Disclaimer: I do not own The Hunger Games or any of its characters.
Gale Hawthorne tips the bottle back, swallowing another sip of white liquor. It doesn't sting anymore.
No matter how much he drinks, how often, he still sees the flames. They flash before his eyes every time he blinks. The sounds of screaming and the feeling of the shaking ground when the buildings collapsed pull him from his slumber night after night.
It wasn't this bad before, not when he was a Mockingjay solider fighting in the war. He had too much on his mind to think about that wretched night. Gale had to strategize, he had to protect Katniss, he had to win. Now, with the never-ending stretch of lonely nights before him, the firebombing is ever so fresh in his mind.
Everything only got worse the day Thom called. He told Gale that they found all of their bodies under a pile of ceiling tiles and floorboards, covered in ash and trapped. Thom confirmed the only thing Gale had prayed to be false.
Gale's been called the hero of District 12, the way he saved all those people from the planes that flaunted the Capitol symbol. They're wrong. He didn't save anyone. He didn't save the person who mattered.
"What's on your mind, Handsome?" Gale lifts his gaze and meets that of Johanna Mason. He's used to her stopping by every once in awhile, checking up on her favorite solider. She has her own key. Her hair has grown out a bit; she's fallen into a sort of peace with herself. "That's your second bottle of the night."
Gale scrunches his nose in response, it's not like she's complained before. He watches her glide onto the armchair across from him, lifting her feet up to the table with ease. Her brown eyes study the bottle he clutches so tightly his knuckles are turning white, and that's pretty damn difficult for a boy from the Seam.
"Nothing," he finally forces out. Nothing important. Nothing she should concern herself with. Nothing that matters.
Johanna raises an eyebrow. "You're not much of a liar, Hawthorne." Gale's gray eyes find hers and she smirks. "Don't worry, I won't tell anyone."
There's a pause. Gale takes another swig of the liquor. The bottle's almost empty now.
"Everyone dies," he growls. Johanna readjusts herself in her seat, that wasn't what she expected. "Everyone dies and I'm fucking sick of it."
"Tell me about it," she hums. She crosses her arms as though she's bored, but the way she leans forward shows that she's waiting for more.
"First Madge," Gale snaps, clutching the bottle tighter in his hands. "Finnick, Prim," he spits out their names as if they're lethal. "And—"
Johanna rests her elbow on her knee. "Who's Madge?" Gale blinks a few times, loosening his grip on the bottle that's sure to break if he keeps at it. A haze drifts over his eyes and he leans back in his chair, letting out a deep breath before shaking his head. "You said Madge," Johanna repeats slowly. "Who's that?"
"No one," he answers. His voice is so quiet, so pitifully soft, that he almost feels sorry for himself. He would feel sorry for himself if he could feel anything anymore.
Madge. Madge Undersee. The damn mayor's daughter. Madge Undersee and her long golden hair that was bright like the sun. Madge Undersee and her soft pink lips that never actually tasted like strawberries. Madge Undersee and her stupid fucking piano that she could get to make the most beauteous noises he had ever heard.
"No one," Gale repeats angrily, although Johanna didn't ask again.
He glares down at the glass bottle in his hands and chucks it against the nearest wall, releasing a scream of anguish in the process. Glass shatters and the small amount of liquid left in the bottle drips into a puddle. The noise should startle Johanna but it doesn't, she only readjusts herself in the seat again and fixates her gaze on him.
Gale drops his head into his hands and takes a deep breath. She's no one. Not anymore. She's just a lifeless corpse, a distant memory. Cold fingers and cold toes, crystal blue eyes that will never see again.
"You loved her," Johanna notes carefully, waiting for Gale to surface back to reality. He shakes his head no in his hands. "Then you still do," she corrects herself. He swallows thickly and nods yes, eventually bringing his head back up.
He had lasted so long without thinking of her. Gale would focus his memories on anything, anyone but her. Her name, her face, her body. Too sweet for words, too tragic for thoughts. His eyes prick with tears that he won't let fall in Johanna's presence. He won't let the Victor see him cry, won't let her break his shell.
Oh, but it's broken. It's been broken since that night. He had always known she didn't make it out no matter how hard much he had hoped.
"I thought you loved Katniss," Johanna quips. "A lot of people thought you did."
"I thought I did too," Gale returns. His voice is scratchy; he takes a moment to swallow back his guilt. "But that's what happens. You spend all your damn time thinking you love someone and then it hits you like a damn brick when you realize it's been someone else all along." Again Gale shakes his head. "And then it's too fucking late to do anything about it."
They had kissed twice, Madge and Gale. The first time was right after Katniss left for the Games the first time and he had a hole in his stomach that he needed to fill. She didn't mind. They never spoke of it. The second time was a few nights before the bombing, and it was different. It stirred up something inside him, a desperation, a certain need for the girl with the strawberries. It was reassuring, it was pure passion.
"Tell me about her," Johanna instructs. And when Johanna wants something, she gets it.
"I hate her," Gale responds. "I hate her more than I've ever hated anyone." His hands ache for something else to throw, for something to break, but he finds nothing. Johanna realizes his frustration and quickly crosses the room, nestling herself next to him and grabbing his hand tightly. He squeezes back, only because he can't figure out what else to do with himself. "She was too…" he trails off, the words getting caught in his throat.
No. He doesn't want to talk about Madge. He doesn't want to think about her or remember her or have anything to do with her. She's dead. She doesn't matter anymore.
"It'll help," Johanna whispers. "Trust me."
"She was too good," he chokes out. The muscles in his jaw clench as he forces himself to swallow, swallow. It's what Gale does, he hides it away. Johanna gives him another squeeze, nodding her head to show that it's alright. "She was too good," he repeats. "Too good for me."
Too good for Gale. Too good for District 12. Too good to die.
"She never asked questions," he continues weakly, his words shaking as they echo in the empty room. His head aches, telling him it's okay to cry, but it's not. His temples throb. "She was quiet," he drops his voice. "Could always figure things out on her own. Didn't need me to tell her anything. She just knew, she always knew. What to say, when to say it," Gale sucks in a sharp breath and tears his hand from Johanna's. "I can't," he whimpers, dropping his head back into his hands. "I can't."
Madge was too kind, too soft and gentle. Her hand always managed to find its way to his, soft piano playing fingers that laced with his for a breath of fresh air. Gale always wanted to pull out of her grip but couldn't bring himself to do it.
"What'd she look like?" Johanna inquires as she rests her hand on his shoulder. Gale shakes his head before lifting it. He knows Johanna's caught him with his chin quivering. "I bet she was pretty."
"Johanna," he pleads.
"Maybe a brunette," she continues.
"Blonde," Gale corrects. The word escapes him like it's the worst thing he's ever heard. "Golden, even." Again his voice drops. He wishes he didn't throw the bottle, he could use another swig. If Johanna's surprised she doesn't act it, continuing to rub soothing pattern on his arm. "Bright blue eyes," he whispers, urging his voice not to crack. "Curious as all get out."
"Was she tall?"
"Forehead came up to my chin," Gale says. And then he laughs, just once. And then his eyes fill with water again. "Always made fun of her for it."
"Doesn't sound like your type," Johanna tells him. "I always figured you'd go after the feisty ones."
He shakes his head, "She could argue if she wanted to. Too damn good at it for her own good." He turns to Johanna, refusing to meet her eyes. "Why are you doing this to me?"
"So you don't do it to yourself," she responds softly.
Gale locks his jaw, returning his gaze to the corner of his coffee table. Johanna isn't one to care about things like this. Nothing serious. It was never anything serious with Gale. They'd drink, and they'd laugh, and every once in awhile they'd crawl into bed when it got too late, but nothing serious like this. No talking, no emotions.
"I never told her," Gale finally says. The breath he takes is ragged; he's lost the ability to breathe. "How much I cared for her, I never told her. She died thinking I hated her, that I was using her." He jerks his head into a no and doesn't even try to stop the tears. "I was supposed to save her," he whimpers, dropping his head onto Johanna's shoulder. "I was supposed to protect her."
"Gale," she murmurs, resting her hand against his cheek. "You can't blame yourself."
"It's my fault," he breaks, his body shaking as he tries to steady himself. "It's my fault."
"It's not," she stresses. Johanna lifts his chin and forces him to look at her. "Gale, it's not your fault."
He gazes into her deep brown eyes a long time, trying to unravel Johanna Mason. His heart aches, the back of his throat is tight, and his lungs feel like they're filled with water. Her hand caresses his cheek and her lips lift into a tiny smile. She lifts her fingers to catch one of his tears.
"You don't care," he sharply pulls his chin from her grip. "Why should you? You haven't before."
"I've lost people too, Gale," Johanna frowns. Her arms tighten across her chest. "And it was my fault. I know the difference." He returns his stare to her, blinking back the tears that threaten to spill. "This girl, this Madge, if she's as perfect as you say she, as perceptive, then she knows. She knows you loved her, she knows you tried to get her." Gale opens his mouth to speak but she shakes her head. "And that's what matters."
"It hurts like hell, I know it does, but you're stronger than this." Gale lets his eyes shut and takes a deep breath, nodding once. "You have to say goodbye, Gale." His eyes remain shut but again he nods. "I didn't know her, but I'm sure she wouldn't want you getting wasted every night like this." Another nod. Johanna's right. "She's in a better place."
"With strawberries," he whispers.
"With strawberries," she agrees.
"And pianos," he chokes. "And pink ribbons. And meadows." Johanna nods and Gale eases his eyes open. "And she knows," he whimpers. "She knows I love her."
"Yes, she does," Johanna whispers. "Now let her go." So he takes a deep breath, and he closes his eyes again, and he conjures her image. Moments pass before Gale opens his eyes and forces the weakest smile he can manage. "There you are," she pats his shoulder. "That wasn't so hard, was it?"
He shakes his head no, but it's a lie. Because he's still holding on. He doesn't want to let go of the only girl he's ever truly loved. But Johanna doesn't need to know that.