Madge runs until her legs quake and her lungs burn.
The sun glows bright in the sky when she stops to catch her breath, the whole arena glittering like a million tiny diamonds. It's almost blinding and she closes her eye against the glare. She leans back against a tree, her every exhale turns to smoke and how far had she run? Far enough that the Capitol will believe it when Gale doesn't find her? The act isn't over just because they're apart and should she keep going? He needs to search but never find her and she needs to get far enough away that it's reasonable for him to fail.
The air is cold in her lungs and now that she's stupidly let herself think of him, Gale slips all the way in. He grows like a weed in her chest, his roots wrapping around her ribs and tangling with her veins. Madge breathes deep and steady and tries to pull him loose and focus only on herself, but he doesn't go. He ties himself around her and tears sparkle on her cheeks, but survival's at stake; she can't let herself get distracted. Going home has to be her only objective and it doesn't matter that Gale was her ally, her almost-friend, her...something, because he isn't anymore. He can't be. He's her enemy now.
It's hard to swallow that, hard to breathe around that thought but it's the truth. The quicker she accepts that, the better it'll be. She'd been stupid enough to get attached, to let fondness creep in, but no more. She has to be strong now and she will. She will. Gale is the enemy. Enemy, enemy, enemy . Remember that. Whatever that something was she had felt growing between them, it's dead now. It has to be.
Madge pushes off her tree and buries Gale in the snow at her feet. He's nothing to her, nothing at all.
She keeps walking.
It's past noon when she decides she's gone far enough.
Snow begins to drift lazily down from the sky and she needs to find shelter. The clouds above are heavy, anything or anyone might find her out in the open and she didn't make it this far just to freeze. She drags her feet slowly, from fatigue and caution both. She's slipped and stumbled on enough things already; she can't afford any serious injuries. Everything she does has to be smart from here on out; there's no room for error. She's alone against seven other tributes, the arena and the gamemakers.
The odds are against her but then, they always were.
She wanders in the falling snow for quite some time (though without Gale's watch she can't actually tell how long) before she finally finds a place she can rest. It's a shallow sort of cave, not perfect but good enough. She finds firewood half hidden in the corner and when she digs around outside, she discovers a large patch of sour red berries several feet to the left of the entrance. Survival's what counts so Madge gathers them up and then kneels down to start her fire, one thought thrumming through her. I can do this. It's the only thought she'll allow herself to have, the only one that isn't dangerous or devastating. She has plenty of water, she can feed herself and she knows how to find shelter and firewood. Maybe she isn't the flashiest of tributes, but that doesn't matter. What matters is surviving and she will. She's going home.
She isn't Gale, the fire doesn't spring from her fingertips in moments, but soon enough she has sparks dancing on the pine needles. The fire is warm, bright and Madge wraps herself up in her tarp and eats her sour fruit. It makes her lips pucker and there's a memory scrabbling to be let in, but she locks it out. She needs to stay firm, she needs to stay focused and memories of the last few days will only make that harder. She knows that, she does, but then a squirrel scurries by the mouth of her cave and again, memories push against the doors she'd locked. Everything in this frozen hell is tied up in everything she wants to forget and she should be stronger than this. She should be aloof and distant and divorced from caring, but she isn't. She's not sure she knows how to be.
Madge closes her eye and thinks of home, of her parents and Katniss. She thinks of her piano, of Merrie the cook and Mrs Sparrowsaw the housekeeper, thinks of the flowers in the meadow and the taste of strawberries. Victory won't come cheap, but it'll be worth it. It will.
Madge nearly chokes on her berry and looks up at the sky, but of course there's nothing there. There won't be until tonight and she closes her eye again. Is it Gale? It might be better if it is, get it over with, but she doesn't want that. She should, he's the enemy and she needs him to die, but she's not ready for him to die just yet. But then, will she ever be ready? After everything, will she ever be ready to see his face up amongst the stars?
As stupidstupidstupid as it is, she knows the answer.
That night she dines on more berries and some edible leaves she mixes into a sort of salad. It's not the most filling of meals, but it's good enough. She chews and ideally the other tributes will finish each other off, but she knows she can't count on that. She needs to start thinking about what she'll do if she has to fight her way home.
The anthem starts.
Madge doesn't breathe as she looks up at the sky, her heart suspended in her chest. The girl from Four, a career. Madge exhales and tears prickle at her eyes.
"Oh Gale," she whispers for the cameras and that means there's only seven of them left. Six more gone, only two of them careers, and she can go home. What a hideous thought. Madge returns to her salad and can't think of that. If she does, she might hesitate about winning, about going home. She can't think of the bones she has to climb over. Instead, she fills her mind with the mockingjay on her chest. She is going to make it out of this.
The Capitol can't have her.
Nightmares take her again tonight, but when she wakes with fear closing her throat and the taste of blood on her tongue, there's no Gale to comfort her.
Madge curls around herself in the dark and wonders if he's as lonely as she is.
Madge wakes to the smell of smoke.
It tickles her nose and then she's coughing. She sits up, she can't stop coughing and as she opens her eye, it stings. The smoke wraps around her and she tries to fan it away with her hands, but it doesn't go. And that's when she sees it.
The forest is on fire.
The trees are on fire, the bushes are on fire, the very snow seems to be on fire. Madge stands. Oh no, oh no no no no no. She needs to run.
The flames chase her as she sprints away and tiny little branches catch at her skin and clothes as she crashes through the trees. It's hard to breathe, her eye waters and fire is everywhere. Where is she supposed to go? Heat pushes at her from every direction but she can't stop to think or figure it out or plan. If she stops, she burns. Burns like everything else already is and she won't die like this, she can't. She won't and she leaps over a frozen creek, the trees crackling all around her. A smouldering branch crashes at her feet, she is terror and run, run, run . Don't stop running. Running is survival.
Her left foot steps on something she can't see with her useless eye and she stumbles. The fire kisses her back and she shrieks in surprise, a potent mix of panic and self-preservation forcing her back to her feet and on again. Horror devours her as her jacket burns and she's on fire. She's on fire but she can't stop running. If she stops, it's over. The flames are hungry, their jaws snapping to catch her and her hands shake and shake and shake as she hurriedly unzips her coat. It's so hard to breathe, she coughs as the smoke claws its way inside her and she hurls away the burning remains of her jacket. Aunt Maysilee's pin goes with it but she can't think of that right now. The world is melting around her.
And then she runs right off the edge of a hill.
Her feet meet air and for one suspended moment, she is electrified with pure, profound terror. It feels like every part of her is curling up inside her; fear a screaming, wailing thing alive in her every pore.
And then the world restarts and she tumbles forward, the breath knocked out of her as she rolls and falls and somersaults down down down. It's disorienting, terrifying and painful as the world whirls and fire is still in every breath she takes. She lands in a heap, her face pressed into the snow and the bruise on her shoulder screaming. The pain is intense, so intense she can't breathe. Agony fills her up, but it's her head that worries her the most. She presses her fingers to her old wound and even through the bandages, they come away wet. Damn it.
She can't worry about that now. She can't, because there's still a fire to contend with and she isn't going to die here. She forces herself up on trembling arms and Agrippa had set their crowns and chariots on fire, hadn't he? Fire can't be what kills her, not when it's what first made them love her.
Except they'd love that even more, wouldn't they?
Her gut churns but when she looks up the hill she'd fallen down, she sees the fire hasn't followed. It's like a wall at the top of the hill, but it hasn't slunk downwards. She feels no relief. She's safe from the flames, but the gamemakers must have something else in store. If they've herded her here, there's a reason for it. She stands and sways, her stomach tossing again. She needs to focus, she needs to be ready. She can't let fear beat her. Her legs are weak but she moves as fast as she can, out of the open where anyone might see her.
"Fuck!" a voice howls from beyond the trees and no. No, no, please no. She watches in horror as Gale bursts from the forest into the clearing, his right arm on fire. Her heart stops. He flings himself down into the snow and rolls until he can smother the flames, the ground around him stained red. Madge doesn't breathe.
"Fuck, fuck," he moans in agony and this is why the gamemakers herded her here. They want their lovers reunited and she should leave now, she should run and never look back. She can't. There's only one direction her legs are willing to move in and even though she knows she shouldn't, even though it's the stupidest possible thing she could do, Madge runs towards him. She pulls leaves from her bra and she's going to suffer for this later.
They both will.
She falls to her knees beside him and every single cell in her body screams leave leave leave! She ignores them all. The rules are clear, she knows the game and she's going to pay dearly for this. Compassion, kindness, attachment, they're all weaknesses and she gives in to all of them.
"It's okay," she says in a quaking voice and he looks at her with pain clouded eyes.
"It's okay, you're going to be okay," she promises and pulls off her gloves. She looks around and grabs a nearby stick, her blood roaring in her ears.
"Bite on this," she tells him and he leans away from her because he must know too how very, very wrong this all is. She grabs his shoulder and holds him firm. "Bite on this," she repeats and there's no room for argument in her voice. Stupid yes, foolish and pathetic and idiotic yes, but she's going to do this, no matter how much it'll cost her later. His eyes are dark and she stuffs the stick between his teeth. He doesn't want her help, she shouldn't be giving it but it's too late now. She can't walk away. Her hands shake but she mushes up the leaves into a paste between her palms, the smell strong and pungent. His lungs rise and fall with heavy breaths and she squeezes his fingers.
"This is going to hurt, but I need to do it," she says and begins dabbing her leaf paste onto his arm. He yells but it's muffled by the stick in his mouth and she has to tear at the tattered remains of his jumpsuit and jacket to give herself better access to the burns. There are tears in her eyes as she coats his arm and then she pulls out more leaves and repeats the process until she runs out of leaves. She's almost finished, but there's still angry red and black skin that needs tending to. She'll need to find more leaves, but first she pulls out the herbs from the other side of her bra and sprinkles them over the burns to keep infection at bay. He spits out the stick and his breaths are shallow and shaking, his skin takes on a frightening pallor and she strokes his hair. He glares at her.
"What the...what the fuck are you doing?" he demands and tears spill down her cheeks. She is so stupid. Neither one of them will thank her for this later.
"I have to get more leaves, stay here," she says and the fury on his face promises he won't. He sits up as she stands, his breathing harsh and his chest heaving. She can't even imagine how much pain he must be in. She hurries into the trees and kicks away all the snow she comes across, desperate to find the leaves she needs. It'll be better if he leaves and she's sure he's trying to right now, standing and running through the agony because he knows like she does that she's ruining everything. But if strength means letting him suffer and potentially die when she could help, if it means leaving Eleven to die all alone and terrified, if it means letting the Capitol twist her up into something she'd hate, maybe she doesn't want to be strong. Or maybe she does, she can't tell anymore. Nothing makes any sense.
She finds the leaves at the base of a tree and bends down to dig them up, her gloveless hands aching from the cold. She barely notices. The tears make it hard to see and I'm sorry Mom, I'm sorry Dad . I know I should leave him, but I can't. I'm so sorry.
Madge's whole body recoils and she's heard him yell and shout and grunt but never scream. She runs. Is she breathing? She's not sure and all she can think of is Gale, Gale who might be hurt, Gale who might be-
"Well, well, well, look who it is," a mocking voice laughs and Madge skids to a stop just before she plows into the clearing.
"District Twelve's handsome hero," that voice continues and Madge peers through the trees. Gale is lying in the snow clutching at his left leg and there's a knife protruding from his calf, so close to the bone she's sure they're touching. The pain on his face is unimaginable and she wants to be sick. But that's not the worst part. Standing several feet away from him is the girl from Two, twirling a knife in her hand. Her smirk is cruel, her eyes bright and she's a career.
"Cato!" she calls loudly and that must be her district partner. Terror is so stark Madge feels for a moment as if she might pass out. "Cato, I found him!"
Gale tries to sit up but as soon as he moves his leg just a little, he collapses with a curse. Two cackles.
"Ooo, does that hurt? I hope so. Where's your girlfriend? Is she trying to find some help? Or did she abandon you when she realized you weren't of any more use?"
Gale spits at her and Madge should be thinking about her odds of surviving an encounter with one (and maybe soon to be two) career(s), she should accept the fact that Gale has to die if she wants to see her parents again and maybe she should even be pragmatically planning to let Two kill Gale and then attacking her herself when she's busy gloating. But there's none of that in her. The only thought she has is I have to save him.
"It's too bad she's not here, I was looking forward to making one of you watch the other die," Two says and she's smart to stay out of Gale's reach. His bow is still lying where he'd fallen after the fire and she could kill him long before he could ever reach it. He's in pain, he's suffering, but Two's smart enough not to risk getting too close. She twirls her knife again and Madge's trembling fingers unzip her pocket and pull out two of the poison berries. She crushes them until her fingers are sticky with pulp and juice.
"Cato!" Two calls again and shakes her head when there's no response. "He's going to be so pissed he missed this. Oh well, I'll be sure to give the audience a good show." Her grin is feral and adrenaline makes Madge quicker than she's ever been. She flies out of her hiding spot and before anyone knows what's happening, she and Two collide.
"What the fuck?" Two shouts at the same time Gale yells "Madge! "
Two stumbles back and Madge falls with her, the two of them landing hard in the snow. Two's knife waves wildly, the blade cutting into Madge's side with pain like white hot fire, but desperation keeps her from screaming or rolling away. She jams her poison fingers into Two's mouth and the other girl gags, her teeth biting down so hard Madge wouldn't be surprised if her fingers were no longer attached to her hand.
"Madge!" Gale shouts again, his voice shaking with terror. Madge stuffs her fingers in so far she's sure she can feel the back of Two's throat and Two gurgles, her eyes wide and horrified. She drops her bloody knife and suddenly all the pain adrenaline had been keeping at bay surges through Madge, agony like the ocean and she's drowning. It's hard to breathe or think or see or hear and the hand not dripping with saliva and poison leaps to her wound. It hurts, it hurts it hurtsithurtsithurts.
"Madge!" Gale cries and he's frantic.
"Ca...Ca..." Two whispers and Madge blinks away the white haze clouding her vision. She's so nauseous she's sure to be sick and Two claws at her own throat.
"Cat...Ca…" she tries again and Cato, she is trying to say Cato.
"Madge! Oh fuck, Madge, oh fuck," Gale says and he is beside her somehow. It's so hard to think about anything other than pain and horror and Two gasps and gasps for air she can't find. She's dying and I did that, I killed her .
"Come on, come on get up," Gale half-orders, half-begs and then from beyond the trees "Clove! Where are you?"
Clove. Her name is Clove. Madge closes her eyes and it's Cato's voice, it must be, still far off but not far enough. Adrenaline starts to pump within her again and she knows Gale's right. They have to move but it hurts, oh fuck fuck it hurts so much. Gale grabs her arm. Two, Clove , stops moving and boom.
I killed someone
I killed her
Madge wants to scream and even through the pain, she scrambles off of Clove and can't stop shaking. "Clove!" Cato bellows again and this time there's worry in his voice. Madge stares at Clove's unmoving body and there's vomit in her mouth, horror in her lungs and why are they still working together? Did they plan to finish one and two and guarantee District Two the victory? Were they unable to break their alliance the way she was unable to leave Gale?
"Clove! Clove, answer me dammit!"
He's so much closer now and Gale pulls on her arm. "Come on Madge, stand up!" he pleads, anger and fear shaking his voice, and she turns her eye on him. He's a ghastly colour, his face is full of pain and his eyes are made of fear. Fear for her she realizes and she'll focus on that. She can't think of Clove's dying gasp, of the agony ripping her apart, she has to think of Gale. Focus on Gale. She keeps her eye locked with his and stands, her legs quivering so badly she can barely stay upright. She can't straighten, the pull of muscles in her side like setting herself on fire. Acid crawls up her throat but Gale doesn't stand with her. He stays where he is and without a single thought, she grabs his arm and pulls.
"Madge," he growls but she doesn't listen, the nausea nearly knocking her over. She pulls and pulls, because she won't leave without him. She can't open her mouth to say so, she's sure she'll puke if she does, but he must see it on her face because he hauls himself up. His teeth are gritted, his eyes are suffocating in pain and his leg can barely hold any weight. He leans into her, so heavy she thinks she might collapse under him and his breathing is so, so ragged. They shuffle towards the trees, dragging each other onwards. They need to get away because if Cato finds them, they're dead. Neither one of them could possibly fight anyone off right now and she's lightheaded, blood still leaking through her fingers while Gale curses with every step.
She always knew she was going to die and maybe today's the day she will.
No, no. Gale's grip is bruising and he needs her and so do Mom and Dad, they need her to come home. Survive, she has to survive and that thought is cold but determined. Forget everything else, just survive. They vanish into the trees and that's when she hears it.
"Clove! " Cato screams and Madge flinches at his anguish. He's found her then.
"Clove, no! No, come on! Get up, get up Clove," he begs and she has to ignore it. Don't think of Clove clawing at her throat, don't listen to the sorrow in Cato's voice. Survive, survive, survive.
The ground gives way beneath them.
They fall and Madge is too surprised to make a sound, fear tying tight around her neck and squeezing her throat closed. It's a soft landing in a snowdrift but the jolt to her side is so horrifically painful she has to roll over and vomit. She isn't the only one. Gale heaves beside her and she knows they have to keep going, but she feels so weak she doesn't think she can move. She lies there in the snow and wishes the cold would make her numb.
"Madge," Gale says and his voice is thin and agonized. Madge thinks of the terror she'd seen in his eyes, thinks of her father crying as they'd said goodbye, thinks of her mother trapped in bed and still carrying heartbreak from the last time she'd lost someone in the Games. Get up, get up! You are the mockingjay, Aunt Maysilee's mockingjay. The Capitol can't beat you. Get up for Dad, get up for Mom and Aunt Maysilee, get up for Gale. Get up!
Madge clenches her jaw and stands even as the world spins. She reaches for Gale and grasps his arm, a roar of rage shaking the ground beneath her feet. Cato. He is out for revenge. Gale claws his way up with the help of a nearby tree and again they lean into each other, trying as hard as they can to keep each other standing. Cato will be able to follow their footprints and the bloodtrail they've left behind, they need to figure out some way to lose him. They did fall down that hill, but she has no idea how much, if at all, that will slow him.
"The river," Gale pants, "we can use the river." Madge doesn't dare open her mouth, but she follows his eyes and nods. The water will disguise any trail of theirs and they drag themselves over, wooziness threatening to overtake her. They clamber into the water and it's so cold every other thought and feeling is driven from her mind. She bites on her tongue to keep from screaming and tastes her own blood. She gags and "fuck, fuck, holy fuck," Gale hisses through his teeth. Any risk of passing out is thoroughly obliterated and they need to keep moving. Every step is torture, a thousand million knives slicing into her feet and calves. The water's lower on Gale, but she can still hear the torment in his every breath. They move upstream in the hopes Cato will guess downstream and she is pain, nothing but pain, and keep moving. Keep moving keep moving keep-
They flinch together but there's no time to stop. Someone else is dead and hopefully it's Cato. That's probably a horrible thought to have but she can't care about that right now. All she cares about is keep going keep going keep going keep going. How long has it been? She doesn't know, she can't think and then Gale's hand tightens on hers convulsively.
"O-ove-ver th-there," he says and his teeth chatter so badly he can barely speak. The world swims before her eye but she trusts him and they clamber from the river. Almost there, she promises herself and then there's stone beneath her feet and all around her. Gale collapses beside her with a wretched curse and she sinks to the floor, her body hunching over itself. The pain is unbelievable, in her side, her head, her feet and she presses her forehead to the ground. Tears spill down her face and she can't breathe. She can't...she can't...she...
"...dge! Madge! Hey, wake up! Madge, stay with me, come on!"
Madge opens her eyes and everything spins. She rolls over and retches, Gale's hand on her back. Had she blacked out? Her throat burns and Gale helps her sit. He brings the water bottle to her lips and he's shaking so badly water sloshes over the rim of it onto her chin. She drinks and the pain comes back to her with such vehemence she almost passes out again. Gale grips her shoulder tight enough to keep her steady and he looks awful. He's still a sickly colour, his lips are turning blue and his every feature is pinched with pain.
If they don't do something soon, they're going to die here.
"I...I n-need to fi-fix your l-leg," she forces out through chattering teeth and he shakes his head.
"F-fuck my leg," he says and she blinks in surprise. "Y-your side. Let me...let me d-do your s-side."
He shrugs out of his jacket and she frowns. "What…" She never finishes the question as he pulls the knife out his pack and begins cutting his jacket into strips. Bandages, he's making bandages. The pieces are uneven and jagged, his hands vibrating with cold and pain. Her own hands shudder terribly and when she looks at them she's almost sick again. One is orange with dried poison and the other slick with blood, her blood. She swallows the bile in her mouth and crawls to the mouth of the cave.
"Madge?" Gale calls and she plunges her hands into the snow. It's freezing but she needs to clean them, she needs them clean. Her right hand aches and the fingers Clove had bitten are already bruising, her teeth having left cuts as well. Madge tucks her frozen fingers into her armpits and shuffles back to Gale, his eyes stuck to her side. She can't look.
"I'm g-going to w-wash it," he says and she nods. She closes her eyes and he mops at her wound with a wet jacket rag, her teeth clenched to keep from screaming. She presses her hands to her mouth and she needs to think clearly.
"H-herbs," she hisses through her fingers. "In...in m-my b-bra. R-r-right si-side." Gale takes them out, his fingers quivering so badly his nails scrape her skin. He binds her up, a wad of his jacket pressed to her wound and tied up with torn strips. She tries to remember how to breathe.
"Head," he says and she shakes hers.
"N-no. Leg," she insists and pushes him away. The whole cave is hazy around the edges, fear lights his eyes and she grabs a bundle of jacket. Her other hand, the bruised, bleeding hand, takes hold of Clove's knife and for a moment all she can see is Clove suffocating before her. Madge bites her lip so hard it hurts. Gale, think of Gale. They lock eyes and she pulls. Gale falls back with an awful sound, one of his fists beating against the ground. She cries as she pushes the makeshift bandage onto his wound, trying desperately to staunch the bleeding. She sprinkles the rest of her herbs on it and then ties it up as quickly as her trembling fingers allow.
"S-sorry, so-sorry," she says and his face is screwed up tight with agony. Tears leak out the corners of his eyes, his arm's still an awful mess and she pulls out the leaves she'd gathered just before Clove attacked. Her fingers quiver and he eyes her warily, his whole body tensing as she rubs the paste on the last of his wound. He inhales sharply and clenches his teeth together, his skin somehow paling further. She winces with him and uses the rest of the jacket scraps to bandage him up. Madge sizzles with pain all over, but though her foot hurts an unreal amount, she can't feel her toes. She knows what that means. They need to warm up or they're going to freeze to death. The light is poor, especially with only one eye but there, off to the left, is the bundle they need. She crawls over, nausea still tossing and turning within her. She drags the bundle back to Gale and feels her heart stop. Just like she must have before, he's blacked out from the pain.
"G-Gale! G-Gale!" she shouts and shakes him. His head lolls and she slaps him. He jerks awake, his eyes popping open and clouded with pain. "St-stay with me," she pleads and he nods slowly, his breathing laboured. He closes his eyes and Madge is so cold it's a wonder she can think straight.
She has to though, if she doesn't they're dead. Clove howls in the back of her mind, but she buries that under survive survive survive . Her hands tremble as she takes the blanket out of his pack and he starts a fire with matches he must have received as a gift after she'd left him. They need to stay warm and she throws the blanket over him before she takes off his boots and then peels off both his wet socks. She lays them by the fire to dry and she can't take off her own; bending feels like tearing herself in half. Gale helps her pull off her boots and both her socks and the toes on her left foot are an awful colour. Her stomach riots.
They huddle by the fire and they need to keep their blood flowing. They sit in a tangle of limbs and rub each other's legs and feet, the pain and the cold still desperately trying to pull her under. If she passes out now, she might never wake up and that fear helps more than anything to keep her awake. His eyes widen.
"Madge," he breathes. "Madge, parachutes." She turns around and two parachutes have dropped presents for them just outside their cave. She crawls over and please be something for the pain, oh please be something for the pain . It's a struggle to open the packages with her hands shaking so badly, but she manages and pulls out a bodysuit, one thicker and warmer than the ones they already have. The inside is lined with soft fluff, there are feet attached and this one is just Gale's size. She opens the other and it's the same thing, but sized for her. She crawls back to Gale and the effort of all that movement leaves her winded. She has to pause a moment to catch her breath, the knife wound in her side pulsing with agony. Darkness creeps in at the corners of her fuzzy vision and Gale holds her hand so tight it hurts. She focuses on that and lets it drag her back.
"We need to change," she gasps and he nods. Neither one of them can take off their jumpsuits alone and she helps him pull his over his injured leg and arm while he helps her tug hers off with the minimum amount of movement possible. They use the top halves to dry off their still wet legs and then struggle into their new suits as fast as they can. She is instantly warmer and though she still can't feel the toes on her left foot, the fear of freezing lessens within her. Gale lifts the blanket and she presses up next to him, the two of them almost in the fire in their urge to heat up.
They shiver in silence but it doesn't last. The sky grows dim, they start to warm and Gale's teeth stop chattering. He breaks their quiet.
"What the fuck were you thinking?" he demands and Madge feels fear and sorrow and guilt turn to anger licking at her skin at the harshness of his voice.
"I was thinking you were going to die if I didn't do something!" she snaps and she doesn't want to argue about this, she doesn't want to argue at all, but when she looks at him, he's livid. She's never seen him so angry; his lips drawn back, his eyes dark with fury and his nostrils flaring.
"Then you should have left me!" he shouts. His chest heaves and so does hers, their anger rising together. She wants to cry, but yelling is easier. Anger hurts less than misery.
"I could never do that, I would never do that!" she shouts back and he's like a dragon from a storybook, sparks dancing in his every ragged breath.
"Then you're an idiot!" he growls. "And you've fucked me! You saved my life! You risked everything to save me, how can I ever go home now? I owe you my life," he says and there's fury and misery laced into every letter. She breathes in and can't seem to breathe out.
"We were even. That's what I had to keep telling myself because I was going insane thinking about you dying, about going home without you. We were even, I didn't owe you anything and my family needs me. But then you had to save my life and get sliced open doing it! What the fuck am I supposed to do now?" he demands and she can't answer. She'd never imagined him having this reaction but maybe she should have. Gale is a lot of things, stubborn, prideful and noble among them.
"I don't want you to owe me," she tells him and lets anger keep her tears at bay. He makes a furious sound in the back of his throat.
"You think I don't know that? That makes it worse. If you'd done it just so I'd owe you and feel obligated to protect you, it'd be easy to ignore. But you didn't. You did it because you're a good person. Because you're kind and compassionate and now I have to make sure you win. It was already too hard, but now it's impossible. I can't let you go off on your own or get hurt or die, I can't," he says and presses his fists into his forehead. Madge stares at him and she'd known her choice would ruin them, and now it has.
"This is such a fucking mess!" he yells and she winces. He looks back up at her and his eyes burn so bright she feels almost as if her skin has caught fire. "I want to go home, I want to see my family again but now I can't! Why couldn't you leave me? Why did you have to save me?"
"What do you want from me?" she demands and tragedy is the very air she breathes. "You want me to say I'm sorry? Well I'm not!"
She surprises them both by saying it and his eyes widen even as his teeth stay clenched. The tears she'd been ignoring sting her eyes and everything is wrong, everything is terrible and she wants to go home, she wants to be safe and not here suffering for someone else's entertainment.
"I'm not sorry you're alive! I can't be and if you want to be, too bad!" she shouts and she can't stop. "I know I've screwed myself, but I couldn't let you die! You really think I could ever live with myself if I just walked away and let you die? I don't want to lose, I want to go home, I do, I really do. Maybe I'm an idiot but I'll never be the person who could just let you die."
She is a mess of tears and rage, at herself and Gale and the whole world and she's never been much for words, but they come pouring out of her now without end. "If you hate me, if you want to leave, then go! I won't stop you. I don't want you to die for me, I don't want you to save me or protect me, I never wanted to see you again! I know what I did, I know that's not how you win the Hunger Games, but I could never do anything else," and it feels a little like relief but also despair to admit it, to know that this is who she is and there's no way she could ever be the cold hearted victor she needs to be.
"If you don't like it, you can leave but I won't apologize. I did the only thing I could, the only thing I could ever live with and I won't be sorry. I'm so scared I can barely breathe," she admits and the tears come harder now as she thinks of the home she'll probably never see again. "I want to go home so, so desperately, but there's only so much of myself I can give away to make that happen."
She's not even sure she's making sense anymore but she's been primed to go off since the reaping and maybe being the mockingjay isn't just about surviving what the Capitol throws at her, maybe it's also about remembering who she really is as they try to break her into something different.
"Maybe you're stronger than I am, maybe you could pay any price to go home, but I can't. If you think I'm pathetic and weak, fine. You don't owe me. I know I'm an idiot, but I could never do anything else. I-"
Gale kisses her.
He grips her shoulders tight, her eye widens in surprise and this kiss isn't sweet or even full of heat, this kiss is hard and desperate and overwhelming. Is this for the cameras? Just to shut her up? Because he wants to? She doesn't know, she can barely think and she's gasping when he pulls away. His breathing is harsh and he bows his head.
"What am I supposed to do now?" he asks but it isn't angry and loud like before. Now it's soft and devastated. The tears drip off her chin.
"I don't know," she whispers and what are either of them going to do? He won't let her die, she won't let him die and what does that leave them with?
"I...I'm sorry," he chokes out and his voice is thick with all her sorrow. "I'm sorry for shouting at you. I'm sorry for being so angry. I know you didn't do any of this to make a mess of things and I'd have done the same thing. I could never leave you either. This is just so fucked up. I'm sorry." Her heart trips and stumbles between her ribs.
"I never meant for this, I don't want you to feel like you owe me. I know I'm an idiot and I'm sorry for making you feel like you're in an impossible situation," she says and he pulls her against him. She listens to his heartbeat and even though it shouldn't be, it might be the most reassuring sound in the world.
"Don't," he says fiercely. "Don't be sorry. You saved my life, you risked your own because you're a good person and you shouldn't be sorry about that. None of this is your fault, it's-"
He cuts himself off just in time and she presses her face into his shoulder. What a disaster, what a mess. The Capitol has condemned them and if she does somehow win, she knows she won't ever go home. Not really.
"I'm sorry," he says again, "for lashing out at you. And I'm sorry about what I said before the reaping. I'm sorry for every dirty look and stupid thing I've thought. I was wrong and I'm sorry. I'm sorry, Madge."
She lifts her head to look at him and it was better when he was angry and yelling at her. Now he's breaking her into pieces, sharp, weeping pieces. After everything they've been through and everything he's done for her, it seems ridiculous to apologize. He has more than made up for any snide remark or rude thought. And maybe that's why her heart feels suddenly too big for her chest. He doesn't need to apologize, she never would've expected or even wanted him to, but he has. There is something dangerous growing within her.
"I...I...I'm sorry too," she manages through her tears and this time he's the one that lifts his head to look at her in confusion. His eyes are wet too and she is splintering.
"What? What are you sorry for?" he asks and she bites her lip. For being jealous and resentful that Katniss preferred him? For thinking he was nothing but an angry ass? For not getting to know him sooner? For coming up with this plan that will do nothing but hurt them both? For every uncharitable thought she's had about him? For saving his life and dooming him all in one? For all of it.
"Everything," she mumbles and she is. She is sorry for everything and he presses his face into her neck, her arms clutching him tight. She thought she'd known heartbreak before, but she'd been wrong.
This is heartbreak and she wonders if either one of them will ever recover.
She's pretty sure she knows the answer.
They don't say anything else, there's nothing more to say. They sit in silence, still pressed together for warmth but a chasm looming between them. She'd saved him, she'd broken the rules and now they both have to pay for it.
They burn together and wish wish wish they were apart.
(but even still, neither of them leaves)
Madge closes her eyes during the anthem and hides her face in Gale's shoulder.
"The boy from Ten," he murmurs to her and she nods. Had one of the other remaining tributes found him? Or had he been unfortunate enough to stumble upon Cato in his fury? Well, either way, he's dead now.
They lie down to sleep, cocooned in their blanket and each other's arms. They don't bother with shifts tonight, they know neither one of them will be able to stay awake. His fingers run over her back and she strokes his hair and they might not wake up tomorrow. It's a terrifying thought, fear lives in her organs, pain throbs throughout her body and everything is wrong, so very, very wrong.
Just before she drifts to sleep, she thinks she hears him whisper "thank you."
Sleep doesn't last long.
She wakes in a panic and sits bolt upright. She grabs at her throat and she can't breathe, she's suffocating. She's dying just like Clove had and she deserves to, doesn't she? She does, but still she tries to breathe, tries to suck air into her lungs and Gale's arms come around her.
"Shh, shh, it's okay. I've got you, I've got you," he murmurs to her ear and she shakes her head, her lungs too small to keep her alive. He tightens his hold on her. "You're okay, you're safe. I've got you," he says again, firm and soothing and she leans into him. He is warm and solid around her and after an eternity her heart starts to calm, her lungs stretching out and accepting oxygen. Gale rubs her back and it takes her a long time sitting in the dark before she can speak.
"I'm sorry," she whispers and he pulls her somehow closer, the scent of him leaking into her blood. He presses his face into her hair and her arms find their way around him.
"I don't think you're weak," he breathes to her skin and she inhales. "I think you're strong. Staying you in a place like this, I think that's the strongest thing you can do. When I saw you with Eleven, I don't think I've ever...I don't think you're weak or pathetic."
His words are dangerous and she forces herself to say "But I am an idiot?"
"I think we're both idiots."
It takes her forever to fall back asleep.
There's so much seething in her lungs, her blood, her organs and she can't quiet any of it. There's Clove trying so desperately to breathe, there's Cato's howling grief, there's her parents, there's Katniss and how she'd prefer Gale come home, there's a district that won't cry if she dies and there's Gale, of course there's Gale.
She closes her eyes and sees so many terrible things, tries to calm her breathing and hears Clove gasping gasping for air. Exhaustion makes her hazy, but it isn't enough to pull her under. She lingers on and on and on with Gale's fingers in her hair and how long has it been? Minutes? Hours?
He must think she's asleep for he whispers softly, so very softly "I wish you weren't you."
When she wakes up again, she doesn't feel rested. She aches in so many places and she's tired all the way down to her bones. Gale is watching her when she rolls over and she wonders if he'd been watching her all night. Had he gotten any sleep? The exhaustion haunting his face says no.
He smiles faintly when he notices she's awake and she touches his cheek with her swollen fingers.
"You need to sleep," she whispers and his face tightens. She sits up and he takes a deep breath. Maybe he's afraid of what's waiting for him when he closes his eyes. She can understand that. He lies down and she grabs his hand. His fingers tangle through hers and don't let go.
stay with me
Gale's sleep is fitful.
Madge squeezes his hand, strokes his hair and hopes it helps.
Though maybe it's worse if it does.
His dusty watch says it's 2:17 pm back home when he wakes up and neither one of them suggests they find somewhere else to stay. They both know they'd never make it. Tomorrow they'll have to move on, but they need today to rest and maybe regain a little, tiny bit of strength. Hopefully the gamemakers will let them have this. They've earned it, haven't they? Yesterday's excitement should buy them time, their injuries, the drama, killing Clove, that should have slaked the Capitol's appetite for a day, right?
Madge drags herself out to pee and angry tears gather in her eyes. She hates them, she hates them so much and she wants...she doesn't even know for sure what she wants, but she yearns for something with ugly fire in her gut. The cold air chills her lungs and the pain in her side is intense, so intense bile slithers up her throat and pools in her mouth. Madge swallows it all back down, it scalds as it goes, and she crawls back to Gale's side. His eyes dig into her and she feels shivery and wrung out. No one speaks as they split his last pack of jerky and she can't bear their silence. Quiet lets her think and there are so many things she can't think about.
"Tell me a secret," she murmurs as they sit together under his blanket and she still can't feel some of the toes on her left foot. She probably never will again.
"Okay," he says and she listens to the uneven beat of his heart. Fear curls around her stomach, lungs and veins, but she ignores it. He's alive, she's alive, they're both alive. That's the only thought she'll allow herself to have.
"The day we met, I thought you were a ghost," he says and her eye widens in surprise. She tilts her chin up to look at him and the memory of a smile touches his lips. "This is embarrassing. I've been keeping this secret for years; I thought I always would."
They're saving the last of the firewood for tonight and he pulls her in closer to fight the cold, his eyes distant and far away.
"I think...I think it was November and I must've been...ten maybe and very gullible apparently. The night before, my dad had told me the story of The Lost Hunter, have you heard it?" he asks and she shakes her head. Again, a phantom grin kisses his mouth.
"Must be a Seam thing. Apparently, long, long ago, a miner snuck into the woods on his own to hunt and never came back. No one knew what happened to him, did he meet some monster out there? Did he stumble upon the mayor having an affair and end up murdered? Did he get lost and never found his way home? Nobody knew, but what they did know apparently, was that sometimes you'd hear him moaning through the trees, calling for help. And if you answered his calls? Well, you'd never be seen again either and then, one day, someone would hear your voice moaning on the wind."
Madge bites her lip and Gale's smile starts to rise from the dead.
"I'm not gonna lie, I was terrified. I pretended not to be, I told my dad it was a dumb story and ghosts didn't scare me, but they did. I didn't sleep all night, one hundred percent convinced The Lost Hunter was going to crawl in through my window and drag me out. He never did and I practically ran all the way to school so I could tell everyone about it. Turns out all my friends had already heard that story. We spent every free moment that day whispering other ghost stories to each other, each one more gruesome and terrifying than the last. One of the worst was of a small girl from town that got lost, starved to death and now came back as a ghost with a ravenous hunger. She'd look sweet, innocent and then she'd devour you, always always hungry because that was the last thing she'd felt before she died."
Madge feels a smile start to pull at her own mouth and there is the smallest, softest hint of laughter to his voice.
"It was dumb, I was dumb, but I believed them all. I didn't admit it of course, I never would, but I walked home that day in absolute terror. It was a nasty day, cold and grey and it seemed like the perfect time for a ghost to snatch me up. The wind was crazy and I nearly had a heart attack when someone's hat hit me in the face. It was small and white, too white. Nothing in Twelve was ever that clean. The coal dust turned everything gray, clothes, snow, houses. I started to panic and then I saw you. You were so pale, your hair, your clothes, your face and you looked so small I thought the wind would pick you up and carry you away. You didn't look real. All I could think about was Thom's story of the hungry ghost girl from Town and I was convinced it was you. You were the ghost girl, small, innocent and calling out for me "My hat! You caught my hat!" I was positive you were going to eat me. You reached me, I threw the hat in your face and I ran all the way home. I'd never been so terrified in my life."
A surprising peal of laughter bubbles out of her and Gale smiles properly, beautifully.
"I was screaming when I got home, wailing about the ghost girl that almost ate me and my mom must've thought I'd lost my mind. Rory was four and I told him all about it, how you were out there, hungry for blood and maybe still coming after me and he cried all night. My mom blamed my dad for putting ideas in my head and he tried to explain that ghosts weren't real, but I didn't believe him. I knew they were real, I'd seen you and you were definitely a ghost. I went to school the next day determined to relay my brush with death to everyone, but then I saw you. You were at school in the same uniform as everyone else, talking to Mr Naysmith and when someone noticed me staring, they told me you were the mayor's daughter. Not a ghost. I don't think I've ever been so embarrassed. You probably don't even remember that," he says and she shakes her head.
"I do. I didn't know it was you, but I do remember that. I went home in tears."
Madge leans into him and he rests his head against hers. "That hat was from my nana and it was brand new. It was the first time I'd ever worn it, that's why it was so clean. It was gray a week later. The wind blew it right off my head and I went running after it in a panic, Mrs Sparrowsaw yelling after me to come back right this instant! I was so relieved when I saw you had it. But then I got to you and you threw it in my face and sprinted away. I thought you must hate me and I couldn't understand why. We'd never even spoken! Mrs Sparrowsaw found me crying and told me some boys were just mean and there was no point in crying over them. I had no idea that was you."
"It was. And I didn't hate you, I was just terrified shitless and convinced you were going to eat me."
It hurts to laugh as hard as she is, but this time she doesn't care. This is a ray of sun she is glad to have. Gale's eyes are bright with mirth and he grins.
"So what about you? You believe in ghosts?"
"I don't know, maybe. But I do believe in magic," she says and his eyebrow goes up.
"Really?" he asks and she nods.
"It's silly. I know it's silly but I do. My mom, she's always been...sick and...sad. But it's gotten worse, it's always getting worse. When I was younger, she taught me to play the piano. She was always so much happier when we played together. She smiled, she laughed and she didn't seem sick anymore. When I was little, I believed, I really did, that the music was magic. That it could...cure her, make her better. I played as much as I could and eventually, I had to realize that's not how it works. Except, sometimes, when I play and she actually comes downstairs and smiles like she used to, well, I think maybe it really is magic."
There are silly tears in her eyes and he squeezes her fingers. She closes her eyes and she can see both her parents smiling, her heart squeezing tight in her chest. Will she ever see them again?
"I'm sorry," Gale whispers suddenly and she blinks in surprise. "I'm sorry about your mom."
Madge twists around to stare at him but before she can think of anything to say, a silver parachute drifts down to the entrance of their cave. She crawls over with her side shrieking and it's warm bread and fresh jam but what she wants more than anything is something for the pain. Food is good, she knows that, but what she really, really wants is something to dull the pain.
"Painkillers, the Capitol has to have painkillers," Gale grumbles and she nods. He licks jam off his thumb and her heart does something truly awful in her chest. They shouldn't have talked today, she shouldn't have asked to hear a secret. Everything they say, everything they share and learn, it only makes things worse.
They really are idiots, aren't they?
No one dies today and it's sickening that that's a bad thing.
The Capitol really has made them into monsters.
It's a struggle to sleep, because behind her eyelids there's nothing but nightmares.
She's sure it's the same for him.
In the morning it's time to move on.
If they linger, there's always the chance Cato will find them. And if he doesn't, the gamemakers won't let them hide out another day. They want action and drama, especially now that there's only five tributes left. If danger doesn't find them on its own, the gamemakers will help it along. They need to move and hopefully by doing so avoid any trouble. They're in no shape to fight for their lives.
Her left eye is still too blurry to see with, the fingers on her right hand have swollen with bruises to the point where she can't move them, she might as well not have toes on her left foot for all she can feel them and her side is murder. Every move sets her on fire and how can it still hurt so much? It's hard to focus, she tires so easily and she's nauseous, she can't even remember what it was like not to be nauseous. Gale isn't much better. His left leg is useless and can't bear any weight and he can barely use his right arm, the burns excruciating, and even the slightest touch causes him so much pain he nearly passes out. The bandage over his cheek is stained too red and every time he talks, he winces. The tape curls at its edges and every expression stops the wound from closing.
If another tribute does find them, well she's pretty she knows how it'll end.
"I'll see...i'll see if I can find you a crutch," she says and even talking seems to take too much effort today. Gale frowns as he packs up their blanket and she knows he wants to argue, but also knows he won't. She can't carry him and he can't walk as he is, she needs to find him some sort of crutch.
"Don't go too far," he says and the injured side of his face twitches. She nods and shuffles outside. She holds her side and it'll take a miracle to send either of them home. The odds aren't in their favour, but then, they never were. They were never in anyone's favour.
It takes her longer than she'd like, but she has to keep stopping to catch her breath and because the pain is so severe she's on the verge of curling up and sobbing. Eventually though, she finds a thick, longish branch sticking out of the river and drags it back to him. He lets out a shaky breath when he sees her, his nervous eyes stuck to the mouth of their cave. After another rest, she helps him heave himself up and lean onto his crutch. Madge holds her side and feels almost as if she's holding herself together. Her other arm loops around Gale's and they walk together. It's slow and difficult, and she doesn't want to imagine what they'll do if there's a crisis. For now, she just wants to think about moving through the pain. They have to keep stopping of course, mostly for her, but she can tell Gale appreciates the breaks as well.
The sun is bright through the trees and thankfully the snow isn't too deep. She keeps her eyes open for a new place to spend the night and tries not to think of the hunger gnawing at her belly. Once they've found somewhere to rest, she'll try to find some food. Gale won't be able to hunt with his leg, so it'll be up to her. Hopefully it'll be an easy search; she's not sure she can handle anything else.
They pause again and Madge sits on a large boulder while Gale leans against a tree. She tries to catch her breath and digs her fingers into the skin of her side. Exhaustion hangs under Gale's eyes, strain lingers in the hollows of his cheeks and there is pain in the press of his lips. It's strange, when she's in so much distress herself, but there's an urge in her to ease his suffering. She wishes she knew a way, any way, to make him better.
"You okay?" he asks with soft and genuine concern and her insides quiver. Maybe he feels the same way she does.
"Yeah," she says, not because she is okay but because she doesn't think she'll ever be okay again. Gale pushes off his tree and holds out a hand. Madge takes it, weaves her fingers through his and they pull her up together. For a moment they stand facing each other and the whole world starts to fade as she looks in his eyes. She was right when they'd stood on the balcony in the Capitol, the stars are in his eyes. He smiles, small, somewhat sad but also warm and suddenly, she yearns for...for what? Her fingers tremble as they touch his cheek and she wants...she doesn't know what she wants except that he's tangled up in it, tangled up in her. It's been eleven days in Hell together, a few more in the Capitol, a little over two weeks getting to know each other, laughing together, crying together, saving each other. They've sewn themselves together and she has no idea how to cut all the threads. She doesn't want to.
And that's when the rumbling starts.
The ground shakes and they freeze, both their heads turning slowly to look behind them. Madge feels her heart leap up into her mouth.
The mountains roar and snow comes hurtling towards them. For a moment, they are immobilized by terror. And then everything restarts, faster, louder and deadly.
"Go!" Gale yells and she tries to ignore the pain flaring in her side with every step and the way her numb toes make her stumble. If they can't get away, the avalanche will swallow them whole. They hobble as fast as they can, but they'll never outrun it. Not with Gale's leg or her lungs caving in on themselves. There has to be something, there has to be, has to be, has to b-
"Over there!" she shouts and pivots to the right. She trips over rocks, fallen branches and uneven ground, her useless eye hiding so many obstacles and pitfalls from view. She can't stop though, if she does, she's dead. She reaches the cliffside? Hillside? It doesn't matter but if they climb up to the clearing above, they'll be safe. It's their only hope.
"Go! Go!" Gale bellows as he falls into her from behind and she grits her teeth. She has to be fast but careful and she starts to scramble up. It's hard with numb toes, no gloves and a hand with fingers that can't bend or grip, but she can't let that slow her. The roar of coming death grows louder and she grabs hold of a sharp, snowy stone with her one functioning hand and hauls herself up, up, up. If only she had more arm strength and she can hear Gale grunting below her, still alive, still fighting, not dead just yet. Her foot slips and nearly sends her crashing down and she presses her face against the rocks, their jagged edges cutting into her skin.
"Keep going, keep going," Gale pants and this time when she reaches up, she meets the ledge at the top. Relief burns inside her and she clambers to salvation with her heart alive in her throat. She doesn't collapse in terrified exhaustion or vomit in nauseous agony the way she wants to, instead she reaches down for Gale. The avalanche has almost reached them and she grasps the back of his jumpsuit and pulls pulls pulls with all her might. He drags himself over the edge and she falls backwards, the snow rushing by like a river below them, broken trees carried along in its wake.
The world spins so much she has to close her eye and "Fuck!" Gale snaps with tears in his voice. "Fuck!"
She can taste his suffering and her side is so horrifically painful she struggles to think. Maybe it would've been better to let the avalanche take her. It's hard to breathe, she's sure she can smell her own blood and if she moves, she's sure she'll be sick. They've survived, somehow, but she can't imagine they'll ever move again. This is where it ends.
A shriek erupts from the trees and it takes all the strength she didn't realise she still had to roll over. Madge looks straight ahead and the only other female tribute, the redheaded girl from Five, comes spilling into the clearing. Madge stares and the rumbling and cracking of trees isn't just coming from below them, it's coming from nearly everywhere around them. This clearing is an oasis from the death on all sides and they're being herded here. The gamemakers want this to end.
The boy from Eleven comes running into the clearing with snow at his heels and panic in his eyes. Madge's breath comes quick and shallow. Only one left.
And here he is.
Madge forces herself to her knees as Cato barrels through the trees, his eyes wild and faded blood smeared on his cheeks. His chest heaves and they're all here.
Today's the day the Seventy-Fourth Hunger Games come to an end.
For a moment, none of them move. There's no escape, not with the avalanche still raging, and their eyes bounce from face to face. Four of them are going to die today. And one goes home a victor. This is it.
Cato, the last career standing, is the first to move. Of course he is. He roars and charges forward, charges right at her . Madge has a moment of bright, white panic because she's no match for him, especially not now, not bleeding and broken and falling to pieces, but then Gale shoves her aside. It catches her off guard and she slams into the ground, burning tendrils stretching out from her side to infect every inch of her. She barely notices. Gale, all she can think, feel, see, hear, is Gale, stupid stupid Gale who's trying to save her. Adrenaline pushes away her pain until it's so distant it might be someone else's and Madge scrambles back up to her knees, coppery, tangy blood on her tongue. She watches with horrified eyes as Cato and Gale collide, panic the only thing her lungs seem able to pull in.
They tumble down together, Gale cursing and Cato growling. These are the Hunger Games, she and Gale are even now, but she doesn't care. She doesn't care and Cato has the advantage in muscle, in training and he slams Gale down, his hands around his neck. She should let them fight it out and be ready to finish off the winner, but she can't. She won't. The girl from Five screams behind her, Cato's face is manic, Gale's eyes are wide and terrified and Madge is standing without remembering getting up. Cato tightens his grip, Gale gasps desperately and he's dying. He's dying and nothing else matters but that. Nothing, nothing, nothing nothing , nothing but Gale and she can't let him die. She can't.
Madge surges forward and kicks Cato as hard as she can. There's an inferno in her side but she doesn't care. Her toes dig into his ribs, Cato grunts and his grip loosens enough that Gale can breathe again. He swallows air in great gulps and tugs at Cato's hands with all the strength he has left. It won't be enough.
"Cato!" she shouts in panic-fuelled desperation, "That's your name isn't it? That's what Clove kept trying to say, Cato! Cato! She wanted you to come help her, but you didn't! I killed her and you couldn't do a fucking thing about it!" Fear is every beat of her heart and Cato's face is livid, beyond livid, and he forgets all about Gale. Good. He lunges at her and she dives out of the way, only for his fingers to close around her ankle. Madge tries to escape, tries to scramble up but can't, Cato dragging her towards him. Horror starts to pool within her and she tries to dig her nails into the ground, but the snow's too deep. She kicks out as hard as she can with her other foot and feels it make contact, but Cato doesn't care. He is fury, vengeance and he is going to kill her.
He flips her over and climbs on top of her, his weight pushing her hips into the ground. She claws at his hands, his face but he doesn't feel it. Blood spews from his nose, hot and salty as it dribbles onto her face, and his hands come around her throat even as she struggles and fights and squirms. He squeezes, squeezes, squeezessqueezes, he is killing her but she can't move. She is Clove gasping for air, Clove clawing at her throat, Clove dying because Madge killed her.
I'm dead , she thinks, he's killed me .
Something big and heavy collides with Cato's head and he's thrown off her by the force of the impact. She can breathe. Her throat aches, it's so hard to suck in air but she isn't dead. Adrenaline is fire in her blood and she rolls over to look in the direction the projectile had come from. The girl from Five lies unmoving in the snow and the boy from Eleven hefts a large stone in his hand. Oh.
He throws it and Madge hurls herself out of the way just in time. It lands with an audible thump and she flinches. With nothing else to throw, Eleven sprints towards her. She's coughing as she tries to breathe and she can't crawl away fast enough. He grabs her by the hair and drags her back to him. Her scalp screams and his hand wraps around her neck, but she only has a moment of panic because suddenly, he lets go.
Madge whips around in time to see Eleven crumple, Clove's knife in his back. Her eyes meet Gale's as he stands behind where Eleven had been and the adrenaline drowned out his pain too. Or maybe it was the fear. They stare at each other, she can't look away and Cato moans. Madge forces her eyes to him lying in scarlet snow and there's a dent in his head. He stirs feebly and there's no saving him now. It'll be a slow death, but it will be death. Madge unzips her pocket and grabs a lumpy berry, her fingers crushing it to pulp. She crawls to Cato's side and he moans again, pitiful, sad and pained, her organs trembling. She closes her eyes and sticks her fingers down his throat. He gasps, gasps, gasps gasps, gasps and boom.
He had tried to kill Gale, tried to kill her but she doesn't feel relieved, vindicated or victorious. She feels broken. Gale's shaking hand finds her shoulder and now it gets worse.
She knew it would cost her to save him and now it's time to pay up.
The tears are already falling and this is what the Capitol's always wanted. Tragedy, heartbreak, horror, they're ready to feast on it. Madge presses her fingers into her eyelids and she'd wanted the Capitol to carry them all the way home and now they have. Today, one of them wins the Hunger Games. Gale's hand grips her shoulder too tight and the Capitol's always wanted them to suffer, to watch each other die, but now they've gotten something even better. Now they'll have to kill each other and the audience must be ecstatic. Her plan had been too clever. It's worked too well.
Madge stands and she's surprised she can. She faces Gale but keeps her eye closed. She can't look at him, she can't.
"Madge," he whispers and she wishes he'd never started using her name.
"We're even," she gasps out of her bruised throat. "We're even now. We saved each other from Cato and you saved me from Eleven. We're even now."
It hurts to say but they're all squared now, no one owes anyone anything.
"Madge," he tries again and her name is a knife in her heart.
"Don't," she begs because whatever he says will only make this worse. Her heart's in a hundred different pieces and she doesn't want to die. She wants to grow up, she wants to go home, she wants to see her parents again. But she can't kill Gale to do it. She killed Clove, she killed Cato, but she can't kill Gale. He's the only thing standing in her way, she is so close to home, but it doesn't matter. She can't do it.
Of course, if he doesn't die, that only leaves one other option.
She knew she was going to die as soon as Effie Trinket said her name on reaping day but now that it's here, now that death is holding out a hand, she wants to weep and scream and beg on her knees. It's so hard to breathe and she doesn't want to die. Not now, not yet, not like this. She's afraid, she's so afraid and all she wants is to curl up in bed with her mom singing a lullaby and her dad promising nothing will ever hurt her.
Of course, that's a promise he could never keep.
How had Aunt Maysilee felt when death had come for her? Had she been strong? Had she wanted to collapse in sobs the way Madge does? Aunt Maysilee will keep you safe, she'll look after you but her pin is lost somewhere in the woods and Madge has never felt so alone. This is it, this is the end and she covers her face with her hands. She needs to be brave, strong but courage feels impossible. Twelve is guaranteed the extra food , she tells herself, Gale's family won't lose him, Katniss won't lose him. And it'll be relatively quick. It's not comfort but it's all she has. It's all she has and that drives through her like a sword, cutting her at the knees and nearly sending her down into the snow. She is sixteen and she's going to die. This is the very last day of her life.
Madge shakes as she takes the last four berries from her pocket. He'd promised he wouldn't be the one that killed her and she wishes he hadn't. She wishes he'd do this so she won't have to.
I'm sorry Mom, I'm sorry Dad, I'm so sorry, I love you.
If one of them doesn't end it soon, the Capitol will and they might make their family suffer for it. She has to do this. Madge takes a steadying breath but it doesn't steady her. Do it, just do it. Do it do it do it
Gale seizes her wrist.
"What the fuck are you doing?" he demands and she feels as raw and shattered as he sounds. She swallows and it's so hard to make words.
"Will you do it?"
"Madge," he pleads, his fingers tightening painfully on her skin.
"Will you kill me?" she asks and he yanks her into his chest instead of answering. He doesn't let go of her wrist and his other arm wraps around her waist and holds her painfully close. She inhales him, sinks into the feel of him and she is so scared. The tears are hot on her cheeks, his grip hurts and she wants to wake up safe at home. Except she's never going home.
"I can't," he chokes out and she trembles so badly she's sure her legs are about to fold up beneath her.
"One of us...one of us has to," she forces out of her injured throat and he buries his face in her hair. "I can't...I can't kill you. So this is the only option right?"
She wants him to say no, she wants there to be another way. She wants to live. There isn't another way, she knows that, but she's just so afraid. Her free hand clutches his jumpsuit and she really wishes he'd do it so she doesn't have to. She's going to die for him, can't he at least do this for her?
"Fuck 'em," he hisses suddenly in her ear and her eye opens in surprise. "Fuck 'em. I'm not going to let you die for me. I can't. I can't go home without you. So fuck 'em. I'm not playing by their rules this time."
Madge can't breathe and he takes two of the berries from her hand. She pulls back to look at him and he pushes his forehead against hers.
"They want a victor? Too bad. I can't win this if you're dead. They've owned me my whole life, they don't get to decide how I die. Fuck 'em," he breathes so quietly she knows she's the only one who's heard. His eyes burn, burn her alive and maybe, just maybe she is brave. Fire curls through her blood and she nods.
"Fuck 'em," she whispers. The Capitol doesn't deserve her surrender. They'll get her death just like they wanted, but not how they wanted it.
If this is the end, then fuck the Capitol.
She always knew she was going to die, but she never expected it to happen with Gale Hawthorne's arm around her waist and his silver eyes locked on hers. She holds his gaze and knots her fingers through his hair.
"We go together," he says and she nods.
"One," he says and the only thing in all the world is Gale.
"Two," he says and his arm tightens around her waist.
"Three," he says and she brings the berries to her lips.
"Congratulations to the Victors of the Seventy-Fourth Hunger Games!" Claudius Templesmith's voice booms in every direction and Madge freezes, poisoned fruit pressed against her mouth. Gale's eyes are wide as they stare into hers, his own berries just brushing his teeth.
"Your victors, Gale Hawthorne and Madge Undersee of District 12!"
Gale spits the fruit from his mouth and Madge throws hers aside, her heart screeching in her chest.
"We won," she says and the words shake on her tongue. His eyes are bright like the stars and she flings her arms around him, her hands in his hair and her face pressed into his neck. "We won," she sobs, "we're going home."
A hovercraft whirs nearby and Gale's arms come around her so tight it's like he's trying to meld them into one person. He buries his face in her shoulder and she cries into his skin. His bad leg gives out beneath him and they fall together, "we won, we won, we won," tumbling from her lips. Gale quivers in her arms, her side aches, her foot throbs and she cannot stop saying it.
"We're going home."
And there's power pounding inside her too, power because she'd fully expected to die, fully expected to go down in defiance and yet, and yet, she's still alive. She and Gale had looked the Capitol dead in the eye and said we won't play your game anymore and the Capitol blinked and said, fine, we'll play yours . All her life she's been taught that standing up to the Capitol is pointless, hopeless, doomed.
Right here, right now, she realizes that's not true. The Capitol isn't so strong after all.
For the first time in so long, Madge feels hope in her blood.
(and so does the rest of Panem)
She doesn't let go of Gale until they make her.
Peacekeepers come to take them away in the hovercraft, their gloved hands hauling them to their feet. Madge holds onto Gale and he to her, even as the peacekeepers try to pull them apart. Her nails dig marks into his skin and his grip bruises hers, but they won't let go.
And then something sharp pokes her in the neck and there's nothing at all.
The sun is bright on reaping day and Madge stands on stage, Gale's fingers tangled in hers. Except he hadn't held her hand on reaping day, had he? She turns to look at him, but his eyes are on the crowd. There's a long, thin scar stretching down his cheek and Effie claps and claps, the rings on her fingers clack clack clacking together.
"Your victors!" she cheers and Madge tilts her head. Victors? But they haven't even made it to the games yet. Gale squeezes her hand and the golden bird in Effie's hair blinks it's glittering eyes.
"You wanted us to burn and now we might," it says in a high, echoing voice. "But remember, if we burn, we'll do everything we can to make sure you burn too."
"I don't know."
"You've made feet before, right?"
Madge comes slowly to consciousness, her brain sluggish.
"Yeah, feet. Never just toes. I'm not sure it'll work. And even if it does, you'll be able to tell they're not real."
It's like being stuck in the mud and trying to drag herself out. Her eyelids are heavy, her thoughts sticky and faraway voices drift towards her.
"That's fine, who's going to see them close up? We just need something there. She's supposed to be our pretty star-crossed lover. Missing toes aren't pretty."
"Right, I'll do my best."
There's a metallic taste on her tongue and finally she opens her eyes. Everything is white, a sterile kind of white and machines hum and beep steadily around her. She's in a bed and stuck with tubes, her slow mind putting the pieces together one by one. She's in a hospital room. A Capitol hospital room. They really did win.
"Gale?" she croaks with a dry throat. She looks around but her room is empty. He isn't here and even as whatever they'd used to knock her out continues to slide through her, her heart starts to quicken. Is he alright? He has to be, they'd won. They're going home. Together. They did this together. Her stomach starts to boil and they can't have punished him without punishing her, right? They'd planned to take those berries together. They're in this together.
The beeping around her grows more frantic and he has to be okay, he has to be. She wants to get out of bed and find him, she wants to scream until someone hears and tells her where he is. Her chest hurts and suddenly, she isn't alone. Capitol nurses come streaming in and check her beeping machines, frowns on their faces.
"Gale. Where's Gale?" she rasps but they ignore her. They push buttons, twist tubes and everything starts to go dark.
"Ga...le…" she tries to say and someone pats her arm.
"It's okay, you're fine. You won."
But where's Gale?
Clove chokes her, her fingers digging into the skin of Madge's neck and cutting off all her air. She can't breathe, she can't move but then suddenly she's watching Cato strangle Gale and this time she doesn't save him. This time he falls limp beneath Cato's hands and Madge would scream but can't. Red snow falls from the sky and the girl from Eleven weeps over the hole in her chest. Clove is still on top of her and she laughs, her dark eyes bright.
"Looks like your boyfriend's dead, but don't worry. You'll be together again soon."
When Madge opens her eyes again, she realizes she can see.
It takes her a moment as the grogginess of the drugs wears off, but then she realizes it. She can see in both eyes, not just her right. Her left eye is working. In the arena she'd started to accept that she'd be blind in that eye forever, but she isn't. She can see. That should matter more than it does, but there's only thing she can think about right now.
She struggles to sit up and he still isn't here. There are tears on her cheeks and where is he? Is he okay? He's just in a different room, right? She closes her eyes and knows she can't panic, that'll just get her knocked out again but it's so hard to stay calm. She tries to steady her breathing and she just needs to know he's alright, that they really are going home together. Please, someone tell me he's okay.
But there's no one to ask and she sits in her bed with the silence screaming in her ears. They'd defied the Capitol together, they can't have punished only him. He's fine, he's just somewhere else. They'd won and...and she remembers the conversation she'd heard when she first woke up, She's supposed to be our pretty star-crossed lover . That means he's okay right? If they're playing up the romance, it's because he's still around, right?
(except she knows it might mean he's dead and she'll get to play the grieving lover, but she can't let herself think of that)
He's okay, they're both okay, they're going home. She repeats it to herself over and over and over again until it's written into every bone of her skull. He's okay, he's okay, he's okay okay okay.
We're going home.
Later, much later, she remembers the rest of that conversation she'd overheard, missing toes aren't pretty . Her eyes widen, her heart pounds and she tugs at the blankets, tugs and tugs until they untuck and she can uncover her left foot. It's the right colour again, but she...she's missing two toes. Her third and fourth toes are just...gone. There's just a space where they should be, an empty space. Madge can't look anymore and covers her foot back up as her stomach starts to roil. She brings her hand up to her mouth and realizes that under all the bandages, the swelling on her fingers has gone down significantly. She can bend them, wiggle them, grip things. Her head's bandaged too and so is her side, but the pain she is so used to feeling is but a dull, distant throb.
They've patched her up, far better than she ever imagined they could, but she feels no joy or relief or even wonder. They could do so much good for the districts with his technology but they won't. They'll fix her up after tossing her into that arena to die, but they won't mend sick children or mutilated adults.
Her tears this time are angry.
fuck 'em, fuck 'em, fuck 'em
Doctors and nurses come in to check on her, to change her bandages but never to speak to her. They ask no questions, they consult each other but never her and her opinion clearly has no weight here.
But then, she already knew that.
Haymitch comes to see her before she's released.
"Can't believe you made it, princess," he says and she cringes. She's heard that nickname before and it's only ever come soaked in disdain. He pulls up a chair, sits beside her bed and she lets out the question she's been desperate to ask since she'd woken up.
"Fine. Well, beat up like you, but he'll be alright," Haymitch says and pats her arm. Madge sinks back into her pillows with her hands pressed to her heart.
"Thank goodness. Oh, thank goodness," she says and there are tears dripping onto her hands. Haymitch pats her arm again.
"I never realized how much he meant to you. But you must really, really love him." There's something in the way he says it that makes her look at him. His face is serious and she feels anxiety start to wiggle within her. Haymitch leans in very close, so close his lips nearly brush her ear as he whispers.
"They need to believe that, you need to make them believe it. Love is all it was."
He pulls away and Madge feels sudden fire in her stomach. She knows what he's really saying. The Capitol's angry, they saw that act of rebellion for what it was and if she doesn't want her family to die, she has to convince the world she's nothing but a silly girl in love. She wants to scream.
"I'm sure he's desperate to see you," Haymitch continues and he's speaking for the microphones no doubt hidden all over the room. Madge doesn't want to lie, she wants to tear the Capitol down with her own two hands. But she doesn't want her family to die either. She can't have both and again, a scream builds in her lungs. Haymitch leans in close again, his fingers tight on her arm.
"Not yet. Later."
The words are so quiet she barely hears them and her eyes widen. Not yet. Later. She can't ask exactly what that means, but she has an idea.
Maybe, just maybe, she won't have to choose at all.
(that thought is terrifying)
In the end they do give her two fake toes.
They look almost real, but up close it's obvious they're not really her toes. They're fake and they have no feeling, no matter how hard she jabs and pokes at them. The texture isn't quite like skin and she can't move them; when she curls her toes the other three go down but those two stay standing at attention.
On one hand, it's less disturbing than seeing the empty space where her toes should be. On the other hand, it's far, far more disturbing to have Capitol toes on her foot.
Agrippa readies her for her victory interview.
"You've made me famous, you know," he says as his team curls the ends of her hair. "Everyone wants to hire Madge the triumphant lover's stylist."
Madge feels her cheeks burn. That's not a nickname she wants to be known by. His team pulls her hair back from her face and secures it with pale pink ribbons. Agrippa puts a long finger under her chin and looks down at her.
"And you know, I was wrong. It's better that you're just pretty instead of beautiful. It makes my talents much more evident."
Madge doesn't say anything to that, but he doesn't need her to. As far as Agrippa's concerned, she's just a stepping stone to greater things.
If the Capitol does burn, she won't cry if he burns with it.
Madge waits just off stage in a sweet pink dress made of delicate, floaty material. Her make-up is soft and her shoes are silk slippers tied with bows at the back of her knees. She doesn't look dangerous or rebellious. She's innocent and pretty and in love. Agrippa's done a good job, but he always does.
It's almost time and Haymitch shuffles up beside her.
"I have something for you," he says and reaches into his pocket. Her eyes widen as he pulls out her pin. It sparkles gold in the lights and she'd thought she'd lost it forever.
"But...it was on my jacket…"
Haymitch shrugs and pins it over her heart. "I pulled a few strings. I thought our victor deserved her token."
Madge presses her fingers to the metal and they're both the mockingjay.
The Capitol won't beat them.
Caesar's voice is loud and buoyant as he announces "And now your victors, from District Twelve: Gale Hawthorne and Madge Undersee!"
A tidal wave of sound rises from the audience, clapping and screaming and whistling and stamping and hollering, the lights are so hot they burn as she steps out on stage and Madge only has eyes for Gale. He stands across from her, all in white that shines and he's alive. He's alive, he's here and her hands jump up to her mouth. Caesar is talking but Madge doesn't hear and she can barely see as the tears blur her vision, but she keeps her eyes on Gale. He's alive, he's here, they're really going home. Together.
Who moves first? It doesn't matter. Madge nearly runs across the stage to him as he limps towards her and she can't be sure if she loses her balance because she has two fake toes or because she's convinced herself she should be having trouble walking with two fake toes, but either way, she trips at dead center stage. She never hits the ground. Gale catches her, he pulls her up and then she's in his arms, pressed to his chest and drowning in the smell of him. They've bathed him in rose scented perfume, but under it all she can taste apples and winter and the woods.
"I love you," she sobs as she clings to him and she does. Not in any specific way, not as friend or brother or lover, but as Gale. Prideful, angry, sweet, thoughtful, noble Gale, funny, honest, loyal, stubborn, brave Gale. His smile, his fingers and his laugh, the ways his arms feel around her and the sound of his voice. His love for his family, for Katniss, even the silly way he'd thought she was a ghost who'd eat him. His faults, his qualities and the night sky shining in his eyes. All of him, every inch inside and out, she loves him. She loves him and they're both going home. They won and she clutches him so tight her arms ache. Gale holds her just as close, his lips on her hair and his warmth wrapping her up like a blanket in the cold. She never wants to move, she just wants to stay and breathe him in forever.
"Madge," he whispers and there's something unfathomable in the way he says it, something that shakes her spine beneath her skin.
"Young love!" Caesar calls to the adoring audience and she doesn't want to playact Panem's greatest romance. She wants to stay where she is, she wants to hold Gale and never let go, she wants to press her palm to his chest and feel every beat of his heart. But this isn't about her. This is about the people she loves, the people she needs to keep safe and she pulls back even though it hurts to. Gale cradles her face like he did that very first kiss right here on this very stage and just like then, her breath stutters on its way out. She tilts her head up, Caesar says something that has the audience shrieking with laughter and Gale kisses her.
Last time they were here, his kiss had been sweet and soft, his lips brushing hers and heating her cheeks. This time his kiss is deep and desperate and it engulfs her. There are so many things they can't say, not with the Capitol listening in, but she can hear it all as his mouth moves with hers. The terror, the relief, the gratitude and desperation and uncertainty and anger, she feels it all, feels it pounding in his blood and hers. Her fingers curl in his hair, salt tingles on her tongue and he tugs her in, tugs her in so near he might be swallowing her whole.
"Your lethal lovers, ladies and gentlemen!" Caesar declares and they aren't. They aren't and she doesn't know what they are, but she doesn't care.
He's here, she's here and they're going home. Together.
They sit side by side on the too plump couch, Gale's arm around her waist and her fingers clutching his. Caesar smiles wide, friendly and he's poison, they all are.
"Let's have a look back at your phenomenal games, shall we?" he asks like they have a choice and her hand tightens on Gale's. She doesn't want to see this but she smiles as brightly as she can instead, tries to ignore the eager eyes smiling back from so many Capitol faces. The game's still on, they haven't won just yet and Gale nods stiffly. Caesar smiles like the snake he is and Madge has to watch, has to keep her eyes on the screen even as she wants to curl up and hide from what she's being shown. This is her greatest nightmare played back over again but the audience loves it, is already shrieking and cheering as their reaping's shown. Madge matches their reactions, lets them guide her through what they want her to feel. She gasps with them, sighs, swoons and smiles, follows their cues and acts just the ways she's supposed to. Gale is tense beside her, his anger scalding her side and as much as she wants to burn too, she knows tonight's not the night. Tonight, she'll be what they want her to be. Tonight she's the Capitol's darling and nothing else.
Tomorrow...well that's tomorrow.
They're much better actors that she ever would've guessed.
She watches them on screen and it looks so real, so very, very real. The kisses, the smiles, the hugs and snuggles and soft touching of hands, it's more convincing than she ever would've hoped.
If she didn't know any better, she'd believe the love story too.
Their families paint them in valiant colours, make them heroes even though Madge feels like anything but.
Her father is tearful and stumbling, but his voice is soft with love as he speaks of her and Hazelle Hawthorne is strong with her words even as her eyes glitter. Rory shines with his confidence in Gale, his faith steady and unyielding. Vick and Posy are breathless with their praise, their voices overflowing with awe and love and certainty. Gale's fingers twitch in hers and for a moment at least, she forgets about the audience. She throbs so terribly for home and then it's Katniss' turn.
Her interview is last and there's hunger in Gale's gaze as he drinks her in. Madge's stomach bubbles and Katniss is uncomfortable in front of the camera, so very uncomfortable. Her posture's stiff, her eyes dart nervously in every direction and Madge wishes she could reach through the screen and hold her. She's missed Katniss, believed she'd never see her again and here she is.
Katniss is uncomfortable, but her voice is steady when she talks of Gale, of his courage and his strengths. She makes him sound like a giant. The audience loves it, they swoon for Gale, their favourite romantic hero, but it's her closing line about him that makes the biggest impact.
(to Madge and Gale at least)
"If there's anyone I believe in, it's my cousin Gale," Katniss says in an odd voice and Madge feels ice tumble over her head. Cousin. Gale flinches and of course. Madge and Gale are supposed to be true true love, him being so close to another girl might give people ideas. And they'd be right wouldn't they? He is in love with Katniss, Madge is...Madge is something else and she's not sure why her stomach hurts so much.
"Madge is quiet, but she's clever," Katniss continues and Madge widens her eyes. "She may not be the flashiest tribute, but she's a hard worker, she's smart, steady, level headed and I know she can do this."
The audience cheers for her and Madge forgets about copying their reactions. She cries instead.
Clove takes her last shuddering breath and Madge crumbles on the inside, smiles with pride on the outside.
Just a brave little Capitol hero so pleased with the blood staining her hands.
And finally the grand finale.
Madge knows what's coming and she can't watch this, she can't live it again, but it works. It makes everyone believe in love as she flings her arms around Gale and presses her face against his heart. He holds her, the audience screams as they win and it's over, finally it's over.
"Are you alright?" Caesar asks and Madge pulls away from Gale. She wipes at her eyes and smiles.
"Yes, I'm sorry. Just...just the thought that I could have lost him…" she trails off and everyone in the audience has tears of their own now. Caesar pats her knee and her skin curls.
"It's perfectly alright. I can't even imagine how awful that must have been for you."
"It was the worst moment of my life." She turns to look at Gale, gazing up at him with what she hopes is love and devotion. "He's my life, he's everything to me. I could never go home without him."
The audience sighs, swoons, sniffles and she can see the anger burning in Gale's eyes as they stare at each other. She hopes he can see hers too.
"Alright, alright, enough of that," Caesar laughs and Madge looks down bashfully. If only she could make herself blush.
"I have so many questions after that amazing recap, so let's get started," Caesar says, Madge smiles and Gale tries to. They'll do what they have to, they'll lie lie lie, at least today.
One day, hopefully, they won't have to anymore.
Madge grips Gale's hand as President Snow places the golden victor's crown on her head. Her heart thuds and Snow smiles at her with very red lips.
"Congratulations on your victory," he says and his dark eyes glitter.
Madge doesn't say thank you.
"Your victors, Madge Undersee and Gale Hawthorne!" Caesar says one last time and they stand, their hands still knotted together. The audience follows them off stage with their shouts and screams and cheers and Effie and Haymitch are waiting for them.
"Oh my victors, my victors!" Effie says tearfully as they reach her and pulls them both into a hug. Gale stiffens, Madge recoils and all she wants to shout is, I'm not yours!
Except, for now at least, she is.
They board the train for home and Effie still can't stop fawning over them.
"My brave little victors," she coos and Gale's eyes flash. "I'm just so happy for you. True love always prevails."
Haymitch rolls his eyes behind her back and Madge wonders if Effie is really so enamoured of their love story, or of the fact that she is now the only escort in history to have both their tributes come home. Honestly, it's probably both. The Capitol's like that.
"You can't believe how many people have asked me to meet you! You must be the most sought after victors in the games' history!" Effie nearly squeals and Gale, who's done an admirable job of keeping his mouth shut, looks about ready to boil over. Haymitch stands and taps Effie on the shoulder.
"Speaking of romance, why don't we give the lovers a little time alone? They haven't had the chance since the arena," he says and Effie pouts. Madge shoots her a hopeful, pleading look and Effie deflates.
"Oh alright. But!" she says and points an accusing finger at Gale, "Nothing untoward!" Haymitch looks at the ceiling in exasperation, Madge's cheeks burn and Gale flares with offense. Madge can understand why. Effie's not warning her about doing something, just him. She touches his arm and Haymitch takes Effie by both shoulders and practically shoves her out the door.
"She's right, keep it safe," he tells them and Madge knows he's not really talking about them doing anything physical. He's warning them against the microphones no doubt littered all over the room. He sighs and mutters to himself "I really need a drink" and then he's gone and they're alone.
The quiet is heavy.
"I have two fake toes," she blurts to muzzle the silence. Gale blinks at her.
Madge takes off her shoe, her sock and then sticks out her foot. She curls the three toes that can, the other two sticking up. "They had to take them off. Frostbite. And now I have two fake toes. I can't feel them or move them."
Gale stares at those Capitol toes for a long moment and then tugs up his left pant leg. There's a scar on his skin, thin and pale. Clove has left her mark.
"They say the knife chipped my bone. They didn't actually tell me if they fixed it though. Is it still chipped? Is the bone bit just floating around in there? I have no idea. They also told me it might still hurt sometimes, but not why or when. I guess I'll find out."
Madge bites her lip and pulls up her dress until she can show him her side. She feels embers beneath her skin when he looks at her.
"The cut used to be a lot bigger, but it's such a small scar. I wonder if they did that on purpose. A big one wouldn't be pretty enough, but they wouldn't want it totally gone. I got this saving you, it's romantic. I'm sure Agrippa will give me lots of clothes that show it off."
Gale stares at her scar with thunder in his eyes. His fingers ghost across her skin and for a moment, she's sure she knows what it feels like to be struck by lightning. He doesn't take his eyes off her wound, but he pushes up his right sleeve to show her his arm. The skin isn't burnt any more, it's oddly shiny and paler than the rest. She frowns.
"They gave me...I think they called it a skin graft. I was too burned for it to ever heal, though they told me if it hadn't been for you rubbing that paste on it, the nerves probably would've been ruined too."
"Is it fake skin?" she asks and hates the way that sounds. He shakes his head.
"It's from my ass."
She stares at him. "What?"
Gale makes a face. "They told me they took skin from my ass and put it on my arm. I guess there's a lot of extra back there. So now I have ass arm."
Madge doesn't know what to say to that, so instead she says "I can see out of my left eye again. Well, mostly. I can't see long distances and if I try and focus too hard it gives me a headache, but still, it works again. I thought I'd be blind in that eye."
She almost smiles and Gale nods. He almost smiles too and gestures at the scar on his cheek. "They left it. I guess they agreed with you."
Madge doesn't really know what she's doing, but her fingertip traces the mark softly. It burns. "You are very dashing," she promises and they just look at each other, his gaze a night sky she is easily lost in. Something coils within her and she drops her head.
"What a pair we make," she says with an odd little laugh. His fingers skim hers.
They step off the train in Twelve and there's a crowd waiting to greet them.
A district full of people she doesn't know cheer and clap and whistle, surprise and joy and awe colouring all their faces. District Twelve is so used to losing and losing and losing, but this time they'd won not once, but twice. It's a miracle and amid the jubilation, there are surely cameras broadcasting this triumphant homecoming to everyone in Panem.
Gale's arm slides around her, his hand rests on her hip, and she leans into his side. They smile, they wave and Twelve comes alive for the first time in so long. It's been years and years, but finally, their children haven't been carted off to die.
This time they've come home.
They step into the crowd hand in hand and Madge wonders if this is what it feels like to be adrift at sea. There are people everywhere, unfamiliar eyes are heavy on her skin and yet, she feels lonelier than ever. Everywhere she looks there are faces looking back and she bobs on uncertain waves, Gale's hand the only real thing in the world. She'd finally come back, but maybe she hasn't. This is home, it's supposed to be home, but the Madge standing here isn't the Madge that left.
She turns and this time the face looking back is her dad's. For a moment at least, the water's not so rough after all.
"Oh sweetheart," he says and her eyes blur, her legs shake and she covers her mouth with her hands. Her dad smiles with teary eyes and she'd dreamed of this for so long, but now it's finally real. He's here, she's here and when he holds out his arms to her, Madge falls into them. His grip's so tight it hurts and she'd been so afraid she'd never have this again, but he's here. He's here and she never wants to move.
"I love you," he says and his voice is thick with all the emotion she can feel throbbing in her chest. She wants to say it back but can't make words, so she clings to him all the more. "I love you so much. My Madge, my Madge, I love you so much."
I love you too , she wants to say, I love you and I missed you and don't ever let me go.
She's too old now to believe her dad can protect her from everything, but right now, she pretends he can. Right now, she lets herself pretend she's safe.
Hazelle Hawthorne hugs her next and Madge stiffens with wide eyes.
"Thank you," Gale's mother whispers fiercely and Madge doesn't know what to say or do. Her heart shakes and she can hear her father say the same to Gale, "thank you, thank you, thank you," tripping off his tongue. Madge's breath hitches and Hazelle's arms are strong but warm, her embrace an anchor in the waves. She doesn't want to cry but there are sudden tears in her eyes and then the other Hawthornes are there, a tangle of limbs around her and a chorus of joyful voices.
"Welcome home!" Posy squeals as she clings to Madge's leg and "You were amazing!" Vick breathes in awe as he tucks into her side. Rory's hug is brief but firm and his voice is shy in her ear.
"Thanks for helping him come home," he whispers and Madge finds her arms swallowing all three of them.
The water's still choppy, but she feels steadier now. Maybe she won't capsize after all.
There are tears on her cheeks and then Katniss stands before her with nervous eyes and strain in her smile. Still, her arms are strong and Madge sinks into them.
"I'm glad you're back," Katniss says and me too. Me too.
Their houses in Victor's Village aren't ready yet, so for today, Madge gets to go home.
Home is the hope she'd kept in her heart, home is the beacon that had pulled her onward and yet, going home also means goodbye. Madge watches Gale as his family and friends crowd around him and she knows things are different now, she knows goodbye now isn't like saying goodbye in the arena but for some reason, she's still afraid. She isn't in the games anymore, they're home, they won and goodbye doesn't mean she'll never see him again, goodbye doesn't mean either one of them has to die. She knows that, she does, but maybe she hasn't really come home yet.
Maybe part of her's still there, maybe it always will be. Maybe nowhere in Panem's really safe.
Goodbye is a tearful kiss for the cameras and sweet "I love you"s passed between them. Goodbye is his hands in her hair, hers on his hips and a promise he murmurs to her ear.
"I'll see you soon."
There's a fire in her chest, a fire in his and Haymitch's later echoes between them. They burn together.
She shakes when her house comes into view, her eyes sting as she looks up at it and Merrie is waiting for her, Mrs Sparrowsaw is waiting for her, her mom is waiting for her. She opens her arms and Madge walks into them, the sore on her heart ceasing to throb for just a moment. Her mom strokes her hair, her dad holds them both and I'm home. I'm finally home .
"Oh Madge, oh sweetheart I knew you'd come back, I knew you would," her mom says and Madge can't speak through the tears.
"I love you, I love you my sweet sunshine," and if she could talk she'd say I love you too, Mama, I love you love you love you .
(and if, just once, her mom whispers oh Maysilee I knew you'd come home , Madge doesn't say anything)
(she understands now just how powerful ghosts can be)
Madge sleeps in her own bed for the first time in so long and...and she cries.
These are her pillows, her blankets, her sheets, her stuffed lamb in the purple overalls and she can't stop crying.
She cries and cries and cries.
She's a victor but the world hasn't ended or changed, everything still happens like any other summer day. Her mom stays in bed, her dad goes to work and Madge sits alone and plays the piano.
When she was very, very tiny, before she realized just how awful everything in Panem was, she used to dream of playing piano in the Capitol. Concert halls would fill up for her, the greatest people in Panem would cheer her on and even the president would thrill at her music. In the glitter and the lights and the magic of that far off place, Madge would be a star.
Funny how that dream is her nightmare now.
This is the one thing she is supposed to be good at, that she's ever been good at, but her fingers are clumsy today. Her hands don't dance over the keys, they trip and she winces at the ugly sounds. This isn't right. She stops playing, she tucks her awful fingers in her lap and closes her eyes.
This used to be her favourite place in the world and now she feels like a stranger.
Madge opens her eyes and they stare at the window on the back wall. Haymitch Abernathy stares back.
He peeks through the glass and she gapes at him. What is he doing here? She stands too fast and the piano bench almost tips over. He can't be here. If her mom sees him...she can't let that happen. He nods in acknowledgement and Madge hurries to the door. She opens it as quietly as she can, she squeezes outside and has to resist the urge to shove Haymitch off her porch. Her mom is delicate and she's never forgiven Haymitch for coming home when her sister didn't. She never will. She can't see him.
"What are you doing here?" Madge hisses and just beyond her fence stands Gale with his hands stuffed in his pockets. He is sullen and frowning, his storm cloud eyes boring a hole in the ground.
"Let's take a walk," Haymitch says.
They walk through Twelve in silence, eyes following them down every road. Three victors in a district that is so used to one and she finds herself missing when everyone used to look anywhere but at her. Gale is stiff and tense beside her and without even thinking about it, she steps in close and touches his arm. But they're not in the Games anymore and she can't just touch him, he probably doesn't even want her to, but before she can pull away, he moves a little nearer and matches his pace with hers. Her heart does something stupid and her fingers curl in his sleeve. His shoulder brushes hers.
Haymitch leads them out to the meadow and there's no one here, no one but the three of them and the something Haymitch must want to say with no witnesses. He faces them and Gale snorts.
"Are we allowed to talk now?" he bites out and Haymitch sighs.
"See, this is why I like her better. She doesn't question everything I say, she just listens. And she's not nearly so belligerent."
Gale sneers and Madge squeezes his arm. Haymitch runs a twitching hand through his messy hair and then folds his arms across his chest. He looks at them with shrewd eyes and she's sure he's sizing them up, but for what?
"Snow thinks your stunt with the berries was an act of rebellion. He thinks you meant it as a fuck you to the Capitol. And you did, didn't you?" Haymitch asks and Gale stands as tall as he can, towers over both of them.
"Yeah, I did," he says, defiant and burning. "They take everything from us, they always do, they always will. But not this time. I wasn't going to let Madge die for me."
"And I wasn't going to let him die for me," she says because this wasn't just Gale's decision. It was hers too. Haymitch looks at them and there's a light in his stone gray eyes.
"So you decided to both die instead?"
"We decided that they don't get to win this time," Gale says and Madge nods.
"We decided that if we have to die, we die on our terms," she explains and that light in Haymitch's eyes grows. "They want a victor?"
"Too bad," Gale finishes and Haymitch nods. That light's brighter now, his eyes the soft gray of morning doves.
"Admirable," he offers and Gale stiffens. "But you should know, Snow thinks there was more to it than that. He thinks you want a revolution."
Madge's insides quiver. Having the words actually out there is both thrilling and frightening all at once. Revolution. That's whats she wants, isn't it? Fuck the Capitol, burn them to the ground but...but if they do, people are going to die, aren't they? Good people, innocent people but she can't have both. It's either revolution or nothing and now's the time to choose. Haymitch's gaze is thoughtful as he sweeps it over them.
"I think you do too. I think you didn't mean to start a revolt when you chose to take those berries, but I also think you're not sorry you have started one," he says and the world spins into stillness.
"We started a revolution?" she asks at the same time Gale snaps "No, I'm not."
Haymitch looks at her when he answers. "Started might not be the right word. Rebellion's been simmering in the Districts ever since we lost the war, but when people all across the country saw what you did, they took it as a rallying cry. The two of you defied them and got away with it; suddenly all the whispers and plans seem possible. There's been riots and strikes, but the two of you have become symbols now. You've made everyone feel brave and inspired. They needed a push and you gave it to them."
Madge swallows and doesn't know what to say, doesn't know if there is anything to say. She hates the Capitol, she wants them to burn but it won't be easy. They'd lost last time, people she loves are going to die if they try again and fear slithers into her chest.
"But you need to be more careful," Haymitch continues and her eyes widen. "You were lucky, but you won't be again."
"Lucky?" Gale snarls and Haymitch's eyes are dark as he looks at them.
"Yes, lucky. Do you know what usually happens to people who win in ways the Capitol doesn't like? Their whole family ends up dead." Haymitch's voice has a sharp sharp edge and Madge's breath hitches. Gale tenses beside her.
"You got lucky because the head gamemaker decided to let you both win instead of shooting one of you dead and calling it a day. You got lucky because instead of punishing you for rebelling, they've decided to pretend you never rebelled at all. You got lucky because your families are still safe and breathing. You got lucky, but you won't again. Snow will make sure of it."
Madge is cold, cold like winter has suddenly come and slipped inside her veins. She doesn't want to play nice, she doesn't want to do as the Capitol tells her, but this isn't just about her. Fuck the Capitol, but what about the people she loves? She hadn't stopped to think what might happen to her family when she'd planned to take those berries with Gale, she can't let that happen again.
Gale snorts like an angry horse. "So what? You want us to just go along and be their perfect victors? Well, I won't. I've had enough of playing by their rules and letting them drive us all into the ground. I did what you wanted in the Capitol, but I'm done playing nice. You promised later."
"I did," Haymitch agrees and his eyes are calculating as he takes them in. "And that's why you need to be smart. If all you want is to set a fire and die in a pointless blaze of glory, then fine, go ahead and stand on the roof of the Justice Building howling about how terrible Snow is. But if you want to actually make a difference and change things? You need to use your head."
Madge inhales deeply and Gale chews on his words. Haymitch nods.
"Revolution, if that's what you really want-"
"It is," Gale interrupts and Haymitch nods again.
"Then you'll need all the districts. One will never be enough to take the Capitol down. Stir up one district and Snow will just burn it and everyone in it to the ground. They ended the war last time by wiping Thirteen off the map, they'll do it again."
He's right, of course he's right, and Madge feels her insides shake. Gale narrows his eyes.
"So what's your big plan?" he asks and Madge squeezes his arm.
"You lie low for the next six months, you dazzle everyone with Panem's perfect love affair and you do everything the Capitol asks you to. You convince Snow you're not a threat and you're willing to do as you're told."
"And in six months?" she asks and Haymitch's smile is grim.
"In six months it's your Victory Tour. In six months, you get all of Panem as your audience. That's when you can make a difference."
"And then what?" Gale demands, his voice a mixed up mess of frustration and eagerness. Haymitch shakes his head.
"The less you know for now, the better. No," he says when Gale opens his mouth to protest, "this isn't up for debate. There are a lot of people involved in this, a lot riding on this and we can't afford any mistakes. If the Capitol gets wind of this, the less you know, the better for all of us."
"So there are rebels out there? Like organized rebels?" she breathes and Haymitch looks at her for a long moment before he answers.
"There always has been. That's the thing about a place like Panem, people are always angry."
Madge releases a shaky breath and Haymitch rubs at his jaw. He pins them both with serious eyes.
"But before you agree to this, you need to know the cost," he starts and holds up a hand to forestall Gale's interruption. "You're young and you're angry and you have every right to be. But you need to understand that revolution doesn't come cheap. It might cost you your life, maybe your family's lives, your friends, your home, your freedom, or who knows what else. You have to be willing to risk all of it, because if you commit to this, there's no turning back. Once you're in, Snow won't let you back out. So, are you willing to risk all that for a chance at bringing down the Capitol?"
"There's no choice" Gale says, his voice like late-night thunder. "If we don't do anything, it never ends. The Capitol keeps taking and taking until we have nothing left. I'm done letting them ruin us, it's time to fight back. I'm not going to pay with my family's lives, because I'm not going to let Snow have them," he swears and Madge isn't sure she could look away even if she tried. "We have an opportunity here, and I'm going to take it. It's time the Capitol were the scared ones."
Haymitch nods slowly and moves his gaze to her. "And what about you?"
Madge is scared too, she can't deny that, but if she doesn't fight back, she'll always be scared. If she ever wants to feel safe, there's only one choice. The Capitol's done so many horrible, evil things, she can't let them get away with it. She'd been right all those days ago on the train, they deserve better, everyone in Panem deserves better. She doesn't want anything to happen to her family, she doesn't want to risk them, but if she does this, it's for them too. It's so they can be safe and happy in ways they never could be here. She's scared, but she'll be brave. There's a fire in her too and it won't smolder anymore. It's time to let it burn.
"I'm in," she says and Gale's eyes meet hers. "Fuck 'em."
AN Thank you so much to everyone who's taken the time to read this story, I hope you liked it! Can you believe I intended this to be a a 10,000~ word one-shot? Whoops. This is the first story in a trilogy, I'm hoping to start posting the next one in late August, stay tuned! :)