A/N: Thank you, everyone, for reading and reviewing.

For the guest reviewer that pointed out that piano is a stringed instrument, thank you. I admit to not knowing much about music/instruments. I looked into it and just as I predicted, there are arguments either way. But, I've changed the wording in chapter 3 to address the issue.

Thank you, Dendroica & RoryFaller, for the beta - I know this one was a lot of work.


Casualties

James and Audra Undersee stood inside their house at one of the windows and watched their daughter. Everything they ever did was to ensure Madge had a bright future ahead of her. James Undersee was a smart man he knew just what Snow was capable of. He knew Snow would eventually hold Madge and her happiness hostage to make James do whatever he wanted. Audra already knew what could still happen to Madge for the next three years. She'd lost her beloved twin sister to the games; she didn't want to lose her daughter too. They were both determined to change their way of life.

The Undersees worked hard to ensure a real future for Madge and the other children in their nation. James and Audra had both been working with a group of people trying to overthrow the current government. It seemed there was no limit to Snow's cruelties on the Districts. Every year more and more disgruntled citizens of the Districts joined their little group. If things continued at this pace, soon they would have a full fledge rebellion on their hands. The rebels had assembled the kindling; they just needed a spark that would light the fire. They needed a means to unite the Districts.

The Victors were leading and spreading the rebellion throughout the Districts. Some of the younger Victors were the ones most committed to the cause. It was never openly discussed, but James had a good idea why Victors like Finnick and Johanna wanted freedom from Snow. He shuddered thinking of their reasons. Perhaps it was a good thing that District Twelve didn't have a young Victor. James loved all the children in his District and wouldn't want any of them to have the same fate as Finnick and some of the others.

"I've never seen Madge as happy and carefree as she is around him," Audra said breaking into James' thoughts.

He looked out the window and saw his daughter and Gale Hawthorne reading together. Both were lying on their stomachs, shoulder-to-shoulder, with smiles on their faces. James smiled and voiced his thoughts, "He's good for her. Once the rebellion starts, I don't know what will happen to either of us. I'll feel better knowing I can leave Madge in his care if it comes to that. He's strong, smart and loyal. He can keep her safe. I've looked into his family; his mother is a kind, hard-working woman. They'll take Madge in."

Audra sighed and said, "They're just friends, James. I asked Madge and she told me, herself."

"Audie, she's only fifteen years old. Right now friendship is more than enough. I know he'll keep her safe; all we have to do is ask. I know; I've done my homework on Gale Hawthorne."


Gale closed the book with a loud, "Hmph! Who proposes while insulting the woman?"

Madge laughed and said, "Hey, I told you already. Don't pick on Darcy."

Gale rolled his eyes and asked, "What is it with you and this guy? It's like you're in love with him." Madge flushed and shoved his shoulder with hers. "That's it, isn't it? You're in love with Darcy. I would've never taken you as one to fall in love with a fictional character."

"Gale, stop it. You don't know the rest of the story. Darcy is not perfect, but he loves her. I don't want to give away anything from the book, but I don't know if anyone could love the way Darcy loves Elizabeth. When you get to the end, you'll see what I mean. There's such a quiet, intense passion in him that I don't know how anyone couldn't fall in love with him."

"Who would've thought? Smart, sensible Madge Undersee in love with an arrogant, conceited and selfish man. So this is your type. Now I know why no one in District Twelve has ever caught your eye."

The blonde sat up and grabbed the book out of his hand. "You're not reading if you're going to make fun of Darcy," she said with determination.

Gale turned around so he was lying on his back. He smiled sweetly and said, "Actually I was making fun of you and your choice in men." Madge rolled her eyes and turned her face away from him. He continued to goad her, "So like I said I don't know if you'll find anyone in District Twelve like that. But I bet someone from District One or Two would fit the bill. Maybe even that guy from Four. What's his name?"

"Finnick Odair?" Madge questioned turning back to him as she narrowed her eyes at him.

He smiled and said, "Yeah, Finnick; he seems arrogant enough. I bet your dad could set it up for you. Though I think he prefers the Capitol women."

She narrowed her eyes at him again and asked, "Don't you have somewhere to be?"

"Awe, Madge, did I upset you?"

She stood up and said, "I'm going inside. See you tomorrow."

He stood up quickly and grabbed her hand and said, "Alright, I'm sorry. It's so easy to mess with you and you just want to take all the fun away from me."

"Gale!" she warned.

"Seriously, I'm done. I promise. I'll behave. Walk me to the gate?"

"You're terrible, you know that?" she said as they walked towards her front gate. Gale laughed and bid her farewell until tomorrow when they would go to his house for fiddle lessons.

They had traded off days at each other's house for a month now. One day at hers for reading the book and the next at his for the fiddle lessons. Gale found that his family liked Madge and she too enjoyed being around them so they started having the fiddle lessons at his house instead of the meadow. Rory and Vick had learned a bit along with Madge.

The reading was coming along slowly. Originally Gale thought they would be done reading the book by now, but as they read, they got into deep discussions and even debates about the storyline and the characters. He and Madge were alike in so many ways yet they were different too. He thoroughly enjoyed debates with Madge; a part of him hoped it would take years to finish reading the book.

It had been difficult at first, but Gale willed his brain to remember Madge was the Mayor's daughter. He was lucky her parents trusted her enough to let them spend time together. He wasn't going to push his luck wanting more with Madge. She had become an important part of his life and he wasn't willing to risk losing her. If he could only have her as a friend in his life then he'd settle for that. He knew he didn't really have anything to offer Madge and he would protect her from himself. Even if she wouldn't think he had nothing to give her, he was sure her father would. He had seen her parents watch them out of the window often; he'd even heard the Mayor quietly enquire about him from his teachers. He was aware the Mayor was keeping tabs on him. It didn't upset him; he couldn't blame the Mayor. Madge was a wonderful girl and how could he fault her father for looking out for her? Gale himself looked out for her. She was strong and smart, but more idealistic than realistic. In this they were opposites; he was a realist.

Lost in thoughts of Madge and the book, Gale made his way into the woods. He walked his usual snare-run and decided to fish afterwards. It had been more work on him ever since Peeta started dating Katniss, but he would certainly take the extra work to make his friend happy. Gale didn't know Katniss well; he just knew Peeta thought she was perfect. To him, she seemed like a typical Town girl. But Gale had been wrong about Madge, maybe he was wrong about Katniss too. He wondered if Katniss would ever figure out that Peeta didn't have the kind of free time she wanted from him. He would carry Peeta's load forever if his friend asked him to, but Gale sincerely hoped that soon Katniss and Peeta would reach the comfort level in their relationship where Peeta could pay more attention to hunting. Sure, he and Madge were not a couple, but he was forever grateful to Madge for not expecting more than he could give her.

Gale hadn't been out with a girl for a while. He convinced himself it was because of time restraints and not any other reasons.

"Wow, you're on a roll today," Peeta commented looking down at Gale's haul of a rabbit, two squirrels and several fish.

"Someone's gotta keep two families fed and alive," Gale joked. He knew his friend would take it as a joke and not take offense to it.

"You're welcome. I knew you'd see the sacrifice I'm making in staying away from the woods to make sure you knew how to survive on your own if it ever came to it," Peeta said with a straight face.

"I'll have way more slips than you next year. If anything you need to learn to keep two families fed on your own." They had the un-spoken promise that if anything happened to either of them, the other would support both families.

"Okay, this isn't funny anymore," Peeta said. Gale shrugged; funny - no, but true - yes. "How's Madge?" Peeta asked changing the topic.

Gale laughed and said, "Alright, go ahead and tell me. What's up with you and Katniss? I know you don't really want to talk about Madge."

Peeta laughed sheepishly and said, "I told Katniss I loved her and she told me the same back."

Gale patted his back and said, "That's great, Peeta. I'm happy for you." He walked around his friend to get a good look at him and continued, "Why do you not look happy, then?"

Peeta took a deep breath and said, "I've been having nightmares. Kat and I were talking about them and that's how the 'I love you's' even came up."

Gale looked thoughtfully at his friend; he knew Peeta well enough to know the cause of his nightmares. Anger flared inside him and his hands formed a fist without any further thought. Gale opened his hand and took a deep breath, "This is our world. We can't avoid it. If there was anything I could do, I would. I have one more year left; I won't let her go in on her own. I love her like a sister too."

Peeta sighed and said, "I know. I have three more years left. And then I won't have a way to protect her after that. I always make a big deal on Prim's birthdays and now she'll be twelve years old in two days and I can't find it in me to celebrate this birthday."

"I know. Rory will be twelve in a few months too. I've thought that maybe we're wrong about protecting them from the woods. Every day it gets closer to Rory's twelfth birthday, I keep thinking I need to bring him out here. I need to teach him survival skills. I can't keep him safe from the games. I only have one more year left."

Peeta looked up at Gale and said, "I promise you he won't have to go in for the next three years. You know I'll volunteer for him. But you're right; we should start bringing him out. Prim won't kill anything. She knows a lot about plants already. If her name gets picked, I'll volunteer to go in with her and I'll make sure she comes home alive."

Gale patted his shoulder again and said, "Don't talk like that. Rory and Prim will never have to take out tesserae; we'll make sure of that."

Peeta looked towards the District and said, "I was feeling down about Prim's upcoming birthday. When I told Katniss the reason, she said that she would volunteer for Prim as long as I promised to not go in with her. That's how much she loves me."

Katniss went up several notches in Gale's estimation. If he was honest with himself, he would've never expected that from her. Even most siblings didn't volunteer for each other; he and Peeta were different in that sense. Peeta broke into his thoughts and said, "Of course, I would never let her do that, but I was thinking that she still has three reapings left. I should bring her out here too. Katniss is really strong, but she doesn't know anything about survival or using any kind of weapon. I could teach her to use the bow."

Peeta seemed too troubled for Gale to say anything practical so he kept quiet, but Gale knew it was not a good idea to start bringing people out into the woods.


Though Peeta stayed melancholy up until Prim's birthday, he did set aside his gloomy mood and wished his sister a 'Happy Birthday' with a smile. Like always he carried her on his back throughout the house like his father used to do and she laughed out loud as she'd always done. The Hawthornes, Katniss and Madge came to the party. Peeta hadn't spent much time around Madge and it surprised him, when he learned from Prim, that she saw her often at the Hawthornes', who adored the Mayor's daughter.

"You always hang back at a party, Undersee?" Gale asked nudging her shoulder with his own.

She smiled shyly and said, "I don't know everyone as well. Just trying to stay out-of-the-way."

"That's crazy, Madge. The only person you don't know is Peeta's mom and you are the one that told me she was really good friends with your mom. I bet she considers you practically family." Gale took her hand and pulled her in the middle of the room. Posy climbed into her lap immediately and untied the ribbon in Madge's hair.

"Pose, you can't do that to Madge every time," Hazelle scolded her youngest. Posy adored the pretty ribbons Madge wore in her hair.

Madge waved it off and said, "That's alright." She took the ribbon from Posy's hand and tied a pretty bow with it in the little girl's dark hair. Madge leaned down and whispered in Posy's ear, "It looks prettier in your hair than mine. Don't let Gale bring this one back to me." Posy kissed her cheek and ran off to play with Prim's goat followed closely by Rory, Vick and Prim.

"I heard that," Gale said startling Madge from behind the sofa. She shrugged. She always "forgot" her ribbons at the Hawthornes' for Posy, but Gale always took them back to her the next day.

"Posy's adorable," Katniss said, sitting down next to Madge and running her fingers through her friend's hair to straighten the marks left by the ribbon. Katniss looked up at Gale and smiled awkwardly. He still didn't know what to make of her. Peeta and Madge loved her and he knew he should get to know her, but he couldn't imagine what they'd possibly have in common.

Both his mom and Mrs. Everdeen were in the kitchen getting dinner together and Gale briefly debated going in there, but Peeta said they had it under control. He motioned for Gale to take a seat on the floor next to him. Peeta turned to Madge and asked, "So I hear you're going to play the fiddle for us tonight?"

"What? No, where did you hear that?" Madge said shocked.

"Kat told me. She said you've made great progress and she really wants to hear you."

Madge turned to her friend disapprovingly. Katniss laughed and said, "Please? When else would I hear you play it?"

Gale had brought the fiddle with him since he and Peeta always performed together on their siblings' birthdays. Usually Peeta sang while Gale played the fiddle. "I'll sing the song if you want to play something?" Peeta offered Madge. He was too easy-going and it was hard to not get along with him.

Madge laughed and said, "You and Katniss really belong together. You're probably the two nicest people in the District. Does anyone ever say no to you?"

Peeta pulled Katniss into his lap playfully as he replied, "I don't know, but I don't ever say no to her." He finished nuzzling her neck. Gale looked at Madge awkwardly for a moment; seeing her pink cheeks, he stood up to go gather the kids from outside.

Peeta quickly got everyone settled so he and Madge could do a little performance. Gale had taught her a song that everyone in the Seam knew. Madge began to play and Peeta accompanied her by singing along.

Gale sat awed at how well she played; only making a few minor mistakes. Everyone clapped and praised her when the song ended. Madge shyly admitted, "It wasn't as powerful as when Gale plays it, but he's been a good teacher." Gale might have commented if he hadn't been so touched by her music or if he didn't know his mother's eyes were on him for his reaction.

Dinner was delicious as Gale and Peeta worked extra hard to have a special meal for birthdays. Both families always ate together to celebrate all their birthdays. Tonight they had vegetable stew with Katniss tubers and wild mushrooms, freshly caught fish that Peeta and Gale cooked on an open fire and bread made of their tesserae grain. Both Katniss and Madge commented on this being one of their most favorite meals; neither of them had even seen a mushroom before.

Since wild mushrooms grew in abundant in the spring and summer, Gale wondered if that could be another thing he could trade. They had a lot of natural flavor; why had I never thought of that before? Gale looked up at Peeta who shrugged, apparently having the same thought.

Rory piped in, "Madge, I've told you to stay for dinner on fish nights. Remember this next time I tell you we're having fish." Gale smiled indulgently at his brother; it never ceased to amaze him how easily everyone in his family befriended Madge.

As her birthday gift to Prim, Katniss baked a cake and decorated it herself with pink and yellow primroses. Prim's smile was as bright as the sun when she hugged Katniss to thank her. Peeta's eyes never strayed too far off Katniss' face; he was smitten with her.

Hazelle crocheted a light green sweater with a couple of pink primroses on it as a birthday gift from the Hawthornes'. Gale had traded a clean killed rabbit's fur for enough thread for the sweater. Madge brought her a pink ribbon for her hair that matched the sweater perfectly. It was a fun night, though a little awkward for Madge and Gale at times. Peeta and Gale kept all thoughts of reapings out of their heads just for the day. They had plenty of time to worry about it later.

At the end of the night, Mrs. Everdeen hugged both girls warmly. With tears in her eyes, she whispered to Madge in parting, "You look so much like May. You're welcome here anytime and please give your mom my well wishes."

Peeta stayed back with Prim so Gale walked both girls home. As they were walking, Gale realized that he didn't like sharing Madge with anyone else other than his family. The girls talked about this-and-that and for the most part Gale just walked along, lost in his own thoughts. Every now and then Madge looked up at him probably to make sure he wasn't bored. Mentally, he made a note to ask Madge more about Katniss so he could at least make an effort to get to know his friend's girl. Gale had no doubts that Katniss was equally uncomfortable around him. He realized that the way they were walking, Madge's house would come before Katniss'. Deliberately he steered them the long way so they'd reach the bakery first. The Mellarks all lived above the bakery.

After dropping off Katniss, Gale exhaled, all tension draining away from his body. He didn't necessarily have anything in particular to talk to Madge about, but it was nice knowing it was just the two of them. They walked on in silence and stopped at the metal gate that marked her house. Gale wrapped his left hand around one of the metal bars and turned to Madge. His breath caught in his throat as she looked heavenly draped in moonlight. Her hair, her face…her entire body seemed to glow as if she was the moon.

"You're really quiet tonight," Madge said breaking into his thoughts. When he didn't answer immediately, she continued, "Are you alright?"

He shrugged, shaking himself away from thoughts of her beauty. "Yeah. Just have a lot on my mind. I'm sorry I wasn't great company."

"You're worried about Rory turning twelve," she stated. It wasn't a question; just an observation.

Gale looked at her and wished they could have what Peeta and Katniss had together. "You know me so well." No one had ever understood him the way she did. His fingers itched to touch her glowing skin. He could see himself running a finger down her cheek and back into her hair.

"You played beautifully today…better than I've ever played," he said. His right hand reached up on its own accord and at the last-minute Gale turned it away from her cheek and tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear. If he touched her skin, he'd want to taste her. A kiss was not in the plans.

Madge blushed prettily and before Gale lost the little control he was maintaining, he pushed himself off the metal gate and said, "Good night, Madge. See you tomorrow."


Madge was too keyed up after she came in. She realized that she had been so distracted by him that she didn't even thank him for the compliment. Gale had looked even more handsome in the moonlight. His gray eyes looked silver and for the first time she'd given thought to actually kissing him. They were friends and she knew she wasn't his type. Gale had only ever dated girls from the Seam. The rumors about him continued at school so she could only guess that he looked at her as just a friend. They had a great friendship; she wouldn't do anything to ruin that. And if she was honest with herself, she really didn't know how she felt about him. She cared for him; she thought he was very handsome, but did that mean she had feelings for him?

"Dad, is it okay if I go to Katniss' to spend the night?" Madge asked walking into her father's study.

"Honey, it's already late and didn't you just spend the evening with her?"

"Please?" she pleaded with a sweet look that she knew her father couldn't say no to.

He laughed and said, "Alright, get your stuff together and I'll walk you over."

Madge kissed her father's cheek and said, "You're the best, dad. I love you." She ran up to her room to quickly throw a few things into a bag.

Mrs. Mellark opened the door irritated at the late night knocking, but it quickly turned into a smile at seeing the Mayor at her door. Madge resisted the urge to roll her eyes. At least she knew she was always welcomed at her best friend's house. Mrs. Mellark whole heartedly approved of Katniss' friendship with the Mayor's daughter. In fact, she loved to tell her friends, 'Katniss practically lives at the Mayor's mansion. She and Madge are like sisters. The Mayor loves Katniss like a daughter.'

When Madge opened the door to Katniss' room, her friend looked up surprised, but smiled immediately. "I'm so glad you came over. I was just debating asking one of my brothers to walk me over to your house."

Madge set her bag down and joined Katniss on the bed. "What's wrong?" Katniss narrowed her eyes at Madge and asked.

"I don't know. I just feel so weird. When Gale and I reached my gate, I had this urge to kiss him. Isn't that weird? I mean we spend time together every day playing the piano or the fiddle. I've never wanted to do it before. Sometimes when he's close to me, I get butterflies in my stomach, but I've never had the urge to kiss him before." Madge wrote off the butterflies in her stomach to just being close to a boy…not specifically Gale. She'd never had a boyfriend and she didn't have any male friends other than Gale.

Katniss wrinkled her nose and asked, "You like Gale?"

"I don't know. Do I? Maybe it was just because it was dark. I've only spent time with him during the day. Or maybe it was because he walked me home after a party and it seemed like a date. Or maybe it was because you and Peeta were all over each other."

Katniss feigned offense and clarified, "We were not! He only kissed me that one time before you played. And you sound like you're making excuses. I think you like Gale." She turned to Madge with a sly look and asked, "Is he different around you?"

"What do you mean different?" Madge asked.

"You know…I mean is he not as broodish around you?"

Madge laughed and said, "He's not broodish at all. You really should get to know him. He's really nice. You should see him around Posy or even around Vick and Rory. He worries for them all the time and it's really sweet the way he helps his mom out with everything."

"But what about you?"

"He's really sweet around me too. Well, he likes to tease me and make me angry, but I think he just does that for fun."

"I can't imagine Gale teasing someone for fun; he's always so intense. I don't even know how to act around him. I know Peeta thinks really highly of him, but tonight was awkward with him around," Katniss offered honestly.

Madge laughed thinking about how awkward Gale feels around Katniss too. Then her thoughts turned to how much he goads her about liking Darcy. She couldn't tell her friend about that. Madge had told Katniss that she was teaching Gale the piano instead of telling her about the forbidden book they were reading together. Katniss usually spent that time with Peeta so her little lie had never caused a problem.


Gale didn't like what he was about to say. It sounded wrong to even think it, but he had to put his family first. It had been a couple of days since Prim's birthday party and Peeta had talked non-stop about bringing Katniss out to woods to teach her survival skills. "Peeta, we can't just start bringing people out here. If the peacekeepers catch wind that we're bringing others out here to teach them survival skills, what do you think they'll do?"

Peeta sighed, "I know. Right now they look the other way because we bring them back animals for trade. I've thought about it. But I love Katniss and I can't think about protecting Prim and not Katniss."

Gale took a deep breath; he understood his friend. He felt bad for even suggesting it, but he knew it was a bad idea to bring others out to the woods. He wanted to bring Rory out here just like his father had brought him out here. His family was alive because of it. How could he fault his friend for wanting to protect his loved ones as Gale wanted to do with his own?

"Gale, I understand where you're coming from. I really do, but…,"

Gale patted him on his shoulder and said, "Let's think about it." He hated the situation. Why was life always throwing one difficulty after another their way? He wouldn't fight Peeta on it and it wasn't like Gale had any more rights to the woods than his friend.

When Gale went home, he saw Prim playing with Posy. He hated himself in that moment; he could see Katniss or Madge in Prim. How can I stop Peeta from helping those he loves? His rational still stood though. They couldn't start taking people out in the woods.

Frustrated, that evening Gale went to the Hob to play cards. Peeta wasn't one for cards, but a game of cards with the drunks in the Hob was something he immensely enjoyed. It was the only time he indulged in drinking white liquor himself.

While playing, Gale heard a commotion on the other end of the building, but ignored it. Someone or other was always getting into a fight here. Most of the people didn't have much to gamble with; tonight the four players put their money together towards a bottle of white liquor. It would be a winner-takes-all game. It was no surprise when Gale was the final winner. He took one swig from the bottle he'd just won when Greasy Sae stopped him to talk about what she needed from the woods for their next trade.

She gave him a disapproving look when he took his third swig and he immediately put the bottle away. The Hob cleared out quickly as he finished discussing their trade. He could always count on her to buy anything he brought back from the woods. When Gale stepped out into the now-dark cool night, he heard muffling sounds from the side of the building. He thought momentarily to check out the sound, but then decided against it. Rationally, he should keep walking – it was late, he was alone and he'd been drinking. This was not the right time to get involved with the wrong kind of people. Gale had just taken a few steps away when he heard a muffled female voice, "Stop! Help!"

He turned around. He couldn't walk away now; his father raised him to never leave a woman in distress. Gale quickly rounded around the edge of the building and saw the three men he'd just played cards with. "Get out of here, kid," one of them said stepping in front of the other two guys and their victim.

"No! Whoever you have with you does not want your company. Let her go and we can all walk away from this," Gale stated. When none of them moved, he offered, "Here's the bottle of liquor I won. You can have it back; let the girl go. I don't want any trouble, but I'm not leaving without her."

Another guy stepped out. Gale knew him better; he lived only a few houses down from them. Gale sighed and said, "Lenny, don't do this. Go home to your family. Let her go."

Lenny said, "Gale, this doesn't concern…"

Lenny didn't get to finish because a blonde head stuck out and cried out, "Gale, help me, please. Don't leave me here."

He knew this voice; his anger spurred and he said, "Let. Her. Go. Now!" He was so angry that he didn't even wait to hear their response. A need to protect her took over him and without prompt he stepped closer to Lenny and punched him in the face. "Do you know who she is? Her father will have so many peacekeepers down your throat that no one will even be able to identify your body."

Blood flowed out of Lenny's nose and he held the other two back as he said, "Let's get out of here. She's not worth the trouble." Surprisingly, the other two followed after they snagged the liquor out of his hands. Gale sighed with relief. He looked at the blonde who stood with her arms crossed across her chest holding her tattered shirt together. He turned around, unbuttoned his shirt and handed it back to her. He heard her low sobs and it angered him that three adult men tried to force themselves on such a young girl. She was just fifteen years old.

Gale turned around after giving her a moment to put on his shirt. He took in her messy blonde hair and her blotchy pale cheeks with tears running down; she looked so small and vulnerable in his long shirt. Slowly he took a step closer to her not wanting to scare her any more than she already was.

She looked back at him with wild eyes. He put his hands up in the air and said, "It's me, Gale. I want to help you." He wasn't sure if he too scared her; she just looked back at him with wild eyes. Shock was starting to settle in and he was at a loss on what to do. He wished his mother was here.

Gale took one step closer to the blonde and recognition flooded in her eyes. She closed her eyes momentarily and crashed into his chest as she put her arms around him and cried into his t-shirt. Gale immediately put his arms around her and asked, "Katniss, what were you doing out here so late, by yourself?"

In response, she just hugged him tighter and cried harder. Gale sighed; this wasn't the time to ask her such questions. Peeta would know how to ask and help her. "Do you want me to take you home?" he asked her. She shook her head into his chest. He tried a different tack, "To Madge's house?"

Katniss pushed back from his embrace a little and cried, "No! I can't let her see me like this. I don't want to upset her; Madge takes everything to heart."

"How about Peeta's house? His mom can check over you also if you go there," Gale offered.

Panic rose in her eyes as she said, "No, please. Not Peeta. I can't let him see me like this. Please."

"He loves you, Katniss. He won't judge you; he'll help you."

She started crying harder and pleaded, "Please, Gale. Please don't take me to Peeta's house. I can't let him see me…I can't, please."

Her sobs turned into hysterics. She hiccupped uncontrollably and he pulled her back to him again. "Will you come back to my house?" She looked up at him and he stuttered, "I don't know what to do. Maybe you can talk to my mom. She'll help you." Katniss nodded.

Thankfully everyone was asleep so Gale sat Katniss on the sofa and went into his mother's room. Quietly, he lifted Posy from the bed; he carried her into the other room and laid her in-between Rory and Vick. He woke up his mom and quickly explained the situation to her. Hazelle walked out to the girl shaking on the sofa and enveloped her in a hug. Katniss clung to his mother as if she was her lifeline. Hazelle walked Katniss back to her bedroom.

Gale paced until his mother came out and said, "She's shook up, but alright otherwise. They didn't touch her; you got there just in time. She has a couple of bruises on her upper arms probably from where they grabbed her. She wants to stay here and she absolutely refuses to tell anyone about what happened."

"But, Ma, how can she stay here? We have to let her family know or Peeta, at least," Gale tried to reason with his mother.

"Honey, she's scared and ashamed. She's still partly in shock. Now's not the time to make her see reason. You can't make her tell Peeta; that's something she needs to work out later when she can think about it rationally." Hazelle paused for a moment and looked into Gale's eyes as she asked, "Maybe you should ask Madge for help."

"Madge?" he asked shocked. "No." He didn't want to involve Madge – not after what Katniss said. He wanted to protect her pure heart and mind from such realities of life.

"Katniss and Madge are friends right? Katniss is in no shape to go anywhere. We need to let someone know that she's safe." Hazelle explained.

Dread crossed his mind and his mom answered the question before he could ask it, "She doesn't want to tell anyone. It's not your place or mine to decide for Katniss. All we can do is support her in this difficult time." Gale sighed with relief; he didn't want to tell her. Madge, so kind and idealistic, had probably never even given thought to such kinds of attacks. He wanted to keep her sheltered from such things.

Gale nodded and headed out the door. Hazelle called out to him, "Gale, see if you can get some clothes for Katniss too? What she's wearing is ruined." The entire way to Madge's house, he thought about what he would say to Madge or how he would ask for her help without telling her too much. It was late by the time he reached her house; all the windows were dark. Gale had been up to Madge's room once when she gave him the tour of the house. He knew one of her windows faced the backyard. He walked around the back and threw a couple of pebbles at her window. A few minutes later, a light came on and he hoped he had the right window. He sighed with relief when Madge popped her beautiful blonde head out and a smile spread on his face even under the circumstances. Even in the dark, he could make out her messy hair and bare shoulders.

"Gale? What are you doing here; its past midnight?" she asked.

"Can you come down? It's important," he asked.

Only a couple of minutes later, Madge walked out the back door dressed in sweatpants and a sweatshirt. "Is everything alright?"

He lifted his eyes to meet hers and said, "I need your help."

"Of course. What's wrong?"

He still hadn't figured out how much to tell Madge. Hazelle and Gale were practical; they had to be when survival was most important to them. Without any conscious thought, their minds automatically spun to form contingency plans at first sight of a catastrophe. Hazelle had practically pointed out that Katniss needed clothes and he stated the other practical thought that would address Katniss' immediate needs, "Can you call Katniss' house in the morning to tell her mom she spent the night with you and that she's not feeling well?"

"Why?" Madge asked surprised. When Gale didn't answer, she prodded, "Is she with Peeta?" He shook his head. Confused, Madge asked, "Is she alright?"

Gale despised lying, but he would do it to protect Madge. He quickly said, "Yes." If his eyes hadn't been focused on the ground he may have caught the hurt look on Madge's face.

"Okay," she said sounding tired. Gale sighed having that out-of-the-way, happy she trusted him enough to not ask any questions.

"Can I also get some clothes for Katniss?" he asked matter-of-factly. His mother was right Katniss would need something to change into. If her cover was spending the night at Madge's house then it would be better for her to go home in Madge's clothes and not clothes from the Seam.

He looked up when he felt a soft material touch his hands. She had taken off the sweatshirt and pants she was wearing. His eyes followed the line of her arm holding out the clothes and down the rest of her body. She must have put those on to come out to see him, because Madge was now left in a knee-length nightgown that showed more of her skin than he'd ever seen. The mesmerized young man was speechless.

Through gritted teeth, Madge asked, "Anything else?" He flushed immediately; feeling bad about her irritation at his ogling. He took the clothes from Madge's hands and turned around quickly before he lost control and took her in his arms.

"Thank you," he whispered as he walked away. Gale was around the house before the hurt look on her face registered in his mind. He furrowed his brow and turned around to ask her about it. Their eyes met when he turned around and a few tears fell out of hers. Immediately, he quickened his pace to get to her. She turned around and ran inside the house. He stood there unsure of what to make of her actions; the only thing that came to his mind was, she is afraid of me. He wondered if she could smell the liquor on his breath. Ashamed of himself and not wanting to startle her anymore, he turned around and went home.


A/N: Whew that was long! I couldn't help myself from bringing in some Gale/Madge/Katniss tension...;-). What do you think?