Author's Notes: After this author's note, I don't anticipate adding anymore because I feel like it breaks the immersion of the story.
I personally wouldn't count myself a huge fan of The Hunger Games trilogy and, in fact, I very much disliked the second book. I felt it was poorly written and poorly handled all around. I cannot claim the idea for this story. I actually discovered it somewhere else and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to take a crack at re-writing the story. I have done my best to stay true to the characters and the spirit of the story. Enjoy!
The sun has only just risen over District 12, alighting on a figure standing beneath a tree bare of all its leaves. Despite the fierce cold which caused the figure's breath to puff out in tiny clouds, she doesn't stir.
She doesn't have to wait much longer. With the ground frozen, it's impossible to walk with a silent tread and when Katniss hears him, for just the faintest moment her eyes go wide, her breath quickens, and she has to make an effort not to train her bow on him. She's gotten a little better about it.
The first Sunday after the games, she was barely able to wait for dawn to break before she was hurrying across the town to the woods. Now that Gale was in the mines, Sunday was her only opportunity to see him. She had been craving his company even before the games had ended. At her first sight of him coming up to their hill, she couldn't resist flinging herself into his arms.
He hadn't hesitated in wrapping her up in his powerful arms. "I knew you could do it, Catnip," he whispered in her ear. She laughed, but when she inhaled everything changed. Gale no longer smelled of Apples and Alderwood. She did her best to hide her sadness at the way things had already changed in the mere two months she was away.
"Ready for some hunting?"
"I'm waiting on you," she shot back, her smile felt halfhearted. There seemed to be some part missing. It was small, something that felt more internal and it had disappeared in the course of the games, of that she was sure.
The day hadn't improved. They rounded up a fine catch of fish and collected from their strawberry patches, but it was when the hunting started that Katniss ran into her old prey. She found some turkey tracks and was quietly stalking it, when she caught a movement out of the corner of her eye. She glanced at it surreptitiously, and then her heart was in her throat and she whipped the bow over to just miss an arrow at Cato, only for him to turn suddenly into Gale.
He swore loudly even as Katniss cried out in shock and ran to him. "Are you okay? I am so sorry!
"What the hell was that, Katniss?"
"I saw movement and it looked like a mountain lion, so I shot," she couldn't quite meet his eye. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"I'm fine. Let's just finish hunting."
They continued by catching a couple of the turkeys and a squirrel. There was another movement where she was certain Rue was sitting in the branches observing the hunt curiously and it unnerved her badly enough that she missed the last squirrel entirely.
Usually after a successful hunt they were in high spirits, chatting and laughing, but that first hunt they walked back in silence. She could tell that Gale had a million questions, but he knew her better than to ask. Katniss was eternally grateful for it and she went into the woods now only on Sundays. It had ceased to be a place of sanctuary.
Several weeks had passed since then and Katniss went through the motions of life like a lost soul. Who was she really without the woods and her hunting? The Victor of the 74th Hunger Games and that was it. The subsequent visits were just as bad as the first: a stung Glimmer made an appearance; she only ever caught the edge of Foxface's scarlet mane of hair as she darted through the trees, and another time she swore Thresh had been stalking her like a lion stalking its prey.
Katniss continued to go. Her mother of all people actually encouraged it, saying the routine would do her good, so she went, partially out of a vague hope the hallucinations would cease and the forest would become her haven again, but also because of Gale. He was still her friend and he deserved to put food on the table. Since he wouldn't accept her money, he would simply have to suffer her company.
Five months since she came back, she says a weak "Hey" to him and he gives her a wan smile once he reaches the top of the hill. She never asks him about work because she already knows. Likewise, his small talk is limited.
"What'd you get Prim for her birthday?"
Of course he asks the one question that guarantees a smile.
"Another goat," she replies and tries not to wince. This goat wasn't nearly dead and a product of a hard barter. It was a kid freshly bought at full price. It was nice having money and Katniss goes to the hob frequently to spend it around, but she can't help feel she's flaunting her newfound wealth at Gale.
"A little friend for Lady?"
"Lady didn't appear terribly happy at the time."
"She'll get used to it. And Prim?"
"How do you think she took it?" Katniss asked with a wry grin. This is the first normal conversation they've had since she got back. "She's only played with him for 3 days straight. Me and mother have barely been able to pry her away long enough to go to school."
"A he, huh? Looking forward to some more little goats in the future?" He asked with a raised eyebrow.
Just like that her good humor vanishes. "Maybe." The truth was she was hoping to give Gale a nanny goat in the future to ease his family's troubles. Once again, it felt like another instance of flaunting her wealth in his face. "Speaking of goats, I brought some cheese and bread for breakfast," Katniss said, pulling the items from her bag.
It hadn't escaped her that this was the same breakfast on the day of the reaping. She kept telling herself that there was nothing symbolic about it, but in a way she hoped it would serve as a sign that they might get back to what they were before that fateful day. But she was fooling herself.
He chowed down on the bread gratefully. He at least didn't object to her serving him up a larger portion. "Isn't the Victory tour today?"
"Don't," Katniss snapped, the last vestige of her good mood seemed to blow away in the wintry wind.
"What? I was just assuming you had to be somewhere."
"Not until later."
"How long will you be gone?"
"You know how long these things last."
"And what about you and…Peeta?"
This was the first Gale had ever uttered his name since she had come back from the Games, but it caused her to think about the upcoming trip for the first time. Katniss was very much a person of the present. Thinking about the future didn't fill bellies and making long term plans was futile because virtually everyone suffered the same fate: a life in the mines. So she always pushed the future away. "Let's not talk about that. We need to stock up," Katniss replied, once again side stepping the topic and heading downhill.
Gale sighed in frustration. "When are we going to talk?"
"When I get back. After the tour, everyone will forget while they gear up for the next Hunger Games."
"It doesn't end there and you know it."
Deep in the tightly knotted pit of her stomach, she knew he was right. He was shouting at her the truth that she hadn't let herself believe for five months. She was a mentor now, which meant she'd be dragged along with Peeta to the Capitol every year. Was the audience expecting them to be together? And the year after that and the year after that? She hadn't meant to be tied with Peeta the rest of her life! She was about to induce a panic attack when she abruptly pushed it aside.
"What would you've had me do, Gale? He was my best chance to survive."
"I know, which is why I wanted to talk."
She blinked and stepped back as if the very words themselves had been a blow to her face. "What?"
He was quiet, staring at the ground as he thought of his next words. "I..I didn't realize until after you were gone what you meant to me. The District felt empty, the hob was quieter, and the woods…it seemed hollow. I felt like I'd lost my arm. I couldn't quite function the same. I never thought I'd see you again. And then there was your parade debut and your training score. That's when I really believed you'd come home."
"You always underestimated yourself. I always believed you had a great shot at winning just from hunting with you, but after the splash you made, I knew you'd be unstoppable," he said with the first ghost of a smile.
Katniss could only stand there in shock, not knowing what to say. Thankfully he wasn't quite finished. "But when Peeta made his confession and I watched you dote on him, like how I'd imagine you'd dote on me. You don't know how hard it was watching you love someone else"
She wanted to say that it had all been fake, but after her realization of being forever tied to the boy with the bread, she bit her tongue. It would be needlessly cruel to get his hopes up, especially when all she wanted was to fling herself into his arms and never let go. Besides, she hadn't been entirely sure the affection was all one-sided.
All she said in a quiet voice was, "I'm sorry, Gale."
"May I at least give you this?" He stepped up, hesitated a moment, and then kissed her on the lips.
She melted like steel in his ironclad embrace. Like a bee to pollen, she was helpless to resist and eagerly returned the kiss. She could indulge in this at least just once. It might be her only chance to.
"When he pulled away, his smile was a pale of its former self. "We better start hunting or you'll never make it back in time." So he passed her down the hill and a moment later she followed, staring at him with an expression of longing and regret.