I know this chapter is long over due and I'm sorry for the wait. I don't really have an excuse except to say that I just got sidetracked writing other stuff! Anyway, for anyone still interested in this story, hope you enjoy.
Many MANY thanks to the ineffable foojules who betad this monster with a fine tooth comb and made it somewhat readable.
The First Kiss
Ankles neatly crossed and mug of coffee in hand, Dr. Varga sat prim as a terrace garden, blue eyes wide and alive, wispy blonde hair curling at her shoulders. "Good morning, Ms. Mason!" Just as every morning before, she greeted her patient with an alarm clock kind of exuberance, and a smile so bright it rivaled the fluorescent bulbs in the Capitol's torture chambers.
Appropriate, Johanna mused, when every second with the doctor was akin to being thrown back on the rack. I can't be the only one that notices therapy seems a hell of a lot like interrogation. "It's never a good morning when I have to drag my ass into your office first thing." She strode into the room and flopped belly first onto the couch. Her breath fogged against the cracked vinyl. "You know, letting patients lie down and sleep while you blabber on is about the only good thing you therapists have come up with."
"We believe that a cozy, non-regulatory environment is conducive to creating an atmosphere of openness and healing." She oozed her words rather than spoke them. Johanna could all but smell the sweet, sticky stream, and wrinkled her nose. "Now, shall we get started?"
Too tired for her usual look of menace, she turned onto her side and watched with yawning eyes as Dr. Varga blew over the rim of her steaming mug. "I'm in no rush. We can start once you're good and caffeinated."
Dr. Varga took a sip and raised her mug in salute. "Gotta love the endless supply of coffee."
"Yeah. You guys were pretty stingy back in Thirteen."
"Oh, now. Stingy's not a very positive word. Frugal was the preferred term. But here in the Capitol there's no need for so many precautions." She peered through her glasses at a notepad swarming with her tiny, unintelligible scrawl, a pen at the ready. "I hope I'm not too forward in thinking we made a little progress at our last session, pried open the clamshell just a wee bit."
At their last session, Johanna had nearly broken a chair over the woman's head. "If you say so."
"If you recall, we spent some significant time discussing various learned patterns of behavior – coping mechanisms, if you will – that over time can become a standard response to any form of anxiety or pressure, eventually becoming a kind of….negative habit."
"Yeah, I remember." She let loose a cackle. "Some of these past victors are real nutjobs."
"I was referring to you, Ms. Mason."
Johanna bolted up. "You've got to be joking. Of all the lunatics walking around this place, you think I'm the one with negative habits?" She swung her legs off the couch and leaned forward, eyes glinting. As far as she was concerned, this was plate-triggering kind of talk. "Last I checked, I'm not the victor who walks around half-comatose, cramming myself into ventilation ducts or closets filled with pencils."
"The Mockingjay, while certainly with her issues, has been given her own avenue of healing. You are being given another."
"The road to hell?"
"Ms. Mason, there are so, so many ways these negative patterns can manifest themselves. They don't all fit into one neat little box."
"Am I the one with permanently sharpened teeth? No. The one covering my ears like a swarm of bees are attacking, or laughing at imaginary images? No."
"Yes, that's all very, very true. But as I told you last time, the behavioral patterns associated with recovery after severe traumas are extremely varied. Some experience dissociation, others depression, and still others…." She tilted her head. "Volatile behavior? Outbursts of anger? Extreme aggression?"
Johanna was silent. One eyebrow slowly rose. "Pretty sure I was like that before the Games."
"Well." Dr. Varga laid aside the notebook and clasped her hands. "I see the shell's not quite ready to crack open just yet. Why don't we end our session early and dig in a little more next week?"
Johanna hopped off the couch. "Sounds good to me."
"And in the meantime, don't forget our three M's! Medication, meditation, and….?"
"Mantras! Yes! Repeat it with me: I am safe. I am secure. And I am loved."
Johanna gritted her teeth. "I guess two out of three isn't bad."
She slammed the door on her way out.
"Extreme aggression?" Johanna's stomping footsteps echoed down the hall. "Volatile behavior? What does she mean by volatile behavior?" She punctuated the words with a clean fist through her door.
A blue eye peaked through the newly minted hole. "Maybe she was talking about that?"
"Nah." Johanna snaked her arm through the gap and deftly unhooked the latch. "The door was locked and I forgot a key." She swung it open and walked inside, chin a mile high and a note of victory in her voice. "See that? That's the kind of strategy that wins Hunger Games."
"Possibly. Although, and this is merely a suggestion, you could have just asked me to open it. Since we share an adjoining door. And since I was already inside."
"And miss out on a little casual vandalism? I don't think so." Her eyes narrowed. "Now. Mind telling me what you're doing in my room, Odair?"
It would be easy to say that Finnick smiled. But the walking slab of gorgeous best known as Finnick Odair didn't do smiles. What Finnick Odair did do was spread his well-shaped mouth across a pair of razor sharp cheekbones, then suggestively part his supple yet unquestionably manly lips to reveal a band of diamond-like teeth that glittered and dazzled beneath an exquisite, equine nose.
In Johanna's opinion, nothing should be allowed to stay so perfect, and her fists were itching to contribute a little disorder to Finnick's face. "Curiously," he said, "there is a large, fist-shaped hole right smack in the center of mine and Annie's front door."
"Really?" One shoulder lifted in a half-hearted shrug. "No idea how that got there."
"I mean, it's possible someone might have been in a really bad mood on their way to therapy this morning."
"Oh, I agree. The possibilities are just endless when all your closest neighbors happen to be past victors of the Hunger Games." Another centerfold smile. "But the whos and the whens and the whys of the whole affair – that's not really what concerns me. My problem is that this little hole has put a big damper on our privacy. So, in the name of neighborliness or victor solidarity or whatever term makes you want to vomit least, I was hoping you could keep an eye or two out, make sure no one wanders by the hall and tries to disturb us since I – we – might be kind of busy for the next few hours."
"I'll let you make your own inference." And it wasn't that Finnick's cheshire smile resembled the good doctor's – the two couldn't have been more different. But it held that same quality of wholesomeness, lacking in all the sharp edges and brittle lines that defined Johanna's array of smirks and laughter.
Johanna gripped the edge of the open door, widening the gap with a flash of bared teeth. "How about this: You can put a sock on your own damn door handle, and next time I won't put a hole through your face?"
"Johanna Mason: a dear friend, and as charming and obliging as ever."
"I'm not holding this door open forever."
Finnick blew her a kiss and departed without another world. It was nine am and already the second time that day. Johanna slammed the door hard enough to make the floorboards rattle.
She had just enough time to fume her way to the kitchenette and begin rifling the cupboards in search of anything breakable when two swift raps came from her door.
She cracked the door. "Finnick, I swear –" A bouquet of red roses was shoved inside and collided with her face. Somewhere between the mass of red petals and dethorned foliage she caught patches of olive toned skin, and the sound of an ego blooming:
"Knock knock, princess."
Johanna spat out a leaf. "Hawthorne – what the hell are these?"
"Flowers. For you." Gale tossed them into her arms as he squeezed through the door, breezing past her as if she were made of wallpaper and dropped without another word onto the beige sofa. Two sharp thumps sounded as he kicked up both of his booted feet onto the cluttered coffee table.
Johanna, clutching the frazzled bouquet in one hand, watched discarded food wrappers flutter to the ground through narrowed eyes. "And where did you get them? Your private garden?"
The roses were immaculate, twelve luscious buds of rich, deep crimson cut down at the prime of life. While Johanna could appreciate the sentiment of killing something for her sole amusement, the cloying floral perfume, to someone reared on the fresh, neat scent of pine, was close to noxious. It reeked of excess. It reeked of the Capitol and trying too hard.
She strolled back into her kitchenette – "Yeah, let me just put these in some..." – and dumped them in the garbage can.
Gale frowned – disappointment, but no suggestion of defeat. "Not a flower person, I take it?"
"Not a person person, really."
"But I picked red. Like blood. I thought you'd like them."
"Next time stop by the armory, not the florist. You might have more luck."
"I might just do that." He patted the space beside him with a smile. The presumption made half of Johanna want to kick his teeth in, the other half applaud his thirst for danger. She ignored the clashing urges and came around the back of the sofa, taking guarded steps toward the indicated spot, eyeing it like it might attack her.
"And if I did," he continued, "what kind of weapon would have the best chance of not getting tossed in the trash?" The soft fabric of the sofa was soundless as she sat down. Morning light streamed through the windows. No dark corners in which to hide or maneuver, a stark contrast from their date the previous night. Her room seemed too bright and quiet and empty as she fished for an answer, his body close enough to feel the heat off his skin. "An axe, right?"
Breathe, stupid. " It's good in a pinch, when the options are limited."
"And when they aren't?"
"I'm a practical girl, Gale. Sure, an axe is bloody and I'd never turn down a good maiming. But the purpose of a weapon is to kill or injure. What can accomplish both those things faster or more efficiently than your basic firearm? A gun beats an axe any day."
Gale cocked his head with a thoughtful look, a step up from the usual reactions of side eyeing or outright horror Johanna usually received whenever she offered an opinion, whether on weapons, wardrobe or anything. "Guns definitely have their advantages," he replied. "But I still find that a good old fashioned bow and arrow is hard to beat." He mimed the drawing of a bowstring, the release of a single arrow. "Neat and to the point. That's why it will always be an effective weapon, and that's why Katniss was such a success. Which reminds me…" He glanced at his watch. "She's executing Snow in two hours."
A smile curled her lips. "You're right." For now, her seething anger was doused, rainbows rising from the steam. Johanna rose and walked to the door. "Let's get out of here and eat some breakfast. Executions always give me an appetite."
President Coin's droning from the balcony gave Johanna a chance to examine her surroundings. She had only one word to describe the venue: "Cozy."
"You got that right," Gale replied. The City Circle was just roomy enough for the pair of them – plus roughly five thousand extras – to squeeze shoulder to shoulder in a space meant for obnoxious garden parties and the occasional threatening speech. The air writhed with voices and breath and a bevy of odors Johanna did her best not to dwell on. The Hunger Games had inured her to many things, but people – and a lot of people – were not among of them.
With some aggressive maneuvering and a few sharp elbow jabs, they managed to commandeer a front row view which, mere minutes from the main act, was standing room only. Snow himself stood bound (but unfortunately not gagged) to a steel pole a few yards away from where the Mockingjay would make her grand entrance through the mansion's gilded doorway. The condemned man watched his former subjects with a subtle look of amusement. He had turned death into a spectator sport, and seemed determined to enjoy the last one he would ever see.
Johanna gritted her teeth. "He's not even scared, the bastard."
"Of course he is. But he won't show it. He's still playing games."
"No. He's not." She scoffed. "And why should he be? One arrow? One arrow? If there were any justice in the world, that man would have a piece of him cut off every hour – but no. It had to be Katniss. And it had to be her arrow." Her fists trembled. All of her earlier calm evaporated in the electric charge of anticipation, a lifetime of consuming anger condensed into this single, defining moment.
But it still didn't seem right or fair.
"I don't understand why she gets to do it," she said.
Gale pursed his lips. "She's the Mockingjay."
"If I had a beating heart for every time someone's given that stupid answer, the only people left watching this execution would be me, you, and that guy scratching his ass over there. Let's get our facts straight: Katniss is not the only one with an axe to grind. Katniss is not the only one who's lost something to Snow. She's not even the one who's lost the most."
"But she's the one who brought him down. Think about it: she rallied the districts of Panem. There wouldn't have been a revolution without her."
"There wouldn't have been a revolution without me, either. Or you. Or Peeta. Or Finnick. Or a hundred other people, doing what needed to be done. Who should get the privilege of making him bleed?" She pointed her chin at the churning crowd. "Why not one of them" Or the better question, which she kept locked inside: Why not me?
People were pushing against them. The mob was beginning to fray at the edges, throwing disgruntled shouts in Snow's direction, along with an array of projectiles, bottles, food. Is that seriously a dirty diaper?
Johanna wondered when someone would get the bright idea to start setting fires. The atmosphere was already a powder keg waiting to blow, waiting for a girl on fire to ignite them all. Katniss burst through the doors in her full Mockingjay get up and detonated the crowd, jumping and banner waving and shouts erupting on all sides.
Gale raised his voice to be heard: "What would it change? No matter who pulls the trigger, Snow's going to be dead in a few minutes."
"But it won't be enough."
Johanna held her tongue, a million answers resting, waiting. Her mother, for starters, who she barely remembered, felled by disease like one of District Seven's might by pines. Her kid sister – another fading memory – killed off by more of the same. But those were old classics, nothing that hadn't happened a thousand times over in every district. She'd been raised to understand that they were products made for the consumption of the Capitol, and she coped with the morbid side effects as best she could. But the one thing she had never dealt with –
Coin's pontificating died to the raging cacophony. Katniss fit an arrow into her bow.
Her father, whose death precipitated it all. How many fractures in her life could she trace back to that well timed accident, the one that occurred just after she'd told Snow – "no, I will not." She'd been angry for twenty years, furious for five. Would watching the death of the man responsible for splintering her soul ease any of it away?
Johanna would never find out. Because as the string twanged and the arrow sped forward it arched over the head of President Snow and shot straight through the heart of President Coin.
"Katniss!" she screamed. But her voice was drowned in the onslaught, an ocean of bodies and momentum that carried Johanna and Gale forward.
I didn't get to see him die.
The crowd swallowed Snow, gobbled him alive and spat him out a mangled mess of crushed bone and unrecognizable flesh. He died under the unrelenting press of feet and fists, decades of unleashed fury, and she didn't get to see him die.
A pair of guards dragged Katniss back indoors. Johanna untangled herself from the pulsing riot and made a beeline for the mansion's doors, Gale fast behind. "Johanna, wait! They won't let you – !" She pushed aside the bodies blocking the entrance, crashed through anyone else who dared lay a hand of restraint. She moved as a tornado whipping down the halls, leaving swollen lips and several broken noses in her wake.
Haymitch barricaded the door to the Presidential Office. "Give it a rest, Mason." He was sober, disheveled, looking uglier than she had ever known him.
"Move it, Haymitch."
"No one's seeing her. No one's saying anything and no one's seeing her." He looked her up and down, his upper lip curling. "Especially not you."
"I'm going to see her!"
"You don't get it, do you? This isn't about you, it's about Katniss. That crazy girl is on lockdown until we can ship her out of the Capitol. District Thirteen is frothing at the mouth, demanding her head. We're doing everything we can to get her pardoned, and that means no one goes in."
Her nostrils flared as she grabbed his shirt front, pulled his chest towards hers till they were nose to nose and she spewed angry breath into his face, her voice a low growl. "Katniss has done everything you asked of her, and so have I. I'm done taking your orders. I'm done taking District Thirteen's orders. I'm done taking anyone's orders and I'm going to start making some of my own! And the first one will be to permanently remove that ugly head of yours unless you move over and let me in."
She pushed him away. Haymitch staggered backwards, venom in his eyes. After a pause he said, "Five minutes."
She barreled inside. "Katniss, you –!" She stopped cold. The Mockingjay sat hunched in a corner, eyes boring into her lap. No longer the soaring savior of Panem, her wings were clipped and she was crashing back to earth. If we burn you burn with us. And the girl on fire was going up in flames.
Katniss raised her face. Her eyes settled on Joahnna and flickered with a shred of recognition. "What are you doing here, Johanna?"
Her fury resurfaced. Why shouldn't I be here? Why shouldn't she take five long steps forward, cock her fist, and send Katniss flying to the floor as she screamed, "You idiot! You selfish bitch. How could you?" A muffled voice behind her, Gale yelling for her to Stop! What are you doing? The pull of his arms around her waist as every limb thrashed for freedom and revenge.
"He was supposed to die! How could you let him live?"
Blood dripped from a corner of Katniss' mouth. "He did die."
"He was supposed to die by your hand. You were given that right, and you threw it away!"
She sounded emptied, voice desiccated when she replied, "Would you have done any different?"
"Yeah. I would have." Johanna threw Gale off and closed her eyes, breathing deeply. She opened them hoping to face an enemy, but instead found only a tired girl with a pair of resigned eyes. Katniss was prepared to die for taking out the next dictator of Panem, and Johanna hated Haymitch for letting her in, hated Gale for holding her back. "I would have killed that son of bitch!"
But most of all she hated Katniss, for giving up the last of what was hers – for giving up everything she wanted and everything she deserved – in order to do what needed to be done. And that's why –
She's the Mockingjay.
And that's why Johanna wasn't. And why she never would be.
Johanna didn't notice the tears till they were falling down her chin, the familiar drip drip trailing down her neck and into the well of her chest. "Katniss." Suddenly Snow and his death and her unquenchable anger didn't seem important. "What's going to happen to you?" She wiped her eyes. "They won't –"
"Maybe. I don't know." Katniss still lay sprawled on the floor. "They think they can send me back to Twelve as part of a plea deal. Me and Prim and my mom."
"Is that what you want?"
"I don't know. I don't know anything. I never have." She was shaking all over as she pulled herself upright and hugged her knees, eyes tightly shut, lips moving soundlessly, as if repeating one of the mantras Dr. Varga tried incessantly to shove down Johanna's throat. Different avenues of healing. Whatever Katniss was doing, it seemed to work. She opened her eyes and said, "I'm tired. I want to go home."
Haymitch stood at the door. "Times up, Mason." She didn't think his smile would be so smug if he hadn't brought along a pair of armed guards. One of them trained the muzzle to her skull, and Johanna had a small urge to give him a reason.
Instead she let Gale lead her away, his hand at the small of her back.
Katniss' farewell came just as the door slammed. "I hope one day you find what you need."
Johanna broke. It was the last straw, for Katniss to think of Johanna – of someone else – to the last. "Get out of here, Gale. Leave me alone."
He didn't budge. She studied his face, tried to gauge how the ordeal had affected him. But there was no visible pain or sorrow. His emotions were on lockdown, safely hidden. He was just like Katniss in that way. He examined her with that analytical look, that hunter's look that made her feel naked. "You're in no shape to be alone," he said.
Johanna smiled. She smothered a laugh into her hands. "You think you've seen me at my worst?" Her smile sank. "You don't know anything about me, or what I'm capable of. What I've survived without you or anyone else."
"At least let me take you back to your room."
She slapped away his outstretched hand. "No." She stole a final look towards the door that held Katniss prisoner, and fled down the hall.
The engineers who'd first conceived of the Capitol, given birth to its spyres and anti-aircraft defense systems, had chosen its location well. Nestled in the heart of a massive mountain range, its bulwarks were formed of solid ore and the city had sat, unbreached and undisturbed, for over a century, a festering metal wound in the midst of a thriving natural world.
Dappled sunlight showered Johanna's face as she turned it upwards. It felt good to get out from under the tangle of cement and steel, half-standing buildings bleeding glass and plaster. Through the filter of the forest canopy spindle-like clouds wove through the sky. Early morning fog kissed her skin as it crept through the branches.
She dug a hand into the brown satchel hanging at her side.
"Goodbye brainless." A little cloth bundle, tied with a bit of twine and filled with pine needles, lay in her palm. It seemed like an age since Katniss had given it to her, and these days it wasn't her only possession. A closet full of pilfered clothes and some shoes that didn't quite fit but were too fabulous to pass up could attest to that. But it was still the only thing she owned that was given rather than taken, and she had wandered into the forest that sheathed the Capitol so she might return the gift to its rightful home. "Good luck back in your wasteland." It felt only right when Katniss herself had been returned to her home. The Mockingjay was somewhere in the ruins of District Twelve, rebuilding, making sand castles out of the ashes of her old life.
She chucked the bundle into the air and watched it arc out of sight.
"I hope you find what you need. Or maybe just wake up for once and take a big whiff of that tasty loaf of bread that never leaves your side." She smiled broadly, without malice, without conceit. A secret wish carried on the wind. "Maybe one day I'll call you friend."
It was the best she could offer, for someone who never had the luxury to label anyone but enemy.
She retraced her path up the trail and crested a rise. The city loomed into view. With her last souvenir of Katniss gone, the constriction in her chest had loosened. The whole process seemed a bit like hacking up some stubborn phlegm, but Johanna had to admit that maybe some of Dr. Varga's harebrained ideas weren't so nauseatingly stupid.
"You and Katniss bonded at a critical juncture in your life," the doctor had said two days prior, her office in shambles after what she classified in her notes as "another classic Mason rampage." "Your imprisonment by the Capitol made you vulnerable," she had continued. "The restrictions put on you by District Thirteen in participating in the invasion robbed you of any personal closure. Katniss, your training partner, therefore became your medium, your means of vindication. Her success became your success, and when she failed to kill Snow, it also became your failure."
"So what do you want me to do? Hunt her down and force her to kill people until I feel better?"
"Not….exactly. It's time to let go of Katniss, of the Mockingjay and everything she represents in your life. I think what you need is catharsis."
"Sounds like a disease."
"It's an act of symbolism that serves to release strong or repressed emotions."
"Still sounds like a disease. Of the venereal kind."
Speaking of which:
"Hawthorne." She had just broached the outer city limits when she found him sitting casually on the stump of some obliterated statue, strong hands grasping the curve of a sleek bow, a quiver slung across his back. She'd been dodging his calls, avoiding him wherever possible, and after the long separation his placid smile, so near at hand, spiked her heart rate. "What are you doing here?"
"I took your advice."
Her eyes narrowed. "What advice?"
"I stopped by the armory this time." He stooped to lift something from the ground.
"What's that?" Johanna asked.
Gale held out a second bow. "It's our second date."
"Here we are."
Gale had set up a makeshift range on the outskirts of the city. It lay not far from where he had accosted her and consisted mostly of moldering wood piles and half-burnt sofas. And if that weren't classy enough, he'd gone the extra mile and pinned up a few practice targets, shorn-off paintings of former presidents of Panem that once hung proudly in the gallery of the palace, the centerpiece of the whole arrangement a full portrait of Snow, lightly spattered in blood.
There was no way around it: she was impressed. "Not too shabby," she said.
"Admit it: It's masterful."
"The only thing masterful in this dump is this craftsmanship." Her wide eyes drank in every crevice of the bow in her hands. It was heavier than she would have guessed. However slight and delicate it appeared whenever Katniss hoisted it over her head, rousing the masses as she garbled on about flames! and unity! – holding one for herself she could sympathize with the temptation to speechify, raw potential coursing down her arms and to every corner of her soul.
Gale eyed her eyeing the bow. "Gorgeous, isn't she? Who knew something so beautiful could be so deadly?"
Johanna twanged the string. "Did you get that line out of a book, or were you just born that obvious?"
He sidestepped the jab and plucked an arrow from his quiver. "I'm surprised you never learned to use one of these. All those forests out in District Seven." He fitted the arrow into his bowstring, pulled back, and let it fly.
It smacked dead center between Snow's eyes.
Johanna raised an eyebrow. She was starting to get annoyed at how often he was impressing her today. "No one in District Seven hunted."
"I find that hard to believe. There must have been wildlife everywhere."
"You forget that we worked in the forest. We had peacekeepers crawling all over the woods. You couldn't so much as pick up a stray twig without someone busting out the whips." She recalled how their white armor stood out like a blight amidst the browns and greens, the chill of their gaze as she hacked and hacked away. Sometimes she felt bad for the trees. But it was kill or be killed, and those formative lessons had served her well through the years. "The forest wasn't a haven for us. It was a cage."
"A cage? Try working underground in a derelict mine eleven hours a day."
"I never said it was a bad cage." She pulled an arrow out of his quiver and tested the metal tip against her finger, where a bead of crimson formed. She watched it blossom for a moment, then sucked it away. "Are we going to do this, or just keep arguing about whose District had the worst scourgings?"
He crossed his arms. "You might remember that I was actually scourged once."
"I do. I've seen the footage. And trust me, Hawthorne, I've seen far worse." She laughed. "I've done far worse."
"Fine. Let's not waste any more time." He started in with the basics. "Look down the range. Now imagine a line running straight down the center of where you're aiming. That's your shooting line." He taught her the correct stance, left leg forward, feet squared, hips tucked. "Now move your chin over your shoulder – good, good, that's it. You're ready to start."
Johanna notched an arrow. Her first shot fell short and clattered on a heap of rubble. "Your point of aim is too close," Gale said. He tilted her arrow upwards. "Try resting the tip farther down the range." Her second shot landed closer, and on her third she clipped the target. Gale continued to adjust her aim and after an hour one of her arrows sped straight into the heart of President Snow.
"Face it," she said, smirk firmly in place. "I'm a natural."
"Was there ever any doubt?"
"I'm starting to think long distance killing could have its uses." She sent another arrow down the range. This one landed in Snow's groin. "Especially where my therapist is concerned."
"What'd she do this time?"
"The usual. She says that I have outbursts of anger."
"If you say she's got a point, I swear….."
"You'll what?" He snatched the bow out of her hands. "Murder me? Beat me to a pulp? Perform various acts of intense aggression?
Empty handed, she was forced to conjure the only weapon she could, and balled her fists. "So I have an aggressive streak," she forced through clenched teeth. "All it means is that I'm willing to fight for what I want, that I'm a survivor."
"Great. Wonderful. But if you really have no problem with it, why get so defensive?"
I liked him better when he was scared of me. She had a mind to put the fear of her back in him. But he had an infuriating ability to couch every inquiry as a personal challenge, his strong jaw jutted ever slightly out, that begged for a final word from her. "I'm defensive because she had the nerve to call it a negative habit."
"And what would you call it?"
She pondered for a moment, smiled and said, "A necessary habit."
Gale stared at the sky, then set about collecting their things. "It's getting late. We should head back and grab some food." He strapped the bows to his back and held out his hand.
She stared at it like a rattler ready to strike. "Exactly what do you expect me to do with that?"
"I'd settle for holding it."
"I'd settle for –" The retort was packaged and ready to go, something about an amputation free of charge. But the orange glow of the low hanging sun did wonders to his face and stole the words right off her tongue. Before she could talk herself out of it, she snapped her hand out and twined her fingers with his. "Just get going before I change my mind."
The city lay in crumbles. Their hands swayed gently between them as they walked, fresh wind parsing her crop of hair that grew longer and wilder with each passing day.
For the first time in awhile, she filled her lungs with air and felt glad she was alive. Glad to be a survivor.
"You know I'm right," she said softly. "And don't tell me you're not still as angry as me."
"Of course I'm angry. I'll always be angry. But The Capitol's destroyed. The war is over. We're done surviving. Maybe it's not so necessary anymore. Maybe it's time to let some of it go."
"Is that what you're doing?
"It's what I'm trying to do." He smiled then. A good, solid, dependable looking smile, if a little broken around the edges. Probably still pining away for Katniss.
"If that's the case, you should have gone back with Katniss. Bread boy and that idiot Haymitch hitched a ride back there. And correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure that's where your whole family lives."
"They do." He swallowed. "But Twelve's not the same as it used to be. It doesn't feel like home anymore, not to me." His eyes sheened in the cool twilight. He fastened them to the darkening horizon and she recalled he'd once watched his entire District burn to ash before his eyes.
She stopped and dropped his hand. "I don't get it." The wind picked up and she hugged herself. "You nearly died saving that rock pile."
"I nearly died saving the people in it. And most of the survivors have scattered. I'm not interested in trying to get back what's gone forever. I'd rather spend my life making something new." He held out his hand again.
She turned away. "Don't."
She was silent. She gazed upwards, tried to explain the void inside to the emerging stars, formulate it into something tangible enough to share with words. "Katniss let Snow live. I could never do that. I'd let the whole world burn before I did that. I could never be that good."
"And you think I am?"
"That's not the point."
"Isn't it, though? What do you believe? That you're not good enough? Not good enough for – what, exactly? Happiness? Love?"
She shook her head. "Do you know how hard I tried to hate her?"
"Makes sense. We all hate our weaknesses."
"But she's just –" Her hands squeezed the air. "She's impossible to hate! No matter what I did, she was there. And she became my friend." Friend. Johanna wasn't ignorant of the value of that word. She had few to speak of, even less who she would call good. "The point is that now she's gone, and all that goodness and friendship is gone, it makes me realize how little I have of both."
"Hey." He took her by the elbow and guided her back around. Face to face he said, "You've got me. And maybe, if we try really, really hard to stay on our very best behavior, we can scrape out enough goodness between us to make maybe, like half a Katniss."
She smiled slowly. His face mirrored hers, and drew closer, closer than she ever intended himto be, though she couldn't call the warmth that radiated from his chest and arms unwanted, nor did she shy away from his hot breath as the gap between them inched to a close.
"What do you say, Jojobean?" he whispered.
She leaned back. "What did you just call me?"
His face cracked. "It's a nickname." He rubbed the back of his head, a sheepish grin on his face that was difficult to pin down, though virginal sprung to her mind, and a reminder that he was all of nineteen years old and had spent the best years of his reckless youth down the shaft of a coal mine. "It's a thing I do, I give people nicknames, usually food related. I mean, I've got a lot of little brothers and sisters, so –"
That was when she kissed him. Warm, sweet, surprisingly satisfying despite the slight sloppiness. It wasn't the first pair of lips she had ever kissed, but a little thrill in her chest told her she might not mind it being the last.
When they pulled apart he looked a little baffled, and a lot like she had just decked him.
Johanna smiled. "Call me that again, Hawthorne, and you will not live to tell the tale." Then they dove in for another.
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