Six Months Later
Madge stares at her ceiling.
It's early, too early to really be considered morning, with just the gentlest breath of dawn touching the sky. There's a chill in the air and even under all her blankets, Madge can feel it on her skin. The pale, white ghost of sunlight falls through her window and fights the shadows in her room and Madge wills it to win. She's ready for morning to come. She's ready for all this waiting to be over.
Tomorrow's the first day of the tour and the sooner today comes, the sooner everything can finally begin.
She's restless, her legs bounce and remembering when her mom told her a watched kettle never boils, she tugs her covers over her head. Otherwise she knows she'll spend every single moment staring at the sun waiting for it to rise. Waiting hadn't really bothered her just after the Games; everything was already so overwhelming. She needed time to try and get her bearings. But now, the closer the tour is, the harder it is to wait. Every day crawls by, allowing her anxiety plenty of time to fester. She doesn't regret committing to the rebellion and she has no intention of trying to back out, it's just that the longer it takes to get there, the more time she has to torture herself with everything that could go wrong.
It's almost like how she felt before entering the arena, the same nerves, the same anxiety, the same fear. Except it's sharper now, cuts deeper because last time she was just fighting for her own life. Now she's fighting for everyone's. It's hard to believe she could save anyone, let alone a whole country. She hates doubting herself, but the weight of her country is heavy. What if she's not strong enough to carry it?
A bird trills in the distance and Madge peeks her head out from under her covers. From the corner of her eye, she can see a delicate glitter of gold on her end table. A mockingjay, Aunt Maysilee's mockingjay, a symbol of the one thing the Capitol could never kill.
She has to be that Mockingjay. She is. Panem has to change, Snow has to fall and she can't let the Capitol beat her before the game's even begun. She won't. She'd won the Games, she'd outplayed the gamemakers and come home. She can do this.
They can do this.
(Ever since she was little, baking has soothed her.
Madge isn't quite sure why, but maybe it's inhaling all that sweetness and warmth. Maybe it's the business of her hands or maybe the step by step process she can lose her mind in. Maybe it's the soft sort of joy she always feels when people bite into something she's baked and love it. Maybe it's all of the above, but whatever it is, it's always settled her and smoothed out her edges.
So when Merrie starts making tarts with freshly pressed jam about a month after Madge has come home, she joins in in a heartbeat. It's the first time life feels almost normal again. As she stirs ingredients together in a big flowered patterned bowl, Madge can almost imagine that nothing's changed, that nothing's happened at all, that she's still just Madge Undersee and not Madge Undersee the Victor. Merrie works beside her, bright sunlight shines through the window and she just knows there's flour on her cheeks. She smiles. I missed this.
"So I was talking to Rosamynn Nuthatch yesterday," Merrie says and there's already laughter in her voice, "and she said-oh, damn." Madge turns her head to see Merrie's knocked over a jar of jam, the contents oozing out over the floury counter. Madge opens her mouth to say something teasing like oh, and why'd she say that? but her voice withers in her throat. The jam spreads out and out over the powdery counter and Madge stares at it, her heart shriveling in her chest.
Strawberry jam on flour.
She's not in control of herself, she feels like she isn't even in her own skin as she starts to shake and stumbles back.
Red on white.
Her mixing bowl clangs on the kitchen tiles but she doesn't hear it.
Blood on snow.
All she can hear is Eleven screaming and crying as she bleeds out and Madge can't help her. But it's not real, it's not, and Madge closes her eyes and presses her palms against her ears to block out the sound. It doesn't help. She can still see Eleven lying in the snow, can still hear her terror. Madge's legs tremble and she sinks down, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," falling from her tongue.
Hands touch her arms, pull at them with tight fingers and they're Cato's hands. He's trying to kill her, to squeeze the life right out of her and she flails out, her fist making contact with soft flesh. Cato lets go of her but his cry of surprise is...a woman's voice. Madge opens her eyes and she's crouched in her kitchen, poor Merrie wincing in front of her. Her eyes widen in horror.
"It's alright," Merrie says but there's fear in her eyes. There's a red scratch on her cheek, ragged and fresh, and Madge did that. Guilt, horror and shame wriggle like maggots in her skin.
"I...I'm sorry," she says and why is it so hard to breathe? Merrie tries to smile and Madge can't stop crying, her cheeks wet and her chest too tight.
"I'm sorry," she manages again and she is, she is. Is she losing her mind?
"Madge…" Merrie murmurs and it's only for a moment, one bright, hot flash of a moment, but Madge almost wishes she hadn't come home)
The sun rises higher, the sunshine grows a little brighter and Madge decides it's finally safe to get up. She doesn't want anyone to worry about her, so she's made a point of never getting out of bed before nine. She hasn't slept that late since she came home, but it's better if they think she does. It's better if her parents think she's healing.
Madge pushes off her covers and gets out of bed, her toes curling a bit from the cold. Her fluffy pink bathrobe is draped over the back of her desk chair and she pulls it on. For a moment she just snuggles into it, like getting hugged by something cuddly and warm. Socks are next and she wishes she could sleep with them on, but her feet don't allow that. Even if she falls asleep with socks on, she'll wake up without them. She tugs open her curtains but it does very little to light up her room, the sky all mottled grays and depressing.
A sigh flutters out of her and one fingertip absently touches the little wooden bird on her window sill. And then, as she always does before she leaves her bedroom, Magde reaches into her underwear drawer and takes out the fancy makeup she'd ordered from the Capitol. She smoothes it over the bags under her eyes and she's so used to this now she doesn't even have to look in the mirror. When she's done the makeup goes back into her drawer and she heads downstairs. She isn't attached to this house, this building, but it's a stange, jittery feeling to know that after tomorrow, she might never come back here. Her fingers curl around the railing briefly, tightly, enough her fingers hurt.
She steps into the dining room and her dad's already sitting at the table, a mug of tea in hand and his newspaper spread out in front of him. Her mom sits across from him, wan but there, and Madge looks at the both of them and suddenly has to fight the urge to cry.
Her mom notices her first, her pale lips pulling into a smile. "Good morning, sunshine," she says in her soft, fragile voice and Madge can't say anything back, her words crowded up into a messy lump in her throat.
"Merrie's made french toast," her dad says and of course she has. French toast is Madge's favourite.
"And look, we have fresh strawberries with cream," her mom adds and what Madge wants to do is fling herself on them, hold them as tight as she can and sob out how much she loves them. But she can't do that. They think this is just an average Victory Tour and she can't tell them any different. This house isn't safe, the truth is too dangerous and keeping them safe is the only thing that really matters. They can't know what she's planning, she'd never want them to so all she can do is hoist up a smile and sit next to her mom. Her parents talk and Madge listens, watches, soaks them in until she's overflowing with them.
She might not be able to say a proper goodbye, she might never get to explain, but maybe that's better. At least this way her last memories of them will be their smiles, not their tears.
(It's almost noon and the sun is merciless today. Madge's bare arms burn as she sits on the front steps of her new home in Victor's Village, her forehead pushed forcefully into her knees. Her head pounds, her nose desperately needs to be blown and her thighs are wet from all her crying, but she can't stop. She wants to, she really does, but she can't. It's hard to breathe and her arms hurt, but she doesn't move. Moving means going inside and that's the last place she wants to be right now.
Her nose is dripping but there's nothing she can do about it here, unless she wants to blow it on her skirt. She closes her eyes and tries to hold in the tears, but they leak out anyway. As stupid as it is, she feels a little betrayed.
"I know moving's a lot of work, but this might not be the best place for a nap."
Gale's voice is light and jokey and Madge is so surprised to hear it she jerks her head up. His grin drops immediately.
"Shit," he says and she knows what he must be seeing. Her, red, puffy and miserable with a drippy nose. Gale pats at the pockets of his pants until he reaches into one of the back ones and pulls out what might be the dirtiest rag she's ever seen. He winces.
When she was little, her grandpa kept a handkerchief in his pocket, a white one with a pretty pattern of flowers. "In case I see a pretty girl crying," he'd told her with a wink. Unlike Grampy, she gets the impression Gale had used his rag to clean something and then stuffed it in his pocket. It doesn't matter. She's desperate. Madge takes it from him and blows her nose. Gale sits beside her and heedless of the fact that she's probably going to get black smears on her face, she blots at the tears on her cheeks. Gale doesn't say anything but he doesn't need to. His eyes touch her and they ask what's wrong. She feels a little silly and stupid on top of miserable and she's not sure she can explain, even if she wanted to. But then his arm presses against hers and suddenly the words don't seem so daunting.
"We were moving in and everything was fine but then...suddenly my mom just got really quiet and sad and…" She trails off and his arm slides around her shoulders. Madge takes a steadying breath even as a few stubborn tears dribble down her cheeks. "She was in so much pain, her head. It was...it was really bad and she just kept whispering 'Maysilee should've had a house like this, Maysilee should've lived in a house like this'. She was so...miserable and in so much pain she couldn't even walk, my dad had to carry her upstairs. And they had to give her so much morphling, she was barely conscious. I hate seeing her like that, but this was so much worse. In the arena I kept telling myself I had to win so she wouldn't suffer like that again. But I won and she still is. It's my fault and it isn't but it is. I started to cry and I couldn't stop. I never can anymore."
It's a lot and she covers her face with Gale's smelly rag. Her breathing's still shaky, her throat feels sticky and there's nothing Gale can say to make this better. She doesn't even want him to try. Just saying it, having someone hear it without offering any guidance or reassurance or advice, that's what she wants. He gives that to her. He's quiet, he's there and she's grateful.
The silence stretches between them, comfortable and comforting. When he finally does speak again, she no longer feels like she's being strangled.
"Since we moved in last week, we're pretty much settled now. I was wondering if you wanted the grand tour. And maybe we'll be able to find something for those arms of yours, crispy."
Madge laughs, a wet, ugly sound and Gale grins.
"Come on," he says and stands. He offers his hand. She takes it and lets him pull her up. They walk down the wide, cobbled lane together hand in hand and even though the weight of her mother's grief is still heavy, it doesn't feel quite so impossible to carry anymore)
What do you do on your last day at home? Madge goes for a walk.
She closes the door behind her as she walks out onto the porch, the wind biting at her nose. The sky looks like smoke and Madge can only hope it doesn't open up and rain on her. She buries her hands in her coat pockets as she starts down the steps and though it's been months, she still finds herself missing the creak her old top step used to make. It used to irritate her, but now she finds herself pressing down extra hard with her foot as if that'll force these shiny new stairs to creak like old wood. They never do.
Madge walks slowly down the empty road and Victor's Village is particularly desolate in late fall. The flowers have all died, the leaves have fallen and all that's left are bony trees reaching for a sky of cinders. Four houses with too much space between them and eerie almost-silence, broken by a hiss of wind, a skitter of dry leaves blown across the street cobbles. The little ghost girl from Gale's story belongs here; she's not sure living people do.
Her new shoes with their hard soles clack clack on the stones beneath her and Twelve isn't any prettier than it was when she'd left for the Hunger Games, but just like then, Madge gathers every sparse, gray detail. Just like last time, she might never get another chance. She doesn't know what the plan is for their victory tour, she won't until they're already on the tour, but she knows there's a chance she won't be coming home. Maybe according to the rebels' plan or maybe because the Capitol puts an end to her and all her dreams of revolution. It's a cold thought, a terrible one but not nearly as awful as she would've thought. But then maybe that's because she's already lived this fear. Hopefully this'll be the last time she does.
She's pretty sure it won't be.
(Rain soaks through the sleeves of her jacket as Madge stands in Haymitch's backyard, the untended lawn under her shoes turning to mud. The screen door is ajar, there's a puddle forming on his floor and Madge hesitates to go inside. It's wet, she's cold but she's still not sure if she should go in, if she's supposed to, allowed to or if she should just go back home even though the chasm inside her begs her not to. She bites her lip too hard and thunder grumbles in the distance, the rain rising in tempo. Madge breathes in and finally moves towards the door, the mud squelching with every step.
She feels like a criminal as she slips inside, making sure to latch the door behind her. The house is quiet, empty in a lonely way and she pulls off her drippy shoes and drenched jacket. She feels bad making the puddle even bigger, but there's no towel to mop it up and every part of her is wet. She bites her lip again, still too hard, and walks deeper into the house. The air is stale and full of liquor, none of the lights are on and besides the rain outside, the only sound is a snuffling, snorting sound she follows into the kitchen. Haymitch and several bottles are sprawled across the table, the wood is sticky with spills and without really thinking about it, Madge digs out his kettle and fills it up. She sets it on the stove and listens to the rain, Haymitch's snoring somehow getting louder the longer she stands there.
It's the whistling that wakes him up.
The kettle is shrill when it's ready and Haymitch twitches, his snoring ending in a snort. Madge finds two hopefully clean cups and fills them up as Haymitch groans, several of his bottles rattling. Madge sits across from him and slides him a cup of tea. Haymitch blinks at her with bleary eyes.
"What're you doing here?" he asks and glares at the nearest empty bottle. She hesitates to answer, the chipped porcelain of her mug burning her fingers. The truth is that sometimes when she's at home, surrounded by the people she loves, she feels alone. Alone in an awful, horrific way that eats and eats and eats at her. Alone in a way she can't explain, alone in a way no one would understand. Except maybe...
"Someone has to make sure you're still alive," she says instead and Haymitch grunts. He sips his tea with a look of disdain and somehow, Madge thinks he understands.
She's still lonely, they both are, but at least now they can be lonely together)
It's a chilly Saturday and Twelve's streets are at their busiest, which is to say they're barely busy at all. Madge has a little brown purse full of money but no one else in Twelve does, ever does, so trips to town are fairly rare. Of course, town, or at least the part with shops, is really just one dusty street lined with faded storefronts in need of new paint. Madge stops at each of those storefronts, pushes open old doors with little jangly bells and hands out her money like her grandpa used to hand out little striped candies to lure people into his shop.
She goes to the seamstress' first, a squat building bleached milky brown by sunlight with a sign that sways in the wind. The letters are in purple paint so worn she can't actually read them and the doorknob sticks a little but she's used to that. Madge bumps the stiff door with her hip and it opens up, the smell of leather and clean linen settling over her. Behind the counter is a very bored Lanna Thimmonier, who might be Gale's age. She straightens and stares with widening eyes, but then, Madge is the only customer standing between the buttons and rolls of fabric. Lanna clears her throat. "Can I help you with something?"
"Um," Madge starts and grabs the nearest thing, hair ribbons, a whole handful, and pulls far more money than they cost from her purse. Lanna stares at her as she places it all on the counter.
"Keep the change," Madge insists and she's already leaving. It's not enough, it's not even close to enough, but it's the only thing she's been able to do in these six months of waiting. The people here are starving and anyway, her money's Capitol money and the Capitol owes them. More than Madge will ever be able to spend, she knows that, but it's something at least.
Next up is the butcher and she orders bacon, the best kind that costs the most. Mr Hardwick wraps it up and maybe it's the smell of death or the blood stains on his apron, but Madge finds it hard to breathe. It's been six months, she doesn't want to feel like this but there's acid in her gut as she stares at his bloody butcher's knife.
"Here you are," he says and hands her the bacon. Madge hands him her money and the bile's so thick in her throat she can barely say "Thank you. Keep the change." She's dizzy as she stumbles from the shop and there's something awful clawing at the back of head, but she ignores it. She's had months of practice. After too many deep breaths with her hands on her knees, she moves on, this time to the grocer's.
The walls are painted with green and white stripes, which was probably cheery once. Now it's just old and chipped. She goes inside and runs her eyes slowly over every item, her feet moving through the shop at a leisurely pace. Nothing here tastes as good as the wild strawberries Katniss still sells her, but the pears are pretty good and she's been hankering after apples ever since she came back from the games. She fills up a bag of each and heads to the counter to pay.
Mr Keene the grocer is old with gray hair curling into wisps and he takes her coins with a shaking hand. He's missing a tooth when he smiles and she wonders if it was old age or something else that took it from him. Madge smiles back but there's an unwelcome thought starting to bloom in the very back of her head, fighting its way through the bones of her skull. Will she make it to his age?
It's an ugly, awful thought and Madge does her best to banish it. Still, Mr Keene's hands aren't the only ones shaking anymore.
"Keep the change," Madge says, trying not to stumble over her lines. She leaves the store quickly and next up is the bakery, the front window smudged with tiny handprints. Madge wants to smile at the same time she wants to cry. She breathes in to steady herself and then pushes open the door, the bell jingling in announcement of her presence. Again, she's the only one inside, and when she breathes in this time, it's to savour the sweet smell of sugar and warmth. She feels a little calmer already.
Mrs Mellark stands at the counter and she smiles brightly, friendly and it's hard to smile back. Everyone knows Mrs Mellark is the farthest thing from friendly, though she's never been anything but pleasant to Madge. She guesses that's because even before she was a Victor, she still had the deepest pockets in Twelve.
"Welcome to Mellark's Bakery, Miss Undersee. How can I help you today?" Mrs Mellark asks and Madge wishes someone else was working the counter today.
"A dozen more of your peanut butter cookies, please. I just can't get enough of them." She uses the same faux cheery voice she'd made use of in the Capitol and Mrs Mellark nods eagerly.
"Of course, right away. Anything for our best customer," she chirps and Madge smiles. This is good practice for the tour at least. Mrs Mellark disappears into the back and Madge waits, her eyes drifting to the magnificent cakes on display. Her gaze sticks on a woodland scene with the greenest grass, trees with detailed leaves and little sculpted squirrels. It looks amazing, too good even to eat and she knows they're made of icing, but she can't help finding those squirrels adorable. She's smiling, for real this time, and then Mrs Mellark says, "Here are your cookies, just made fresh."
Madge looks back at the counter and Peeta Mellark stands beside his mother, a box of cookies in his hands. They smell delicious but Madge barely notices. She and Peeta have been in the same class since they started school, but they've never been close. He's always been nice though, friendly in a genuine way and able to charm anyone, from their classmates to every teacher. Well almost anyone. There's a welt on Peeta's face today, as there is on so many days. It looks almost as fresh as her cookies and Madge knows how he must have gotten it. Everyone in town knows.
"I hope you like them," he says and grins. "I figured you might be coming by for your Saturday pickup, so I added a little extra peanut butter."
Mrs Mellark's smile tightens. "I'm sure you have work to get back to," she says in a tone trying for friendly but falling short. Peeta nods.
"Thank you," Madge blurts and Peeta smiles. The corner of Mrs Mellark's mouth twitches.
"No problem, I hope you like them," he says and then turns to head back to his baking. Madge watches him go and it occurs to her then that even if their revolution succeeds, even if they win and Snow falls, they still won't save everyone.
That doesn't seem fair.
("Aren't you ever afraid someone's going to catch you?" Madge whispers as Katniss leads her to the fence. The meadow is deserted, but Madge can't help her skittishness. They're about to break the law and the Capitol is never kind to rule breakers.
"No. The peacekeepers never come around here. And why would they want to stop us? Most of what we sell is to them." Katniss doesn't whisper, her steps don't falter and she ducks through a gap in the fence's wires like it's the most normal thing in the world. Madge stands on the other side and stares, both impressed with Katniss and surprised at the peacekeepers. But why is she surprised? Of course the peacekeepers are hypocrites.
Madge feels a sting of heat in her cheeks and tries not to let her apprehension show as she sizes up the gap in the fence. The electricity isn't on even if the faded sign promises it is, but it's somewhat barbed and the last thing she wants is to cut herself. Madge presses the fabric of her dress against her legs and holds her breath as if that'll somehow help. She sticks one leg through the gap and then tries to slide the rest of herself through, but just as she thinks she's done it, the fence tugs on her shoulder. Madge freezes and twists her neck to check, one rude barb caught on her sleeve and determined to hold on. Half-squatting and straddling the fence wires, she can't help the errant thought that she's glad it's Katniss who invited her out here and not Gale.
Katniss reaches over and unhooks her. Madge pulls herself the rest of the way through, tries not to wince at the hole in her sleeve and "Thank you," she mumbles in embarrassment. Katniss shrugs and turns to face the woods.
"My gear's not far," she says and sets off, her steps as quiet as Gale's. Madge trots after her like a lumbering bear, twigs snapping under her shoes. She's never thought of herself as particularly heavy or ungainly, but next to Katniss she's like an army tromping through the trees. Snow had cushioned her footfalls in the only other woods she's ever been in and there's none of that here. Everything is green and vibrant, sunlight slashes through the canopy above to butter everything in gold and it shouldn't remind her of the arena, everything's different, but not different enough. Old branches block the path, birds twitter out of sight, her feet land awkwardly on uneven ground and trees tower above her. She's beyond the fence, freer than she's ever been and yet, she feels almost trapped.
"Alright, you ready?" Katniss as she straightens up, her bow in hand. Madge stares at her for a moment, too long a moment, and then tries to smile.
"Yeah, let's go."
It almost feels like her chest's caving in and Madge doesn't want to breathe so heavy, doesn't want to jump at every little sound and touch of plant life, but she can't stop herself. A bit of grass or maybe a fallen leaf brushes her ankle and a scream swells in her chest, up into her throat and fights to pass her teeth, but reflex presses her hands to mouth because a scream in the arena might be what kills you. Even still, her heart is a battering ram against her ribs, the bones surely splintering under it's onslaught. Are her feet always this clumsy? Why does the screech of a faraway bird make her want to sob?
Katniss comes to a sudden stop and Madge trips over her own feet in surprise. She grabs onto the nearest tree to keep from falling, her nails scraping the bark. Katniss is alert, still, her eyes focused on something Madge can't make out no matter how hard she tries. She watches as Katniss ever so carefully notches an arrow, her movements fluid in a way that might be beautiful. There's no stiffness in her, no hesitance or lack of certainty. She's steady, sure and when her arrow flies, it's with a sort of grace Madge isn't sure anyone could recreate. Gale is good with a bow, she'd seen that first hand, but Katniss is...she's natural, natural like she'd been born with a bow in her hand, natural like it's just another part of her arm. A squirrel thumps to the forest floor. Madge breathes again, the spell around her broken. Katniss steps over to inspect her kill and Madge presses a hand to her chest, but there's no hammer beat beneath her palm.
Katniss straightens and looks over at her. "Let me know if you want to give it a try," she says and Madge nods. One day maybe, when the thought of a weapon in her hand doesn't make her shake, but today, today she thinks she'll watch. She's not ready yet for blood.
And maybe because...because when she'd watched Katniss shoot, she hadn't been afraid anymore.
She's not about to give that up)
Madge lets her feet decide where to take her next.
Strange eyes stick to her as she walks, but this isn't new. There are always eyes on her now. Some are filled with awe, and surprise and wonder. Tributes from Twelve always die but Madge didn't, Madge came home and her district partner came with her. They're a sensation, a miracle, and because of them, District Twelve will be fed for at least a year, will finally reap the rewards of Panem's favourite spectacle. Sometimes the eyes that follow her are tinged with gratitude too.
That's strange, to be liked and well thought of, to have her District watch her because they are impressed and thankful. She is the mayor's daughter, she is used to much harsher eyes. All her life she has tasted their hostility, their accusations and the same hatred that used to burn in Gale Hawthorne every time they saw each other.
Of course, there's still plenty of that too.
Some people like her now, some might even love her, but there are plenty that don't. She's a killer after all and fear and disgust touch some eyes that glare at her down dusty roads, glare and watch and judge. She murdered children to come home, just like the tributes that stole so many of Twelve's own children, some people will never forgive or forget that. Some people are scared of her and the blood on her hands, others are resentful she managed to come home when the people they loved didn't, still others see her and think of all the killers they spent their lives watching and being taught to hate. Twelve is a district very used to loss and defeat. Most really aren't sure what to do with a victor, let alone two.
The Capitol has watchful eyes too so Madge keeps a pleasant, cheery look on her face even as all those eyes feel like hands and fingers, touching and holding and pushing down on her. Every moment of every day, she has a part to play. Her only comfort is the thought that hopefully she won't for very much longer.
Her feet take her to the fence and she should've known they would. There's only one place she won't be drowning in other people's eyes.
She doesn't look around to see if anyone's watching like she always used to, her stomach doesn't curl with apprehension of what might lurk in the woods and there's no spike of anxiety at the thought of the consequences of being caught, not like there used to be. Madge doesn't feel much of anything as she slips through the gap in the metal wiring and comes out the other side, officially beyond Twelve's borders and beyond the Capitol's protection. Leaves crinkle under her shoes and the faintest hint of her breath mists the air. The woods are full of shadows even in daylight, but that doesn't worry her like it used to.
Is it courage? Or recklessness?
She's not sure she can tell the difference anymore.
(The sun burns high in the sky, hot enough that the air almost shimmers. The sky is impossibly blue, not a single cloud braves the heat and Madge sits on a worktable in the Hawthornes' backyard. Shiny new shoes from the Capitol lay abandoned in the grass as she watches Gale work, the both of them tucked into the shade of the leafy oak tree Gale had planted for his siblings to climb. There's hair stuck to the back of her neck but she barely notices as she watches Gale work, his knife sure and his bare arms revealing every flex of muscle. It calms her the way watching Katniss shoot does, softens the sharp edges trying to poke holes in her skin.
Woodcarving is the marketable hobby he's taken up to please the Capitol, and just like with her music, they can't get enough of everything he makes. There are talk shows gushing about his talent, a pile of orders sent from Effie from prominent Capitolites and the funniest thing is, every carving he makes is...ugly. Bumpy, uneven, sometimes unrecognizable, not one merits the effusive praise the Capitol can't stop showering him with. It's the same with her music. Madge hates every song she records, can't bear to listen to even one and always expects to receive complaints or anger or reprimands. She never does. Instead, people on TV lavish her with compliments and Effie gushes over the telephone about her talent.
Madge swings her legs and Gale's current project might be a bird. She thinks she might like a bird, one with unfurled wings as if ready to fly away. She wishes she had that kind of freedom, she wishes they all did. Not that she'll ever ask Gale for one. He has enough work to do.
"Posy showed me the cat you made her, it's adorable," she says and Gale's knife stills for a moment, a solitary bead of sweat sliding from his jaw down to his collarbone.
"She deserves it," he says and his voice is low. Madge nods. She understands what he's saying and what he isn't saying too. Posy deserves something beautiful, deserves the effort and all the time it took to make. The Capitol doesn't.
Gale understands her too, understands just what she's thinking. "They'll love whatever shit I give them, no matter how awful. I'm not going to waste my time. Not on them," he spits and Madge nods again. He's right and he shouldn't spend any more time labouring for the Capitol than he has to. They don't deserve it.
"I wonder if the other districts are going to see or hear our stuff on TV and think we're talentless hacks?" she muses and picks up a lumpy, illformed mouse. There's something almost endearing about how homely it is. She's not sure why her heart's aching.
"Probably," he says and Madge sets down the mouse. The other districts will mock how terrible they are and never understand that they're fighting back the only way they can. She wants to scream.
She always wants to scream)
Madge sits in the woods and watches the sun set.
The air is brisk, the trees look almost black in the fading light and thin beams of gold shoot between the trunks and stretch shadows out along the ground. It's quiet, peaceful and it's so soothing just to be Madge without having to worry about anything or anyone else. There's no one watching, no one judging or analyzing her every move. It's not freedom, but it's the closest she can get these days.
Madge runs her fingers over the fallen leaves pooled around her feet and breathes in deep, the air crisp and cool in her lungs. She's not quite safe out here, but she almost is and for the moment, she relishes that. After tomorrow, who knows if she'll ever feel this safe again? And it is a little funny that out here, where the Capitol warned there was nothing but danger, Madge feels safest. Or is it just sad?
The sun dips lower and suddenly she isn't alone.
Katniss steps out from between the trees, her footsteps so quiet Madge hadn't heard her coming. For a moment, Katniss is silent and the sinking sun sets her edges ablaze. It burns all around her like a fiery outline, but the shadows hide her face.
"I'm sorry," she whispers.
Madge doesn't ask why.
It's safer that way.
(Fall creeps in and Madge watches the younger Hawthornes walk to school in their drab gray uniforms. They pass by every morning, laughing, talking and swinging their bags, and Madge sits by her window and watches. Her own dull uniform hangs in the far corner of her closet, abandoned and lonely. She could throw it out, but never does, even though she never has to go to school again.
A perk of victory they say, just like the fact that she'll never have to get a job. School in Twelve was gloomy and lackluster, the jobs hard and unforgiving. Being excused from both should be a good thing, it should make her happy but...sometimes Madge opens her closet and stares at that ugly, unloved uniform and doesn't feel happy at all. It's not that she loved school and had so much fun there or anything, it's just...she's not really sure what it is. But there's an ache in her when she stares at that uniform nowadays)
Madge is quiet during dinner.
She usually is, she's never been chatty, but tonight it's something else. Tonight she wants to absorb every aspect of his moment, wants to focus on nothing but her father's exuberant storytelling, his fork waving around and the piece of meat on it's end in imminent danger of being sent flying. On Mrs Sparrowsaw clutching her knife as she glares at that piece of meat, her eyes hawkishly guarding it's every move. On Merrie bustling around the room pouring wine and excitedly telling them, "ooo, make sure you try the salad! I've come up with a brand new dressing for it." On her mom picking delicately at that salad and listening to her husband raptly, her smile genuine even if it is strained. On the crooked picture frame above her father's head, the wrinkle in the corner of the carpet, on the stain on the table she'd made at age six that Mrs Sparrowsaw had never been able to remove, no matter how hard she'd tried. On the fact that even in this new house bought in blood with Snow embedded in its walls, she feels warm and bright and so full of love.
There are dark days ahead, but she'll carry this moment with her through them all. As a reminder, as a token, as a shield against whatever it is Snow plans to throw at her. He and his gamemakers failed to break her once and he'll certainly try again. She remembers the black depths of his eyes when he crowned them after the Games; he won't tolerate any more disobedience. He'll come after them with everything he's got, but so will they. And she'll have moments like these to fall back on, to make her brave and strong.
Snow has only himself.
He must be miserable.
(Melancholy notes plink plink from the piano keys and just like they always do nowadays, Madge's fingers feel clumsy. She'd used to believe magic could come from her music, healing, happiness, but not anymore. Everything she makes now is ugly.
"You're really good," Gale's voice says quietly from behind her and Madge stops her playing in surprise. She turns to see him standing in the doorway, his posture stiff and his eyes anywhere but on her. She shakes her head.
"I'm not. I used to be better."
He frowns and still won't meet her eyes. Madge bites her lip.
"Do you...do you want to go for a walk?" he asks and she stares at him. His tone, his posture, the look on his face, there must be something he wants to say to her in private, away from the Capitol's prying ears. She nods.
It's late fall and that means Twelve is grayer than usual, the light and the air, the sky, the people, the ground and the buildings saturated in it. Madge glances up at the ashen sky instead of Gale walking beside her and wishes she could forget the look on his face when he'd asked her to go on this walk. His hand feels awkward in hers and what secret could be making him so tense and unable to look at her? She can't ask of course, they need privacy for that, so she tries to smile to make up for his frown, to fool anyone who may be looking their way. They're in love, they're happy, of course they are. She can't let anyone think anything else.
The flowers in the meadow are graying too, starting to wilt and sag and Madge and Gale wander to the edge of the fence, it's metal twisted and rusty. Their hands fall apart and Gale's go back in his pockets, hers knotting together. She tries not to worry. She fails.
"I-" he starts and stops, his expression pinching. Madge stares at him and waits. He kicks the fence post.
"I did something really stupid."
His admission hangs in the gray air and Madge refuses to imagine what that might mean. Her throat's dry.
"What?" she asks and he kicks the fence post again, the hands in his pockets tightening into fists.
"I kissed Katniss."
Three little words and somehow, they punch her in the gut, so sudden and hard she actually can't breathe for a moment. She stares at him with wide eyes and it was stupid of him, stupid and selfish and reckless and dangeorus, but it shouldn't hurt this much. This isn't worry or fear or shock, this is something worse. She doesn't understand it, she doesn't want to.
He turns away from her, maybe takes her silence as condemnation, and kicks the fence post so hard it shudders. He's angry with himself and Madge thinks she might be angry too, somewhere under all the hurt. Why? she almost asks, why would you do something so stupid? but she knows why. Because he's in love with Katniss, because he's always been in love with her, he always will be. All their lies haven't changed that. They can't. She feels sick.
"I know I shouldn't have," he says and his voice shakes with how mad he is at himself. "It was stupid, so fucking stupid! I knew it as soon as I did it and if anyone saw...if anyone finds out it could ruin everything. Damn it!" he snaps and this time he slams his fist against the post. His hand must ache and she should say something. But what? She can't think of anything to say. She just keeps staring at his back.
"I kept telling myself I had to do it just once, to-" He cuts himself off and leans forward until his forehead touches the fence post. "I messed up. I know I did and I'm sorry. I'm sorry, fuck, I wasn't thinking."
There's a strange part of her that wants to run away, another that wants to rage at him, but instead she dams the flood inside that's threatening to drown her. It's difficult to breathe but she does. Anger won't help them here, fleeing and tears and whatever other messy feelings are alive within her won't make this any better, so she steels herself against them all. This is just an extension of the arena, just another stage of the Hunger Games and she has to use her head if she wants to make it out. She's so cold, but she has to be. Survival's at stake, just like always, there's no room for anything else.
(and deep down she thinks, I can't really blame him, can I?)
(their little game must be breaking his heart)
"It's okay," she says and he pushes his forehead into the wood.
"No, it isn't. If anyone saw, if anyone finds out-"
"You were in the woods, right? Chances are no one saw you and Snow doesn't have surveillance out there, so it's probably okay," she says and her voice is steady, calm, soothing even. It's like listening to a stranger. Gale shakes his head and when he turns back to her, his anger hasn't lessened.
"Why aren't you angry with me?" he demands and Madge stares at him. "I put us both in danger, not to mention our plans with Haymitch. And we-"
He stops himself short, swallows whatever he was about to say and turns away again, his face pressed into the splintering fence post. Madge looks at him, feels the maelstrom rising in her heart and honesty, they'd promised they'd be honest right? She swallows.
"I am. I am angry and furious and scared and...and hurt, I-" she cuts herself off, isn't sure what she's saying. Gale turns back to her and she closes her eyes so she doesn't have to see his face.
"I am, but that's not going to help. Being angry or upset isn't going to fix anything. And...and I understand. This situation's a mess and...and you're in a terrible position. I can't imagine what that's like, to be in love with someone but have to lie everyday and pretend to be in love with someone else. And every day this lasts, you miss out on time you could have spent together."
"That isn't an excuse," he insists. "And what about you? You're stuck in the same situation I am."
Her eyes open in surprise and she shakes her head.
"I'm not," she says and it's odd how heavy her heart feels in her chest. "I'm not in love with anyone. I haven't had to sacrifice anything." She does love people, her parents, Katniss, even him, but that's not romantic. It's...she's not really sure what it is when it comes to him, but she isn't in love with him. She'd never be that stupid.
Gale's mouth flattens into a line. "Maybe not. But what if...what if you miss out on them, on the person you're supposed to fall in love with because of me?"
The sun sets to the left of him, orange light slicing through the gray space between them. Madge breathes in the smoky air of Twelve and she'd never really thought of that had she? What if her soulmate is out there just waiting to be found? What if this game of theirs steals her only chance to find them? That should worry her, shouldn't it? But as they stand there in the dying light, half in shadow and glowing around the edges, she finds it doesn't.
"It's not the same. And anyway, we can't worry about hypotheticals. We have enough to worry about." She tries to smile and half manages, Gale's face still hard. The wind picks up and flutters the ends of her hair, the strands tickling her face. Madge looks up at the sky, orange and yellow and streaked with pink.
"I...I don't think you and Katniss should spend time alone anymore," she says and watches a bird soar past the clouds. "Not because I don't trust you, but just in case someone did see something or suspects something. You can still spend time together, I just don't think it should be alone. I can come with you, but I'll stand far off so you won't even know I'm there. But if I'm there, no one can suggest there's anything romantic between you two, right?" She finally drops her gaze to look at him and he nods, his eyes dark. There's a chill beneath her skin, sinking deep into her bones. Madge wraps her arms around herself but it doesn't help.
"I'm sorry," he says again and without really thinking about it, she reaches forward and places a hand against his chest.
"It's okay. And I'm sorry too." She looks up at him, his moonlight eyes burning, and he puts a hand over hers. They stay like that, setting sun beside them and something warm growing in her chest. Their last day in the arena, right before the avalanche hit, she'd felt a yearning for something as she'd looked at him, and she feels it again now. An ache, a longing, but for what? It fills her top to bottom, stretches out and swallows her and it's too much. She drops her gaze.
"So...so what did Katniss do when you…um…"
She's not sure why she can't bring herself to say it and Gale's hand slides from hers. Her fingers tighten for a moment in his jacket and then let go, her hand falling to her side. She still doesn't look up at his face.
She does look at him now but he's looking at the sunset. His face is tight and maybe she shouldn't have asked.
"Nothing?" she finds herself echoing in surprise. She knows what Gale's kisses are like, the way they melt her and consume her and light her aflame. It seems hard to believe anyone could have no reaction.
"Nothing," he confirms. "I realized almost immediately how stupid I was being and stopped, but when I kissed her, she did nothing but stand there. And when I apologized she just stood there and nodded and we went home like nothing happened. I don't know what that means. Was she surprised? Disgusted? Afraid because she knew how stupid it was of me?"
"I'm sure it was just surprise," Madge says and hopes she sounds comforting and sure. Her fingers twitch with the urge to reach for him, but she doesn't let them. Gale doesn't answer, his eyes still off in the distance. Madge hates how cold she feels.
"It's dark, we should head back," he says and Madge nods. They hold hands, she forces a smile and even though he's right beside her, she feels...she feels far away.
So very far away)
Madge goes out to sit on the front steps and stares at the stars, the ones she'll lose when they reach the Capitol. They're beautiful but so far away, as distant as a dream. Like diamonds in the sky as the old song says and how sad for all those Capitol citizens with all their magnificent things; they have everything, but they'll never have the stars.
Madge lowers her gaze and Gale stands just inside her fence, his hands in his pockets and his silver eyes far brighter than any star could ever hope to be. Shadows touch his face and she knows they're touching hers too, because tomorrow they go back. Tomorrow the game begins again, but worse this time. This isn't just about saving their own lives anymore. This time they're fighting a war.
"Hey," she says back and tightens her blanket around herself. It's chilly in the dark and Gale comes closer, his footsteps so light they barely make a sound. Always the hunter, even now. She smiles even as fear and apprehension and nerves slither beneath her skin, revolution and war and so much responsibility falling heavy on her shoulders. Gale sits down beside her and she has to believe they can do this, make a difference and change things and defeat the Capitol. She has to and she will. Whatever it takes, no matter how terrifying, they're going to do this. For her family, for his, for friends and classmates and neighbours, for Twelve, for Panem and everyone who's already died. They will be the mockingjay and they'll see this through. They have to.
She just wishes she wasn't so scared.
"Are you cold?" she asks and scoots in a little closer, her blanket already opening. He smiles just the smallest bit and shakes his head.
"I'm okay," he murmurs but his body leans into hers anyway and she wraps her blanket around him. It's fragile, the safety, the calm that sitting here together provides, it always has been, but that's alright. The world waiting for them is filled with terror and death and danger, but they won't be facing it alone. That's enough.
Gale looks up at the sky and he's beautiful in moonlight, the sort of beautiful that stops time for just a moment. She stares at him and what must it be like to shine so brightly? She'll never know, she'll never steal someone's breath or put the night sky to shame, but he does. He always does.
(she wonders if Panem will lose her in his light)
"So tomorrow," he says and Madge nods. She looks back up at the stars, the ones she'll miss in the Capitol's bright lights.
(It had been her idea to accompany Katniss and Gale on any future outings and objectively speaking, it was the logical solution. But as Madge leans against a tree with peeling bark and watches them hunt, she realizes she hadn't factored in just how much this was going to hurt. She doesn't understand why it hurts deep down in the pit of her stomach, but it does. It really, really does.
Standing alone as she is, she has plenty of time to dwell on it, to come up with possible reasons and each one is worse than the last. She tries really hard to think of something else. The leaves still clinging to the tree branches are beautiful, a mix of burnt orange, rusty red and golden yellow. If she squints her eyes just right, the shafts of sunlight pouring down into the woods make the trees look like they're on fire, burning and glittering and glowing. It's sort of breathtaking and Madge tries to drink it in. But as stunning as nature is, her eyes can't stay away from Gale and Katniss.
Even without speaking, they're completely in sync. Their teamwork is effortless, easy and Madge is a little mesmerized. Somehow, they seem to know exactly what to do and when to do it without any sort of communication, not a word or a gesture or jerk of the head. Madge watches as Katniss takes aim with her bow at what appears to be nothing at all, as Gale bends down soundlessly and picks up a rock, as he tosses it into the trees. It clatters, birds burst up into the air and Katniss fires. She hits her target dead on, but then, Madge has never seen her miss. Gale stands back up, Katniss steps over to investigate her kill and for a just a second, Madge sees Gale hesitate. His leg twitches, his body leans slightly forward but for that one second, he doesn't move. And then he snaps himself out of it like he's been doing all day and follows after Katniss.
Madge leans a little farther back into her tree and feels her sweater catch on the wood. Hesitancy hangs over all of them today and it's no secret why. It's that kiss, the kiss that never should've happened, and the fact that none of them seem to know how to deal with it. Katniss and Gale have barely spoken all day and they keep looking at each other, but only when they're sure the other's not looking at them. And every once and awhile, one of them shoots a furtive glance at Madge. She pretends not to notice.
No one's mentioned that kiss and it makes sense. Gale isn't going to bring it up, he's mad enough at himself that it happened at all. And what would be the point in talking about it? If Katniss tells him she loves him back, that'll be awful because there's nothing they can do about it. And if she tells him it meant nothing and she's only ever seen him as a friend? That would be awful too, wouldn't it? Madge can understand why he's just letting it lie. And Katniss could be keeping quiet for so many reasons. Maybe she doesn't like Gale that way and doesn't want to hurt his feelings. Maybe she does love him but knows they can't be together now. Maybe she doesn't know the truth about what's going on between Madge and Gale and doesn't want to cause trouble.
Madge hasn't told her (why not?). Has Gale?
And the thing is, Madge knows she could say something. She could explain that she and Gale are just friends, that it's okay if Katniss loves him back but she doesn't. The very thought of doing so makes her feel nauseous. She refuses to puzzle out why.
Katniss and Gale move deeper into the woods and Madge follows, trailing after with a hollow chest. Watching them together is sobering. She's friends with them both now, deeper friends with Katniss than before she left and twined up with Gale because of so many forces beyond their control and she'd let it fool her into forgetting. But when she looks at them now, awkward, barely speaking and yet somehow so in tune with each other, working so harmoniously together, she can't help but remember. No matter how much she means to either of them now, it'll never be even close to how much they mean to each other.
Madge is used to being lonely. She always has been.
So why does it hurt so much more now?)
It's hard to sleep tonight.
It's always hard to sleep, but usually it's because she knows that when she closes her eyes, she's going to die. Sometimes it's Cato's hands around her throat, squeezing and squeezing and squeezing until the world fades away, sometimes it's Clove's hands doing the squeezing or maybe even her knife, digging in so deep it never comes out. Sometimes the boy from Eleven hits her with that stone and ends it quickly, sometimes he chokes the life out of her with no Gale to stop him. Sometimes the avalanche overtakes her and she drowns in white, sometimes the mutts rip her into pieces with sharp teeth and sharper claws. Sometimes the boy from One throws his spear and kills her just like he did the little girl from Eleven. Sometimes she just steps off the platform at the start and ends it herself. Either way, every night her bed becomes her grave.
Tonight is different.
Tonight there are worms in her gut, twisting and turning and tangling, and nothing she does will quiet them. She rolls over again and curls into herself, but her stomach keeps slithering within her. The enormity of what they're doing is a firecracker in her head and yes, she'd won the Hunger Games, but that was against kids like her. This is a different enemy, an enemy that's already won a war, subjugated a country and holds every advantage. She wants to fight, she's going to fight, but still, she wishes she had more than just determination and anger to offer.
The moon is bright through her window and even with her eyelids squeezed tight, she can still see it's light. With an exhale of defeat, Madge gives up on sleep. Her eyes open and her room is almost blue tonight, even the shadows and dark corners. Her comforter is too hot, too heavy and she kicks it off and then her sheet too, her limbs feeling trapped. But then it's chilly, fresh air kissing goosebumps onto her skin. She'd forgotten to close her window and when she glances at it, the moon calls her out of bed. She goes. Bare feet flinch at the coolness of her wood floor and Madge reaches her window, her hands settling on the sill. The night sky stretches out like a canvas above her and even six months later, she's almost waiting to see faces painted in the stars.
She wonders if they'll ever be a day when she isn't.
(Madge and Gale walk home together after their day hunting with Katniss and as they reach her fence, Gale says "Thank you."
Madge stops walking and stares at the paint on the fence post, its crisp white already starting to fade to gray. "You don't need to thank me," she says and chips at the perfectly even paint with her nail.
"I want to."
Madge's finger freezes. She glances up at him and he's smiling, his hands in his pockets and his eyes on the crescent moon half hidden above them.
"I messed up but you figured out a way to make it better, just like you figured out a plan to get us all the way to the end of the Games," he starts and Madge shakes her head.
"I didn't do much and it was so awkward out there…"
"Painfully awkward," he agrees and she's surprised there's no bitterness in his voice. "And it probably will be for a while. But I still got to spend time with Katniss and I couldn't have done that without you. I couldn't have done any of this without you." His voice is soft but sure and there's a lump in her throat. Her nail digs into the wood until it hurts.
"I couldn't have done any of this without you either," she says and means it. Gale's grin brightens just the slightest and he pulls his eyes from the moon to settle them on her. For a moment she feels like maybe she's the moon. Gale puts a hand on her shoulder and even in the breezy autumn night, it's warm.
"We make a good team," he says and she nods.
"We do," she agrees and lifts her hand to cover his. Her fingers curl over his, his thumb strokes her nearest knuckle and she feels a little steadier than she had all day in the woods. He laughs fondly.
"I never thought I'd say it, but I'm lucky to have you Madge Undersee." The sincerity in his voice lightens her heart and she smiles up at him.
"I never thought I'd say it either, but I'm lucky to have you too Gale Hawthorne."
The wind stills and again that yearning grows in her chest, in her lungs, her hands, her skin and organs. She wants, she burns and then her dad's voice calls out "Is that you sweetheart?"
They fall apart like cut string, hands to their sides, eyes flicking away and the fire in her blood dims to embers. "It's me!" she calls back,"I'll be in in a minute!"
"I guess this is goodnight," she says to Gale, a strange shivering in her heart. Gale nods and stuffs his hands back in his pockets.
"Goodnight," he echoes. They stay there for a moment and then he leaves, his eyes back up on the moon. Madge watches him make his way down the road and suddenly he stops, turns and her heart bounces against every rib in her chest.
"Oh hey, I almost forgot," he says with a grin and pulls something out of his pocket. He tosses it at her and she catches it with fumbling fingers. Madge looks down at it. It's a little wooden bird, every feather painstakingly carved and every small detail intricate, from the eyes to the beak to its little wooden feet. It's been painted black and white, mockingjay colours, and its wings are partially unfurled, almost as if it means to fly away any moment. She stares at it, stares at the effort and work put into it and feels warm even in the rising wind. She looks up but Gale's gone, the street's empty and she smiles. Things are complicated and uncertain and confusing, but maybe she isn't as far away as she thought. Maybe she'll never be a part of what Katniss and Gale have, but maybe that's okay. Maybe what she and Gale have and what she and Katniss have are important to them too. Maybe it doesn't have to be a competition.
Madge walks to the front steps and looks down at her little bird. Her smile somehow grows.
No matter what's coming, she won't be facing it alone)
The sun rises and the sky is rose petal pink and butter yellow. The clock on her end table ticks, her mockingjay pin glitters gold and the day's finally here. Six months have come and gone, the countdown's finally reached zero.
Today their Victory Tour begins.
Today their revolution begins.