The sun is not up yet, but the day has already begun for Gale Hawthorne. The mining bell is ringing through the Seam, warning everyone that their descent- Gale's first descent as a member of Capitol coal- is imminent. Eighteen years old, school and The Hunger Games behind him, Gale Hawthorne buttons up his grey uniform jacket as his Capitol-issued work boots crunch along the pavement. There is no sound from the men who fall into pace around him. Even the wind is silent this morning, giving the air around them an oppressive thickness. It is as if even the slightest whisper might force the fear bubbling in the back of Gale's mind boiling over. Coal dust hangs like tinsel in the atmosphere, coating everything. Gale is used to the grime, so used that he hardly notices its presence.
But, when he rounds the corner and sees the coal conveyor belt off in the distance, set against the mine's entrance, Gale does notice something out of the ordinary. A girl. More than that, he notices that girl is Madge Undersee. Her hair may be dusted with a fine gray coating of coal, but he would recognize that face anywhere. She sits on the ground, her legs tucked to the side of her body. As he approaches, he watches her chew something absentmindedly before squinting in his direction, her face giving away everything. Through narrowed eyes, she watches him approach, waiting to see if the figure approaching in the midst of the pack of miners is actually the one she came to see. After a long moment, she waves at him.
"Good morning!" she calls, a smile too big for any hour before sunrise plastered across her face.
Gale pays no mind to the muttered comments that the men at his side make, and he crosses in a beeline for her. He tries his damnedest to look natural, but the girl has shown up to his work, his first day of work, for that matter. He finds it difficult to be nonchalant.
They are not friends; they became allies when Katniss left for the games, but nothing more. Not really. So, what is the Mayor's daughter doing here? Come to gloat about her new job high above ground where it's safe? Gale mulls over her presence and doesn't answer her call until he stands directly before her.
"Just out for your health?" He asks bitterly, leaning back on his hips and glancing down at her.
His arms fold across his chest of their own accord and his jaw grinds. She merely smiles up at him. Gale's eyes are drawn to the way the damp light from the lanterns plays across her skin, shining as though it belongs there, but he doesn't let it distract him. He merely files it away to think about later.
"Coal's good for the lungs. Don't you know anything?"
She teases him, but Gale grimaces nonetheless. This isn't funny.
"And the food?" He asks, wearily.
She looks at the picnic basket to her side, flipping the lid open. Ever since Peeta has returned from the Games, her house has overflowed with baked goods straight from the Mellark kitchen.
"Thought I might be hungry," she quips, biting off a hunk of a roll, knowing full well that if she told him the truth, her plan would never be realized.
Truthfully, she brought the food for him. Breakfast is important, especially when one's job surrounds heavy physical labor. She brought it in the hopes that he might share some, but she couldn't very well say that. His pride would not suffer the damage.
In spite of her best efforts to fool him, though, Gale knows that the basket is for him. He may be stuck shoveling coal for the rest of his life, but he isn't stupid.
He scoops his hand into the basket and produces a roll baked with spices and cheeses of some kind. Without even asking her permission, he takes a bite out of it, nodding approvingly.
Madge opens her mouth to speak, but is cut off by another warning bell. Gale will be trapped in the ground soon enough; it is time to take his father's place in line. Both of their heads snap up at the sound, and Madge rises to her feet as though there is something she can do. Gale gives her a nod.
"See you, Undersee," he says, turning to walk away.
But, as usual, Madge cannot seem to let him go. Her arm reaches out after his retreating form, but she doesn't quite touch him.
"Gale!" She says, just below a shout.
He stops and turns back to her, his eyebrow quirked expectantly. What now?
His eyes are not nearly as hard as they were on the walk over toward the mine. But he is still steeled as though for battle.
"You're going to be safe, right?" Gale is shocked to hear genuine fear ripple in her tone.
There are two more cars full of miners loaded before Gale responds. Their eyes play a full game of chess, with Gale considering her strategies and Madge building up her defenses fruitlessly. Gale sees the bags under her eyes and the slump of her shoulders. The sun isn't up and Madge has been here for some time. She came for him, he realizes. She came because in some deep part of herself, she had to make sure that he was going to be alright. And at that realization, Gale feels a twinge of something undefinable. That twinge sparks a smile upon his cheeks.
"Yeah. I'll be alright. I can't die. You've got more food for me to steal."
If she weren't looking for it, Madge would have missed him wink.
"Hawthorne!" The foreman shouts, shaking a heavy metal grate, "Stop swooning!"
He knows he has to go, but before he does, he pauses. He gives Madge a weighty glance and nods in her direction.
As he walks away and descends into the darkness below the ground, the sun rises and the lanterns in the mine are lit. But nothing burns brighter for Gale than the sight of Madge Undersee's smile in the dim morning light.