Winter has come early to the Seam this year. Cold wind sweeps in from the north and residents mutter about last year's winter, judged one of the harshest anyone had seen. No one wants to believe that this year could be worse.
Gale has been teaching Katniss how to set snares. They're working on a switch-up trap, the same snare Gale had rigged the day Katniss, curious and hungry, came across it in the woods. Gale watches as Katniss crouches over the snare, her small fingers fumbling at the twisted wire.
"Here," he says. "Let me show you."
She hands it to him and he begins to sing under his breath.
"What are you singing?" she asks, never taking her eyes off his fingers as they nimbly twist the wires.
"It's a tune my father taught me when he was first showing me how to build snares. It's a memory rhyme for tying knots into wire. See, watch my hands as I sing:
Over, under, numbered three,
Weaving wires once set free,
Around the knot and tie a bow
To snare and keep your heart for me."
Katniss watches intently. He puts the completed snare aside and hands her another pile of wire and twigs. "Try again."
The traps have been completed and set. Gale and Katniss eat a mid-afternoon meal of coarse, dark bread and dried fruit and settle in to see if their snares are successful. Gale usually leaves the rigged area entirely when hunting alone, choosing to gather berries or greens and swinging back later to pick up any unlucky game. Katniss wants to wait closer today, eager to discover if her mornings' work pays off.
Crouching in the shade after a meal is drowsy work and Gale becomes aware that Katniss' breathing has evened out. He looks over at the tree next to him and sees her, curled up amidst the dry Autumn leaves that had collected between the big roots, eyes closed. She murmurs and makes a quiet, sleepy noise, looking and sounding younger than her 11 years. Gale lies on his back and watches clouds move slowly against the blue sky. Katniss mumbles something and Gale rolls over to tell her it's time to go before realizing she is talking in her sleep, eyes still closed. Her words resolve into, "'Round the knot and tie a bow," and Gale's lips curve into a slow smile, not realizing it's one of the first he's allowed himself since his father died. He turns onto his back once more and gazes at the sky. Checking the snares can wait; he lets Katniss sleep.
Gale is waiting for Katniss in their usual place. It's cold and the sky is threatening snow, though the early-morning sun can be seen just above the horizon. He checks a few snares laid out the day before - they've nabbed one rabbit and a squirrel. Slim fare but the day's hunting should yield more. If he can find Katniss. They don't hunt together every day but lately it's been more often than not. She's a good partner, for as young as she is. She has no choice but to hunt, especially with her mother not working. Gale's heard things from his mother and other people who trade at the Hob; gossip moves quickly in such a small town and if some of the deals Katniss makes on her wares are skewed to her favor, Gale says nothing, knowing just as they know that one day Katniss won't need any help making ends meet. Her skills with a bow could match that of a Peacekeeper if tried, though Gale would never tell her that.
It's the thought of Peacekeepers that reminds Gale what day it is. One year ago, in an even colder January, the mine blast occurred that killed both their fathers. Gale hadn't truly forgotten - how could he? He had just been so focused on having a good hunting day with Katniss. Finding something worthwhile to trade.
He kicks at a clump of clotted snow and branches, disturbing some pine needles. Katniss probably hasn't been here at all. There will be a one year anniversary ceremony in the public square later today. They are to be dressed and present in the town square at precisely two o'clock to participate in a moment of silence and remembrance for the men lost in the blast. For their fathers. The village only does this for large-scale mine accidents, not for the one-off deaths that still occur all too often underground.
Maybe Katniss is at home getting dressed right now, braiding her hair and smoothing down Prim's ribbons. Probably she is trying to coax her mother out of bed. It wouldn't look good for only Katniss and Prim to attend the ceremony.
As Gale walks the perimeter of their meeting place he notices small indentations in the snow deeper in the trees, away from their outcropping of rocks. Katniss had been here; she must have slipped under the fence while it was still dark. Gale follows her tracks silently. They head deeper into the forest and Gale hears a voice and pauses before reaching a small clearing within the trees.
It's Katniss. Her cheeks are red, as if she's been crying, but her eyes are dry now. She's talking to someone.
"I've put my name in for extra tesserae this year." She pauses. Gale tries to see who she's talking to and closes his eyes when he realizes.
"I know you made me promise not to do it but I didn't know what else to do. We were hungry and Mother wasn't there, not really, and you weren't there and I was worried that Prim would leave, too. I was worried she would stay in bed with Mother all the time and there would be no one left," her voice catches and Katniss swipes angrily at her nose with a mittened hand.
"But I've been working with the bow and arrows. I know it's only been a year but I can take down squirrels in one shot now, most of the time. And I'm learning how to make snares. There's a boy who's teaching me. You knew his father. From the mine." Katniss paces around the circle of the glade. "You would like him. His father taught him how to make snares and now he's teaching me. So I'm teaching him how to use the bow and how to find catnip tubers in the pond and which plants are good to eat. I might give him one of our bows if he gets good enough. I hope you don't mind."
Katniss picks up a handful of snow and presses it against her cheek, cooling her face. She takes a deep breath. Gale realizes he's been holding his in. He backs away from the glade silently as Katniss picks up the one-sided conversation again.
Gale and Katniss are picking wild plums. It's raining slowly, a persistent drizzle.
"How do you think your father died?" Katniss asks, not looking at Gale.
"What?" He asks, sharply.
"I'm sorry, that came out wrong," Katniss replies, turning to look at Gale, who is scowling into his basket of plums.
"Yeah, it did," his voice is clipped and terse.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean-"
"You know how my father died. He died four years ago, the same as yours. Noise, fire, explosion. Why are you asking me this?"
"Because sometimes I try to imagine what it was like. For my father. Did he die instantly? Did he have time to realize that something was happening, was he afraid? Did he have time to think of us or did he blink out like the TV when the power goes off?"
"Catnip," Gale reaches out and puts his hand on her arm. "You know you can't."
She keeps her face down, bites her lip. "I know but it helps."
Gale goes back to picking plums, his face closed off. "No, it doesn't. It just makes it harder to move on."
"How would you have wanted your father to die?"
"Oh, I don't know, like anyone would want to die - old and grey and surrounded by babies. Except in this District there wouldn't be anything to feed the babies. The fewer babies the better, he would think."
They continue in silence until its time for lunch. They each eat a handful of small plums, the dusty thin skin breaking against their teeth. The flesh is sweet and cool. They will trade a basket with the baker for new bread. His wife will make them into tarts that neither of them will ever eat.
Gale breaks the silence. He is looking at Katniss intently and she flushes a little. They know as much as can be known about each other from hours spent in the woods. But sometimes Gale's demeanor changes, becomes more serious, and Katniss isn't sure why this makes her heart catch a little.
"If something happens to one of us, if you get chosen at the reaping and are sent to the Capital to win District 12 glory and fame in the Hunger Games," Gale takes on the affected accent of the Capital but there is bite beneath the clipped lightness of his words, "I promise I'll look after them."
Katniss doesn't even pause, as if she's been meaning to say this for years. "And, while the odds are ever in your favor," Katniss takes on Effie Trinket's high-pitched catch phrase, "If you find yourself in the most honorable arena I'll bring them fresh game every day, I swear my life by it." Her voice is harsh and her eyes are hard as she looks back at Gale.
"Okay." He says. He takes her arm and pulls her into him so she leans with her head against his chest. They sit under the plum trees, in the quiet rain.
Katniss sighs and closes her eyes against the worn material of his jacket. "Okay. It's a promise."
This year Gale remembers the date. There is no anniversary celebration - there never is after that first, hard year. If the survivors even make it through that year. Sometimes entire families are gone. The other parent dead, either from illness or accident, and the children sent to the shared homes where their guardians may or may not allow them to attend. Five years out - only people who lost family even remember the date of this particular mine accident. There are too many other dates to remember.
He leaves his house early, in the dark. He carries a wrapped bundle along with his pack. He had kept the hides aside from the last few rabbits he caught and traded in the Hob. The last several evenings had been spent scraping and treating them until they were soft and supple. He sewed the pieces together to make a scarf. The colors alternate in patches; subtle camouflage that would also highlight Katniss' long dark hair.
Gale is lost in thought as he reaches the fence, barely pausing to make sure the electric current is deactivated. He startles when Katniss grabs his wrist.
"What are you doing here?" She asks; accusatory.
Gale is caught off-guard. "I'm - I knew you'd be here. Because of the day. I knew you'd come out early to talk to him."
"You heard me talking to my father? You eavesdropped on me?" Her voice is hurt and cold and Gale's breath catches in his throat.
"No, Catnip, I only heard you once. The first year; we had just met and I was looking for you to go hunting. I didn't want to be alone that day, I don't think, though I had somehow forced myself to not remember what it was. I found you in the glade, the one by the lake, and left you alone once I realized you were okay."
"But you knew I went there every year?" Her voice is quieter than usual.
Gale nods. "It's somewhere he used to take you, isn't it?" He asks.
"Yes," Katniss replies. "There was a patch of wild garlic and he liked to go out in early spring, before it was full grown, to harvest the tops for salads."
Gale nods again but doesn't speak.
"This is stupid," she says. "It's not like he can even hear me. And Mother and Prim will want to go to the District memorial marker later in the day. But I only go back to that glade on this day of the year. I don't even go back for the garlic though Mother always loved the taste... I'm sorry I never told you," she trails off and looks at him, eyes guarded.
"Catnip, it's your place. Yours and his. Now go, and catch up. Don't tell him too many lies about me!" He grins and she slowly smiles back, sticking her tongue out at him.
Gale suddenly feels awkward. "Here," he hands her the package containing the scarf. "Do you know how many arrows I would have wasted trying to get at these rabbits before you taught me the right way to hold a bow? Not to mention the one you gave me to keep."
Katniss opens the package and runs her fingers over the soft fur. "Gale," she looks up at him. "Thank you."
"Now go. I'll see if I can gather some of the rose hips your mother uses for tea. I'll be here when you get back."
She nods and turns to go, settling the scarf over her shoulders.
"And Katniss," Gale says. She looks at him. "Tell him I said, 'Thanks.'"