Disclaimer: I own nothing.
The unpopular opinion: I adore Gale Hawthorne.
"Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."
Exactly three months and six days after the Capitol falls, Gale gets a package from Annie. Inside is a square picture of a baby boy with peach fuzz on the top of his head, the blurred image of somebody's long, bony fingers holding him up caught in the left-hand corner.
"Meet Finn Nickolas Odair!" reads the messy scrawl on the back. "He's your godson." There's a tiny postscript at the bottom that says, "Finnick would've liked that, I think."
Finnick would've liked to be alive, he says in his head. He doesn't write it down or say it aloud. The girl is mad enough, anyway.
He hates testing out bombs at his new job in District Two.
The ground shakes, and it's like that day when his hands became permanently stained with blood. Every time, he remembers wide blue eyes, panicked hands, the sound of stomping feet —
And the aftermath of rubbish grounds, ash replacing bodies, the stench of death. And Katniss's eyes, unforgiving.
He closes his eyes as the smoke fills the air. When the ground is still again and his boss claps him on the back and rewards him for being gifted with the power to kill so well — only then can he breathe.
His nightmares are all of virgin snow, drops of blood, and blonde pigtails.
He wakes up at three in the morning every night, pale blue eyes flashing behind his eyelids, and he stumbles through his dark apartment clumsily, wide hands out in front of him — searching, searching, for what he doesn't know.
A rug catches his foot and he tumbles to the ground. The shiny wood floors — too perfect, too perfect — are freezing against his bare, unshaven cheek.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he sobs against his hands. Survivor's guilt makes him fall asleep trembling, shaking, his dreams still filled with the young girl who looks nothing like the one he'd loved so long ago, crying and dying so quick and untimely.
You killed me, she screams. It's nothing like how it'd been when she was — alive.
I'm sorry, he says again. It doesn't count — it'll never count — because she's dead now, Gale, and you'll never know whose blood is under your fingernails, not anymore.
"You look like death," his coworker tells him in the morning.
I wish, he thinks.
He buys primroses, and plants them in flowerboxes, all around his house.
It's a little girly for his taste, but he likes the smell of them, and how they look, a pale yellow, against his dark wallpaper.
They make him feel a little less lonely.
Maybe it's because he's tired of locking himself up all the time, but —
He has people over for dinner one day. It's not a lot of people — just Johanna, Beetee, Annie, and little Finn Nickolas — but it's enough to fill the empty apartment with voices and sounds and something more than oxygen and his own self-pity.
They watch as Annie demonstrates Finn Nickolas's newest skill of walking and for the first time in a long time, he laughs, clear and true. They all laugh.
And he stares across the table at them — the survivors, a rag-tag team of unlikely friends — and thinks he doesn't have to live in his own self-made prison. That he's just as guilty as any of them. They've all committed the same crime.
He catches Annie in his bedroom, knotting up the curtains. He's about to tell her that Finn Nickolas needs to be changed, when she falls to her knees, the opaque fabric tangled up in her hands.
She cries in his lap. Her tears turn his shirt dark.
When she sits up, her eyes are so tortured and lonely that he just tucks her back under his chin and she cries even more.
He doesn't mind — in a way, really, they're all as mad as she.
Johanna stays over the whole night, and he loses himself in her tuft of brown hair, her large brown eyes, her ruthless nips and bites and the way she's so determined to make them both forget their sins.
"Do you think there's a hell?" she whispers to him bluntly, the hint of a crazy smirk on her lips and he knows that on the inside she's just as mental as Annie Odair, with the baby boy who looks so much like Finnick, only she's drowning in her own psychosis. Drowning from the inside out.
He waits for a second to pass to answer. "I think we're already living in it," he tells her flatly.
"No — hell would look like the ocean." She stares up at the ceiling, and he traces patterns on her bruised hips. "And I — I never quite learned how to float."
"I killed someone." He puts his hand to the mirror. "I killed Prim Everdeen." He thinks that even if the latter isn't true, the former still is for sure, and that's what matters.
Johanna snakes her thin arms around his waist, and puts her chin on his shoulder.
"You should hate me," he mutters shamefully.
"There's no use for hate anymore," she says back, and kisses him.
Still, he loves the little girl with the blonde hair and blue eyes and the smell of flowers on her dresses, even though he maybe possibly probably killed her.
He has a nightmare that takes him back to when he was eighteen years old, but this time he's reaped, and Prim is his partner, and when he wakes up he's still crying.
That was her fate, he realises. No matter what she would've died. No matter what, everyone will die, eventually.
He washes his hands of the blood, finally, after so long carrying the weight of the world on his back.
Prim, her thin, smiling face, never quite leaves him.
He stops being a coward, and goes back — not for a long time, just for Christmas, but it's enough to count.
His mother kisses him, and his siblings hug him so tight that his knees buckle, and they all pile on top of him. Posy cries when she opens her present — a gorgeous porcelain doll from District One with the same shade of red her hair is — and his brothers roar as he tells them stories of his work in the military. His mother tucks him into bed at night and kisses his forehead a thousand times and he doesn't have a nightmare, not even once.
The next morning, he gets up early as not to lose his courage, and he goes to the dark ash that once was the Everdeen home. There's a field of primroses planted on the remains, and there he falls to his knees and kisses the ground.
It's okay, Prim whispers, I never blamed you.
Thank you thank you thank you, he chants in his head.
Life is about choices.
Choices are about war.
War is about death.
Death is about forgiveness.
And forgiveness is about sacrifices.
Gale knows this now.
He shows up to the Victor's Village, a newly-hunted turkey in one hand and a sheepish smile on his face.
"Friends?" he murmurs to Katniss.
Her face is unsure and distrusting, but Peeta behind her smiles — no naivety in his face, but only maturity. Finally, she smiles too, soft and scared, but a smile nonetheless.
"Forever," she whispers back.
He'll love the little girl with the blonde pigtails and blue eyes forever, he decides.
It's what she deserves.