Katniss accompanies Gale to the medical bay the next day, their friendship renewing as surely as his shoulder is healing. I give them some privacy and watch them by the window, my eyes following the way Katniss brushes her fingers over Gale’s back, probably tracing the scars he’d gotten so long ago. Whipped by Peacekeepers, Gale told me once, and the wounds were like fire on his back for weeks.
“It doesn’t matter though,” Gale says, staring off into the distance. “They don’t hurt as much as-”
“Inside,” I finish for him.
He tips his bottle towards me, meeting my gaze. “Inside,” he agrees.
I watch them speak, Gale’s face free of shadows for the first time in a long time and Katniss’ expression caught between relief and exasperation. Beetee mutters a quick hello to me before entering the bay, resembling a medic more than a tech expert. He works to the best of his abilities, though, and for that I have no complaints. At this rate, I’m going to have to come up with a better name for him than Volts.
Someone shuffles up beside me, her presence signaled by the heavy step of a limp, and stares straight ahead into the room where Beetee is forcing Katniss to stay put while he does a scan on Gale’s shoulders and arms.
“I watched her,” Cat says, never taking her eyes off Katniss. “Right until last year.”
“Bet it gave you quite the show.” I can’t seem to control the acid in my tone. “Did you enjoy it like you enjoyed mine?”
The only indication that I’m pissing her off is by the tiny twitch lips. The rest of her is the perfect portrait of a person eternally unimpressed with everything.
“I didn’t enjoy it,” she replies, voice never once betraying her emotions. “It didn’t seem like such a fun game. Everyone else around me thought it was the highest honor, though. I almost did, too.”
“So you’re from a Career district, then.” I glance at her. “You wanted your name called out?”
“For a moment.” Her eyes grow distant. “One shining moment. Then you threw an axe into my sister.”
Alarm ripples through me, and I stiffen. The memory of the pretty Career girl from District 1 – Cashmere, I recall – comes back to me; the sound of my axe finding its spot in her chest, the way her eyes widen and her mouth falls open, the illusion shattering as her body breaks, truth spilling forth by way of her blood – truth that the Hunger Games are nothing but a lie, not some place you get to elevate yourself so that you might escape the touch of death because no one-
“Don’t look so pale,” Cat mutters, finally looking over at me. She somehow manages to still look unimpressed, even though we’re discussing her dead siblings. “She asked for it. And so did Gloss.”
There’s no forgiveness in her eyes, but no judgment either. Just the same blank stare, the unwavering line of her lips and the calmness with which she speaks. The only way I can describe her is a husk – empty on the inside, scraped dry of humanity with nothing left to show for it, save for the one moment she threw her composure and well-being aside for Weyland just several days ago.
“But they – they were from home,” I hear myself say. “Family.”
Cat takes a deep breath, closing her eyes as she turns her face away. “Yes,” she whispers, “they were. But they’re gone now. I can’t spend my entire life grieving.”
“No,” I agree with a slight nod, though I’m still a little unnerved at her aloofness. “You can’t.”
“And Katniss. She lost her sister too, didn’t she?” Cat lets out a sigh. “Not in the way I lost Cashmere, but…similar.”
“She did.” I swallow with effort. “And Peeta.”
Cat hums in mere acknowledgment, where there is supposed to be sympathy. I decide to look past her strangeness; sometimes grief brings about a deep transformation, but sometimes it just digs deep inside and takes everything. Blight’s words, as I recall, during the days of my Games where I was but a stubborn tribute and he was an equally stubborn mentor. I had been so determined to win back my life, only to have Snow take it all with a mere snap of his fingers, breaking me in like a horse that knew no loyalty, no discipline.
Like hell I’m going to let Paylor bring us back down memory lane.
We stand there watching the goings-on inside the medical bay in silence, caught up in our own worlds. Some time later, when Beetee begins patching Gale up, Cat clears her throat, as if to remind me that she’s still here.
“You don’t want her to fight.” She skips over the subject of discussing dead loved ones with ease, without batting an eyelid. “Am I right?”
“What do you care what I think? What does anyone care?” I shrug off the returning unpleasantness from my last conversation with Plutarch. “I’m just a girl who can’t control her feelings.”
“Your feelings saved Captain Hawthorne.” She slowly meets my gaze, her lips tugging into a faint smile. “And her feelings saved you. I’d say feelings are a good thing.”
“A little bit ironic coming from you, don’t you think?” I smirk.
She shrugs, brushing loose strands of hair from her face. “We’re all pretenders at one point or another.”
“So you’re pretending to be stone cold and fearless now?” I can’t resist the dig. “Is that it?”
Cat makes a strange sound – a laugh, I realize quickly. The idea that she has a sense of humor doesn’t register properly in my mind.
“I didn’t come here to discuss me,” she says after a while, smoothing the creases of her uniform like she does her emotions in one swift brush of a hand. “I came here to tell you that if you let Katniss go with us, I’d make sure she survives this round.”
“You—what?” I narrow my eyes, unable to understand. “Why would you do that?”
Cat’s gaze is still on the window and the room beyond. “We need her. So how about it? Can you trust me with that?”
“I don’t trust anyone that easily.” The last time I did with a total stranger…
Her tone hardens a little. “Then trust my ability to get the job done.”
“She’s not a job to be done with!” Rage fuels my movement; I curl my fingers around her collar and pin her against the far side of the room, up against the wall. Without even a flicker of fear in her eyes, Cat only tips her head to the side with a slight frown on her face, like she doesn’t understand what I’m saying. I tighten my grip on her. “She’s a person with family and a life to be had and-”
“Why don’t you just say it outright? She’s important to you.” Cat calmly latches her gloved hands around my wrists, still watching me with those empty eyes. A chill descends my spine. “I get it, Johanna. You shouldn’t assume I am beyond all that.”
I think of Weyland, and my grip softens a little.
“So don’t ask me to trust you,” I say through gritted teeth. “Make a promise. Then keep it. Show me you can actually do it.”
“Alright,” she says softly, nodding. “I promise.”
“What was that back there?” Katniss nudges me with her elbow. “You and that girl, outside.”
“That? That was nothing.” I shrug. “She just said the wrong thing, that’s all.”
Katniss frowns at me. “And you decided to just ram her against the wall and strangle her,” she concludes in a measured tone. “Johanna.”
“Katniss.” I cock my head to the side, grinning at her. It’s hard not to tease her.
She rolls her eyes and takes my hand in hers, rubbing soothing circles with her thumb. I turn my hand over and catch hers. “You never did tell me how you got around to getting to the city.”
Katniss shrugs. “They moved in more soldiers, landed a hovercraft in the square, I snuck on. Easy.”
“Easy,” I repeat, shaking my head. An edge comes into my voice. “And what if they found you? Did you ever think of that?”
“I was more preoccupied with the thought that you were in that Justice Building when it blew up, but yeah, maybe I should have given it some thought,” she says, words tempered with sarcasm and irritation. She looks away, exhaling heatedly.
“Hey.” I catch her by the chin and turn her back to me. “I’m not trying to make you feel like a fool.”
“I know,” she says evenly. “I guess I just wanted to get to you. I would’ve killed anyone to do it.” She shifts closer, towards me now, the undercurrent of viciousness in her voice sending shivers down my spine. She puts a hand to my face, knotting her fingers in my hair. “Anyone.”
“Okay,” I say, nodding slowly. I turn my face to kiss the inside of her palm. “I’d be dead without you, I hope you know that.”
“You’ve been through worse,” she says with a half-hearted laugh, referencing my days in the Capitol after the Quarter Quell. “And you held your own, way before I ever came into the picture.”
“No. Not like this,” I clasp my hand around hers. “Never like this.”
She nods, recognition in her eyes. Without waiting a second longer I lunge forward, sending us both crashing to the floor. The drumming of my pulse is impossible to stifle and I act unthinkingly, tapping on my base desires and biting down hard on her neck. Katniss stiffens beneath me, her gasp sharp and sudden, but she doesn’t push me off. If anything, she encourages me with a tug on my waist, and I break her skin.
I sit up and observe my handiwork and she just stares at me, breathless but expectant. Blood trickles down the curve of her neck, bright against her skin. I take my time and run my tongue against the inside of my teeth, tasting her blood.
“When you go out there,” I say calmly, wiping my lips to check if there’s any blood there, “Don’t think of anything but coming back to me. Okay?”
“Okay,” she murmurs, pressing two fingers to the side of her neck, her eyes still fixed on me. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Good. Because if you die down there, I’ll destroy the entire country.” I lean over, pressing my mouth against the bite on her neck, running my tongue over the welt. She lets out a soft moan. I lift my head, briefly. “I mean it.”
She sighs, hands sliding up to hold my face. She looks at me with an odd smile on her lips, her face already flushed. “Is this your idea of being romantic?”
“Hmm,” I bend over and trail kisses along her jawline. “Do you like it?”
“I like you, if that helps.”
“And I don’t not like you,” I answer, echoing her words from before. She glares at me, but I dispel her annoyance with a kiss.
“I like you a lot,” she continues, when I pull away. In one swift movement, she rolls over and pins me to the ground. “I like you more than a lot, Johanna. And I’m coming back for you.”
My heart takes a leap. She’s so beautiful when she’s so earnest, I think to myself. Even if we’re about to fuck each other senseless. “I know. I like you too. You’re the only one I like.”
“Johanna,” she urges, like she wants me to say something more, before pushing in with a rough kiss to the neck. I press my body against hers as my back arches, feeling her teeth grazing my skin like a predator preparing to finish the hunt. She says my name again, with reverence in her tone, and I feel my face flush underneath the warmth of her passion.
I close my eyes as she nips at my flesh. I yelp when she fixes her teeth onto my neck. “Fuck, if you aren’t a biter…”
“That’s payback,” she says, sitting up. “And also how I know you belong to me.” She gently rocks her hips against mine and I shudder under the pressure against my crotch. “You got that?”
“I belong to you,” I repeat, carrying the words inside me like a mantra. “Yeah, I like the sound of that.”
“Good.” She slides a hand up my shirt. “Good. Now show me you understand what I just said.”
Words begin to fail me, but it’s just as well – I do a lot better with action rather than with speech, after all.
Two days later we arrive at District 4. Katniss takes the chance to trim my hair, the night before their big drop on the Justice Building, and I sit still under her touch as she snips at the edges. I watch her from the mirror; her face is wound tight in concentration and she’s biting down hard on her lip, like she’s never handled anything else but the bow in her life and this is proving to be her most daunting task yet.
She finishes, minutes later, and brushes a hand along the back of my neck to dust off the stray bits of hair. Her hand slides to grip my shoulder, and she looks right at my reflection, mouth pulling into a faint, satisfied smile. “Better.”
“I don’t see the difference,” I turn my head from side to side. “You sure it’s not just an excuse to touch me?”
Katniss rolls her eyes. “If I wanted to touch you, I wouldn’t even have to ask.”
“Oh, yeah. Because I’m that easy.”
“You are,” her eyes twinkle with amusement, “when you’re with me.” She gives my shoulder a squeeze before leaving my side. I get off my seat and follow her, all too aware of the seconds counting themselves off in my head until she gets off this ship. Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock.
In the loading bay, Beetee prepares the three of them, handing them tiny radio transceivers and giving them a few minutes to get acquainted with how it works. Gale, Weyland and I sit on the sides, looking very much like three players being benched during a big game, except it’s not a game. Far from it. I give Cat a meaningful look when she looks my way, and she returns this with the slight tip of her head in acknowledgment.
“Alright,” Beetee checks the datapad in his hand. “We’re almost directly over the Justice Building. Remember the cloaking mechanism that’s part of your parachute. Everybody ready?”
Weyland gets to his feet and walks over to Jace’s side to offer them luck – at least, that’s what I think he’s going to say. Despite the proximity I can hardly hear a word he says, though his lips are moving, like something out of a silent movie. I glance at Gale. “Is he always this quiet?”
Gale shrugs, leaning against the back of his seat. “I think so. He never speaks unless he has to.”
Weyland moves to pass Cat her helmet, though they don’t do much except look at each other. That’s the moment I see her mouth taking on an unpleasant curl, her hands going to his prosthetic hand and her eyes, lost and searching, meeting his. We’re all pretenders at one point or another.
The loading ramp lowers itself, revealing the town by the sea below. I move to the edge, gripping a safety pole by the side, and take a look at District 4. I squint and manage to see the harbor, where there are more hovercrafts stationed than actual boats. The waves lap at the ports, almost angry in their movement, like they, too, hate the return the suffocating strangle of oppression.
For a fleeting moment I consider letting myself go, falling into the ocean in hopes of finding Finnick somewhere down below, enjoying a good swim like he’d told me he would. A far better place than this, I think to myself.
“He should be here with us.” Katniss’ voice stirs me from my trance. I turn to her, watching the wind whipping at her hair. Shame overcomes me and the thought of certain suicide evaporates, whisked away by the strong winds. “Finnick, I mean.”
“I know,” I respond, unable to meet her gaze. “He saved me, you know. Made me come back. Told me to wake up and live again.”
A gloved hand tilts my chin up. There’s a hint of curiosity in her gray eyes. “He told you to what?”
I shake my head. “No, never mind. We’ll talk more when we’re done here, okay?”
She frowns slightly, but nods. “Okay.”
The words lump together in my throat. Despite the way we’ve eased into each other over the past few days, it’s still hard to articulate everything to her. My knees buckle under the weight of her gaze, like I am everything she sees, but I hold myself together – for myself, and for her.
“Don’t make me wait too long.” It comes out sounding more like a plea than a firm instruction, and I wonder just how far I’ve fallen.
She doesn’t answer me immediately, though her lips threaten me with a knowing smile. Then she nods, and her voice is warm, like a life-giving fire in the middle of a winter storm.
I watch her leap off the ramp, shrinking and shrinking until I don’t see her anymore and the ramp lifts, blocking District 4 from view entirely, the finality of the metal clang signaling the beginning of a very long day.