Hello! I'm Isabelle. I'm very glad you decided to give this little fic of mine a chance. Hope you enjoy your stay!
The Hunger Games belongs to Suzanne Collins.
What if Gale, overtaken by the grief of seeing his oldest friend about to be swept into the monstrosity that is the Hunger Games, volunteered for Peeta and took his place?
Gale Hawthorne x Katniss Everdeen
"Of all wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come."
Part I: "The Tributes"
It felt as if a crushing weight was posed on my chest as I laid stiffly on the mattress my sister and I usually shared, my sad attempts to get sleep only to be met by memories of hunting the day before and aggressive worries for today. My fingers stretched out for what felt like the thousandth time that night, craving my sister's warmth but only succeeding in sweeping themselves through the cold air.
With a sigh, I lazily forced my eyes to open and drift to the side, fighting the morning sunlight streaming through the tattered curtains and into my family's cottage. It casted diamond-like patterns over my mother and sister's porcelain faces, making my sister glow almost as vividly as primroses, the flower she was named after.
My heart sunk as I remembered that this year, that very name was swimming in the Effie Trinket's glass orbs, or, her scythes. They were used with razorblade smiles and static laughs during the annual Reaping ceremonies.
Of course, Prim was only entered once. Just once. But that lone strip of parchment created a shadow on the already fully din blackness of my worries.
I gripped a handful of the covers strewn across my body in an attempt to calm the newly awakened anxiety welling up inside my chest, making my throat sore as I tried to swallow it down. Almost as if my mind had wanted to add on to the anxiety, a new name arose in it, making me clench my jaw tightly together and throw my legs over the side of my bed in one rapid movement.
It was almost funny how he had spent a good portion of yesterday's hunting time trying to comfort me when he famously maintained a striking forty-two slip count in Effie's collection of names. "I don't understand why you always get so worked up over the reapings," he had said, "We always end up safe. It'll be just like last year, and the year before."
I bit my lower lip before giving Prim and my mother a hasty, pained glance. Even if the reapings were taking place today, I still had the duty of putting food in their mouths. A new sense of determination washed over me in a wave as I worked my feet in the leather boots posed at the side of my bed, the material molding around them in familiarity. Besides, the thought of a little hunting calmed my restless nerves.
Or maybe it's the fact that Gale will be waiting for you there.
Pursing my lips, I forced this thought to the back of my mind and stood up from my bed. Still slightly weakened from my fatigued state, I swiftly put my hair in a clumsy braid and retrieved my game bag from the corner of the room. I gave my father's hunting jacket a considering glance, but decided against it after another look at the sun shining over the district.
My feet casually carried themselves towards the door leading to the outside of my cottage before they came to a halt, the quiet sound of Prim's voice giving me a start and making me turn on my heel to face her.
"Katniss, are you going hunting?" Her tone came out still clouded with sleep, making a slight feeling of guilt churn inside my stomach at the thought of waking her up.
"Yeah," I murmured.
Prim let her head sleepily nod before she gave my hunting bag a thoughtful glance. "Be back in time, okay?"
"Okay," I muttered, a little quieter this time. I knew she was talking about the Reaping automatically.
She gave me a long, thoughtful look before tightening her petal-pink lips into a sheepish smile. "I don't know why I'm worried about that. Gale would never let you be late," she mused, "There's a gift on the table."
I craned my neck to look at the table almost in surprise before being met by an upside-down, wooden bowl laid at the center of it, probably to protect its contents from hungry rodents. Under it was a perfect little ball of goat cheese, wrapped in basil leaves to preserve its taste. I felt the corners of my mouth curl up into a warm smile before I turned to thank my sister, only to see that she was already well into another slumber next to my mother. A look of distress was evident on her angelic features, even in sleep. I swallowed hard before tucking the ball of cheese in my game bag and making my way out the door, taking care to shut it as gingerly as I could manage behind me.
The part of District 12 that Gale and I lived in was nicknamed The Seam, and it was usually crawling with half-asleep coal miners begrudgingly heading out for their morning shifts at this hour—their shoulders hunched in exhaustion and their knuckles swelled from overwork, the fingernails adorning them blackened from coal dust. When I had stepped out of my cottage, though, I was only met by empty streets.
I took in a fresh, deep breath of cool air, the feeling of it working its way into my lungs awakening me from the inside. My legs almost eagerly carried me to the chain-linked fence leading into the woods—a sad excuse for a security system, even though it kept most of the flesh-eaters out and most of the frightened District 12 individuals in.
Crawling under the fence had almost become natural to me with practice, to the point where I could swiftly drop to the ground, pull myself under it, and rush into the trees without being seen. It wouldn't matter if I was caught, though, even though hunting was strictly forbidden in the districts. We're all too hungry for that.
The route to the hollowed tree in which I had taken a habit of hiding my father's bow and sheath in had become so familiar to my legs, getting to it took no thought at all. I retrieved my weapons out of it with careful hands before routinely making my way to a hunting ground—our hunting ground. I felt the anxiety that had overtaken me this morning quickly diminish and be replaced with sheer excitement, my pace quickening as the strained muscles in my face relaxed. I half-sprinted through the trees, knowing that my hunting partner was probably waiting behind them.
I fought my way to the clearing and found him sitting patiently on our rock, his eyes locked on the valley it overlooked. Responding to the crunch of the leaves beneath my boots, his head instantly whipped around and his eyes met mine, a mirror of ashen grays. One of his brows sloped as his mouth pulled taut into a grin.
"You're late," he said with mock surprise, "The penalty will be severe, as I'm sure you already know, my dear Catnip."
I fought to glare at him, but felt a smile play on my lips instead. "My name is Katniss, Gale."
He let out a chuckle, his torso shaking with quiet laughter before he warmly murmured, "It's not my fault you were so shy when we first met."
My thoughts were immediately directed to the first time I had spotted this raven-haired boy, shortly after both of our fathers had died in a mining accident. Hesitant glares, intricate and beautifully woven snares, foreign footprints in the wet dirt, a gentle voice asking for my name, my own voice coming out wrangled and quiet:
"Well, Catnip, stealing is punishable by death, or hadn't you heard?"
Dozens of corrections later and he was still fixated on the nickname, laughing whenever lynxes caught our trail and giving me sideways glances of amusement when they pawed at my ankles looking for handouts.
I was roused from my thoughts by the sound of Gale patting the rock he was sitting on, scooting himself over and making room for me. I made my way over to him without hesitation, tossing my game bag onto his lap as I sat myself down. "Keep up that attitude, and I'll keep Prim's present all to myself."
Gale arched a brow at me, picking up his game bag from the ground with a lank arm and bringing it into my view. "You're not the only one with treats today." We connected gazes sternly, and it only took a few seconds before he tossed the bag at me with an exhalation of something like defeat.
I caught it and felt a spongey crunch in my palms, the fragrance of fresh-baked bread wafting out of its opening and causing my mouth to flood with saliva. My eyes must have widened too, since I heard Gale try to suppress a fit of laughter.
"You're welcome," he chimed, "Now what about Prim's present?"
I wordlessly handed him my game bag, and he fished out the lump of cheese, a dreamy haze shining through the ashen filter of his eyes. "People must be feeling generous today."
Today. My face fell, thoughts of the Reapings immediately taking control of my mind and making the anxiety from earlier pulse against my ribcage. Gale, somehow able to sense mostly all of my emotions, scooted closer to me and put a warm hand over mine. "She was only entered once, Katniss." His words were monotone, automatic. He had said them multiple times before.
I furrowed my eyebrows, unable to look him in the eye. "What about your family, then? What about you?" The thought of losing Gale, the only person I could be myself with, made my pulse go into even more of a frenzy. "Forty-two isn't exactly a lucky number."
"I'm not the only one. There are plenty of people in The Seam entering their children more than that for tesserae," Gale said in an unwavering tone, as dreary and breathless as a sigh. "Calm down that pretty little head of yours."
I forced a few deep breaths in and out of my lungs, ignoring the protests of my already raw throat, a sort of sickness bubbling in my core. Gale's grip on my fist grew tighter with each passing second before he finally removed it and placed it below my chin, turning my head and making my gaze meet his. "I promise we'll all be safe."
His eyes, normally the shade of a muted smokey sky just before evening, were now flaring like hot charcoals. His hands, able to make complicated snares that were impossible for any animal to escape from, could just as effectively entrap me. My knees began trembling as I felt his warm breath blow across my face. I knew that there was no way he could guarantee the safety of everyone we cared about, but the absolute determination in his tone somehow made me believe every word.
After Gale had gone through the tedious task of calming me down, we had set off with our usual business. If he was as nervous as I was for the reaping, he was definitely very good at hiding it. His feet swift and noiseless, his aim fast and precise. We ended up filling his entire game bag and half of mine with fresh geese, and on his belt hung a few squirrels. I filled up the remainder of my bag with strawberries, the bush a blessing when we had found it.
"I think we're good for today," Gale said with a relieved sigh, plopping himself down next to the strawberry bush before hungrily tearing off a handful of the berries and popping a few into his mouth, leaves and all.
I grinned minutely before seating myself down next to him. "Two full game bags is better than usual," I noted, "Your expectations are getting dangerously high, Mister Hawthorne."
He stretched upward, the muscles in his arms flexing as he yawned. "I see nothing wrong with presuming the best," he opened his eyes into slits, "Miss Catnip." He winked before tossing one of the smaller strawberries directly at the tip of my nose. I made a low noise of disdain, and his torso was quaking with silent laughter as he leaned forward to grab it from my lap and pop it between my lips.
I chewed begrudgingly, but I found it difficult to act displeased as my teeth sunk into the berry, sweet and crisp. "We should head back soon," I lulled, swallowing. "Don't want to be..." I swallowed again, feeling as if something other than the strawberry was lodged in my throat. "...Late."
Gale must have anticipated another one of my episodes, because he shoved another strawberry into my mouth before I could continue with my thoughts. "Let's relax a bit before we go," he insisted, digging through his game bag and pulling out the bread and cheese, now cold and feathery from the geese, but still carrying a warm, floury aroma. He ripped off a piece, spreading a healthy amount of cheese onto it before handing it to me. He chomped on the other half with no hesitation.
I examined the bread he gave me before gasping with mock-horror. "You gave me the smaller piece!"
"No, I didmf," Gale said, his mouth still filled with bread. I couldn't stop the laugh that bursted through my lips with a throaty snrk, making him flash me a sheepish, food-covered smile.
We stuffed ourselves with the rare treats we had collected before making our way to the mayor's house, who had a particular fondness for strawberries and would offer a high price for them.
Madge, his daughter, ended up answering the door, much to Gale's dismay. He had always had a particular disliking for the luckier, wealthier people of our district, and he was never afraid to show it.
"Did you see her dress?" he had hissed under his breath after she disappeared into her spacious home to get her father, "All laced and pretty. Kids will die today, but at least she has her bows."
After getting a good amount of money from the mayor, we traded off the rest of our game at The Hob and split the spoils equally between us.
Gale walked me to my door and swallowed hard, wordlessly nodding a goodbye at me.
Biting my lower lip, I returned the nod with a halfhearted wave.
He looked at me for a long time, his eyes carrying a peculiar, potent type of sadness. With a sigh, he turned around. "Wear something pretty," he said flatly over his shoulder, leaving me stricken as he tromped away.
My mother, Prim, and I took turns helping each other get ready. I had to wash the sweat and dirt that had collected on my skin from hunting away in a tub of lukewarm water while my mother and Prim promptly started putting on their dress clothes.
My skin prickled with a muted burning sensation as I scrubbed myself down, observing with pinpoint eyes as my mother slipped into an old burgundy apothecary dress that grabbed tightly to her hips and flowed downward like a tablecloth. It was when I had rinsed the soap out of my hair that I noticed Prim in my first reaping outfit, looking horribly lost in the starchy frills and tatting.
Her spritely body was barely big enough to hold the fabric upward, and it was only after a merciless amount of pinning and tucking by my mother that it looked halfway decent. Prim studied herself in the mirror, and as she turned, I noticed a bunch of fabric sticking out of her skirt like a duck tail.
I dried myself with a thin cloth, feeling cold even though the weather outside was muggy and balmy. The dress my mother had chosen for me was powder blue with cuffs that were shaped like bells and a ribbon that laid almost parallel to my collarbone. It felt stiff, and as I worked my feet into the matching shoes and fastened the dainty buckles underneath my toes, I silently wondered if this was Gale's definition of pretty.
After a small meal of nuts and flavorless, slightly soured yogurt from Prim's goat, I looked out the window and noticed the floods of blank faces slowly making their way to the square, carrying the grim air of a death march.
"We all better get going," my mother muttered after a few moments, absently getting to her feet and letting her gaze rake over Prim and I once more with thin, pursed lips. Her cheeks carried a slight redness to them, and I wondered if she had pinched them to make herself look less downcast.
My gaze wandered to the side, catching the back of Prim's blouse, the fabric again stubbornly jutting out. It was with reflexive movements that I tucked it back in with unfeeling fingers. "Tuck your tail in, little duck."
The minute I stepped outside, my gaze was directed to the many camera crews perched on top of buildings and around the square. I paced myself towards the crowd, feeling my pulse quicken with each shaking step. My deep breaths were failing to calm me down, and it didn't help when Prim and I were separated, her having to go with the twelves and me with the sixteens. We were all organized by age, oldest to youngest, and the families had to solemnly frame the perimeter of the area.
I gave the stage in front of me a hard stare, a lump forming in my throat as my gaze landed upon the two glass balls positioned side-by-side at the center of it on bronze-plated stands. One contained all the boys' names and one contained all the girls'. I creased my eyebrows in worry knowing that Gale's forty-two slips of paper were sitting in one of them, and that Prim's single slip was floating around in the other.
A cold chill ran down my spine despite the warm afternoon air before I planted my feet in the organized crowd of sixteens and forced a mask of determination to cover my features.
All too soon, Effie Trinket made her appearance on the stage, sporting a ridiculous bubblegum pink wig, laced upward with a sort of flossiness that made it seem more like fluff than hair. She acted as if she had gotten a huge applause, booming with fake laughter and practically dancing to where her microphone was.
"Happy Hunger Games!" she called out, amplified by the microphone posed in front of her. Her voice screeched through the square with an echo, making each body around me visibly tense.
"I will be picking two lucky people today to participate! Ladies first!" She began to giggle madly as she placed her hand on one of the glass balls, causing the cinematographers to zoom their cameras hungrily onto the stage in anticipation. "And may the odds," her hand violently spun the ball it was on, making it creak unsettlingly on its stand, "be ever in your favor!"
I watched as her palm slapped itself against the hard surface of the glass ball, making it squeak to a sudden stop before she slipped her wrinkled hand into it and pulled out a small, rectangular slip of paper. Effie's eyes, framed with pink makeup, swept over the name before her smile broadened to reveal her whitened back teeth. There was not one sound from the crowd as she inched herself closer to the microphone, reading the name eagerly into it.
It was as if everything in the world ground to a sudden halt. I could hear my own frantic breath whistling in and out of my lungs and echoing in my strained ears. I saw the sullen faces of the crowd, frozen like the cold stone of statues, simultaneously turn themselves in search of the unlucky girl who just had her fate sealed. Their movement seemed effortless, and yet my entire being felt like it was nailed to the ground. I slowly became aware of the violent spasms my muscles began to give in to, the trembles pulsating through my body as I forced my head to turn in the direction of the twelves.
There she was, her already fair face drained of color, and her arms stiff and clenched at her sides. Her movements seemed to be robotic and she clumsily made her way through the crowd, everyone separating to get out of the way.
My chest started to burn, scorching my insides and sending my heart into my throat as I watched my sister begin to mount the stage, forcing a look of bravery to twist her sweet, angelic features. Tears gathered in the corners of my eyes, blurring my vision as I tried to make my legs move. They stayed limp in their place, my already slightly buckled knees struggling just to hold my frame upwards.
My gaze became more and more panicked as Prim inched herself closer to the stage. And then I saw it: the bunch of fabric from her blouse, the loose cloth dangling out the back for all to see. Her duck tail.
It wasn't even a question; there was no way I was letting my sister get shipped off to the games. I pushed my way through the crowd in front of me, forcing their frames away with violent shoves. Some of them attempted to hold me back as I sucked in a sharp breath of air, burning my already sore throat, and yelled out the words already formed on my lips. "I volunteer!"
Everything fell silent for a moment, and I looked frantically to both sides before swallowing and staring back at the stage. This time, my voice was unshaken, unmistakable. "I volunteer as tribute."
There was a slight disturbance in the spectators, but I ignored it as I raced in front of Prim and pushed her to the side, as if I was shielding her from an oncoming wave of bullets.
"Oh, excellent! Just excellent!" Effie Trinket's voice boomed into her microphone and throughout the square, silencing everyone. "I think this is the first volunteer we've had in District 12! A milestone, indeed!"
Prim's desperate cries soon filled the air without a moment's hesitance, interrupting Effie's eager rampage as she dug her petite hands into my sides. "No, Katniss, no!"
I refused to meet her azure eyes, and instead locked my gaze on the stage in front of us. "Let go, Prim," I said as stiffly as I could manage, but she was unaffected. Her tears dampened the back of my mother's gown as she gripped me around my torso, holding me back from the steps I needed to take. "Please! You can't, Katniss! Don't leave me!"
I felt her little arms raise off of me in that second, causing me to involuntarily turn around in surprise.
Gale was struggling to contain Prim in his tensed arms, her thrashing limbs hitting him occasionally in her reverie. His eyebrows were furrowed violently, and his lips were mashed together as if he was holding back from something he desperately wanted to do. With a deep breath, he choked out, "Up you go, Catnip."
I gave him a forced nod before turning on my heel, trying to hold myself together as I took the stage. Effie pounced over to where I was standing before chiming, "Hello, dearie! What's your name?" She held the microphone insistently under my chin, and I mustered up what little strength I had left to speak into it. "Katniss Everdeen."
Effie let out a theatrical gasp, her hand flying up to cover her mouth. "Another Everdeen? I bet you're Primrose's sister! Didn't want to let her snatch up all the glory, huh?"
I tightened my lips in an attempt to hold back the pained grimace threatening to take over my features, studying the crowd through slitted eyes—empty pallors washed away of emotion instead of faces, stiffly set shoulders, lips so bitten that they were swollen.
"Well, well, well!" Effie lilted, a slight note of agitation in her voice in response to my silence, "That's the kind of spirit we need in The Hunger Games!" She took big strides toward the front of the stage, raising her free hand up in the air as she spiritedly yelled, "Let's give a big round of applause to our newest tribute, Katniss Everdeen!"
I snapped my eyes tightly shut to prepare for the applause that would follow, but it never came. It was with hesitance that they opened again, only to see that not one individual had made a move to clap. They all stood in silence, blankly staring.
The only movement visible was that of a left hand moving to a spectator's mouth, receiving a light kiss before going skyward. Another came, and then another, filling the air with a sea of fingers. Soon the entire crowd was holding up their left hands, in praise, in respect—for me.
It also held a harsher tone, one of disagreement and rebellion. One that represented the everlasting oppression that hazed our district, one that sternly whispered both a farewell and a curse.
I spotted Gale in the crowd, stern lines etching his face as he held his up higher than anyone. In his other arm was a very weak Prim, limply holding up her hand, her tearstained eyes never leaving mine.
The lump in my throat grew bigger, a pressure building behind my eyes, making my vision blur. I caught sight of one of the many cameras around me, and desperately tried to hold it together.
Not waiting for everyone to put down their hands, Effie made her way to the other ball, her face flustered as she stammered into the microphone. "Well, uh...This is interesting! A lot of firsts in this year's Reaping!"
The white robes of a group of Peacekeepers caught the corner of my eye, and I instinctively turned my head in their direction, only to see that their faces were unfamiliar. They weren't from this district. They were sent specially for the Reaping. My heart began to pulsate more painfully as I darted my attention back to the crowd, who were all still rebelliously holding their hands up to me. My chest heaved.
"Let's get this over with!" Effie said, her voice struggling to keep its usual exaggerated timbre as she caught sight of the Peacekeepers. Without missing a beat, she spun the boys' glass ball before clumsily pulling out another slip of paper, smoothing out the surface across her lap before moving towards the microphone. I didn't even have time to hope that it wasn't Gale before her voice boomed across the square, announcing the name. "Peeta Mellark!"
I stared wide-eyed into the crowd, now biting my tongue for fear of crying. My eyes swept over his blond head, and a crushing thought weighed itself in the pit of my stomach. I know him. A baker, about my age, and the son of the man my mother had rejected in her youth for my father. I quickly thought back to the time he gave me bread when I was in my weakest, hungriest state, but before he could even take two steps, I saw Gale step forward from where he was already positioned at the front of the crowd, pushing Prim gently behind him. She looked lost, shell-shocked, unknowing of what to do.
"I volunteer as tribute." His voice, calm as it was, echoed throughout the square. It was with restrained vigor that he mounted the stage, the bow of his shoulders so strained that he was at the point of shaking. He walked slowly up to me, and I stared with eyes shining with tears as he lost all control and engulfed me in his arms.
That was when the crowd got rowdy, pushing each other around and yelling obscenities up at Effie, threatening her and the Peacekeepers around us.
Gale's arms tightened around me, his breath hot at the top of my head, and I vaguely registered quiet and incessant apologies slipping through his lips before gunshots pierced the air, slicing through the once determined protests and turning them into bloodcurdling screams.
I widened my eyes, a strangled, sick noise tangling itself in my vocal chords. "Gale," I started, feeling a creeping, ghoulish coldness at the base of my spine. The screams were met by the clear-cut sound of metal slapping against flesh, bones cracking. "Gale," I repeated, feeling queasy and paralyzed, as if my muscles had turned to ice and my stomach into bile.
A faint sob wavered in his chest.
You might notice some parallels right now. Trust me when I say that this story branches off from the original quite a bit later on!