I originally had an A/N for this chapter that took up two whole pages in Word, and it wasn't until after I read it over a couple times that I deleted it and decided that it would be better to keep things straight and to the point.
I'm so sorry I ended up vanishing. I had an accident that landed me in the hospital right after the last update, and I ended up getting diagnosed with dysthymia and generalized anxiety. That led to me taking dangerous amounts of caffeine supplements (I thought they would motivate me. It was dumb). It took me a long time to recover to the point where I could talk with people again, not to mention where I could sleep for an entire night. It's difficult to explain now that I've been fully recovered for a little more than half a year. It's just that I stopped caring about everything—about my family, my friends, myself, this story. I thought that if I just disappeared, people would eventually forget I ever existed.
Well, I was wrong. I would look in my e-mail inbox everyday, and it stung a little each time I saw a new review in it. Sometimes they were pleading, sometimes they were angry, sometimes they were insulting, and sometimes they were hopeless, thinking that I had given up for good. Those hurt the most.
Alright, this is getting long again, so I'm just going to say that I never expected to have such loyal readers. It's absolutely mind-boggling that some of you still exist after so long, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate it.
As thanks, I'm reviving this project. ( I HAVE EVERYTHING ALREADY WRITTEN—truthfully, this time—AND I WILL BE POSTING UPDATES ONE DAY APART. THAT INCLUDES THE FIRST CHAPTER OF THE SEQUEL. ) I'm really rusty, and this A/N is still basically a novel, but I hope you'll forgive me and continue reading nonetheless.
I love you all, and I sincerely mean that. Thank you so much, and I hope I don't let you down again.
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
"How terrible it is to love something that death can touch."
Cold air, pins and needles pricked my lungs. Making my way through the thick greenery sprawled across the forest floor proved to be very difficult, my mind making it feel as if the ground underneath my feet was dizzyingly unsteady. I found myself having to knead my temples with frostbitten fingers to keep from stumbling.
The dense fog didn't help; it slithered deep into the distance, washing out my view of the endless trees and replacing it with sheets of translucent whiteness. Rainwater had dribbled into my boots, and my waterlogged feet squelched in them as the soles gripped at the mud like suction cups. My arena clothes were thin and skin-tight, making them dry off quickly, but they still clung to my goosebump-covered flesh like icy drapery, sending shivers racking through my already frozen bones.
"You left everything back where you were camped?" Foxface leered at me from the corner of her slanted eyes, her chin tilted upward and her footing light and agile against the mud, making my steps look gawky and blundering in comparison. She had a habit of slipping in and out of sight, her fox-like prowl enabling her to wriggle around the sodden tree trunks like a silent breath. Unease ebbed frostily in my chest.
"I have my bow," I muttered, trying to ignore the sheepish glint in my voice.
Foxface let out an extended groan, leaning backwards and theatrically resting the back of her hand on her forehead. I peered at her through my eyelashes, feeling a pang of wistfulness stab through my torso as an image of a certain pink-haired escort flashed through my mind—her lipstick-rimmed mouth rounded into an O, her white makeup thick as muck, the heels of her shoes clacking against the hard flooring.
"Such a pretty face. Ain't nothing upstairs," Foxface muttered. Her golden eyes were fixed into a glare, the rusty sienna of her light eyelashes tangling together as she squinted into the distance. "You'd think a broad like you would at least nab her own jacket. How are you even alive right now?"
My shoulders tensed as I remembered how I had left my heat-reflective jacket slung over a branch after it had become thoroughly drenched by the rain. Mockingly, a shiver rushed through my limbs. "Some people have priorities other than gathering," I grumbled darkly, looking at her sideways. "Or, in your case, stealing."
The corner of Foxface's mouth dove downward into a slight frown, making the light splash of freckles across the white pallor of her skin contort. "There are kids out here slicing each other up and laughing at the corpses, and you get on me for pinching a li'l food now and then?" She stopped in her tracks, shaking her red hair out of her face before ramming her spindly fists into her sleeves. The dark material of her jacket laid floppily around her forearms after she pulled out multiple packets of dried fruit, the packaging clear and vacuum-sealed. "And to think I was gonna share my loot with you."
My eyebrows rose as I took in her skeletal figure. The dried fruit had actually made her body look full, like a sort of padding against the bones jutting out of her pasty skin. Without it, she looked like the decaying carcass of an animal, the shadows between her ribs apparent even through her arena clothing.
Foxface must have caught me staring because her seemingly permanent and irreversibly cruel smile had softened. After a pause, her torso shook with silent, sad laughter as she promptly let her arena jacket slide off her arms and gather in her palms as a pile of thick, black fabric. "You're shaking like a leaf." She took a gentle step toward me before draping the clothing around my shoulders, pulling the collar close to my neck and letting the heat-reflective inside warm my icy, benumbed skin. "You need this more than I do, sweetheart."
I visibly blanched, the nickname bringing me back to simpler days before the Arena, when my biggest problem was a drunk mentor. A sick, strangled sound tangled itself in the back of my throat.
Foxface let out a breathy exhale, the bridge of her narrow nose scrunching slightly as she watched me weakly shrink into the jacket's warmth. It smelled like a mixture of copper and honey, a sweetness that was laced with acid. A painful pressure built up behind my eyes.
"Hey...Aw, c'mon, 12," she nervously tittered, "You're not gonna cry, are you?"
A noise of frustration bubbled from my throat, and before I could even will my mouth to form the word "no," Foxface took me by the shoulders and pulled me into a vicious hug. It wasn't soft, and it wasn't warm; it was filled with the bitterness of the air and the bones of her starvation, each prod and each shiver a grim reminder of where we really were. My throat began to tighten, and so did Foxface's hold on me, her tangled mess of hair scratching the side of my face and her ribs like hard shards of ice against me. The only source of warmth were the hot tears rimming my stinging bottom eyelids.
"Why are you doing this?" I rasped, my voice a harsh whisper. "Helping me? What are you even gaining?"
I felt the flat, flinty resistance of Foxface's chest deflate as she let out a sigh. She slowly edged away from me, letting her arms slide away from my shoulders. "Salvation. Redemption. Whatever you want to call it," she said, bending down to gather the packets of dried fruit she had dropped earlier, "Or...Maybe I just felt sorry for you."
I grunted coldly, my voice brassy as I shook off the jacket and held it back out to her. It was easy to gain back my composure when all the muscles in my face were all but frozen. "I don't need your pity," I muttered, and it was with grim synchronization that the word sweetheart resonated deep in my skull, mouthed by a stubbled face and carried on breath that was soured with whiskey.
Foxface raised her eyebrows. "With all due respect, 12, I might be the one with a death wish," she lulled, straightening herself out and stubbornly pushing the jacket back into my arms, "but you're the one who looks dead."
My foot slammed against a tree, its leaves sending a fine shimmer of water swirling through the air. A thin film of light connected with it and made a pastel, washed-out rainbow in the skyward moisture for a split second before the mist came slashing down onto my face, stinging like icy needlepoints.
Foxface crouched a couple meters away from me, huddled over a pile of sodden wedges of tree bark and scouring a thin piece of flint with a dulled throwing knife. The flint's sparks fell flat on the wet wood.
"Keep those combustibles comin', 12," she all but mumbled to herself, her bulging shoulder blades squirming like two separate dorsal fins through her arena shirt.
I directed my attention back to the tree and raked the heel of my boot against it again, tearing away a biggish slab of bark. It stuck outward at a misshapen angle, drooping as if it was sick. "Wet wood means more smoke," I said numbly, grabbing the bark piece and throwing it onto the pile, "A lot of smoke. Black smoke."
"Good!" Foxface chimed, flashing a sharp smile at me. "Maybe kitty-cat Cato will find us." She hooked her hand at me like a claw and meowed, and I tried to fight back an image of a certain squished-face feline from home as I sharply turned around and kicked the tree again with a thunderous thump.
My sense of time had been almost completely ruined. The arena carried a cloudy after-rain gloom that made me guess it was early morning, ribbons of white light puncturing the dusk and making the fog slithering through the air shine with a dreary glow like light gray moonstones.
I stroked the smooth layer of inner wood I had revealed after stripping a sizable chunk of bark off the tree, feeling faint tickles of wood flakes and a cool, slight dampness on my palm. I was glad that I had regained feeling in my fingers, as pruned and stiff with cold as they were.
"Hand me the knife," I said flatly in Foxface's direction, and she held it out by the tip of its blade, allowing me to grip its handle and set its serrated edge on the trunk's tender heartwood. I scraped it up and down until fine wood shavings gathered in a little mound in the center of my cupped hand.
Leaving deep cornrow abrasions in the tree, I stepped away, kneeling across from Foxface and feeling cold muck and mud seep through the knees of what was left of my arena leggings. I laid the woodcarvings in a flakey bed across the bark.
"This is the saddest bunch of tinder I've ever seen," Foxface muttered, her pointed chin dimpling with disappointment.
I opened my mouth to counter, only to have the knife snatched from my hand with quick, reedy fingers. My head snapped upward in surprise just in time to see Foxface—her mass of matted hair swept over her shoulder and the knife pressed where her locks began the base of her head—rake the blade upward and cleanly slice off her curls.
My lips parted in silent shock as scarlet strands of hair fell from her fist and slowly spiraled to the mud like a swirl of heatless, crimson fire, the color striking compared to the dull browns and grays of the forest. She continued hacking at her ruby mane with crude sawing motions until it was shorn close to her skull like a fever patient's.
With steady hands, she gathered a handful of hair from the ground and rolled it into a tangled ball of oranges and reds in her small palms, setting it on top of the wood shavings and bark like a bright, vibrant centerpiece.
"What are you—" I started, cut off when Foxface scuffed the blade across the flint, her fingers erupting in a bright cloudburst of sparks.
A pale aurora of flames, thin and rippling, emerged from the tinder with a sort of meek slowness. Foxface let out a shrill whoop, getting down on all fours and pursing her apricot lips before softly blowing at the base of the fire, making it grow and sharply flicker.
It smelled terrible, giving off black, sludgy smoke like a ruptured land-mine. I turned my head and coughed into the crook of my arm, feeling moisture gather at the corners of my eyes.
The sound of Foxface's feral, warbling cheers served as an off-beat harmony to the crackles of the fresh fire. I squinted through the exhaust, only to see her dancing around it with her gaunt face smiling and her filthy hands reaching frenziedly toward the clouded sky.
A strong gust of wind caught the flames, the sparks hitting my face like burning kisses. "What are you doing?" I all but retched, my windpipe ablaze from the smoke.
Foxface looked at me with her amber eyes gleaming, spinning on her toes until she was close enough to take my trembling hands into her own. "Celebrating," she whispered, and the fire behind her bursted into thick puffs of soot and smog, dovetailing around her gangly frame like a pair of misty black wings. "You could stand to liven up a li'l, too, sweet-cheeks."
I snatched my hands away from her, aware of how quickly my expression had darkened. "You realize twenty children died on the ground you're standing on," I grumbled.
"I'll never forget it," she said, acidic words slipping through smiling teeth, and my eyebrows twitched upward in slight surprise as she continued. "I close my eyes, and I still see them all looking at me. Calling for me. Screaming." She turned around in a slow, lulling pivot, swishing her hand through the air in an attempt to clear the smoke. She crouched near the base of the fire, unhooking a metal canteen from her belt and placing it upright in the shallow flames, taking care to unscrew the cap slightly to keep it from bursting.
"I have to abandon them again and again. Every moment that I'm alive, I have to look at all the bodies I jumped over to get here and say, 'No. No, I can't save you.'" She craned her neck to look at me, and her moistened eyes and quivering chin hit me like two separate jabs to the chest. She was still smiling. "I'm celebrating because it's almost over, Katniss. For both of us."
I looked at her for a long time with eyes stinging from arid exhaust, with shoulders shaking and skin prickling from the contrasting ice in the air. I stepped forward, my rubber soles pressing chopped bundles of red hair into the mud until they curled and jutted like flaming rosebuds.
Crouching beside her, I could take in the sharp panes and hollows of her starving profile much more clearly, the fire providing a glowing red outline on her ashen, colorless skin. The speckles of ash on her cheeks blended in with her gray freckles. I had seen corpses with more life than her.
Swallowing, I whispered—quietly but firmly: "None of this is your fault."
Foxface mutedly widened her eyes, making the dark bags underneath them sag.
"You're a victim. Just like the rest of us."
We were quiet, the popping and crackling of the burning bark a droning din in the silence. Foxface held herself tensely, the harsh furrow between her brows saying all the things she wouldn't dare reveal to the cameras—her pain, her grief, her guilt.
It was a moment of weakness that she quickly extinguished. I watched tiredly as she sternly stood up, jaw tight, and prodded her metal canteen out of the fire with the toe of her shoe. It smoldered red-hot like an ember in the cool, wet dirt.
My eyes half-lidded with uncertainty. "Wh—"
"This," Foxface gestured toward the canteen, "is about to be some really bad tea. It should warm us up, though." She pulled out two packets of dried fruit from the waistband of her arena leggings, absently tearing them open with her teeth.
We moved in the opposite direction of the wind so the smoke wouldn't blow in our faces. It billowed upward through the treetops and struck the clouds with such heftiness that it looked wooly—an undulating black puff in the sky.
Foxface flicked the cap off the canteen before funneling a full packet of dried fruit into it with her spindly hand. She used one of my wooden arrows to mash the fruit until the water became dark and fragrant.
We took turns sipping at it. The pulped remnants of the steeped fruit had a syrupy type of potency when bitten into, and the water itself was thinly laced with what tasted like burnt sugar. It was crisp and sweet like candied cinnamon to my neglected tastebuds.
I felt the tea's heat like molten lava at the back of my throat and the pit of my stomach, feeling halfway thawed for the first time in what felt like an eternity. My breath was hot like steam as I slowly averted my glassy gaze to the freckled girl next to me, my voice a tentative murmur as I asked, "What's your name?"
"Foxface," she answered without hesitation.
I frowned. "No, really."
The bow of her plump lips twitched downward with slight discomfort. "I don't see why I need to tell you..." She breathed slowly, lulling on each word. "...considering we won't know each other for much longer."
The bow of my shoulders tensed slightly at her harsh words.
"Besides," she chirped, "I like the nickname you gave me. Foxface. It suits me."
She looked at me, smiling, patches of red hair dotting her scalp like sores.
The fire didn't last long; minutes, perhaps. Its tinders glowed with a dull orange through the lingering black smoke. The treetops were stained with soot. Burn wounds punctured dreary leaves and crisp char silhouetted them against the sky.
Foxface slowly climbed a nearby tree, mumbling angrily about how the trunk was too slippery. She wanted a bird's eye view, hoping to spot the Cornucopia. I stayed by the base with my hands tightly gripping my bow, my knuckles whitened into pearls, my feet planted as permanently as sycamore roots.
Everything was a cold mix of grays, the only things contrasting against the anemic color palette being the cinders and the remnants of Foxface's hair. They exhibited a sickly kind of brilliance like stipples of blood. My mind hinted at it being mid-afternoon, but the misty ether still carried the ashen mutedness of dusk and early morning. It was overcast to the point of being dismal, I thought, the suspicious silence of the woodlands around us a jittering anxiety in my gut.
"You stay on guard!" Foxface called downward, her voice thinly floating in the thick, murky air. "Keep your eyes peeled. Cato m—AH!"
My head snapped upward, only to see that one of Foxface's pointed feet had slid off a branch, leaving her precariously dangling for a few moments until she regained her footing. Her ribby chest deflated as she let out a hot breath of relief.
I clicked my tongue in distaste. "Not a lot of trees in District 5," I quietly murmured to myself. My eyebrows rose in surprise when Foxface loudly countered with, "Cut the sass, 12!"
Her ears were sharp.
It was a while before she had gotten the hang of climbing, pouncing upward like a swift-footed fox. I would have been much quicker, but she insisted that I covered her flank while she scoped the area from above.
She did have a unique sort of grace to her, though; her movements were sharp. Limbs jutted out in quick arcs that reminded me of a cat's pounce. Occasionally she would look down at me, as if afraid that I wouldn't be there anymore. I always returned her gaze with a sort of unsmiling tightness, the smears of mud and ash on my face perhaps softening it.
Foxface reached the topmost branch with a visible huff. She was balanced on all fours, shifting her bald head as she scrutinized the scene below her. Abruptly, her body stiffened into stone, her bones and stringy muscles bulging. "...U-Um, Katniss?"
Her voice was brittle, a lofty pitch that was difficult to hear from a distance. It hung in the air with a sort of ghostliness. She was shaking. I could hear it.
My chest iced over in dread. "What is it?"
She keenly averted her eyes from whatever she was looking at to gape down at me. As elevated as she was, I could still make out the panicked churning of her throat. "We're a lot closer than I thought."
Before I even had time to process her sentence, a throwing knife zipped past Foxface's throat and struck the trunk of the tree she was perched in. It missed her by mere centimeters. Her expression warped into something I had never seen on her before—a drained, undisguised knot of white-hot terror, her jaw unlatched and her eyes widened into empty disks.
A wraith of familiar, dark laughter simmered in the distance, skewering my ears like needles. It raked an image to the forefront of my mind—a tribute from District 2, a soldier through and through, his eyes carrying haunted traces of wrath and unshaken blackness that frosted my bones anew.
I strung an arrow into my bow, a flaring reflex. Blood stung like acid as it sang through my veins.
"Sorry I was so quiet, girls!" His voice was alarmingly close. "I just wanted to surprise you."
I glanced around with lightning hysteria, all around me green expanses of unmoving trees. Desperately, I raked my gaze in Foxface's direction again, only to see that she had vanished. The rogue throwing knife marked where she once was, protruding outward like a headstone. A noise of painful shock spouted steamily through my teeth.
"Can you blame me for getting impatient? Having to watch that awful fire of yours with my mouth shut? Now it's all smiles! Smiles for the cameras!" He chortled, followed by the distinct sound of a predator's prowl, making my skin squirm. "The 74th Hunger Games are about to come to a thrilling conclusion!"
My vision blurred. My head whirled. It took every ounce of my will to accept that Foxface had abandoned me and to shake off any lingering feelings of anguish; I should have known not to trust her. I clenched my jaw, my ribcage feeling like spiked ice as I stubbornly collected myself and stormed into the trees, dazedly following the sound of Cato's mirthful laughter.
The bottoms of my feet were pruned and waterlogged; I could feel the bite of skin breaking as I hardily marched on them. My hair sagged behind me in a single, ratty curtain, so thoroughly glued and matted with mud that it scuffed the back of my neck.
I reeled my bow in front of me in blaring arches, breaking the foliage that blocked my path. I could hear a number of footsteps around the forest, including my own, and it made the base of my throat squinch with nauseousness.
I bursted into a clearing the moment traces of light had begun to show through the leaves, wheezing and teetering on my feet. I squinted, and the expanse of my vision hazed into a swathe of sparkling gold.
At first, I thought I was fainting. It took a moment for my eyes to clear and for a discernible image to focus: a large tract of dirt, eroded and wet from the rain and dotted with drooping lines of grass; twenty-four platforms arranged in a mighty circle; a golden horn, its contents spilled and scattered sloppily across the ground; and...
—a boy. A crumpled heap of bloody flesh, dark hair, torn arena clothing. He was shaded by a vast steel canopy, surrounded by a number of crates and heaps of weapons and packaged foods.
My insides lurched. My legs moved anchoredly, acting on their own. My ears were clouded by what seemed like static; it took a moment for me to realize that it was the sound of my own strangled breathing.
Before I knew it, I was crouched next to the boy, turning him over on his back and heatedly stroking his face with muddied hands. My eyes were stinging, lining with hot tears that flicked off my eyelashes and onto the curve of his lips. I tasted rust, my mouth thick and sour as I absently touched his cheeks, his neck, his shoulders. A thousand years seemed to pass before his eyes tiredly fluttered open, flickering like great bright moon crescents.
The liquid in my skull felt like it was boiling. I was shaking so violently, I could hardly tell where my hands were. My throat sharply ached as if it encased a lump of solid lead, yet I still managed to coerce weak snippets of sound through it.
I wasn't aware of what I was saying. Bleary gray eyes, staring at me from the ground, had to steadily help me back to consciousness.
It was one word, repeatedly, a single word carried out on sick, strident whimpers that crashed off my tongue like tearful hail storms: "Gale."
Chapter 22 will be posted tomorrow. Thanks for everything, and sorry for the cliffhanger!