A/N: I raised the rating. Tbh, I think the ending of Ch4 was much more disturbing than the nicer aspect of the stuff that will ensue, but since that could be in T-rated THG, no problem… this chapter has to be rated M for some highly Metaphorical and not-exactly work-/school-safe content.

Pretty Dresses

(Six times Madge Undersee wishes to wear something else and one time she doesn't)

006. True Colors

My hands are small and soft and pale, the fingertips colder than the rest of my body unless I warm them inside.

They don't feel right anymore.

I want other hands to be touching me, especially now that I know how they feel against my skin, large and strong and warm, so rough yet so gentle.

I cherish every aspect of that grateful-regretful kiss in my memory, vainly striving to relive the solid pressure of Gale's body against mine… the surprising softness of his lips… the raw intensity of his kisses during that delicious moment when he'd lost himself in our embrace. Whatever he said after, it didn't feel fake or forced, and Gale must have realized it as well, however much he didn't want to admit it.

I wanted him to come back, to stop fighting both me and himself, because that wouldn't help anyone, least of all Katniss. I wanted him to come back, to let me touch him, to let himself touch me, to make things at least a tiny bit better, at least for us.

But he never showed up.

Only in my sleeping and waking dreams, he touches me as much as I want him to and how I want him to. Gale no longer bleeds in my nightmares, but the fantasies he inspires are still torturous, if for different reasons.

I want him, I need him, I love him, more than I ever did before, and hate him a little for not giving us a chance and hate myself a lot for indulging and wallowing in my idle little aches.

Because when I leave the makeshift embrace of my blanket – warm enough but too soft and lifeless, and the makeshift world of my imagination – pleasant enough but persistently not real, I have to emerge into the hard cruel world of actual suffering.

I want to escape, at least into a perpetual dream, but I know that I, of all people, shouldn't seek a way out, not when everyone else has to endure incomparably worse predicaments.

So I force myself to rise, to dress, to go out, to do whatever little I can do to help.

Yet my willpower seems to wane with every day that brings us all closer to the reaping.

The reaping of Victors, because nobody is strong enough to fight the influence of the Capitol and win. At least that's what they want us to believe.

However hard I try to fight the idea, I find myself losing.

When the reaping comes and goes and I really see Katniss and Peeta mount the stage and be shipped off to the Capitol without as much as a goodbye, everything feels lost.

I do my best not to succumb to the enemy-induced moment of weakness, but it takes all the willpower I have left and more. I overcome the urge to sink down and cry and slowly disentangle myself from the distraught crowd instead. I'd seen Gale run after the cars that took them to the train station, certainly for the last glimpse of Katniss - live and alive -, a last chance to exchange a word or at least a glance. (And can I blame him?)

I know I probably should leave him alone, whatever the outcome of his attempt, but my instinct refuses to listen to reason and my feet inexorably carry me forward.

I find Gale few hundred yards beyond the station, sitting right on the rails.

There won't be another train coming for a long time, and he seems to be sorry for that.

My steps crunch on the slag that is used as track ballast in our district. Gale must hear my approach, but he doesn't move to acknowledge me, not even when I sit right beside him, close enough to touch.

"She'll make it," I mutter in a futile attempt to convince both him and myself. "She's done the impossible once already. She's determined. Smart. Strong."

I don't even know why I'm saying that. It's not like he didn't know that and it's not like I wanted him to dwell on what will have to happen for her to win. But the words make me feel better as they flow, and I can only hope I'll give some measure of comfort to him too.

"She's everything, isn't she?" he growls at his own knees, few moments after my words helplessly die in an embarrassed silence.

That's not what I wanted to say. I wish you didn't think so. Luckily, I don't voice any of that.

Gale grits his teeth so savagely I'm momentarily afraid I did say it aloud after all.

But he's just caught up in his own misery. "Damn, she's even better at letting go. When it's her leaving."

I nod. "Yeah, she is." I take a deep breath and very tentatively lay my hand on his. "But… we'll cope, right?"

He shrugs, but doesn't pull away. "We've got no other choice, do we?"

There's a slight, but detectable hint of need in his fake-nonchalant tone and he tangles his fingers with mine, holding on tightly. Then he finally turns his head to face me and the space between us seems to diminish very abruptly. Impulsively, I lean forward and Gale mirrors the movement, but only to lean his forehead against mine. I inhale deeply, breathing in his proximity, and lift my hand to caress his hair.

If time passes, I'm oblivious. Gale doesn't pull away and neither do I.

We are left behind and we are coping and I feel that we somehow belong together, and that Gale somehow acknowledges it. However much I shouldn't, I find the idea too appealing.

When he suddenly tilts his head to kiss me, forehead creased and eyes tightly closed, lips chapped and rough with desperate need, I don't even think about resisting.

I don't think about anything at all.

I just return his kisses with equal verve and savor every second of the stolen, bittersweet bliss.

Gale pulls back too soon, anyway.

"Madge?" he mutters. Equal parts acknowledgement and accusation, at least I suspect so.

"I'm sorry I'm not Katniss," I snap. I know it's not time or place for wounded pride. I know that he loves her and that she's gone to the Quarter Quell, for crying out loud, but still can't keep the hurt from my voice.

She's not the only one who can be hurt. And he has no right to hurt me because of her.

Gale shakes his head, almost defensively. "I don't want you to be her. I just…" his voice trails off and he bows his head, harshly rubbing his knuckles across his forehead as if he needed a bit of physical pain to bring him to reality. He exhales loudly. "I don't even fucking know anymore."

He falls silent and looks at me for a few moments, then gazes away into the distance, where she'd gone, then back to me. I try to read his eyes, but I can't, all I see is gray steel like that of the rails, endless and hard and stretching into distance.

"I just want her to be safe," he says finally.

I can't argue with that, and I don't want to, not in the slightest. Of course I want her to be safe too. And then maybe, just maybe, then the whole situation would be slightly less painful.

"I know," I say quickly. "Me too. Both of them. But while they are gone…" this time I can't finish. What do I even want to say? Is that even right? I don't want to be with him only while they are gone.

"Life has to go on," he says detachedly, as if a part of him left as well. Oh well, she did. "Katniss would be the first to tell me that."


"She'd be right," I concede, yet I can't help but continue. I need a tiny bit of acknowledgement to cling to, just like Gale needs a tiny bit of solace. "Do you want it to go on this way?" I wave my arms around to indicate I mean us being somehow together. After all, we are still sitting very comfortably close. "Or are you with me just because she's gone and you don't know what to do?"

"No, I don't." He gives me a wry smirk and shrugs lightly. "But if I remember correctly, you came here."

"It's not like you were complaining," I snap, caught between heartbreak and anger, directed both at him and at myself. Am I really that… convenient? And stupid and blind, just because I allow myself to be? Is he that blind? "And if I remember correctly, you kissed me. Just because I was… here?"

Gale frowns and shakes his head. He bites his lip and I want to kiss it better all over again. Stupid.

Then he turns towards me like the movement cost him extreme effort. When he meets my gaze, his eyes are hard, but the rekindled anger seems to be projected inward.

"I wanted to kiss you. Dammit, Madge, I needed to kiss you," he admits surprisingly, shooting the words as fast as possible, as if he wanted to get them out before he could think better of it. "I…" this time the shot doesn't come, but I'm so mesmerized by the first two sentences I hardly mind. He changes his course. "Both now and then," he says and tilts his head back towards town to indicate he means the grateful-kiss-turned-something-more we shared on our back porch. He grits his teeth. "Doesn't that just make it worse?"

I'm still reeling from his confession. "Why should it?" I choke out.

"It's not fair to you," he says.

I raise my eyebrows. I don't know when or how he started caring, but I certainly welcome the turn of events.

"Not even to Katniss," he continues. Her, always her. "Not really."

I shrug, surprising even myself. I don't even know when and how I got beyond caring, it just somehow… happened. "The world is an unfair place, Gale. Why not use a bit of the unfairness to our advantage?"

He raises his eyebrows in surprise. Then the corner of his mouth in a smirk. And then he laughs. I've hardly ever heard his laugh, and I certainly didn't expect to hear it in this particular moment. It's bitter and sarcastic, with a slightly uncontrollable tinge of despair, but still, it is a laugh, and my body inadvertently trembles in tune with the sound.

Then he stops abruptly, as if he realized what he was doing, and stands up. "That would be a first, right?" He frowns. "Well, not for you, I guess."

His voice holds no actual accusation, he's just stating a fact. It's just the way it is. Why does he have to blame both me and himself for trying to make it a tiny bit better?

I shake my head, at loss for words.

I wish I could find enough courage to tell him that Katniss is with Peeta now, that she is also gone beyond the point of betrayal.

But I don't, so I just watch him nod a reluctant and rather embarrassed goodbye and walk away along the tracks.

Where to, I don't know.

But I know he'll have to return.

I hug my knees tightly and press my still-tingling lips together. Do I have to look forward to it so much?

It's almost unfair.

But of course, nothing compared to things that are really unfair.

We get to see Katniss and Peeta again soon enough, paraded through the Capitol for the second time.

As proof that the one victory they'd achieved was just an insignificant battle in a war only the Capitol can win.

That is unfair.

But they seem ready to fight every circumstance. In dark outfits flickering with ever-changing reds and oranges of living fire and adorned with half-crowns of metal, they resemble glowing embers pulled straight out of the hearth. Too dangerous to touch, too uncontrollable to claim.

I can only wish the invisible fire in their hearts that carried them all the way there will burn on strongly, too strongly to be extinguished.

Reluctantly ungluing my eyes from the screen, I glance to my left and don't dare to presume what Gale thinks about it. Of course, he focuses on Katniss alone, drinking in the ethereal image of his 'stolen' companion turned into a dark warrior-goddess as if nothing else in the world existed.

I can't quite resist the urge to try and remind him that's not true.

In my traditional place between him and Prim, I'm standing so close to him already I don't think anyone else would notice, so I brush my hand against his. I want to hold onto him, I want us to be anchored together here on the coal-dusted flagstones of Twelve, just like Katniss and Peeta are on their blazing chariot.

Allies to the last.

To my surprise, Gale responds to my touch and returns my grip. But his gaze belongs to Katniss alone and that hurts, so much more than the inadvertently painful pressure of his strong fingers.

I grit my teeth.

How can I be jealous of a girl that's being sent to the Arena to fight for her life? How can Gale be jealous of a boy who's more than willing to sacrifice himself for her?

I tighten my grip on Gale's hand, so ferociously my own knuckles hurt.

Aren't we horrible people who deserve each other?

Perhaps we are, because when the time for the interview comes, we find ourselves side by side again.

This time, it's Gale who grabs my hand, when Katniss bursts into flames as she twirls in her morbidly beautiful white wedding dress. I don't let him pull away in embarrassment and hold on tightly as she sheds her silk cocoon in the fire.

Soon the smoke subsides to reveal her transformed gown, the silky whiteness replaced by black glossy feathers. She stands on the stage, slightly mortified, her features arranging themselves to acceptance, and I see exactly how a much the golden pin and a pretty dress matter after all.

Because the girl on fire has been turned into the Mockingjay.

The symbol of defiance.

Was I hoping for something like this back when I first gave her the pin? I don't know, I can't tell, I couldn't have predicted this course of events.

I couldn't imagine wearing her mantle, not even if I'd volunteered instead of her.

Now I stare in awe and don't spare a thought about Gale doing the same.

She is gone somewhere beyond us, gone to a place beyond our help and beyond our comprehension.

Katniss became an icon, we are just little shadows in her light, coal and pearls disintegrating in her fire.

What have I done to her? What have they done to her?

And most importantly, what will happen now?

At the very end of the interview, the victors rise to form a single chain of unity and one thing is certain: the whole Panem is playing now, and we don't know when or how is the Capitol going to retaliate.

My pride immediately mixes with apprehension, because we all know what happened last time District 13 started a rebellion.

The Capitol never lets us forget.

And never forgives.

When the victors enter the arena, I feel like I entered it with them.

They are lost inside, seeing only one glimpse of horror at a time, but we watchers don't take long to figure out the arena is a giant clock, with disasters striking every hour.

A giant clock, ticking their lives away and perhaps ours too.

Tick tock, the ticking of the clock, I feel it in every nerve, every bone, every heartbeat, ever wishing for something, anything to drown it out.

The ultimate entertainment consumes ultimately, attacking bodies, minds and hearts. Of the contestants and the watchers alike.

I watch the first day of the games alone, but can't help but wonder what Gale must be thinking.

During the interview, when Peeta shattered the audience by declaring that he and Katniss are married and that Katniss is pregnant, we both knew for sure it was just a ploy to sway the public opinion, nothing more than a lie, loaded but not real.

But when Peeta collapsed after walking into what must have been the force-field surrounding the arena and Katniss hysterically threw herself at him, ear over his still heart, looking like hers was about to stop as well, there was no more doubt left.

Something between the star-crossed lovers is real, more real than Katniss herself realized until that fateful moment.

The love between allies can become real after all.

The despair that shone so clearly in Katniss's eyes until Finnick resurrected Peeta with a technique people from Four use on the victims of drowning haunts me even as I strive to fall asleep. The images of the first day in the arena swirl behind my closed eyes, interspersed with the poisonous mist that chased them and claimed Finnick's district partner, and the blood that rained on the tributes for 3 and 7 hours before…

Mist and blood and suffering.

Mist and blood.


I wonder what Gale thought about it all. I haven't even seen him today.

What would I do if something like that happened to him?

I don't know… I don't even want to know…

The summer night is warm and I wouldn't even need my heavy blanket, but I still snuggle against it tightly, hugging it to have at least something to hold onto, and wish Gale was here with me instead.

Everything would be a little bit better that way.

When dreams finally find me and he deigns to visit me in them, I embrace him with carefree happiness, only to pull back in horror when the wounds on his back open under my touch, bleeding, bleeding until he collapses against me. I desperately try to hold him upright, my own limbs heavy with the sway of the nightmare, but I can't, I can't and the weight is crushing and the blood flows and his chest presses against my face.

It's unmoving and suffocating, his heart must have gone still. I'm still trying to hold him, but he seems to disintegrate under my touch, my fingers digging deep and encountering hardly any resistance.

I wake to guttural screams and it takes me few moments to realize that they were mine, muffled by my blanket. So that's what was suffocating me. Throwing the offending thing away, I sit up abruptly, willing my breathing to calm and the shaking to subside. Moonlight illuminates my pale hands and paler sheets, but no blood.

No blood.

I breathe a sigh of relief.

Just a nightmare.

Getting off the bed, I pad to the window, opening it wider and letting the pleasant night breeze dry my cold sweat. I gulp relief with huge breaths. I wish I could see Gale, just to make sure he's okay, but I know I can't really go looking for him now.

It was just a nightmare.

After few minutes, I finally calm down, but the idea of returning to bed still seems unbearable. On impulse, I throw on a dressing gown and shoes and quietly make my way out, at least to the garden.

I glance on a huge clock in the hallway. It's getting quite close to dawn, anyway.

Tick tock.

I quicken my pace, suddenly seized by a burst of irrational fear that the tiny ticking would make the walls crumble and fall.

Outside, I finally breathe freely and watch the sky lighten and the stars fade.

The birth of the day is so beautiful I can almost make myself believe it will bring something pleasant. Just as the shadows of the dawn give way to light, I make out a lone figure in a miner's uniform crossing the square from the direction of the Victors' Village.

No need to wonder who it is.

As if on cue, Gale pauses and looks towards my house. Before I can stop myself, I jump from my dew-covered seat and wave.

He hesitates for a moment and then strides towards me.

"Hey," he says softly, lays his pickaxe down at his feet and leans against our garden-fence. The gesture brings us almost eye to eye. "Couldn't sleep?"

He looks sad and tired, as if he didn't sleep at all.

I just nod, knowing there's no need to ask what thoughts plagued his night. "Nightmares," I explain noncommittally. Tentatively, I step even closer and reach out to brush his arm, to confirm he's still alive, to confirm my touch won't hurt him.

It obviously doesn't, because he stretches is arms over the fence, bringing them around me in an awkward embrace. Perhaps he saw how much I needed it. Perhaps he needed it too. Either way, I lean against him, holding tightly onto his strong shoulders, and press my face into his chest, grateful for the confirmation that his heart still beats, strongly as ever, grateful for the comfort he gives me. Moments later, I feel his lips press into my hair and then he slowly disengages himself from me. His reluctance makes me happier than I should admit.

My head spins slightly as I look up at him, and the vertigo immediately strengthens when I notice that at least some of the sadness from his face has disappeared.

"You watched up there yesterday?" I blurt stupidly and nod towards the Victors' Village, before Gale has a chance to say I gotta go yet again.

Gale nods. "Yeah, we all watched at the Everdeens' They have a few patients that couldn't be moved yet. " He grimaces.

I know what he means, I've heard of the surprising little cave-in that occurred during the first shift after the start of the games. Perhaps it were some of the walls that have ears? Katniss's transformation yesterday caused quite a stir, and maybe, just maybe-

"Prim and Mrs. E wanted to stay with them, and we went there to watch too," he continues. "Moral support, you know."

I nod. Of course the Everdeen-healers preferred to stay with their patients when they didn't have to be on the square for a mandatory viewing. And I can only imagine how Gale felt about seeing his colleagues in a predicament he must have only narrowly escaped. But I suppose he'd do anything to give Mrs. Everdeen and Prim the support they need.

I feel slightly guilty for asking, but the words are out before I can think better of it.

"Would you watch with me tonight?"

Ha raises his eyebrows in surprise.

Maybe I should've asked if I could come with him to the Everdeens'. But this version flew out of my mouth first. And Gale looks like he might use at least a little time off from being strong for everyone else.

Is that selfish motivation or not?

Maybe it doesn't matter, maybe he won't come at all.

He considers the answer for a few moments, his hand absently caressing my cheek.

"I'll try to make it," he says finally.

I can't suppress a smile.

Then the clock chimes from inside.

Tick tock.

Gale's jaw tenses for a moment, but then he leans forward to brush his lips against mine with surprising gentleness. A little touch of guilty pleasure that only leaves me craving so much more.

"See you after the mines."

I'm too stunned to answer, but luckily, I don't need to, because he's already on his way there.

But he'll return to me. He must. He wouldn't break his word, would he?

The glimpses of live footage of the Games I catch during the day make me both crave Gale's presence and wish I hadn't asked him to come. When Katniss, Peeta and their allies narrowly escape another bloodshed at the Cornucopia, I believe I wouldn't see anything worse today, but I'm mistaken.

Later they wander into a section of the clockwork jungle they've never visited before, only to encounter jabberjays, the Capitol-muttated ancestors of mockingjays that torture them with fake screams of their loved ones. I know they have to be fake, no new people from the Capitol or peacekeepers have arrived during the day, and everyone was okay back when I'd met Gale in the morning. My heart breaks when Katniss starts after the emulated voice of her sister, screaming her name as if she were undergoing even worse torture than the scrambled recording suggests. And then breaks again when Katniss just as desperately starts after a male voice that must be a twisted parody of Gale's, and childish screams that she presumably identifies as belonging to his family.

I shudder and bite my nails, and turn off the sound after few moments, because I can't bear it much longer. But she has to; she has to endure it all until the ever-ticking clock releases her from this particular horror.

How would Gale react when the scene comes up during the highlights?

I regret calling him here all over, but it's too late to revoke the invitation anyway, as I have no way of reaching him down in the mines. I have enough trouble to reach him when he's right next to me.

It feels unfair that I know what will happen and he doesn't, not yet. But he will have checked on his family before coming here.

He'd know it's not real.

I'll be here to help him cope.

Will it be enough?

We shall see how our alliance holds.

Gale knocks on the back door seconds after the anthem announcing the start of mandatory viewing starts playing, when I already thought that he wouldn't show up. Yet again, I'm relieved to see him safe and sound, to get a living confirmation that the screams were not real and to get a proof that he cares about me enough to fulfill a promise.

He wears the clothes he wore last year to the reaping and to the family interviews during the 74th Games. Since he stubbornly refused all Katniss's "blood money", I presume it's the most decent set of clothing he owns. He doesn't have choice. I have to pretend that I'm wearing the dress he'd called pretty a year ago by sheer coincidence. Just to myself, because Gale most probably doesn't remember.

"Hey," he greets me and gives me half a smile. I detect a tiny hint of masked nervousness there, as if he was still struggling with the decision whether to accept my invitation or not. He studies my face for a few moments, then smiles a little wider and extends his hand, opening his palm to reveal a marigold. Just a single perfect flower on a short stem, stripped of the pungent leaves. He must have nicked it from some merchants' windowsill on the way here, but I still appreciate the gesture.

"Thanks," I say sincerely, giving him the widest smile I can muster. I tilt my head and Gale gets my hopeful hint and pushes the flower into my hair. The backs of his fingers brush against my cheek on the way down and the ticking of the clock in my mind quiets down a little. "Is everyone okay?"

His jaw clenches. "As okay as we can be."

I nod tensely, motion him inside and lead him to the TV room.

The flower keeps falling out of my hair, so I find a clothespin and fasten it to my dress, where the mockingjay used to be. Gale watches with a slight smile and his gaze burns hot as it brushes over my skin.

I don't even bother trying to suppress my blush.

During the highlights, he allows himself to hold my hand and I allow him to pretend it's for my sake only. I tangle my fingers with his and clutch him as tightly as if it was true.

But his grip grows desperately painful when the screaming starts. Cold sweat glues our hands together. It take all my self-control not to fling both arms around Gale just to make sure they won't hurt him, not now, not ever.

"Bullshit," he growls with the familiar anger-masked-pain when he overcomes the initial shock. I can only imagine how terrible it is for him to hear his family like that, and to see Katniss so desperate. "They were all fine today." He bites his lip at another scream. "We were all fine."

"Of course you are all fine," I reply softly, but I still breathe an inadvertent sigh of relief. It's getting hard to tell what's real and what's not, and every confirmation is precious. And Gale believes it's not real, if he didn't he'd already have run home to make absolutely sure again.

"And there's no fucking way they'd make me sound like that," he growls into my ear with bravado I can't help but appreciate.

"Sure." I nod earnestly. Of course I want to believe that.

Then a surprising laugh escapes me, and a significant part of the tension goes with it. And Gale laughs with me.

Luckily or not, the terrible recap is cut short because of an interesting development in the arena.

The Star-crossed lovers are watching over their sleeping allies together, sitting hip-to-hip and facing in different directions. Katniss is leaning against Peeta's shoulder and he's stroking her hair.

I feel Gale tense beside me, but don't pull away. We are sitting hip-to-hip too, both facing the TV where destiny unfolds.

They acknowledge out loud that they are trying to save each other at all costs and Peeta tries to persuade Katniss that she is the one that should make it out. But however much Peeta emphasizes that Katniss's family needs her, the argument he considered most persuasive – that locket – gets only confused frowning for reaction. She obviously has a different priority now.

"No one really needs me," Peeta says at last.

Katniss looks over the locket she seems to have all but forgotten, her full attention on him.

"I need you," she states, conclusively.

When Peeta tries to protest, Katniss kisses him to shut him up, and proceeds to kiss him so fervently as if devouring him were a surefire way to escape the Hunger Games.

Gale watches them with a silent and deadly intensity, his face immobile.

But when I crane my neck to look into his eyes, I see pain that would match the fake tortured screams from before.

He won't give up on her, not even now, and witnessing his foolish dedication only serves to fuel my determination not to give up on him. His fierce loyalty is both infuriating and irresistible. I wouldn't want to destroy it. I'd want to win it over. Especially now that Katniss has relinquished it.

She made her choice.

My pin on her chest smolders in the artificial pink sunset, a token for the all-but-drowned girl on fire that's been nothing but cold to him and now burns for someone else.

Gale obviously doesn't need me to point it out. He seems to have forgotten I'm there and glares at the TV so intensely I expect the screen to shatter under his gaze any second. I think my hand would break on his stony expression if I succumbed to the temptation to slap him into reality. That wouldn't work anyway, so I try a different approach.

"Gale?" I say softly and touch his hand. My voice almost breaks on his name.

It takes him few seconds to react and turn towards me, but when he does, his eyes soften a little.

Then he frowns and his eyes dart back to the screen.

"She can't fucking die in there," he chokes through gritted teeth. "Not for him. Or for anyone else."

I gasp for breath.

Gale had also realized what exactly her choice means. Unless some miracle happens.

I'd like to believe that I wasn't being selfish when I didn't consider things from this perspective at once. I'd like to think it was just because I simply refused to entertain the possibility that one (or both!) of them won't return. That I forgot the Games are only about death and found my reprieve, just like Katniss and Peeta.

I want to believe they'll both get out, and I want Gale to believe it too.

Maybe if we believe enough

Before I can change my mind, I lean closer and bring my lips to his ear. Almost close enough to touch, pretending it's necessary to avoid detection by the surveillance. I inhale his scent and almost forget the words I wanted to breathe into his ear. Gale tenses in surprise, but doesn't pull away, and I know I have to say something.

So I say what I need to say aloud to make myself believe it's real. "Haymitch's gonna get them out. Both."

Now Gale pulls away abruptly, his eyes piercing mine, searching for truth.

For all I know, I've just told him a horrible, horrible lie.

But I want to believe it, so much he must see my conviction in my eyes. Because Gale wants to believe it too, he wants it to be real.

I expect him to do a lot of things, but I don't expect him to kiss me.

But that's what he does. Like he needed to. Like he finally allowed himself to. I press my body against his, as close as I can without actually sitting on his lap, and ecstatically return the favor. After few delirious moments, Gale pulls away and looks at me, as if seeing me for the first time. Then he shakes his head to clear it, and glances back at the TV.

Katniss is still kissing Peeta.

Allies can kiss.

It's okay.

Gale's words from few days ago echo in my head. Dammit, Madge, I needed to kiss you.

Dammit, Gale, and I need you to kiss me now, I don't say aloud. And you need to kiss me.

There's so much to fight against. We should we keep fighting ourselves?

"I should go," Gale says abruptly. He has some sort of reason for that every time, or at least thinks he should have.

The expression in his eyes tells me exactly how close to the edge of control he is, a rock poised to cause an avalanche. Too close to doing something… unthinkable… before he can think it over.

Well, there are plenty things I'd want him to do to me. Now. And I can't risk letting him run out of here and do something stupid like try his luck against the whole Peacekeeper force, right?

I purse my lips. "C'mon, then. I'll walk you to the door."

He rises mechanically, looking over his shoulder at the TV, and lets me take his arm. He's so lost in thought he notices that I've taken him in a wrong direction only when we stop at a door in an unlit hallway.

The door to my room.

Like Peeta was Katniss's personal rebellion in the Arena, I'd like Gale to be mine here.

With the TV out of sight, he looks at me again. Pretty much like I've always wanted him to look at me.

"Madge…" he begins, but lets his voice trails off, because he probably doesn't know what exactly to say. But his expression tells me enough.

I've been wrong. He's not close to the edge, he's balancing right there, on a sharp, unforgiving blade.

The tiniest push would tip him over and make him fall.

I gingerly extend my hand and press my fingertips against his chest.

I don't want to see him fall. I want to hold him.

I don't want to see him break. I want to hold him together.

I wish I could take him to a place with no Hunger Games. I wish he would take me there.

As I let my fingers trail down his torso, Gale backs further into the wall, and all but melts into the shadow, dark and chiseled like a statue carved into the coal seam by some gifted pickaxe-artist.

So damned fascinating.

His heart might be with Katniss in the arena, but it's also here with me, quickening under my touch as I splay my palm over his firm muscles and move it in a careful caress.

"What the hell are you doing?" His voice is very low and doesn't want to be angry. It sends a shiver of pleasure through my body.

Just a tiniest pull and I'll fall with him.

He places his hand over mine.

Dammit, Gale, just kiss me. It won't hurt anyone. You won't save anyone by not doing it. I promise.

"This is our Arena," I whisper, tilting my head up. "And I'm sick and tired of making war. Aren't you?"

Gale lifts his hand from mine, cupping my face, lightly tracing my cheekbone with his thumb.

"What d'you want to do, then?" he asks, his self-control breaking with an audible hitch in his voice, and he kisses me just as I part my lips to answer. His eyes are shut, but I keep mine open, just to reassure myself it's really him.

Here, with me.

I don't know who is he thinking about and don't dare to find out, but when I press closer, I can believe that no answer would make our situation any less real. That's as good as I can get, and I'll sure take it.

Maybe I'm taking advantage of him. Maybe I'm letting him take advantage of me.

Doesn't that cancel out? We are just trying to find a little comfort.

Maybe it's all for the Games, but why couldn't we get some pleasure from our alliance? There's nobody watching us, and if someone cares to overhear, we might as well let them know life has to go on.

"See, it's not that bad when we agree on something," I mutter as we part for breath.

He nods with half a smile, letting his hand slide from my cheek down my neck and along the decolletage of my dress to the place where I used to wear the mockingjay, and where I'd pinned the marigold now. A tiny silly gift from him that I find more precious than all the jewels of the world.

"You know, the dress really is pretty," Gale mutters as his fingers slide past the orange-yellow flower and continue lower, setting my skin aflame even through the soft fabric. Now I accept his compliment without doubt, but I don't want the dress on me anymore.

If I were wearing only his touch, I could be a girl on fire.

Perhaps not the one But the one willing to burn with him.

Standing on my tiptoes to meet his lips again, I find myself kissing him like Katniss had kissed Peeta moments ago, and I don't know how would Gale kiss Katniss, but now he's kissing me and anything better than this seems impossible.

A moan escapes my parted lips as Gale releases them to trail ardent kisses along my jaw and down my neck.

"Want me to go on?" he whispers into the hollow of my clavicle. The frantic edge of his voice grates against my nerve-endings, awakening pure instinct. Need drives me closer, my body pressing against his, my bent leg sliding up to cradle his hip. Gale's hand hooks under my thigh and travels up, closer to where I need it, and I shiver as his lips continue along the path his breath had traced.

"Yeah. Don't stop," I whisper just to be on the safe side, choking the words out through the grip of desire. My fingers curl in his hair to prevent him from pulling away. I need to hold him tight lest he vanishes like a dream, as he did so many times before. "Don't you dare stop."

Maybe he'd dare, but he obviously doesn't want to. And I don't want him to either. When he's touching me like this, my blood sings and my whole body thrums with desire, the symphony drowning out the tick tock of the clock that seems to be counting our lives away. I banish all foreboding and think only of a future that lurks only a few layers of clothing away.

For the Games or not, I'm most willing to play.

I find just enough presence of mind to maneuver us into my room – an awkward task given our sudden unwillingness to break contact, and lock the door from the inside. Just in case.

Gale immediately presses me against the closed door, his body flush against mine, but I push him slightly away and unbutton his shirt impatiently, eager to touch him, desperate to have him all for myself. He shrugs the garment off without hesitation.

As he shifts his arms behind him to free his hands from the sleeves, my delicate pale fingers are already on him, tracing the shadowy outlines of his muscles, defined and hardened by a lifetime of rough struggle. I caress my way over his firm chest, down his chiseled stomach, and skim over the sharp hipbones just above his tightly cinched belt.

"Hey." He flinches slightly as I slide my hands along the waistline of his trousers to the small of his back, and touch the slick scar-tissue there.

I freeze in my tracks and blink away nightmares of blood. "Does it hurt?" I don't want to hurt him. I want to take the pain away.

He hesitates. "No… not really." The physical pain might be gone, but the raw agony of wounds that run deeper than flesh echoes in his voice, however hard he tries to hide it. Something in him keeps bleeding, and I want to make it stop.

"Then it's okay," I whisper softly. Another lie I want to make true. Perhaps Gale wants that too, because he doesn't push me away, but wraps his arms around me instead, pulling me closer. Emboldened by his response, I press my cheek over his heart, feeling his frantic pulse and greedily inhaling a heady scent of desire and freedom and rebellion.

I venture up his back, gingerly navigating the intricate maze of scars carved into his skin. No blood, no pain. They are a part of him, marks of survival, and I want to rid him of the humiliation he associates with them just like I'd helped him with the pain. It must be working, because I feel him relax against me, his breath deepening, but heart racing ever faster.

His fingers trace my own back in response, sliding down instead of up, as low as he can reach, and then gather the skirt of my dress with agonizing slowness.

"Madge?" he breathes, unspoken question in his eyes.

"Go ahead," I whisper back, and lift my arms away from him to let him the slip the dress up.

He does so, with some some frantic pulling at the seams, and my wish to be wearing nothing but his touch soon after. It feels like fire, hot and all-consuming. The heat spreads all over my body and fingers feel warm enough to melt metal when I move to unbuckle his belt.

Maybe Gale doesn't think he loves me, and he certainly doesn't say it.

But he does love me.

I don't want to think of any other way to describe it. Would he lift me in his arms and carry me to my bed and spend so much time making me feel this wonderful if he didn't? Would he let me touch him like this if he didn't?

I have no presence of mind left to doubt it.

Gale's callused palms feel rough against my pampered skin; but he caresses my body with tender care and precision, touching me like I would touch the keys of my piano and eliciting sounds I'd never imagined I could make. Perhaps I should be ashamed for them, but I'm too lost in my bliss to waste a thought on propriety. Both my parents are absent one way or another, so there's nobody else to hear my own moonlight sonata. The most delightful version.

Everything feels new and almost terrifying in its intensity, because no dream or solitary play could possibly match this happening for real. I welcome and encourage it, though, doing my best to match Gale touch for touch, sliding my palms along his skin, tangling greedy fingers in his hair, coaxing him where I want him the most.

When his fingers cross the most intimate threshold, I arch my hips against his deft touch and caress his chest, wishing I could find my way into his heart just as easily as he enters my body.

And maybe I can. I see the way there in his eyes, no longer barred.

"It might hurt a bit now," he whispers with a tinge of remorse as he braces himself above me, teasing my entrance with the lightest pressure.

"Now you're afraid of that?" I laugh a little.

He opens his mouth to speak, but I press my fingers against his lips. "It's okay. I'm ready."

Even if this part were to hurt, like I'd heard some girls whisper, I'm not afraid, and I know Gale won't hurt me on purpose.

Not when he's in my bed, propped on his elbows above me and lightly stroking my cheeks with his thumbs. Not when his breath hitches deliciously as I arch my back just a little higher, to press myself against him and to savor more of the heat that radiates from his body. Not when he looks at me with the strange mixture of lust and tenderness that can be so easily mistaken for love.

Not when I know he wants me so much he needs me.

He doesn't try anymore talking.

The slight discomfort I do feel as he slowly pushes in is lost somewhere in the moonlit depths of his eyes and swept away with the tear he gently wipes from my face.

I breathe deeply and gradually relax around him, encircling his waist with my legs and crossing my heels behind his back so that I'm both above and below him, making us as equal as we can be. We begin to move together, then, finding our rhythm more easily and naturally than I dared to anticipate, and even if we weren't in love, the indulgence is sweeter than I imagined possible.

There's no tick tock of the clock, no games, no jabberjays, no Mockingjays… just the beat of our hearts and the song of our breath and the liquid fire coursing through our joined bodies.

Anchoring my arms behind Gale's neck, I lift my head to press my forehead against his. My eyes trace the taut, square planes of his chest and stomach all the way down, and I watch him slide in and almost-out, wearing nothing but fluid traces of me. We don't match, but we contrast most beautifully.

Letting my head fall back and my eyes fall closed, I shamelessly whisper and moan his name. I want him to hear, I want him to know I want him. Gale quickens his pace in response, his fingers digging into my hips and lips marking my neck, but he remains silent save for ragged breaths and occasional throaty groans that send shivers all over my body and seem to bring me closer to the edge. As I feel the sensations mounting to the climax, some tiny part of my mind that is not completely unraveled wishes he would say my name, and hopes he wouldn't say a different one.

But when he spasms in pleasure above me and says nothing, only bites his lip hard enough to draw blood, I'm already beyond caring.

I just tangle my fingers in his wild hair and yank his face closer to kiss the drop away. He smiles at me then, bright and sincere, a slight red smear on his lip, and shifts to hold me his arms.

Allies to the last.

We both won a little and died a little in this game, and it was perfect.

I turn in his embrace to face him and stare at our entwined bodies in content fascination. Moonlight glistens in the sheen of sweat we wear together, hiding all our contrasts under a silvery cloak, light and dark, right and wrong, all melted and fused together to create something wonderful.

Gale drifts off before me, and that's fine, because that means I can watch him sleep. I savor the opportunity and trace his features with my eyes, committing them to memory: full lips slightly parted, forehead devoid of the familiar crease, moon-cast shadows softening the sharp angles of his face.

Extending my hand, I gingerly stroke his messy dark hair, careful not to wake him.

He looks peaceful in his sleep, and I'm free to think I've brought him the peace. I know he's done that for me.

At least for tonight. We'll have to see what tomorrow brings.

I idly turn my head to the window just in time to see a shooting star cutting the sky in a graceful arc. I silently wish it would bring a future we could share, and nestle deeper into Gale's embrace.

Preferably like this.