roses are red, roses are white
part three
the garden of hearts
chapter two
love songs for kitchen maids

It takes all night and the next day to reach her destination.

The carriage's windows are curtained shut and her guard makes it clear she is not to peek, so Madge has no idea where they are or where they're going. Somewhere no one will ever find you but what does that mean? It cannot be any property of Marvel's or even a convent, so where? She looks across at the guard and he is stony faced and forbidding, panic starting to creep up her limbs. Where is Marvel sending her? He had seemed so confident, so sure of his cunning plot, what could it be?

Madge knots her hands in her lap as if to hold herself through the anxiety and tries to stay calm. Wherever he is sending her, she must remain strong. No matter that she is going in blind and cannot properly prepare for the unknown, she must be brave. She finds herself rubbing her rings and oh papa, grandmother, Henry, lend me your courage.

The nerves keep her awake for the better part of the day and it doesn't matter that she knows how long they've been travelling, it still tells her nothing of their destination. There are so many places they might reach in all that time, especially as far north as they were. Finally though, sleep does come, but it is fitful and far from restful. Every bump and lurch of the carriage rattles her bones and her heart beat is quick with worry. It is almost a half-sleep and she wakes many times, confused, disoriented and then tired enough to tumble back to unconsciousness.

When the litter finally pulls to a stop, Madge is woken from her uneasy rest by the guard prodding her in the arm. She glares at him but he ignores her reproach and opens the door. He steps down into the fresh night air and Madge takes a deep, steadying breath. Be brave Madge, you can do this. She steps down after him and torchlight illuminates what appears to be the back of a manor house. There are ghostly stables to her left, a large stretch of empty parkland to the right and what might be a man waiting by the house. Madge straightens her posture and pats down her dress. She cannot be timid now, she must be bold and ready to demand answers. Before anything else, she must know where she is.

"Where are we?" she asks her guard as he grabs her arm and pulls her forward. He offers no response. Madge frowns and digs her heels into the dirt. "I asked you a question, where are we?"

The guard shoots her an angry look and tugs so hard on her arm she is surprised it doesn't come loose from her shoulder. She stumbles forward and he drags her all the way to the house and the man waiting for them. The yellow flickers of light turn him a sickly colour and he watches her with narrowed eyes. Madge meets his gaze steadily and a frown carves deep into his face.

"Here she is," her guard grunts and shoves her forward. Madge trips over her feet and then turns to fix him with her most disdainful look. He ignores it. The other man bobs his slender head.

"Very good," he murmurs and Madge wonders if he'll be more useful than her guard. Her stomach is a riot of nerves and she must find out what's going on. The guard marches back to the carriage and Madge seizes her chance.

"Excuse me, but where am I?" she asks. The man ignores her and turns, unlatching the door and pushing it open. He steps aside and gestures at the dark opening.

"Move along," he says and Madge stays exactly where she is.

"Not until you've told me where I am," she retorts and his whole face narrows. He steps towards her and grabs her arm with long fingers.

"You will do as you're told." He pulls but she does not go, his grip tightening as she resists. He hisses frustration through his teeth. "You will do as you are told or face the consequences. We do not tolerate misbehaviour here."

Madge is not cowed by his words nor the eerie way his skin stretches too thin over the bones of his face; instead she realizes something about this new captivity. Marvel still needs her to willingly give him her inheritance, his plan will be to break her. That is why she cannot know where she is, why this man is treating her in such a manner when he would never normally speak to a lady so, and why punishment is being threatened. They will never answer her, never do anything she asks because their entire purpose will be to frustrate her until she cracks. What a fool Marvel is.

Madge peels the man's fingers from her arm and steps through the doorway, not in defeat but in defiance. She will play their game, will do exactly as she's told because she has no desire to be beaten or humiliated. If her survival depends on her enduring whatever they throw at her, then she will endure. It is sure to be hard, but she has no choice. She is not going to break, not even if she is to spend the rest of her life here. Marvel will not last nearly so long.

The doorway leads to dimly lit stone stairs that descend into the musty dark, the faint smell of meat and cinders clinging to the air. Madge lifts her skirts and steps carefully, sinking lower and lower into her new prison. Her footsteps echo in the gloom and the man follows, his presence pressing up behind her like a wall. The air is smoky as the stairs come to an end and she enters a high ceilinged room, the man gesturing her in deeper. It is very dark, dark enough she feels trepidation prickle her heart. There is only one tiny flutter of light against the far wall and it almost looks as if it is hovering in midair. The faintest hint of someone can be seen in the glow of that lone candle and the sight is spectral. Madge squares her shoulders even as her heart thumps unevenly in her chest.

"I leave her in your care Matilda," the man says and Matilda steps forward. Her taper barely pushes back the shadows and what Madge can see of her face isn't friendly. She looks at Madge with her mouth pressed into a thin line, her eyes narrowed nearly to slits and her skin turned an unearthly orange by the candlelight.

"Come," she commands and turns. Madge has to take two steps for Matilda's every one and she hurries to keep pace, loath to be lost in the deep blackness of this place. They travel down a stone corridor, the only sound besides their footsteps the unwelcome skittering of tiny feet. Madge forces herself not to shudder and Matilda comes to a halt, her flickering light just barely illuminating what might be a wooden door. Madge hovers just behind her and Matilda pulls a large, unwieldy key from a ring at her belt. The lock clunks as she turns the key and it is so loud in the silence Madge's heart jumps into her throat. The hinges of the door creak ominously and Matilda steps aside. She doesn't say a word but Madge can tell what she wants from the look on her face. Madge walks into the room beyond and the air is stale and damp and the dark so oppressive her throat starts to squeeze. There are no windows and she could have lost her eyes for all she can see. Matilda follows her in and her sputtering candle does little to light the dark.

"Put this on," Matilda orders and Madge frowns. Matilda has procured a bundle from somewhere and Madge takes it in confusion. Matilda sighs. "Take off your clothes and put this on," she says slowly as if she fears Madge too dull to understand. The fabric is rough against her fingers and Madge frowns deeper. It is hard to see what she is holding but it might be a dress, though one made of awful, uncomfortable fabric.

"Hurry up," Matilda says and Madge unties her cloak. It falls to the floor and Matilda snatches it up immediately, before reaching into the shadows by the door and tossing over a pair of worn boots. They land with a crunch on something and Madge tries very hard to stay calm. She knows Marvel's game, she must stay strong.

"All the jewels too," Matilda adds and Madge has to stop her hand from jumping to Gale's locket around her throat. It is hidden beneath her clothes, Matilda surely hasn't seen it. But what of her rings? She has kept them with her since that day over three years ago when she'd fled home and they've stayed with her through exile and occupation and hardship. They've lent her courage from those loved and lost, she cannot part with them.

"Come along, the earrings and the rings," Matilda snaps and Madge feels her eyes burn. This is not fair but that is exactly what Marvel wants. He wants it to hurt, wants it to grind her down; she must be strong. It aches like a sword wound to pull off her rings, the last gifts she has from her father, grandmother and Henry, but she does it. Her heart will have to be their keeper now, Marvel cannot take that at least.

Matilda accepts all three rings with greedy fingers and Madge knows she will never see them again. Her heart shudders and tears prick her eyes, though hopefully that is hidden in the darkness. She does not want to give Matilda the satisfaction. The earrings are next and then she turns and ducks down to untie her boots. While bent over she slides off Gale's locket, thanking the lack of light for concealing the majority of her movements. She will keep this one solace; she will not let them have everything. She buries her precious locket under the straw covering the floor and then hurriedly undoes her boot laces. Next she removes her girdle and then Matilda unlaces her houppelande. The chill makes her shiver and Matilda unties her kirtle, leaving her in nothing but her chemise. Madge picks up her coarse dress and Matilda grunts.

"Take it all off," she says and Madge feels her face burn. Her hands shake as she removes the last of her clothes, goosebumps rising all over her now naked body. She struggles into her new dress, the fabric itching against her skin, and Matilda ties it up for her. She pulls on equally uncomfortable stockings and does not bother with the boots just yet. She doubts she is going anywhere tonight.

"You will sleep here," Matilda says and leaves, taking all of Madge's things with her. She locks the door and Madge is left in the darkness, not a single sliver of light to be found. She sits on the straw covered floor and reaches around until she finds Gale's locket, her hands shaking as she puts it back on. Instantly she feels a little calmer and she tucks it under her dress. Her heart beats loud against it and Madge tries not to panic as the dark presses in on her.

This will not be forever

I need only hold out longer than Marvel

I will be out of here soon

"Get up!" Matilda barks seemingly only moments after Madge had closed her eyes. Her windowless room is still pitch black and the floor is hard and cold, it's straw covering doing little to change that. Madge is stiff and achy as she sits up, exhaustion trying very hard to keep her eyes shut.

"Up!" Matilda calls again and opens the door. The faintest touch of daylight kisses the darkness of her room and Madge is the moth to its flame. She ties on her ill fitting boots and steps towards the hallway, Matilda watching her with icy brown eyes. She is a tall woman with a broad face and a greasy apron tied around her dress. Madge remembers the large smoky room they'd entered through yesterday and it is obvious now where she is. The kitchen at some country manor house. Marvel has hidden her away with the scullery maids and she hates to admit it, but this is very clever of him indeed. Who would ever look for her here? Even if they searched this house, they would never search the maids in the cellar.

"Move along," Matilda tells her with a jab and Madge bites her tongue. Her situation looks bleak but she cannot let herself panic. She must remain level headed and gain her bearings. Marvel may be clever, but she will be cleverer.

Matilda jabs her again and Madge moves down the corridor, Matilda following behind. The windows are few and far between and very small, making the halls gloomy even by the light of day. There are torches on the walls to help and Madge lickes dry lips. She is not used to being underground; she does not like it. She enters the great kitchen from yesterday and there are plenty of others filling it now, from maids to cooks to kitchen boys. They all pause their work to stare at her and Matilda grabs firm hold of her shoulder. She steers her to an empty chair and then pushes her down into it. Madge sits heavily and curls her hands into fists. By some miracle she keeps her mouth shut and then Matilda is pulling at her hair.

"Ow!" Madge says without being able to stop herself and Matilda tuts.

"There is far too much of this," she says and Madge feels suddenly cold. She closes her eyes and wants to order Matilda away, but she knows it will do no good. As much as she hates it, she is a prisoner here, she has no power. If they want to cut her hair she must let them. Madge breathes steadily and everyone watches as Matilda hacks away, cutting her hair from waist length to just above her shoulders. She is not gentle and Madge sinks teeth into her lip, her eyes unable to stop from straying to all the hair piling up on the floor. It is a little thing, to lose so much of her hair, but it stings. Maybe more than it should but this is her very person and she has no control over it at all. Marvel really does have all the power here. Matilda ties up what's left of Madge's hair under a scratchy patch of fabric and then tugs her up to her feet.

"Maud," she snaps to another girl, who might be a few years older than Madge. "Show Meg her duties." Maud sets down the basket she'd been carrying and frowns at Madge.

"Come on then," she says and Madge follows her to the hearth.

"First things first, you'll be sweeping out the grate every morning. There's an ash bucket over there, if you fill it you'll have to dump it outside. Tell me when you're done and don't take all day Meg, we've got plenty of work to do."

Maud is not kind in her tone and Madge very much wants to say 'My name is Madge, not Meg' but she knows better than to bother. Everything going on here has been carefully designed to break her, she will receive no kindness. Maud walks off and Madge kneels before the hearth, the cinders already coating her dress. It will be messy, long work but what Marvel clearly doesn't remember is that Madge is no stranger to chores. All their time in Harfleur she had done the cooking and cleaning and washing, this is hardly the degrading punishment he wants it to be. He may have spent all his time drinking, but she'd worked. She'd survived that, she will survive this too.

I will see you break Marvel

This is one battle you shall not win

(Katniss watches Gale pace from one end of the room to the other and very much wishes he'd stop. She knows better than to say so.

"She's gone Katniss, gone! Vanished right from under our noses!" he spits, not for the first time, and she wishes there was an easy way to fix this. There isn't of course, there never seems to be when it comes to her queenly duties, but this time is worse. This time Gale must suffer for it.

"Gale," she begins but he does not let her finish.

"You promised me she'd be safe!" he shouts. "You promised me no harm would come to her. And now she's gone!"

"Gale," she tries again but he merely barrels through her.

"If you hadn't forced me away, I could've stopped this! It was your idea to let Marvel have her and now she's gone!"

Katniss closes her eyes and prays for strength. She is the queen and she is meant to be calm, regal, serene. She must be and yet it is so very hard to bite her tongue. Ever since their return from Burgundy, she has been determined to be a proper queen, a better queen. England deserves that much. But it is not so easy to sit here and take his abuse as if she is an idiot, as if she had not cared or even worse, as if she had wanted this to happen.

"You listened to Baron Hastings over me and-"

"That's enough," she interrupts because there is only so much she can bear. Her tone is sharp enough and the rebuke unexpected enough to stall his tongue and Katniss doesn't want to be angry with him, but it is so hard not to be. If she were any other monarch she'd have him clapped in irons for speaking to her so, but she isn't any other monarch. She is Katniss and he is Gale, her cousin, her ally, her dearest friend. He is suffering and he does not mean to be so harsh. She must remember that.

"You think I wanted this to happen? This is a disaster and I am as furious as you are. But we had no choice ."

His eyes burn and he opens his mouth to interrupt. She does not let him.

"No," she says, "there was nothing else I could have done. You think I am happy to reward Marvel? I hate him Gale, as much as you do. I want to see him burn, but I can't . I have cost England so much because I was stubborn, or sad or didn't think through my policies. We have cost England too much. We must be better, I swore I would be and I cannot, I will not, jeopardize this country for a personal whim!"

She doesn't mean to shout, she doesn't want to shout but everything is a mess, being queen is a trial that shall never end and he is her best friend, why can he not understand why she must do this?

" A whim ? Madge's safety is not a whim!" he bellows and Katniss is so frustrated and angry and miserable and repentant she actually pulls the crown from her head and throws it at him. It hits him in the chest and she stands, so overwhelmed with emotion she cannot stay sitting.

"I know! I know! But what do you want from me? She is not worth the country, she can't be!" Katniss has never shouted like this, but she feels as if she cannot breathe. She does not want to be queen but she is, she is and she must be better than she was. She doesn't want any of this, she wants to disappear into the countryside somewhere but she cannot. There is a country of people counting on her, why can't he understand that?

"So you don't care then, you shall let her rot!"

"No! No, you stupid-Marvel is too powerful, too rich and influential! We cannot afford to offend him, not yet. We must play at friends or he will unbalance this country again. Is that what you want? You want another rebellion, another war? Because I don't! Marvel is a greedy, selfish, horrible monster but we must bear it or England will suffer again. I won't have that. I won't ." She has to stop to pull in air, her lungs feeling as if they may burst. Gale shakes before her and she should calm down, she should approach this reasonably. Her head hurts but she tries to keep her voice steady as the words spill from her mouth, a waterfall she cannot stop.

"I don't want to fight with you, I hate that he is driving us apart but can you not see why I had to do this? Marvel is the closest Madge has to a relative, he was the only logical choice to look after her until we could be sure she wasn't pregnant. I know he is scum, but if I'd sent Madge to your mother as you'd wanted, it would have unleashed a scandal on our already fragile monarchy and offended Marvel. He has already proven himself a traitor, I do not doubt for a moment that he would have turned against us again. I hate it as much as you do, I hate him as much as you do, but I have to do what's right for England, not what's best for you! I have let England down, so many times. We have let them down."

There is fury in her voice but sorrow too, so profound it makes her quake. Gale glares at her, his posture stiff, his cheeks dark and she wonders if he hates her. Being queen has cost her so much already, is she to lose him too?

"Fuck!" he shouts and kicks her crown across the room. It clangs against the wall and she jumps at his outburst. He digs the heels of his hands into his forehead and she doesn't know what more she can say. She wants to weep at the same time she wants to scream.

"I know you're right!" he snaps and his voice is choked with his anger. "But I don't know what to do! I am going mad with worry and I don't-I…"

He cannot continue and she wants to hit him and hug him and curse God for putting them in this position. She hates this, she hates herself and Gale and Marvel and her father and-

"I'm sorry," Gale forces out and she is too surprised to speak. "I know this isn't what you wanted, I know you are only doing what you have to and I shouldn't have shouted. I shouldn't be taking this out on you but all I can think of is Madge and what Marvel may be doing to her and I-"

Again, he cannot continue and Katniss is still angry, but she allows compassion to soften it. He sounds wretched, he looks it too and no matter how foul he has been behaving, he is still Gale. She is so weary and she doesn't know what she is meant to do. This is such a mess and if she could cut Marvel to pieces in this moment, she would.

"I am sorry," he says again and he looks half-mad standing before her. Her chest aches. "You are doing what you must and I should be too, I know I should but I can't. I cannot abandon her when she needs me. I have made so many mistakes, I have failed so many times, but I cannot fail in this. Please don't ask me too," he begs and she should. She should order him to go away and leave this situation to cooler heads, but she cannot. Neither of them are as good as they should be.

"I am going to do everything I can to resolve this, I promise. I will send agents to every convent, I will have Peeta try to reason with Marvel may look for her too," she says even though she knows she shouldn't. Always she and Gale have stood side by side, but now the ground beneath them is unsteady. If she commands him to abandon this, not only will he not listen but she is not sure they will survive it. It is selfish of her, but she cannot put duty first this time.

"But you must be discreet about it," she continues, "you must be quiet. Marvel will be watching you. He has not done anything wrong yet, not that we can prove and we cannot give him anything to use against us. He says Madge has willingly joined a convent and as of yet, we have no proof to the contrary. We must be smart about this."

Gale nods, his eyes wet and breathing stuttered. "Thank you," he says, "I have been an unforgivable ass, but thank you."

"You are always an ass," she says, desperate for some sort of levity to fill the pit she feels gaping within her. Why must everything be so difficult? So impossible?

"I am," he agrees and Katniss closes her eyes. Perhaps there is no levity to be found here. Their fathers began this and now she and Gale must see it through. They must be better.

And hopefully, one day, they will be)

Madge tries her very best to keep track of the days as they pass, but she has no way to mark the passage of time, not a clock, a calendar or even a scrap of parchment. She tries to think of specific events tied to each day to try and figure out how many it's been, but nothing has happened worth remembering. Her first day sticks out but the rest swirl together, monotonous, lonely and unremarkable. No one speaks to her and everyday she cleans out the grate, dumps the ashes in the bucket, sometimes empties the bucket, sweeps, scrubs pots, pans and plates and then goes to bed. There is nothing to remember. Still, there are other things she can put her mind to. Such as planning her escape.

Outlasting Marvel is an option and currently her only option, but if there's a quicker way to freedom, she is determined to find it. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be many ways out of this situation except waiting for Marvel to give up. She is locked in her room all night and in the day when she is allowed out, Maud and Matilda are always nearby to keep an eye on her. She is not permitted to go upstairs, she isn't permitted in the hallway except for when she's being escorted to and from her room and the only time she's allowed outside is when she dumps out the ash bucket. Even out there she has little chance of escape, for there are always stable boys and grooms and often the grumpy looking stable master Mr Watson. Even if she managed to get out and steal a horse, where would she go? She has no idea where she is, riding off blindly might well make things worse.

It doesn't look good, but Madge won't give up. She has always found a solution and she will this time too, she has to believe that.

Soon, this will be over soon

I'll be free soon

("You are so clever, my darling," Glimmer coos and strokes his hair. "No one will ever find her in Sir Edward's kitchen."

Marvel smiles proudly and caresses Glimmer's hip. "And they won't have to. Madge enjoys talking as if she is brave, but she is a weak, frail woman who will not long last in her current conditions. Soon she shall be begging us to send her to a convent."

"And we shall have our reward for all our suffering," Glimmer says and Marvel rolls over until he is on top of her, pressing her body into the mattress with his own. He kisses her deeply and her fingers run over his back, her nails dragging deliciously across his skin.

"We have endured so we may triumph now. We have survived their trickery, faithlessness, greed and thievery so we may now collect all we are due," he tells her lips and she gasps at the trail of his hands.

"Yes," she pants and he continues to squeeze and touch and pluck her like the finest instrument.

"And one day," he breathes into her mouth, "we shall ascend to our rightful place as rulers of England."

It may take longer than he had initially anticipated when they first rebelled against Katniss' broken rule, but he has not, and will not, surrender his superior claim. He is meant to be king of England.

An he will be)

The ceiling of her room leaks when it rains. It rains most days.

Madge rolls to the small patch of dry hay by the wall to avoid the damp and cold and dripping, but it helps only marginally. The chill is ever present, the scent of wet hay makes her nauseous and she has so little room if she wants to stay dry that it is impossible to get comfortable. She cannot sleep, especially not with the awful scritch scritch of tiny feet and Marvel is clever, she must admit that.

Still, she will overcome this. The rain, the dark, the cold, she will manage. It is not easy, but it never is. She has survived so much, she will survive this too.

(oh but what she wouldn't give for a blanket)

If she wants to escape this place, she will need allies. At the very least, she needs someone to tell her where in England she is. She can't do anything else until she knows that. Of course, just who she is to ask takes careful consideration. The wrong person will immediately report her every word and question to Maud or Matilda and that would be the end of any escape attempts. As such, Madge spends a few days observing everyone who works in the kitchen, sizing them all up. Maud and Matilda are out of the question of course and so is Hob, the boy with the mind-numbing job of turning the spit all day, she decides quickly. He is young with a penchant for misbehaving, she doesn't think he'll be a good help or very reliable. A bit of eavesdropping tells her the cook is married to Matilda, so that's him out and Madge turns her attention to her fellow kitchen maids.

Aside from herself, Maud and Matilda, there are four girls that work in the kitchen. Rose, the oldest, is maybe twenty and officially spends most of her time peeling and chopping vegetables. She also loves to tell jokes, tease the other girls and sneak off with Hamon the stable hand. Most important to Madge though, is the caustic remarks she makes about Maud and Matilda whenever they are out of earshot, her dislike of them as obvious as it is useful. Bessie, perhaps eighteen, is Maud's assistant with all the dairy products but also an unstoppable gossip with a penchant for rude impressions of Maud, Matilda, the cook and Mr Watson. That too gives Madge hope.

Barbara is also around eighteen and comes from a family of butchers, so is often tasked with helping with the meat. She wants to learn to read and loves to sing, especially adventure tales. Much to the other girls' amusement, the villains of these boisterous ballads are often called Matilda the vile or Matilda the wicked or Matilda the foul. Madge probably shouldn't find that so enjoyable. The youngest is just turned sixteen Amice, who helps with the baking and giggles furiously at everything the other girls say, but especially when it is about Maud and Matilda. That bodes well.

These girls clearly do not like Maud or Matilda and that makes them much less likely to rat her out. They are her best option and so she settles on them. She will still tread carefully, just to be sure, but they are her best hope.

She approaches them just after she's finished with the grate. It is her job to sweep now and that gives her plenty of reason to wander over to their work tables. Bessie is churning butter, Rose preparing cabbage for soup, Barbara mincing veal and Amice rolling out dough for pies. They trade stories of their siblings and Madge sweeps a little closer, her eyes searching around to make sure Matilda and Maud are nowhere to be seen. They aren't and Madge seizes her chance. She bumps, ever so gently, into Bessie as she sweeps and then hurries to apologize.

"Oh, I'm so sorry," she says but Bessie doesn't react. She keeps to her churning and doesn't even glance in Madge's direction. "I'm not usually so clumsy," Madge continues and Bessie continues to ignore her. Madge stands there for a moment, dumbfounded. It just seems embarrassing to keep talking, but why is Bessie acting as if she isn't even there? Now what?

"How daft do you have to be not to take the hint?" Rose asks and Madge starts when she realizes she's talking to her. "We don't want to talk to you. Now go." Rose waves her off with her hand and Madge feels her cheeks start to burn.

"Do your ears not work? Go away," Barbara says and Madge bites her tongue. It will do her no good to make a scene.

"Sorry," she says and moves off. Bessie whispers something and the other girls giggle, Amice squealing out a scandalized " Bessie! ". Madge knows it is about her but she will not give them the satisfaction of looking in their direction. It stings, she can't deny that, but she has dealt with worse. They are still giggling and Madge buries the hurt, she has no time for it now. For whatever reason, these girls have no interest in being her friend. Fine, she will find someone else. She doesn't need them.

(but still, there is a small niggling in her gut all the same)

(why do they not want to talk to her?)

(have they been commanded not to?)

(or is something about her, something that turns them away without her even trying?)

(it doesn't matter)

(except, deep, deep down, it does)

(Katniss stares blankly at the parchment she is supposed to be writing on when Peeta walks into their room, heads straight over to the bed and bangs his head against the bedpost. She watches in confusion as he shuffles over just enough to fall face first into the mattress.

"Are you alright?" she asks and he mumbles something into the covers. He rolls over and stares at the canopy above the bed.

"I hate your cousin," he says and she nods in sympathy.

"I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault."

"Isn't it? If I was better at negotiations I'd be the one stuck trying to reason with Marvel," she says and moves from her chair to sit beside him on the bed.

"Perhaps, but if you were good at everything what would be the point of me?"

Katniss reaches out to brush the hair from his forehead and pretends to think about it. "Well, you are very pretty."

Peeta grins and she feels warm straight down to her toes as some of the tension leaves his body. He takes her hand and holds it, his fingers wrapping around hers. He sighs and she understands, she can barely stand Marvel at all and poor Peeta has been trapped with him for hours.

"No progress?" she asks and Peeta grunts.

"I'd have more luck negotiating with a rock. He is arrogant, stubborn, a liar and absolutely delusional. He insists Lady Madge has gone to be a nun, but when I ask which convent she's entered he starts blathering on about nothing at all, as if he hopes I'll forget the question. He waxed poetically about all of Lady Madge's hardships for almost two hours, spent another hour outlining all of Gale's faults and then attempted to pull me into a discussion on the misfortune of not yet having an heir. When I tried to steer him back to the actual purpose of our discussion, he told me a very long winded tale about how his step-mother had so enjoyed staying with the monks before her death and how that factored into Lady Madge's decision. I must have asked him two dozen times before he finally told me that Lady Madge doesn't want her convent of choice to be known, for fear Gale may follow her there and drag her out. Apparently Gale, nasty, crass, oversexed brute that he is, is the main reason Lady Madge has taken the veil. She's just so desperate to be rid of him, but he simply won't take no for an answer. Marvel made sure I understood that, I think he repeated it six times. He'd like me to inform Gale of that particular bit especially."

Katniss scowls and wishes she could march right up to Marvel and punch his teeth in. She does not believe his lies for even a moment, but she has no proof to the contrary. He has hidden Madge away somewhere, but where?

"I'll keep trying though. Or maybe I'll stab him in the throat," Peeta says and Katniss probably shouldn't smile but she does. She lies down beside him and rests her head on his shoulder.

"If you do, I am fully prepared to be your alibi. You were with me the whole time, how could you possibly have done any stabbing?"

Peeta grins wearily and squeezes her waist. His smile fades and he turns to face her, his eyes somber."I'm worried about Lady Madge, he is up to something. He wants her inheritance and I believe he will do anything to get it."

Katniss nods. "I know, I don't know where she is but I doubt it's pleasant. I'm Queen of this country, but I can't do a thing to help her or Gale. I should be able to fix this."

"Maybe, but then, maybe it's better you don't. We don't need another monarch like Coriolanus, using his power to do whatever he wants regardless of the consequences. We need someone like you, who cares about the people of England and will do right by them, even if it is frustrating and difficult." Peeta is logical and comforting as he always is, but it doesn't assuage her guilt. What is the point in being Queen if she cannot help the people she loves best?

"We'll find her and we'll figure out some way to keep Marvel in line," he says firmly. "Even if that involves me strangling him in our next meeting."

It is a joke of course, but there is a tiny, awful part of Katniss that cannot help but think that Marvel's death probably would solve all their problems. She buries the thought as soon as she has it, but it doesn't disappear)

(it waits)

Madge is up to her elbows in soapy water as she searches vainly for the spoons in the wash basin. Someone (Barbara) has tossed them in even though they're not supposed to and now Madge has to root through the murky water in the hopes of grabbing hold of them. This is not the first time and she's starting to think they do it on purpose just to nettle her (it's working). Spoons, knives, anything small is meant to be put beside the wash basin, but they never are. She has cuts on her fingers from surprise knives in the water and she shudders as her hand brushes against some soggy leftovers. All dishes are meant to be scrapped into the bin before they go to be washed, but that's something else no one ever remembers to do. It is a little thing maybe, but it is also impossibly frustrating. How hard is it really to put the spoons on the counter? And scrape the plates? Is that really so much to ask for? Yes, of course it is, Marvel wants her to suffer. He wants her grieved by ill treatment, frustration, sorrow, loneliness and hopelessness. It will not work, she will not let it work. After everything she has suffered through, she can certainly endure this.

(but then, maybe that is why she struggles so)

(a person can only endure so much)

Her fingers curl around a spoon and she scoops it up, but it is but one of many. She reins in her sigh and washes the lonely utensil before diving back in to find the next. The water sloshes up to her rolled up sleeves and maybe she should just dunk her whole self in. She's not had a wash, nor have her clothes, since she's been here and that is so absolutely disgusting she tries very hard not to think of it. It may be foolish to ache for a bath so, especially when there are so many other things she needs, but she cannot help it. She is making herself sick and she wants a wash, a comb for her hair and a clean dress. Even just one of those things would be an incredible balm to her fraying nerves.

"Is here alright?"

Madge turns to her left and Jack the cook's assistant stands there with his soup pot. He shuffles his feet and won't meet her eyes, but at least he's speaking to her.


"Should I leave the pot here?" he asks and gestures at the counter.

"Yes, thank you," she says and smiles. He peeks at her from under his bangs and blushes, before quickly looking down again. He sets the pot on the counter and hurries off, Madge staring after him. Jack is perhaps nineteen and quiet, though he alone leaves his spoons on the side of the basin rather than dumping them in. It is a little thing true, but it's the only kindness she's been shown.

Perhaps if the girls won't be her friends, Jack will.

(Thom returns to Bisham Manor after another fruitless search for Madge and curses Marvel straight to Hell. Why must he be such a grasping, greedy goblin? Why can he not be content with the masses of wealth and land he already has? He is a traitor to the crown and yet he has not been punished, no he has been rewarded. Most would count themselves among the blessed for such fortune, but not Marvel. Marvel must always have more. Thom tries not to let the frustration and the uselessness get to him, but it is hard. A month they have been looking and nothing. Madge has vanished.

He makes his way through the manor in search of Gale and he cannot even imagine what his friend must be going through right now. Gale searches harder than anyone, bribes and cajoles and calls in every favour he can, but still they have no news of Madge. What must it be like to love someone so much and know they need your help, but be entirely unable to help them? Well, Thom does know a little about that.

He reaches Gale's study and finds him sitting in the dark, only the faintest strip of dusk light falling into the room. Even through the gloom Thom can see there is a bottle in Gale's hand and uselessness weighing heavy on his shoulders. He will never understand how Gale could fall in love with Lancastrian Madge of all people, but he has. He has and Thom would do anything to find her, to reunite them, to give Gale the happy ending he deserves. He looks at Gale as he sits drinking in the dark and wishes as he always does that there was something he could do. If he could find Madge, he would. If he could bring Marvel to heel, he would. But he cannot do any of that. He could say that everything will be alright, he could say they will find her and that Marvel will pay for what he's done, but they would just be words.

Thom sits by Gale's side and rests a hand on his shoulder. He doesn't say all those well meaning empty words. He doesn't make promises he cannot keep. He sits beside his best friend in silence, because he cannot offer certainies or guarantees or answers.

All he can offer is himself)

Madge waits until Jack starts heading towards her with his dirty pots and reaches up for whatever's on the high shelf above her head. It is too far for her and she stretches as much as she can, leaning up on her tiptoes.

"Oh, I've got it," Jack says and pulls down a bottle of something very old and definitely congealed. Madge beams as he hands it to her.

"Thank you so much, I never would have reached it on my own."

Jack's ears go pink and he looks down, a shy smile just touching his mouth. "Oh, it was nothing," he mumbles and Madge does the rather forward thing of patting his hand.

"No, it was very nice and gentlemanly. I appreciate it."

"Well, if you uh, if you need anything else, just let me k-"

"Oi, Jack!" Bate from the larder calls and Madge narrows her eyes. "Get over here!" Bate insists and Jack shoots her an apologetic look before going over. Bate is waiting with Aldous the serving boy, both their arms crossed over their chests. She cannot hear what they're saying but Bate jerks his chin in her direction and Aldous says something with eyebrows raised far up on his forehead. Jack twitches like he might look back at her but doesn't, shaking his head vehemently instead. He says something that makes Aldous snicker and there is a sinking feeling in her stomach. Bate laughs and briefly throws an arm over Jack's shoulders before he and Aldous head back off to work. Madge waits for Jack to come back over to her, or at least to look at her, but he does neither. He scurries to his post and Madge's stomach somehow sinks even farther.

Maybe it's nothing about me.

Maybe it's just a coincidence.

I'll talk to him tomorrow, I'm sure it'll be fine.

(except she knows better than to be sure about that)

When Jack comes to give her his dirty pots and pans the next day, she is bright and smiling. He doesn't even glance her way.

"So Jack-" she starts but before she can say anything else he interrupts with "I'm busy."

He still won't look at her and Madge blinks in surprise at his abruptness. Still, she tries again. "I was ho-"

"I said I'm busy. And we've got nothing to talk about anyway, we're not friends," he says and throws his dishes in the wash. The water sloshes up over the side and onto the floor, chunks of food waste floating up to the surface. Jack stalks off and Madge watches him go in disbelief. What had those boys said about her? And why had they said it? Why did it seem everyone here hated her? They knew nothing about her. Was this all part of Marvel's plan? It must be, he wouldn't want her having any allies or friends, but what awful lie has he spread about her? They're all behaving like she has the plague.

Madge turns back to her washing. It doesn't matter.

(except of course it does)

(Exile in Brittany is frightening and unsure but Annie has two comforts to cling to.

Finnick is with her and Madge is safe in England. Lady Alma writes that Madge is not to be punished, she has always landed on her feet and she is with her Gale now. It aches that they are apart, but Madge is happy and Finnick is beside her.

Those two things make everything else bearable)

"Is it true you're mad?"

Madge stops her scrubbing of a particularly stubborn pot and then deliberately starts again. Behind her, Hob snickers and asks again. "Are you mad?"

"Isn't there a spit you should be turning?" she returns and he comes closer, leaning against the edge of the washbasin.

"Matilda says you are, stark raving mad. Says you think you're a princess." He is delighted in a cruel way and Madge grits her teeth.

"I am not mad," she says firmly and he continues to giggle.

"That's not-"

"Hob! Back to work!" Maud snaps and he scampers off. "And you, don't distract him!"

"Sorry," Madge says because it is easier just to agree. Maud sniffs but returns to her own work and Madge feels her stomach tighten. That's why no one will talk to her, while they all avoid getting too close. They think she's a lunatic. It makes sense of course, this way none of them will believe her if she asks for their help getting out of here. It is already in their heads that she is delusional, they won't trust a word she says. Not only that, but they will give her a wide berth too, leaving her alone and friendless and all the more likely to break quickly. Marvel has certainly thought this through, but it doesn't matter, she'll outlast him out of pure spite if she has to.

(that doesn't mean she isn't lonely though)

(and as she learned trapped in Cold Harbour, loneliness weighs heavy indeed)

Madge sits alone in her dank little room and hugs her knees to her chest, a chill settled over her like a second skin. She is alone, truly alone, in a way she never has been before. Always she has had someone with her, her mother, Annie, Finnick, Gale, but now there is no one. No matter the hardship, there has been someone to turn to, someone to find comfort in. But her Mother is dead now, Annie and Finnick so far away in Brittany and Gale locked away from her as if he too were in a different country. Marvel has cut her off from everything and everyone. There is no one to hug her, no one to talk to, no one to offer her love in the face of hardship. There is only her. She has always fought on her own, but she has always had someone in her corner. But this time, for the first time in her life, she is truly alone.

The dark seems more oppressive than usual and she grasps Gale's locket so tight the metal cuts into her skin. Marvel is a monster, but he has played his hand well. He is surely smug at his clever little plan, laughing with Glimmer and swanning about the court with a satisfied gleam in his eye. He will leave her here to rot in the moldy dark and there is no one to help her. She is alone and he thinks he has won.

Tears gather in the corners of her eyes but Madge wipes them away. She will not cry here in the dark. Maybe one day, when this is over, she will let her heart break, but not today. Today she will be made of iron. She has to be. She buries the loneliness, the tears, the frustration and the misery. She buries it all and if she must do this alone, she will. Is it courage? Desperation? It doesn't matter. Madge won't die here. She will not give him what he wants. She'd made a promise to herself and her parents that she would survive and she will. It will not be easy, but her life never has been.

She will hold in the sorrow and the hopelessness. She will be strong for as long as she has to be. She will be her own hero, because someone has to be. Marvel may break as many pieces of her as he likes, for even broken, she will survive this.

Somehow, someway, Madge will save herself.

(Arguing with Marvel is pointless, that's become crystal clear to Peeta. He'd thought his parents were difficult, but they have nothing on Marvel. It is not just that he is obstinate to a truly unimaginable degree, it is his delusions that make negotiating with him so impossible. He is so totally, utterly convinced he is right, nothing Peeta says even registers. Marvel has no grounding in reality, in sense, logic or the law.

Which is fine, Peeta can use that. Marvel thinks they can't deny him this because he is too powerful, he thinks he knows how to bend the law to his will, so Peeta will have to prove him wrong on both counts. If he can do that, Marvel's little game is over. So Peeta finds every scroll and book of law there is in England, consults with every lawyer, and scours every court record for similar cases. He pours over them all day and late into the night, determined to deny Marvel any legal foothold. The law will be on their side, no matter how long it takes Peeta to ensure it.

As for Marvel's threatening influence, well Peeta has a plan to neutralize that as well. It won't be easy but he won't give up until he has what he needs. There are family trees to delve into, letters to write and registries to read, but he'll find it. When Lady Madge is safely out of Marvel's clutches, Peeta will be ready to beat Marvel at his own game.

He doesn't trust Marvel not to lash out at Lady Madge if they strike first, so they need to find her before they can make any moves. That's the only snarl in his plan, for how are they to find her? Katniss has sent agents to every convent in England and Wales, but Peeta doubts Lady Madge is at any of them. That would be too easy and if there's one thing Marvel hasn't done, it's make this easy. Still, Katniss will keep looking, Gale will keep looking even though he's technically not supposed to and Lady Madge is surely plotting a way to freedom as well. One of them will succeed, and when they do, Marvel will finally be put in his place.

It may be petty to say so, but Peeta cannot wait)

Madge tries not to think of anything but escaping, but it isn't always easy.

The days are long and everytime she hits a dead end in her quest for freedom, her mind strays. She reels it in most days before it can drift too far, but sometimes it gets the best of her. Like today.

Still at a loss as to how she is to figure out where in the country she is and with the other girls' laughter in her ears, her thoughts float across the Channel to Annie. How is Brittany? Are she and Finnick married yet? Are they safe? Is the Duke treating them well? These are dangerous thoughts to have and she smothers them as best she can. Thinking of Annie will only make her ache and she can't have that, she needs to be hard as stone. Once Annie had been a source of comfort and strength, but now she is nothing but sorrow. They are separated, most probably forever, but Madge cannot even find solace in the idea that Annie is living happily so far away. England's volatile politics will ensure she is never truly safe or happy.

Finnick is a threat to the Yorkists, the last English son of Lancaster. Madge might have the better claim, but Finnick is a boy and Coriolanus' nephew. He is young, fit and has fought every time for the Lancastrian cause. He will be far more appealing than her to any Lancastrians left in England and to anyone who disapproves of a woman ruling them. The Yorkists will never let him back in the country and they are sure to try to convince Francis of Brittany to hand him over. He will surely executed, especially if those rumours about Coriolanus' murder are true. His future is a grim one and Annie's will be too, as she is sure to stand by Finnick's side through it all. And any children they have will be similarly condemned, hunted and never ever safe.

Madge cannot afford a broken heart, not now, so she buries all thoughts of Annie and Finnick like she's buried everything else. She cannot help them now, probably will never be able to help them, but she cannot weep for it now.

She must focus on her own survival above all else.

(she must, but she still prays for them every night as she does for herself)

(perhaps it is foolish, perhaps it won't help, but she cannot give up hope)

(hope is all she has)

(Peeta walks into his last meeting with Marvel ready to get the ball rolling. He's found all he needs, all that's left is finding Lady Madge. They've had no luck with that, but they aren't giving up. And in the meantime, he has an idea that will certainly make things easier.

"Good morning, Lord Northumberland," Peeta greets cheerily and Marvel smiles in the uniquely slimy way he's perfected. Peeta sits opposite him at the table and beams.

"I have wonderful news," he says and Marvel raises an eyebrow.

"Oh? And what news is that?"

"I have finally convinced everyone to allow Lady Madge to enjoy her peace and quiet at her convent."

For a moment Marvel's face slips into genuine surprise before he puts his court face back on. He smiles warmly but there is caution in his eyes. "Really? It seems hard to believe."

"Yes, well it did take a lot of work. If we're being honest there were only two people who wanted her found, the Earl of Salisbury of course and Sir John Ufford. The Queen is more than happy to allow Lady Madge her life as a nun, it nicely takes care of any threat she might present."

"Ufford? Who is John Ufford and what business does he have with Madge?" Marvel asks and Peeta allows a smile, though he must keep the self satisfaction out of it. Finding Ufford hadn't been easy, but now that he has, Marvel cannot possibly win.

"Sir John Ufford is Lady Madge's legal heir on her father's side," he says and Marvel loses some of his colour.

"She doesn't have an heir," he says and the strain is clear in his voice. Peeta smiles a little wider.

"Oh she does. He's a rather distant heir of course, but he is still legally the person set to inherit the Bedford half of her inheritance should she not have any children. He's been bothering the Queen for it ever since she first came to power. He is a loyal supporter and since the Duke of Bedford died a traitor, he was hoping the inheritance would be passed on to him. As the Queen never attainted the Duke, Lady Madge inherited and there was nothing Ufford could do but grumble. When Lady Madge fled to France, he was back to bothering us for the inheritance though nothing was ever settled before the Lancastrians were back in power. Now he wants it again, since Lady bMadge has gone off to a nunnery. She doesn't need it and she's been a traitor twice now, so he really thinks he deserves it. He's well connected too, a cousin of the Earl of Arundel, married to the aunt of the Duke of Buckingham and very good friends with the Earl of Lincoln. They were all supporting his claim as well, that's why we so needed to find out where Lady Madge was. We wanted her to sign off on the inheritance and hand it over to Ufford."

He lets the whole story soak in, Marvel losing more and more colour. Of course, a good part is a lie but that doesn't matter. Ufford is Lady Madge's heir, even if he himself has no idea. Marvel has been convinced he'd get Lady Madge's inheritance because there was no one else in line and because he was so powerful they would never dare contest it. But with someone else legally having the right to it and supposedly with very powerful supporters, Marvel has lost his main advantages. Marvel surely still has all his legal quibbles, but those are as useful as a butter knife in a battle. Peeta's done his research and whatever legal arguments Marvel thinks he has, he doesn't. Still, that's not what the point of today is.

"But, good news is, I've managed to convince Ufford to forfeit his claim."

Marvel stares at him. "Truly?"

"Indeed. I understand Lady Madge wants to be left alone and after everything she's been through, she deserves that. She doesn't need Ufford badgering her to give up her inheritance. I've been studying the laws on such things and I discovered that you'd have a very strong case in being her heir. I told that to Ufford, making sure to outline every reason why he might lose a court battle and he eventually relented. He doesn't want a long drawn out court battle, nor does he want to offend you. And it would be the utmost humiliation if he lost, so he accepted a lesser settlement instead. The Queen offered him a great deal of money and some land from various traitors as well as the possibility of a baronetcy. It's not as good as being Duke of Bedford, but it's better than nothing and that's what he'd get if he went to court with you. With that taken care of, Lady Madge's location no longer needs to be known."

Marvel's stunned expression morphs into a victoriously smug one, before he manages to mold it into a more neutral mask. He thinks he's won now, with Ufford out of the way and Peeta himself confirming the law is on his side. He is a fool, but that is just what Peeta wants him to be.

"That is wonderful news, but what of Salisbury? I don't want him harassing my sister."

"Neither does the Queen. She wants Lady Madge in that convent, it makes everything much simpler. She will be having a talk with the Earl and if he still won't see reason, she'll make it a command. The Lancastrian threat has nearly been exterminated, she won't allow even her favourite cousin to jeopardize that."

Marvel beams and reaches across the table to shake Peeta's hand. "That's wonderful news, you've done a truly incredible job Lord Peeta."

"Oh it was nothing really," Peeta says and drives the final nail into Marvel's coffin. "And I must say I admire your love for your sister very much. Everyone else seems to be interested in her inheritance alone, but you genuinely want what's best for her. That is truly inspiring."

Marvel cannot help the arrogance in his smile this time and he claps Peeta heartily on the back. "You are a good man, Lord Peeta and I thank you for it. I shall go write to my sister with the good news right away."

Peeta watches him leave and would almost pity his stupidity if he hadn't brought all this on himself. Marvel thinks he's won now and that's exactly what Peeta wants him to think. There is no telling what Marvel would do to Lady Madge if she suddenly had no use to him, which is why Peeta has gone to such lengths to insist she does. Further, if Marvel thinks he's won, he will let his guard down which will hopefully make it easier for someone to find Lady Madge or for her to get herself out. He also won't be paying much attention to the rest of them, which will allow them to shore up their positions for when the time is right to finish him off. Not to mention, an overconfident Marvel is one that has a high chance of making a mistake, which will make beating him all the easier in the end.

Peeta will be ready for the last battle, but now Marvel certainly won't be)

(Marvel returns home with a bounce in his step.

Peeta is an idiot, but a useful one. He hadn't known about Ufford, but it doesn't even matter, for Peeta has already kindly taken care of that problem. Katniss is going to put Gale in his place and that's it, he's won. No one will ever find Madge, but even if they do, it doesn't matter. The law is with him. He is finally going to get what he deserves.

"Hoskins," he calls to one his servants and the boy hurries over. "Tell the men I have watching Salisbury that their services are no longer necessary." Hoskins nods and runs off. Marvel grins and saunters down to the wine cellar. He needs something good to celebrate with. He runs his fingers over the bottles and how nice it will be not to have to waste money on all those spies. He can spend all that coin on himself as he ought to.

"Aha, perfect!" he says and selects a bottle of deep red. He swaggers up the steps and this is truly a great day. All his hard work has paid off and he's won. He's beat them all as he knew he would. Madge, Gale, Katniss, they all thought they'd win, but he's shown them all. Fools, the lot of them.

Now to find Glimmer. They have so much to celebrate)

Of all the things she has buried, the loneliness is the hardest to keep down. It gnaws and gnaws and gnaws at her, always threatening to rise from it's deep pit and shatter the walls she has built to keep herself strong. She cannot have that, so to combat this festering loneliness, Madge has taken up the rather rude habit of listening in on other people's conversations. She knows it goes against every rule of manners, but she needs to appease the hole trying to widen within her. The other girls' words are something to focus on and sometimes she pretends she is a part of the conversations, even as they'd never want her to be. It is the only balm she can find.

This particular morning she kneels down to clean out the grate and listens to the girls at work behind her, their voices cheery and bright.

"My sister's going to marry the blacksmith," Bessie announces and everyone oohs and aahs. Madge tries to picture the scene in her mind, the group of them clustered around the table, Bessie skimming the milk, Rose peeling carrots, Amice kneading dough for the pies and Barbara mushing beef into filling.

"Oh but he's got that awful crooked nose, hasn't he?" Rose asks and Madge imagines her mouth pursing and her nose wrinkling in dislike.

"Who cares? Have you seen his arms? I'd give him a tumble for those alone," Bessie says and the other girls squeal with laughter, the sound comforting at the same time as it is painful.

"You're awful Bess," Amice manages through her giggles just as Barbara says "Your mum would have a fit if she heard that!" They all laugh harder and Madge lets it wash over her like the sea on that perfect day with Finnick and Annie. Her heart aches but she is growing used to that.

"Stop you're squawking," Maud's cheerless voice interrupts and all four girls quickly swallow their mirth. "A messenger's come from London, he'll need feeding. Rose, get to it."

"Right away, Maud," Rose says and Madge feels her heartbeat quicken. A messenger from London? She stops her sweeping and she has to talk to him. He is her only hope to let someone know she's here, she cannot lose this opportunity. But how? Matilda and Maud watch her everywhere she goes, they won't leave her alone with him. And it's not like she has any parchment on which to write a letter nor any money to pay for his services. What is she to do?

"D'you think this is enough?" Rose asks and the other girls agree it is, Madge's hands shaking. She listens carefully to Rose's footsteps, charting their path across the kitchen and into the stairwell. There's a small room that way, she's had to sweep it up once or twice, that must be where the messenger's waiting for his meal. Right, she's only going to get one chance at this. She waits until Rose has come back and then stands, ash bucket in hand. She drags it out into the yard, dumps it and waits in the doorway, her heart ready to pound out of her throat. She watches Rose pick up her pot of carrots and makes her move. Rose carries the pot over to the stove and Madge is quick, walking straight into Rose and sending the pot clunking to the floor. Carrots spill out in every direction and Rose swears, while Madge pivots over to the stairwell.

"Help me, help me before Maud sees!" Rose says and the others hurriedly begin scooping up rolling carrots.

"Where are you going you stupid cumberworld?" Rose calls after her, but Madge hurries away anyway just as Amice says "Oh leave her, she's no help at all. She'd probably make an even bigger mess, the clout."

Madge scurries up the steps to the little room and knows she only has as long as the carrot chaos lasts to secure the messenger's help. She opens the door and shuts it behind her, her ribs aching around her heart. The messenger looks up from his food in confusion, a morsel of beef halfway to his mouth.

"Um, can I help you?" he asks and Madge nods. She pulls off Gale's locket and it cuts through her like lopping off a limb, but this is her only hope. She hurries to his side and grabs his hand, pressing the locket to his palm. He stares at her in confusion.

"You must give this to the Earl of Salisbury," she says and his confusion only deepens. Madge doesn't give him the chance to ask any questions. "Give it to him and tell him exactly where you got it. He will pay you very, very handsomely, far more than you'd get selling this. I promise you, whatever benefit you think you might get, it will be nothing compared to the reward he'll give you for delivering this to him. I beg you, please, please bring this to him. And tell no one else. Thank you, thank you so, so much."

She runs from the room then, she must get back before anyone realizes she's gone or she'll be ruined. Her heart is heavier than it's ever been without Gale hanging beside it, but there was no other choice. It is the only message she can send. She skids into the kitchen and doesn't stop until she's scooped up her abandoned bucket in the middle of the room, her heart still pounding in her ears.

"What's all the commotion?" Maud demands as she steps into the room and Madge tries to steady her breathing.

"Meg made a mess," Rose reports sourly and Madge knew she'd get in trouble for this, but it'll be worth it if it helps her escape.

"Is that so?"

"Terribly sorry," Madge murmurs and prays prays prays the other girls were too distracted to see where she'd gone.

"You will be, no supper for you. Now get back to work." Madge nods and picks up her broom, her mind far, far away from the task at hand.

please get my message Gale

please come find me

(Marvel strolls the garden with Glimmer on his arm, a sense of contentment warring with a kernel of resentment. He has succeeded, but Madge has not yet given him his inheritance. What is taking so long? Why is she being so obstinate?

"My roses are looking lovely, aren't they darling?" Glimmer asks and he nods absently. Can she not see that further delay will only make her situation worse? If she doesn't surrender his property soon, he will have to write to Sir Edward and have her punishment made more severe. A good lashing will surely make her more amenable)

Madge tries to stay focused on her duties, but it has never been so hard. Has Gale gotten her message? Is he on his way? Or has the messenger sold her locket and pocketed the coin? She has no way of knowing and that is agony. If this plan doesn't work out, what else is she to try? The answer is a grim one and so Madge prays the messenger believes her, prays Gale gets her locket and comes to find her. She has done all she can, she must put her faith in them now. It is as terrifying as it always has been, she has been let down so many times, but maybe, just maybe this time will be different.

The days pass, how many she cannot be sure, and Gale will come through for her, she knows that.

Hopefully the messenger will as well.

Madge wakes and hopes as she always does that this will be her last morning in her dark little cell. By the time Matilda unlocks the door Madge is up and ready, her body tragically accustomed to this routine. Matilda sneers as usual and then leads Madge into the kitchen, the sky beyond the windows an ugly gray. Rain falls in sheets down into the grounds and hopefully she won't have to dump the ash bucket today, she does not fancy going out in that. It is gloomy with no sunlight to help illuminate the room and Madge kneels down before the grate and begins to sweep it out. Her dress, which she still hasn't been allowed to wash, is the smudgy gray of cinders and she tries very hard not to look too closely at her fingernails. She is fairly certain she will never get all the ashes out from under them.

"I hate days like today," Barbara grouses from somewhere behind her and Madge definitely agrees. Wet, foul days like today are miserable.

"I know, it's not fair. After work my sister was going to take me on a picnic, but there's no hope for that now," Bessie says and Amice coos in sympathy.

"You're better off not going, who wants to sit and eat in the dirt?" Rose asks.

"I love picnics, they're lovely" Bessie says and Rose snorts.

"If you're a pig, maybe," she says and Madge finishes with the grate, happily not filling up the bucket. At least she'll be spared a trip outside. She turns to grab for the broom at the same time Bessie throws a half peeled apple at Rose and Maud stalks in, her face pinched up tight. Amice and Barbara hurriedly stand at attention, Bessie grimaces as her apple sails past Rose and thumps against the far wall and Rose, the only one who hasn't noticed Maud's entrance, smirks.

"Ooo good toss, Bess. You-"

"What are you idiots doing?" Maud demands and Rose lurches into the table in surprise. Madge winces in sympathy and Maud breathes fire at each of them.

"Have a look out the window you dolts," she snaps and all of them push forward to do just that. Madge ends up squished between a wooden post and Amice, Hob bouncing around behind her trying to get a look. Everyone else in the kitchen scurries over to see what the fuss is too and with the windows so high up, all Madge can see is the muddy yard.

"What is it, what is it?" Bessie demands, shorter than Madge and unable to see anything at all.

"That looks like a lord," Jack says and Madge feels her heart freeze in her chest. A lord? Could it be-

"Yes, a lord!" Maud says and claps her hands. "A lord! So get your arses moving! He's got a whole retinue with him and we need to have something good ready for when he wants to eat! Go! Move!" Everyone runs off in a panic, because a lord is special indeed. The master of the house will expect something amazing for his guest, even if he hadn't given them any proper warning. Madge is the only one who doesn't move. She can't. This lord could be anyone, but it is obvious no one had known he was coming and in all her time here, no lord has ever paid them an unexpected visit. Could it be Gale? Has he gotten her message?

"Are you stupid? Get a move on!" Maud shouts and grabs her by the back of the dress. Madge stumbles as Maud drags her across the room and what if it is Gale but the messenger hadn't told him she was in the kitchen? What if he searches above stairs and then gives up? She has to get upstairs, he has to know she's here.

"Meg!" Matilda bellows and barrels into the room. Her face is red and she grabs Madge by the arm, tearing her from Maud's grip and away towards her room. Madge's heart gallops, straining against her chest. It is Gale, it has to be! Or at least someone who can recognize her. Everyone stares at them and it doesn't matter that Matilda is so much bigger, Madge is not going back into her room. Not now. She grabs onto the post as they pass it and holds on with all her strength. Matilda pulls hard on her other arm, but Madge can't let go. She isn't going to let them lock her away again. Not when Gale is here.

"Help me!" Matilda bawls and Maud jumps. Her face says she has no idea what's going on, but she lunges forward at Matilda's command. She digs her nails into Madge's arm and tries to pry it from the post, the pain so sharp Madge has to bite her tongue. Matilda pulls as hard as she can and Madge comes loose with a cry, tumbling down onto the stone floor. Matilda immediately tries to haul her to her feet but Madge struggles to stay down, kicking her legs and reaching wildly for anything to hold onto. Her fingers brush the ash bucket and she hooks her fingers around the handle. Matilda drags her across the floor and Madge tugs on the bucket, tipping it over and spilling ash in every direction. Matilda swears and starts to cough, the air thick with cinders but Madge isn't done yet. Matilda is distracted and Madge lifts the bucket, bringing it to bear on Matilda as hard as she can. Matilda shouts in alarm more than pain but it is enough. Madge pulls herself loose and scrambles to her feet. The stairs, I have to get to the stairs. She runs as fast as she can, dodging Maud as she dives for her, and flings herself into the stairwell.

"Gale!" she screams as loud as she can. "Gale, I'm here! I'm here! Gale!"

"Shut up!" Matilda screeches, "Shut up!"

Madge ignores her and lifts up her skirt, climbing the stairs two at a time. "GALE! I'm down here! Gale!"

"I said shut up!" Matilda roars and grabs hold of Madge's leg. She pulls hard and Madge goes down, her hands flung out to break her fall. The impact is hard enough to shove the air from her chest and stars pop before her eyes. Matilda grabs her by the waist and lifts her up, determined to carry her away if she has to. Madge tries to fight it, but she is still winded. Breathe, breathe, you're so close! Don't give up, come on!

"Let her go."

Matilda's whole body freezes as the furious voice thunders down the stairs and Madge gasps a little, tears burning in her eyes. She blinks to clear her vision and there he is. Gale, beautiful, wonderful Gale, stands at the top of the stairs, his face terrifying in its rage and his eyes dark as night. He is here, he's come for her. It's over. Matilda releases her and she falls to her knees, her whole body so weak with relief it's turned to water. Gale surges forward and then his arms are around her. The rage in his face melts away and she smiles for the first time in so, so long.

"I knew you'd come," she whispers and brings up one shaking hand to touch his cheek. He pulls her close, his face buried in her hair.

"Oh God Madge, I'm sorry it took me so long."

She shakes her head. "It doesn't matter, you're here now."

"I came as soon as I got your message."

"I knew you would," she says again and he presses his forehead to hers. She breathes him in, forests and rainstorms and leather.

"Nothing could have stopped me," he swears and she doesn't want to fall apart, but she's been holding everything in too long not to. The walls she's built tumble down and she sobs, awfully, embarrassingly, terribly. Gale's arms are steady around her as he holds her through the flood.

"It's alright, it's over now," he murmurs and she nods. It's over. It's finally over. And just this once, Madge lets someone else be the strong one.

She's earned that.

(All Gale wants to do is hold Madge and kiss her and tell her he loves her, but they have no time for that. Before everything else, he needs her to be safe. He pulls back slightly and she is still crying, though trying hard to stem the flow. She wipes hopelessly at her eyes and he wishes more than anything that he could banish her tears, but if the last year has taught him anything, it's that he's not the hero he'd imagined himself to be. His chest aches but he stands, pulling Madge up with him. She wobbles slightly and he wraps his arm around her waist, the contact burning through him.

"We need to go," he tells her softly and she nods. "Marvel doesn't know I'm here yet; we should get you somewhere safe before he realizes." Madge nods again and they make their way up the stairs, his anger against Marvel rising again. Seeing Madge, holding her, it had smothered the fury for a few moments, but it returns with a vengeance. Gale wants Marvel's head on a plate. He is a traitor and a villain and he needs to pay for all he's done. He has gotten away with his crimes before, but not this time. Gale is going to see him suffer for this.

They reach the front door and Thom will stay behind to deal with Marvel's cronies (to their benefit), for as much as Gale wants justice for this, Madge is more important. He needs her to be safe more than he needs anything else. He can trust Thom to handle this and he'll have his revenge against Marvel later. One of his men opens the door and Madge flinches at the stiff wind. The rain is still pouring from the sky and Gale pulls off his cloak. He wraps it around her and she looks up at him in surprise, her cheeks wet and her eyebrows drawn together.

"But what about you?" she asks and his heart might be breaking.

"I'll be alright," he promises and then wraps his arms around her again. They hurry out into the storm and to the carriage he'd brought for her. He opens the door and she climbs inside, the interior lined with cushions and furs. Before he can shut the door she undoes the clasp of his cloak and hands it back to him, her expression firm.

"Thank you, but you need it more than I do," she says and his stomach twists unpleasantly. He does not deserve her thanks; he couldn't spare her exile, Cato or Marvel. He is not England's greatest knight or champion, he is a sham. The rain continues to fall and Madge looks at him, the trust and worry and love in her gaze making him sick. All he ever wanted to do was to protect her and his family but he hadn't protected anyone had he? He'd been so arrogant and foolish, thinking himself strong and brave. He is useless.

"You should get some rest," he murmurs because she does look exhausted. She is filthy and thin and he wants to make someone bleed for this. The Lancastrians had died for what they'd done to England, it only seems right Marvel should face the same for what he's done to Madge.

She nods and lays back against the cushions, but she doesn't close her eyes. She keeps them on him as he backs away and he doesn't want to look away. He never wants to look away. Thunder crackles overhead and he climbs on his horse, impotent rage like a disease. He has been useless, not the son his parents deserve, the brother his siblings deserve, the champion England deserves or the man Madge deserves. Brave and fierce in battle, yes, but that is all he's managed.

No longer.

He is Gale Hawthorne, Earl of Salisbury, Knight of the Garter and Constable of England, son of Richard of Salisbury and Hazelle of York. He is a descendant of kings and he won't fail his family or his country ever again. From now until the day he dies, he will do whatever it takes to live up to his motto. For Justice and Family.

No matter the cost)

Madge does not want to fall asleep, she does not want to take her eyes off Gale, but as the carriage hurries across the countryside she loses her battle with exhaustion. She has not slept properly in all her days as a kitchen maid and the cushions and blankets she's been provided are so comfortable, so soft and warm.

The darkness takes her and for the first time in so long, she sleeps soundly. For the first time in so long, she feels safe enough to.

(Katniss nearly bowls Peeta over as she barges into their room, Gale's hastily scrawled note in hand.

"He's found her!" she says and Peeta's mouth pops open. Soon he is grinning and she cannot help but smile back. It is over. Except it isn't, is it? There is still Marvel to reckon with. Her smile drops and Peeta turns serious.

"I won't let you down," he says and even though she worries about Marvel, Gale, Madge and her duties, that is something she has never worried over. She touches his cheek.

"I know you won't.")


Madge opens her eyes and sees sunlight streaming through the window and bathing the room. She drinks it in, her heart does a silly little skip and foolish tears gather in her eyes. She has not woken up to sunlight in so long; it's beautiful.

Madge sits up and she's in a bed. A real, honest to God bed, not just some straw strewn across the floor. She falls back into the mattress and she really has escaped, Gale really had come, it wasn't a dream. I'm free. She needs to figure out where she is, but for a moment at least, she just relishes the feel of a bed beneath her. There is an odd feeling in her chest, a pressure she is not sure she wants to touch just yet and she spreads her arms out. It is a fairly large bed, easily roomy enough for two, with plump silken pillows and marvelously soft covers. She pushes herself onto her elbows and the room is rectangular and neat with a large pointed window allowing plenty of sunshine. The bed actually seems slightly too big for the room, all the other furniture too close and crowded in. There is a prie-dieu in the corner with barely enough room, a wash basin wedged between the bed and the wall and a coffer at the foot of the bed with cheery flowers resting on top. The door is only a few paces from where she is and if she had to guess, she'd guess the bed in here was meant to be much smaller. She should think about that, but the lure of the wash basin is too strong.

The yearning drags her up and she carefully picks up the cloth hanging from the edge of the basin. She is nearly shaking from excitement as she dips it in the water before rubbing at her cheeks. It isn't much, but at the same time, it is absolutely wonderful. Oh I missed this.

"My lady, you're awake."

Madge turns in surprise and standing in the doorway is the Queen's maid Leevy. It has been years and yet a blush immediately tries to work its way onto Madge's cheeks. She'd never been alone with Leevy after Gale's revelation but it shouldn't matter, really so much has happened since then. This shouldn't be embarrassing, but she is a fool apparently and so it is. Hopefully Leevy doesn't notice.

"You must be starved, I'll go get you something to eat," Leevy says and Madge nods. Leevy grins.

"And while you eat I could have a bath drawn up, if you'd like?" she asks and Madge forgets all about being embarrassed. She forgets everything except that most perfect of words. Bath .

"Oh, I'd love that," she breathes and Leevy nods in understanding.

"Right, I'll be back soon,"she says and leaves the room. Madge falls back into the bed and she still has no idea where she is or what's going on and that matters, it really does.

But not nearly so much as having a bath does.

Breakfast is fresh bread and vegetable broth, warm, delicious and so much more filling that the scraps she's gotten used to eating. It is hard remembering her manners but she won't be Cato, no matter how tempting. She eats purposefully slowly even though there is no one to see her and she'd gamble she's in a monastery of some sort. She's stayed in enough to recognize the architecture and when she stands to look out the window, she gets a view of a lovely garden with fruit trees and rows for growing vegetables and herbs. There is a powerful, nearly unstoppable urge in her to climb out the window and walk around that garden, so many months pent up inside screaming in her blood. Her eyes take it all in greedily and it is hard to describe how she feels, only that it is too much. Months she has been hiding everything and she hides it again now, though it takes more effort than it should. That pressure in her chest strains to be relieved but she cannot do that now.

(and if she's being honest, she's almost afraid to)

Nothing's growing in the little garden and she realizes she has no idea what month it is. It is gray outside and chilly, so October? November? December? It had been late June when Marvel sent her away, is it truly so late in the year now? She will have to ask about that.

Madge moves from the window and runs her fingers along the prie-dieu. If she is in a church, she must have been brought here to claim sanctuary. That makes perfect sense of course, Marvel won't want to drag her out and ruin his reputation. The Yorkists hadn't cared about that after Tewkesbury true, but who knows if Marvel was involved? And even if he had been, dragging his step-sister from sanctuary will certainly shatter the caring, chivalrous brother illusion he is so determined to uphold.

"The bath is ready, my lady," Leevy says as she peeks her head into the room. Marvel fades from Madge's mind for a moment. A bath, a real, honest bath with warm water and soap. A smile pulls at her mouth and it's entirely possible that she has never been so excited for anything in her life. She follows Leevy into the next room and there is the bath, sweet smelling and with steam rising from the water. She is nearly shaking as Leevy unties her ratty hair covering, her stained apron and then the ties of her soiled dress. Madge hastily unlaces her boots, peels off the stiff, scratchy stockings and has to hold herself back from leaping into the tub. She is supposed to be a lady and she can practically hear her mother's voice in her head, ladies do not run and they do not throw themselves into the bath sweetheart. In her mother's honour, she restrains herself. She steps lightly into the tub and it is heaven. The water is delightfully hot and Madge climbs all the way in, her heart singing. She leans back and this is bliss, pure, unadulterated bliss. She cannot help humming in pleasure. Marvel is still a problem that needs to be dealt with, but after months of focusing on nothing but escaping him, she has earned a break.

"Excuse me, my lady. I don't want to hurt you, but I think it will be rough going brushing out your hair," Leevy says and Madge realizes with sudden horror just how absolutely filthy she truly is. Oh she'd known she was disgusting, but she'd been ignoring it so as to keep from sobbing. There is no ignoring it now. Her nails are ragged and torn, ashes and dirt caked beneath them. Her hair is probably nothing but a greasy tangle of knots and her skin is so foul it seems to have been stained an entirely different hue. And the smell, oh she must smell like a heated chamber pot. She might be sick and...and Gale saw her like this. He'd held her in his arms, buried his face in her hair and he must have been horrified. He hadn't said a word of course, he is far too noble a knight for that, but he must have been appalled. No wonder he hadn't kissed her, he probably couldn't stomach the idea. How horrifying, how humiliating. Separated for months and then reunited when she probably looked as if she'd bathed in a sewer.

"Do you know, maybe we should give it a soak first, then brush it out. Maybe that'll help," Leevy says, oblivious to Madge's anguish. Her nurse had always said she was too fond of bathing and had never understood why, but Madge can't help it. Being clean is such a comfort. Except she won't be clean, will she? She's going to sit here in a pool of her own filth and her bliss dies a sad, sad death. She is foul and she will remain so. As embarrassing as it is, she might cry.

"Actually, maybe we should give you a bit of a quick clean, wash off the grime and all, and then you can have another proper bath, one for relaxing. I remember how much you like those," Leevy says and Madge is so grateful she almost begins to cry.

"Thank you, I think I'd like that very much.," she says and desperately tries to blink the moisture from her eyes. She should not be crying over this, she should have better control of herself but she can feel too many emotions writhing and roiling and seething beneath her skin. Her moment of weakness with Gale has unleashed chaos within her. Leevy grabs the soap and Madge wets herself all over before she dunks her head until her hair is soaked through. Leevy scrubs her all over and still Madge feels as if there is something alive inside her chest. The water turns an awful murky brown before it darkens to near black and she is lightheaded with the horror. Leevy tries to be careful with her hair but any bit of scrubbing pulls at the myriad knots and Madge spends a good deal of her time wincing.

(of course, it is nice distraction from the turmoil within)

Leevy rinces her off with a pail of quite chilly water and then leaves to arrange for more hot water. Madge climbs from the dirty bath and retreats back to her room. She is still not as clean as she'd like to be, but she is no longer fetid and it does feel nice. It is quite cold without clothes and she hurries to the great coffer by the foot of the bed. It isn't locked and she pops it open, her eyes widening at all the lovely clothes within. A cloak, gloves, silk slippers, an exquisite lace nightgown and at least three dresses, all with velvet trim. Madge feels wrong putting any of them on and fingers the beautiful material. One houppelande is silver brocade, another green damask and the last one blue with pearls. There are kirtles too, in grey, blue and white, and matching girdles for each gown. She has not seen the like in so long and they are too wonderful for her.

"The bath is ready, my lady," Leevy says from the doorway and Madge bounces up, wiping at the stupid tears tickling her eyes. She is a mess. The bath waiting for her is as warm as the last and perfumed and she sinks into it gratefully. Leevy brushes her hair and kindly begins to talk to keep Madge's mind from the pain.

"I see you found your dresses. I do hope you like them. They're not quite your size but unfortunately all your things are with that arse-" Leevy cuts herself off with a gasp. "Begging your pardon, my lady. The Earl of Northumberland I meant."

Madge cannot help a little grin as she says, "Do not worry about it, you needn't guard your tongue around me. Certainly not about Marvel." Leevy restarts the brushing she'd halted in embarrassment and Madge bites her lip around a wince.

"Thank you, my lady. As I was saying, these dresses are just loaners Gale-" Leevy cuts herself off again and hurriedly corrects to "the Earl of Salisbury I mean, begged off the Queen. He thought you might like some nice clean clothes as well as the better bed and a tub for washing. He had all of them brought in so you'd be comfortable and he's paying the monks quite the pretty penny to keep you here in good estate."

Madge feels warm down to her toes at Gale's thoughtfulness but there is a trickle of trepidation in her as well. He has done so much for her but Leevy speaks of him with such obvious warmth and affection, even calls him by his Christian name. That speaks of a great deal of intimacy. She does not want to worry, does not want to imagine Leevy being here is anything but a coincidence, but that trickle does not stop. It is like the leaky ceiling in her old room, small but steady.

"That is very kind of him, I will need to thank him," she says and Leevy laughs fondly.

"Oh I doubt he'll want that, he's far too chivalrous. I'm not sure he could've done anything else."

Madge does not want to feel as she does, that trickle dripping into a puddle within her and growing steadily bigger. It is nothing and you are a fool. This means nothing. "Even still, he deserves my thanks," she says, "and so do you for helping me now. Thank you Leevy."

"Oh, none of that please my lady. I'm glad to be of help, especially after what you've been through. I couldn't say no when Gal-Lord Salisbury asked me."

The puddle becomes a lake.

"He asked you himself?"

"Yes. He knew you needed a proper maid to look after you, so he asked me."

This wasn't a coincidence then, Gale had specifically asked for Leevy's help. He had asked his former lover to be her maid. Madge cringes, though thankfully Leevy's tugging at her hair makes it seem like just another wince. He could have asked anyone, but he asked Leevy who speaks of him in such warm tones and calls him by his given name, is in fact so used to referring to him by such that she keeps forgetting she is not supposed to. It might mean nothing, but even if it didn't, even if it meant something, well that was perfectly within his rights. She had been married after all, he had every right to find companionship wherever he so chose. She had given up on any hope of a future for them; she will not blame him if he'd done the same. But...why ask Leevy to be her maid? That was what awful men did when they wanted to keep their mistresses close and didn't care about humiliating their wives. Gale wasn't like that. He would not behave in such a deplorable manner, he wouldn't. Her Gale would never, he'd promised.

"Either way, thank you very much. I appreciate it," Madge says and forces herself to strangle any thoughts of Gale and Leevy. He is not Cato, whatever is going here is not what the wicked part of her mind is imagining and that is that.

"So where am I exactly?" she asks.

"Heavens, I never did say did I? Forgive me, my lady. St Martin Le Grand in London."

Madge nods and sinks a little deeper into the water, wincing as Leevy tugs through a particularly nasty knot. London, that's good. The Queen will probably be here and the courts too, should they need to drag Marvel there. She wants this to be over, she wants it all to be over, but if she has to fight Marvel, she will. Whatever she has to do, she will put an end to him and his ambitions.

"And what is the date exactly?" she asks because she still has no idea.

"November the second. Ah, there we go. All done!"

November? Just over four months she'd been a prisoner in that kitchen then. Leevy starts to wash her hair again now that it is free of tangles and Madge feels desperation pulling apart her bones. She will never be a prisoner again. No matter what she has to do, she won't be held captive. She has lost so much of her life held hostage for someone else's ambitions; no more. Her life will be hers now.

Leevy finishes washing her and then dries her off. They return to Madge's room and she chooses the damask gown to wear. Leevy laces her into it and she feels like a stranger in her own skin. It is foolish, she knows that, but she feels almost as if she wants to cry and she doesn't know why. She is free, she is safe, so why is there a sore within her?

"There should be some books and embroidery in the coffer, G-Lord Salisbury said he'd brought you some. He didn't want you to go mad from boredom."

Madge smiles even as her eyes sting and feels touched again at how much thought he'd put into this. He really was the loveliest boy she'd ever met. She tries to banish her melancholy as she's done so often before to focus on Gale and how she wishes he were here now so she might kiss his whole beautiful face. As if reading her mind, Leevy says "He should be by soon."

"He's coming today?" Madge asks and feels her heart flutter against her ribs. Leevy nods.

"He said he'd be over as soon as he finished his meeting with the Queen. And he's been there since this morning, so I can't imagine it'll be much longer."

Madge is quite possibly made of jelly as she chooses a book, any book, and sits down on the bed. She is half sorrow as the weight of all that's happened presses in on her and half anxious excitement at the thought of Gale being so soon with her. Leevy leaves to take care of the bath and Madge means to read, but she cannot focus. She opens the book and stares at the first page without registering a single word. Gale is on his way. She uses her every strength to force away her aching heart and concentrates on that one joy. They have been apart for so long, but they shall be together again, finally, and properly this time. No brief moment snatched away, but a true reunion.

Madge abandons her book and goes to the window, the fall garden stretching out before her. Perhaps if Gale arrives before the sun sets they might go for a walk. She has missed walking with him. She has missed so much and assumed she would never have any of it again, but just maybe she will. Her twists in fortune have often been for ill, but this time, for what seems like the first time, it might be for good. She doesn't know what chance this is, second? Third? It doesn't matter, she will seize it. She loves him, loves all of him with all of her and if he still wants her-

"How did it go?"

Madge turns and Leevy hadn't properly shut the door, allowing her to hear the conversation beyond. Someone sighs heavily in answer to Leevy's query and Madge shouldn't eavesdrop, she really shouldn't.

"Infuriating. Marvel's not going to get punished for any of this. Fuck!" Gale shouts and Leevy gasps. There is a thunk like someone's kicked something and Madge's eyes widen. Gale's voice is an arrow through her but his words are something far worse. No punishment? How is that possible?

"What? How's that even possible?" Leevy asks and Gale swears again.

"Peeta's spent all this time researching all the ways we could legally decimate Marvel, but we're not going to use them. We're just going to threaten to. We'll threaten to ruin him unless he takes a bribe and gives up his hopes for Madge's inheritance. We're going to buy him off. Can you fucking believe that? All he's done and we're going to reward him for it! Fuck!"

"But why? Why not just bring him to court and ruin him if you can?"

"It's not what's best for England. A court battle with Marvel will be long and messy and God only knows what underhanded tactics he'd try to win. And if he loses? We might see another rebellion. England deserves peace and to give them that, we have to give Marvel what he wants. We must be united and happy so England does not suffer again. He gets away with everything and wins a prize on top of it all. I fucking hate this."

Madge brings a hand to her mouth and she understands, of course she does, but it still makes her sick to her stomach. England has suffered too much at their hands but the thought of Marvel getting away with all he's done is infuriating. That ache, the ache she had banished, rises again within her and she wants to scream.

"What is he getting?" Leevy asks and Gale exhales angrily.

"The earldom of Warwick. Everything Haymitch forfeited to the crown when he died a traitor. Marvel's been whinging for it since Katniss took it. He's Haymitch's heir and he doesn't care that his father was attainted, he still thinks he deserves the inheritance. And now he'll have it."

Madge closes her eyes and knows she should just be happy this will all be over soon. She will be free of Marvel, she will have her inheritance and that is all that should matter. She doesn't need vengeance.

(but she would like justice)

"I'm sorry," Leevy says very softly and Gale sighs again.

"I know this is the right decision for England and I know the country deserves this peace, but it is just so bloody infuriating . I already had to let him get away with his betrayal and now I must do the same after what he's done to Madge. I want him dead, I want to kill him but I can do nothing but send him on his merry way with a fat reward and hope it sates his greed. I hate this."

They do not speak for a long moment and horror swallows Madge nearly whole at the thought of Marvel's reward. He is an avaricious slime and yet he is to win here. She is too of course, but it does little to soothe the sting of Marvel's success.

"How is she?" Gale asks quietly and Madge's heart jumps in her chest.

"Good, I think. She's had, well, two baths, food and a change of clothes. And she is very grateful for all you've done."

There is silence Madge does not understand and it is not Gale who breaks it, but Leevy.

"You should go in, I am sure she is eager to see you."

Madge's gut twists. Does he not want to see her? When he had come for her she had thought...but perhaps in her relief she had misread him.

"You're right. Thank you."

"You never need to thank me," Leevy says and Madge turns back to the window with wet eyes. What is wrong with you, you faithless horror? He has never betrayed your trust, no matter who else has. She wipes fruitlessly and her eyes and throbs with Marvel's success and guilt. It is hard to breathe through the growing strain in her chest and there is a knock at the door.

"Lady Madge?" Gale calls from the other side and she pushes away her melancholy but it does not go. It lingers beneath her skin and it is all she can do to keep from surrendering to it.

"Come in," she says and turns with a forced smile. He opens the door and steps inside, her whole body aching at the sight of him. She curtsies.

"Thank you for everything you've done Sir Gale. I cannot put into words how much I appreciate it all."

"You shouldn't thank me," he says and she looks up in surprise. He is angry but it is not turned outwards. "It is the least I could do after leaving you to suffer for months at Marvel's hand. I searched everywhere but I couldn't find you and I wouldn't have if you hadn't sent me your message. Forgive me."

Madge shakes her head. "There is nothing to forgive."

Gale's anger does not cool, rather it burns even hotter. He clenches his jaw. "Yes there is. You needed me-"

"And you came," she interrupts. Before he can say anything else she walks up to him and touches his cheek. "We have been apart so long and I do not want to fight with you. So I will say this once and I hope you will believe me. I know you did everything you could and I always knew you would. All the while I was fighting to get away from Marvel, I knew you were fighting just as hard to find me. I cannot put into words what a comfort that was."

He closes his eyes and covers her hand with his own, the words she knows he wants to say building up on his tongue. He will want to argue, to insist he should have done more, should have rescued her before she was ever in any danger at all. He is only human but when it comes to the people he loves, that will never be enough for him. He will always want to be better and she understands that, she understands it desperately.

"I'm sorry," he says and she stares at him in surprise. "You are the one who has suffered and yet you are having to comfort me. It should be the other way around."

Madge smiles slightly, her eyes growing dangerously wet yet again. "I think we have both suffered, so perhaps we should comfort each other." Gale's mouth curls just so in the corner and he leans forward until his forehead rests against hers.

"Alright. I am not sure I will ever forgive myself for this, but I do not want to fight with you either. We have been apart for so long and I have missed you so much."

Madge smiles properly as the tears spill from her eyes. "And I have missed you. Impossibly so." He squeezes her hand and she doesn't know who moves first, but soon he is kissing her. It is soft, sweet and she is crying in earnest when he pulls away. He brushes the tears from her cheek with soft fingers and she leans into his touch.

"I always seem to make you cry," he murmurs and Madge smiles.

"The happiest of tears," she assures him and then he pulls her close. He hugs her tightly and she tucks her head beneath his chin, her heart pounding. How long has she craved to be like this again? She will not heed the doubt, she will not let it ruin this. She knows Gale and she will revel in this happiness. It feels impossible that they have finally found their way back to each other and she will not taint their joy with suspicion born from others' betrayals.

"I have dreamed of this," he sighs and Madge breathes him in.

"As have I. All that time in France, in Cold Harbour and in that kitchen, I have yearned for this."

Gale tenses and then sighs. "I am sorry you had to suffer any of it. And I am sorry I did nothing to prevent it."

"You couldn't have. I used to dream and fantasize about you coming to take me away in France and it was a happy dream, but an impossible one. I knew that. We both had our duties to fulfill and if you had come, somehow, I would not have left with you. I could never have abandoned my family."

As much as it pains her to admit it, she knows that's the truth. She could not have left with him, even though it would have broken her heart and his. Her choice to marry Cato had not been an easy one, but it had been the right one to safeguard her family. Gale does not say anything for a moment and there is a soft knock on the door. It opens just a crack and Leevy doesn't stick her head in, rather she speaks through the crack.

"Excuse me, but the monks are getting rather antsy at the two of you being alone in here. They think it is rather inappropriate. I have tried telling them they have nothing to worry about, but they are not quite convinced. If all you are doing is talking, they suggest you should do so in the garden where many eyes might see you."

"Right, thank you. We'll be out in a moment," Gale says and then smiles down at her.

"What do you say, Lady Madge? Will you take a walk with me in the garden?"

Madge smiles. "I would love to, Sir Gale."

The garden is chilly but beautiful as they walk arm in arm. The sun hangs low in the sky and bathes the world around them in fiery light. Madge rests her head against Gale's shoulder and does not feel the cold, not with him so close. Things are not perfect, but for a moment at least, they feel as if they are.

"I'm surprised you haven't asked me about Marvel," he says and Madge bites her lip.

"Well, I may have overheard you and Leevy talking."

"Eavesdropping were you? I do not think that is proper conduct for a lady," he teases and she grins.

"The door was open, I could not help but hear. And is it truly eavesdropping if you were planning on telling me anyway?"

Gale laughs and Madge squeezes his arm.

"Well I should tell you Katniss has written him, he should receive it tomorrow. He's not far and I expect him to reach the city in two or three days. We shall then put Peeta's offer to him."

Madge nods and she hates the idea of sitting in sanctuary when other people debate her future. It is her inheritance and she has been fighting for it for years; it is not right that the final battle is to happen without her. Gale kisses her hair.

"Peeta would like you to make a statement of everything Marvel's done, if you are willing."

"I am," she says immediately and she is. She will gladly seize any opportunity to be a part of this that she can. She might not be able to condemn him in person, but at least her words will. Gale nods.

"Alright. It will need to be in writing."

"I shall do it tonight then."

Gale nods again and for a few moments they walk in silence. The sun sinks lower and she cannot fight her trepidation. It is not that she thinks ill of Peeta, it is just that she is not sure she can trust him. Life has taught her many, many times that the only person she can trust with her future is herself. Gale places his hand over hers and squeezes.

"You can trust Peeta with this, you know," he says and Madge looks at him in surprise. How on earth had he guessed exactly what she was thinking?

"What?" she asks foolishly and he smiles.

"I recognize the look on your face. It is the same one I am sure I wore in Burgundy. It was so frustrating being unable to do anything; I have never felt so useless. There was nothing I could do, but it still felt as if I should have been doing something. But it was Peeta's turn. My strengths lie on the battlefield, not the negotiating table. It is not easy, it was infuriating in fact, but none of us can do everything alone. You have done so much, now it is Peeta's turn."

Madge sighs and presses her cheek into his shoulder. "I am just so used to doing everything myself. Since I was fifteen, I have been fighting to survive and to protect the people I love and I could not rely on or trust anyone else. I know Lord Peeta is a good man and you trust him, but it is so hard. I have been let down, abandoned and cast aside so many times. I have always fought my wars alone."

Gale stops walking and turns to face her. She stops as well and he takes both her hands in his. "I cannot pretend to know or understand everything you have been through or all the battles you have fought. All I can offer is this. You need never be alone again. Whatever the fight, whoever the enemy, I will be with you," he says and his sincerity makes her shiver. She feels as if she is made entirely of love for him and she frees one of her hands so she may cup his cheek.

"As I shall always be with you," she promises and he smiles softly, bringing his hand up to cover hers.

"I am glad to hear it."

They stay as they are for a long moment, the whole world painted in the soft colours of dusk. He leans forward and for a moment she thinks he will kiss her, but he stops, perhaps remembering the watching monks. Instead he tucks her hand around his arm and begins to walk again, a slow, aimless path through the vegetable rows. Madge leans against him and breathes slowly, her lungs filling up with the taste of him. Any moment now she expects to wake from this dream, but if she is to wake, oh let it last a few moments more.

"I want you to know that when I say you are not alone in anything, I mean that. If you wish to speak of your time in France, I am here to listen," he says and Madge feels her happiness dim.

"I appreciate that, would not want to hear it."

"I would," he says firmly and she cannot help but look up at him. "I do not pretend that I will enjoy it, but there is nothing you could ever say that I would not want to hear." He is the sweetest boy alive, but she knows that there are plenty of things she could say that he wouldn't want to hear. True love deserves honesty but fear stays her tongue. If she dared tell him everything she's done, Gale, honourable, noble, so firm and unyielding in his convictions Gale, would surely not forgive her. True love deserves honesty but this time her courage deserts her.

"I should rather forget it," she mumbles after pressing her face into his arm.

"I can understand that," he says. "I never like dwelling on the darkest moments of my life."

Again, that awful, awful ache builds within her. Everything she has buried rises like specters and would it not be a blessing to unburden herself? Or perhaps it wouldn't be. She doesn't want to discuss every awful thing that has happened, she doesn't want to think of it or drag it all back up. She wants it to be gone, not re-lived. Perhaps all she really wants to do is weep until the pain is not so raw and he would let her do that, he would not think her weak. He will let her cry and hold her and then hopefully, she will not ache so strongly any longer.

And maybe that is for the best , whispers a little voice in her mind and as much as she wants to ignore it, she can't. There are some things he may be willing to listen to, but others...there are things she cannot imagine he will wish to hear. Will he wish to hear of her deal with Clove, of her consummation with Cato, of how she came up with the idea of marrying Cato and then tried so hard to win him? Will he accept that for so long she hated him and wanted his downfall? Will he forgive the revelation that she had sought out to seduce him solely to keep herself safe and restore the Lancastrians to power? She cannot imagine he will. He will surely hate her for it and it is good then that she does not want to talk about it all.

But perhaps she should. She loves him, she wants to be with him all her life but can she really begin that life built on falsehoods? If she does not tell him now, all their life together the lies will sleep between them. She loves him, she does not want to lose him, but she cannot let him go on thinking she is someone she is not. She has spent nearly all their relationship keeping secrets, but no longer. True love deserves honesty.

"I...I have done things I do not think you will forgive," she says and Gale tenses beside her. "Ever since my father died, I have had to do many things in the name of survival and to keep my loved ones would not approve of many of them." It is terrifying to say out loud and she cannot breathe as she waits for him to pull away. He is quiet and they've stopped walking, her heart beating in her throat. She is right to tell him the truth, but parts of her still wish she hadn't. She does not want to lose him, especially not now when they have finally found their way back to each other.

"As I am sure you would not approve of many of the things I've done," he says finally and she looks up at him in surprise. His eyes gaze at the darkening sky and his jaw is tense. "None of this is how I imagined it would be," he continues. "I have made mistakes, costly mistakes. I have not been the man I thought I was. There have been compromises and...decisions I am not proud of. It is not that I have abandoned my convictions or my ideals and there are still lines I would never cross, but things are not as simple as I once thought. Sometimes what is best for England is...difficult."

Madge stares at him and there is a part of her that wants to ask just what lines he's crossed, what decisions he has made that he is not proud of, but the other part does not want to know. She loves him, she knows he is a good man and maybe some secrets are better left kept. She doesn't know what to say and Gale releases a frustrated sound and kicks at the nearest row of dirt.

"I hate this," he says and turns to face her. "We have been torn apart so many times, I cannot bear another. I do not want us to fight, I do not want this war to stand between us any longer. I don't need to know what you've done, not if it will only hurt us both. I need only know why you did it."

Madge stares at him in shock and he takes her hands. The warmth of his fingers travels up her arms and she tells him the truth because he deserves that. They both do.

"I did them because I believed I had to. To protect the people I love or to survive. Nothing has been easy since my father died and I have had to make hard choices. I cannot argue for myself in a court of law or in parliament and I cannot go to battle with sword and shield. So I have done what I can, even if that meant doing things I've hated."

"As have I," Gale says and takes a steadying breath. "When I was younger I thought righteousness was enough. I thought being in the right would guarantee peace and stability and safety, but I've learned now that it doesn't. England has required me to do things in her name that I never imagined I could or would do. I do not want to tell you of them, because I do not want you to despise me. These are wicked times and I think we have all done wicked things. We inherited a broken country and it is not so easy to put it back together again." There is anger in his voice, but guilt and sadness too and he is right, these are wicked times. She is no saint, she has not managed to rise above the evil of these years and maybe God will condemn her for it. She can only hope He understands.

"My mother says that if our motives were good and our intentions right, then we need not drown in guilt," he says and Madge's heart trips in her chest. "We should acknowledge what we have done, learn from our mistakes and strive to be better than we have been. I plan to do just that. So I do not need to hear of what you've done, so long as they were not done for greed or a lust for power or because you delight in the suffering of others. And they weren't, were they?" he asks and she shakes her head vehemently.

"No. Never," she swears and he squeezes her hands.

"Then I forgive you. All these things you think I would find unforgivable, I forgive you for them. I love you, I know you are a good person and I will not hold you to a standard I myself cannot meet," he says and is it really as simple as all that? She had been so afraid, she had imagined tears and shouting, have things truly worked out so well? Can he truly forgive her without knowing what she's done?

"Do you forgive me?" he asks and takes her face gently in his hands. He rests his forehead on hers. "For the mistakes I've made and for the compromises I will always have to make?"

She looks into his eyes and it really is as simple as that. Perhaps she should care more, perhaps she should demand to know everything he's done in service of Katniss and her crown, but she doesn't. Perhaps this is a moral failing on her part, but she loves him, she knows he is a good person and she understands full well that sometimes difficult, unpleasant decisions must be made. Perhaps this is not right, perhaps it is, she cannot tell. She doesn't care.

"Yes," she says and means it with all her heart, "yes, of course I do." Gale pulls her into his arms and she clings to him, never wanting to let go.

"I love you," he whispers to her ear, "and so there is something I must ask you." He releases her and steps back, before taking her hand in his and kneeling before her. Madge's eyes widen. He smiles and her knees feel weak.

"I know it has been years since I last asked you this and much has changed since then, but what hasn't changed is that I love you and I want to spend my life with you. I have carried you with me every day of our separation and I will carry you in every day beyond this one. I love you, my heart is yours, it always has been. It always will be."

His sincerity makes tears spill from her eyes and he reaches into the pouch hanging from his belt. He pulls out her locket and she inhales wetly, her chest aching. It had felt like cutting off her arm to part with it and he smiles, warmly, sweetly, so perfectly she is surprised she can still stand.

"I gave this to you, God, nearly two years ago, as a promise of things to come. I hope it can be that again. Lady Madge Undersee, Duchess of Bedford, Duchess of Clarence and Dowager Princess of Wales, will you marry me?"

She does not need even a moment to think and she drops to her knees before him.

"Yes, yes I will. Of course I will," she says and flings her arms around him. He stands and brings her with him, lifting her off the ground and spinning her in a circle. He sets her back on her feet and holds her close, his lips on her hair.

"We will be happy, I promise," he says and she smiles into his shoulder.

"I know we will."

And she does.

(and then, as happiness fills her top to bottom, she breaks)

(For a moment he is the sun.

And then Madge begins to cry. Not the happy tears of before, but awful, gut wrenching sobs that break his heart. He doesn't know what's happening or why and she buries her face in her hands. He feels pain like arrow tips at the sight and he pulls her close, cradling her against him. Her arms come around him, she presses her face into his chest and her whole body shakes with her tears.

"What's wrong?" he asks desperately, knowing he will do anything he can to fix this.

"I'm...I'm sorry. Everything has...everything has been so hard and I-I cannot...I have been holding it all in and...I'm sorry."

The pain is like a knife and anything she asks of him, he will do it. Anything to save her from this sorrow.

"Don't be sorry. Not to me. Just tell me what I can do," he says and she tightens her hold on him.

"Hold me?" she manages in a small, choked voice and he does. There are so many things he has had to realize he cannot do, but this he can. He kisses her hair and he'll hold her forever if she wants.

"I'm here," he whispers, "and I'm not going anywhere. I'll always be here."

And he will. He has let her down, he has let them both down before, but never again. As long as she needs him, he will be here)

Disapproving monks chivvy Gale out when twilight blankets the garden and though Madge aches to part from him, she holds his promise to return tomorrow in her heart. Her throat hurts from so much sobbing, but she feels calmer now than she has in so long. The pain is not gone, the misery not vanished, but it is not so violent within her. She has released it and now that is not festering inside, hopefully time will soothe it. Not soon, she knows that, but someday.

She returns to her room and has Leevy fetch her parchment and ink. She sets them up on top of the coffer at the foot of the bed and then sits on the floor before it. She has no table, but this will do. Even though this will not be pleasant, even though she has decided she would rather not drag up every dark moment of the past, this is something she has to do. She has strength enough left for this.

It takes a moment to organize her thoughts, to drag up every memory of Marvel's wickedness, but then she is writing and she cannot stop. She spills in ink how he lied to her, how he tried so hard to manipulate her, how he screamed and yelled and sent her away where, in his own words, no one would ever find her. She writes of how he'd admitted he wanted her inheritance and if she would not go quietly into a convent and give it to him, he would make her. Of how she had feared she might be confined in that kitchen for the rest of her life, of the deplorable way he'd had his cronies treat her, of every slight and injury and misery. She even fills in details of France, of how he'd be all too willing to depose Katniss, how furious he'd been when he found out she would sit upon a throne instead of him and how many times she'd heard him lament his lost crown.

It is damning and as much as she wants it read before a court to ruin him, she knows Gale is right. She must be better than this. It will be better for England if Marvel accepts Peeta's offer and they never go to court, so that is what she will pray for. It will hurt to see his crimes go unpunished, but she must be above revenge and anger. Her parents' generation had condemned England and its people to so many years of bloodshed and terror; her generation must be better. She must be better.

(but if Marvel does want a fight, well, she will be ready for him)

Madge climbs into bed and leans over to blow out her candle, but can't. The idea of darkness, of shadows and blackness chills her blood. She is too old to be scared of the dark, but she is.

Madge pulls her covers tight around herself and leaves the candle burning. Some scars are still too fresh.

(Katniss' monthly bleedings have always, always been exactly on time. Unlike Prim's, which seem to come whenever they please, hers have never been late, never been missed, never even came one day before or after she expected. Ever since she was eleven, they have been perfectly, dependably regular.

Until now.

Prim complains of her own sudden bleeding, two weeks too soon and how she is both unprepared and frustrated, and it gets Katniss thinking of her own. Is she not due about now? It should be yes, but just to make double sure she thinks back to October and...and she cannot remember bleeding then. September she had, beginning on the fifth and lasting six days. It had been so painful on the second day she'd had to stay in bed and she remembers that, it is hard not to. But in October...there is nothing. No memory, no date, no anything. Is it possible? Had she been so distracted with Marvel and Madge and everything else she somehow hadn't noticed that her time had come, passed and no blood had ever spotted her linen?

It has always, always, always been twenty nine days between the start of one bleeding and the start of the next, but there had been nothing on October fourth or any day of that month and now it is November second, exactly twenty nine days after when it should have come last month and there is nothing.

Katniss is shaking as she brings a hand to cover her mouth. Is she...could she really be…

Is she with child?)

Madge is reading around midday when there is a soft knock on her door.

"Come in," she calls and smiles as Gale steps into the room. He bows all nice and proper but Madge does not curtsy in return. She stands from the bed and flings her arms around him instead. He squeezes her before pulling back just slightly. He strokes her cheek and kisses her, sweet, soft and unfortunately short.

"Mmm, I could kiss you all day," he murmurs against her lips, "but the monks might have my head for it. Join me for a walk in the garden?" Magde nods and they separate reluctantly.

"Though," he says as she fastens her cloak, "with the money I'm paying them you think they could allow me a kiss or two." Madge bites her lip.

"I will pay you back for that," she promises but when she turns it is to see him looking at her like she's quite lost her head.

"No," he says and she frowns.


"I do not want your money and certainly not for this. But if you're going to keep making that face, may I remind you that we will soon be married and thus your money and my money will be the same money?" He is grinning as he says it and so is she, her hand pressing against his promise of things to come.

"Fine," she concedes, "but you are on thin ice Sir Gale."

He rolls his eyes and offers her his arm. "I shall endeavour to make amends then, my lady."

"I am glad to hear it, my lord," she says and takes his arm. They make their way out into the garden and she drinks in the cool afternoon air. The bite in the wind gives her plenty of reasonable excuse to draw as close to him as she can and he leans his head against hers. They pass a leafless apple tree and she squeezes his arm,

"Tell me of the others, how are they? Prim and Posy and Vick and Philippa and Rory-" His expression changes when she reaches Rory's name, morphing into a pained grimace. She tilts her head.

"What is it?" she asks. "What's with that face?" He struggles for a moment before caving in with a sigh.

"It''s Rory," he manages and she frowns.

"What about him?" she asks and Gale sighs again.

"After we'd won, I let him go visit his properties. He never has and he's always wanted to, and after all he'd done, I thought he deserved it. All the ones he's had for years and never seen, and all the new ones Katniss granted him as a reward for his service. Philippa wanted to go with him and I had no reason to refuse, she is his wife after all. They weren't alone, I obviously sent adults with them, but it wasn't me or Mum. Anyway, when Katniss banned me from London-"

"She did what?" Madge asks and he frowns in a mix of bitterness and embarrassment.

"Banished me. She thought I was making the situation with Marvel worse. We were all supposed to be playing nice but I...couldn't. I kept going by Cold Harbour demanding to see you. He wasn't pleased."

"I heard you. Not your words, but your voice," she says and he squeezes her hand on his arm.

"Heard me making an arse of myself?"

"No and I missed it when you were gone."

"Well, I didn't have much choice. Marvel complained, Katniss decided I was doing more harm than good and she told me to leave until I could better control my temper. I did not go quietly, but eventually I did go. I decided to go to Dorset, to visit Rory. See how he was, what he was doing. Do you know what he was doing?" he asks and she shakes her head.

"Philippa," he pronounces and her eyes widen so fast it is a wonder they do not pop from her skull. "Constantly, in fact. And loudly."

"What?" she squawks and he nods slowly.

"Oh yes, they're insatiable. They have an inhuman amount of stamina with which to torture me."

Her face feels aflame and she doesn't mean to, but shocked giggles burst out of her. Gale stares at her in offence.

"Don't laugh, I am traumatized. I don't think I'll ever recover." Madge nods but the giggles do not stop. Gale slumps his shoulders in defeat. "It's my own fault, I sent two married fifteen year olds off with no parental supervision, I should have seen this coming. But it was Rory and Philippa, I thought they hated each other! And maybe they do, it's not like I saw them having any conversations. It was just every room I walked into, there they were, up against a wall, on a table, in a chair, on the floor, in a hedge, rutting like animals! Ugh, I'm getting sick just thinking of it. I can't believe you're laughing, I have been scarred for my whole life. I even had to switch rooms. I was right beside them and Rory is apparently very vocal in the throes of his passions. There are some things you never want to hear in relation to your brother and I heard them all." He sounds as if he is describing some savage battle and she covers her mouth with her hands but it does little good. He shoots her a scathing look as she continues to giggle and she tries desperately to tamp it down.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I just can't believe it. Rory and Philippa," she says through the laughter and he grimaces.

"Yes and they apparently have no sense of shame or decency, and no care where they do things. The garden, any and all rooms, the hallway. Who does that?" he asks in disgust and her eyebrows go up.

"Who? Oh I don't know, but I do remember hearing another Hawthorne boy in a hallway with a paramour."

For a moment Gale stares at her as if he has no idea what she's talking about but then she watches as realization dawns on him slowly. His eyes widen, his mouth opens and something akin to horror fills his gaze.

"You heard me in the hallway with... Leevy ," he breathes and the horror mounts. She nods.

"I did."

Gale smacks himself in the forehead."And I asked her to be your maid."

"You did," she agrees and he drops his face into his hands.

"Good God Almighty," he groans. Madge pats his arm.

"I am a fool. Utterly, utterly a fool," he says before lifting his head to look at her. "I hope you know it means nothing." Madge feels her cheeks burn and tries not to dwell on all the thoughts she'd had on the subject.

"It would not bother me if it did mean something," she says and hates the pitch of her voice. "We were apart for nearly two years and I was married. You had every right to find companionship."

Gale turns fully to face her and puts his hands on her shoulders.

"Madge," he says firmly, "it means nothing. There is nothing between us now but friendship. I have known Leevy since I was very young; she used to work at Warwick Castle when I went there to train as a boy. I asked her because I knew you'd need a maid and because I wanted someone I could trust not to be secretly working for Marvel. I completely forgot you knew."

Madge nods and wishes she could hit herself. "I'm sorry, I should have had more trust," she says and Gale shakes his head.

"No, I am a fool. I am not nearly so clever as I'd like to think."

Madge touches his cheek. "I think you're very clever," she says and he snorts. Madge smiles, a weight she had been trying to ignore lifted from her shoulders. He had every right to enjoy other company, but she cannot deny she is glad he didn't. He moves his hands to her face and smiles down at her.

"And you should know you never have need to worry. There was no one else, there will be no one else. I have not even thought of another woman. I cannot. I am far too full of you," he says and she feels her heart shiver. His words are lovely but she cannot help a kernel of guilt. He had pined for nearly two years, waited, hoped, and she had fully expected never to see him again.

"Now I feel faithless as well as foolish," she says and ducks her head. He lifts her chin and his smile is soft.

"The circumstances were very different, I think."

He is right, she knows that, but still. She had been married, she had hoped to bear Cato's children and she had given up on any future the two of them might have together. She had not spent two years waiting except, one part of her had.

"Maybe," she admits and places her hand over his heart. "I can say this though, there has been no one else in my heart. Even as I knew my body, my children and my future would belong to Cato, I knew my heart would always be yours. And it has been. And it will be. Always."

His eyes are tender as he pulls her forward for a kiss and she melts beneath his mouth. She can feel his heart beating beneath her palm and someone clears their throat very loudly. They break apart and Madge burns in shame at the clump of frowning monks standing not two feet away.

"Is there something I can do for you, Brother?" Gale asks jovially, as if his fingers aren't on her cheeks and he hadn't just been caught kissing her by several displeased servants of God.

"Yes," one of them says in a sour voice. "It is getting late and rather cold. The lady would do best in her room." What he doesn't say but they both understand is "and you would do best to leave."

"Of course," Gale says, still smiling and offers her his arm. "Lady Madge?"

"Thank you, Sir Gale," she mumbles, unable to look any monk in the face. She takes Gale's arm and he leads her from the garden. When they have passed far enough not to be overheard, Gale leans over and whispers in her ear.

"They definitely think I'm going to Hell. They're probably off to pray for my soul right now."

Madge swats his arm. "Oh hush."

Gale grins and she leans against him as they walk back to her room. They are comfortably quiet until they reach her door and she does not want him to leave yet, but they have little choice. They turn to face each other and he takes both her hands in his.

"I suppose this is goodnight then," he says and she nods. "I'll be by again tomorrow, as soon as I can. I love you."

"I love you too," she says and he kisses the back of her hands. She watches him walk away and holds his locket against her heart. Soon they will not need to say goodbye or worry about watching monks. Soon, they will have a life together. All they need to do is solve Marvel. If they can do that, they can be happy.


Soon after Gale leaves, Leevy comes to her room in consternation.

"I beg your pardon, my lady," she says and curtsies low. She does not rise and Madge frowns.

"Whatever for?"

Leevy grimaces and bows her head even farther. "I had no idea you knew about um...past with the Earl of Salisbury."

"Oh," Madge says as her face burns, "oh, you needn't apologize for that."

"If I had been aware I would have made sure you knew there is nothing of that sort between us now. He is entirely devoted to you and my heart is otherwise engaged. I wish the two of you nothing but happiness in your marriage." Leevy is firm and Madge smiles through her embarrassment.

"I appreciate that, thank you. And please stand up. It was my fault anyway, I should never have assumed."

Leevy straightens with a huff. "What else were you to think? Anyone would have thought the same. I hope you forgive me for saying so, but he can be such a fool sometimes."

Madge laughs. "He certainly can be. But thank you Leevy, I appreciate you taking the time to reassure me." Leevy nods and rocks on her heels as if she means to leave, but doesn't. She grimaces.

"Is it true you...heard us in a hallway?" she asks in a small, mortified voice. Madge knows she is red faced as she frowns in sympathy.

"Yes," she admits and tries very hard not to remember.

"Oh God, how humiliating," Leevy moans and drops her head into her hands. "I am so very sorry."

"Oh no, it's alright. Don't be sorry," Madge says even as she has been set aflame. Leevy groans.

"If you do not need me, my lady, I would like to crawl under my covers and try very hard not to think of how many others might have heard us."

Madge nods and cannot even begin to imagine how embarrassing this must be for Leevy. It is making Madge anxious just thinking about it. "Go ahead, I shall be fine," she says and Leevy lowers herself into another curtsey.

"Thank you, my lady." Leevy turns to leave and just before she shuts the door, Madge hears her murmur to herself, "let this be a lesson. Think with your head, not your lust."

Madge blushes and remembers when she too almost let passion get the best of her when up against a wall with Gale. He had been the one to stop them and she is very hot suddenly, so hot she fans herself with both hands.

"Let this be a lesson," she tells herself as Leevy did. It doesn't help, for still she boils as she remembers that day and thinks of the wedding night to come. Madge collapses back into bed and covers her face with her hands.

I should not be so aflutter at just the thought of him. I am going to pass out on our wedding night at this rate.

God help me

(and below all of that, somewhere she refuses to acknowledge, there is anxiety)

(she does not acknowledge it because Gale is not Cato and nothing between them will be like it was with Cato)

(even still, the memories linger)

(and so does the fear)

Gale arrives the next day just after she's finished breaking her fast. He squeezes past Leevy as she clears away the dirty dishes and Madge reaches for him. He takes her hand and kisses it.

"I can't stay long, I just wanted to let you know Marvel's arrived. I've been summoned to Westminster for the discussion."

Madge tightens all over and nods. This is it then and though she knows there is nothing she can do, she detests having to stay behind and wait. It is up to Peeta now and that is terrifying. Gale squeezes her hand.

"I know you want to come and I know you'll be going mad waiting for news, so I've brought you something to take your mind off it."

"You did? What is it?" she asks and he merely grins in answer. That grin is both excited and proud and she narrows her eyes.

"What?" she asks again and he shrugs, his playful little grin widening.

"I have to go, I'll be back as soon as I can," he says and kisses her hand again. He leaves and Madge stands to follow, her curiosity pulling her after him. What has he brought her? And why will he not say? She steps into the next room and


Prim is standing in the center of the room with a smile and Madge feels a tearful mix of joy and surprise. Her eyes are wet as they always seem to be these days, but so are Prim's. It has been nearly two years apart and Madge had never dared hope Prim might still call her a friend.

"Oh it is so good to see you again." Prim says and Madge nods, not quite able to push words up around the lump in her throat. Prim steps towards her and Madge finally registers what she is holding. It is a little, tiny baby and Madge's eyes widen. She lifts her gaze back to Prim who beams with pride.

"May I introduce you to Lord Humphrey, Earl of Stafford," she says and Madge brings her hands to her mouth.

"You had a baby?" she whispers and Prim nods.

"Isn't he lovely?"

"He's beautiful," Madge agrees and he is. He is very like Prim, with fair hair and pale blue eyes, but his cheeks are rosy and plump and he clings to his mother with chubby fingers. "Oh Prim, he's wonderful. Congratulations."

Prim's smile is radiant and she comes forward, one arm held out for an embrace. Madge walks into it gratefully.

"I cannot believe what Marvel has put you through," Prim says and Madge shakes her head.

"It doesn't matter. I am just glad it is soon to be over."

"Sorry, we got lost," says a voice, a voice that is familiar and yet not quite. Madge looks over to the doorway and freezes. She blinks, several times, while Prim says "Oh I'll bet you did."

Rory makes a face at her and Madge stares, stares and then blurts "You're so tall."

Rory grins. "And Mum reckons I'm not done yet. She thinks I'll be even taller than Gale." He is impossibly pleased about that and Madge cannot get over how he's changed. It has been almost two years and he'd been shorter than her with a little boy voice and baby fat in his cheeks. He is taller than she is now, the baby fat has begun to give way to angles and lines and though his voice is not quite a man's, it is certainly deeper than it ought to be. He is not the same little boy she remembers and it is jarring. Prim and Gale had not changed nearly so much and it is so strange to see.

"I do not think there is a man alive as proud of their potential height as Rory," Philippa teases and Madge turns her gaze on her. She has grown too, though not so drastically as Rory. She is taller, her hair is longer and her features are less of a little girl and more of a young woman, but not quite. Her hennin is crooked and her cheeks flushed and when Madge looks over at Rory again, she notices his mussed hair and askew doublet. Oh. 'Lost'. Her face heats up and desperate not to dwell on the two of them in such a situation, she fixes a smile on her face. "Well come in, come in. Not that I have anywhere for you to sit…"

"Oh, there are some chairs out in the hall, I suppose Gale had them brought over," Rory says and Madge smiles at how very sweet Gale is. Rory drags the chairs in and it is a tight fit, but if they leave the door open, they can just make it work. Madge sits on the bed, Prim with little Humphrey beside her and Philippa and Rory on the chairs across from them. The tears well again but she cannot help it. Loneliness had been such a curse for so long; sitting here is a triumph she is so very glad to have.

"Tell me everything that's happened since we last saw each other," she says and Philippa sighs dramatically.

"Nothing. At least not to me. I've been stuck home with my mother the whole time doing absolutely nothing. It was dreadful. I'd have much rather gone to fight or at least gotten a chance to tell Coriolanus what a wretch he was."

"That would've gone well," Rory quips and Philippa sticks out her tongue. Some things never change at least.

"And what of you, Rory? You were in Burgundy weren't you?"

He nods. "Yes, and it was rather awful at first. There was nothing to do and the Duke and Duchess were entirely unhelpful. We had no idea if we'd ever get home or see our families again. But it wasn't so bad at the end, we even had this contest to drum up support for Katniss. Sword fighting and archery. Katniss did brilliant of course, Gale did alright I suppose, and I was fairly impressive myself. I was the youngest competitor and I won third place in the archery contest. I even finished ahead of Gale." He puffs out his chest as he says it and by the grins Philippa and Prim shoot each other, Madge would guess he's told this tale several times already.

"That sounds amazing, I wish I could've been there," she says and Philippa grins a little wider.

"Yes and Gale won the sword fighting contest, didn't he?" she asks and Rory shrugs.

"Sure, but what else would you expect? He always wins swords."

Madge can believe that and wishes she'd been there to see it and cheer him on. She will be next time and her heart flutters at the thought.

"I'm sure you were brilliant," Prim says and Rory shrugs again, but he is grinning.

"Well, I did do better than I thought I would."

"Now you've got to do the same here," Philippa says. "And I expect you to wear my favour."

"Not giving it to John?" he questions with a raised eyebrow and Philippa grimaces.

"I am not speaking to John. We have had a fight."

Rory makes a face. "So I'm second choice? That's nice." Philippa rolls her eyes and Prim shoots Madge a long suffering look.

"Oh don't be such a baby, I'd have given it to you even if I was still speaking to John. You're my husband, so of course I'd offer it to you first now that you're old enough to participate. Though maybe not if you're going to have an attitude about it."

Rory opens his mouth to retort but Prim cuts him off. "Oh don't, you two are going to give me a headache." Rory and Philippa both stick their tongues out at her and Madge tries and fails to hide a smile. She'd missed this.

"I'm starved," Rory says suddenly and Philippa snorts.

"When aren't you?"

He makes a face at her and stands. "I think I'll go find something to eat, there must be a kitchen around here somewhere, right?"

Madge nods. "Yes, but I've no idea where. Perhaps if you find Leevy she'll be able to point you in the right direction."

Rory nods. "Alright, do any of you want anything?" Madge shakes her head and Philippa pops up to her feet.

"I think I'll come with you, make sure you don't get lost again."

"You're the one who got us lost last time," Rory says as they head out the door and Philippa scoffs.

"No, it was you."


"Definitely you."

Their voices trail off as they disappear down the hallway and Prim rolls her eyes to the ceiling. "They're terrible," she says and Madge laughs.

"I don't know, I think it's comforting that some things never change."

Prim snorts. "I wish some things would change." Madge laughs again.

"Still trying to set them to rights?" she asks and Prim shakes her head.

"Oh no, I've quite given up on that. They are a breed unto themselves." They laugh together and it feels lovely. Madge reaches over and squeezes Prim's hand.

"How have you been?" she asks and Prim bites her lip.

"It hasn't been easy. Living in Coriolanus' England with Katniss in Burgundy and maybe never coming home, but...everything worked out for the best, didn't it?" There is a catch in her voice and Madge squeezes her hand again. No one has had an easy time of it, but hopefully this peace will last. They all deserve that.

"I suppose it did."

"When I heard-" Prim stops suddenly, her eyes widening. She stands and stalks to the window, Madge twisting around to watch her go in confusion. Prim reaches the window, the sky beyond dark with coming rain, and sticks her head out.

"WE'RE AT A CHURCH, YOU HEATHENS!" she bellows and Madge stands to see what it is she's yelling about. Rory, who appears to have been lying face down in the grass, stands abruptly, his hair sticking up in every direction. Madge stares at him and then thunder cracks, the sky opening up. Rain comes pouring down, Rory swears and there is a squeal from where Rory had just been lying. Philippa clambers up and ah, that was what Rory had been lying on then. Philippa flees to the nearest door and Rory goes pelting after her, Madge's face very, very red. Prim turns to her with a look of incredulity.

"I cannot believe them, they are like animals. They cannot keep their hands to themselves."

Madge sits back down and cannot help a nervous giggle or two. "It is not really a bad thing though, is it? Passion in the marriage bed." She is surprised at herself for having said it and Prim snorts.

"Yes well, they're not exactly keeping it in the marriage bed are they?" she asks as she sits back beside Madge. Madge shakes her head and giggles some more, Prim leaning against her shoulder as she joins in. They are still laughing when Rory arrives, carrying a deck of cards and what appears to be a small table.

"Shall we play?" he asks in a breathless voice and she wonders if he knows just how pleading his eyes are. Madge tamps down her giggles as best she can and nods.

"Why not?"

"Excellent," Rory says and sets up the table. Philippa arrives just as he finishes, a tray of cheese in hand.

"Cheese. They had cheese...down in the kitchen," she says and she is wet and red faced. Madge does not want to embarrass them any further, but it is very hard to keep the laughter at bay. She tries to say something helpful but only manages "I love cheese."

Prim presses her face into Madge's shoulder to muffle her giggles and Philippa offers her a somewhat frantic grin. "Great."

"I'll deal," Rory announces a little too loudly and Madge feels warm in her chest. This is not perfect; her mother isn't here, Annie and Finnick aren't here, her father isn't here, but after everything the last two years have thrown at her, it feels better than she dreamed she'd ever feel again. She has lost so many people, but she is not alone.

She will remember that.

(Marvel is made of rage as he bursts into the council room. The doors swing wildly against the stone walls and he is shaking as he strides in. His eyes find Gale immediately, standing at the far end of the table with a murderous look on his ugly face.

"You!" Marvel roars and jabs an accusing finger in Gale's direction. "I demand to know what you have done with my sister! I will not stand for this, you brigand!"

Gale's face turns somehow uglier still and he snarls. He lurches forward but before he can make it too far, a hand catches the back of his doublet. It is his useless lackey Sir Thom and Marvel sneers at him. He doesn't need Thom to protect him, Gale is no match for him.

"You have stolen my sister from her sanctuary, you hedge-born knave!" Marvel continues and slams his hands down the nearest edge of the table. It quivers.

"Now, Lord Northumberland, let us discuss this like rational men," Baron Hastings says and Marvel could kick him. It is obvious he has been invited to add an air of impartiality to the proceedings, being not of their family, but Marvel is not fooled. If he is here, he must be deep in his cousins' pockets.

"Yes, let's," Peeta says from his seat at the head of the table and Marvel turns his livid eyes on him. Peeta sits primly with a stack of documents and several scrolls before him, a calm, friendly smile on his face. Marvel does not trust it for a moment.

"There is nothing to discuss! My sister has been kidnapped by this lunatic!" he shouts and Gale steps forward again only to be held back once more by Thom.

"That is not what the lady herself has to say on the matter," Peeta says mildly and Marvel chokes on his next words.

"Nonsense," he says and dismisses it with a wave. Peeta continues to smile and lifts a sheaf of parchment.

"I have a statement here that says much the opposite. It is in Lady Madge's hand, signed by her and by a number of the canons of St Martin Le Grand. Are you calling these men of God liars?" His voice is still pleasant and lacking any accusation, but Marvel feels his skin prickle. He hesitates to answer and Peeta takes advantage of his silence to continue on.

"According to Lady Madge she was forcibly removed to the kitchen of a manor house where she was compelled against her will to work as a maid. She was subjected to gross maltreatment, which included being threatened, mocked and denied food as well as being lodged in reprehensible accommodations. There is much more, but I think you understand just how damning such a statement is."

That bloody bitch!

"It is Salisbury who has forced her to make such false accusations," Marvel insists and Peeta pulls out a few more sheets of parchment.

"That seems unlikely, as I have several corroborating accounts from the various kitchen staff at the aforesaid manor house, one Burnley Hall belonging to a Sir Edward Tofton. A few select quotes from these statements include "we were told she was a mad girl with delusions of being a princess", "she was kept locked up at night away from the rest of us", "they always fed her the worst of the scraps", "we were told to stay away from her", etc, etc. I am sure you can see how a court of law would have no trouble siding wirth Lady Madge in this manner, especially when you consider that she provides a perfectly plausible motive for such cruel treatment. She suggests you were desperate to lay hands on her inheritance and hoped brutal treatment might convince her to surrender herself to a convent and then sign away her inheritance to you."

Marvel's throat is dry and the truth is that it is his inheritance and he had only to resort to such tactics because Madge would not give him what belonged to him by right. He cannot say that though, everyone here is clearly in support of Gale stealing his inheritance right out from under him. Fury curls within him and Peeta is not yet done.

"If true, you must understand that the penalty will be severe. Such treatment of your step-sister, placed in your care by the Queen herself, is appalling and quite unlawful. As are your designs on her inheritance. The Bedford portion is meant to pass on to one Sir John Ufford should Madge have no children of her own and thus you have conspired to rob him."

"He gave up his claim to it!" Marvel snaps and Peeta tilts his head.

"He did no such thing," he says and Marvel is finding it difficult to breathe.

"You said he did!"

"Did I? Forgive me, I must have been mistaken. For he has not and once Lady Madge's statement is made available to him, he could well bring a suit against you. As could the Queen, as she stands the heir to Lady Madge's royal dukedom of Clarence until the said lady has any children. You thus stand accused of the unlawful imprisonment of Lady Madge Undersee, Duchess of Bedford, Duchess of Clarence and Dowager Princess of Wales, the abuse and maltreatment of the same lady, conspiracy to rob Sir John Ufford of Waltham Castle and conspiracy to rob Her Majesty Queen Katniss of England. As I'm sure you know, the last of those charges may well be construed as treason."

There is no air left in the room and Marvel is lightheaded enough he may pass out. What is going on? How can everything have turned so suddenly? He'd won! He'd won and yet now Peeta is threatening him with treason charges? This cannot be possible.

Peeta smiles. "Now that we understand the situation, let us talk business Sir Marvel.")

The others leave after supper and Madge beats Leevy four times at cards before Gale finally returns. He is dripping wet from the rain and Madge wants to ask how it went, but her tongue is heavy as lead in her mouth.

"Here sit down, I'll get you something to dry off with," Leevy says and hurries off, Gale dropping down into her empty chair. Madge reaches across the table and grasps his hand, her fingers shaking as they wrap around his.

"So?" she manages and he smiles

"Well, it's done. Marvel was so confident, so sure of himself and his right to your inheritance, but Peeta destroyed him. It was quite possibly the most satisfying moment of my life."

"Marvel's agreed then, it's all over?" she asks and can hardly believe it. Gale squeezes her hand.

"Not quite, he wants time to think about it. Not that there's much to think about, he can either go to court and get utterly ruined, or accept our more than generous offer. He'll agree, he just wants to drag it out and see if there's any loophole he can abuse. There isn't, Peeta's made sure of that."

Madge nods and hopes he's right. She is ready for this war to be done. Gale lifts her hand to his lips and kisses her wrist. Heat spills through her and she blushes.

"Have faith in us, my love. You have done so much for so long, trust us to fight for you now. We won't let you down."

Madge smiles and leans across the table to cup his cheek with her other hand. "I know you won't. If I have faith in anyone, it's you."

And she does, but Marvel?

She has very little faith Marvel will surrender to reason.

(Marvel cannot believe the world has turned on him yet again.

He deserves his father's titles and lands, but not as a consolation prize. It belongs to him, much as Madge's inheritance does, but no one will see it. They are still so determined to cheat him of what is rightfully his, but what can he do? Peeta, much as he loathes to say it, is right. The courts won't rule in his favour. They should, he is in the right, but they won't. They are corrupt and rotten, like all England is and they will side with Gale, as much a miscarraige of justice as that would be. Haymitch's treachery has tainted him as well, which will keep the other nobles from flocking to him as they surely would usually and for now, he must accept that he is alone. They have all turned against him even though he has been nothing but loyal and righteous, but this country has long been failing. One day, the time will be right for him to get everything he deserves. It should be now, but Katniss' hold on the country and its many pathetic nobles is too tight.

Fine, he can be patient. He will take their peace offering, he will bide his time and then he will make them pay as they should. He had thought he could achieve that now, but he was wrong. England isn't ready yet. But it will be. And so will he.

They'll regret this, he'll make sure of it)

The days are long as Marvel waffles and Madge thinks if he doesn't agree soon, she will go mad. Gale visits every day, Prim comes again with little Humphrey in tow but it cannot ease her anxiety. Logic dictates Marvel should admit defeat, but he has so often been at odds with logic. What if he gives in to madness and refuses? He cannot win a court battle but he could make such a mess of everything if he rebels. There is nothing she can do but hope and wait and as much as it kills her, hope and wait she does.

Please Marvel, you have fought long and hard, but you have lost. Do not make this any worse than it has to be. Give up while you still can.

Please Marvel

Madge is up early the third morning of Marvel's deliberation and with her breakfast comes a letter.

"A message for you, my lady," Leevy says and Madge takes it. The note is written in Gale's hand and her heart stumbles as she reads it.

Marvel's made his decision, I'm off to hear it now. I'll be over as soon as I know.


Madge closes her eyes. This is it.

Oh God, please let him agree

Madge tries to embroider while she waits for Gale but her fingers are clumsy, every stitch coming out wrong. This is so close to being over, but just as close is the possibility that she'll lose everything she's fought so hard to keep. All her suffering at Marvel's hands will be for nothing if he loses his head and rises up against them. It seems impossible that he would be so foolish, but she has long ago learned not to underestimate the depth of his lunacy. His greed is a disease, one he seems incapable of defeating. What if this time is no different?

Madge abandons her stitching and tosses it aside. She cannot concentrate on anything but Marvel and she wants this to be over, oh God she is ready for this to be over. It is her inheritance, not his, never his and if he fights them on this she will make him sorry for it. Even if it takes the rest of her life, she will not let him have a single coin. He has ruined her life enough, he won't have any more of it.

"Are you hungry, my lady?" Leevy asks from the doorway and Madge knows she should eat, but her appetite is lost like her concentration. The sun is just past the midday point and how long does it take to announce a decision? Shouldn't it be over already?

"My lady?"

"Oh, I'm sorry Leevy. I'm a bit...distracted. I'm alright for now, thank you."

Leevy grimaces in sympathy and hesitates in the doorway, obviously struggling to come up with some words of comfort. Madge appreciates it, but she's not sure there is any comfort to be found in a situation like this. She has faith in Gale but it's hard to have faith in anything else. The law has not stopped any of the evil in England during her lifetime, why should it now? She has been fighting alone so long, it is so very hard to trust anyone else to win her battles. Peeta is well meaning and Gale would do anything for her, but will that be enough? Nothing ever seems to be enough. She stands from bed and leans against the window sill, her eyes trained on the garden beyond. She wishes she had a view of the front path, then at least she'd know as soon as Gale arrived.

"Maybe some wine," Leevy says and Madge feels her lips quirk up.

"That might be nice," she agrees and tries to take joy in the sun on her face. For a while she had thought she'd never feel the sun again, isn't that enough? Maybe it should be, but she cannot let Marvel win. Not after all he's done.

"That was quick," she says as her door opens but the voice that replies isn't Leevy's.

"Really? I thought it took ages," Gale says and Madge turns instantly to see him in the doorway. All her questions stick in her throat but Gale does not make her wait. He grins and she feels herself melt with relief.

"Victory, not cheap mind, but victory," he says and opens his arms. Madge falls into them gratefully.

"I get to keep it all?"

"Yes, every last bit. Marvel was no match for Peeta's arguments," he says and kisses her hair. She breathes out and with it goes all the weight she's been carrying since this plan was first announced. It's over, Marvel's lost and they've won. Finally.

"They only had the one sort...oh, you're here! Did you win?" Leevy asks excitedly and Gale flashes her a smile.

"Of course."

"Yes! Oh that's perfect! Here, have this to celebrate," she says and passes Gale the bottle. There's only one glass and she hands it to Madge with a wink. "I'll leave you two to your rejoicing," she says and slips out of the room, her smile saucy. Madge blushes but sits on the bed, her whole body thrumming. Gale uncorks the wine and sits beside her, his body solid and warm alongside hers. This is impossibly inappropriate, a boy sitting on her bed and in a church of all places! She is made of heat, she is tingly and deep, deep down, she is maybe anxious.

"My lady," he says and pours the wine into her glass. It is tart enough to crinkle her toes and she holds the cup up for him after she's had a sip. He gulps some down and wraps an arm around her, his grin her very favorite one. She grows hotter still and something in her stomach twists. She finds herself talking without truly knowing why.

"I hate that Marvel has a reward in this, but I know why he had to. It just...rankles is all," she says and as happy as she is at this outcome, that is the one thorn that continues to prick. Gale sighs and runs a hand through his hair.

"Trust me, I know. I'd take everything from him if I could, but we can't. What's best for England must come first, and peace is what's best for the country." He is bitter as he says it and she can understand that. It isn't fair but that's the price they have to pay for being so close to the throne. She cannot imagine how Katniss bears it.

"At least it's over now," she says because this is a happy day. Gale grins and kisses her cheek.

"It is, finally. You won the war and Peeta secured the peace." It seems impossible, but maybe he's right. Maybe she has finally won her war. It's been years of battle but finally she can lay down her arms.

"Thank you," she says and he raises an eyebrow.

"For what?"

"For loving me, for coming for me, for never giving up on us. I'm so used to doing everything alone, but when I needed you, you were there. Thank you."

Gale cups her cheek, his thumb soft as it rubs against her skin. "You don't need to thank me for that. You did all the hard work, I had the easy part. And I'll always love you. No matter what the world throws at us, I'm yours wholly, entirely, completely. That's never going to change."

Her stomach rolls over in pleasure and she cannot help but lean up and kiss him. His mouth is eager as it always is and his hand settles on her waist and pulls her close. She sinks into him for a few blissful moments before Gale pulls away, his forehead resting against her.

"I am having very impure thoughts considering we're in a church," he says and Madge blushes. Again, something in her stomach twists. She ignores it, runs her hands through his hair and kisses his nose, her heart swelling larger and larger with all her love for him.

"Perhaps you should marry me then," she says and the smile on his face might be the loveliest she's ever seen.

"I intend to," he says and there is giddiness filling her up top to bottom. "Just as soon as we can plan it."

"I'll plan it right now," she says and he laughs. He kisses her slowly, heat sliding through her like honey and for a moment at least, nothing else can touch her.

"There's nothing standing in our way anymore and nothing will again. If you'll have me Madge, then nothing will ever keep us apart again."

"I'll have you," she tells him as she did nearly two and a half years ago now, "forever."

He kisses her again and there is no shadow in her, no fear or anxiety or dark cloud hovering overhead.

For the first time in so long, there is nothing but happiness.


The days that follow are so full of anticipation Madge is surprised she doesn't pass out. She spends every moment just waiting for something to go wrong, but it never does. Cato does not suddenly appear alive insisting she cannot marry Gale for she is already married to him, Marvel doesn't decide to throw sense to the wind and open hostilities over being denied her inheritance and Finnick does not suddenly sail across the Channel with an invasion force. For once in her life, everything goes as it should.

Gale takes care of securing the dispensation for their marriage, Katniss sends the royal dressmaker to see her for a new gown and Madge lives in a dream, certain she will soon wake up. She is so used to disappointment, but Gale had been right. Her war is done and she'd won it. She doesn't wake up to find this is all a dream and then finally, finally the day she had been terrified would never come arrives.

Her wedding to Gale.

Madge wakes up and lies still for a few moments, her heart fluttering. This is it, two and a half years later but it doesn't matter. It's here now, that's what counts. After everything, she is finally going to marry Gale. Madge knows she is grinning like a fool and she opens her eyes to see sunlight spilling out across the room. Her dress is already laid out and Madge walks over to the window, her eyes drinking in the garden beyond. Even in the early winter, it is lovely and she breathes in fresh air, her every organ singing. This is it!

"My lady?" Leevy calls from beyond the door and Madge practically skips over to open it. This is so different from her last wedding day but of course it is. She is not marrying for power or politics or survival this time, she is simply marrying because she loves Gale with all her heart. There is no grand design here and that is so much better. Leevy grins at her and Madge beams back, anticipation squirming in her stomach.

"I've got you something to eat," Leevy says and holds out a tray with some broth and bread.

"Thank you," Madge says and she is breathless with anticipation.

"I'll get the bath ready while you eat," Leevy says and ducks back out of the room. Madge carries her tray over to the bed and sits, knowing she has to eat even as her stomach is so alive it doesn't feel as if any food could possibly stay down. If she doesn't eat now she'll be starving by supper and she doesn't want to be thinking about food during her wedding. There will be far better things to focus on. With a happy smile, Madge dips her bread into the broth and bites into it. I wonder what Gale is up to now? Is he as giddy as I am?

"I've got the bath set up in the next room if you're ready," Leevy says, poking her head into the room, and Madge nods. She follows Leevy into the other room and pulls off her nightgown, the December chill prickling her skin. She shivers and climbs into the tub, sighing in pleasure as she does. The water is delightfully warm and fragrant as flower blossoms. Madge sinks into it and Leevy kneels down beside the tub to help her wash. They scrub her from top to bottom, not one inch left untouched and she is reluctant to get out as she always is, but eagerness for what's to come propels her out. Leevy dries her off carefully and then fetches a bottle of sweet oil. It is chilly standing there naked while Leevy rubs it into her skin, but it'll be worth it. She wants to look and smell her best today, she can certainly handle a little cold.

Still, she is perfectly grateful when Leevy finishes and helps her into her chemise and stockings. Next comes a lovely kirtle in tyrian purple and then she sits so Leevy can lace her into a new pair of soft leather shoes. Leevy brushes out her hair, still shorter than Madge likes, and then comes around to dab colour onto her lips and cheeks. Madge stands and breathes to steady her rampaging heart. It doesn't help. Leevy fetches her gown, a beautiful houppelande in delicate cloth of gold, and Madge can't stop smiling as Leevy helps her into it. They tie on a girdle in the same pretty purple as her kirtle, hearts stitched into the fabric with golden thread. Madge hangs amethysts surrounded by golden suns on each ear and lets Gale's locket rest against the front of her dress, out where everyone can see it. Leevy places a shining gold band studded with diamonds and amethysts in her hair and Madge wears no rings, for there were only three that ever felt right on her fingers.

"Oh, you look beautiful my lady," Leevy sighs and Madge bites her lip around a giddy smile.

"Thank you for everything," she says and Leevy waves it away.

"Oh none of that. Now come along, the Earl's got a carriage waiting for you." She fastens a cloak over Madge's shoulders and they walk out together arm in arm. There is a pretty litter waiting on the drive, festooned with flowers and painted with Gale's coat of arms. Madge's heart quivers and Leevy squeezes her arm. The driver steps down and opens the door for her, bowing low and holding out a hand. Madge takes it and glances one last time at the church that had been her sanctuary and then steps up into the carriage. The interior is plush and Leevy leans in to tuck the blankets around her.

"Have a wonderful wedding, Lady Madge, and a lovely night too," Leevy says with a wink and Madge's whole face burns. The driver shuts the door and it will be a short ride to Westminster Abbey, but Madge is not sure she'll survive it. Anticipation is so thick in her veins she is sure to pass out. Well as long as someone rouses her for the wedding, it doesn't matter. The carriage lurches into movement and this is it.

In a few short moments she'll reach Westminster and then she will marry Gale.


(Hazelle watches Gale examine himself in the mirror and feels tears gather in her eyes. He is the last of her children to marry but the first to marry for love as she did and he has waited so, so long for this moment to arrive. He turns to her and holds out his arms.

"What do you think?" he asks and Hazelle smiles. She steps forward and takes his face in her hands.

"I think you look very handsome."

Gale grins and he is so young, he never should have faced such hardships. "Well, let's hope Madge thinks so too."

He looks so like his father and Hazelle pulls him into a hug. "She will. I love you and you deserve every happiness, you both do."

And Hazelle prays that finally they will have them)

The litter comes to a stop and Madge's heart jumps. We're here. Oh my God, this is it! The door opens and Madge takes the offered hand. She steps down into the bright December sunlight and Thom is waiting for her, his eyes wide as he takes her in. He smiles.

"You look lovely," he says and she blushes. Thom offers his arm and Madge takes it, her legs quaking. He leads her to the Abbey doors and Madge can hardly breathe. It's really happening. She is really marrying Gale.

"I'm going to tell you a secret, one I am definitely not supposed to tell you," Thom whispers conspiratorially and Madge looks at him in confusion. He grins.

"Gale has never put much stock in how he dresses or what he looks like, he's never seen the point. But let me tell you, it took him hours to get ready this morning. Hours ."

Madge giggles and for a moment the mess of her insides is forgotten. They reach the Abbey and Prim is waiting inside, her eyes wet and her smile wide.

"Oh, you're beautiful," she says and hugs Madge tight. Madge is glad for the comfort of her embrace. She lets it steady her and Prim pulls back, wiping at her eyes with a lace handkerchief.

"I'm sorry for the tears, I'm just so happy for the both of you," she says and then unfastens Madge's cloak. She fusses over Madge's dress and hair, ensuring everything is perfect and then steps back to examine her. Madge had done the same at her wedding and that almost feels like it was another life, another Madge. For a moment there is a shadow over her, the things she has lost trying to crowd in, but not today. Today is a miracle.

"I think you're all ready. Oh wait! Here, from Posy." Prim holds out a pansy and Madge's eyes blur with tears. She takes it and tucks into her kirtle, her heart swollen. Thom steps back into the room and Madge hadn't even realized he'd left. He grins.

"Everything's ready when you are," he says and Prim kisses her cheek.

"Take your time," she says and then the two of them slip into the church to take their seats. Madge presses her hands to her heart and breathes deeply. She is nervous but in the very best way. Another deep breath and this is it. No more waiting, it's time for her to marry Gale.

(The doors open and Madge Undersee steps into the room, her eyes shining and her smile bright as the sun. Hazelle watches her walk up the aisle to Gale, just how much she loves him lighting up her whole face. Marvel, as well as a few others, may have called Madge's motives into question but looking at her now, Hazelle has no doubts. Madge loves her son with all her heart and that is all Hazelle needs.

She turns her gaze to Gale and smiles through her tears. He is wonderstruck as he looks at Madge and they will be happy together, she knows that. That's all she has ever wanted. Oh Richard look at our boy. He's all grown up. Bless them Richard and let them know the same happiness we did.

They have earned that )

Madge cannot take her eyes from Gale as she walks towards him and no one has ever been so beautiful. Nothing else registers, not the guests, the decorations, none of it. There is only Gale. The way he looks at her makes her feel like she isn't so much walking as floating and that smile on his face is easily the loveliest the world has ever known.

She loves him so much she feels as if she may burst with it and then he is there before her, his hand held out. Madge beams at him and takes it. A giddy laugh bubbles in her throat and his smile widens, bright, joyful and spilling over her like the sunrise. For a moment they stare at each other, drink each other in and there is a fragile sort of perfection in this moment. It has been so long awaited and it is here, finally. The wedding has not truly begun and yet she is already crying, but she cannot help it. Was she ever so happy?

Gale squeezes her hand and they kneel down together.

This is it.

A few words, a kiss, and just like that, Madge and Gale are married.