Disclaimer: The characters and settings belong to Suzanne Collins, I'm just borrowing them for some not-canon-compliant fun. Opening quote from a the "The World Is Not Enough" movie soudtrack.
A/N: This is a very AU scenario that explores the "What if Gale and Katniss got together before the Games and then went there together?" permutation of events. The first chapter takes place a year before THG. The M-rating kicks in towards the end of the next chapter.
Love, Thorns and Fire
People like us know how to survive,
there's no point in living if you can't feel alive
The 73rd Reaping is over and the odds have been in our favor. All numerous slips bearing the names Katniss Everdeen and Gale Hawthorne eluded the sparkling pink claws of Effie Trinket and remained in their respective glassy confines. I let a out a breath of guilty relief. The insult of being annually subjected to the cruel game of fate never stops rankling, but escaping the guarantee of injury always brings a sense of elation.
The odds have been in our favor.
Our gazes meet again and even from halfway across the town square, I discern the pure relief that replaced the mix of rage and anxiety in Gale's eyes. The threat of being shipped off to the Capitol as ritual sacrifices just dispersed above our heads like a cloud of coal dust in the wind. We've been granted another year of safety, another year of being able to provide for our families. Dealing with the routine Panem oppression until the scattered particles of dread coalesce again suddenly seems easy and District Twelve appears almost welcoming. Even if the ashen Seam and the rigid Merchant Quarter leave a lot to be desired, there's hardly anything wrong with life as soon as we make our furtive way under the fence and disappear into the woods beyond.
We can still go together and I mirror Gale's slight smile without hesitation.
After disentangling ourselves from the crowd of our fellow lucky survivors, we rejoin our families and head to the Hawthornes' house where we decided to celebrate if our wish for good fortune came true. My heart clenches a little when I realize that Prim will be eligible for the Reaping next year, but the ecstatic smile she wears now soon alleviates my worries.
Gale and I brought a good haul from the forest and Hob this morning, enough to last for a few days, even after the little festive meal our mothers prepared for this occasion. Now we are sharing a low chipped cabinet Gale had dragged to the table to compensate for the lack of chairs, sitting as close as if we were on our rock in the woods and lightly bumping into each other with every movement. Surrounded by our families, gathered together and cared for to the best of our abilities, we allow ourselves to savor the rare and precious carefree moment. Between the dictatorship of the Capitol and the tragic absence of our fathers, this is as close as we can possibly get to true happiness, and we enjoy it to the fullest.
Much later, Gale accompanies us the short distance home, but stops me with a light touch on the arm before I follow mother and Prim into the house.
"What about a little evening walk, Catnip?" he asks, his voice unusually soft.
My eyebrows scrunch in surprise, because we hardly ever do things merely for enjoyment, but the idea seems appealing. The air, unusually clean of coal-dust by courtesy of a brief afternoon storm and replete with scents of midsummer wafting from the forest, is tempting me to linger outside. And after hours in the merry company of our families, I already find myself craving the usual comfortable silence I can share only with Gale.
"Okay." I glance down at my shoes, their low heels already causing me discomfort. "Just let me change out of this."
He chuckles lightly when I reappear wearing my hunting boots and close the door after reassuring Prim I won't be very long. I would have replaced my dress too, but the sun is already setting and I didn't want to waste time. It's not that uncomfortable after all.
"Where to? I guess the fence will be on and I promised Prim that I'll be back soon anyway," I say as we fall into step side by side, easily finding our usual rhythm.
Sticking his hands deep into his pockets, Gale shrugs noncommittally and lifts his gaze to the sky littered by harmless scraps of the spent stormclouds. The sunset paints their undersides bright orange.
The view from our place would be spectacular now…
Then a sudden idea strikes me.
"Hey, what about climbing up there?" I say, nudging Gale with my elbow and pointing to the black artificial mountain protruding above the tallest trees just beyond a bend in the road, close to the mines. "Maybe we could see our place from that high above."
Gale raises his eyebrows, an odd look of surprise in his eyes. "Yeah, maybe we could."
"If you know how to get there," I add.
"I know how to get anywhere, Catnip," he quips, regaining his composure enough to give me his trusty smile. Then he offers me his hand with an extravagant gesture and after a moment of hesitation, I decide to accept it.
Gale leads the way, scanning the dense bushes on one side of the road. "Now where was the shortcut..." he mutters under his breath.
Soon he steers me away from the road and starts down an overgrown, unfamiliar path, still clasping my hand. It seems unnecessary - we are both perfectly capable of walking on our own, so why would we bother to hold hands? - but also strangely right. Gale's firm, warm grip reminds me that we are still together, alive and free to assume that nothing would ever separate us… at least for another year. I prefer things that way, so I make no attempt to disentangle my fingers from his and enjoy the pleasant tingling sensation spreading up my arm.
The path quickly leads us to the tall mound of rubble and slag, surprisingly less treacherous to climb than I anticipated at a first glance. The water from the rain sank right through the crevices and the surface already dried in the warm air.
Good, we'll be able to sit down.
The flat top offers plenty of room, but we still settle just close enough to touch, as if our need for proximity had nothing to do with the size of the space we are sharing.
Probably just a habit formed by years of sitting together on our narrow rock, I think to myself as Gale nudges me and points it out. It's not hard to imagine that we are there.
From this high up, I see neither the poverty of the Seam houses nor the patrolling Peacekeepers and a trick of light reduces the electrified fence to nothing but a faint shadow that mars the eaves of our magnificent forest. The fiery sunset glowing from behind our backs lends the whole scene almost picturesque quality, fleetingly transforming even our bleak district into a place worth living in.
Better stay here, where we'd already learned to fend for ourselves, than be shipped away… but…
"It still feels wrong to celebrate it," I mutter after a while. I'd rather take my words back for fear of destroying the peaceful moment by inciting Gale to another anti-Capitol rant, but he just sighs in understanding, staring at the far green horizon.
"It's like some screwed-up birthday," he nods. "We can win one more year we shouldn't have needed to worry about in the first place."
"Yeah," I agree. "But I'm glad we both made it."
Gale nods, lightly draping his arm around my shoulders and I allow him to draw me closer. The fear of losing him grew steadily from one Reaping day to another, comparable only with the relief that always came after we'd evaded the fashionably-clawed hand of fate. Now, the need to feel that Gale is still here beside me overpowers my usual reservations.
What would I do without him?
The answer is obvious, but extremely unappealing.
"What would I do without you, Catnip?" Gale mutters, echoing my unspoken rhetorical question and tightening his hold when I don't attempt to pull away.
"Everything we do now," I say aloud, answering the question for both of us. "But it wouldn't be the same, huh?" I add to soften the edge.
"No," he agrees, turning his head to meet my eyes. The unguarded emotion in his cloudy gaze is so intense I'm tempted to hide my face in his shoulder.
"Nothing would be the same without you, Catnip. You mean too much for me. We are-"
"We are best friends, aren't we?" I cut across him in a slightly strained voice, before he says something I'm too afraid to hear.
Gale closes his eyes for a moment and nods. "Sure, we are."
Could we possibly be anything else?
The idea settles in my mind with dangerous ease… too dangerous. I've been hell-bent on chasing it away every time it dared to come anywhere near, but...
Would it be worth a shot, even in this world? Or should we rather keep our distance for fear of what the next year brings?
Overcome by sudden uncertainty, I duck from under his arm, awkwardly twisting my hands in my lap.
Gale rises to his feet with a slightly exasperated sigh and offers me his hand. Hesitantly, I take it and let him pull me up beside him.
Let him push our luck.
"Maybe we could be even better friends, if you wanted to," he mutters, caressing my cheek. Breath hitches in my throat and I shiver slightly at the thrilling contact.
Pretending not to understand would be futile, but my own involuntary reaction alarms me and I slip my hand out of his with a frown. "You think it would be a good idea?"
"I do. But if you don't…" Gale takes in my bristled armor and retreats half a step back. "… I guess I should stop making you uncomfortable."
"Gale, I…" I have absolutely no idea what to say.
"Just enjoy the view," he mutters wistfully, staring over my head into the sunset. He gives me a slight, indulgent smile, but deep sadness shines through in his gaze, compelling me to chase it away. More-than-best-friends or not, I don't want to see him miserable. Tentatively, I reach up and brush a dark strand of hair from his eyes.
"I am enjoying the view," I say without thinking, looking straight at his face. A fraction of a second later, as the corners of Gale's mouth curl upward, I belatedly grasp the implication behind my own words and desperately wish I could swallow the foolish confession back. Especially after the uncomfortable realization that it happens to be perfectly true; and the following rush of strange heat into my cheeks.
I liked seeing him ever since I can remember, but recognizing the real reason why unsettled me a little. Until now, I'd considered our companionship as another aspect of hunting, of trading, of holding onto sanity, of survival. Admittedly, the most pleasant, but I was so used to him I took everything about him for granted and never acknowledged any need to push boundaries.
Here and now, with the lack of immediate worries and familiar distractions in the form of danger or potential dinner, I finally let myself truly see him, and the effect is slightly overwhelming. I can't help but think that it would be a waste of time to look at the last embers of sunset smoldering from the opposite direction, when I can look at the chiseled contours of Gale's face. Especially now that my words brightened them with mesmerizing inner light, even more vivid than the flickering orange shadows of the dying sun.
Gale smiles wider, extending his hand to cup my cheek and now I lean into his touch without hesitation. Against the backdrop of the cloudy sky, darkened gray like his eyes but infinitely less beautiful, I see him both for the millionth and the very first time and my chest aches almost physically as the walls around the place in my heart I tried to confine him into crumble and fall.
Gale senses the change and steps closer.
"I love you, Catnip," he whispers.
Closing my eyes, I let his words sink in and fill my heart whole. They feel good there.
"That wouldn't interfere with us being best friends, right?" I ask softly.
Gale chuckles lightly. "Not at all."
"Not even if I say I love you too?"
His smile, brighter than I've ever seen it, reassures me before his words. "Even better doesn't cancel best."
I return his smile and find no motivation to protest when he twines his free arm around my waist to embrace me. Instead, I just splay my hands against his chest, feeling the lean muscles under his worn shirt and his heartbeat accelerating in tune with mine. Gale smiles down at me, with tenderness and a twinkling hint of mischief in his eyes. Having learned to perceive his intent long ago, I know for certain that he's going to kiss me now...
Panic rises in my chest, inflating like a bubble and bursting into fireworks as Gale pulls me closer.
… and then I realize something worse: there's nothing I want to do to prevent it.
The gears in my head are turning with desperate speed, but only to loop in an attempt to rationalize the irrational.
Well, if so many people keep doing it, kissing can't hurt… but just like anything not essential for survival, it must be overrated… maybe I could give it a try, just to know what all the fuss is about…
Gale leans down, but only to rest his forehead against mine, as if allowing me few more seconds to back away. Maybe I would take the chance, if I could remember how to think, but his hot, mint-scented breath fanning over my lips seems to have robbed me of the ability, so I just close my eyes and let it happen. My head tilts up almost involuntarily, our noses brush lightly and our lips meet. The warmth and softness of the touch send a pleasant tingle coursing throughout my body, weakening my knees and beguiling my fingers to grasp tightly onto Gale's shirt. Emboldened by my response, Gale embraces me even tighter, his lips caressing mine with increasing fervor. I cling to him with all my strength, lost in the sweet delirium and unwilling to pull away, not even for a gasp of air, because this foolish activity suddenly feels just as essential as breathing. Every cell in my body seems to come alive, as if I were waking from a long sleep.
Only when I begin to see stars under my lids, I part the kiss, inhaling deeply.
"So you think you can live with us being even better friends?" asks Gale.
"I can survive anything with you. I just don't know how would I survive without you," I say truthfully.
Well, perhaps I could survive without Gale's kisses, just like I somehow managed before, but I'm not willing to take unnecessary risks, so I just tangle my fingers in his hair and yank his head down, pressing my lips back where they belong for a deeper taste of life.
After all, why not?
Now we are about as far from death as we can get in Panem, and we have a whole year that will, in a way, be our first… and that may be our last.
We'd better make the most of it…