Whenever a friend of his was reaped, Gale Hawthorne always sought refuge in the same place: the woods – a distraction full of game to focus his mind on, a safe haven to vent and mourn without being seen or heard, whose familiar sounds and scents and colors were soothing to him on their own. The woods could offer him no comfort this year. They contained too many memories of the friend he'd lost this time. As soon as he'd said good-bye, he headed to the fence like he always had before, but the sight of the forest where he had spent so many days with Katniss was too painful for him to get any closer. This year, he just sat down on a knoll in the meadow instead, not ready to go home and listen to whatever empty words of comfort his mother might have and put on the brave face the kids needed to see.
He didn't know how long he'd sat there staring blankly into space, waiting for the feeling of unreality to go away, when he heard a twig snap nearby. He snapped to attention and quickly turned around to find Madge Undersee walking through the meadow a few yards away. She'd been about to pass him without noticing him but looked up in his direction at the sound of his sudden movement.
"Oh, I'm sorry, Gale," she gasped in surprise, as if she'd been caught trespassing on someone's private property. "I thought you'd be... I didn't know you'd be here."
"That makes two of us," said Gale. Madge took this as an invitation to come closer. "What are you doing here?" he asked her.
"My father thought I should take a walk, get some air," she explained. "That's what he says whenever my mother's having a really bad day and he doesn't want me to see her – he thinks it would be too much for me." Gale had heard about the mayor's wife's chronic headaches. "It must be because of the reaping."
"Because she's your friend?" Gale asked, not trusting himself to say her name yet.
Madge sat down next to him. "More because she's her friend's daughter, I think."
The two of them simultaneously turned their gaze from each other to the mountains in the distance. "I hope she feels better soon," Gale said next. Being around Madge was making him feel uncomfortable, for some reason.
"She'll be fine," said Madge. "How about you?"
"What about me?"
Gale waited for the I-know-how-close-you-and-Katniss-are speech and the stupid question of if he was okay that were sure to come. Instead, he heard Madge ask him, "Was it hard for you to say good-bye, too?"
"This isn't good-bye," he snapped instantly. He started to regret it in the silence that followed. Without turning to look at her, he said more gently, "The hardest one yet."
"Me, too," she whispered.
Gale broke the next pause of silence by saying, "That was your pin I saw her wearing, right?"
"I gave it to her," was Madge's redundant answer.
"That's certainly a district token you don't see every day – a mockingjay," Gale observed. Everyone knew the story of the mockingjays, the living testimony of one of the Capitol's greatest failures. He couldn't remember a tribute ever wearing one as a token before. The President and his cronies certainly wouldn't be happy seeing one of the tributes thrusting such an image in front of the cameras...
It was then that Gale suddenly realized something. He turned to Madge. "That was a bold move – wearing that to the reaping."
"I wear it to every reaping," Madge said flatly, still facing the horizon.
"In case..." Gale found he couldn't finish the question.
Madge finished it for him: "In case I'm chosen. I wanted them to see it."
Gale never would have pegged the mayor's daughter as some kind of rebel, but if flaunting a mockingjay in the Capitol's face like that wasn't rebellious, nothing was. "Interesting strategy," was all he said out loud. "Where did you buy it?"
"It's been in the family for years," Madge answered. "My aunt wore it in her games."
"Your aunt?!" Gale couldn't keep the horror out of his voice. This revelation about Madge made him sick to his stomach. Why shouldn't it? As the drunken District 12 victor who tripped his way across the stage every year was definitely not Madge's aunt, there was no doubt what her ultimate fate had been. He was surprised that the thought disgusted him so much, though, after all the deaths like hers he'd seen in his life. They were all horrible atrocities – why should he feel any different about this one?
Madge's steady voice didn't change when she said, "My mother's twin sister. She was killed in the Fiftieth Hunger Games when she was sixteen."
"Fiftieth? The year Haymitch Abernathy won?"
"Yes, but he didn't kill her," Madge answered, anticipating his next question at the same time. "They were allies until she was killed by a flock of poisoned birds. Haymitch tried to save her. My mother told me all about it."
That explained the chronic headaches. Gale tried to imagine what he would do if he lost Rory or Vick now that he was too old to volunteer for them. It was too unbearable to consider even for a second. "I'm sorry," he whispered, more to the dead girl's sister than to her niece. He wondered what her name was.
"My mother calls me Maysilee sometimes now," Madge said, reading his mind again. "When she's out of it from the morphling. Sometimes she begs me to forgive her, for not volunteering for her, I guess. Sometimes she still thinks it's the day of that reaping, and she tells me not to worry, there's only two more to go after this, reminds me how their parents always say they won't be chosen..."
"You won't be going to the Capitol."
Gale's blood froze as he remembered the words he said to Madge just a few hours ago. He tried to shake off the memory, but the voice wouldn't stop. "You won't be going to the Capitol." Had someone from the Seam said that to Maysilee that morning? "You won't be going to the Capitol." How had they felt when her name was pulled out of the reaping ball? Five slips out of thousands had been no protection after all. "You won't be going to the Capitol." Five slips out of thousands were no more protection for Madge than they were for her aunt.
"You won't be going to the Capitol." Well, he'd solved the mystery of why the thought of Madge's aunt's death bothered him so much. Being from town, no tesserae – it meant nothing. The odds weren't in your favor any more than they were for those from the Seam. No amount of money could buy complete safety for any child in Panem. In the Capitol's eyes, they were all equal – meat to be slaughtered to feed their insatiable appetite for entertainment. Anyone could end up going to the Capitol, whether they were from the Seam like Katniss or from town like Maysilee. Like Madge.
"I'm sorry," Gale repeated.
"You said that already," Madge pointed out.
"I don't mean for your aunt, I mean for what I said earlier." Madge turned and looked at him for the first time since she'd joined him. "I was wrong. That could have been you today. The odds were in Prim's favor five times more than yours. Your aunt's odds were no better."
"Town girls get chosen, too." He wished she'd said that as harshly as he deserved. He was still trying to figure out how to respond when she took a deep breath like one holding back tears and said, "It should have been me. Not Katniss. Anyone but Katniss!"
"It's not your fault." Without planning to, Gale reached over and took her hand. It was shaking. "I should have volunteered to go with her."
"She wouldn't have wanted that," he heard Madge say. "I should have volunteered."
"She wouldn't have wanted that, either." Gale knew that it was true, but he also knew that it would do neither of them any good. It was the same every year – it took weeks before you forgave yourself for not volunteering for a friend or to go with a friend. Maybe it was just easier to hate yourself than to hurt for them. As he ran his thumb softly over Madge's knuckles, Gale was overwhelmed once again by how ridiculous it was to think the reaping was easier for the wealthier town kids. Neither he nor Madge had been chosen, but they were both in the same pain right now. The next few weeks of watching their friend suffer would be the same torture for both of them. No one in Panem was spared the fear of the reaping or the pain of losing their friends, regardless of how much money the government gave your family. Madge didn't need to be sent to the Capitol – Gale knew that losing Katniss to today's reaping hurt her just as much as it did him.
The thought that he might actually lose Katniss any day now made Gale tremble. He couldn't help it. He was about to stand up and storm off when he felt Madge squeeze his hand. He sensed that she wanted to comfort him just like he'd wanted to comfort her. He didn't deserve it. Not after what he'd said to her, what he'd thought about her. But if she wanted him to stay, it was the least he could do. He squeezed her hand in reply right before a breeze swept across the meadow. He felt her shiver and slid over, putting his arm around her shoulders. They sat like that for a while before he said, "She'll be back."
"Then what?" Madge asked, her voice colder and angrier than Gale had ever heard it. "Who will it be next year?"
Next year would be Rory's first reaping; after what happened to Prim this year, there would be no point in trying to tell him he wouldn't be going to the Capitol. "Nobody's safe," Gale said aloud.
"That means we're all in this together." Something about the way Madge said that made Gale raise an eyebrow.
They stared into each other's eyes for a second, as if taking a silent vow, before turning their faces forward again. Gale tightened his grip on Madge's shoulder and felt her lean more closely against him as he repeated, "Together." After what he'd learned today, he'd never think otherwise.