This is the first chapter of a canon-divergent AU story originally written for Round 4 of Prompts in Panem, inspired by the sin of Envy. This story will be seven chapters, with each chapter covering events surrounding that year's Hunger Games.
Gale knocked on the heavy wooden door at the back of the bakery. The front of the shop was still dark, but he knew the baker was usually up and working by this time of the morning. Especially on this morning.
Sure enough, a moment later the door opened to reveal a squat, broad-shouldered man with thinning blond hair. "Oh, I wasn't expecting you this morning," Mr. Mellark said.
"I have a squirrel," Gale said. "I was hoping to trade for a couple of rolls."
"Well, we haven't made any rolls yet this morning," the baker replied. "How about a fresh loaf instead?"
Gale tried to contain his surprise. He usually only traded for day-old loaves, and even then they cost more than just a squirrel. "That's fine," he said as neutrally as he could manage.
The older man turned back into the bakery. "Peeta!" he called. "Bring me one of those loaves!"
Gale looked past the baker, and could see one of his sons - Peeta, he assumed - just taking a tray of bread loaves out of one of the ovens. "Okay, Dad," the boy called back.
Gale watched the younger boy, and he felt his face redden. Gale spent his whole life hunting and trapping and scraping and struggling just to feed himself and his family, meanwhile this kid had everything handed to him. As he carried the tray from the oven to a work table, he held in his arms enough bread to feed Gale's family for a week. Maybe two. And it was just the barest beginning of how much food this kitchen would turn out today. And the shop was only open for half the day today.
Gale couldn't help but envy the stocky, well-fed youth. The baker's son had grown up literally surrounded by food. He had probably never been hungry one moment in his life. Surrounded by not only abundant fresh bread, but also fine pastries, decadent cakes, even fresh meat, delivered straight to his door by people far more deserving than him. He didn't have any idea how good he had it, having everything handed to him his whole life. I'd like to see him deal with just one day not being surrounded by fresh food, Gale thought bitterly.
Oblivious to Gale's dark thoughts, the kid walked over to the door with a paper bag containing the fresh loaf of bread, and handed it over to Gale. "Here you go," he said with a smile on his face. Gale scowled at him and snatched the bag away. He thought he saw Peeta's smile falter a bit, but before he could be sure the boy was turned away, returning to his work in the kitchen.
Gale took a quick glance at the loaf in the bag before handing the squirrel over to the older man, and with a brief nod he turned to leave. After just a few steps, though, the baker's voice stopped him. "Good luck today."
Gale turned back to the old man. He said nothing in reply, giving only another nod before leaving once again.
As he made his way towards the woods to meet up with Katniss, he felt his momentary rage settle down into the general low-level anger he felt so often. He had to trade with merchants to sustain his family, but every time he got a glimpse into their well-fed lives, it only fed his anger. The unfairness and inequality ate at him. It hardened his resolve to leave. To just drop everything and run away into the woods. They could do it, him and Catnip together, they could live out in the woods and feed themselves and leave all this bullshit behind. Then they'd finally be free, free to be together and free to have a family.
And unless he didn't really know her at all, Catnip would be as excited about that as he was.
The square was steadily emptying, everyone was heading home, but Peeta remained rooted in his spot. He couldn't bring himself to move. He felt like the whole world had tipped over on its side, and he didn't know how to operate in this new reality. He barely knew how to breathe, let alone how to move.
He knew his position wasn't unique. There was at least one other family going through the same thing right now, and countless others had done it before. How did they do it? How did they go on?
A particular bit of movement in the corner of his eye caught his attention. After thinking about it for a moment, he managed to turn his head, and found the familiar sight of Katniss Everdeen. She was headed home, of course, together with her sister, Prim.
Her sister. Going home. Going home with her sister.
Peeta had felt a lot of different things in relation to Katniss Everdeen over the years. But today, for the first time, he felt envy. He hated himself for it, but he couldn't deny it, and he couldn't bring himself to fight it. For the first time, he was jealous of Katniss. Because she was going home, with her sister.
As if she could feel him staring at her, Katniss looked up, and suddenly they were staring each other in the eye across the square. Normally this was when he would turn away and pretend like he hadn't been looking, but right now he couldn't manage it. He just stared back at her, for the first time since the day after he'd thrown her the bread. The look on her face was curious. It wasn't pity, like he'd seen from so many others. It wasn't the nervous look of someone who didn't know how to deal with him in this moment. It was a look of genuine concern, genuine compassion, genuine sympathy, genuine caring. And somehow, seeing it, getting that look from Katniss Everdeen, he felt like he could breathe for the first time since Effie Trinket had announced the name.
He started when he felt a hand clamp down on his shoulder. He looked up to see his brother Barlee. Barlee, who was too old for the reaping. Who was too old to volunteer. And suddenly Peeta felt jealous of him, too, because he wouldn't have to live with the guilt.
When he looked back across the square, Katniss was just barely within sight at the edge of the square, once again making her way home, her arm wrapped protectively around her precious sister.
"Come on, Peet," his brother said, squeezing his shoulder and pulling him towards the Justice Building. "Let's go say goodbye to Rye."
The next chapter will skip ahead to the 76th Games, Katniss and Peeta's last reaping. If you're impatient to read more, the first two-and-a-half chapters of this story were posted as a submission to the latest round of Prompts in Panem.