If you haven't already, I'd suggest taking a look at my one of my other fics, Only You. It's Two Fires told from Marvel's POV, and it offers a little more perspective on his motives and reasoning as well as a little insight on what happened to the Careers [end of shameless self promotion].
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
"Life asked Death,
'Why do people love me,
but hate you?'
'Because you are a beautiful lie,
and I am a painful truth.'"
Water struck me like a blow, each raindrop like a tiny needle driving itself into my skin as icy gusts of wind directed themselves wildly across the leafy expanses of the treetops. It left me sucking in a sharp breath, the burning sensation in my throat contrasting against the painful iciness of the air, and my body responded with a wave of immobilizing shock, making my elbows click in place and my strained fists clench at the rough bark of the branch I was perched on.
It was almost as if the merciless wind had a color—a sickly gray, like decaying flesh—as it plunged toward the earth and whipped itself across a figure so shadow-like that his bulky, sturdy frame looked like a silhouette standing in the almost knee-deep pool of rainwater collecting on the forest floor. His arena clothing clung to his skin, leaving the outlines of his muscles to appear as hard and cold as iron as they tensed and corded over his thick bones.
Beads of moisture slid from the ends of his dingy hair as he impatiently shifted his neck to flip it out of his face, sending the wetness flying. He took a step forward, nudging the body of what had once been the powerful male tribute of District 11—now only a crumpled mess of mud, rain, and blood—with his booted foot as he went.
"I'm so glad that I can finally see your terrified faces," Cato sneered, lowering his head and peering up through his thick, rain-soaked eyelashes, "Come on, 12! Come down so we can play!"
As Cato's maniacal laughter pierced the air and rose into a booming, grating octave, only one thought was clamorously pulsing through my brain, making me feel as if a pronged blade had slashed itself across my muscles and left each of my limbs crippled and throbbing.
I need to get Gale out of here.
Almost mockingly, I felt the branch that I had been shakily balanced on sharply teeter as the figure beside me viciously leapt off it with a grunt, leaving the leaves around me to violently shake fine sprays of mist from their smooth, wet surfaces.
The muscles that had been painfully knotting together in my chest abruptly loosened, like a pane glass window shattering into pieces, and I was left painfully breathless and petrified as I watched the person I had sworn to keep alive splash into the muddy, turbid water as he landed, descending into the gloom with only a dulled throwing knife tangled in his waterlogged fingers.
The feeling of sick, terrible emptiness was immediate, and it seared through my ribcage with such staggering potency that I was left gasping, as if Gale had taken a sizable fragment of me—one that I needed to function—before he had plunged into the dark, his feet planted sternly in front of Cato and the lean curve of his back stiff with grit.
I struggled to unlock my limbs, to tear an arrow away from my sheath and clink it onto my bowstring before ferociously diving toward the ground, but it was as if I had lost all control over my body, the jolt of everything surging through my veins and leaving my bones helplessly frozen in place.
I was sore—everything hurt—from the surface of my numb, goosebump covered skin to the marrow of my bones.
"It's been too long, rat," Cato cooed tauntingly, and I could see the glint of his haunting smirk, like the shine of a blade through the thick dimness. "It's too bad all my friends are dead. I'm sure your death woulda been just the thing to bring us back together."
Gale didn't reply; his silver eyes just darkened with malice, making them gleam with the shadowy brilliance of obsidian. He swiftly lunged forward with feet barely seeming to skid through the flooding water and caught Cato by the throat, his shoulder tensing as he slashed the throwing knife in front of him, making the blade shriek through the air. The wetness coating his skin made it easy for the District 2 male to squirm out of his grip and spring out of the blade's way with a gravelly burst of laughter.
Cato's tone was eerily cheery, seeming grotesquely misplaced with his wrathful expression as he zipped through the water and twirled his sword in a playful spiral above his head.
I was panting so roughly and loudly that the raindrops gliding down the icy surface of my cheeks flitted in the direction of my breath, strands of my drenched hair slapping against my shoulders as vicious gusts of bitter wind tore at them. I watched through squinted, horrified eyes as Cato's mud-streaked features broke into a demonic smile, his dried lips stretching until a thin trickle of blood mixed with the rain that was dripping down his chin. I had to tightly clamp my jaw in order to hold back a string of curses as I forced the aching, cramping muscles in my arms to work.
As my frozen hands clasped the metal surface of my bow, my knuckles so raw from the cold that it was a struggle to wrap my fingers securely around its handle, I heard the unmistakable whisper of Cato's sword whisking through the air, making me ignore the wailing protests of my limbs as I sternly tightened my grip on my weapon and bounded off the branch, landing firmly on my feet with a coarse, inelegant sploosh in the water.
Both males directed their heavy gazes onto me as I darted roughly forward, each of my steps sending ripples to the surface of the flooding rainwater. My hand went reflexively to the sheath strapped to my back and wrapped itself around the wooden shaft of an arrow, the pads of my fingers numb and frostbitten.
Cato let out a ringing guffaw that sounded similar to the roar of an animal, his crazed smile stretching over the lower half of his face as he amusedly watched me load my weapon. "You rats want to die together?" He snickered darkly. "Precious."
Gale stared at me with a look of disbelief and shock clouding his features, as if he thought that I wouldn't come after him, and I forced myself to ignore it as I poured all my attention into aiming my arrow at Cato's heart. I allowed myself no hesitation as I swiftly tugged my bowstring to my chin and released it, letting the arrow's whistling breath cut through the night air in a whirling line.
The sight of Cato flashing me a terrible, sickening grin before sidestepping out of the arrow's zooming trail and bolting toward Gale with almost unseeable speed was so cutting and quick that I hardly believed that it had been real at all. I reeled my head around so swiftly that my neck screamed in protest, only to see the terrible glint of the moon bursting off Cato's sword in a thousand silver shards, like the shattered remains of a mirror, before the blade ripped downwards in a brisk, pelting arc.
I quelled a scream building in the tangled muscles of my throat, feeling my airways ache in response as I pressed my lips rigidly together and let my hand reflexively fly toward my sheath again, the crescent-like movement feeling natural to the bones in my arms. I stubbornly ignored the horror singing through my veins as I registered the sound of Gale letting out a pained grouse, a flash of red dripping across the smooth surface of his skin as Cato's blade raked a bloody groove across his cheek.
My senses and reflexes seemed to be thrashing against me, howling at me to frenziedly run to Gale's side, but I forced them to remain sharp as I repeatedly clicked my arrows onto my bowstring and sent them flying toward the District 2 male in a deadly, rushing wave of sharpened wood, taking care to space my blows away from Gale.
Cato shot me a toxic glare, his eyes dark, muddled pools of black, before he launched himself away from Gale and tumbled through the rainwater, sending showers of it upward as he fled from the arrows I was persistently blasting toward him. The way he streaked across the clearing was almost breathtaking, his figure as undetectable as a shadow as he slithered through the copses of trees, and I had to sternly squint and strain my eyes in order to not lose track of him completely. My fingers soon became raw from repeatedly being slashed against the tautness of my bowstring.
I became bitterly aware of how my sheath was swiftly being emptied, my wooden arrows striking multiple surfaces and quivering from their sudden halts, and it wasn't until Cato abruptly bursted upward from the water at my feet and snatched both my wrists in his icy, calloused fingers, his mouth warped into a demented smile and his teeth shining like razors, that I realized I had missed every shot.
The sharp movement in the water caused waves that sent my once harshly planted feet slipping against the mud, making my stance sway dizzyingly as I thrashed against Cato's death grip, my skin stinging and the veins in my wrist pulsing from the painful tightness of his clenched grasp. I let out a weak, high-pitched croak, my fingers becoming stiff from the strain and the cold.
"Remember when you shot that arrow at dear ol' Clove?" Cato rasped, tightening his hold on my wrists until the skin of my palms became tinted with a rusty shade of reddish-purple. He tilted his head and let his black eyes flit across my face, raindrops fluttering away from his eyelashes every time he blinked. "Remember that nasty infection you gave her?"
My fingers felt bloated with blood, my veins compressed agonizingly until they sang with burning pain, making my bow slip from my weakened grip and slap against the rainwater before slowly sinking into it. I exhaled roughly before shooting Cato a glare from beneath my fringe of eyelashes, feeling my cheeks flood with rage that almost succeeded in bringing warmth to my frozen skin.
He talked through a locked jaw, a permanent, ever-growing smile that showed every one of his back teeth and made his crinkled black eyes burn. "Remember how I—couldn't—even—say—goodbye to her?!" With each separated staccato in his sentence, he jostled me viciously backward and forward, sending splashes of rainwater up my thighs and flashes of nauseating agony to my head. His laugh-lines were prominent against his mud-smudged skin, and with stunning speed and suddenness, he propelled forward until my back slammed against the rough, damp surface of a tree trunk, making my breath surge through my stinging throat in a hot, wheezing huff.
"Maybe I should cut off your arm," Cato chuckled, pinning my hands above my head as I helplessly tried to twist away from him, "Or, hell, why not both of 'em?!"
Shuddering, I lowered my head and coughed, my throat constricted to the point where it was difficult to breathe, before I weakly glowered upward at the shine of Cato's smile.
Just as my strained muscles were beginning to uncoil themselves in placid defeat, the District 2 male's features suddenly contorted into a harsh grimace, quickly slipping and warping into a shocked gawk before he sharply bent over in pain. His back arched, making the muscles cording his spine burst through the soaked material of his arena shirt. His grip on my wrists abruptly loosened, making the flesh of my palms tingle and my wrists croon with muted pain. I slowly registered the redness of blood dripping from his biceps and into the water, the liquids lacing together in a way that made the gore seem like crimson ribbons.
Gale stood stiffly behind him, throwing knife clutched firmly between his fingers, its hilt smeared with red. His thick, dark hair stuck to the sides of his face, framing the fresh wound across his cheek and tickling the back of his neck as his full mouth twisted into an enraged scowl.
Cato's features severely blackened with hostility, like the radiance of the sun being eclipsed and smothered, leaving me to widen my eyes at him and watch as his starless eyes slid menacingly in Gale's direction.
"Looks like you actually ended up cutting me, slum-dog," he growled through his teeth, jaw clenched until the muscles at the back ends of his jowl bulged through his rugged skin. He straightened himself up with haunting slowness, dabbing his thick fingers in the blood dribbling down his steel-like arm. "Doesn't even hurt!" The sides of his mouth curled into a grim smile. "Aw, probably the best you could do with that little knife."
Gale snarled like an animal, the moonlight seeming to glance off the panes and angles of his face as he lunged forward again with blade in hand, unyieldingly slashing its dulled surface across the iron-hard expanse of Cato's chest. He ripped the weapon in front of him until the material of the Career's shirt was wet with blood, brushing against narrow, spidery wounds.
The District 2 male hissed out a sick, terrible sound that didn't seem to be human, like the roar of a wildfire as it erupted into a destructive, uncontrollable mass, and he spun sharply around on his heel before harshly grasping the hilt of his sword and whipping it toward Gale's heart.
Gale's eyes widened, shock pulsing through his expression for a split second before he leaped backward and away from the blow, making the blade split the air in front of him with a shrieking whistle. The tip of it just barely slid across his chest, raking a shallow slice and immediately welling blood. The red liquid collected in uneven clumps along the slit, and Gale's eyebrows crumpled together as he felt the stinging pain of it.
Cato hissed darkly under his breath, all traces of humor gone from his face. He advanced toward Gale, his forbidding steps like the deadly slither of a snake.
It felt as if the wind had teeth as it ripped mercilessly through the clearing, biting each bare surface of my skin and leaving it thrumming with needle-like pain. As I frantically struggled to regain the blood-flow in my benumbed, prickling palms, I realized that the very tips of my fingers were beginning to fade into a pallid shade of sickly purple, leaving the muscles in my chest to knot up with gnawing anxiety.
The grating, shrill clanging of blades swiping together rippled through the air, cleaving my eardrums and leaving my head to ache from the ringing. My vision began to blur as my skull yowled in pain. It seemed as if I was slipping in and out of consciousness as I reflexively stretched out a shaking arm to reach into the flooding rainwater and blindly feel for the metallic surface of my bow.
Cato bellowed thunderously between blows. The raspy grunt Gale responded with seemed to fuel me from the inside, making me bare my teeth as I viciously tore my arm through the water until it rested on the familiar firmness of my bowstring. I gripped at it, but my fingers refused to bend, the bones in them seemingly frozen and leaving the joints to pulse with muffled aches.
A hiss of pain slithered through my clenched teeth as I forced my agonized fingers to wrap around my bow, each bone in them stiff and cracking. As I wrenched my hands out of the arctic water, it felt as if everything past my forearms had gone completely numb, making my grip clumsy as I reached into my sheath and fumbled with an arrow.
My vision was sharp; I knew exactly where to point my arrow at Cato's back so that it would tear through his flesh and pierce his heart, but my grip was painfully shaky, each of my limbs quaking with surges of consuming trembles. I strained the muscles in my arms until they were burning in an attempt to steady myself, but my body continued to lurch, making my pulse pummel against my ribcage as a choking amount of anxiety clawed its way through my veins.
I pulled my bowstring back, making the pads of the fingers that were pressing against it feel as if they were being sliced. I closed one of my eyes and struggled to aim, my eyebrows harshly furrowing and my mouth thinning into a bloodless line. A haunting tingle trickled its way through my arms as I readied myself to send my arrow soaring, my fingers slowly slipping away from the bowstring—
Cato whirled his head around to peer at me from above his meaty shoulder, his mouth contorting into his sickening razor-blade smile. I was caught off guard by his sudden gaze, leaving my eyes to widen and my already unsteady knees to buckle.
The Career's smile seemed to brighten, and his irises, usually as black as pitch, lightened with a certain glint of eagerness. "Trying to sneak up on me, beautiful?" He chuckled darkly.
My breaths came out in wheezy, frantic pants. Gale's eyes flashed, sensing that Cato had become distracted, and he briskly slashed his throwing knife forward, only to have the District 2 male shoot him a toxic glare before slapping his calloused palm against Gale's wrist and sharply jerking it backward, so hard and forceful that the nauseating sound of bones snapping pierced the air.
Gale clenched his jaw, possibly in an attempt to stifle the low scream of agony he let out afterward, heaving his arm away from Cato and gaping at his now limp hand with eyes like great gray storm clouds.
I heard myself shrieking Gale's name as if from a distance, my voice cracking and rising to bloodcurdling octaves before I seemed to lose control of my entire body, like I had been thrusted into a sea of animalistic instinct. I threw myself toward them, my legs ripping through the rainwater and sending waves of it upward. With dizzying quickness, Cato twisted one of his arms around Gale in a manner that reminded me of a serpent crushing the air out of its prey and dashed away from me, into the trees.
I bursted into full-sprint behind them, my nerves frantic and burning as I tramped blindly through the water, branches and leaves whipping my cheeks and sticking in my hair as I zipped past.
There was a split second where I caught sight of them—the back of Cato's head, his tousled, soaked locks in a mess of mud and rain and the steel-like hardness of his arm around Gale's neck—and I responded by gripping my bow at its end before whipping the metal handle of it toward the Career's temple, hearing it crack against his skull before I sprang backward and readied myself to throw another blow.
It was as if my brain was clouded by pure adrenaline, muffling the sounds and sights of the real world and making it so that I was only able to register a few things—Cato whirling around to face me with his fist raised above his menacing, rage-soaked features and Gale roaring out my name—before I felt a sharp pain in my head, stars appearing at the back of my eyes and a haunting chill grazing my skin.
I felt myself fall as blackness washed out the faint pallor of my vision, my body blunderingly slapping into the water and my braid loosening, making my hair spill in a straggled wave against my shoulder blades. I willed myself to shoot my body upwards, to chase after them with every last trace of energy I could pound out of myself, but my limbs laid motionless, floating askew at the surface of the rainwater.
I was teetering on the edge of consciousness, making it so that surges of nothingness would rack through my brain for split seconds between flashes of the biting iciness of the water against my skin and the throatiness of Gale's usually velvety voice screaming my name out in the distance.
I forced myself to claw at the surface of reality until I could dazedly steady myself on my knees and wade helplessly through the water, eventually getting to my feet. My hands gripped at a nearby tree, its bark thoroughly sodden from the rain, and it wasn't long before I snatched my bow out of the water and began mindlessly racing through the foliage in the direction of Cato's slamming footsteps again, my pulse clobbering my ribcage.
The only sound my eardrums could pick up for an agonizing stretch of time was just the frantic beating of my heart, its hysterical hammering like an echo to my frenzied footsteps as I forced myself to trudge forward. It eventually cleared, but I wish it hadn't, because it made Cato's maniacal fits of laughter tormentingly clear as they rang through the trees.
"Are you still following us, beautiful?" he crooned, and I threw myself in the direction of his sickening voice, only to find empty stretches of wet trees. "Don't be jealous! I'll play with you, too! Just be patient!"
I let out a sharp breath and found with utmost surprise that it was uneven and tremulous and filled with feverish fright.
My feet involuntarily froze as a rasping, husky voice echoed through the treetops, making my heart do a wild somersault in my chest and my throat painfully constrict. Gale.
And suddenly, I was screaming, my eyes stinging and my mind completely numb as it lost all control over my body. "Gale?!—" I screeched, bolting in the direction of the stifled sound of him struggling. "Gale, where are you?!"
"Katniss! Don't—!" He choked. "I'll take care of Cato! Just run away! Go! It's your time now!"
A rush of shock surged through my veins as I felt a steady plash of tears rim my lower eyelids, blurring my already severely muddled vision. "No!" My voice was thick with tears, the words cut off by the occasional sob, and I shamefully tried to hide it as I shrieked wildly at the empty expanses of trees that rose like the iron bars of a cage around my trembling frame. "N-No! I won't!"
"You have to!" Gale's voice was strikingly far away, and it struck the air around me with agonizing weakness. "I know you can do it! I know you're strong enou—!" He let out an agonized screech, like nothing I had ever heard come out of his mouth before, the rest of his sentence cut cleanly off.
I heard myself scream out his name—wishing desperately that he would respond, that he would tell me that everything was all right—but I was met only by the piercing echoes of my own grating voice. "Gale! Gale, no! Please!"
My legs were aimlessly tearing through the water as I frenziedly panted and sobbed, the rain cleaving the top of my head with such force that I heard the rough pitter-patter in my skull. "Gale, I—won't!" I was only slightly aware of being completely drenched, layers of water gushing down my frontside and leaving my skin gleaming with a thin, icy sheet of moisture. "I won't leave you!"
It must have been completely and utterly silent apart from my gruff whimpers and the tumultuous sound of the downpour, but Gale's anguished cry continued to replay in my eardrums with deafening power as I continued to force myself to move through the trees, my skin thrumming and my bones stiff. My muscles began to burn and cramp and my lungs seared as I sucked in fiery breaths, contrasting with how empty and cold—so nastily and bitter cold—my body was.
I had somehow scrambled my way uphill, my hair draping around my shoulders as a snarled mane. The elevation made the rainwater lower to below my ankles, and the aching muscles in my thighs went slack with relief. "Gale?" I shakily called out, my eyes stinging and my throat thick with tears. "Ga—"
A cannon shrieked its way through the air, the sound sickening and terrible and leaving me to stop dead in my tracks, my eyes blank and my bones frozen.
It was as if that sound was a blade to my chest, striking me so violently that a shock of numbness raked its way across my skin. I was left dropping where I was, as if my legs had simply stopped working, and I lumberingly slapped into the mud before frigidly laying there, like a dying animal.
I'll take care of Cato! Just run away! Go!
Trilling, hoarse sobs slashed at my eardrums, and I was surprised to hear that they were slicked with my own weak voice. The wavering sound was much louder than before, and I felt myself gradually being consumed by it, my mind slipping away as trails of hot tears flitted across the icy surface of my cheeks.
It's your time now!
I harshly shut my eyes, squeezing them until my vision was stained with blotches of color, but I couldn't seem to rid myself of the image plastered in my mind's eye—a boy with a slightly miffed expression, black hair, silver eyes, thick lashes, full mouth, chiseled cheekbones, lean muscles twined with iron—his hands slipped around me, cupping the back of my neck with both gentleness and hot desire, pliant and tender but rough with callouses...
It'll all be worth it because...Because I love you, Katniss.
And then there was a girl, so small and gentle in stature but so powerful and steely in spirit that one felt almost meek in comparison, with curls of untamable raven hair spidering around her shoulders, always ruffled as if she was a bothered sparrow, and big, shining eyes as black as a starless night sky.
Don't be sad, Katniss. It isn't a good look for you.
A voice as soft and feeble as a thin ribbon laced with silver bells trickled through the air around me, and I realized with a slight jolt that it was mine. Fragile song lyrics slipped through my trembling lips as I laid helplessly on the forest floor, crumpled in on myself like a dried leaf splintered into dust.
"In the forest we are hiding,
Unmarked graves where flowers grow..."
My breath hitched, and my singing voice became as scratchy and rough as a storm at sea, the rain slicking itself across my withered body and collecting at my sides in small, murky pools.
"Hear the soldiers angry yelling,
In the river we will go..."
Do not stand at my grave and weep.
"Katniss...Katniss, you need to wake up."
I am not there. I do not sleep.
My eyelids fluttered open, and I was immediately assaulted by the painful heaviness of my limbs, as if every fiber of my being was sore and hurting.
I involuntarily choked out a soft whimper before feeling the warm, gentle silkiness of a hand brushing against my cheek, drooping its way down to frame my jaw and graze my neck. It landed gingerly on my collarbone, leaving everything it stroked blanketed in a wave of hot, glowing tingles.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
A slight shiver trickled through my bones before I dazedly cupped my palms around the hand, my fingers lacing themselves against it and greedily pulling it closer until I could feel its heat completely against my freezing skin. I felt myself let out a relieved sigh.
My hazy vision cleared, and my eyes struggled to make out the image of the hand's owner—a boy, beautiful beyond belief with his disheveled locks of black hair and cloudless gray eyes, a sort of darkness weaving itself in his irises like the bottom of the ocean. He gazed down at me, the soft slit of his mouth taut with slight concern.
My heart seemed to swell in my chest, making it difficult to breathe as the slightest of grins wriggled on my lips. "Gale," I choked, and my hands slid themselves upward to glance themselves across the graceful curves of his features—his eyelashes, his jaw, his cheekbones, warming under the pads of my fingers—just to make sure that he was really there.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
His eyebrows crinkled together, as if he didn't expect my touch to be so tender in response to his.
"I thought..." I had to pause to take the sight of him in, his skin free from the grime and dirt of the arena and his hair perfectly wind-swept the way it had always been in District 12, wreathing slightly at the ends and tickling the nape of his neck. The dark, soft strands brushed against my knuckles as they lightly fell into his face. "...I thought you left me."
When you awaken in the morning's hush,
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
He smiled, a sad, regretful smile, faint laugh lines fanning out the corners of his silver eyes. His hands flattened against the small of my back, pressing me into the warmth of his chest until not even a millimeter of space was between us.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
"I did," he whispered, his voice dry and numb.
Do not stand at my grave and cry.
A jolt racked through my veins, my body feeling as if it had just slapped against the cold, unforgiving surface of arctic waters, the iciness like thousands of knives scraping against my skin.
"No," I choked, feeling my eyes sting as my hands began to tremble against the hot surface of Gale's skin, "You wouldn't do that to me. Not after—"
A slight gasp sounded at the back of my throat as I abruptly felt the fieriness of Gale's lips against mine, cutting off my words and replacing my frigid, bitter anxiety with a feeling so soft that my bones were left melting and my nerves scorching.
I began to shake as his hands flitted their way into my hair, winding the strands between his slender fingers. His chest fell with a sharp exhale, as if he was letting out a breath he had been holding for centuries, and as the sturdy circle of his arms tentatively tightened around my quivering torso, I felt his heart thrumming wildly and his feverish body heat emit through his shirt. He smelled exactly how I remembered, like a mixture of pine, ashes, and sunshine.
"Katniss," he groaned against my mouth, and a burning shudder ran through me as his velvety voice tickled lightly against my eardrums. "Katniss...I'm so sorry."
I am not there.
His lips slipped away from mine, and I was left huskily panting as his silver eyes locked somberly on me, the depths of them so shaken that they looked like endless layers of static. "It's not over yet."
I did not die.
I sprang upwards with a jounce shuddering through my bones, my hair spilling loosely over my frontside as I rasped and choked into my hands. I was suddenly cold again, freezing to the point where the slightest prod to my frozen skin would send stabbing prickles through my body, and the darkened rims of my eyes stung with dried tears.
It took a moment for me to take in my surroundings. The mud under me was so moist that I had already sunk a couple inches into it. The trees were sodden, their upturned leaves dripping with the icy water that had collected in their centers, and a fine mist slithered through the air, a merciful replacement for the heavy sheets of rain. I observed all of this through slitted eyes, my vision blurred with moisture as I continued to cough until my throat felt raw and scratched.
"Wow. Girl on Fire, huh?"
I whirled myself around as a trilling voice wriggled into my eardrums, vaulting to my feet and raising tremulous fists in front of me reflexively.
My eyes landed on a girl, her amber eyes skeptical and her splash of red hair thoroughly gnarled into straggled tendrils coiling around her shoulders, and I took a couple steps backward, looking hastily around for...
Without my permission, a raspy sob punched its way through my airways, making my body quake as unrelenting tremors pulsed through my muscles in response to the sudden racking waves of pain in my chest. I brought my hands to my reddened, sore eyes, feeling tears fight their way to the surface.
The girl arched one of her eyebrows dubiously. "...More like Girl Who Was Burned."
She tentatively made her way toward me, her steps as quiet and soft as a fox's deadly prowl as her yellow eyes glided over my frail body, studying just how weak and ruined I had become. "Pretty girl like you shouldn't be taking naps on the forest floor. Especially with all that squirming you did." She arched a pale eyebrow. "Got yourself all muddy. Must have been having one hell of a dream."
I felt one of her spindly fingers brush a strand of my knotted hair away from my eyes, and I shrank hastily away from it, peering at her incredulously. "If you came to kill me," I rasped, startled at how hoarse and gravelly my voice was as it raked through my searing throat, "just do it, Foxface."
Her eyebrows rose with slight surprise before her face twisted into a dark smile, the light freckles spattered over the brim of her cheeks contorting. "Foxface, huh? Haven't heard that one before." She placed her hands on her hips, making her black arena shirt stretch over her torso and reveal just how grossly skinny she had become—ribs and hipbones bulging harshly out of her skin like knives—before she impatiently shook her ginger locks out of her face. "I like the sound of it, though. Foxface."
"Why are you wasting time?" I choked, my voice shrill as it shrieked through the air. My entire being ached, and I had to lean against the soaked surface of a tree in order to continue standing upright. "Aren't you here to kill me?"
Foxface blinked before letting her thin, coppery eyebrows furrow concernedly over her slanted eyes. "Kill you?" she echoed, her voice tight with disbelief. "Me?...Well, I probably could." She let her eyes slide over my body, her features scrunching up with slight pity. "You look awful."
I swallowed hard, imagining how absolutely drained and defeated I must have looked—my already reedy frame malnourished, the skin around my clouded gray eyes smudged with the blackness of insomnia, my skin smeared with swirls of dirt, salty trails of dried tears streaked across my frozen cheeks...
My eyes squinted into a weak glare. "I'm still healthy enough to fight."
"Oh, go ahead! Rip me up!" Foxface chimed, her frostbitten face brightening. "I've been trying to get myself out of this hell for days. Starving takes a long time apparently, and this arena has absolutely no ledges to leap off of." Her shoulders tensed. "I tried asking you for a little help a while ago, but your boyfriend, the one from District 1, ended up interrupting." She leered at me, her thin lips tautening into a grin. "I saw him in the death recaps. Too bad, he was a real looker."
"Marvel wasn't my boyfriend," I said sternly, my voice shaking.
Foxface responded by waving her willowy white hand dismissively in my direction. "Yeah, yeah. I know about the whole star-crossed lover thing you have going on with your district partner. Real tragic. Probably won the hearts of millions or whatever." She let her golden gaze flit across the clearing, leaning forward and letting her shreds of scarlet hair dribble over her shoulders in a matted curtain. "Where is he, anyway? I know I said Marvel was a looker, but wow, compared to your district partner, he's noth—"
"Gale's dead," I croaked, meaning for my voice to be strong but instead wincing as it came out as a sick, terrible whimper, as if I was struggling to hiss out words while being strangled.
Foxface visibly stiffened, the thin muscles in her spidery limbs tensing as she hesitantly turned her head to lock her eyes on my slumped body. "...You sure?"
My stomach lurched, and I felt my knees buckle as all the smothering, agonizing emotions that pummeled through my veins while chasing Cato struck me like a merciless wave, my heart beating my ribcage like the frantic pulse of the ocean. "I heard his cannon," I griped, crinkling my nose and willing my tears back.
Foxface let one of her eyebrows arch. "Are you sure it was his cannon?"
I felt myself falter, a stinging discomfort stringing itself through my limbs. "...No," I murmured.
"Well then, why do you look like you've already lost all hope?" Foxface asked, shifting her weight and making her hipbone jut out of her side, her limbs so sickeningly thin that it was a wonder where she got the strength to stand.
The air felt like lines of fire as it slithered through my throat, scorching my lungs and making my torso quake as I held back fits of coughs. "Cato got him," I rasped, and a sudden surge of rage flared through my veins, making my frame tense before I frustratedly rammed a stern fist against the tree I was leaning on. "I let Cato get him."
Looking strikingly like a fox begrudgingly making its way out of a sheep-yard, the red-haired girl in front of me proceeded to animately straighten herself up before letting her skeletal hands roughly grip at my shoulders, her face tense with grit. "Maybe he didn't need saving, sweetcheeks." She smiled, a wily, mischievous smile. "How 'bout we find out?"
Her grin broadened to the point where each one of her sharp teeth was shining, and I flinched away, feeling my eyebrows furrow. "What do you mean?"
"I mean," Foxface stressed, swiveling delicately on her heel before bending down and wrapping her bony fingers around the metallic bow I had plunked into the mud with. She lightly tossed it in my direction, making me claw after the weapon with shock lining my features before she let a gurgly chuckle slash through her pallid lips. "...that we're going to find your boyfriend, dead or alive, even if it means that we have to rip that District 2 bastard's throat out ourselves."
Thanks for all the support! It seriously means the world to me.
No Death/Living List will be posted anymore, since it'd interfere with some of the twists this story has left. Cough.
The lyrics sung by Katniss are from Haiti by Arcade Fire, and the poem is by Mary E. Frye.