With this, I slap canon in the face. Hopefully, not the typical Alternate!Gale and Madge Reaping. (I apologize in advance for all the accursed passive verbs. I really wanted to make the memories distinct from the present.)

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Summary: He doesn't know how it happened, but suddenly it's the night before the Games start and he's restless in his bed, thinking of her. - Alternate Games.

Disclaimer: I do not own The Hunger Games.

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Burning

The days since the Reaping are a blur, and try as he might, Gale can only remember bits and pieces of how he got here.

He remembers the whir of the train as it took him so far away from home it might be another planet, the richness of the food that turned his stomach. He remembers Haymitch Abernathy's advice, Stay alive, the instructions to listen to his stylists no matter what. He remembers the chemicals smeared on his face to keep a beard from growing, he remembers his team of stylists like glittering, overgrown insects gaggling around him, cooing over his bone structure and bemoaning his eyebrows. He remembers being set on fire, beside her.

He remembers the look on her face at the Reaping, when they called out her name. If he had known she was to be reaped, he would've expected her to shatter into a million pieces, but she didn't. Her face was resolute, emotionless, brave—nothing like the prissy, snobby girl he always assumed he knew. He remembers the heavy weight that settled in his stomach, something startlingly close to guilt—"You won't be going to the Capitol." And when she stood on stage, ignoring Effie Trinket's mindless dithering about how exciting it was to have a Mayor's daughter, her eyes sought him out in the crowd, and when they locked in on him they narrowed slightly. As if to say, See?

Her dress really was quite pretty.

When his brother's name rang out in the square—one slip among thousands, what were the odds?—her jaw clenched as if she knew what was coming, and before he could think twice he bellowed out, "I volunteer! I volunteer as tribute!" He climbed up on stage beside her and she didn't even sway, didn't turn in the slightest. Her father read the Treaty of Treason and he saw where Madge got her stoic front from; the Mayor's voice was unwavering, his posture erect. His eyes only slid over to Madge once, when Effie Trinket ordered them to shake hands. Her grip was like ice: cold and hard but fragile all at once. Her gold pin, a mockingjay, glittered in the sunlight.

He remembers realizing all at once he never knew her at all.

Gale tosses in his bed, the silky sheets and the soft down so foreign that it makes him ache for his small, hard cot back at home, scrunched in with Vick and Rory, the walls thin enough to hear his mother's soft snores as Posy snuggles up to her. Home. He doesn't think he'll ever be there again, and it scares him.

He remembers the parade through the Capitol, trapped in a chariot beside a burning Madge. Cinna, her stylist, motioned for them to hold hands but when he grabbed her pale fingers, she wrenched her hand from his grasp. "Don't touch me," she told him in a dangerously low voice, her gaze locked forward.

Instead of the anger that he would expect, he felt that iron weight again, the one from the Reaping. Guilt. It almost felt as though it was his fault, her being here. She was right to hate him.

He remembers the stuffy room in the Justice building; Posy still too young to really understand what was happening but crying because of the obvious heartbreak of her family, Vick trembling with boyish sobs, Rory so stern, just like Gale at his age, determined to be a man. His mother, Hazelle, clutching him tightly as if he were still a little boy. And after being swarmed by his family, Katniss rushed in minutes before he was to be taken to the train. She'd hugged him fiercely. "I'll take care of them," she assured him. He managed a grim smile at that.

Words, so many thoughts ran through his head; what had seemed like such an inevitable future just an hour ago was now almost completely gone. He assumed for so long that he would end up with Katniss. Romantic love was a luxury in the Seam and something he was a stranger to, but she was his best friend and his partner and he was pretty sure they would have been happy, if he could have just convinced her.

Before he could even think to put any of that into words, though, she'd stunned him into silence. "You can win, Gale," she told him with an earnestness that was all Katniss. "You can hunt and trap and track like no one else. You're strong. You can win. But promise me you won't kill her." When his eyes widened, she shook her head fiercely. "No. You can't kill her, Gale. She's my only other friend, and I don't think I'll ever be able to forgive you if you kill her. She's not strong like you, she'll die. But there will be twenty-two others to do the job. Don't kill her."

It might have been the most he had ever heard her say at one time. Katniss was a girl of actions, not of words, and the entire time they had been friends she had always kept her emotions in check. Gale knew there was a short list of people she truly cared about, but he hadn't known that Madge Undersee somehow wormed her way onto that list.

"I didn't know you were such good friends," he told her, and his voice was bitter just from habit. She shrugged her narrow shoulders.

"I didn't either."

To be honest, he doesn't think he could have killed her anyway, so it's kind of nice to have a reason not to.

He remembers watching her interview with Caesar Flickerman, all dazzling smiles and wit, her beautiful dress flaming as she twirled. He knew this wasn't the real Madge; the real Madge was quiet and cautious, and had barely spoken a word to anyone other than Cinna the entire week. Her act was convincing, though, enamoring her instantly to the crowd, and Gale saw a flash of something he never allowed himself to see in her before—a very pretty girl, a fighter like him. She wasn't the mayor's daughter here, she was a piece of District 12 just as he was, a small piece of coal about to be shoved into a raging inferno. The realization made him feel sick. When the buzzer sounded and she waltzed over to her seat beside him, he could see her hands clenched into fists so tightly her knuckles were white.

"Pretty dress," he muttered to her as he walked up to take his own place in the spotlight, and it was hard to tell over the roar of the crowd but he thought he heard her snort.

His interview was far less lighthearted.

He remembers watching her in training, resolutely trying her hand at every station. Haymitch had told them to stay together, but Madge doggedly ignored his advice. Gale watched her like a hawk though, something that seemed suspiciously like protectiveness keeping his eyes drawn to her. She went from station to station, and more often than not was accompanied by the sly-looking redhead from District 5. He never saw them speaking but they seemed companionable, and he thought that was probably how it was between her and Katniss. He wondered what it would be like to have a real conversation with Madge Undersee.

She was rubbish with a bow and arrow, terrible with spears and swords, but she seemed to have a knack for throwing knives. The obstacle course left her tripping and stumbling, but she climbed the ropes like an old pro. He never saw anyone pick up snares like she did, not even Katniss or his brother Rory the one time he begged Gale to show him. The Careers eyed her with vague interest, not because she was especially skilled but because she was beautiful and determined and the only surprising thing to come out of District 12 since anyone could remember. Except him; he is also regarded as something of a surprise by the Capitol, a scowling heartthrob.

He doesn't think he can hold a candle to Madge, though.

He's not sure where this grudging respect has come from, but now that it's here it's undeniable. He respects Madge Undersee. Madge Undersee. He hadn't even been surprised when she received a 8 after her private session, although it did make him slightly uneasy wondering what else she kept hidden away.

He remembers the first night they arrived, after they burned through the Capitol streets together, setting the whole world on fire. Their entire entourage ate together, Cinna and Portia, Haymitch and Effie, and the two tributes. Madge ate small bites, smiling when smiled at, her answers monosyllabic. Their mentor was unsurprisingly drunk, and kept calling her the wrong name. Maysilee. After the fourth time, Madge quietly excused herself, visibly shaken for the first time since they had been reaped. Gale followed after her soon after. The weight in his stomach was still there—"You won't be going to the Capitol."

At his insistent knocking she opened the door, looking completely nonplussed at seeing him. They stood there for a small eternity, just staring at each other. Silent. Before he could say a word of apology, she shut the door quietly and he heard the quiet click of the lock. He didn't try anymore after that, and they've spent the rest of their time together in the Capitol without really acknowledging each other.

And now his last hours that even remotely resemble freedom are ticking away. He doesn't know how it happened, but suddenly it's the night before the Games start and he's restless in his bed, thinking of her.

He wishes, suddenly, that she would just let him apologize before they both die, and his chest tightens with regret. He wishes she wasn't here, wishes she was safe like he always thought she would be because the thought of something like Madge being destroyed made the Hunger Games seem even crueler than they always had. Madge is fire, lightning, the fast moving current of the river he loves to fish in. He wonders what would have happened if he had noticed this earlier, before their reaping, before the end began. Would they have been friends, like her and Katniss? Would he have taken her into the woods, shown her how to set snares and shoot a bow properly, taken her to where the strawberries that she seemed to love so much grew abundantly in the warm summer months? Would he have confided in her, told her of his hatred for the Capitol, told her about the first time his father took him into the woods? Posy would've idolized her; she always loved Prim's soft blonde hair, and Madge's was lovelier still.

He thinks of her pink lips, and wonders if she tastes like strawberries.

Part Gale feels guilty for these thoughts, loyally clinging to Katniss and his hatred of anything outside of the Seam, but he reckons that he's a teenage boy about to die, so he can think whatever the hell he wants about whoever the hell he wants, and right now is mind is filled with Madge Undersee and he just doesn't care.

The minutes keep slipping by but he can't sleep; he keeps thinking of her. "You won't be going to the Capitol." He doesn't think he's ever hated himself so much.

He's not deluded. He knows that he will do whatever it takes to get home, and if that means killing Madge Undersee in the process, then it will get done. His family needs him; he thinks of Posy, all big gray eyes and innocence, the way she sucks her thumb when she's sleeping. He thinks of Vick and Rory, the way they try to sneak up on him and tackle him sometimes, especially when he's been out hunting on a Sunday and they have the element of surprise. He thinks of his mother, so strong and exhausted, surrounded by heaping piles of laundry, struggling to put food on the table ever since her husband died.

Here, in the quiet, alone, he admits that it might just kill him to let Madge die, but he'll do it nonetheless. There are more important things at stake.

His thoughts are interrupted by the quiet padding of feet past his door. A bubble of something like anticipation mixed with dread inflates in his chest and he rises, slipping on a pair of shoes and creeping out the door. He steps out into the hallway and sees that the door to the roof is cracked open.

He remembers when Cinna showed him how to get up there. Cinna was frustratingly hard for Gale to hate; he was soft spoken and kind, and a completely brilliant strategist, so when he asked Gale to follow him one night after dinner, he trailed after him with only mild hesitation and annoyance.

The sun was setting when they walked up, casting orangey rays on a spectacular rooftop garden. The wind blew rather hard, shaking the chimes someone had strung up.

"Well?" Cinna asked mildly, giving him an expectant look. Gale shrugged, not wanting to show how impressed he was.

"It's nice," he admitted grudgingly. His sharp gray eyes scanned the area quickly. "Where are the cameras?"

Cinna had strolled over to the edge, looking out as the sun set the Capitol on fire with deep reds and oranges, masking the hideous synthetic colors that usually filled the skyline. "Oh, they don't keep cameras up here," he said casually, looking out at the horizon. "The wind makes it too difficult to pickup, everything turns out garbled."

Gale prides himself on not being an idiot, and he knows that Cinna had been trying to give him a place to have private conversations. Unfortunately, Madge had been dead set on ignoring him, Haymitch was a drunken ass, and Effie was an insufferable Capitol clone, so he hasn't yet had the chance to use this knowledge to his advantage.

Madge leans against the ledge, her back to him. Her blonde hair is haphazardly braided, long strands that she missed whip around in the wind. Her hands are fidgeting, roving around and skittering over the bricks.

"What are you doing?" he asks without thinking; she flinches, obviously caught unawares, but doesn't turn around. Her hands stop abruptly, curling into loose fists. He frowns and walks over to stand beside her, looking out at the city lights that twinkle like lightning bugs. "Don't stop on my account."

She leans on her elbow and turns to face him, looking at him in the eye for the first time in days. "I was pretending to play the piano," she tells him blandly, clearly expecting to be mocked.

"I wish you were," he admits lightly, breaking eye contact and looking down at the Capitol citizens that glitter down below like ants. "I've heard you play before, when we were bringing strawberries. We could hear it all the way down the block. It was nice."

He feels like he's let a piece of himself go with that confession, but it's late and he's sleepy, and Madge Undersee is standing beside him looking like she might come undone at any moment. It's startling, after seeing her look so perfectly whole and cold the whole time they've been here, and he's blathering to make up for it.

She makes a soft sound of surprise. They stand there for a moment, side by side, facing out. His elbow bumps hers once and she jumps like a rabbit, shuffling a few extra inches away. He's torn between laughing and feeling offended.

"I really meant it when I said it," he blurts out suddenly, and the words no longer make sense without the context of his thoughts. Gale has suffered his whole life from hopeless impulsivity that hardly ever leads to anything good, but he just can't help it. "When I said you wouldn't be reaped, that you wouldn't be going to the Capitol—I thought it was true, and I know I'm an ass but if I had known…I'm sorry."

The words are out in an embarrassing rush, but it feels good. Madge's shoulders slump, and she rests her head in her hands. "I know," she says softly.

The silence between them is loud, and he doesn't know quite what to do, so he just starts talking. Characteristically, Gale is a man of few words, but the situation isn't normal, and he just wants things to be okay for a moment.

"If we were in District 12," he leans toward her, almost bumping her shoulder, his voice lowered confidentially, accidentally noticing that her hair smells like strawberries, "we would be looking at thousands of stars. Not these stupid Capitol lights, but real stars."

Madge's mouth puckers wistfully. "And there would be crickets," she adds.

He nods in agreement. "And crickets. I might be in the Meadow right now, just looking up at the sky." He walks away from her and lays down in the grass that grows where it shouldn't, an oasis in this terrible concrete prison. After a moment's hesitation she follows him, and they're lying side by side, looking up at the sky that's lit up like dusk from all the city lights, even though it's well past midnight. Their elbows brush again, but she doesn't jump away this time.

The moments are slipping away again, the clock rushes forward as it counts down to their deaths. He turns his head to look at her, startled to find her blue eyes already gazing at him. She turns pink, and averts her eyes back to the empty sky.

"Do you think we could've been friends?" His whispered thought slips out before he even has time to think it through. "If things were different?"

She stiffens, then shrugs noncommittally. He frowns at her silence.

"I think we would have been, if we had just gotten to know each other," he tells her. He's not sure why his thoughts from before are leaking out, but it suddenly seems very important that she knows. Her eyes crinkle up, and he thinks she might be trying not to cry, but she still doesn't say a word. "You're not at all like I thought you would be," he continues, trying not to be offended by her silence. "You were just so rich—I don't know, I figured you'd be a snob. You play piano, and buy strawberries, and meanwhile I've had to sign up for so many tesserae I wasn't entirely sure there were any other names in that damn bowl."

He sighs. "I guess I was just an idiot. Because this week…I dunno, I've just seen how brave and smart you are, and I think—well, I can see why Katniss likes you."

He's not sure he's ever carried on a conversation so long without severe coercion, much less with someone who hasn't even grunted, but the words are suddenly addictive, probably because he knows will never have to live with the consequences of them.

Madge sits up abruptly, and the look of anger on her face bewilders him.

"Stop," she hisses, and he's startled to see that she has indeed started crying, albeit silently. "What good is it to talk like this, Gale, when we're going to die?"

Impulsively, his hand grabs hers as he sits up too. He shrugs, noticing that she has frozen completely. "I just wanted you to know," he tells her honestly.

She wrenches her hand from his grasp, just like the night of the parade. "Well I don't want to know," she retorts, jumping up to her feet. Gale sees now that it's not just her clothes that have been on fire; Madge herself is a flame, burning angrily. "Why do you think I haven't talked to you this week, Gale? Because I've been so happy on my own?" She grimaces, and then begins to walk away, only stopping when she reaches the door.

"It's better this way," she calls out to him softly, where he still lies on the ground, stunned into silence. He hears the door open, sees her disappear down the stairs.

He remembers the first time he took strawberries to her with Katniss. He had been highly reluctant, but she insisted stubbornly. He remembers the surprise when a pretty blonde girl opened the door, smiling brilliantly at Katniss before noticing him. Her smile dimmed, suspicion evident in her eyes. Katniss handed her the berries and Madge darted back inside to retrieve the coins. She pressed them into her hand, and she glanced back over at Gale briefly, muttering a quiet goodbye.

Gale never really thought of Madge outside of those few moments each week as they sold her strawberries, but he thinks he's making up for it now.

. . .

He sees her briefly the next day, standing on her platform, body poised to run. Her eyes look over at him, and then dart away. When the bloodbath begins, he loses sight of her, and by the time he's scooped up a bright yellow backpack she has disappeared.

He doesn't see her again until the final five. The trumpets sound and her picture appears in the sky that night among the stars burning brightly in the sky. The pictures fade away, and everything is silent.

Weeks later, Gale returns to District 12. Victorious. He finds himself in the Meadow in the dead of night, running away from nightmares of the horrors of the arena, and memories of a girl with pretty pink lips and hair that smells like strawberries. He looks up at the sky, and sees thousands of stars; the crickets sing.

fin.

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. . .

Notes:

Okay, so I'm as much of a sucker for AU!Gadge fics as anyone else, but I have to admit to getting a little tired of reading The Hunger Games with the names changed around. My characterization may be flawed (although I could argue that they're both minor characters, especially Madge, and it is therefore difficult to define them as OOC) but I hope I managed a semi-realistic rendering of how things would've gone. I ran with a few clichés, such as Gale volunteering for Rory, and of course a late night roof rendezvous, but hopefully it's not too run of the mill.

About the Games themselves: clearly, that wasn't the point of this fic, so I hope it wasn't too disappointing to have that left out. I was just going for some good Gadge angst; honestly I'm not sure I'd be great at the whole gruesome, fight-to-the-death writing.

Generally, I don't beg for reviews, but I would really, really, really like some feedback on this. Please and thanks!

-SWW