My mother washes the ash from my face while Mrs. Everdeen examines my head. Posy tugs on my arm and asks me if I had a nice nap. Rory tips his head in my direction but is off somewhere, holding Prim and shielding her away from the darkness that surrounds us.
Thom's been doing a great job holding down the fort while I've been… out. Fishing and finding some of the snares I've set up and setting up a few of his own. Vick's been helping, or at least as much as a boy his age can. A few from the mines are working together to work on some sort of gathering system. But now that I'm awake I can hunt for a bit once Mrs. Everdeen clears it for me.
One day. I was only out for one day.
The visions that swam in my fantasy slowly fade from me. The dreams I conjured up all on my own are gone within minutes of waking up. The only thing I can remember from them is Madge.
"Undersee's fine," Thom tells me as he hands me some berries. "You made sure of that. It's her damn fault that you're in the condition you're in." I lift an eyebrow and chug a cup of water, waiting for him to further explain. "It was an obvious danger, running back into the bombings like that. Dammit Gale, don't you remember anything?"
"He was hit on the head," my mother scolds him. "Of course he barely remembers what happened."
Oh I remember enough. I remember panic. Katniss shooting an arrow into the force field. The power flickering out. Screaming. Lots of screaming. Trying to get everyone out as fast as I could. I remember the fire. I remember the ground shaking beneath me. The terror. Sweaty hands. Buildings collapsing. I remember much more than I need to.
"What happened?" I force out. Though I'm awake I'm not allowed to do much. My mother's happy that I'm awake, as is Mrs. Everdeen, but they say there's no rush for me to get on my feet. "Details."
"Hell if I know," Thom grunts out. "Found me in the middle of the chaos and shouting something about checking on Undersee. That's all I know. I remember thinking 'hell, if Gale dies I'm going to have a lot of explaining to do to Hazelle'."
"And then poor little Madge found us all, oh, she was in hysterics," my mother continues, wiping at her forehead. "She was dragging your seemingly lifeless body behind her shouting about how you got hit on the head by some falling debris."
"Pulled you here herself," Thom says, a surprising about of respect to his voice. "Hell, I don't even know if I could've done that."
I blink and rub at my head. The mark is evident from where I was hit. A deep scrape that might scar. "Can I see her?" I ask. The only thing I can conjure of Madge Undersee at the moment is the mayor's daughter. Sitting pretty with her hair perfectly curled. Clean and shining.
"Mrs. Everdeen said you're to stay here," my mom says quickly, her eyebrows knitting. I know she's just worried. She's terrified that if I up and walk away that I won't come back. That's clear enough.
"Let him see the blonde girl, Mommy," Posy coos. My little sister marches over and tugs on my mother's shirt. "She's been asking!" My mom looks down at Posy and frowns, watching the small girl smile and nod her head enthusiastically. I thank heaven that she's still here. Smiling and bright as always. "Please, Momma. Let Gale see her!"
Eventually, my mother nods. "Alright. But make it quick, Gale, okay? And come back right away when you're done."
"Course, Ma," I smile weakly and jerk my head into a nod.
Moments later I'm on my feet, stumbling around the place we've made home. Some sit by the lake, others are under the trees. My eyes scan until I find the only three blondes in the entire place. Delly Cartwright, her younger brother, and Madge Undersee.
She sees me before I see her. I can feel her gaze. And when I look up and notice that she's watching me she doesn't tear her eyes away. She blinks. Once. Twice. Her lips quirk into a gentle smile for a moment. I find myself unable to move toward her. What am I supposed to say? Thanks for dragging me halfway through the end of the world? Congratulations that you're still alive? A few seconds later Delly realizes that Madge is watching me, and she gets up, taking her younger brother with her so Madge is alone.
Still, I pause. It's so strange to see her like this. Her golden hair isn't as bright, matted down in dirt and ash. Her smooth skin is coated in the remnants of the night. Despite never being the best at words, I know I have to talk to her. I have to say something. Anything.
As I make my way towards her she lifts herself from her seat, steadying herself on her own two feet. And as I reach her, she doesn't hesitate to throw her arms around me, burying her face into my chest.
"Why'd you give her your pin?" I ask. It's more of a demand than a question. Anger boils in my system. Since when does she have the right?
"It'll keep her safe," Madge explains quickly, wiping at her eyes. And since when is it okay for her to cry over Katniss? "I know it will."
"Don't be an idiot," I growl at her. "A pin's going to do jack shit. You want to help Katniss? How about you donate half your savings to her? Or maybe you should've volunteered instead. Maybe you should've been reaped." I clamp my mouth shut after the words spout out, shocked that I said that so loudly. Madge only blinks up at me through her teary eyes.
"I wanted to," she whispers. "Katniss was too fast."
I try to make the strawberry trade quick, not wanting to look her in the eye. It takes her forever to answer the door because she's playing that damn piano, the noise echoing through the house. As I wait I allow my eyes to close, letting the beauty of the sound fill me up. We have instruments in the Seam but nothing is ever this sharp. This clear. She's good too, and I hate it. Why does she have to be so good at the damn piano?
Eventually Madge opens the door. Her eyes are red but I won't say anything. "Berries," I mutter, holding out the basket.
Slowly she accepts it, reaching to a jar on a table near the door and pulling out the coins. She thrusts them into my hands quickly before I can make any comment about how she's overpaying.
"I know you didn't mean what you said," Madge whispers. "About me being reaped. You're just angry." She stares at me for a very long time, her blue eyes locked with mine. "You wanted to volunteer. I know you did. You missed your chance too."
I walk away without saying anything else.
"I like the guy from 11," Thom tells me at lunch, pointing to the image of the hulking boy. "He's got spunk."
"The only tribute you should like is Katniss," I growl.
"Well, besides Katniss," Thom says. He stares at the picture for a very long time. "He's doing what I'd do. Be super terrifying for all the viewers but he's actually just terrified himself. He's probably super sweet with that little girl." I frown, tearing my eyes from the screen. They shouldn't make us watch this crap during lunch. Shouldn't make us watch this crap at all. "He's a lot like me, I know it."
"Hey, I'm just saying," Thom shrugs. He continues to stare at the screen. "They're people too. They have families. Live somewhere. Maybe they have a pet or skip school. I don't know. But they're more than just tributes, Gale." I already know that.
My eyes find her without really meaning to. She sits alone, chewing her nails down to stubs. Guilt prickles through my system. She used to sit with Katniss. I knew that they were friends, what I said was rude. My mother would have my head if she could. No matter how much I wish she and Katniss weren't linked somehow, they are. So I feel like I have to make it up to her, somehow. I push myself from the side of the wall and take the seat next to her.
Madge glances at me with worried eyes but eventually returns to staring at the screen. She doesn't say anything other than, "Eleven."
And I repeat, "Eleven."
Because maybe Katniss actually does have a chance of coming home.
Peeta Mellark's interview shakes me to my core. Catnip. My Catnip. Suddenly his? I go to the only place I can think of, the woods. Or at least I try to. I can't hop the fence, the electricity is still on so it can replay his confession of love over and over again. Catnip. Katniss. Girl on fire. No longer mine. Never mine to begin with.
I couldn't even get out the words I wanted to say to her. Katniss, I—
"Thought you'd be out here," a voice breezes from over my shoulder. Her footsteps were nearly silent, I'm surprised I didn't hear her. "You left the square so quickly, I thought maybe you were going to throw up." I glance once at Madge and then return my gaze to the fence that I'm not allowed to cross.
Can't cross the fence. Can't have Katniss ever again. Can't get this blonde off my back.
She takes the spot next to me and pulls on the grass with her fingers. "What do you want, Undersee?" I hiss. I'm in no mood to deal with her.
"Can't I just sit here?" she asks innocently. And honestly, that's all it is. Innocence. She isn't here to piss me off. She isn't here to make me angry. And that's what makes me angry.
"Just go home," I snap. "Go back to your fancy house where everyone loves you and you can play your stupid piano and—"
"Stop it!" Madge cuts me off heatedly. "Stop blaming me for everything that's happened!" Again I clamp my lips shut and watch as she buries her face into her knees. "Katniss is my friend too. So is Peeta. And maybe I wasn't in love with him like you are with Katniss but that doesn't make it hurt any less that only one of them can come home."
"I'm not in love with—"
"Yes you are," she whimpers. "Why else would you run off so fast?" She sniffles into her dress and keeps her gaze away from me. "If I were to go home now, no one would be there. My mother would be sleeping, knocked out on morphling. My father's too busy to hold a decent conversation with me. It's not as though they don't love me, they do, but just because I have money doesn't mean my life is perfect." Madge wipes at her eyes and finally lifts her head, though she won't look at me. "Everyone has problems, Gale, not just you."
"He made Katniss look weak," I grit out. That's the only problem as of right now.
"He made Katniss desirable," Madge corrects. "And he meant what he said. Whether you believe it or not, Peeta's a nice guy. And he cares about Katniss and is trying to help her in a way that you can't." I only frown, continuing to stare at her as though she's the very reason this has happened.
"Bread boy doesn't have a chance at getting home," I tell her.
"He doesn't plan to come home. He plans to get Katniss home. Peeta doesn't want to come back here anyway, not with his mother the way she is." Madge pauses and fiddles with her hair while I process her words. "But yes, he does have a fair chance at coming home. He's strong. Has spent most of his life dodging hits and hiding. Smart enough."
It clicks suddenly. The woman from the bakery who never has a kind word to say about anyone. Hits her children? The revelation washes over me and makes me angry once more. It isn't enough that we've got the Capitol breathing down our necks, but we can't even trust our own parents to watch over us and keep us safe. For a moment I wish that Madge had the same sort of punishment. It isn't fair that she gets to live such a high and mighty life. But I push the thoughts from me instantly, because no one deserves to be hit by their parents.
"Why are you here, Undersee?" I finally ask. All anger has dissipated from my voice and has been replaced with tiredness. It's strange enough the things she's shared with me tonight. Since when has she cared? Ever? When has she ever wanted to tell me about her life before? We're not friends. Not strangers, but not friends.
"I told you," she whispers. "I just wanted to sit."
So we sit.
Being officially known as Katniss' cousin throws me over the edge. I storm to the Undersee mansion with fire burning in my eyes and pound on the backdoor. Madge answers it quickly and escorts me into the garden, muttering something about the people who're staying in her house. She takes me behind the shed and lowers herself to the ground, holding up her finger to her mouth and reminding me to be as quiet as possible.
"For the love of God," I groan, collapsing against the side of the shed. "I'm not her cousin."
"I know that," Madge says. "And you know that. And plenty of people know that. But for this whole angle with Peeta to work out, that's how it has to be." I grunt into my hands and rub at my face. "It's not your fault you're so good looking," she adds quietly. I quickly lift my head to face her and find her cheeks only a little pink. "Must be the hair."
"Maybe they should call you Peeta's cousin, then," I say, reaching over to toy with her bangs. She flutters her eyelashes a few times before letting her eyes fall shut. "You have nice hair too."
The look in Katniss' eyes after she kills the boy from District 1 is terrifying. For a moment I'm terrified that I've lost her. That Prim's lost her. That we've all lost her to them but then she blinks, and is instantly focused on the little girl from 11 again. With a short sigh of relief I slump backwards into my seat, listening to the collective breath everyone around me releases.
Madge's hand turns slack around mine and I glance down at her, finding her chewing on her bottom lip. Eventually she pulls her hand out of mine and tugs on the tips of her hair, a nervous habit I've noticed that she has. I almost want to force my hand back into hers, tell her that it's okay if she wants to hold tight.
Later during the replays she tells me, "I thought she was going to turn into one of them."
"Me too," I agree, though hesitantly. It still sort of unnerves me that our opinions overlap in so many different areas.
"The way her eyes turned dark," Madge shudders and squeezes her hands open and closed, most likely to calm herself. "Sometimes I… sometimes I think that if I were to be reaped that I'd turn into a monster."
"Not you," I protest immediately. "You're too soft."
Madge snorts and rubs at her forehead. "You don't know me, Gale."
"I know you're not a monster. A survivor, maybe, but we're all survivors in this hellhole. You'd do whatever it took to get out. Any of us would."
I'm watching the Games with Madge in her living room the first time Katniss kisses Peeta. For so long I had always imagined that I'd be the one to do that. Madge clutches my hand tightly and murmurs my name quietly. "It's all for the Games," she whispers.
"No it's not," I respond back. Eventually her fingers lace with mine and the feeling is so reassuring and comforting it's as though I can breathe again. This isn't Katniss anymore. Katniss isn't some lovesick girl. Katniss doesn't do things like this. "But that's okay, I guess."
"I'm sorry," Madge says quietly. As though it's her fault. But it isn't her fault. I know it isn't her fault.
"Don't be." Slowly she turns to me and edges herself to her knees, and then Madge leans forward and kisses my cheek. I allow my eyes to shut at the interaction, savoring the warm sensation it sends through my veins. Before I can help myself I turn my face. Our noses bump and I resist the urge to press my lips against hers. I want nothing more than her warmth to engulf me entirely. "Madge," I murmur. She doesn't respond vocally, only letting out a shaky breath. "I'm glad you're here."
Madge waits on the platform a few rows behind me as we wait for Katniss to arrive on the train. Peeta in tow. I'm not sure if it makes me angry that he's coming home with her or if it's just a fact now. It's not like I wanted the kid to die, but at the same time it's not like I want Katniss snatched up by someone other than me.
As I watched my friend through the Games I watched her changing. She's not the same Katniss that left. And I guess I'm not the same Gale either. I've started at the mines. I've made a new… friend. I've weighed my options. I glance at her over my shoulder and she offers a light smile.
And when the train arrives and Katniss steps off, I know she's different. I need to say goodbye to my Katniss before I can move on with my life.
So when I see her that first Sunday in the woods, I kiss her goodbye. And I take a deep breath of fresh air. Because I know that things are changing.
"Dammit, Gale," Thom mutters as he hacks away on the wall of the mine. "The mayor's daughter? You're shitting me!"
"I'm not," I say back. "She's different than I thought."
"Yeah, but she's still the mayor's daughter," he points out with a smirk. "You're not even one to mess around with girls from town, but the mayor's daughter?" He knocks his helmet against the wall and lets out a deep breath. "I mean whatever, man. You like her then you like her. Who the hell am I to judge?"
"Thank you," I breathe. And it's not even that I like her. Not really. I just like spending time with her. Listening to her talk. Watching her fingers curl through her hair. Seeing her chew her bottom lip when she disagrees with what I say or can't find the right words to respond right away.
"Just know that she's a merchant's daughter, and you're a miner." I frown as he speaks. "I support you, you know I do, but…" he trails off, pausing as he works.
"But what, Thom?"
"But you're never gonna be good enough for her, Gale." I drop my pickaxe down and lean against it, watching him through narrowed eyes. "You're no Victor. You're just… you. We're always going to be a step down from her."
I lock my jaw and keep my mouth shut. Because he's mostly right. I'm not Victor. And I'm never going to be good enough for the mayor's daughter. But that doesn't mean I can't like the sound of her laugh. Or the freckles on her nose. Or spending time with her. And maybe I'm a miner, but I'm also a Hawthorne. And I think that makes me good enough for someone. Why not her?
"You like people who are a challenge," Thom tells me. "Katniss was a challenge because she didn't want to get married. Undersee's a challenge because she's, well, Undersee."
"That's not why I like her," I grunt.
"So you do like her," he says, tapping his chin. "Enough for a confession and everything. Interesting." I growl and reach for my pickaxe, quickly lifting it and hammering against the wall. Of course he doesn't understand. His newfound relationship with Bristel is clouding his judgment. "Gale, I'm only giving you a hard time because it's my job. You're my best friend. Hell, if you like her, don't let her slip away. Alright?"
"Alright," I jerk my head into a nod. Then suddenly, I can smile again.
The flash of the camera throws me off kilter. For a moment I think it's an interviewer and begin to get angry. Haven't I answered enough questions about my cousin? But when I find Madge holding up some old clunker of a camera my lips slip into a smile. "The hell was that for?" I ask as she lowers it.
"I don't have any pictures of you," she says kindly, her lips curling upward.
"And what do you need a picture of me for, Undersee?"
"My scrapbook," Madge supplies. "You're a much bigger part of my life than you might realize, Gale Hawthorne." And I guess I don't realize what she says, because the comment flies right over my head. Instead my eyes are focused on the light pink that tinges her cheeks, looking even more sweet than usual. "What're you looking at me like that for?" she asks, laughing a bit as she does so.
Not really realizing that I was looking at her in any certain way I only shrug. "Just surprised you have a camera, is all." Everyone knows she's good at the piano, but photography? That's a new one.
Madge lowers herself to the ground and fiddles with the contraption in her hands. "I used to love taking pictures, but there's not much here to take pictures of." She sighs and looks up at me, waiting for me to join her in the dirt. And eventually I do. "I think District 12 is beautiful. Really. In its own way, apart from all the other District's. But not many people do, so they would always tell me how horrible my pictures were." Madge frowns. "I guess I'll stick with the piano."
"What about 12 is beautiful?" I grumble.
"The way most of these families look at each other. The sense of community on most days. The meadow." She squints and looks up toward the sky. "It's stupid."
"It's not stupid."
Madge glances back down at me and instantly smiles, chewing on her bottom lip like she wants to say something but is stopping herself. After a moment she asks, "Do you want to try?"
"Try the camera?" I chuckle and shake my head. "There's nothing to take a picture of."
"Here," she thrusts it into my hands. "Go on. I'm sure there's something beautiful around here. You have that… that sense about you. Like you can find beauty in anything." I weigh the camera in my hands and glance around the area around us. Some dead grass. A tree that's losing all of its leaves. Beauty in anything? "You just press that button there when you're ready. Point and shoot. It's that simple." Suddenly I lift the camera and point it at her, clicking the button before she can protest. I've caught her mid-smile, dragging her hand through her hair as she watches me. She laughs and meets my eyes. "Me?"
"You said to find the beauty," I murmur. Again her cheeks flush pink and she drops her eyes back to the camera. "Get me that picture, yeah?"
"Sure," Madge nods. And then laughs. She takes the camera back into her own hands and does what I had. Weighing it. Madge extends her arm and points the camera at us. "Smile," she tells me. It only makes me frown. She nudges my side and gets me to flinch, and takes the camera as a laugh leaps from my throat.
"That wasn't fair," I scold her, but a smile is still pressed on my face. Madge only giggles, bringing up the camera again and snapping another picture of me. "Hey, stop that!" I snatch the camera from her hands and bring it up to my eye, focusing on her before capturing a few more of her.
"Alright, alright!" Madge grins and throws her hands up. "Enough!" I chuckle and lower the camera, grinning at her brightly. "Can we please take a good one? Now that I have thousands of blurry ones in my film?"
"Yeah, come here," I order. Madge instantly wiggles up to the spot next to me and I drop my arm around her shoulder. I position the camera out from us and drop my mouth down next to her ear, whispering, "Smile, Madge."
"It's all such bullshit," I grumble, staring up at the sky. "Having him propose like that in front of everyone. No one's falling for it. It's complete and utter bullshit!"
"Gale," Madge says quietly.
"Bullcrap," I mutter. She doesn't like it when I curse. "I mean really, though. Who the hell would want to be proposed to like that? In front of the entire world. Fake. Fake as day."
"But what he said was true," Madge tells me. "Genuine."
"Yeah, everything Mellark does is genuine. I know." I scratch at my chin, knowing I have to watch what I say about the bread boy considering he and Madge are friends. "You want to know what I'd do?"
"Sure," she hums. I also know that Madge doesn't like it much when I rant, but she lets me anyway. And that's what I like about her. Katniss would always scold me or shoot me down, but Madge just listens.
"I'd do all that fake stuff on stage, and then a real proposal. A nice one. Just for me and her." Madge cringes when I say that. "Not me and Katniss," I add quickly, wondering if that's how she took it. "Just me and the girl. Whoever she ought to be. I mean I'm no Victor but if I were and had to do that…" I trail off and sigh, glancing up at the stars. "I don't have to do that though, so."
Madge plays with the grass by her hands and sighs. "I don't think I'll ever get married," she says quietly.
"Why not?" Katniss never wanted to get married either, and there she is on stage with Mellark. "Family's always been important to me."
"I know," Madge nods. "But I mean… my family is never around. I don't know how to be a mom. Or a wife. I can't cook. Can't clean. I'm virtually useless."
"You're not useless, Madge." I prop myself up on my elbow and stare down at her. "Hell, you're the best listener I know. And you just deal with everything instead of putting it off." She watches me carefully with a guarded expression. "You're sweet and beautiful. You've got this attitude no one knows anything about that's extremely hot." Madge laughs a bit, shaking her head at me. "Any guy would be lucky to have you."
"Alright, Gale," she laughs.
"Matter of fact," I lift myself up to one knee and turn to her as she sits up. "Madge Undersee, will you marry me?"
Again she laughs, loudly, and shakes her head. "You're crazy," Madge says.
"Am not. Listen, I may not love you, not yet, but I could, I think. One day." And I mean it.
All the humor dissipates from her face as she blinks up at me. "Really?"
I nod. "Really." I lift the chain I wear around my neck from me and place it over her head. "And I don't have a ring with me so this'll have to do." She continues to blink, the smallest smile taking over her features as she stares down at. "What do you say?"
Madge licks her lips and her cheeks turn bright pink. "I'd be honored to marry you, Gale Hawthorne."
I can't help the chuckle that escapes me as she launches herself toward me, throwing her arms around my neck. And when she pulls away, she doesn't get too far, because Madge is suddenly smashing her lips against mine. The kiss freezes me, but only temporarily. My hands cup her cheeks gently, not allowing her to get too far from me. One of her hands slips up my face and she tangles her fingers in my hair, the other clutches at my shirt. Her lips are warm and soft and sweet and exactly as I would've expected them to be, only better. Our noses bump and we pull away panting, gasping for breath.
"Sorry," she squeaks instantly. So I lean forward and kiss her again. Only a lot less frantic and a lot longer. And this time when we part, she doesn't apologize.
When she plays the piano for me I melt in a way I hadn't known possible. She tries to teach me the keys but my hands are bigger than hers and not nearly as gentle. I may be good at making snares but I'm practically an idiot when it comes to the piano.
"I remember you played for a school play once, or something," I mumble. "A recital. I don't know."
She giggles and presses a key. "I only did that once. I hated being in front of all of those people. I usually freeze up whenever anyone I know listens to me. It's a lot easier to play for the Capitol strangers, but when people from the District hear me…" she trails off and bites down on her bottom lip.
"You played for me," I point out.
"Well that's different," she insists. "You're different." And then I realize that it isn't the piano that makes me melt, it's the girl.
Saturday nights with Madge become the one thing I look forward to after a long week in the mines. I slip into her backyard or she follows me to the meadow. Every once in a while she'll eat dinner at my house. We always sneak in kisses. Or at least I try to. There's something about her kisses that make me tingle in a way no one else has ever been able to do.
Except tonight I know something is off. I try to get her to come outside but she only stands on her porch, whispering something about how tonight isn't a good night.
"Why not?" I ask, irritation flooding my system. I spend day after day stuck down in the mines and she can't take a night off for me? "What's wrong with tonight?"
"It's just that my dad is acting really strange so I think I should stay in and comfort him," she murmurs, tugging on the chain she wears around her neck. She knows it wasn't a real proposal but I insisted she keep the necklace anyway. "He's never like this."
"Well maybe I can come in?"
"No, Gale," Madge shakes her head. "That isn't a good idea."
"And why not?" I snap. "Doesn't he know about me?"
"Of course he does," she answers instantly, "but I'm telling you that something's wrong. There're some new people coming on the train tonight and some family time is what we need—"
"If you're ashamed of me then just tell me," I growl. "Scared of getting some coal dust on your carpet?"
"Oh, stop it," she frowns at me. "Why're you acting like this?"
"Why can't I come inside?"
"I already told you that I—"
"Forget it," I grumble. "See you later, Madge."
"Gale," she tries again, but I'm too far gone, marching out of her yard without turning back around.
The next day in the woods Katniss tests my patience. Warns me that President Snow threatened to have me personally killed. Tells me all about the mess she's made. Asks to run away. And I'm so overwhelmed with joy from the idea that I scoop her into my arms and spin. Run away? Run away! Finally, someone understands! Katniss understands! Maybe she is still here after all.
And the, "I love you," slips out before I can stop it.
But then she responds with, "I know." Reality swoops back in. Reminds me to wake up. My momentary lapse in judgment stings like a bee in the summer. I don't love her. I can't. Not after how she's changed and left. Not after all that's happened. And I know that this is all some sort of dream. Running away.
So I snap at her. I snap at Katniss because I'm mad at Madge and I snap at her because I'm not good enough for either of them. But she doesn't know any of this. And then with the news of an uprising in 8 I'm thrown through another loop. I most certainly want to stay now. And then I'm gone, marching through the woods at my own expense.
I spent the rest of the day angry. Angry at myself for being so short with Madge the night before, and angry that I'm just some lousy miner who can't do jack shit to make a difference. If I was a Victor, that'd be a different story. If I was a Victor I could inspire people, or at least try to. I could change the way people think. But I'm not. I'm just a miner.
And then I make the biggest mistake of my life. And I end up on a whipping post. And I see Madge in the crowd, her eyes filled with tears and her cheeks whiter than the snow that falls. And then I see nothing but blood and feel nothing but pain.
But hours – at least it feels like hours – later I hear a voice. And it's hers. "Use these for your friend," she says. And moments later the pain is gone. And Madge is the only person on my mind from that point on.
"You saved my life," I murmur, pulling Madge into my arms before she can even say anything. I refuse to believe anything else. The pain was unbearable. Without the medicine it wouldn't have stopped. It would have stolen me away. "Even after I yelled at you."
"It's what we do," she mumbles into my chest. "We yell and make up. That's okay."
"I love you," I tell her. Bending down so she can hear me. And this confession of love is no accident. "Madge, I love you." She shakes her head so I kiss her nose. "I do. Stop doing that."
"You can't," Madge whimpers.
"I do," I insist.
"Only because I brought you medicine."
"No. Because I do. Dammit, I love you. I love your voice and your hands and your smile and your freckles and your hair. I love your determination and your bravery and the fire that burns inside you no one but me knows about. I love you."
Madge glances up and locks her eyes with me. "I love you too," she chokes out, shaking her head as her eyes fill with tears. "You stupid idiot," she adds, thumping me on the chest. "Maybe not to the point of marriage, not yet," she adds quietly, a bit of a smile to her lips, "but that doesn't mean I don't love you."
And when we kiss, it feels like the very first time.
"This is my father's office," Madge whispers, stepping into the room on her tiptoes and leaning a certain way so the floor doesn't squeak. "Careful."
"Why are you whispering?" I laugh. Instantly she holds her finger up to her lips and throws an angry glance over her shoulder at me. Instantly my voice drops and I whisper too. "Sorry." Eventually she's all the way in the room, beckoning for me to follow. "Where's your dad?"
"Justice Hall," she murmurs. Madge glances up at the screens on the wall and frowns. I look too and find nothing but static. I'm guessing District 12 is behind held out of the loop for now, though I'm not really surprised after what Katniss told me about District 8. Madge crosses the room to her father's desk and I shut the door behind us, leaving it open just a smidge so the clicking of it won't alert anyone. "He usually leaves his paper out," she says with a frown, filing through some folders that are on the desk.
"Maybe he took it with him?" I suggest.
"No, he would've left it." Despite being in this strange new room I can't find myself staring at anything but Madge. Her eyebrows are knitted in pure determination as she rifles through things she shouldn't be sticking her nose in and I'd be lying if I said it wasn't driving me insane. "I can't find anything," she grunts, dropping her stare on the desk and stepping away angrily. "Dammit, I know that I—"
"Madge," I cut her off quietly. It takes only seconds for me to cross the room to her. My hands slide down her arms and I tug her towards me. "It's alright."
"This is the only thing I can do," she tells me, shaking her head dreadfully. "I can't teach snares like you or give medical advice like Prim. This is the only way I can help them prepare for the Quell and—"
"You're helping plenty," I insist. "You don't need to bring the paper every day. They'll understand if you miss one every once in a while." But still, she shakes her head. "Madge," I breathe. I graze my arms up her sides until I reach her head, running my fingers gently down her cheeks and pulling her face into my hands. "I'm upset about the Quell too. But this doesn't all fall on you."
"I just want to help," she chokes out, blinking rapidly as to avoid my gaze.
"You are," I say again.
But this doesn't need to be all about Katniss and Peeta and Haymitch. I dip down and kiss her neck gently, silently pleading that she'll take a deep breath and let go of reality for a moment. The moment my lips touch her skin she clutches my shirt, pulling me as close to her as she possibly can without letting my grip loosen. Madge tangles her fingers up through my hair and lets out a shaky breath.
"What are you doing?" she asks quietly.
"Giving you a break from work," I murmur back.
"Gale," she tries to stop me but I'm kissing her again, dipping down her neck and across her collarbone. Her skin fleshes with goosebumps and she shivers, bunching her hands against my shirt. "I don't think this is a good idea."
"We're in my father's office," she forces out. And yet, she doesn't sound too upset. Light, gentle kisses over her skin. Every place my mouth can reach. Why does she like these damn cardigans so much? "Gale, I don't…" she trails off and drops her hands to my belt loops.
"Tell me to stop," I demand. "If you don't want this then tell me to stop."
But Madge says nothing, and allows her mouth to curve into a slight smile. I grin, continuing my work down her neck. I can feel her heart beating – or is that mine? – and it only makes the situation that much more alluring. Every once in a while she'll gasp or giggle. Soon enough I decide that we're not close enough. I drop my hands down and hoist her up into my arms. Madge instantly locks her ankles around me and we stumble together through her father's office until she lands on the desk.
"Gale," she pants. Her hands slide up my neck and tease my hair. Her breath is heavy and intoxicating in my ear.
"Want me to stop?"
"Then what do you want?"
"For the love of God," she nearly groans. "I want you to kiss me."
I grin again and hover my mouth over hers. "As you wish."
From here I can feel her breathing. Her eyes are the brightest most tempting blue I've ever seen and I crash my lips against hers, needing to taste her. Our lips collide frantically as her hands search my body, unsure of where they want to stay. Skin against skin, my hands over her waist and through her hair. I can't get enough of Madge Undersee. And even if I could I still think I'd want more.
God, this is what we need. A break. I'm tired of talking about the Quell. I'm tired of always being concerned with other people's business. I just want her. Madge. All of her. Right now. As I go to break the kiss, ask her for the directions to her bed which would most certainly be more comfortable than this desk, someone clears their throat from the doorway.
Madge and I part instantly, both snapping around to see who's ruining the best moment of my entire life in one swift motion. Her ankles drop from around me and hit the desk with a thud, her eyes are wide and her cheeks are flushed.
"I came to clean," the voice of the Undersee's maid rings out, "but it would appear that you're busy, Ms. Undersee. Shall I come back at another time?"
Madge lifts her hand to her mouth and coughs weakly, lightly pressing on my chest so I move backwards. My hands slide from her waist and she drops down from the desk she'd been sitting on. "We'll just be going," she tells her maid through a shaking voice.
Madge links her hand with mine and pulls me from her father's office at lightning speed, tugging me into her room and slamming the door shut before anyone says anything else. And then we're laughing. Laughing hysterically to the point where it physically hurts. Laughing to the point of being unable to breathe. And we laugh until our lips find each other's again. Because we really needed this break.
I meet her mother days before Katniss leaves for the Quell. Mrs. Undersee is a sickly woman. Bedridden. Quieter than Madge yet just as kind. She asks me all kinds of questions. My favorite tea. My favorite books. She asks me to keep her daughter safe, and I tell her I will. I'll keep her safe.
When we leave I hear Mrs. Undersee tell Madge, "He's a nice boy. I like him a lot."
Madge responds, "Me too."
In the hall Madge tells me it isn't often that her mother gets visitors. And here is where she tells me about Maysilee. Her aunt that died in the Quarter Quell. The one who was allied with Haymitch. The reason her mother is stuck in bed with terrible headaches.
"The pin was hers," Madge tells me. "The Mockingjay one."
"You gave it to Katniss," I mutter, almost angrily. A part of her life. A very important part of her life. Now in the hands of Katniss. "Why?"
"I told you. I knew it would keep her safe. It still will."
When Haymitch's name is pulled and Peeta volunteers I become irrationally angry. Couldn't the baker just have let him go? Stay home and wait for Katniss to get back? Now she's going to let herself lose just so he can win, I can see it in her eyes. She doesn't plan on coming home because she wants to give that blonde little shit a second chance at life.
Why couldn't Peeta have just let her go? Katniss is strong. She would've come back without any trouble. I know her. I know she could've done it. But now? Now she doesn't have any reason to get back because she's so in love with that kid that's going in the arena with her. She doesn't even know it yet.
"I wish someone could overrule a volunteer," I grumble to Madge. Haymitch could've volunteered. Dammit I wish he would've. Could've. It's not fair.
"I wish someone could overrule this entire thing," she whispers back. "But that's not how this works."
When Peeta announces Katniss' pregnancy I can't say I'm surprised. The boy has a way with words. Madge laughs and shakes her head.
"We talked about it," she tells me quietly when she knows that no one is listening. "I kept saying, 'Peeta, you won't actually say that.' But he did. Oh, I can't believe he said that." I would laugh, too, if I was sure that Katniss would be coming home. But I'm not. So I keep my mouth shut. "He's going to do everything to get her back home," Madge whispers. "You know that."
"I know that," I repeat with a nod. And yet the feeling as though I've lost is more overwhelming than I can explain.
We fight the night of the bombings. Screaming about things that don't matter. I slip up and say something about Katniss. She slaps me. I spit on the ground in front of her. She shoves me out of the fence, yelling about how immature I am but I just hop back over it. She calls me worthless. I call her Princess because I know she hates it. She tells me that Katniss will never love me. I tell her that her family will never love her. She tells me she wishes I had been reaped. I tell her I wish she had been reaped.
She cries. I apologize but she shoves me away. She yanks the necklace from her and throws it at me. I slip it over my head without even trying to get her to take it back. I apologize again but she calls me stupid. A stupid miner. She mutters something about how I'll never love her and I get angry all over again.
"You think I'll never love you?" I growl. "For fuck's sake!"
"Don't you dare use those words with me!"
"You are the only person I love, Madge," I tell her. I drop to my knees in front of her. "You're the only person I want to be with."
"Don't lie to me," she chokes out.
"I don't lie to you and you know that. I've never lied to you. I told you when I hated you. And I told you when I loved you. And I told you when your ideas were shit and when you were a genius. You are the one person I will never lie to." Madge shakes her head and shoves at my chest, trying to get me to leave. To leave. So I leave. Because fuck it, she deserves better than me anyway.
And when the first bomb falls she's the first thing on my mind. I refuse to let our story end this way, with bitter words that don't make any sense. I get my family out. I get the Everdeen's out. And I run. I run as fast as I can to her house because I do, I love her. God, I love her, and if I lose her because of this I will never forgive myself.
She barely opens the door in time. I don't give her time to cry out for her parents. I don't give her time to hesitate. I grip her fiercely and yank her from her home, listening to her scream and beg me to let go. "We don't have time for this," I keep telling her. "We don't have enough time!" She stops protesting when her house collapses and her screams turn into sobs.
I'd comfort her if I could, but suddenly the ground shifts and I drop to the ground. I throw my body over hers to protect her from the next onslaught of debris that litter the sky when I feel it hit.
"Gale!" Madge screams my name and shoves me off of her, rolling me on my back. Her fingers wipe at my forehead. "No, no, no," she shakes her head and chokes back her tears. "You're alright. Get up, you're alright!"
"Madge," I force out her name as ash fills my lungs.
"We're almost there. Gale, please get up. Please. Please get up." The last thing I realize before I slip away is that she's in that damn white dress…
We say it at the same time.
Madge sobs into my chest and I stumble backwards until I'm sitting on a rock near the edge of the lake. All I can do is hold her. Promise her that tomorrow is going to be better. But is it? Is there ever going to be a world without Hunger Games and without killing? Will we ever live in a world where there won't be risks we have to take? Bridges we have to cross?
Her parents didn't make it out. She tells me she wouldn't have made it out of I hadn't gone back for her. "I love you," she whimpers into my chest. "You're not worthless and you're not stupid. You're the most important person in the world."
"No, Gale," she grumbles, wiping at her eyes and smearing the dirt around her face. "I don't care if you love Katniss but I love you."
"Stop that," I mutter. "You know you're the only one for me." Madge continues to sniffle, slowly glancing up at me through her bangs. Her eyes pause on the chain around my neck but she quickly diverts them. "Here," I say, lifting it from around me and placing it over her. "Looks better on you." Madge fiddles with the chain and blinks a few more times. "I love you," I whisper before pressing my lips to hers.
Again she whimpers, clutching my shoulders to keep herself steady. She only pulls away when she hears Posy off to the side say something like, "Look, Momma, they're kissing!" Madge lets out a light laugh, but I can hear the undertones of sadness. My forehead drops to hers but she won't meet my eyes. She stares down at my chest and sucks in sharp breaths.
And maybe we haven't got the love story Katniss and Mellark have. Maybe we haven't been through their hell, but we've been through our own.
"What happens now?" she asks. The survivors of our District meander around us. Confused. Scared. Madge tugs on my dirty shirt as though it anchors her down. "What do we do next?"
"No idea," I mumble. "Survive, I guess."
"I feel like that's all any of us ever do," Madge chokes out. "Survive." I run my fingers through her hair as she re-nestles herself against my chest. I try to focus on nothing but her. The feeling of her in my arms. The very grasp that I have on her. "You should probably get back to your mom," Madge tells me weakly. "She's staring at us like a hawk."
"She's just scared."
"I'm scared, too," Madge whispers. "I'm terrified."
"I know." Because I'm just as terrified as she is. What happens next? "I'll do whatever I have to, Madge. I'll keep us safe. All of us. Somehow."
She smiles and I feel her tears leaking through my shirt. "I trust you."
When I return to my family I have Madge in tow. They don't object. They don't question it. A few hours later I'm cleared to hunt as long as I check back in every once in a while so they know that I'm still awake. At night Madge sleeps curled up to my side, shaking from nightmares that I can't force from her head. We only sleep for hours at a time due to night terrors and the fact that if I sleep for too long my mother's scared I won't wake up. She doesn't understand that I have plenty of reason to be awake now.
The hovercrafts arrive unexpectedly two days later. We hide before realizing they don't have the symbol of the Capitol painted on their side, but rather an emblem I never thought I'd see in person. The one of District 13.
Maybe it's an uncalculated risk boarding the ships, but I've taken plenty of those before. And everything's turned out a lot better than fate probably intended it to be.
A/N: Hate me. Don't hate me. Gale got knocked out during the bombings and had to find a way to wake up. Madge was his way. I've hinted at it all through the story. Maybe reading this was an uncalculated risk in itself. I'm super thankful for all of my wonderful readers and reviewers, you all mean the world to me. I hope you enjoyed the story at least a little bit. I love you all. I really do. Thank you.