He sat at their meeting place. She wasn't there, her sister had bad dreams that morning, but he didn't know that. He didn't know what was keeping her, and he knew she wouldn't be too far in the distance, so he lay on the wide rock and took a nap before the sun rose.
His sleep was dreamless these days, as it often was. Gale was too tired during the day to have the energy to dream at night. Wake early, hunt enough food for breakfast and lunch, set the snares, go home, make the food, get everyone to school, come home from school, back to the woods, hunt for supper and trade, trade at the Hob, eat supper at home, help the children with homework, sleep.
It had been his routine for years, one he wasn't sure he would ever break out of. The thought of his siblings always going hungry struck a fear in him that pushed him to sneak out of the fences that surrounded the district.
It was here, in these woods, that he ever felt himself really smile. Not a smile he faked for his mother to show her he was happy, not the smile he faked for his brothers while wrestling, and not the smile he gave his baby sister Posy while making up stories of princesses and dragons. These smiles were reserved for one person and one person only, the love of his life.
He woke to her shaking his shoulder, agitated that she had lost so much valuable hunting time. Her sister had been having the same nightmare for a week, she always woke screaming, believing it was real and finally climbing in the bed with their mother. It was the same nightmare that Katniss had herself every year around this time.
The pending Hunger Games for this year had that effect on everyone. A boy and a girl from each of the 12 districts. 24 teenagers aged 12 to 18 to fight to the bitter death.
Katniss's dreams were never about herself like Prim's had been. Up until this year, her hunger games nightmares were always of Gale. Like her, he had always taken tesserae to feed his family. That, coupled with how old he was, he would have forty-two slips of paper in the reaping bowl today. She knew this, accepted it, and hated it in the same breath.
Gale was her hunting partner, the only person she really felt alive with. They could read each other's emotions like reading each other's handwriting. If the Capitol took him from her…it was unthinkable. She would survive, and she would do her best to keep both families alive, but it was too hard of a thought to process. She pushed it from her mind and addressed the half asleep 18 year old boy beside her.
"Gale, why didn't you start without me? You've lost at least an hour."
He smiled and ran his hand through his too-long black hair. She had the rough Seam look, coupled with four years of hard work to keep her family alive. He had the same look, both of them forced to grow up too quickly, to take parenting roles they didn't want.
"You know I do my best hunting with you, Catnip." She rolled her eyes at his nickname, "we can make double what we normally do anyway. It's Saturday."
She shrugged. The reaping would be tomorrow and they would have to make everything they caught this week last. It would be hard, it always was, but they'd make it through, just as they always did.
It was harder for him than it was for her; he had four mouths plus his own, she just had three total. When they were smaller, years and years ago, they split everything down the middle, no matter who shot what. But since Posy had reached toddler status, Katniss had been imposing more of the kills on Gale. He didn't like it, but he would take it.
He grabbed his bow, checked his snares from yesterday (which contained three perfectly plump rabbits), reset them, and started following Katniss on the left side, as always.
Five squirrels, another rabbit, a missed deer, a basket of blackberries and strawberries, and two fish later, they headed to the Hob. Normally they would go home to make lunch and come back to the woods, but the Mayor had informed them that the fence would go on around 4pm that afternoon and it would stay on until around 9am the next morning. Coming back on before 12 that day and staying on until the games were over.
They hid their bows and took their kills down to trade. They each kept a fish and split the rabbits evenly. They traded the baker two squirrels for two loaves of bread—not their usual trade, but the baker did feel sorry for them since it was the day before reaping day.
The mayor paid them several coins for the half the berries, Gale and Katniss split what was left up evenly. It would make for a nice celebration after Gale's last reaping. They took the coins, the three squirrels left, and walked into the Hob together.
The talk stopped when they entered, and upon seeing them, the whispers began. Gale knew they were the talk of the town. In fact, he had overheard several wagers on when they would get together or if they had already. He snorted, people loved wasting valuable money.
Not that he could tell anyone when or if they were meant to be. He loved Katniss in a way different than family, and he knew well enough to know that she didn't love him in the same way. He had only realized it himself six months prior. He was continuously shrugging it off, convincing himself it didn't matter. In the beginning, he had thrown himself at other girls, earning himself a name in the way he didn't really want to. 'King of the Slap Heap,' they had called him. Each girl giggling in his presence. He knew he was an attractive boy, the many girls had told him so. But eventually he had realized that glamour and good looks wasn't going to win over the heart of the girl he wanted most.
He had given her one thing, she had never judged him. She had ignored the stares of girls as they walked halls together, and walked to and from school. She had stood by his side no matter what awful or good thing they were saying about him. She regarded Gale as her family, and he knew that family was something she would never abandon.
They had traded for some ribbon for Prim's pet goat, a new set of colors for Posy, and Gale got ahold of a book for his brothers. Rory wasn't much of a reader, but the story was about knights in shining armor saving the fair princess from a sure and fiery death. Katniss had shook her head when he bought it. She didn't believe in fairy tales. The only happy ending she believed in was full stomach and plenty to eat.
As they started to walk home, Gale thought about taking her hand, and thought the better of it. It would all come in due time if it were meant to be. He settled for racing ahead of her and catching her off guard. "Catnip. Can you meet me in the woods tomorrow before the reaping? They won't turn on the fence till 9, and we're usually out of the woods by then. I'll meet you before daybreak at our rock."
She agreed, and they parted ways to their respected houses. Gale gave his mother the skinned and gutted rabbits, roasting some meat for tonight and putting the rest in a stew for tomorrow. He set aside the berries and the loaf of bread for the feast tomorrow evening with the Everdeens if all the children made it through the reaping.
After giving each of the children their gifts, he headed to bed. "Gale, is something wrong?" his mother called to him.
"Nope, early to bed, early to rise. Katniss and I are meeting up for some last minute hunting."
"She really is a sweet girl, Gale. It's your last reaping, maybe some good will come of it." She winked, releasing him to bed with his confused thoughts.
Across the Seam, she sat in her bed and thought the same thoughts he did. She wasn't stupid; she heard the whispers at the Hob and at school. She knew the other girls in town would sneer her name because Gale wasn't interested in anyone.
She heard the rumors and whispers, she just chose not to believe them. Gale never gave them a second thought, so neither did she. It was hard to believe that someone as devilishly good looking as Gale Hawthorne would fall for someone as plain as she. And that's what she was when she wasn't in school. She wore plain clothes and dresses, made her hair in the same braid every day, didn't piddle with make up or other novelties that cost money.
But when she was in the woods, she was a predator, they both were. Her every move was deadly for the animals surrounding them. she was lightning fast with a bow, and deadly accurate. But for every quality she listed that made her dangerous, Gale was her equal. His light, sure fingers made death traps for unsuspecting creatures. His mind found the places the snares were most sure to work. He wasn't near as accurate as she was with a bow, but his was always the second shot to help her take down big game.
He completed her as a hunter, it was as a person that she was unsure of.
Her confusion didn't last for long, she soon drifted off, haunted by the Capitol's means of taking away her best friend and the rest of her family.