AN: I don't know what's up with me, but I have such an urge to write about Gale lately and I can't get out of my head until I get it down. So here's another one. Hints of Gale's feelings for Katniss, but mostly focuses on him healing with out her - with help from a new friend. No romance. Reviews always greatly appreciated!
Sometimes I try to think back to the last time I was truly happy. I always come back to the same moment. It's strange, really, that the last time I really smiled was the day my world was destroyed forever: The day Katniss was reaped. But before that, before the girl I loved - and will always loved - was ripped away from me in more ways than one, we were together for the last time. We went to the woods, we hunted. I brought a piece of bread and we sat on our rock, fantasizing about running away and actually making it. I brought it up, but I knew it could never happen. She knew it, too. But it was nice to just dream for awhile. I can still feel the ripe berries on my finger, hear our voices ringing out in fake Capitol accents.
May the odds be ever in your favor.
But the odds were never in our favor.
It's been five years since then. Five long years. I know Katniss is living in District 12 with Peeta, but I haven't seen her since the day the bomb dropped and I walked away. She's living with Peeta and I'm living with guilt. I've wrestled with it everyday. I take the blame. Every night I remind myself that I killed Prim. I designed the bombs that destroyed Katniss' world and took that innocent girl - all of those innocent kids - out of the world forever. Am I really that much worse than President Snow? I don't know anymore. So I drink. A lot. But as long as it doesn't interfere with my work nobody really seems to mind. I know nobody cares. There's nobody left to care about me anymore. I pushed my family away. I don't deserve them and they deserve better. I send money, but I don't answer their phone calls.
I live in District 2 by myself in a tiny house. The military is stationed here and I'm Commander Hawthorne now. I can't remember the last time somebody called me Gale. Right now, I'm in the training center, watching while the latest recruits go through hand-to-hand combat training. This is the one thing in my life I still care about, preparing these kids. And that's what they are, really. Kids. They can join the army at 16 and a lot of them do. Despite the rebellion, a lot of the families are still poor. The army pays well, so they come. I just want to make sure they're prepared. If anything happens and they need to fight, I don't want another person to die because of my mistakes.
One of the newest recruits catches my eye. I watch as she flips a boy half her size over her shoulder and places her foot on his chest in triumph. My eyebrows shoot up. I have to admit, I'm impressed. She glances over at me briefly and her lips raise in the briefest of smiles. I hesitate, looking at her more closely. She's with the youngest group, so I know she's just 16. Her black hair is pulled back in a tight ponytail and it doesn't look like she even broke out a sweat. It's her eyes, though, that really get me. Bright blue eyes that look so familiar. But I just can't place her. After a moment, she looks away and the boy clamors to his feet. I shake my head a little, telling myself I'm crazy. There's no reason for me to believe I know that girl.
Training comes to an end. I watch until the kids gather their equipment and head to the changing rooms, then I slip the flask out of boot. I take a long drink, letting the liquor burn my throat, and then I head toward the door to head home. The streets of District 2 are usually busy and tonight is no different. Between the military base and government headquarters, someone is always going somewhere and doing something. It would've bothered the old me - I craved the solitude and comfort of the woods - but the new me likes it. Plenty of distractions. Between the noise and the alcohol, I can almost drown out the sound of that bomb going off. I almost forget the look in Katniss' eyes when she realized what I'd done.
I don't talk to anyone on the way home. Everyone either knows better or they don't care. Either one is fine with me. I kick open my unlocked front door. I never bother locking it because there's nothing else I'm worried about losing. That's how the day ends. Just like every other day before it since the end of the war. Someday it will all end, but not soon enough.
The next day at the training center, I notice the same girl sneaking glances at me. It's weapon training day and she's just as impressive as she was with hand-to-hand combat. She's almost as good with a bow and an arrow as Katniss was at her age. The thought makes my breath hitch and almost reach for my flask before I remember the promise I made to myself. I will never let my drinking endanger these kids. I'm working with the older boys, all of them over 18, and showing one of our more promising volunteers some tips on handling our newest guns. But every once and awhile, I look over my shoulder to see the girl hitting the bullseye with her bow nearly every time. And every time I sneak a glance, she's smiling at me. For someone who is apparently deadly, she hardly ever stops smiling.
"What does this button do, Commander Hawthorne?"
The question from the boy earns my attention again and explain the button will lock the weapon from outside use until it's reawakened by his fingerprint, an idea I took from Beetee. I used to hear from him now and again, but not anymore.
Training seems to go slower than usual that day. I think it's because Katniss has been on my mind more than usual and I can't drink. When it finally ends, I'm headed toward the doors before the trainees even take a step toward the changing rooms. But before I can enter the outside world and sweet relief, a voice stops me.
"You don't remember me, do you?"
It's the girl. I sigh, dropping my hand from where it was reaching for the door. I turn to face her. She looks even younger up close than she does from far away. I can't believe she's actually 16, but the army throughly checks before accepting a new recruit. Too many parents were trying to send their younger children for money. The last thing we want is another version of The Hunger Games. The recruits can come here to begin training at 16, but if something were to happen, they couldn't actually fight until 18. She has her arms folded across her chest, one eyebrow raised in question and that ever-present smile on her face. I realize she's not going to leave without an answer.
"No," I relent. I want to leave, but curiosity gets the best of me. "Should I?"
She shrugs, leaning casually against the wall of the training center, "You were kind of busy that night, so probably not. And it has been a few years, I don't wear my hair in pigtails anymore."
I stare at her blankly, clearly confused. She chuckles a little and then continues, "You saved my life, Commander Hawthorne."
I'm starting to piece things together. I look at her more intently, think of her as a young child, her hair in pigtails. And suddenly I feel nauseous. I do remember her. She was one of the last people I pulled out of District 12 the night of the bombings. I heard her crying from underneath a half-collapsed house and I dug her out, pulled her to safety. I tried to go back for her parents, but the rest of the house collapsed before I could back in time. I dug for them, but when I finally reached where they were there was nothing I could do. I carried her out of the district and into the woods. She sobbed the whole way there and then after that, she just got quiet. I helped her find her aunt and uncle and then I never really noticed her again.
I can't stand to be there anymore, "I'm sorry," I manage as I push through the door. I need a drink.
But I can feel her behind me as soon as I step outside, "What are you sorry for?"
I decide that even if she is a recruit, we're not training right now so I'm having a drink. Without turning around to face her, I pulled out of flask and finish half of it in one gulp. I don't even wince. I try to keep walking, to just ignore her, but she reaches out and grabs my elbow, pulling me to a halt.
"What are you sorry for?" she asks again. "I told you, you saved my life."
I turn, forcing myself to face her, "But not your parents."
Her smile disappears in an instant, but she doesn't look angry. I don't really understand why. Instead, she takes a step forward, her brow furrowing. Her blue eyes are bright, "But you tried. A lot of that night is a blur, but I remember you digging for them until you found them. I watched you the entire time after that. I wanted to me just like you. You're the reason I'm here."
My stomach drops. I instantly picture her with bullet wounds. I see blank open eyes. Another dead child's blood on my hands.
I shake my head sharply, "Don't say that to me, kid," I choke out before I turn and leave before she can latch on to my arm again. I feel like I'm going to throw up, but I finish the rest of the alcohol in my flask anyway. A few steps later, I empty my stomach by the side of the road. That night, I drink until I can't see. I drink until I can't remember the girl's face or Katniss's name. I pass out on the couch, waking up with an empty liquor bottle in my hand and a splitting headache.
I call in sick to work.
I call in sick the next day, too.
A week later, I get a knock on my door. I expect my boss. Instead I get the girl. I see brief judgement pass over her face as I open the door to my trashed apartment. I'm a mess, too. But she quickly switches to a smirk.
"How are you supposed to teach me when you're here getting drunk," she teases. "If you keep up like this, you're going to end up like that guy who used to fall down at the reapings."
I snort, "Haymitch."
"Yeah, him," she pushes by me and steps into my apartment. "So this is where you live."
I turn to follow her inside, instantly angry, "What are you doing here?"
She sighs. I can tell her confidence deflates a bit, "I wanted to make sure you were okay. I didn't mean to upset you yesterday. I just wanted to thank you. I didn't know if I'd ever get the chance."
I motion toward the door, "Don't thank me, kid," I say. "And trust me, there's a lot better people you could look up to."
I raise my eyebrows in silent question.
"That's my name," she steps forward to push by me, not even glancing over her shoulder as she leaves, "You're not at all like I expected you to be."
I feel five years of regret and self-hatred boiling over. Before I can stop myself, I call her after, "I'm not how I expected me to be either."
And then I slam the door.
I have to admit Aspen has shaken me. I didn't think I was capable of really feeling anything anymore, but all I can think about now are the kids in the training center. How many of them are here because they want to be like me? Because I rescued their families or they saw me on television during the war? How many more lives would be in my hands if there was another war?
I call my boss and ask for medical leave.
And then I drink.
I remember the night District 12 was bombed through a haze. I see myself doing things I don't even remember myself doing. I think sometimes that was the last time I was good. But then I remember there were children like Aspen who lost people that I couldn't save, and I realize I wasn't good at all. Maybe I've never been good.
No, that's not true.
With Katniss, I was good.
Aspen walks in another week later, doesn't even knock just waltzes in like she owns the place. I've been drinking already, so I don't really get angry. I just take another drink and watch, fascinated, as she begins cleaning. She throws the empty bottles in the trash and wipes down the counters. She even dusts. Finally, she walks over and stands in front of me, hands on her hips. I notice how well-muscled she is for 16. She's clearly been training on her own for awhile. She reaches out and snatches the one bottle left in my house at of my hand. I instantly sit up.
"What the hell do you want from me, kid?"
"I told you, my name is Aspen," her blue eyes darken. "And I want you to be the person I grew up admiring."
I stomach flips. I swallow hard so I don't throw up on her shoes, "Please stop saying that. I told you to find another fucking person to admire, because it's not me. You don't want to be like me."
She scoffs, brushing a stray hair away from her face as she studies me, "Well, certainly not this version of you."
"Well, I hate to break it to you, but this is the only version of me there is."
Her eyes flash, "Liar."
I stand up, a little unsteadily. I close my eyes briefly to quell the nausea, "Listen," I say, keeping my voice low. "I don't have to explain myself, certainly not to a 16-year-old that I barely know. I have enough blood on my hands, so I don't need yours. You need to go home."
When I glance up, I expect to see fear in her expression, but she's standing firm. I have to admit I'm a little impressed, although I'm mostly annoyed. I can't seem to get this girl to leave me alone. Instead of leaving, like I want her to, she sits down on the couch.
"You saved my aunt and uncle," she said. "And my grandpa. And my best friend and her family. I actually ended up living with them because they were better equipped to take of me," she glances up and I see tears in her eyes. "You didn't save everybody, Commander Hawthorne, but you saved everyone you could. The Capitol tried to take away my family and you gave me one."
"Please-" I'm practically begging now.
"My cousin, Joe? He had his leg blown off in the explosion. You stopped the bleeding and carried him out. He has two little girls now. They live in District 5."
My ears are roaring. I just need to get her out of my house before I lose it. I reach out, my hand shaking, and grab her arm, pulling her to her feet. I don't want to hurt her, so I keep just enough pressure to pull her to the door. I'm about to throw her out when she charges forward, still speaking.
"One of my friends, her name is Eve. You carried her under one arm and her sister under the other. They both survived, they're married and they have families. I still keep in touch and before i came here, they told me if I ever saw you to thank you for giving them a chance. You gave us all a chance."
I explode. I don't even realize the things I'm saying until I'm saying them.
"You want to know what else I did?" I demand, taking a step forward. She stumbles backward, a glint of fear in her eyes. "I killed kids. I created a bomb that killed kids, innocent children, just like the Games did. I killed the little sister of the girl I loved. I turned into a monster who murdered children. What do you think of your hero now?"
She pauses a moment. I'm waiting for her to leave so I can finally be by myself, just like it was before. Not in peace, but at least by myself. But she doesn't leave. She studies me for a moment, taking in my words. I can see her mind working through what I just told her. She's a good fighter, but she's also sharp. I can tell.
"You designed the bombs?" she asked.
"Yes," I say, my jaw clenched. If I can just get through this then she'll leave and I can go hunt down more alcohol from my cellar. No matter what she says to me, it's nothing I haven't said to myself anyway.
She pauses, "Did you build them?"
"Did you know where and how they were going to be used?"
I sigh, rubbing a hand down my face, "No."
"Did you make the decision to drop them on the kids?"
"What's with all the fucking questions, kid?" I demand. "No, I wasn't there."
She quirks an eyebrow, an expression I'm getting used to now, "So, you designed bombs that you didn't know were built and you weren't there when the decision was made to drop them. That's why you're destroying your liver?"
I stare at her blankly.
"Excuse me, Commander Hawthorne, but that's bullshit," she says simply. "You're punishing yourself for something you didn't do."
Well, that's something I've never told myself before.
"You don't know what you're talking about," I reply evenly. "You were a child. You're still a child."
She looks as serious as I've seen her when she speaks next, "I haven't been a child since that night in District 12."
I stay silent. I know she's right.
"But I get to be an adult and I get to be here because of you and I'm going to keep telling you that until you believe it," she continues. "Now sit down. I'm going to do something for you."
In spite of myself, I chuckle, shaking my head at the absolute blind confidence of this girl. It feels good to smile.
She shows up everyday for a month to tell me a different story. Her aunt and uncle had another baby after the bombing. Her first grade teacher finally told the man she loved that she loved him. They got married and moved to District 4. The baby I found alone in a house was reunited with her family. She's the smartest person in her class. Slowly, I can feel myself starting to heal. She brings me pictures. Sometimes letters. I can't believe all of these people remember me.
Some of them aren't from people from District 12, just people from the districts who are free now, who don't have to worry about their children getting sent to their death. I don't ask how she got them. After a month, I've realized this girl could talk anyone into anything. And if she couldn't, she would stand there until they would give it to her anyway. I have to admit, I've grown fond of her.
One day, she sits down with a picture I recognize. It's Katniss and her family. I feel bile rising in my throat. I instantly want a drink, although I've been starting to cut back. She grabs my wrist before I can go anywhere. We've been spending enough time together that she knows me well enough to predict what I'll want to do.
"I know the girl you were talking about was Katniss, Gale," she says slowly. "I used to watch you two sneak under the fence. I know what happened to her sister."
I don't speak. I can't. I'm staring at the picture of a much younger Katniss, about the age when I first met her in the woods. I'm trying to focus on breathing.
"But you know, her sister wouldn't have made it out of District 12 that night without you. Her mother, either," she closes my hand around the picture," she pauses, waits patiently until I meet her eye. "She doesn't blame you."
"How do you know that?" my voice is hoarse.
Aspen's face breaks out in a softer version of her signature smile, "I went to see her, of course."
I asked her one day why she did all that for me. She said she didn't want to see someone suffer who made it so so many other people didn't have to. She ends up moving in with me instead of living in the army dorms. She has her own room. Having a girl to treat like a little sister reminds me of my own and she convinces me to invite my family to visit. Posy instantly takes a liking to her and they sit for hours, laughing and talking. They share some stories about me. I silently thank Aspen for keeping the darker ones to herself.
My mom hugs me with tears in her eyes. Later in the night, I hear her whispering with Aspen, thanking her for whatever it is she did. I don't know how to explain what exactly she did for me. I guess she gave me my faith back. I still don't want to go back to the person I was during the war. I think I lost some of myself then, but then again, I think everyone did.
Some nights, she has nightmares. I know because I do, too. I wake her up, bring her a glass of water and then just sit with her until she falls back to sleep. I realize despite her personality, we're a lot more alike than I thought. She doesn't let anyone get close to her either, anyone other than me. I ask her about it one night. It's a year after we first met and she's working on dinner.
She pauses for a minute, glancing up at me, "I never had anyone else to depend on other than myself, not really," then she smiles. Of course she does. "That's okay, though. I like me."
I grin, "Yeah, you're okay, kid."
She points the knife at me in mock anger, "That's Aspen to you, Commander Hawthorne."
I remember that conversation a year later when she's receiving her official army uniform. Her training is over and she's been stationed in District 5. She'll come back eventually, but she's leaving for now. I try to ignore the lump in my throat as the ceremony comes to a close. Two years ago I didn't even know this girl existed and now I can't imagine my life without her. I don't want to let her out of my sight either. I can't imagine what I would do if something happened to her. Not only did she give me my family back, she gave me another member.
But as she walks over with a grin on her face, she sticks her tongue out to tease me. I'm reminded of her confidence and her unwavering optimism. Wherever she goes, she'll be fine. And thanks to her, I will be, too. She stops in front of me, her smile fading a little bit, like she just realized that she'll be leaving in the morning.
"Hey, congratulations, kid," I ruffle her hair. "Now get your crap out of my house."
"Cute," she smirks. "So, what's my present?"
"Who says I got you a present?"
She simply raises her eyebrow and I can't help but smile. Some things haven't changed in two years.
I tilt my head toward the door, "Follow me."
We walk silently to the edge of the only patch of forest in District 2. There's a bow resting against a tree, brand new and hand-crafted. Designed by me. She runs to it instantly, running her hands over the smooth black frame. She reminds me so much of Katniss in that moment that my breath catches. I still haven't talked to Katniss, but I realize that that's okay. I will always miss her. I'll always love her, too. But she deserves to be happy and to move on. That means I have to let her go.
"Is this for me?" Aspen asks, glancing up at me. "Really?"
I laugh, "Well, if it's not you put your hands all over it now so you might as well take it."
She runs to me, leaping up to wrap her arms around my neck, "Thank you. I love it."
I press my lips to the top of her head, "You're welcome," I put her down. "Now let me show you how to use it."
She glances toward the woods, then back at me. She knows I don't go in there. Ever.
"I think it's about time I do," I say in answer to her silent question. "It was an escape for me and if you never need one, I want it to be an escape for you, too."