“Should you really be dancing?”
I meet Prim’s concerned eyes that have just been lingering on my ribcage. I continue to move opposite her within the lines of reveling refugees and grin sheepishly, shake my head. “Probably not,” I admit, “but I’ll be fine. Really.” She still looks unconvinced, so I add, “I wasn’t going to, but Johanna pointed out that it’s the best way to piss Snow off. It’ll be great for the propo.”
“So why isn’t she dancing?” Prim asks.
“I don’t know.” We continue to step to the beat for a few moments before she pipes up again.
“You should ask her to.”
I blink in confusion. “Ask who to what?”
“Ask Johanna to dance.” I make a questioning face, and she smiles. “She’s been having a really difficult time. She’s getting better physically, but I worry about her head.” I resist the temptation to point out that Johanna was basically insane to begin with. “Finnick’s been so happy since they decided to hold the wedding, but between training and spending time with Annie, he hasn’t been around to the hospital much. Beetee’s always down in the dungeon somewhere, and Haymitch is still cranky from having to go sober – he’s no fun for anyone to be around. And you were in Two. So she hasn’t really had anyone to talk to, you know?” I glance over Prim’s shoulder at the District Seven victor. She doesn’t look particularly happy, but that’s hardly abnormal. “Other than her head doctor, and I don’t think that’s really working out.” Johanna catches my eye over Prim’s back, and I quickly avert my gaze back to my sister.
“Do you see her much?”
“Well, she’s eating in the dining hall with everyone now, but when she first got here I’d switch with the other nurses when I wasn’t already assigned to her, so I could bring her her meals. Everyone else was so busy, but since I’m not an actual nurse I have a little more time to sit with people who need it.”
I smile proudly at the young woman in front of me, still so full of compassion and so attuned to other people’s needs, even after all she’s been through. Her selflessness reminds me of Peeta. I swallow down the painful lump forming in my throat at the thought of him, and how I’ll never see that side of him again. “That was sweet of you, little duck.”
She beams at me. “I thought it was the least I could do. I saw how she tried to protect you in the Games. Holding onto you on the island, cutting out your tracker and leading the Careers away. It was really scary, but I could see what she was trying to do.” That makes one of us. “She asked about you, you know. When you were in Two.”
“Did she?” That’s quite a shock. I’d think my condition would hardly be of any importance to the older girl, considering that she had been nearly tortured to death herself. She’s not exactly the definition of friendly toward me whenever we talk, either, which is actually quite often now that we share a room in the hospital. In fact, she seems to derive quite a bit of pleasure from antagonizing me and siphoning off my painkillers.
“Yeah, she wanted to know how your head had been. I think she was worried she’d left you with permanent brain damage.”
“Not for lack of trying,” I mutter.
Prim’s face crinkles and she shakes her head. “Don’t be like that, Katniss. You know she was just trying to save you. She did save you.” My eyes drop to my feet. I do always tend to assume the worst of Johanna, probably unfairly. “She asked about your neck all the time, too. She got really angry when she heard what Peeta did to you.”
“That wasn’t Peeta,” I snap. “He’s not himself anymore.”
“I know that,” she assures me. After several steps of silence, she smiles and says, “At least we have each other.” That, I can’t argue with. I return the smile and squeeze my little sister’s hands, lock eyes with her and vow to forget about my troubles for the night. I can’t ruin what could be our last chance at a good time together before I go to the Capitol and likely get myself killed. I want to leave her with the best memories of me that I can.
My ribs really start to burn after a few dances, but I keep going for Prim’s sake, and for the satisfaction of having Snow watch me dance with my little sister. The fiddler stops playing for a moment to take a swig of apple cider, and I gratefully take the opportunity to catch my breath.
I look over at Prim and nod. My lips can’t help but crack into a wide grin at the sight of her eyes gleaming with happiness. Despite the pain in my side, a warmth and security that I haven’t felt in over a year has flooded my body since I pulled her onto the dance floor. Just when I think I couldn’t feel any lighter, a small hand slips into mine and tests that theory. I peek over my left shoulder and find myself staring directly into the piercing brown eyes of my morphling leech. My heart jumps, as it instinctively does whenever Johanna is in close proximity. She did almost kill me that one time, after all.
“I meant with me, brainless.” My eyebrows furrow as I try to place this comment, then take flight as I remember the last time we’d spoken, not twenty minutes ago. “Seriously, Twelve? You really didn’t catch that?”
“I guess not,” I mumble, averting my gaze back to my sister. My sister who just so happens to be watching us and grinning giddily. She jerks her head upward and shoots me a thumbs-up, to which I roll my eyes and turn fully around. “It’s not like you offered me your hand, Mason,” I retort playfully. “How was I to know?”
Johanna says nothing, just takes my right hand in her left and cocks an eyebrow. When I don’t object, she laces our fingers together and adjusts her other hand so it rests on my hip. I comply and grasp her shoulder as she begins leading us to the sluggish melody that is just starting up. I’m vaguely reminded of the last time I slow-danced, with Plutarch at Snow’s mansion. That was just as forced, and even more uncomfortable. Johanna may have an intimidating presence, but at least she is familiar. I’m used to having her body close, sitting next to me on the beach, pinning me down as she dug in my forearm for that tracker…
I shake my head and blink to clear the jumble of emotions that well up whenever I consciously replay that moment. It was so gruesome, intimate, and quick that I’ve never managed to make much sense of it. I’m convinced that the concussion I had sustained mere seconds before that altered my perception of the scene, nearly as much as it was altered after the tracker jacker attack in my first Games. The only clear thought I’d managed then was that Peeta had just saved my life. But then Johanna had gone and saved my life in the Quell, and I’d been convinced that she was trying to kill me, even though she’d shown no signs of allying with my enemies like Peeta had. Of course, Peeta had the more affable personality of the two and wasn’t known for trickery, but I still feel the weight of shame for assuming she had betrayed me, for not understanding that she wanted me to play dead and was leading the Careers away. If Prim could see it, why couldn’t I? I really must be brainless.
“Everdeen?” My eyes jump up and catch Johanna’s amused gaze. “Quit staring at my boobs. We’re not in the elevator anymore.”
“What? No, I…” I sputter, my face and ears on fire. “I was not staring at that. I was thinking, st-staring off into space.”
“Oh yeah?” She smirks and leans in conspiratorially. “Enjoying the view of the planets?” I drop my hand from her deltoid and turn to stalk away in exasperation, but she grips our linked hands tighter and locks her elbow, tugging me back. “Wait. Katniss, wait.” I can’t help but turn around at the sudden sincerity in her tone, though I do shoot her an unamused glower to compensate. “I’m just messing with you. We all do it, you know? You’re fun to tease.” I try to deepen my glare, but must fail because Johanna just snorts mockingly. “At least I’m not kissing you uninvited like Chaff did. Stay and dance.” I don’t move. “Come on,” she urges, her smirk beginning to resurface. Her eyes somehow manage to both twinkle and pout at the same time, and somewhere deep in my bones I know that I’ll never be able to say no to that face. Still, I feign reluctance as I place my hand on her upper arm again.
“If you insist,” I sigh overdramatically. Her hand returns to its home on my hip, fingers tracing my waist on the way, and my eyes flutter shut as I let out a small breath of relief. I take a moment to recollect myself before daring to catch Johanna’s eye again. She’s watching me with narrowed, inquisitive eyes, but says nothing. “I must say, though,” I start, eager to deflect, “Chaff kissing me was hardly the most shocking moment of that evening.”
“Well,” she purrs, pulling me closer to whisper in my ear, “I do like to make an impression.”
“Oh, trust me, you have that down pat. A strip tease is nothing compared to basically cussing out the president on national television.”
“I’m really proud of that one, actually,” she grins as the final strains of the tune sound. I scan the floor in an attempt to find Prim again, but can’t catch sight of her. I only then notice that the dance floor had cleared out but for a few couples during the slow interlude. I turn back to Johanna, not really sure how to extricate myself from her grasp or even if I want to. She seems just as paralyzed as I feel until spirited notes burst from the fiddle yet again. The dance floor springs back to life, as do my partner’s eyes. “Hey, Twelve, is this a song where you partner off individually?”
“It can be. Why,” I drawl, “can’t bear to leave me just yet?” I wink, surprising myself but apparently not fazing Johanna. Then again, she is known across Panem for her acting skills.
“Please,” she groans,” I can’t wait. But Finnick is tied up with Annie and I doubt anybody else here will dance with me, so…” She moves her hand from my hip to my shoulder and runs it softly down my arm in a move that makes me shudder. “…I guess I’m stuck with you.” Her hand finds mine on her shoulder and entwines our fingers. “Now, girl on fire,” she intones softly, though her gaze is an intense as ever, “do you know any moves?”
“Uh…” I trail off, blinking down to the floor. “Depends on what kind?”
“Dance moves, you pervert.”
“Who’s the pervert?” I object, snapping my eyes back up to meet hers. “I just don’t know what kind of dance moves you’re talking about.”
“Basic freeform partnered stuff,” she grins at my frustration. “Duh, brainless. Like arches and loops and hand changes.”
“Oh,” I mumble, flushing again. “Yeah, I guess.”
We manage to execute a few moves cleanly before colliding under an arch that Johanna has just created with our arms. “No no no, brainless,” she chides, “pay attention. That arch was for me.”
“Well how was I supposed to know that?” I protest. She responds too calmly, with reassuring eyes and a steady voice.
“You have to listen to what my body is telling yours.” I’m not sure if the shiver that runs through me is due to her words or the way she runs her thumbs lightly over mine just after she utters them. As much as she claims I’m not paying attention to her touch, she’s finding a way to make me hyperaware of every sensation. It’s unnerving, to say the least, and not something I’m at all used to.
“Here, I’ll show you the difference,” she offers. Johanna lifts her left arm to create an arch, then pulls my left across her body to guide me under the arch before dropping that hand. After looping me back and taking me by both hands again, she raises her eyebrows in a silent command to pay attention. This time when she creates the arch, she pulls my left hand down and away from it in an exaggerated illustration of holding me still.
“Ohhh,” I say as she drops my hand and moves through the arch herself. She loops me back into her grasp and cocks an eyebrow. “Yes, I get it now.”
She tests me by leading us into a few arches meant for either one of us, and I guess I pass because she smiles up at me and nods. “Very good, Mockingjay. Maybe we’re all wrong about you.”
I squint at her as she continues to lead us in and out of those familiar moves and shift us along the floor. “You mean about me being so pure or whatever? That thing with Chaff and Finnick?”
“No,” Johanna chuckles lowly, genuinely, a far cry from her signature high-pitched sarcastic laugh. “That’s not what I meant, though if you care to disprove that I’m sure no one would complain.” I halt my feet and level what is supposed to be a menacing scowl at her, but it must not look very threatening because her grin is threatening to crack her chapped lips open. “Wow, lighten up, Everdeen.”
“Whatever.” She starts to move us again and I don’t resist, despite my continued irritation. “So then what did you mean, Mason?”
“Haymitch tells me listening is not one of your fortés,” she explains dryly, prompting me to roll my eyes. “Not that I didn’t know that from experience. You didn’t stay down like I told you to in the arena.” That moment just keeps coming up tonight. I shift under her gaze.
“If I had, none of us would have escaped,” I point out. “Beetee was out cold by then and wouldn’t have been able to disable the force field.” Johanna grunts and awards me a curt nod of assent. When her eyes lock with mine again, I add, “I follow my instincts.”
I’ve never seen Johanna Mason hesitate, but I could swear she does for half a second before lifting my hands to rest on her shoulders. She moves both of her hands to my waist this time, drawing me half a step closer. My stomach flips and I feel poised to run from impending danger, but some part of me must enjoy this horrible feeling because I unconsciously loop my hands around her neck instead.
“That’s worked out really well for you,” she murmurs, beginning to drag the fingers of her right hand lightly up my stomach. I would protest verbally, but my throat has gone dry and my brain seems to have lost its ability to form words. Instead I can only twitch and gasp at the tickling sensation. I do finally manage to glare at her, but as she gently cups the bottom of my ribcage, she looks up at me with such an intensity that I forget I am annoyed. In fact, I forget everything. Everything except for where I’ve felt the fledgling warmth in my stomach before. The beach. Peeta. Yes, if she were Peeta or Gale, I’d swear she was about to kiss me. But she is neither.
“Up until you got yourself shot,” she growls in a tone that rides the line between playful and angry, punctuating this with a firm prod to my bruised ribs. I recoil and cry out in pain, my forearms flying off her shoulders and into a defensive position in front of me. It is not necessary, as Johanna now seems content to simply stare me down, jaw tight and cheeks aflame. Her unexplained anger only stokes my own. My fists and face clench as I double over in agony.
“Fuck, Johanna!” If the nearby dancers hadn’t been alerted to the situation by my initial reaction, they are certainly paying attention now; a number of pairs have turned their heads our way, and a small group has even stopped dancing entirely to observe the apparently impending showdown from a safe distance. But as quickly as it seemed to spring up and possess her, Johanna’s anger appears to evaporate into a fit of laughter… high-pitched, sarcastic laughter. Now knowing the difference, I eye her warily and keep my arms safely between her and my ribcage.
“Maybe not so pure after all, eh?” I flip her off with the hand that’s not clutching my side, but as I should have expected, this only widens her smile.
“Jo…” Finnick appears at her side and cautiously grasps her biceps from behind. “Don’t make me dunk you like last time.”
“Wow.” My eyes widen at the girl’s sudden hard and disbelieving tone as she swivels to face her friend. “Not funny, Finnick.” Something registers in his face, and he swiftly pulls his hands back in surrender. He opens his mouth to reply, but she cuts him off. “I swear to god, you’re just as brainless as the kid sometimes.” This offends me on multiple levels, but I’m too preoccupied with trying not to vomit or faint to tell her off.
“Sorry,” he mumbles contritely. “Really. But please, don’t make me forcibly remove one of you. It’s my wedding.”
“I’m fine!” She protests. “We’re fine.” She tries to place a hand on my shoulder to assure him of this, but I swat it away.
“Clearly.” The bronze-haired beauty gives us one more wary glance before returning to his wife.
Johanna breathes out forcefully and emphatically cracks her neck, much like I remember her doing on the beach shortly after that traumatizing jabberjay incident that still haunts my nightmares. I swallow nervously as she looks down and catches my eye. “Can you stand?” she asks resignedly.
I narrow my eyes and shake my head in disbelief. “What, are you gonna patch me up now? Kiss it all better?”
“Maybe if you ask nicely,” she deadpans.
I groan in frustration, drawing another chuckle out of her. I wince as I laboriously straighten up to regain my natural height advantage. “What the hell is your problem?”
“Do you want the whole list, or just the highlights?” Fair enough, it was a stupid question to ask another victor, especially her. Between her claim of having no one left she loves and Finnick’s tales of Capitol exploitation under duress, not to mention my own memories of her first games and her physical condition upon her arrival in Thirteen, I have some pretty good ideas. I shake my head softly in answer, and my eyes must betray where my mind has just been because she interjects, “Don’t even start, Everdeen. I’m not one of your precious helpless victims you feel the need to risk your life for. I don’t need saving.”
“Fine,” I retort.
“Good,” she snaps. Our eyes continue to bore into each other’s for a few moments. Hers slowly lose their fire, but still she doesn’t look away. Neither do I, partly because I refuse to lose one more battle with her and partly because I don’t think I could drag my eyes away even if I wanted to. She wets and then bites a corner of her lower lip, drags it slowly out of her teeth as I feel my jaw slacken. Johanna suddenly blinks hard and gives her head a slight shake. Her eyes study me curiously for a few seconds before they leave mine and dart around the room. I follow them automatically and am relieved to see we aren’t the center of attention anymore, not to mention relieved to be released from that staring contest. Wait, did I actually just win a battle of wills against Johanna Mason? Next thing I know, I’ll be hurling curse words and insults indiscriminately and prancing around naked.
“Well, dear Miss Everdeen,” she suddenly inflects in a Capitol accent, drawing my gaze back to her, “I think I shall retire from the dance floor for the evening. I fear that all these common district folk may infect me with their horrendous fashion sense and lowbrow taste in music.”
I am already grinning stupidly by the time she finishes, and fail to mask it with my hand in time. I clear my throat and run my fingers down and off my jaw, pulling my smile with them. “I’d say it’s been a pleasure, but…” There is no need to finish that sentence verbally; I simply raise my eyebrows.
Johanna smirks and swoops down into a dramatic curtsey. “As always, darling Mockingjay,” she says in her normal, albeit extremely sarcastic voice. She reaches for my hand, but I don’t swat her away this time. She grasps under my fingers and brings my hand to her face, dusts her lips over my knuckles. Her eyes refuse to leave mine this time, and have taken on a particular quality that I don’t exactly recognize, but that makes my stomach clench and my knees wobble. She’s kind of making me hate her more every second. “Let’s do it again sometime.” She stands and eyes me for a second longer, lightly squeezing my fingers. Then she abruptly drops my hand and sashays toward the edge of the room, swaying her hips as she somehow manages to gracefully bump her way through the crowd. I gape at her retreating form with an expression that is probably very similar to the one I wore when she first said those words to me.
“Earth to Katniss.”
“Huh?” I blink up to see Gale standing not a foot away, concern etched on his face.
“I said, ‘What did Johanna want?’” I stare after the smaller girl as she sidles up to Haymitch and Effie near the exit. She glances back at me and smirks when she catches me still gawking. As she throws me a wink, I ponder the fact that Gale has basically just asked one of the deep, existential questions of the universe. I do have an answer for it on a more superficial level, however.
“To insult, humilate, and injure me. You know, the usual.”
I was sorely tempted to find a hiding place to disappear into after my latest encounter with Peeta, but the screaming pain in my ribs drew me back to my hospital bed. More specifically, my morphling drip. I gingerly crawled into bed not long after midnight, adjusted it to the semi-sitting position that seems to minimize the burning in my side, and punched in my access code to self-administer the drug. After a few impatient minutes of feeling lighter but still in far too much pain, I entered the code I’d once spied a nurse using to access the administrative functions, including dosage per minute. I probably turned it up to an unsafe level, but all that mattered at that moment were the aches in my ribs and my heart, both of which I just needed to stop. I didn’t really care if I accidentally overdosed, anyway.
It is now past twelve-thirty, and I’m feeling less pain but still plenty of confusion. I don’t understand why I’m so angry with Peeta or why his words cut so deeply, but I also don’t understand why he is so judgmental of my motives. Doesn’t he realize that everything I’ve done has been to protect him or my family? Sure, that family includes Gale, but he acknowledged that on the beach with his locket of pictures. At the time, he seemed perfectly happy to give up his own life to ensure my safe return to them, despite my own wishes to save him. He was so considerate then, so understanding of the position I was in and the fact that I was only trying to keep all my loved ones, including him, from getting hurt. Of course, whenever I try to keep someone from getting hurt, I only end hurting more people, starting wars, things like that. But at least Peeta didn’t doubt my good intentions back then. What has changed?
Everything has changed, of course. He’s been tortured, hijacked. He’s been brainwashed into this suspicion of me. His words echo in my head. I must have loved you a lot. I must have. Have. I swallow and blink back tears, then roll my head to the side to study the bag of morphling hanging only feet away. I briefly consider dialing it up even higher in hopes of blocking out any feelings completely, but then my eyes move past it to the empty bed between me and the door. No, I have to control myself, or I’ll end up siphoning morphling from unconscious patients like some kind of addict. As I move my head back and refocus my eyes on the ceiling, I determine resignedly that I’ll just have to live with these tortured thoughts. I catch that last thought and suddenly want to slap myself. I have to stop using that word; it only cheapens the horrors that Peeta and Johanna must have endured. No wonder they both hate me.
“Hey.” Johanna’s voice jerks me from my thoughts, and I probably would have jumped were it not for the sedating drug coursing through my bloodstream. She’s already closed the door behind her and is standing at the foot of her bed. Either she has retained her ability to move stealthily or I am much less lucid than I realize.
I quickly rub my eyes to hide the evidence of my distress and fake a yawn to disguise the reason for that action. “Hey.”
She steps closer to peer at me in the dim light of the emergency lamps. “You look like shit,” she remarks casually.
“Aw, thanks,” I jeer, “you too.” I’m hardly surprised when she grins in response to that. It’s like insults are compliments to her. “Where have you been?”
“Wandering the halls. Couldn’t sleep.” She eyes up my IV, unconsciously running her thumb over the inside of her left elbow. Of course. She couldn’t use it when I wasn’t in the room. If a nurse or doctor walked in and she was on my bed and the drip was functional, she couldn’t just pop the needle back into my socket and pretend it had only been a social visit. Even if she wanted to try to take a hit alone, I haven’t given her my code; I’m afraid to let her use unsupervised. She’s been borrowing from me regularly since I got back, and it’s been a good ten hours since she was last hooked up to the drip. No wonder she can’t sleep. But given my current condition and how it came to be, I don’t feel all that much sympathy for the other girl.
“Sorry,” I snark, “can’t share tonight, need all I can get. Some mentally disoriented asshole assaulted me at the wedding and aggravated my injury.”
I guess she doesn’t catch the touch of humor in my voice, because her eyes briefly widen in surprise before narrowing in anger. She abruptly whips the curtain between our beds shut. “Bitch,” I barely hear her mutter before the distinct sound of her bellyflopping onto the bed echoes through the room.
I sigh and reevaluate my actions and motives. She completely deserved that earful for attacking me for no apparent reason, but in all honesty, I expected her to demand the drug anyway or at least respond in kind. She is so difficult to pin down. Understand, that is. Although if my memories from the training center are correct, that is also true in another sense. Johanna grunts as she adjusts her positioning on her bed, snapping me back to the present. Yes, Prim is right. Johanna has been through a lot and hasn’t had anyone to lean on for support, not that she would ever admit to needing it. I should at least try to fill that void in any way that I can.
“Johanna?” I call across the curtain. I’m met with silence, so I try another tactic. “Johanna Fucking Mason.”
“What?” she grouches, her voice muffled in her pillow.
“Just come on,” I grumble. “I’ve got plenty.” As I hear her practically scampering off the bed, I struggle to detach the needle from my socket.
Johanna rounds the curtain and first looks at the needle I’m just managing to extract, then at my face. She suddenly takes two big steps toward me and bends down to look me dead in the eye, then just as quickly stands back up and turns her attention to the control pad of the morphling drip. “Shit, Twelve, you’re all doped up!” She takes the needle from my hand, something vaguely resembling concern crossing her features. “When did they increase your dose?” She winces and hisses as she pokes the needle directly into the crook of her elbow.
“Hey, where’d your socket go?”
“What, you didn’t notice it was gone earlier?” I shake my head. “Typical. As for my socket, the doctors removed it this afternoon after ‘fully weaning me off the drug.’”
She sighs in relief as the morphling starts to take effect, and eases herself down onto the side of my bed. I ignore the kernel of guilt I feel over perhaps hindering her recovery. She’s risked her own life in attempts to save mine at least twice, and this may be the only way I’ll ever get to repay that debt in a way she will recognize. She’d be just as grateful to me and assured of my goodwill over denying her my morphling supply as I was right after she knocked me halfway unconscious and sliced my arm open. My good intentions would not sway her opinion on the issue. Long-term rewards don’t matter much to victors.
“Fuck,” Johanna exhales, drawing out the syllable as she sinks backward to loll across my thighs. I suddenly feel much less relaxed, despite the drug’s influence. That nugget of fire is back in my stomach, much to my annoyance. The older girl lets her head and shoulders droop off the side of my bed, and the arching of her back drags her shirt up several inches. A thin strip of skin peeks out, beckoning my eyes, and my stomach clenches as the heat begins to build against my will. When a soft, breathy moan escapes Johanna’s lips, the spasms and fire suddenly strike about eight inches lower. I stare down at my midsection in disbelief. This is beyond messed up – I must have overdosed after all. The sensation only increases as she turns onto her left side to face me, rolling onto my pelvis in the process. I struggle to keep my face neutral as she raises her head to regain eye contact.
“Hey,” says Johanna, “you never answered my question.”
I swallow and manage to get out, “Which one?”
“When did the doctors increase your dosage, brainless?”
“They didn’t,” I admit. “I peeked and saw the code the nurse was punching in to gain access. A few days ago.”
“What? And you didn’t let me use it to get stronger doses?” I shrug. “I could have been in and out of here in a flash each time if I got it stronger. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Maybe because I like making you wait.” She shoots me a look and I add, “Maybe because I don’t want you to turn into one of those freaks from Six, either.” Maybe because some masochistic part of me sort of enjoys her company, too. But I’m not about to tell her that.
“I told you,” she insists, “I don’t need saving.”
I roll my eyes and lean forward a touch, bracing my weight on my hands, despite the stab of pain that the morphling can only dull. “You know, for the record,” I declare, “you don’t strike me as helpless. Never have. Not even in your first Games.” She raises her eyebrows. “You didn’t fool me with your crying, wimpy, ‘oh I can’t even handle an axe when I’m from Seven’ act.”
Johanna grins at my sarcastic falsetto and shrugs. “Fooled everyone else, didn’t it?” When I don’t reply, she narrows her eyes and prods, “What gave it away?”
“Your eyes betrayed you,” I state assuredly. She squints further, and I continue, “There was fire there. You were pissed and you weren’t going to go down without a fight.” I hardly notice myself mumble, “I recognized so much of myself in you.” Her expression is suddenly unreadable, so I quickly add, “So, no, you didn’t fool me. Not for a second.”
“Well then I guess I should be grateful you didn’t get reaped that year,” she teases. The mental image of my malnourished 13 year-old self, just finding my confidence to operate as an adult and hardly the archery expert I was three years later, having to face off against a small but fully developed, underfed yet decently muscled, completely vicious lumberjack makes me think that I should be the grateful one. But, of course, that is what she is implying; I should have caught that right away.
I can’t help but crack a wry smile when I nod, a small snort escaping from my nose. “Can you imagine?” I snigger. “That’d hardly be a fair fight.”
Half of her mouth arcs up to return the smile. “Please, your picture would have been in the sky long before I started killing anyone.” The intended joke has just the opposite effect, wiping the levity from our faces. I slump back against the angled portion of the bed and she looks down at my stomach. “You were just a kid,” she adds in a small voice.
“Well,” I grumble, reminded of one of the many insults she’d hurled at me on the dance floor, “according to you, I still am.”
“No, Everdeen,” she drawls, the drug seeping into her voice. She points at me and adds with a hint of a smirk, “You a woman. You just need a lot of supervision.” I give her a dirty look and she shakes her head, her expression drooping again. “You’re not a kid. You lost that privilege when you got reaped.”
“I lost it long before that.” Johanna arches a questioning eyebrow, but I blink away. I don’t want to talk about my parents right now.
My attention is pulled back to her by the sound of a breathy grunt, and I see she has pulled the needle back out of her arm. “Here,” she murmurs, extending it in my direction, “I think you might need this more than I do.”
“No way.” I shake my head and raise a palm to reject the offer. “That’s not sterile now.”
“What,” she taunts, “you gonna tell the nurses you need a new needle because you let me steal your morphling?” A corner of my mouth twitches in acknowledgement. “Besides, Twelve, what kind of blood-borne diseases do you think I have?”
“That depends on how often you like to take all your clothes off in front of complete strangers,” I deadpan.
Johanna barks out a laugh, falling back onto my thighs and clutching her stomach. I can’t stop myself from smiling in satisfaction at getting another genuine laugh out of her, one that has gone on for several seconds now. That might just be the drug’s influence, though.
“Oh my god, Katniss.” She rolls up onto my pelvis again and I have to resist the urge to shift my body under her weight, shift my eyes under her gaze. “I think…” She points the needle directly at me, her eyes a touch unfocused. “…I think I like you.” Well, I’ll admit I definitely never expected those words to fall from Johanna’s lips. My throat is suddenly dry, and all of my body hair must be standing on end. After all, a drugged-up woman with a history of injuring me is inches away from rolling onto my wounded ribs or impaling me with a dirty needle.
“Here, just give me the damn drip,” I mutter. “I think you’ve had enough.”
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” she objects, but hands it over before collapsing prone on my hips with a sleepy grunt. I seriously cannot take the pressure of her weight anymore.
“Johanna.” I elbow her on my way to plug the needle back into my socket, but she only groans in protest. “Johanna, I need you to move. You’re squishing me.” She stays silent this time. I roll my eyes as I finish reattaching the drip, and then move both hands to give her a firm shake. “Seriously, get off!”
“Mmm,” she mumbles, “if only it were that easy.” It takes me a moment to understand the joke, but when I do, I instantly feel my cheeks flare up.
“Pervert.” I duck my chin to hide the blush now creeping down my neck. “Here, just-” Despite her grunts of objection and what feels like spikes being driven into my side, I roll and rotate the girl so most of her weight is on the edge of the bed or over my legs. I inch myself to the left for about a foot, wincing at another strike of pain, before pulling her back onto her stomach beside me.
Johanna must be as uncomfortable as she looks, with her back awkwardly extended and her face driven into the mattress, because she finally moves of her own accord. She turns over and scoots up to sit beside me. “You’re no fun,” she grumbles with surprising clarity. I turn to glare incredulously at the woman.
“Are you seriously still lucid right now?” She places a hand over her mouth in a mock ‘oops’ gesture. I could punch her. I do punch her.
“Ouch!” She rubs her arm gingerly, but honestly looks more impressed than upset.
“That really hurt my ribs, you asshole! If I can’t move tomorrow, I’m blaming you.”
“You should be blaming me anyway,” she points out with a grin. I barely have time to sigh in exasperation before she pinches the skin above my hip. I slap her hand away forcefully and turn to bellow in her face.
“Will you fucking stop?” Her expression drops, as though she only now registered my seriousness. And this idiot calls me brainless. “I have had it, okay? I can’t take any more abuse tonight! Just…” I fall back against the bed and let out a deep sigh. “Just lay off me, for once in your life. I can’t deal with this right now.”
I don’t meet her gaze, but I can feel Johanna’s eyes analyzing me. “What’s wrong?” she finally asks.
“Nothing!” I snap, turning my head away from her and wishing I could turn the rest of me too. But, no thanks to her, I can’t lie on that side.
“Is he still that bad?”
I turn back to face her, my eyes and mouth wide with shock. “How did you-”
“I saw you talking to Haymitch after they wheeled his cake out,” she explains. “When you weren’t back here after the filming ended, I put two and two together.”
“Oh.” Half of the reason I’d doped myself up was the hope that I could forget about Peeta for the night, but I don’t think Johanna is going to let that happen. She is the biggest pain in the butt. Not to mention the ribs. And the head.
“So how is he?” she asks again. I want to be mad at her, but she seems genuinely concerned.
“What do you care about Peeta?” I deflect. “You guys only kept him alive in the arena so I wouldn’t go running off on my own.”
“Not true.” She shakes her head. “Peeta could have been a great asset for the rebellion with or without you. He has a way with words that can convince the masses to think anything, do anything.” So it turns out I was still correct when I sussed that out myself during the Quell, when I realized that she and Finnick were protecting him. I just missed the pieces of the puzzle that involved their protection of me, and our rescue. So, most of it. “Anyway,” she explains, “we had cells next to each other in the Capitol. His screams woke me up at night.” She blinks down to her hands in her lap. “They still do.”
My chest and abdomen constrict painfully, for Johanna and for Peeta. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to fix this. I can’t fix this. Maybe if she were Peeta or Gale, I would plant a kiss on her lips because it’s all I could think of to appease the suffering for a moment. Gale is right – I do have a habit of doing that. But I am really not in a kissing mood right now, and if I did kiss her she would probably slap me anyway. I decide that the next best thing I can do is answer her question honestly.
“Well, he did the cake, and Haymitch said they had a conversation and he seemed almost normal. He’s functional.” Johanna looks up and motions for me to continue. I oblige begrudgingly. “He doesn’t think I’m a mutt anymore.” I squeeze my eyes shut at the feeling of my stomach turning painfully. My voice cracks as I add, “He doesn’t think I’m much of anything anymore.” I open my eyes expecting to see Johanna wearing a mocking expression, expecting to hear her taunting me for my weakness. To my surprise, she merely looks pensive and maybe a touch concerned, but I’m not sure whether that’s for me or for Peeta.
“What makes you think that?” she prods.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I reply sarcastically, “maybe how he called me a piece of work and accused me of faking my feelings for him.”
“If you hadn’t, he’d be dead, brainless,” Johanna points out. “So you hurt his feelings. Boo-fuckity-hoo. I gave you a concussion and a nasty scar, but you got out alive and that’s what’s important. It’s the same for him. The collateral damage doesn’t matter in the end. Muffin Man lived to bake another cake and he should be grateful to you, if anything.”
“Thank you!” I state emphatically. “I’m glad someone else sees it that way.” A ghost of a smile appears on Johanna’s lips, and I try to return it, but my face quickly falls. “The thing is, he’s not wrong. Maybe what the Capitol did was actually the opposite of brainwashing.” I choke out a laugh. “I guess he can finally see me for who I really am. I’m violent, distrustful, manipulative-”
“Stop.” Since when do I listen to Johanna Mason? In fact, since when do I take orders from anyone? Apparently, right now. She says the word quietly, but seriously. I meet her hard gaze, and could probably not say another word even if I tried. “That’s not who you are, Katniss.” I shake my head. “I’m serious.”
“It’s true, though,” I contend. “Don’t lie to me.”
“I’m not,” she insists. “All of those words describe you at times, sure. But they don’t define you, and there are so many other ones you missed. Compassionate. Moral. Brave. Stupid.” I side-eye her at that last adjective, and she chuckles, “You wanted me to be honest.”
I exhale and let my head loll to the side and rest against the bed, refusing to lose eye contact despite my drooping eyelids. The morphling is really starting to kick in again. “Since when do you even like me?” I ask wearily.
“Didn’t I just tell you I like you? Like not even five minutes ago, brainless?”
“Yeah,” I snort, “you like me for my morphling.”
Johanna glances from my face to the needle in my arm, and back again. “Actually, I don’t really like you at all,” she says decidedly. I think I see a hint of a smile peeking through her mask, but if there was, she hides it again just as quickly. “I’m just not blind,” she adds. “I wouldn’t have protected you with my life if you weren’t valuable.” Of course I am valuable to the revolution, but I’m not sure if that’s all she meant. I’m kind of afraid to ask. Mostly because I’m afraid that that is all she meant, and I’m sick of being a symbol but not a person.
“Well,” I grumble, shifting on the bed, “I’ll try to take that as a compliment.” She waits until I turn back to her before nodding, looking intently into my eyes.