," I admit.

He looks at me measuringly for a few moments before nodding his agreement. I leave the kitchen; scoop Posy from Madge's arms, giving her a quick kiss before depositing her on the couch. I take Madge's arm, and practically drag her from the house. No need to wait for the other half of my family to put in an appearance this morning, to make things even more awkward.

To the fence, and beyond

As we walk quietly towards the Meadow she pulls her glossy golden hair into a high, bouncy ponytail at the back of her head. I'm still unsure how I'm going to go about repaying all of her kindness and friendship with what I have to do today. Especially not how I will be able do it without her seeing right through me.

"We're going to have to crawl under the fence. I'll hold it up while you slither under, but you'll need to be careful not to scratch yourself on the edge of the wire. But the most important thing is to make certain that the fence is off before approaching it."

"So, how do we do that? Do we just listen for the hum?" she asks.

"Yes, that is generally what we do. Most people are too afraid to get close enough to the fence to hear it. You aren't afraid?"

"No. My father taught me all about the fence when I was little. He even taught me how to shut it off, in case there was ever an emergency."

"You mentioned that once before. Now, that could come in handy in an emergency." Or in a rebellion. Imagine being able to come and go freely between the Districts!

"Yes, I suppose. But, there are always Peacekeepers in the main control room of the watch tower. There is an emergency override switch in my father's office at the house, though."

"Hmm. I suppose it alerts the control room when it's triggered?"

"He didn't say." I file this little bit of information away to share with Dougray later. Two shut-off switches for the fence. One in the tower and one in the Mayor's house. I know the location of the Mayor's home office. It's on the second floor near Madge's bedroom.

The fence is off. We wriggle under and hurry to the edge of the woods without incident. We walk quietly while she takes in the sun-dappled beauty around her. I retrieve my bow and arrows while she is staring up trying to see the sky through the tall trees. I might as well hunt if I have to take her deep enough into the woods to scare her. And I might need them to defend us if we happen across a wild dog or other menace.

"Madge, can we talk about what happened Saturday night?"

She blushes, I note. "What about it?"

"Are you planning to make this as difficult as possible? I know I had too much to drink. I know I acted like an ass. The fact is that I don't remember almost anything after I left the dance floor."

"O-kay?" I can see that she is afraid of my reaction. As if I could be angry at her for anything after how I treated her that night.

"Please, Madge. I have to know what happened. I woke up naked in your house. Thankfully alone and not with Varvara. But I have some fuzzy memories of…being with her. Her touching me. I think you…intervened," I use her father's word. "Please, tell me. What happened?"

"Nothing really… happened."

"Why did you…how did you know I needed your help?"

"I know what you're like when you're interested in a girl. And what you're like when you're not. It wasn't hard to figure out. You were clearly uncomfortable with her. It just took me a little while to get away from her assistant and get back to the house. Her whole team is staying at my house. I asked Annis what room she'd taken you to and what condition you were in. She said you were… barely conscious. She and the cameraman had to help you up the stairs. Annis thought you were sick."

"I was naked…so was she. You can't know that nothing happened. Can you?" Please say yes.

"I believe you were too drunk to …do…anything. You know…to perform." Her cheeks are flaming, recalling the scene. "And Miss Vamp was livid when I overrode the lock and barged in on you. She wasn't completely undressed, yet. But, she was... on the bed with you."

"So, something could have happened."

"No, Gale. She didn't have more than a few minutes alone with you. And, it really doesn't matter if she tried to make something happen. You were definitely drunk…and probably drugged as well. Whatever happened, if anything did, it doesn't count at all if you didn't decide to be with her with a clear head. And you clearly didn't consent to being with her."

"I don't know about that, Madge. I so want to believe you."

She stops walking and takes my hand, pulling me close. "Believe me, nothing really happened, or I would have hurt her much worse than I did."

Intriguing. I can't help smiling at the thought of Madge defending my honor. "Oh, really?"

"I might have scratched her up a bit when I jumped at her and knocked her off the bed."

"I bet I was happy to see you." What I wouldn't give to have that memory back!

"Oh, you were happy to see me. You told her to get out and leave us alone," she grins up at me.

"And, did she?" Now I'm much more curious about what happened after Varvara left than what happened while she was there.

"No, my father and some Peacekeepers heard the fight and came to investigate. I explained to my father what had happened and he packed Varvara and her staff off to the Justice Building to await the morning train."

"Why would she try such a thing? It's not as if she would have a shortage of men willing to…be with her," I wonder.

"Are you completely oblivious to the fact that every woman you meet falls in love with you, Gale? Tall, dark and brooding. A hint of danger. A dash of bravery. And a flourish of …honor…righteousness. You are good. A good man. Someone that every woman can admire. Or desire. I think maybe she just feels entitled to whatever she wants. Maybe like it was a game to her? We know that Capitolites look on those of us from the Districts as less than human. As pieces in their games."

"Do you really think that? That what happened doesn't matter?"

"I do," she says very seriously.

I reach out and take her other hand in mine. "Thank you, Madge."

"You're welcome," she smiles up at me as I lean down and cover her lips with mine. It is much, much too easy to be with her.

We continue on and I show her my snare line. She is clearly a bit revolted at the sight of the dead rabbit hanging from one of the lines, but she does her best to hide the delicate shudder than runs through her frame at the sight. Well, I'm supposed to repulse her. Maybe this is a good way.

We check all of the lines, finding several more rabbits. I have her help me cut them down, getting her hands dirty in the process. She doesn't complain, but she tries not to look. Maybe we should try actually shooting something, I decide.

We climb a tree to keep a lookout for something to shoot. We have to be completely quiet while we wait. My back is to the trunk of the tree and Madge is cradled securely between my thighs, my arms wrapped around her waist. She'll definitely need some help positioning the bow to shoot from such an angle.

As we sit in silence; I bury my face in her hair, inhaling her sweet fragrance. She almost stifles a giggle, turning her head slightly towards me, unwittingly giving me better access to her neck.

"Are you sniffing my hair?" she whispers incredulously. "I thought we were hunting?"

"Oh, we are," I answer in an undertone, sliding my lips down to her ear. "You must practice staying still and quiet, no matter the distraction."

"Oh, I see," she giggles again.

"Shhh…" I remind her as I explore her neck with my lips and tongue. She turns her head and our lips meet, almost as if by accident. Almost. And then again, deliberately this time. Hungrily. She turns around, straddling me as we devour each other, clinging to each other as if we know our time is short. That this is a stolen moment.

Eventually, we climb down and continue our hunt on the forest floor. Our hunt for game. For something for Madge to shoot. A squirrel is gathering acorns, stockpiling for the winter, perhaps. I point it out, silently, readying the bow. I try to hand it to her, but she shakes her head, squeezing her eyes closed. I take the shot, hitting it through the head, but not the eye.

"You don't want to try?" I ask her as I go to collect my kill.

"No," she chokes, looking as if she's going to cry.

"What's the matter?" I ask.

"It's dead."

"Yeah, it's a lot easier to eat that way," I say as I approach her.

"We're not going to eat it, are we?" she asks faintly.

"Not right now, but that's why I hunt. This is where meat comes from." I hold up the offending squirrel.

She laughs, "I thought it came wrapped neatly in white paper from the butcher."

I'm going to miss Madge.

We walk some more, eventually Madge pulls out a blanket and we sit down to see what she has brought along in her bag. It is funny to have Madge here with me, with a picnic blanket and a homemade snack. She has fresh muffins and thermos of water. Very practical choices for Madge.

When we're done, we explore the forest more for fun than for food. By mutual agreement we aren't being especially careful or quiet. More playful. Her hiding, me seeking. Definitely bringing out the hunter instincts in me. I see her, she squeals and runs as I follow.

I catch her up in my arms, spinning her around, pushing her gently up against a tree and kissing her. She trembles in my embrace, moaning softly.

It is like a bucket of ice water in my face. What am I doing? I'm not supposed to be out here having fun with Madge. Seducing her. Which is most decidedly what I am doing. I have to push her away. Make her hate me. I can do this. Can't I?

I take a step back, taking a deep breath. My hands are still against the tree, caging her in, although we're no longer pressed together from lips to hips. I have to do this. Right now, before I can't bring myself to at all.

"We can't do this anymore. Be alone together. See each other."

"What are you talking about?

"Look, you're a pretty girl, Madge. And the Mayor's daughter." I add flippantly. "I was just looking to see if I could get the Mayor's pretty daughter to like me. A boy from the Seam, you know? If you would give me a chance. I never intended for it to go this far. It was supposed to be a distraction, of sorts. A challenge. But, we really can't see each other again after today. With Katniss coming home and all..."

She looks completely stunned at my sudden change of direction. "Because Katniss is coming home?" she echoes.

"No. Not that, really. It's just too dangerous to play around any longer. To you. To my family. To everybody. I mean, I'm just a boy from the Seam and you are the Princess of District Twelve."

"Dangerous? What are you talking about? How is it dangerous?"

"It just is. This is the last time we will ever be together. We eliminate the danger if we can't be seen together by not being together. Ever again." She looks as if I've slapped her. Maybe this is good. If she hates me, then I've done my job, right?

She's breathing hard and her face is flushed again.

"Just, just please don't cry, okay?" I plead. I really don't know what I'll do if she breaks down crying. Probably anything to make her stop.

"Cry? You think I'm going to cry?" she screams at me. "I'm not going to cry you big oaf! I'm going to beat you with a stick until you tell me what the hell is going on with you!"

I stare at her, speechless, like the big oaf that I apparently am.

"What was that supposed to be? That rehearsed 'shove-off Madge' speech?" she demands.

I guess she didn't buy it.

"I think I deserve better than that from you. I deserve honesty. I don't for a minute believe that you were deliberately using me to distract yourself while Katniss was in the Games. Or that you're quaking in fear over her reaction to our -whatever you want to call this between us."

"I'm not afraid of Katniss. But I'm going to have enough difficulty separating her from Mellark without this coming to her attention."

"You have already told me you think you belong with Katniss. I know that is what you think. But, I disagree. I think you care for me more than you're willing to admit. Why won't you allow yourself to see the possibility of us? How right we are together? How happy we could be together?"

"Happy? What does happy have to do with anything? Happiness is no more than a momentary emotion! You don't make life-altering decisions based upon something so fleeting and whimsical." Don't let her distract you, Gale. Get back on point. Drive home how different you are. "At least, no one who has grown up in the Seam would ever entertain such an idea. There is very little to be happy about in a life lived in the Seam, Madge. I won't even consider doing that to you."

"Well, who says we would have to live in the Seam? You're exceptionally smart and charismatic. You could do anything. I could talk to my father. I could ask him-"

"NO!" I step closer, grabbing her hands urgently, pinning them to the tree. The very idea of his likely reaction to such an appeal is chilling. "No, Madge. You must promise me that you will never, ever ask your father to intercede on my behalf."

I can see the gears whirring in her head as she absorbs my outburst.

"He threatened you," she whispers. "My father threatened you," she restates forcefully, her eyes flashing in anger.

"Madge, calm down. He only wants what is best for you. He knows that isn't me."

"That's not true!" she argues.

"It is Madge. You must see that."

"I love you, Gale. And I think you love me, too," she insists. "You cannot deny what we have is real. It's more than just lust or desire, whatever you want to pretend."

She loves me. I pause. "But, does how we feel really matter, Madge? I do care about you. I do desire you. I want you safe and well cared for, above all else. Being with me doesn't make you safe. Doesn't assure that you will be well cared for."

"He wants to send me away from Twelve. Away from everyone I love."

"If happiness as a state of being exists, then I wish that for you, Madge. Marrying someone from the Capitol is surely the most likely way to achieve it. Complete safety for you. For your children. Never having to worry about them going hungry. Never having to watch them stand as sheep ready for the slaughter in a pen of children waiting to see who will die to pay for the crimes of their grandfathers."

"I never said anything about marrying someone from the Capitol. Why would he tell you that? I would rather marry someone I love and live in the Seam than marry some shallow freak from the Capitol! I could never be happy there."

"Oh, Madge," I sigh in frustration. "Happiness itself as a goal in life? It honestly isn't something I can relate to. Inhabitants of the Seam don't dare to hope for happiness for their children. They hope for full bellies. Health and safety. A long life. Someone to share the burdens with. Maybe that is some form of happiness, but happiness as a predictable, lasting feeling? As the goal unto itself? Surely that must be a fantasy. At least in Panem. Do you even realize the differences in our lives? I'm not even talking about things you take for granted such as electricity and running water. A baby born in the Seam has about a fifty percent chance of living until its fifth birthday. I'm sure the odds must be much better in town. And in the Capitol? I don't imagine the idea of having to bury their own children ever even occurs to them. I don't want you to know these things. I don't want you to experience the horrors I've witnessed."

I take her face carefully in my hands and tilt her chin up. I see the tears on her cheeks and gently wipe them away with my thumbs.

"You want me to marry someone I don't love," she accuses softly, but I can sense the fight is nearly over.

"No. I hope you fall in love with someone you meet there. Marriage can't be based only on passion or even love, Madge. Love, or at least affection, will hopefully be one factor. But it has to be based on more practical, lasting qualities such as compatibility, and expectations in life first."

"I could refuse to go. We could fight for change. No one should have to live like that when the Capitol has food to waste and medicine that can cure nearly any illness. There was a rebellion before. There could be another one," she says fiercely.

"When the time comes, I'll put you on that train myself, if necessary. If there ever is a rebellion, I want you out of harm's way." I definitely want her far away and safe if our rebellion ever takes root.

"I could help, if I were here. We could fight together. With my connections and my ability to move about my father's house and the Justice Building-"

"No. If it comes to a fight in my lifetime, then I'll probably die fighting to free Panem from the rule of the Capitol. I won't leave a widow and children behind, alone and unprovided for."

"But, if you marry Katniss?" she asks quietly.

"If I marry Katniss, we won't have any children. And she's always been my hunting partner."

She turns away and I drop my arms. She walks quietly away, deeper into the forest. I follow, keeping careful lookout for trouble. Should I take her back now? I think I have accomplished obliterating all hope of a future for us.

We walk quietly until we come to a ridge. She stops to admire the view of the mountains in the distance.

Without turning to me she asks quietly, "Will you tell me what my father threatened you with?"

"No."

She sighs and turns towards me. "But you believe him to be serious?"

"I can't afford not to." She nods in understanding, watching me searchingly.

"He threatened your family, didn't he? I think that would be the fastest way to get you to cooperate."

"I…I…Madge, I can't talk about this."

"You're not talking. I am. I think I know you pretty well. You said your family was in danger. I definitely know my father and how he thinks. If he thinks he's protecting me there isn't much he wouldn't consider doing. It's kind of frightening, actually." She wraps her arms around herself as she considers the possibilities.

I step forward and wrap her in my arms. "Madge, it doesn't matter what he said. What he threatened. He's right. And I'm going to do what he wants, so he'll never have a need to carry through with his threat. And- you definitely can't confront him about this. If he even suspected that I told you...That I hadn't done exactly as he demanded..." I trail off, letting her draw the obvious conclusion.

She starts to protest, but I silence her with kisses. To her lips. To her wet cheeks. To her closed eyelids.

"He loves you. He wants you safe. And, I want you safe. If you love me, then you want me safe- my family safe. The only way this works- the only way for us all to be safe- is to stay apart from each other."

"Forever?"

"Forever," I confirm.

"Do you believe it's possible to love two people at the same time?" she asks me.

"I know it is," I admit.

She smiles sadly. "I'm glad you told me the truth. If this is the last moment that we will ever have together, then spend it here... with me," she says, drawing me down to the grass with her.

I follow her down, watching her golden hair spill across the green grass and covering her lips with mine.

The Woods, Wednesday post Games Day 5

I've reset the snare line. Shot two squirrels. Considered wrapping one in clean, white paper to drop off in town. Except, I don't have clean, white paper. And she doesn't need anything from me, ever.

Was that the best you could do? Really?

Love. Fear. Hope. Desire. Confusion. Victory. Defeat. Exhaustion.

How do I move forward after such a month in my life? Can it really have been only a month since I last saw Katniss? Since I really got to know Madge? Since I thought I knew the answer to everything. Since I thought there was only one right answer to any question.

I can compartmentalize my emotions. Choose which ones I will deal with and which ones I'll master. I am strong. I can do this. I will do this. I have to do this.

I've only ever tried to protect the ones I love. But, that isn't always possible. Not in Panem.

I've always thought I had integrity. But, I was scared as hell when the Mayor threatened to have my brothers reaped if I didn't do as he demanded. And I betrayed Madge's trust to protect them. Shattered it. I've always seen things as black and white. But, I've been mired in a grey fog. Perhaps you can't always stay clean and white and win if you're fighting a foul, black evil. Perhaps coming away grey is the only way to win. Or maybe I'm rationalizing my behavior to mask my disappointment in myself. My instinct- when in doubt- is to fight. But I certainly didn't fight. I capitulated. And would again.

I sit listening to the crickets sing. Out here in the forest things seem so simple. So clean. Unlike back in the District where everything is covered by the black dust from the mines. Where hope is blacked out by oppression.

As for Madge and Katniss. It's easier to love Katniss. Or… it was. It's too complicated . . . too depressing to maybe love someone you know you will never be able to have. Or two someones... If anyone had asked me a month ago if it was possible to love two people at the same time; I would have said no. And- I would have been wrong. Even if the Mayor hadn't threatened Rory, I would have had to make a choice. I couldn't keep meeting Madge when we have no future together. It wouldn't be fair to her. Or to Katniss. We can still have a future together. A good future. I hope. There was only one choice to be made. The Mayor merely forced my hand.

Is it possible for anyone to be truly happy in Panem? I have had moments of happiness. Moments of bliss, even. But, they are never lasting. There is always the cold, hard reality of life waiting. But…if we were to have a rebellion…if we could win…then maybe…then maybe the survivors could be happy. At least happier than anyone is now. And safe. If Posy, Vick, and Rory could be safe, then I could be happy. Or at least content.

But, I would be content to live a life of purpose. Where those I love are safe and well cared for. Where I can make a real difference- if not on a national scale- then at least for my own family.

Contentment. Is that really too much to hope for?

Victory Ceremony, Wednesday, post Games Day 5

I meet my family in the Square just before showtime. We'll finally get to see Katniss tonight. It's been five days since they were extracted from the arena.

The anthem blares over the speakers in the Square. Caesar greets the audience and promptly begins introducing the real stars of the Games: Seneca Crane, Head Gamemaker; the prep teams, the stylists Portia and Cinna. Effie. When he introduces Haymitch the clapping and stomping goes on for five minutes. The only Mentor to ever bring home two Victors in one Game.

A deafening roar fills the square when the new Victors rise on to the stage. Katniss looks so… clean and healthy and beautiful. So young and innocent in her shimmering yellow dress. Much too young and much too innocent to be a Victor. Or to be a dangerous Rebel.

Katniss sees Peeta a few steps away and immediately flings herself into his arms, nearly knocking him over. He's standing on two legs, but holding a cane. Apparently his new leg isn't completely healed.

Peeta wraps his arms lovingly around my Katniss and kisses her. And kisses her. And kisses her. And, she clearly has no objection. She's right there with him- kissing him back. This goes on for ten minutes. Have they no shame?

The audience is loving it almost as much as Peeta. Caesar finally taps Peeta's shoulder to move the program along, making a shocked, amused face for the crowd. Fanning himself as if they are putting off too much heat to stand. Peeta brushes him off without a glance. The crowd goes berserk again and Caesar laughs along with the crowd.

Finally, Haymitch gives them a shove towards the Victor's chair, which is actually a small loveseat this year. Katniss snuggles in close to Peeta, kicking off her sandals and laying her head on his shoulder. His arm wraps around her, anchoring her close to his side. She clasps his other hand in both of hers. It's as if they cannot get close enough. It's... disturbing to watch.

Finally, the three hour recap of their Games begins. I'm relieved. I'd rather watch the deaths of the twenty-two other tributes for a second time than another minute of the Kissing Games.

Unfortunately, the recap isn't any better than the Kissing Games themselves. For the first time ever the recap tells a love story. Two young lovers who will do anything to protect the ones they love.

We relive the reaping, where Katniss volunteers for Prim. Because of a big sister's love. The opening ceremonies where we see them aflame, holding hands, smiling and waving at the crowd. We see the interviews, with a special focus on Peeta's declaration of love for Katniss.

The launch is replayed, with special focus on them communicating wordlessly. Clearly, they have a plan. And an ability to understand each other. Did they really plan Peeta joining the Careers? Maybe he was supposed to infiltrate to get her the bow? But, they can't have known about the rule change. Unless someone in the Capitol tipped them off beforehand? No. She was surprised. The other lovers, Cato and Clove, too, were surprised at the announcement.

We see the bloodbath again, in all of its gruesomy glory. Shots of Katniss and Peeta alternating with deaths of the tributes. We see Peeta mislead the Careers about Katniss, stay awake under the tree the night Katniss was treed, leading the Careers away to the lake after the tracker jacker nest is dropped and fight Cato to help her escape. Frosting himself into the riverbank. Katniss, running from the fire, treed, dropping the tracker jacker nest, blowing up the supplies, killing Marvel and singing Rue to death. Rue, who she grew to love. They play every single note. Vick cries silently at my side. They don't show Katniss adorning Rue's body in flowers.

Then the announcement that changes everything. Perhaps forever. Katniss screaming Peeta's name. Finding and nursing him. Katniss nearly dying, first at Clove's hand, and then at Thresh's. For her love of Peeta- risking it all in order to get Peeta's medicine. The endless hours of kissing and cuddling and laughing. And that accursed sleeping bag.

I can just imagine the Capitol tourists hiking to their little love cave in the years to come. Taking pictures of the sleeping bag left behind. Of course, they took the sleeping bag with them and left it in the packs they abandoned by the lake when they were taken away on the hovercraft, but the Capitol will put it back to make it look as if Katniss and Peeta have just stepped out a moment. Propaganda. Just the idea makes my skin crawl.

The feast, where Katniss very nearly died is shown in great detail. For some reason having to watch her nearly carved to death by Clove isn't much easier the second time, even though I know she survives. Thresh kills Clove and lets Katniss go. They skip Cato holding Clove as she lies there dying. Who cares about the humanity of the losers…and their love? A farce.

We see Katniss shoot the medicine into Peeta's leg before blacking out.

The epic battle between Cato and Thresh is reduced to a few minutes of gore.

More of the Kissing Games.

Ginger's death by Nightlock. I see the hesitation that Vick speculated about. Did she know they were poisonous? I guess we'll never know.

We relive the battle with Cato. Mutts, bloody horn, chokehold, arrow to the hand, Peeta shoving Cato off the cornucopia, mutts, arrow to the head. The final expected cannon.

Then-nothing. Silence. The lack of the expected victory trumpets.

The revoking of the rule change. Their stunned reactions. Their refusal to kill each other. Peeta's declaration of love. Begging her to shoot him so she can go home. Pleading with her to give them their Victor.

The Berries. The Threat. The Victory. The Spark. Ah, love conquers all. I can't quite believe this is the theme they are going with. I still can't believe they didn't blast her out of the arena when she pulled out those berries. If I had been Seneca Crane- I would have. That's a difficult thing to admit to myself. Sometimes clarity can be painful.

The broadcast ends with something we haven't seen before. A scene from inside the hovercraft, immediately after they were extracted. Katniss screaming Peeta's name, banging on a panel of glass that separates them as the doctors fight to revive him. I wonder how close we came to having only one Victor. Ah, if only.

We've seen all of this in a split screen with Katniss and Peeta cuddled up together on the Victor's couch up in the corner, reliving what has to be the worst three weeks of their lives.

President Snow comes out to crown the Victors. He picks up the crown. Only one? No wait. He breaks it in half, making two smaller crowns. Clever stagecraft. I admit I'm impressed. They think of every little detail. But miss the danger lurking in the theme. Love? No. Love Conquers All? Yes.

That is the message they are sending. How can they not see that as incredibly dangerous? Subversive even?

The new victors are whisked off to a party in their honor where they'll be hobnobbing with President Snow, the Gamemakers, the other Victors and the elite of Panem.

Tomorrow will be the interview and the day after she will be home. Home. Alive. With him. But alive.

That night I am plagued by nightmares. Nightmares of Katniss with Peeta. Even worse are nightmares of us together… me and Katniss…then me and Madge. I wake up muddled and confused. Realizing that they were only dreams. Is that all they will ever be?

Interview Day, Thursday, Post Games Day 6

I wake up early, poorly rested, but determined to do something productive today. Planning a rebellion definitely suits my mood. I skip breakfast and head straight for Dougray's.

Interview, 4pm Capitol time, Post Games Day 6

Mellark and Caesar do most of the talking. Katniss cuddles shyly into Mellark's shoulder.

"Well, Peeta, we know, from your days in the cave, that it was love at first sight for you from, what? Age five?" Caesar asks.

Oh, no. No, no, no. Not again. Once was more than enough.

"From the moment I laid eyes on her," Peeta says, gazing adoringly at Katniss.

"But, Katniss, what a ride for you. I think the real excitement for the audience was watching you fall for him. When did you realize you were in love with him?" asks Caesar.

I lean forward to hear this. To read her reaction.

"Oh, that's a hard one…" she laughs nervously, looking at her lap.

She doesn't know what to say. She doesn't know . . . because she's not really in love with him! She's waiting for Mellark to bail her out.

"Well, I know when it hit me. The night when you shouted out his name from that tree," says Caesar helpfully.

That was one of the worst moments for me. Exposing her position recklessly, in a moment of what? Joy? Relief? Hope?

Katniss gives him a bright smile. "Yes, I guess that was it. I mean, until that point, I just tried not to think about what my feelings might be, honestly, because it was so confusing and it only made things worse if I actually cared about him. But then, in the tree, everything changed," she says thoughtfully, obviously figuring it out for herself as she talks. Katniss is no actress.

"Why do you think that was?" Caesar prods.

I'm leaning so far forward I could probably fall out of my seat if I'm not careful. Yes. Why Katniss?

"Maybe . . . because for the first time . . . there was a chance I could keep him," she says reflectively.

Keep him? Like a stray? Like Buttercup? Or like someone she never dared to dream about? Never thought she could have?

Caesar dabs his eyes theatrically with a handkerchief.

Peeta leans his head against the side of hers. "So, now that you've got me, what are you going to do with me?" he asks playfully.

The crowd in Twelve laughs in response. I grind my teeth.

She turns to him. "Put you somewhere you can't get hurt," she says solemnly.

She cares. She definitely cares. That wasn't scripted. It sounds like Katniss. Like Katniss talking about Prim. The only person she really loves. The only one I would have thought she would die to protect.

Caesar asks about all of their various wounds, eventually getting around to the one that nearly killed Peeta at the end.

"So, Peeta, how's the new leg working out?"

Katniss' face drains of color. They didn't warn her? Bastards. "New leg?" she gasps. She pulls up Peeta's pant leg, revealing the prosthetic for all to see. "Oh, no," she cries. Watching her cry over Peeta is too painful to watch.

"No one told you?" Caesar asks the patently obvious. Katniss merely shakes her head. Too shaken to speak.

"I haven't had the chance," Peeta says. Well, I guess they haven't been spending the last few nights together, it seems. Something to be grateful for.

"It's my fault," she cries. "Because I used that tourniquet."

"Yes, it's your fault I'm alive," Peeta says teasingly. But, cutting straight to the heart of the matter. As usual.

"He's right," says Caesar. "He'd have bled to death for sure without it."

She hides her face in Peeta's shirt for a few minutes as Caesar and Peeta try to coax back her out. They fall back into their easy banter while she recovers from the shock. The guilt.

He's alive because of you, Katniss. Why are you crying over him? You never cry. My Catnip never cries.

Maybe she's no longer my Catnip. Maybe she's Peeta's girl with the Braids. Or Twelve's Girl on Fire.

They finally come to the berries and Caesar turns his attention back to her. "Katniss, I know you've had a shock, but I've got to ask. The moment when you pulled out those berries. What was going on in your mind . . . hm?"

Yes. What was going on in that lovely head of yours?

She pauses a moment in thought. "I don't know, I just . . . couldn't bear the thought of . . . being without him," she says quietly.

And, she means it. She means it. What does that mean for those of us left behind in District Twelve? She couldn't bear the thought of a world without Peeta. He means more to her than Prim, waiting at home for her? No. I don't believe that. In that one moment she simply couldn't face it. The idea of betraying him, after the Capitol made them a team. That has to be it. It has to.

"Peeta? Anything to add?"

"No. I think that goes for both of us," he says.

Caesar signs off and the screen goes dark.

Tomorrow. She'll be home tomorrow. My stomach churns in excitement. And dread.

Homecoming Day, Friday, post Games Day 7

We all dress in our best for the homecoming. They'll be televising it nationwide. We are herded towards the front of the platform, where Mrs. Everdeen and Prim are already waiting. Because we are family. Cousins, you know.

I see Madge standing nearby, with the Mayor and her mother. She doesn't even glance in my direction. It's as if I'm invisible to her. The Mayor catches me looking and I feel a chill race along my spine at the triumph of his gaze.

Suddenly the crowd quiets. We can hear the sounds of a train approaching.

The train pulls into the station, stopping before the platform. It's been a week since the victory. A week. Almost exactly a month since the reaping. A new moon.

Reporters swarm around as the crowd surges forward in anticipation.

The doors open and Haymitch and Effie step out, all smiles. They step aside as they announce the Victors of the Seventy-Fourth Hunger Games. Katniss steps out, holding hands tightly with Peeta. She is gripping his hand as if she is afraid he will let go. They are all smiles, lifting their joined hands in victory, as they did in the chariot at the Tribute parade.

I shift my eyes from their hands to Katniss' face and see her looking back at me. Not Prim. Not her Mom. Me. She smiles tentatively, as if wondering what I make of everything she has done. She did what she needed to do to survive. As she always has. I smile warmly at her, relieved to have her home in one piece, even if she is clinging tightly to Peeta at this moment.

Is this the end? Hell no! The odds will be in my favor this time. District Twelve is my arena. Wait til the Capitol sees what I have to offer in tribute.

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Seeing as how 234 people have this story on alert I knew I couldn't just leave it hanging forever. This chapter wraps up the Jealousy Games. It is completely canon compliant, but I think this Madge has to survive the bombing, although as far as Katniss knows, one of the unidentified bodies in the Mayor's house is assumed to be hers. She doesn't have to survive; this could just be another tragic ending to a chapter in Gale's life. Or his epilogue can have an explanation of the new set of lips he is kissing in District Two and why Katniss never learns that the lips are Madge's….

Please let me know what you thought of this final chapter and if I should go ahead with the epilogue if any of you are still out there reading. I definitely don't have the time to write Catching Fire and Mockingjay from Gale's POV, but the Epilogue is doable and would include Gale reflecting back on some of the key events of the last two books. Thanks for your patience!