Gale Hawthorne takes a deep breath of the cold November air as he stares at the door of Abernathy's Bar and Gill, trying to work up the nerve to go inside.
The go-to place in District Twelve to grab a bite to eat and hang out with friends, he spent a lot of time here as teenager playing darts or pool in the upper level, but he hasn't been here in ten long years.
After enlisting in the army at eighteen he lived on base and moved every couple of years. His mom and siblings always came to wherever he was stationed to visit when he could get time off. He left the army back in August. This Thanksgiving Mama finally had enough. She put her foot down and demanded he come home for good.
This is ridiculous. Gale thinks. It's time to man up. And face what I've been running from.
He finally turns the door handle, opens the door, and steps over the threshold. It's like stepping back in the time. The peeling red leather booths filled with people enjoying supper, the jukebox in the corner, the old wooden bar, and the scuffed-up wood floors, the raised platform at the front where the band setup. It still smells like fried grease and stale beer. Even the sight of old man Haymitch Abernathy slumped on a bar stole, a glass of bourbon clutched in his hand, hasn't changed. Gale has no idea how he keeps the place running when he drinks up all the product.
Johanna Mason stands behind the bar wiping down the counter. She raises an eyebrow when she looks up at him.
"Well, Well, Well, Gale Hawthorne. Never thought we'd see you around these parts again. The army finally get smart and kick you out." She quips.
"Nice to see you too, Jo. I finally retired from the army. I figured it was time to come home. Thought I'd see who was around and catch up."
"I'll bet you wanted to see a certain someone. Check the back. I'm sure you remember the way." She says as she turns to check on an order.
He spies Greasy Sae through the window flipping burgers.
He heads to the back room where the pool tables and dart boards are. Finnick Odair stands by one of the pool tables, leaning on his cue stick as his wife, Annie, lines up her shot. She sinks the eight ball and throws her arms up in victory.
"And that's how it's done, Hot shot." She crows at her husband.
That's when his eyes zero in on the ghost of his past. His best friend. His Catnip.
"Yay! Way to go Annie!" Katniss Everdeen congratulates her friend as she reaches over the table to give her a high five. Her back is turned to him, but he recognizes her dark hair in the signature braid. An ashy haired, stocky man stands at her side, an arm slung around her shoulders with a cue stick clutched in his other hand. She bounces on her toes in excitement. He laughs softly at her antics and kisses the side of her head.
Prim sits at a nearby table talking animatedly to Ben Cartwright. Madge Undersee plays a cheerful tune on the old piano in the corner. Thom Harshaw spins Delly Cartwright around to the music in the open floorspace laughing happily in delight.
Finnick glances over at him, his eyes light in recognition and a grin spreads over his face. "Gale Hawthorne! It's been too long. Come over here and say hello."
Katniss turns sharply and gapes in shock. The man nudges her side and becomes aware. Prim runs over and pulls him into a hug. She steps back, smiles brightly at him and welcomes him home. Suddenly he has an armful of Katniss Everdeen as she throws her arms around his neck in a fierce hug.
"Gale, it's so good to see you." She sighs happily against his neck.
Gale blinks away the moisture in his eyes and wraps his arms around her small frame.
"Hey Catnip." He squeezes her one more time and she steps back with a bight smile on her face.
"It's been a long time since I've heard that name. It's good to hear it again."
"Come on. Let's sit down and catch up."
She pulls him over to a table and slides into a chair. He's grateful that the others stayed at the pool table and started up another game. This is a conversation that should be between the two of them. He takes a seat across from her and folds his hands on the table.
"Well you know I enlisted in the army so that kept me busy. I really fit there. A soldier's life suited me. I like the order and routine."
"Yeah your mom said you were happy. She's missed you. We all have. You should have come home to visit sooner. She pauses. "You never answered any of my letters or returned my calls." She says softly. Hurt shining in her eyes.
Gale feels a lump forming in his throat. He swallows thickly. "I'm so sorry Catnip. I was just angry. Things didn't go as I planned and a small part of me wanted to hurt you for saying no to my proposal."
Anger feels her eyes. "Gale, we were best friends. We never had anything romantic going on. Then suddenly you propose out of the blue. I didn't even know you loved me in that way.
"How could you not know that I was in love with you? Everyone knew. We spent every day together. We were supposed to be partners. In the woods and in life."
So, you announce that your enlisting, ask me to marry you, and to go with you into a life that you had never mentioned wanting before. And I was just supposed to drop everything and follow you. I was only sixteen. I still had two years of school left. I couldn't just run off with you." Katniss says heatedly.
He sighs dejectedly. "I realize that now. But eighteen-year-old me had stars in his eyes. Dreams of gaining glory as a soldier, and having my best friend as my wife at my side. It shattered my heart when you didn't share that dream. So, I run off like a child and tried to forget you. I'm so sorry for hurting you like that. Leaving without saying goodbye and never contacting you. It was worse thing I've ever done. My biggest regret."
Katniss wipes tears off her cheeks. "I forgive you, Gale. We were just kids. I think we should leave the past in the past. We've lost enough time. Let's move forward as adults and try to regain our friendship."
"I'd like that very much, Catnip. Thank you for your forgiveness."
She stands from the table and holds out her hand, he takes it lets her pull him up. "Okay, let's go join the rest of the gang." They make their way to the pool table. The ashy haired man turns at their approach. A look of relief in his blue eyes.
"Gale, you remember Peeta Mellark, the baker's youngest son, he's my husband. We've been married almost a year."
"Oh yeah. We used to trade with your dad. Nice to see you again. I remember you always sneaking looks at Catnip when we were at the bakery."
Peeta laughs. "Yeah I finally got up the nerve to talk to her about a year after you left. I asked her to be my date to the junior prom. She said yes and we've been together ever since. It's great to have you back home. Katniss has missed you a lot."
"I missed her too. Now that I've retired from the army I plan to move home and finally set down some roots." Gale grins, happy to look forward to his future and stop running.
Katniss hands him a cue stick and sets up a new game. "Alright Gale, let's see if you still as good as you were in high school." Gale lines up his first shot and smiles.
Things didn't turn out the way he planned in high school. He didn't get the girl he thought he would. But as he glances up at her to see her glazing lovingly at Peeta he realizes she had never looked at him in that way. It never would have worked between them and that's ok. She ended up happy.
"Gale Hawthorne, is that you?" He looks over to see Madge Undersee smiling beautifully at him, her blue eyes sparkling with joy, and knows he'll end up happy too.