"Just go to bed, okay?"
I'm feeling my way towards the stairs when I hear a light knock at the door. I freeze in my tracks, and there's a pause of silence long enough to make me think I imagined it before it starts again, slightly louder. The raps are much more timid than you would expect from a Peacekeeper coming to make an arrest, but the sound still scares all my sleepiness away. I open the door a crack, my brain frantically trying to decide what lie will make them turn around without finding Gale. I don't relax when I see who it actually is.
I throw the door open, grab her arm, pull her over the threshold, and slam the door closed, not sure if I'm more desperate to get her away from the snow threatening to turn into a fully fledged storm any second, or from where any unwelcome eyes can see her. "Are you crazy?" I ask, more angrily than seems warranted. "What are you doing here?"
Madge pulls her hood down and shakes the snow off her coat as she answers. "I didn't have much time before. I was worried they might take the morphling if they caught me with it. I couldn't risk sticking around to..."
The sound of words coming out of my mouth that I can't control interrupts her: "You shouldn't have come at all. Forget the medicine – if they'd caught you, you'd have been the star of their next show in the square and lying in there right next to him by now..."
It's her turn to interrupt me now: "What was I supposed to do? I couldn't stand it, Katniss. I had to do something."
Something reckless and crazy, I think, trying to ignore my memory of recklessly jumping between Gale and that whip. What Madge did last night was no less dangerous. I should be impressed, grateful, thanking her for being so brave, but all I can feel is anger that she put another of the people I care most about in danger. "That's if you hadn't frozen to death before you even got here," I say.
Madge shrugs. "I figured that was my best defense. I didn't think the Peacekeepers would be too keen on keeping an eye out for people in a snowstorm."
"That's... good thinking," I say involuntarily, and then I can't hold back any longer. I throw my arms around her and say sternly, "If you ever pull a stunt like that again, I'll never forgive you," as if that can somehow keep the tears from reaching my eyes.
Madge hugs me back as she says, "Another risk I'll have to take, I guess." There's no humor or sarcasm in her voice.
"Leave the risk-taking to me," I tell her, before letting her go.
"I can't – I have no choice." For some reason, that makes me recall how defensive I got last night when Peeta and Haymitch started asking questions about her sudden appearance. Madge looks at me in a way that makes me suspect she somehow already knows all about that.
I realize I don't want to know what drove her to make her dangerous journey last night. I just want her as far away from here as possible. "We'll talk about that later. Just get home before Thread can haul you in for aiding and abetting the girl who started a rebellion."
"I didn't do it just for her," Madge says so softly that I think she didn't meant to say it at all.
It's exactly the kind of thing I don't want to hear right now, though. "Aiding and abetting a poacher, then," I snap, almost accusingly. "Our only patient table's already taken, you know. We don't need you joining him."
"How is he?" is her only reply.
There's a pause before I find my tongue. "He'll live." Her eyes are full of such worry that I realize she spent the last few hours in the same agony I did; they seem to slap me across the face even harder than Thread's whip. It's enough to make me say gently, "I think he'll be all right, he just needs some time to heal, but he was in so much pain before, I don't know what we would've done without... I don't know how he would have gotten through the night if you hadn't... Thanks for helping us save him, Madge."
She breathes a sigh of relief and wipes her hand across her brow. She's too strong to let the tears show, though, just like at last year's reaping. "I knew he'd be fine. Everyone knows your mother's the best, but I..." she says, with an attempt at a smile.
I try to help her out with a smile of my own, but I can feel that mine is just as feeble. "Next time you want to check up on a patient, just call. We have a phone now."
Her face instantly becomes more serious. "I didn't come here just to check up on Gale." I notice she doesn't deny that being at least part of her motive. "I had to ask you something."
"Ask me what?" I know our phone is probably not the safest means of communication in District 12 at the moment, but, still, what could be so urgent that it couldn't wait until the snow stopped?
"Gale's not awake yet, is he?"
Madge sighs in relief again and mumbles, "Good – I got here in time," before looking directly into my eyes and saying, "There's something I need you to do for me, Katniss."
"Anything," I say without hesitation. After what she's done for Gale, I owe her anything she could ask for. I am puzzled, however, about what the mayor's daughter could possibly need from me, unless it's payment to replace her mother's medicine.
"You have to promise me that you'll do what I say," Madge says more desperately.
"I promise. Whatever it is, Madge, I promise."
"Good." Madge nods; she knows me too well not to expect that response. "You can't let him know."
"Let who know what?" I ask, more puzzled than ever.
"Let Gale know where the medicine came from."
"What are you talking about?" I ask, even more puzzled than ever.
"He can't know that I brought it. Please don't let anyone tell him."
"Why?" I gasp. I understand what she's asking for now, but I can't for the life of me understand the reason.
Madge looks away from me as she answers, "If Gale finds out I brought it, he'll never forgive me."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
She doesn't answer this time, just turns her face back towards me and pleads, "Please promise me you'll never tell him. That you'll make sure your mother and whoever else knows won't tell him. Please, Katniss."
I've never heard Madge sound this scared before, not even on reaping days. The only explanation I can think of is that she must be worried about the consequences of getting caught after all. I should have known she lied about her mother giving her that stuff just so we wouldn't refuse it. "Don't worry," I assure her. "Nobody's going to tell your mother you stole her morphling."
"I would never steal from my own mother," Madge says firmly but not loudly. "She knew why I needed it. She knows where to get more. It's not her I'm worried about."
I believe her. I still don't understand. Or maybe I don't want to. There should be no reason why Gale should object to my friend bringing medicine for another friend of mine, or to his friend bringing medicine for him. "You risked a lot to bring that to him – why don't you want him to know?"
"It's not me – he wouldn't want to know."
"Yes, he would," I say completely honestly. "He should know – Gale hates letting debts go unpaid."
Madge shakes her head. "I don't want him to think he owes me a debt, show up at my house trying to pay me money for it or something."
"That's your only reason?"
"Yes," says Madge, but the look on her face reminds me of how the non-Career tributes looked last summer during their interviews with Caesar – they, Caesar, the audience, everyone knew what they were saying and hearing was a lie, an act, a performance, but they all played along, avoiding the truth together. Madge knows that I know there's more to it than her simply not wanting Gale to feel like he's in her debt, but, just like a tribute, she tells the lies and half-truths she's expected to give, and, just like Caesar, I accept it; just like the Capitol audience, I don't want to think about the truth.
But it's too late. Her request has already made me think too much about things I never wanted to think about at all. In one last attempt to get her to take it all back and tell me it doesn't matter, I ask, "So you want me to lie to him?"
"You promised you would," she reminds me.
"That's right – I did." And because I don't like letting debts go unpaid, either, or maybe just because I want this conversation to end, I nod in surrender. If this is how I have to repay Madge, then so be it. I focus on that fact and nothing else. "If that's what you want, Madge, I promise, I won't tell him."
I don't like it when she says, "I knew I could count on you. And the others?"
"I'll tell them what you asked, but I don't know how I can make them keep it a secret, too," I confess.
"They'll understand," Madge says confidently, without explaining what keeps me from understanding as easily. She hugs me again and says, "Thank you so much, Katniss." It feels like it takes a while before we pull apart and she abruptly says, "I'd better go."
She turns instantly to the door, but the wind fights her when she tries to open it. I imagine her walking home again through that snow and say, "Maybe you'd better stay here tonight."
She shakes her head as she pulls the door open all the way. "No, I don't want to be here when he wakes up." She pulls her hood back up and continues: "It's not far, I'll be fine – I made it here without any problems." I'm still panicking at the thought of Peacekeepers watching the place coming out of the shadows to grab her, but she's already on the doorstep. "Just... let me know how he's doing."
All my anger at things I can't admit instantly evaporates at those words. "You know I will," I tell the girl who can't stand the thought of Gale being in pain any more than I can, who miraculously appeared to relieve his suffering when I'd given up hope anyone could do anything for him. I squeeze her hand one last time and say, "Be careful, Madge," before she disappears into the snow. When I'm sure she's out of earshot, I whisper, "I'm sorry." I continue silently cursing myself for my selfishness as I trudge up to bed.
The guilt over how I treated Madge is still there when I awake the next morning, which is probably why, as soon as I've called to check on Peeta and my mother's tended to my eye, I pull her and Prim aside and, safely out of hearing of the kitchen, tell them, with no details, no elaboration, that Madge came by again last night and what she asked for. They ask no questions but simply nod and agree, as if they really do understand more than I can or want to. I'm relieved that it was so quick and painless; I didn't have to think about it for too long.
Peeta and Haymitch are the only other two who know and, when I finally get to speak with them as we walk into town two days later, I'm hopeful that they'll agree just as easily.
"So that's why she came back that night," Peeta says when I've finished explaining what happened. "I heard you talking with her, but I thought she just wanted to know how Gale was doing."
"She did, but she wanted to make sure none of us tell him she brought the medicine," I say.
"What medicine?" Haymitch asks sarcastically, with a smirk. I turn away to resist the urge to slap it off his face.
Peeta ignores him and simply says, "Sure." He's the one who looks away from me this time, but not before I see a look in his eyes that makes me flash back to that rainy day when he first saved my life. I can't explain why, but I'm sure that he's remembering it, too. I'm suddenly struck by the similarity between the two situations. The girl starving to death in a rainstorm. The boy paralyzed with pain in a snowstorm. The wealthy merchant's son who reached out to help a poor girl from the Seam. The wealthy mayor's daughter who reached out to help a poor coal miner. The boy with the bread. The girl with the medicine... I shake the thought away. I've done my duty, I tell myself. It's over. That's the last time I'll ever have to think about it.
It's two more days before Gale is strong enough to walk and a week before he goes home. It's not until I go to check on him the next day that the subject I'd forgotten comes up. It happens after he insists on going for a walk past the square. He and the new Peacekeeprs glare at each other while I continue to look fruitlessly around for Darius and Purnia and the others we'd come to trust, and, therefore, I know I'll never see again. When I can't stand it anymore, I grab his arm and pull him around, forcing him to walk away with me.
"Careful," I warn him. "Glaring could be punishable by the stocks these days."
"I don't care," Gale says, predictably.
I know he's desperate to show them he's not afraid of them, because that's exactly how I'd feel if this had happened to me, and that makes me afraid. For Gale. That he'll do something stupid because of it. "I know you don't, but keep in mind that a lot of us do care what happens to you – me, your mother, your brothers and Posy..." I gulp and let the list end there. "Wait at least a few months before you scare us like that again."
"It was an accident," he says defensively. "How was I supposed to know we were under new management?" Then he sighs, and his face softens just a little as he says, apologetically, "I can't believe I let them catch me. I am sorry for everything I put you guys through. I had no idea..."
"We know," I say, trying to stop him, and failing.
"I'm going to pay your mother back for helping me, I promise."
"It was nothing..." As soon as the words are out, I hate myself for saying them.
"I thought I was going to die." We stop walking, and Gale closes his eyes and clenches his fists. It's the first time he's ever talked to me about that day. "I wished I would die. I thought after crawling on my hands and knees through those mines day after day, I could take anything, but..." He rubs his shoulder with his hand. He's forgotten that I'm there. "It was the worst pain I've ever felt in my life. I never knew it was possible to be in that much pain. I couldn't think, I couldn't breathe, I couldn't hear or see anything... I barely remember being in the square. I still have no idea how I got to your place."
I whisper, not wanting to startle him: "I told you, we carried you on a board from..."
Well, fortunately, he doesn't seem startled. He doesn't even let me finish but nods and says, "Yeah, you told me." He shakes his head and closes his eyes again, like he's trying to remember.
Some inexplicable urge makes me ask, "What's the first thing you remember from in my house?"
"Pain," he answers instantly. "Lying on my chest with my back on fire. A lot of weird dreams. People talking, I think." There's a pause before he adds, "Then it just stops."
"What stops?" I ask tremulously.
"The pain. I remember waking up a few times during the night, feeling light and numb, falling asleep again, feeling nothing..." He rubs the back of his neck as he tries, no doubt, to make sense of what he's saying. "I must have been really out of it. For the longest time, all I could feel or remember was the pain, then I couldn't feel anything."
I manage to say, "Guess that snow coat really works."
"Yeah..." We start walking again, but Gale turns and looks at me when he says, "What does your mother put in that, anyway?"
"A bunch of herbs, I don't really know," I answer truthfully, but it's not enough to satisfy Gale.
Before, Gale was just confused. My evasiveness succeeds at making him suspicious. "Felt like more than just herbs."
"Probably. How should I know?" I respond, unable to shove away the memory of Peeta telling me what a bad liar I am.
I don't blame Gale for narrowing his eyes at me when he says, "Where did you guys get such strong medicine?"
I can't resist mimicking Haymitch's tone when I ask, "What medicine?"
Gale, unsurprisingly, is not amused. "The medicine that did that to me. One minute, I was in agony, and the next..."
"Why does it matter?" I snap, now fully conscious of how dangerously close he is to forcing me to break my promise to Madge.
"Because it felt as strong as... as morphling."
Gale's never had a drop of morphling in his life (that he knows of), but we've heard enough about the effects (he's told me that at least two of the mine bosses and four of the old Peacekeepers had a source for it right here in District 12). I laugh at the absurdity of his comparison and say sarcastically, "Well, you know we always make sure to have a good supply of morphling on hand. The stuff's so cheap and easy to come by, after all. Why wouldn't it be right there in our kitchen, just waiting until you needed it?"
"Exactly." Gale stops in his tracks, turns towards me, and crosses his arms. "I want to know what she gave me, Katniss. Whatever it was, it was stronger than herbs we just pick in the woods. Stuff that strong doesn't just appear out of thin air. Where did you get it?"
I wonder why he's so determined to know. Is he worried I or someone else took a big risk to get it? The tragic part is that someone did. Someone who made me swear not to tell him. The last person he'd ever suspect...
I finally realize the best way to keep Madge's secret. I hang my head in resignation. "All right, Gale," I say gravely. "The truth is, Madge Undersee is so in love with you, she risked running through a snowstorm, not to mention the wrath of every Peacekeeper in the district, just to bring you morphling to ease your pain after you were whipped."
It works. Gale shakes his head and sighs. "I'm not in the mood for jokes, Katniss," he says angrily. As I expected, my choice of words makes him so irritated at the girl he believes he's in love with but who won't love him back that he walks away.
I turn around and begin my walk back to the Victor's Village. I tell myself not to worry about it, that Gale will forgive me tomorrow for apparently teasing him and forget all about the question of where his medicine came from, but it doesn't work. I have to admit that's not what's bothering me. It's the injustice of what I've done. What I've been forced to do. What I didn't expect to feel like this. Erasing a brave young girl's act of love as if it never happened. Gale will never know what Madge did for him. No one will.
That's how she wanted it, is the only consolation I can give myself.