Johanna is sprawled across the couch, flipping through a report on infrastructure in what used to be the Capitol. Her shirt has ridden up and is exposing the smooth skin of her lower back.
Gale leans over the back of it, taps one of the bumps of her spine with the tip of a finger. "Hey," he says, "dinner's ready."
"Don’t do that," she says, twisting around to glare at him like a wet cat, but there is no urgency in it. (It has taken them forever to get this far.)
"Sorry," he grins, completely unapologetic. "I managed to burn the salad, I think." He offers her his hand.
"You’re such a mess." She's got narrowed eyes but her voice is fond, and she's putting the report aside, fingers around his wrist to pull herself up. "How do you even do that?"
"Magic," he says, "obviously."
When he first gets to District Two, it's a relief to settle his mother and Posy in a little cottage and then leave. That probably makes him a bad person, but: every time his mother looks at him, he knows she's seeing Vick and Rory trapped, burning, seeing Prim falling into ash. He knows he deserves it but it still hurts.
There is still that last conversation with Peeta Mellark sitting in the back of his head; Gale's awkward look after her colliding with Peeta's stay safe, with the ghost of the girl leaning over Peeta's shoulder to look accusingly at Gale. He walked away quickly; all he seems to have done in this war is kill people and then run away.
The new government has offered him his pick of jobs, and accommodation in their base; apparently being ex-friends with the Mockingjay nets you a single room, which is kind of nice. It’s dark out, but he's hungry; on his way to the mess, he runs into Johanna Mason, wearing a jacket that's too big for her and massive dark circles around her eyes.
"Hey," she says, stopping, "Hawthorne, right?" There's nothing accusatory in the way she recognises him, nothing like you are a murderer that he sees in all the people he used to know, used to love. Just that basic emotion: I know you.
"Johanna Mason?" he says. The last time he saw her, Katniss didn't want to kill him. "Hey, what are you--"
"I’m actually starving," she says, "food, and then you can ask all the stupid questions you want."
They sit across from one another at a metal table; the mess is practically empty. He has a forkful of something that might once have been alive, but the consistency isn't promising for that.
She’s wolfing down something grey, like she hasn't eaten in weeks; it's not that he doesn't get it, but it's weird. (She reminds him of that girl he used to love, who always ate like she wouldn't have another meal.)
"I thought you'd go back to Seven," he ventures, so he won't think about similarities.
She swallows a lump of food. "Thought you'd go back to Twelve," she counters, gaze giving nothing away. "Guess we surprise each other."
He pokes at his food some more. "I guess.”
There’s a flickering lightbulb above their heads; it keeps casting weird shadows, distorting the way his pile of mushed might-have-been-food looks on its shiny grey plate.
Her plate's empty; she pushes it away, drops her knife and fork on top of it with a clatter. "So," she says. "You’re working here, then?"
He stabs something resembling meat, thinking about the job offer; we'd like you to help us rebuild. "They’ve offered. I’m not entirely sure what I want, yet. What about you?"
She shrugs. "It’s kind of nice to think I might get to be useful for a change, you know?" Her elbows are braced on the edge of the table.
"That’s overrated," he says, thinking about fire.
Neither of them say anything for a while. Other people come through the doors, look at them, settle at a table in the opposite corner. One of them is a woman with a long dark braid; it takes him a moment to pull himself together.
She breaks the silence with, "So you're here alone?"
He thinks about his mother, about Posy, about a girl in billowing sleeves. "Yeah.”
Her mouth twists up at one corner, wry. "Me too," she says. "Do you want to share a house?"
He chokes on his water. "What?"
She laughs. "Well," she says, "I’ve been doing some reading: our options for long term residency here, as non-citizens of Two and as government employees, extend to civilian residences or on-base housing. I don't know about you, but if I don't sleep in another grey, concrete room ever again in my life I won't be upset. Unfortunately, my shrink gives me the stink-eye every time I venture out of doors alone, and apparently his opinion on my mental health matters."
He doesn't even know why he's listening to this, considering this. "I get nightmares," he says.
Her grin is fierce, bright, mirthless. "I survived two Hunger Games," she says. "You think I sleep soundly?"
This is potentially the stupidest decision of his life (no, he's made that; it came in the shape of wires and good intentions), and he is making it over mushed peas, under a flickering light. "Have you picked a place," he asks, "or should we start looking?"
She tells him the first thing she did, upon getting to Two, was to make friends with the proprietors of the nearest liquor store. Of course she did; he's not complaining. There were a lot of shitty things about Thirteen but one of the big ones was definitely the lack of alcohol.
There is a bottle dangling from her fingers; she grins and sits on the end of the bare cot in the concrete room that's been allocated to him, pours two glasses of cheap red and passes one to him.
He thanks her and slips his fingers around the curve of it. They are clean, and dark. There is a part of him that thinks they should be sticky and red.
Her lips are dark red, with the wine, curving up just a little at the edges. Her eyelashes are dark, she looks at him through them but she's smirking, nothing coy about her. She says, "It’s terrible wine."
He sips some of it and laughs. "At least it's not white liquor.”
"Small mercies," she laughs, and stops, eyes heavy on him. "We could have done worse, as far as ends of the world go."
They drink in silence, until he falls asleep; when he wakes up his mouth is fuzzy and his bed is empty, except for the bottle that's on his pillow. Someone has tucked him in.
Johanna has not picked a place. Neither of them have said yes to work yet, so they take the next day and walk around the neighbourhood; Johanna's done her research, apparently, and they've got a list of places with absent owners, whose utilities will get covered by their wages if they get government jobs. Two is all chaos, right now: the section that Parliament's been established in is where all the Peacekeepers used to live, for minimal disruption to normal civilians' state of affairs-- apparently the war was a pretty big deal, or something-- so it's pretty much any place that doesn't have people in it.
He wonders if she'll be horrific to live with, but is kind of glad she offered; he's never lived alone, wasn't particularly excited to start, but he'd have taken it over the pain in his mother's eyes, over the loss in his sister's.
It turns out they have similar taste in housing, which is good-- they're both from poor Districts, they aren't going to make a big deal out of interior design. (There is a part of him that desperately wants access to a forest, but this is Two, this is the city; and it would be prodding at an open wound.)
She's Seven, so when they look at a house with high beautiful ceilings she frowns and checks the structural integrity of it, raps on the wood and squints at the beams, goes under the house to check the struts, comes out with dirt on her cheek and says, "It'd collapse in a storm, I bet." And she lived in the Capitol, for a while; so while Gale can take or leave water pressure she turns the showers on, assesses technology he only ever saw in the house in Victors' Village.
He's Twelve; he checks for proper ventilation, flammability-- now that the Capitol's down they're going to be relying a lot more on fires here than heaters, and there is no way he is going to live in another burned-down house. There's a low, neat house just on the outskirts of what used to be the Peacekeeper quarter; she likes it, pronouncing it solid, and it seems like a comfortable sort of place, but when he walks through he realises that if there was a fire there'd be no containing it, the whole house would be gone in no time.
They give each other these passes; somehow, they understand each other.
They settle on an apartment by the new Justice Building. It’s large, full of windows; apparently it was owned by a Peacekeeper who died in the Nut. He should probably feel guilty about that, but he's got guilt for centuries and eventually you just get too tired to feel it anymore. It is also, conveniently, five minutes' walk from any of the buildings either of them will work at, and the rest of the apartments are filled with their co-workers. Gale likes the height of it, and the way all the windows have views of cityscapes, grey buildings stretching out until the horizon.
They pull out all the furniture, because no one wants to live in exactly the same house a dead man had; shift the beds down three flights of stairs to put them out on the curb. All along the quarter it's like this; they score a fantastically ugly couch and two beds and a couple of tables just from walking around, and some paint from their downstairs neighbours, in exchange for helping them paint their living room. It’s like the Seam, like Gale's childhood, only without the threat of starvation ever-looming. It’s kind of nice.
There is one room that faces in the direction of the Nut; that is Johanna's bedroom. She has taken out the glass in the window, replaced it with a trellis, and filled the room with plants. They learn to sew, and make curtains.
They both know how to walk soundlessly, but the apartment is always full of the sounds of their feet, of the clatter that they make just by existing. This is how they are: careful with each other.
He’s taken a job with Defence, drafting that section of a new Constitution; why the fuck they want him as an advisor he has no idea, but he's one of the last survivors from Twelve, that probably counts for something. She's in the same office, but they rarely see each other at work; her people are drafting infrastructure agreements, designing new buildings to replace the old, allocating resources and making plans for future allocations. Both of them hate paperwork but will slog through it anyway.
She goes on camera a lot, though, as a familiar face; they keep trying to get Gale on too, but the idea of it makes him want to vomit, remembering the trip into the Capitol. He asks Johanna how she can do it, one night, over beans on toast that she has made; the curve of her lips is wry as she says, "It would be a shame to waste the experience."
He calls his mother twice. It is like they are in different Districts; she asks him to come visit, but in a weary tired way that sounds like obligation more than anything else. Gale doesn't begrudge her this: if he had lost two children because of another, he'd be focusing on the last, youngest, brightest one. Posy sends him pictures; the flowers here aren't like the ones in Twelve.
Both Gale and Johanna are nightmare city; the bedrooms are next to each other, and while neither of them scream, they've started to get a sixth sense-- the fourth night Gale wakes up sweating to images of Rory burning alive, she's sitting at the kitchen table with two glasses of water, hair sleep-mussed, eyes kind. They don't talk, but that's not what it's about: there is a level of companionship with her he has not felt since he was a hunter, since a dark-haired girl glared at him and shot a squirrel through the eye.
Neither of them can cook, beyond basic survival skills-- he can burn meat, find edible plants; she can cook vegetables into a solid mush and make a pretty decent stew from the insides of your average tree, but neither of them can do much with the packaged processed food that is what you get, here. She at least can use the microwave, but in the Capitol all the food was ready-made.
For a while they steal food from the mess at work, but it starts to get ridiculous when they are carrying around containers of grey slop with them all day.
He borrows a cookbook from one of his co-workers, a rebel leader from Eleven named Scythe, who grins and says, this really helped me. Bird, who is from Nine and so more knowledgeable, laughs, it's really not that complicated.
They learn that you are supposed to peel the bright yellow fruit before you eat it, and that Johanna likes her meat burnt and black, and that Gale should not be allowed near the oven unsupervised.
All things considered, they're doing okay.
It's their first Sunday night in the apartment, and work is the next day, and both of them are ridiculously fucking tired; Johanna says, "Do you miss Katniss?" with her hands wrapped around a cup of tea, a sheaf of papers about socioeconomics-- research and interviews and graphs-- strewn across the kitchen table in front of her, and then sucks in a sharp breath, "Shit. I didn't realise I was talking."
Gale's papers are all over the couch, schematics mixed with statistics; for a moment he doesn't realise what she's said, too tired, brain too foggy, but then Katniss' name gets through to his heart, like one of her arrows, like it always does. He raises his head and looks at Johanna; she is wearing sweatpants that fit low on her hips, and a shirt that might be his because they've been all paperwork all weekend, and she can't meet his eyes. "Yeah," he says. "Always."
She flinches just a little, staring into her tea. "Why’d you leave?"
"Because I love her." He should use the past tense. He is not strong enough for that yet, not quite. He thinks, and I broke her, and she broke me, and we could only ever blame each other. "You could have gone to Four," he says, thinking about Finnick Odair, about Annie Cresta. "You know people there." His pen is leaking blue ink all over his fingertips; it looks a little like blood, in inverse, soaking into the whorls of his skin.
"No," she says, infinitely tired, like him, "I couldn't have."
There is so much weight in her voice; he wonders if it was in his, when he said, I love her.
They finish working in silence; go to their separate rooms and separate beds in unspoken accord.
He wakes up at three and brings water to her bedside; she is shaking but she murmurs thank you anyway, and holds onto his wrist with slippery fingers. He has a crick in his neck in the morning, and she has drooled on his chest. (He wonders if this is what it is like for Peeta Mellark, living with someone the war snapped into a hundred pieces.)
The next night:
He dreams about birds on fire, pinwheeling through the sky, and forces himself awake to find her sitting next to him, legs curled up under her on his blanket.
"Hey," she murmurs. "I’ve got you."
There is sweat on his brow; he is clammy and shaky but somehow it feels like the only course of action is this:
He leans up, hand on her cheek, and presses his lips to hers. For the first time in what feels like a hundred years there is no girl on fire sitting in the back of his mind; it is wiped clean, empty, free of anything but Johanna.
They break apart, reluctant but the air is cold on his face without her.
She says, "This is a terrible idea."
"I know," he says.
She turns her face into his, leans her forehead against his and braces her palm against his chest, over his heart, and just breathes, out and in and out again.
He wants to kiss her again but he doesn't. She smells like soap and laundry powder with just an undercurrent of soil; he wonders if she watered her plants before she went to sleep and shifts his hand to her hip, to keep them steady.
This is how they stay, until morning seeps through his open window, and brings them back to reality.
He asks, "Why Finnick?"
It is another of their late-night conversations when both of them are running against deadlines and overstimulated and frayed at all their edges. The lamp in the living room keeps flickering on and off; they are sharing the kitchen table, their papers mixing and mingling at the edges, like armies at the front line.
The skin around his eyes is tight; he rubs at it with one hand, doodling a whorl in the edge of his page with the pen in the other.
Her voice is slow, meandering, thoughtful. "He made sense," she says. "And he was my best friend. And I have always wanted things I can't have."
"What about Annie?" He probably shouldn't be asking this, but Johanna's eyes are so sad when she wakes up, and he has broken so many things. It is like he wants to know that at least she is not his fault.
Her smile is like broken glass. "She wasn't-- there wasn't ever any kind of competition. He was my best friend, and he taught me I could feel safe again, but she was his whole world. More than that, even. I was never patient with her."
He wonders if he is the Annie to Katniss' Finnick; probably, but he was never shattered enough for her to need him. And Annie never broke Finnick's heart. Except: "I was there when he died," Gale says, because he should say it, right. "I’m sorry I didn't--" he thinks, I should have saved him.
She says, "You were saving her, right." She doesn't have to say the name.
He doesn't say anything. It feels like he's making excuses when he nods.
Her eyelashes are dark against her skin. Her face is tilted away from him. "We knew what we were getting into." her voice is soft, for Johanna Mason. "Neither of us thought we'd make it out of the Quell."
"Annie did." It kind of hurts to say it.
"He did it for her," Johanna says. "So she'd have-- something. Freedom, I think. Who even knows what that is anymore?"
"What about you?" There is a graph on the top of his stack of his papers. He traces his fingers along the slope of it.
Her shoulders are stiff. "I didn't exactly have another option. Except dying. And-- he asked me to."
He says, "I get that." Because he does; this is how things work. He reaches out, puts his hand on top of hers.
"You’re such a sap," she says. But she's smiling, sort of soft.
From the kitchen, she says, "I have to go to Twelve."
He’s halfway through a report on the stockpiles of nuclear weaponry they've found underneath the Capitol. He does not drop it. "Okay," he says. His throat is dry. Part of him is thinking, wishing, wanting; home. "Work?"
She’s shrugging, hands steady around the plate she's washing. Her voice is tight, calm. "Haymitch asked-- insisted. They’re gonna have to manage for a couple of days."
"I’ll water your plants," he says. He is thinking, can you sleep alone? He is thinking, can I? He thinks, I guess we'll find out.
She says, "Thanks."
Work is insanely busy; they are always pushing themselves incredibly hard, running on not very much sleep and too much coffee. It’s kind of great because this way Gale doesn't have time to think but kind of horrible because all he is is adrenaline; he's always wired and stressed out and on.
So when Scythe says, "Okay, everyone, that's enough," and shepherds their whole division to the nearest bar, Gale is nothing but grateful. Everyone expects him to be a lightweight, young as he is (and he is young, to be in charge of people, to have the job that he does) but he is living with Johanna Mason, who can drink basically anyone under the table, and he was practically raised on white liquor. So three shots after Bird has slumped across the table and said, "You are a machine and I salute you," Gale is pretty fucking buzzed.
Part of him is thinking, your house is empty; he tells that part to shut the fuck up and get happy already. It is totally that part's fault that he waves at the pretty girl at the end of the bar and says, "Would you like to dance?" That part is all about the euphemisms. It seems like now he is the kind of guy who kisses drunk girls.
(On the plus side; he doesn’t freak out the woman whose bed he is in by having a nightmare all over her. Apparently his brain has saved that honour for Johanna.
He doesn’t, however, sleep at all. Just lies on his back and stares at the ceiling and listens to her breathing.)
Johanna smells like liquor when she gets back from Twelve. Her hair is tousled and she looks like she's about to throw up. Her loose white shirt has dubious stains on it and there is grass on her pants.
"Let me get your bag," Gale says, quickly, and shoulders it.
There are people in the transit station looking at them; swaying former Victors is probably not something you see every day, now that Haymitch Abernathy's been removed from wide circulation.
She frowns at him. "I can handle my own bag," she says, and stumbles against his side, shaky, like she never is.
He wraps his arm around her, carefully, worried despite himself. "Hey," he says, gently, "steady on."
"Steady on my ass," she says, but she gets her arm around his waist, lets herself be shepherded the five minute walk to home, into the elevator and through their green and peeling front door.
He says, "Bag in your room?"
She is flat on her back on the couch, heel of her hand pressed to her forehead. "Do I look like I care?" she snaps.
If he is being honest, he is a little afraid to leave her on her own; they just got the coffee table and it has a glass top. He puts her bag on the floor by his feet, and gets her a glass of water.
"Here,” he says, pressing it into her hand.
She closes her eyes, wrinkling her nose. "No thanks."
He sits on the edge of the coffee table. "You'll feel better.” (They have shared enough hangovers for him to know what works for her.)
"I hate you." But she is swallowing it, he can see it in the line of her throat.
"You really don't." He takes the glass back from her, puts it down with a clink. "I’m guessing the trip went well?"
"Fucking amazing." She rolls her eyes and winces. "The advent of the Republic has not changed Haymitch's shitty taste in alcohol."
He laughs, thinks about the Seam, thinks about the girl (not his girl; not ever again). Part of him wants to ask about her; most of him doesn't.
"Hey," she says, and she's turning, rolling over to meet his eyes; hers are brown and infinitely deep and so sad he can't breathe, looking into them, but there is no way he is looking away. "Hey. You need to get over her."
His mouth is dry. He licks his lips. "Johanna?"
"This isn't what love is," she is saying, desperate and raw, "just waiting, just wanting some girl, some broken down fucked up girl in a field to remember that once upon a time she kissed you. You can't-- you're better than this, Gale."
He says, too light, "I guess you saw her then?"
"She’s a hundred pieces of what she was, Gale. She can't ever-- she barely loves Peeta, and he's half of her fucking heart." Her voice breaks, snaps, like a bowstring curling in on itself. "And you killed her sister."
He flinches, can't help himself. "That was the line you just jumped over," he says. "And I don't need her to love me back, I just. Need her to be okay."
Her mouth twists, wry. "My bad," she says. "I’m still kinda drunk." She closes her eyes and frees him of the weight of her stare and he feels dizzy, like he's going to fall apart; when she opens them it is almost a relief. "She’s never going to be okay. She’s-- she's nothing like what she was."
That is my fault, he thinks. The least I can do is to think about her. He doesn't say anything.
"I can't watch that again," she says, achingly slow. "I can't do it. Please."
"I’m not Finnick," he says, carefully; but he is apparently no longer Annie in her mind. "Johanna--"
She shakes her head and turns away. "How come we've never fucked?" she asks, and her tone is so brisk it's like whiplash. "I bet we'd be good together."
"I kissed you once," he says, taking the bait. "You didn't seem too thrilled."
"I’m a pretty amazing actor," she says. Her eyelashes flicker; she is chewing her lip. "I don't get it-- no one made it out but me. The girl on fire burned to ash; Annie drowned, lost everything she had; Finn-- Finn fell in love with Annie. Haymitch is Haymitch. And I'm the girl who sat in the room and voted yes to another set of Hunger Games. Why is it that I made it out of the war unscathed?"
"Games?" His voice is shaky with disbelief. His heart is beating too fast, wrong.
"For the children of the Capitol. Stupid idea Coin had once upon a time. It was just-- I was angry." She’s too brusque, too clipped, to not feel it, to not mean it.
He hates Coin all over again; thinks about Prim, thinks, all you knew how to do was kill children. He hates himself more, because he understands all of it. “Hey,” he says, because he’s lied enough to last him the rest of his life. “If I was there-- I would have voted with you.”
Her hand is on his wrist; she is leaning over, and she is pressing her mouth against his; and this isn't the end of the world, this isn't a war, but his heart is racing and he's kissing her back.
She slumps against him. "I really have to pass out," she says.
He slips his arm around her shoulder. "C'mon," he says, "let's get you to bed."
Gale calls in sick to work, spends the day in a quiet haze, doing paperwork with the television on low volume in the background. Rebuilding efforts in Eleven are going well; this season's colour trend leans towards orange.
The couch is really the comfiest piece of furniture they own. He is not looking forward to either of them moving out: the fight for it will probably be dirty. (Yeah, he thinks. That is why you don't want her to leave.)
Elly from work calls him once, to ask about the filing system they're using-- he's been the one looking at eyewitness reports about the war damage in districts Three to Five-- and tells him she hopes the girl he's with appreciates him leaving them in the lurch.
He laughs and says, of course she does and thinks it might even be true.
She says, "So about this morning." Her hair is damp, tousled. She is wearing a towel and water has beaded on her shoulders.
He says, "It only means what you want it to have meant." He is stir-frying; Elly says it’s easy. Elly is lying: he keeps burning the vegetables.
"That smells terrible," she says, peering over his shoulder.
This is, he supposes, a truce.
(Truces, he has heard, are supposed to be good things, peaceable compromises. This does not feel like a good thing; it feels like he just lost a war he didn't know he was in.)
He comes home, knows he smells like sex and cigarettes and alcohol. He had to climb out the girl's window. He could have stayed the night, had breakfast, not been a total asshole. It wouldn't really have made a difference. (Katniss would still hate him.)
"Hey," he says. He is leaning in the doorway. The world is spinning a little bit.
Johanna's twirling a pen between her fingers. "You’re drunk," she says, looking up.
"You’re not," he says. "We should fix that."
Time passes, like the whiskey slipping smoothly down her throat.
"You didn't have to come home," she says. She is halfway to wasted. "You could have--"
"I didn't want you to wake up alone."
Both of them freeze, the honesty in his voice catching them off-guard. They have been walking this tiny fragile line for so long they have almost forgotten its existence, until now.
She says, "Gale."
He swipes the bottle from her, and takes a long, long swallow.
This is something you may not have known about Gale, during the war. All through it, every time he closed his eyes he saw District Twelve on fire, and Rory's face, and Vick's.
(This is something he did not tell Katniss; this is something he tries not to tell himself.)
It’s not like it's an excuse for bad judgement; it's just something that happened, something that hurt, that maybe made Gale a little more angry, ruthless, fucked-up than he would have been otherwise.
All roads lead to the Capitol, though. He figures things go the way they go, and fuck you if you happen to not like the final destination: no matter what you're going to the Games.
Between the two of them, they have slept their way through approximately three quarters of the population of the office.
(Johanna says she is not keeping a tally; both of them know she is lying and that he is winning.)
"Here’s the thing," she says, flicking the television off abruptly; it was a special about the breed of genetically engineered apples that Eleven is trying to grow. "You have to stop with the one night stands."
"There’s this they say, about pots and kettles and blackness?" He rubs at the bite mark on his throat; it's fresh, from two nights ago. (He still has the guy -- Luke’s -- tie, he'll stop by his desk in the morning.)
"Gale, not to-- but you're not--" She stops, rolls her eyes, thinking, "You're not the kind of person who can do the one night stand. I know cause I am and I would never ever go home with you because you're all emotion, you get invested."
"I do not-- you just want to win the tally." He keeps it light, because he’s not sure where this is going, but he can feel the air getting strange.
"I told you, I’m not keeping track."
"Bullshit, you totally are."
"My point is: you are on the rebound, and you are going to get out of it, and then you're gonna feel like shit; I’ve seen it."
"You go home with me anyway." It bursts out of his mouth and both of them freeze, stare at each other for a long, long moment, like they are simultaneously lights and deer, trapped by their own muscles.
Johanna's eyelashes flicker, deliberate, metered. "Well," she says. "If that's how you feel."
He says, "It’s not.” He says, “I want to kiss you."
The sound of the door behind her is like a hurricane; he takes a deep breath and rests his head against the wall and wonders when this became his life.
The next day Gale is hungover as fuck and he'd bet anything Johanna's the same. (She came in after the moon was up; quiet, but he could hear her footsteps so he knew she didn't hate him. This morning it was his turn to run out before they could interact.)
He stares at his computer and wishes everyone in the office would stop moving and talking and making any kind of noise, including breathing. His glares don't seem to work; he squeezes his eyes shut and wishes he had the balls to call in sick.
From the next desk over, Bird says, "Gale, you know I respect you as a human being, but you're kind of a slut."
"Not you too," Gale groans, before he can stop himself. "I don't need an-- an intervention, I’m totally fine."
Bird raises an eyebrow, pointedly. "Keep telling yourself that," he says. "And someone got Ioan a gong for calling meetings, if I were you I’d eat these really fast." He extends his hand; in the centre of his palm are two white hangover pills.
Gale grabs them desperately and dry-swallows. "Thanks," he says, "I totally owe you one."
"You owe me way more than one," Bird grins. "Think about what I said, and until you've come to your senses remember to use protection!"
Gale crumples up a piece of paper to throw at him, but the drugs are hitting his bloodstream and his head has stopped hurting; he figures he can let this one go.
Gale leaves work as late as he can manage it, after everyone else has gone and most of the lights are out in the office, and the moon is starting to show faintly through the sunset-coloured clouds. He shrugs into his suit-jacket and grabs his briefcase and stares at his feet going one in front of the other, steady, slow, deliberate. The sidewalk is bare concrete but riddled with cracks; he extrapolates patterns from them, worlds in which he has always made the right decision.
The paint is peeling on their door. He fumbles his key into the lock and thinks they should probably repaint it; yellow would be nice.
Johanna is sitting on the couch, knees tucked up to her chest; she's wearing one of his shirts and a loose pair of pants. Probably if Gale looked around the room he'd find her work clothes draped over a chair.
He can't look around, though, because her eyes are catching his and he cannot help watching her, captivated, as she takes a breath. He drops his briefcase on the floor, thinks for a moment that he's become a person who carries around a briefcase, Catnip would have had a heart attack.
She says, "I like being friends with you. I like being your friend. I like you being my friend." Her mouth is chewed on, slightly ragged.
He has seen her dream, has held her drunk and sad; he has never seen her nervous, not like this, not vulnerable.
"Jo?" he asks, tentative.
She scrubs her hand over her ragged-cut hair. "If I kiss you we won't be friends anymore." She shakes her head and is herself again; "I realise it sounds ridiculous, like I’m twelve years old and romantic, or some shit."
He swallows, takes a step forward. "It sounds," he says, cautiously, "like Finnick Odair did a number on you." Like the world did a number on you, he thinks.
"I don't want to fuck this up," she breathes, into the distance between them, the air over the coffee table. "I like this. I like you."
"I’m not going anywhere." He can't move, he knows he can't-- this is her, this can only be her decision. "No matter what."
Her mouth twists, not a smile but close. "That’s what he said."
Gale's heart sinks. He wants to say, I’m not him but he can't say anything, can't move except to tuck his hands in his pockets, take a slow steady breath and hold it in his lungs.
She shakes her head, a little, again. "You’re a much worse liar," she muses. "You’re not him."
Gale says, sort of a protest, "I’m me."
She laughs. It’s a light, curving sound. "Right," she says. "You’re Gale Hawthorne."
"Have you eaten yet?" Gale asks. His tie is too tight for the thick heavy atmosphere; he tugs at the loop of it, too firmly apparently, because now it is falling from his neck, unspooled.
She stands up, shirt slipping off the sharp plane of her right shoulder. "Nope," she says, nonchalant, and slips around the table to stand in front of him, to put her hand on the side of his face and lean up and press her mouth to his.
This time, neither of them let go.
The first person Gale ever slept with was Madge Undersee. It was during the 74th Games; Gale was a mess of panic and so was Madge and all they had was their bodies and their grief and their worry; it worked, sort of. It wasn’t particularly good, was fumbling and awkward and he kept thinking Catnip please be okay but it was stress relief, and it worked for that.
Madge Undersee burned up, too, flames all around her white dress and her beautiful blonde hair.
Gale didn’t really love her, but he was her friend, and he loved her like that. He’s never slept with anyone he didn’t at least like.
(The point of this is: Gale Hawthorne has never slept with anyone without thinking of someone else.)
Afterwards, she asks, "Were you thinking of her?" voice low and gravelly and sleepy.
He threads his fingers through her hair; the answer is, mostly not, but he spent four years, a quarter of his life, almost, in love with that girl, thinking about how she'd move if he put his hands on her like so; she was there, in his thoughts, like she always is. He replies, "Were you thinking of him?"
She laughs, throaty; "I guess you have a point."
It’s not that different, the two of them, with this new thing part of the tangled mess of their lives. It’s nice, for sure, but it's not a revelation (not like part of him hoped it would be, hoped against hope and all common sense). Gale still dreams about the bombs, about the children; Johanna still can't cook, still obsessively waters the plants in her room. They both still walk louder than they have to; they both knock before they enter an occupied room.
Nobody’s fixed. There’s just a couple of cracks that have been taped up a little better than they were before, and a new, bigger mattress in Gale's bedroom.
They still do paperwork together; she still throws her pens at him so he can burn her dinner in retribution. It’s still them.
On Friday, Defence has a drink and Scythe says, "we should invite the other divisions around, get to know each other." Elly jokes that it's going to be all of Gale's one night stands in a room, won't that be hilarious; Gale buries his head in his hands and flips her off, but he's grinning.
Johanna kisses him on the cheek when Infrastructure show up, a bunch of serious, bespectacled thin people in button down shirts with ink all over their hands; Johanna seems like a weird fit with her short hair and her fierceness but it turns out she wears ink on her wrists just as well as they do. Also Infrastructure get seriously rowdy, and manage to con the other departments into buying them shots to celebrate Johanna's first building design being approved.
"You didn't tell me!" Gale shouts, above the noise of the crowd, "what the hell, you dick!"
She says, "Of course I didn't tell you, it would have ruined your face right now," and leans in to kiss him to whoops and hollers from everyone around them. Her hair tickles his cheek; her mouth is hot and sweet and a little bit alcoholic.
(He thinks: I love you so much. He doesn't have to say it; she’s not ready to hear it, but he thinks she knows.)
"I see you took my advice," Bird slurs, grinning and draping his arm around Gale's shoulders; his breath smells like beer.
Johanna raises an eyebrow. "Excuse me?"
"He was terrible at one night stands."
"Oh, definitely," Johanna says.
Gale feels obligated to defend his reputation, after one more shot. "Just so you know," he says indignantly, something lime-green and foul scorching its way into his liver, "I was very successful with the one night stand thing--" but they're gone, off in the middle of a crowd from which he can hear the faint sounds of people besmirching his reputation.
He can't curb the smile spreading across his face.
He gets a letter from Haymitch. There is some blood on the edge of the page, and a little of the unmistakeable scent of white liquor.
It says, If you hurt her I will end you.
Johanna snatches it out of his hand and grins, brightly. "That’s adorable," she says.
"Like he didn't hate me enough already," Gale says.
"You’re wrinkling your nose," she laughs. "That’s pretty cute too."
"You’re shit in bed," he counters, in vain.
She throws a cushion at him. "Again," she says, "terrible liar."
He should think, tell that to Katniss; would have, a couple of weeks ago. Now, he says, "That’s totally why you like me."
She says, "I should go to Four. I told Finnick I would look after his wife. I kind of sucked at it, but."
He says, "Do you want me to water the plants?"
"I thought--" Her voice is tentative, kind of nervous. "You could take a couple days off and come with me?" She's not looking at him, not quite. This is as close to please as Johanna Mason will ever come; he would not be him if he could say no.
They ask one of Johanna's coworkers to do it. She’s from Seven, too; she understands about plants.
District Four is quiet, calm, peaceful. Gale wears sunglasses and carries a case full of papers that matches Johanna's; they are promptly abandoned at the door of Annie's neat pretty house.
Johanna and Annie stare at each other for a long moment, and he thinks it is going to be Annie who cries but it isn't, it's Johanna, falling apart like a bridge with a bomb underneath, flinging all her thousand shattershards at that dark-haired unstable girl, who catches them neatly, like she has practice, and tugs Johanna into her arms.
(Gale thinks: you have kept your pain for so long, and then he thinks something unflattering about Finnick Odair and also President Snow even though it’s wrong to think ill of the dead, because he can lay his blame on their shoulders.)
“I’m so sorry,” Johanna says, “god, Annie, I—“
Annie says, “It’s okay, Johanna. I promise it's okay.” She waves at Gale, over Johanna’s shoulder, mouths, can you get Dylan? This might take a while.
Gale takes the baby to the beach, gets sand between his toes and also a tan. All in all, it's a good trip.
Three and a half weeks after they move in, they get home from work to find crews dangling from the roof, spraypainting bright gold on the side of the building.
Johanna shields her eyes with her hand and shouts, "What the fuck is happening to my house?"
"Part of the re-branding!" calls down a woman in a harness. "You should have gotten a letter-- this quarter looks too depressing, so we're getting patriotic."
"That is the stupidest idea I have ever heard," Johanna mutters, frowning.
Gale says, “Thanks for the information.”
They go inside. There is a notice in the lobby; under it is an artist's mockup of what the building will look like. It is a Mockingjay, bright and golden.
She puts her hand on his arm. "You okay?" she asks, low, careful.
Gale stares at it for a long moment, image burning onto his retinas; shakes his head to clear it. "Yeah," he says, and finds he means it.