AN: I started writing this tonight and couldn't sleep until I finish. Please excuse any mistakes. I was inspired by the recent release of Gale Song from the Catching Fire soundtrack, but this has also been in my head since I finished the books. How did Gale really handle life after the war? And what if he wasn't able to put himself back together? So, this is it. Reviews are always appreciated!
I couldn't know what's in your mind.
But I saw the pictures, you're looking fine.
And there was a time when I stood in line for love, for love, for love.
But I let you go, I let you go.
And you fell apart with this broken heart and this blood, this blood, this blood.
Oh, it drains from my skin, it does.
-Gale Song, The Lumineers
I wasn't expecting Hazelle Hawthorne to show up at my door. To be honest, I never expected to see her again. I kept tabs on her long enough to make sure her and her family were taken care of. Of course, I shouldn't have bothered. Even if Gale's not here, I know he would never leave his family unattended. So I let myself drop out of the Hawthornes' lives. But now it's a year after the war and Hazellele is standing in my doorway, but she can't meet my eyes.
"Hazelle?" I ask, making sure to keep my voice soft. I don't want to alert Peeta. "Is everything okay?"
My thoughts immediately turn to Gale. All I can think is that something happened to him. He's hurt, or he's dead, and Hazelle has come here to tell me. In those few seconds of silence, I realize how much I still care.
"I need your help," she says. She finally meets my gaze. "It's Gale."
My stomach drops. I'm sure my heart stops. All those years of friendship flash through my mind at once. The first day we met. The first time her made me laugh until I cried. Sitting in our spot, tossing berries into the air, forgetting for just a few hours that we lived our lives frightened and hungry every single day. Somehow, I remind myself to breathe. I force myself to speak.
"Is he…?" I let my voice trail off. I can't bring myself to say it. I hope she understands.
"Oh, no, Katniss," Hazelle reaches out and brushes my arm. "He's alive. I didn't mean to scare you."
I take a shuddering breath, readying myself for whatever Hazelle has come to say. Whatever it is, he's alive. I convince myself that he's fine. That no matter what, I'm not going to be able to help. I still care about him, I probably always will, but in my mind he will always be attached to my sister's death. After the war, I spent days trying to figure out whether Gale's bombs were responsible. Nobody knew.
Deep down, I knew they were his designs. I was there when he created them. But even deeper down, I knew it wasn't his fault. He designed the bombs, but he didn't drop them. He wasn't even there. But still, when I remember Prim, I'm suddenly back in District 13, standing in Beetee's lab while him and Gale explain their latest weapons. Without those bombs, Prim would still be alive. I don't know how to deal with that.
"What about him then?" I ask, my voice harsher than I intended. After all, if I'm sure of anything, it's that none of this is Hazelle's fault. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to-"
"Katniss," she steps forward. "I don't know what happened between the two of you, but I know it's more than you choosing Peeta. But Gale, he's different."
"We're all different," I respond.
"I know that, I just-" she hesitates, then spills it all at once. "He doesn't talk to me anymore. He calls from District 2 to make sure I got the money he sends, but that's it. He refuses to talk to his siblings. He won't even let me put them on the phone. Gale loves them, Katniss, you know that. They mean everything in the world to him. Why won't he talk to them? Why doesn't he visit them?"
I have all the answers to her questions but I remain silent. Hazelle doesn't need to know. To my surprise, though, I find myself aching for him. I always pictured him happy in District 2, working for the government and maybe with a new girl to keep him company. I never imagined this. I open my mouth to speak, to tell her that I'm sorry to hear that but there's nothing I can do when she continues.
"I'm worried about him, Katniss," her voice breaks, and my resolve falters. Hazelle is a proud woman. A strong woman. It would've taken a lot for her to come to ask for my help. "I don't think he's okay. I know it's so much to ask but could you…"
"No," I answer quickly, so quickly that Hazelle takes a step back as if I shoved her. "I'm sorry, Hazelle. I'm in no shape to fix anyone, especially Gale."
Something in her voice stops me from closing the door, from going back inside to Peeta's embrace and forgetting that she ever showed up here at all. I look at her and I realize just how frightened she truly is. This isn't just about Gale not talking to his siblings. This isn't about quick phone calls and non-existent conversations.
This is a mother who knows her son. This is a mother who knows that something is not right at all.
Here are the things I know: Gale was my closest friend. His family was my family. I don't have much family left these days.
I can feel myself faltering, a sudden need to go to Gale consumes me. I know how much it took for him to walk away from me that day, the day that Prim died. It took me awhile to get over being angry at him for just abandoning me. But now I realize it was his last gift to me: He knew I would never be able to be happy, not with him around as a constant reminder of the war and everything I lost.
And so he left.
This will be my final gift to him.
"Okay," I murmur. "I'll go."
Hazelle reaches out and cups my cheek. I see she has tears in her eyes, "Thank you."
I step off the train in District 2 not really knowing where to look for him. It took a week for me to convince Peeta to let me go. It took another to convince him not to come with me. In that time, I realized this trip wasn't just for Gale. It was for me, too. We need closure. A real goodbye. I still don't know what I'm going to say to him. Do I tell him I forgive him? Is there anything to forgive? Sometimes I picture Prim and I hate Gale so much it takes my breath away. Sometimes I miss him so much it does the same.
I tell myself I'll know what to say when I see him. I just need to find him.
I adjust my bag over my shoulder and walk up to the first official looking person I see. He stares at me for a moment. I know he's trying to figure out whether I'm who he thinks I am: The Mockingjay. I don't intend to tell him.
"I'm looking for Gale Hawthorne," I say in a tone that implies I'm not in the mood for small talk. "It's an emergency."
The man looks at me for a second more and then glances down at a pad in his hand, pressing a few buttons before glancing back up at me, "He's home now for the day. House 112. Make a right and then the first left, you can't miss it."
I thank him quickly and leave before he can ask my name. My heart is pounding in my chest and I'm overcome with a paralyzing fear I haven't truly experienced since the war. Knowing Gale is just a few buildings away makes my head spin. It's unbelievable to me that the one person who used to make me feel most like myself is now a complete stranger. I don't know him anymore and he certainly doesn't know me.
The thought makes me freeze.
What am I doing here?
I can't fix him. I can't save him. I shouldn't have to and I don't even think I want to. He's not my responsibility. A small voice in the back of my mind whispers that he killed my sister and I don't owe him anything. Suddenly, I can't breathe.
I find a bench, bury my head in my hands and use all the tricks I learned to calm my panic. I think of Peeta. I think of the smell of bread that fills the house when I wake up in the morning. I think of the woods. I think of the woods - and then without evening meaning to, I think of Gale. Not this Gale, the one I don't know, but the Gale who carried me home when I twisted my knee. The Gale who could have entire conversation with me without saying a word.
The Gale who would do anything to protect me. And my family.
The Gale who would never hurt a child.
The Gale who would never hurt Prim.
I keep those thoughts in my mind and I stand up, ready to face him for the first time in a year. The man wasn't lying, the Gale's house is easy to find. I can feel my panic rising again as I open the gate and walk to his front door, but I force it down. If I can survive a war, if I can wake up everyday knowing that Prim and Finnick and Cinna and so many people that I love are dead, then I can certainly have a conversation with the person who used to be my best friend. Before I can think too much, I knock.
I hear shuffling from behind the door, a chair is knocked over. I frown, instantly knowing that Hazelle is right. In the entire time that I've known him, Gale has never knocked over a thing. It's what made him such a good hunter. Like me, he can move through the woods without a sound. A moment later, the door creaks open, but the person standing there isn't my old hunting partner. I don't recognize this man at all. I almost take a step back and leave before I look into his eyes and see a glimmer of him. He doesn't say a word. He doesn't move or open the door wider. I'm almost thankful for that, because it gives me a second to take him in.
His hair is longer now. He's no longer clean-shaven like he was during the war. I can smell the alcohol on him. His glazed over eyes looked a lot like Haymitch's on his worst drinking days. My eyes trail down to his hands, the hastily wrapped and still bleeding knuckles. I take a step forward and his visibly flinches.
"Gale?" I keep my voice soft, like I'm talking to a cornered and frightened animal. I feel like I am.
"What are you doing here?"
His tone isn't harsh, but it isn't kind. It's emotionless. Soulless. It's not Gale at all.
"I came to see you."
If the words take him by surprise, he doesn't show it. He simply stands there, waiting for me to either leave or continue. I'm not leaving now. Not after seeing him like this. I take a step forward.
"Can I come in?" I ask, but I'm already sliding my way past him.
I see him shrug out of the corner of my eye as he closes the door and follows me inside. I take quick stock of his house: A bed that looks like it hasn't been slept in for days, a well-worn couch, liquor bottles littering the counter. A gun on his side table. I stare at it. I can't tear my eyes away from it. I know what it's there for. I turn to face him and I see he's staring at it, too. Tears spring to my eyes, but he remains expressionless. I wait. I might not know much about him anymore, but I know he needs to speak first.
Minutes pass, maybe ten, fifteen. Neither one of us moves. I'm barely breathing.
Finally, he breaks the silence, "I think about using it every day."
It's what I knew he was going to say, but it's still hits me like a punch to the stomach. I raise my hand to my mouth and swallow hard to quell the sudden nausea. I don't know what to say. There were so many nights right after the war when I wished him dead. I never thought he'd be wishing himself dead, too. Through the ringing in my ears, I make out the rest of this words.
"But then I realize that's the easy way out," he grabs a liquor bottle off the counter and raises it to his lips. "I killed her, so I should suffer."
It takes him saying the words to make me realize how much I really don't believe them.
Gale has been a lot of things. He was my hunting partner and my best friend. He's always been a rebel. In the war, he was a soldier. But above all else, Gale is good. I can't believe I ever lost sight of that. Even during the war, when I was taken aback by how cold he'd seemingly become, he still went back in District 13 to save Prim and all the material things that mattered the most to me. He was trying to change the world for the better. Always. He spent his entire life taking care of his family and my family, practically raising children. He wanted his children of his own. No part of him would ever want to hurt them. I feel like I've suddenly stepped out of a fog and into reality. I'm almost frantic about the fact that I let this tear him apart.
And yet for some reason, I don't tell him that.
"Your mom came to see me," I say instead.
He offers a bitter smile, "Well, you can tell her I'm not going to kill myself," he opens the door. "Sorry she made you come all this way."
"She didn't make me do anything."
He sighs and places the liquor back on the counter. The door stays open. He doesn't think I'm going to stay.
"I haven't heard from you in a year," he says steadily. "I killed your sister, Katniss. My mom doesn't know that. You didn't want to tell her. She gave you a guilt trip and now you're here. I get it. You can go back and tell her you fixed me all up."
It startles me how easily he admits that he killed Prim, like he's saying he accidentally spilled water on the kitchen floor or forgot to cook dinner. This isn't what I want for him. I guess I convinced myself that he was happy so I would be able to leave him behind.
But he's not happy. He's barely human.
My eyes travel back to his hands again.
"What happened?" I nod at them, keeping my voice as casual as I can.
"Punching bag," he shrugs. "I don't hunt much anymore so it's how I…"
"How you what?" I insist, taking a small step forward.
"Escape," he doesn't let me respond. He looks angry all of the sudden, "What the hell do you want Katniss?" he demands, pointing to the door. "I gave you a way out. Leave!"
"No!" the strength in my voice surprises even me. "No," I say, quieter this time. "I'm not leaving."
"Damn it," he swipes his hand across the counter, sending liquor bottles shattering across the floor. "I don't know what you want from me! Please…
His voice cracks. I don't realize that I'm crying until I see there are tears on his cheeks, too. I instantly want to go to him and I remember something he told me once, about him being in pain. It's the only way he gets my attention. It dawns on me that he's right. I can't stand to see him in pain, because I feel it, too. Back then his pain was my pain. Turns out, that's still true now. I feel the burden he's been carrying. I know it's partly my fault that it's there. I never did a thing to ease his mind. He's been here, all alone, while I've been in District 12. I've been putting myself back together with Peeta while Gale's been falling apart.
I take a hesitant step forward and push the door closed. I get as close to him as a can and reach out, but he wraps his hand around my wrist before I can touch him. His hands feel just how I remember: Firm and strong, yet somehow gentle. I lift my eyes to look at him.
"I'm so sorry," his voice is hoarse. "I'm so sorry."
"Gale-" I whisper, but he cuts me off.
"I think about her every day, Katniss. Every day. I can't sleep. She's in my nightmares. I just … I wanted so much to keep everyone we loved safe and I failed," he pauses. "I failed you. I failed so many people. All those families. I killed all of those kids."
He tries to walk away from me, but I slide my wrist out of his grip and grasp his hand, stopping him. I force him to turn around. And then I raise my hands to his face and cup his cheeks. His skin is rough against my touch. He tries to avoid my eyes, but I firmly grip his face. I make him look at me.
"Listen to me," I say, keeping my voice steady. "It's not your fault."
He pulls away roughly, taking a step back like I slapped him, "Don't tell me that. Don't lie to me. We don't lie to each other."
"Gale, I'm not-"
"If you're not lying to me, if you don't blame me, then where have you been?"
It's a simple question, but it doesn't have a simple answer.
I sigh, motioning toward the couch, "Can we sit? Please?"
He stares at me for a long time and then finally relents. We sit side-by-side on the couch. I take his hand in mine again and he lets me. I try to sort out what I want to say in my mind. It's hard, because the full realization that I don't blame him is still new to me. For so many years, being with Gale was like becoming whole again. I guess it's the same way now. It took being with him for my world to snap back into focus. I needed to see him so I can could fix myself. And more importantly, so I could fix him.
He pulls his hand away in the midst of the silence, "You don't have to say anything, Katniss. I'm not going to do anything. I'm getting by. Go home."
"I blamed you for a long time," I say, not acknowledging his demand. I decide not to lie to him. Like he said, we don't lie to each other. At least that hasn't changed. "I still blamed you on my way here."
I look at him, I expect him to look hurt. But he looks the same way he has since I got here: Blank. He doesn't speak, so I continue.
"But then I saw you," I look down at my hands in my lap. "And before you say anything, it wasn't all of this. It wasn't seeing you like this."
He's silent for so long I don't think he's going to speak. But then finally, he asks, "Then what was it?"
"I forgot who you were for awhile," I say. "Seeing you reminded me. Those bombs very well could've been your design, Gale. But how they were used? That wasn't you. You weren't even there. You didn't do that. You never would. I know you."
We meet each other's eyes. I smile a little, "I'll always know you."
"I don't know me," the admission is so quiet that I almost don't hear it. But I do. It's enough to almost break me, but I hold myself together for all the times he was there when I fell apart. For all the times he reminded me exactly who I am.
"You're the man who got a bloody nose standing in between me and people who were trying to came me pain," I say. "You're the son who worked in the mines that killed his father to support his family. You're the person who saved all of those people from District 12. You're the one who believed in the idea of a revolution long before anyone else ever could've imagined it. All you ever wanted was a better life for everyone," I remember my thoughts from earlier. "You're good, Gale."
He stares at me for a long moment, "I wanted it for you the most. For you and your family. I would've done anything."
"I wanted to check on you so many times, I just-"
I rest my hand on his wrist, "I know."
Too much has happened between us for things ever to go back the way they were. There are things he just can't understand. Only Peeta can understand the experience of being in the arena and the loss of Finnick and Cinna. I'm not the same person I was before the Games. I'm not the girl who hunted for hours in the woods with her best friend. I can't go back. I would if I could. There will always be a part of me that will wonder what if. And there will always be a part of me that loves him. I know it's there for Gale, too, but we have to let each other go. In order to heal, he needs to be okay without me. And I need to escape the reminders of that day - and of how my life used to be.
It just takes one look at him to know he understands. Of course he does.
"Are you going to be okay?" I ask. "Really."
"Please visit your siblings, or have them come visit you," I feel tears in my eyes again. I know our time together is running out. "They need you. And you love them."
He nods. I just look at him for a minute, taking him in. I still know every inch of his body, every mark on his skin. It's amazing, really, how two people can know each other so well and yet not at all.
Before I can talk myself out of it, I lean forward and press my lips against his. It's a gentle kiss, but a desperate one. A last grave attempt to hold on to something we can both feel slipping away. If I'm honest with myself, there's another reason this is the last time I will see Gale. There's still an electricity between us, the last remainder of a flame that burned so bright and too quickly. When two people have that kind of fire, they can't go on just clinging to the embers. They have to try and start something new from the ashes.
That's what Peeta is for me. And I love him.
But the version of me that Gale knows will always be my favorite.
I hope I can find her again someday.
We pull apart. Gale leans forward and presses his lips to my forehead, "It's okay, Catnip," he whispers. "Go."
I don't trust myself to speak past the lump in my throat, so I just stand. I don't look back as I walk toward the door, but I know he's staring at me from the spot on the couch. I know how badly he wants to follow me, but he won't. He wants what's best for me - and he knows that's not him. I just hope he'll figure out what's best for him. I place my hand on the door knob, but pause before I walk out.
"I want you to call me if you need me," I say without facing him. "Promise me."
I nod and then pull open the door, stepping outside into the streets of District 2. Everything looks the same as went I entered Gale's house a few hours ago.
But I know everything has changed.