Notes at the bottom. I own nothing.
As usual, she was up before the sun. The best time to hunt was always this early, before the game finished moving to a new hiding place. No matter how many years had passed since her hunting had meant the difference between starvation and survival, she would always wake before the dawn and always be drawn to the woods before sunlight had a chance to light up the forest dew.
Between her husband's fervored baking and the renewed resources in the district, they could get by without the game she brought home every day. But she still hunted for survival - not the physical kind, but mental. It gave her mind something to focus on, even on the worst days. It was the same reason Peeta always baked extra after a particularly bad day. It was how they survived, even together.
Years of habit made her enter the woods at the same spot she did when she was twelve years old, even though there were no longer any fences to duck under, no Peacekeepers to hide from. This was the route she knew, not by memory but by heart. She had walked it with her father, she had walked it with Gale, and some days when the weather was good and his leg didn't hurt, she walked it with Peeta.
From her usual entry point, there were a few routes she could take. No longer having to hide her presence in the forest meant she could scope out several trails, each leading to various hunting spots or places to forage and fish. Today she took a different route. Maybe there was a certain scent in the wind that drew her there, or perhaps it was the way the twilight danced in the trees, beckoning her. She wasn't sure why she took this path, but she was compelled to walk to the blind where she and Gale used to wait together.
They didn't just wait there, sitting silently to watch for prey. They taught each other what they knew - first about hunting and foraging, then survival of a different kind. It was their friendship that helped Katniss through so many hard days and hungry nights, before two slips of paper in a glass bowl changed everything. But so many years had passed since they last saw each other one terrible day in the Capitol, and Katniss had neither the knowledge nor the impulse to fix what was broken.
Katniss had done her best to avoid their old hunting blind ever since her return to District Twelve so many years ago. They say time heals all wounds, but that's not necessarily true. It just covers them, until a reminder rips it open and the pain is fresh again. There were still days when she could not get out of bed, paralyzed with sadness over all she and Peeta had lost. There were still days when Peeta fought off the flashbacks and the episodes. But it wasn't time that had given them the strength to move forward, to remind themselves of everything good in the world. It was the love they had for each other.
She could not have healed with Gale - she was certain of this. But there was still a part of her that felt empty on the rare occasion that she passed their old spot, because their friendship was one of the things she had lost. She avoided the blind because it was always empty, and it still hurt to see that her old friend was not there, waiting for her.
Except today, he was.
He looked older, already showing slight flecks of grey along his temples, and the faintest of lines beginning to crease his forehead and mouth. But he was still undeniably Gale, with the fire and strength that he brought to everything he did. He sat behind their blackberry bush, turning and smiling at her before she could approach him. She rubbed her eyes, so sure that she was imagining his presence.
"Hey, Catnip," he said.
She closed her eyes for a moment because it was suddenly too much, the memories of a simpler, harder time washing over her. "No one's called me that in a long time."
"I'm glad," he said, kindness in his voice. "I'd always hoped that I was the only one who called you that."
"You were. You are." She sat next to him on the weathered rock, a movement her body still remembered. "What are you doing here?"
"I got here late last night, and I can only stay a little bit. But I had to see this place before I go. And you - I wanted to see you, too," he said, his smile turning into something both happy and sad at the same time.
"How are you?" she asked. She meant it - she wanted to know that he was okay. She needed him to be okay.
"I'm doing all right now. I'm finally happy," he said, turning to look at the first hints of the sun peeking over the horizon. "I spent so much time being hurt, then angry, and channeling that into destruction, and all it did was make me angrier. I realized too late that it was better to forgive and make peace."
"How did you come to realize that?" she asked. Did he have someone who helped him heal, as she did with Peeta? The thought didn't bother her like it used to - in fact, she was hopeful for him.
"It just... happened," he said. He turned to look at her, and took in the sight of her face, aged but still beautiful in her own way. "I used to have nightmares every night. About the district being bombed, and the war. And her," he admitted.
"Me too," she said. "About her. The war. The arenas. Just, everything. I still do, sometimes."
He nodded, finally seeming to understand the torment sleep had brought her after the Games. She studied his face and realized that the fire and anger she thought was there was actually gone. He seemed so peaceful, the burden of fighting for survival finally lifted from his shoulders.
"Please tell me about your life. Are you happy?" she asked.
"Yes," he said. "In District Two, I was a big hot shot, you know." He gave her a sly smile that probably melted a thousand hearts in his district.
"I do know," she said, teasing. "You still are. Saw you on TV a couple of times."
"Oh yeah? How did I look?"
"Camera-ready, as always." Her mind flashed with a memory of the Star Squad, and she quickly pushed it away. Not now, she thought.
"How about you, Catnip? Are you happy?" he asked, his tone turned serious.
"I am, most of the time," she admitted. "Some days... they're still hard. But there are more good ones than bad."
"Heard you got married," he said, a teasing smile creeping over his lips.
She laughed a little, and nodded. "I did. We did. Got married about ten, fifteen years ago. We're happy."
His smile was genuine. "I'm happy for you. Truly, Catnip. If there are any two people who deserve happiness after everything, it's you and Peeta."
Hot tears burned in her eyes, threatening to spill. "Thank you, Gale. But you... you deserve to be happy too," she said.
"Do you mean that? Even after Prim?" he asked, searching her eyes for any sign of animosity.
She nodded and wiped at her eyes with the heel of her hand. "You do. We all do."
"Thank you," he said. "That means a lot to me. I can't tell you how much that means to me."
"Did you find someone?" she asked. He knew what she meant. She wanted to know if he ever found someone who loved him as he deserved, not someone torn between duty and pain and in love with someone else.
The sadness in his smile returned. "I found a few someones. But they never worked out, not in the long run. I was too busy and too broken to let that kind of love in my life. I regret that."
"There's still time, Gale," she said.
He looked back to the slowly illuminating sky.
She studied his profile, still not truly believing that he was right there in front of her as if nothing had happened. "I always wondered what would happen if I ever saw you again. I was scared that I would be angry, or just lose it or shut down. But I'm happy, Gale. And I'm happy for you," she said, wiping more tears away with the edge of her sleeve.
"Then why are you crying?" he asked, smirking at her from the corner of his eye.
"Shut up, I can cry when I'm happy," she said. "And my hormones..." She paused and took a deep breath. "I'm pregnant, Gale."
His face filled with joy as he turned back to face her. "How far along?"
"About thirteen weeks. Not enough to show that much, but enough to throw up and cry all the time," she joked.
He laughed. "It will get better. Posy felt better in her second trimester."
"Posy has a kid?! Posy is four!" she said incredulously.
"Not anymore. She's a mother now to a three year old boy, and has another kid on the way. Vick got married a few years ago. Rory joined the military and is in District Five now."
"When did everyone grow up?" she asked, feeling very old at the moment.
He shrugged. "Probably around the same time we did." He smiled and turned back to the dawn. "Of course, Hazelle loves being a grandmother. Your mom will love being a grandmother, too."
She nodded. "She already does. She's been knitting like crazy and sending me vitamins. It's nice - she's sort of taking care of me, and the baby."
"I'm glad. She never stopped being your mom, you know. And I'm glad she's making up for the past."
She bit her lip, something she did often these days so that the brief pinch of pain could ground her to the present. "I'm scared, Gale."
"Why?" he asked, looking at her again. She found it hard to avoid his gaze.
"I know the Games are over, and the war. But I'm still so scared of what kind of world I'm bringing this child in to. I'm so scared that I won't be able to protect this child from what we went through," she admitted.
"You won't be able to protect your child from everything," he said. "But you can teach them, and show them what's right and wrong, and love them without restraint. That's the best thing a parent can do. And no one can do that better than you can, Catnip."
She reached out and grasped his hand, the familiar weight feeling good in her hand. "Thank you. For everything. For helping me and my family. For being here now."
He smiled, and squeezed his hand around hers. "You better get moving if you want to hunt."
She nodded. "Do you want to come?"
"I can't. It's time for me to go," he said calmly.
She thought about trying to convince him to stay, but something told her that he was right - he did have to go.
"Take care of yourself - and your family," she said. "You'll always be my friend, Gale."
His smile reflected the new day's sun. "And you'll always be mine, Catnip."
She stood up and dusted her pants off. "Will I see you again?" she asked, hopeful.
"I don't know. I hope so, though."
He reached out and hugged her briefly before letting go and stepping back out of the blind and away from her. "It's time to go."
She nodded, and without another word turned back towards the trail towards the lake.
"Catnip!" he shouted. She turned around and looked at him, already far in the distance even though she had only taken a few steps.
"I'll tell them all you said hi," he said. She smiled at the thought of his family. His siblings were all grown up now, and Hazelle was a grandmother. Time had marched on despite her resistance, and she felt warm inside thinking of their happiness.
"Send them my love, please." she shouted back. He smiled and nodded.
Katniss started again towards the lake, but stopped because she thought she had to take one last look. She was suddenly struck by the fear that she would never see him again. But when she turned around, he was already gone.
She ran back up the trail towards where he was, but there was no sign of him. Not that she expected there would be. He had always had a gift for stealth, and she had to admit it was comforting to think that some things never changed.
The sun had just finished clearing the horizon, but she didn't feel like hunting anymore. It had already been an exhausting morning. She decided instead to walk back home and forage what she could on the way.
An hour later, she walked through the front door of her home - her and Peeta's home, she thought with a smile - with a sackful of greens and berries. She was surprised to find Peeta in their living room with the television on - by this time of day, he was usually elbow deep in flour and dough, baking goods to share with the district.
"What's going on?" she asked.
He turned to her with a start, his face ashen and his eyes wide. "Katniss, it's... I just heard it on the news."
She dropped the sack on the nearest table and rushed to him. "What is it? Are you okay? What happened?"
He held her hands and stared into her eyes, silently willing her to look at him and not the television. Not yet.
He was so tense, and she worried he was on the verge of an episode. She turned her hands in his and held them to her belly, a calming reminder to them both of what was real. He took a deep breath and spoke quietly, no more than a whisper to her.
"It's Gale. He was in a hovercraft heading to another district last night and it crashed. Katniss, it... he died in the crash, baby."
She shook her head, confused. "No, no. That can't be true. I just saw...," and before she could finish her sentence, the news report came back on television. "In case you're just now joining us, we are saddened to report the death of war hero and Panem's Minister of Defense, Gale Hawthorne. He and two soldiers were killed instantly late last night when their hovercraft crashed into the mountain ridge bordering the southern boundary of District Seven. Initial reports show that engine failure may have been the cause of the crash."
He had seemed so peaceful.
It's time for me to go, Catnip.
I'll tell them you said hi.
And she knew now that he hadn't meant his family.
Thanks to bleedtoloveher, wollaston and sunfish-dunes for not hating me after I told them this very evil idea I had for a fanfic. I'm on tumblr (fnurfnur) if you want to yell at me.