"Fuck you. Fuck you and your goddamn ribs, you fucking pussy. Can’t even run a fucking mile, and have to take me down with you. Fucking selfish prick.” I merely close my eyes and sigh in response to this latest outburst. I don’t have the energy to be indignant anymore. “When I start puking,” Johanna threatens, “I’m gonna make sure it’s all over you.”
I wrinkle my nose. “That’s disgusting.”
“You’re disgusting.” I scoff. “You are. You’re one nasty sack of shit, Everdeen.”
“At least I’m not the one who’s all pale and clammy and shivering.”
“At least I’m not the one who’s about to be covered in puke.”
We’ve been going on like this for several hours by now. Honestly, it might be all that’s keeping us in halfway decent spirits. If we weren’t trading verbal barbs, we’d probably both be crying. I don’t think I’ve ever felt stronger pain than this, not even when I took Thread’s whip to the face. Johanna may not be in the same physical pain, but given how miserable Haymitch has been since being forced into sobriety, I’m sure withdrawal is no picnic either. I hear her get up, and start to move to defend myself, but then let out a yelp and have to drop back down on the bed. Lying there is painful enough. Movement is excruciating. Johanna’s standing over me now, and I resign myself to the fact that I’m at the mercy of her tongue and fists and stomach contents.
“Are you actually going to puke on me?” I ask, raising a wary eyebrow.
“No,” she says, pulling over one of the chairs that live up against the wall between our beds, so that she can sit down close by without having to jostle me. How oddly considerate of her. “I’m in that horrible state where I just know I’d feel so much better if I could puke, but I can’t.” She slumps down into the chair and lets out a heavy sigh. “Hopefully later.”
“And hopefully not on me.”
“You deserve it, you fucking bitch,” she growls. “This is all your fault.”
“It’s kind of your fault, actually,” I argue. “If you hadn’t gone and aggravated my ribs, maybe I wouldn’t have needed to get this treatment done. And then you’d still have your precious morphling.”
“Please,” she scoffs, “I barely touched you. You weren’t any worse off by a couple days later. I know that because you came running down here bitching about how you didn’t get to go to the bloody Capitol because you blew off your training. You could move and yell just fine, as I recall.”
“Well maybe I would have been just better enough not to need it.” I can hear the edge seeping back into my voice. I guess I do have the energy to be pissed off after all.
“Bullshit.” Johanna shakes her head firmly. “York said they’d take a month to heal without it based on your injury. Not my fault.”
“It was still totally uncalled for,” I fume.
“It was for your own good,” she dismisses me with a wave of her hand. “You needed some sense poked into you.” What the hell? This girl’s logic is beyond me. But somehow, I still dislike feeling like I’ve disappointed her.
“I don’t understand,” I groan in frustration, meeting her eye earnestly. “Why were you so mad at me in the first place?”
She lets out this huge exasperated sigh, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world, and gripes, “Because you’re an idiot and you’re going to get yourself killed if you keep running into dangerous situations like you did in Two.”
“I don’t see how that’s your problem.”
I didn’t mean for that to be an insult, but Johanna’s face tells me that I might as well have just slapped her. I didn’t know before now that I was capable of hurting Johanna Mason’s feelings. I wasn’t even sure she had any. She opens her mouth to speak, but catches herself before any words spill out. She screws her eyes shut and shakes her head sharply. “It’s everybody’s problem, brainless. Don’t you listen to a word I say? It’s everybody’s job to keep you alive.” I do listen to her words. I remember this as the reason she gave for hating me when I first woke up after being shot, other than just finding me to be generally annoying. But I am learning to listen to her body too now, and it is abundantly clear from the set of her jaw and the darkness in her eyes that there is something she is not telling me.
I gingerly move my left arm so I can reach out to lay a comforting hand on her, but she is too far away, so I can do nothing but drop it limply off the bed. “I’m sorry, Johanna.”
“No, you’re not.” Her voice is oddly soft as she says this, and my brow automatically furrows. “You can’t be sorry if you don’t understand what it is you’re sorry for.”
“You’re right,” I admit, “I don’t understand. That wasn’t meant to be offensive, you know. Care to explain?”
She shakes her head and looks down at her feet. “If you can’t work that out for yourself, Mockingjay,” she mumbles forlornly, “you’re even more brainless than I thought.” Her thumb starts rubbing the crook of her left elbow, and I am again swamped with guilt. What else is new?
“Johanna.” She looks up cautiously, and I raise a beckoning finger. “Give me your arm.”
She narrows her eyes, but scoots the chair a bit closer. “Last time someone said that to me, he injected a fucking tracker,” she says with a hint of trepidation.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” I assure her. “Come closer.” She obeys, pulling the chair so her shins are pressed up against the frame of the hospital bed, and then lays her right arm across my stomach. “The other one, brainless,” I say without thinking. She looks just as surprised as I am at my words, but lets it go.
“Force of habit,” she explains while switching arms. I grasp her forearm with my right hand and move my left to her elbow. When my thumb begins massaging the spot hers just left, I hear a sharp intake of breath and look back to Johanna’s face. I must have really caught her off guard, because vulnerability and surprise are plastered all over it, and I could swear she’s about to start crying. She blinks a few times and forces out a wry smile. “I didn’t even realize I was doing that,” she admits. I nod and silently continue the movement. Johanna eventually drops her head so her forehead is resting on the edge of the bed, and exhales deeply. I run my right hand down to meet her fingers and interlock them with my own. I give her hand a gentle squeeze and keep rubbing. I don’t know how long this goes on for, but it’s a lot more enjoyable than trading insults from across the room, so I’m in no hurry to stop. It’s distracting me from my own pain, anyway.
“I’m sorry you’re having to go through this,” I finally say, after what feels kind of like seconds and kind of like hours. “Really.” Johanna moves her right forearm onto the bed and raises her head to rest her chin on it and look me in the eye. I was right – there are a few glistening streaks down her cheeks. “I shouldn’t have kept giving it to you,” I lament. “I should’ve just let the doctors do their thing and wean you off of it slowly. It wouldn’t have been this bad.”
She chuckles and shakes her head. “That part isn’t your fault. I wouldn’t have taken no for an answer, brainless.” I smile, and she attempts to do the same. She is right, of course. I shouldn’t blame myself for something I had no control over, though I know I do that all the time.
“I know,” I say. “And I knew I had no right to refuse given all that had happened.” I consider stopping here, but decide to admit, “And I didn’t want you to hate me.” Johanna smiles easily this time, and I start to think that maybe we’re in for a sappy moment. Until she speaks again, that is.
“Too late,” she teases, a giant smirk present on her lips and even infiltrating her eyes. Well, maybe this is still a sappy moment by our standards. I can’t help but snort out a laugh, but then instantly cringe and moan at the pain I just caused myself, my left hand shooting over to cradle my sore spot. Johanna shakes her hand free and brings it to rest on top of mine. “Are you okay?” she asks earnestly.
“Peachy, Seven,” I grunt.
She grins again. “That’s my girl.” I hold her gaze for a moment, and feel a swell of pride despite my physical discomfort. Her eyes look much less pained, at least for the time being. I did that. She breaks eye contact to look past me at the clock on my bedside table, and then abruptly sits up straighter. “We’ve got to get going.”
“Seriously?” I groan.
“Yeah, we’re due in the dining hall in fifteen.” The lights suddenly flick on, as if to prove her point. I squeeze my eyes shut and cover my face with my hands. It can’t be morning yet.
“Are you actually capable of eating?” I mumble past my palms.
“I’m going to try,” she declares, and I hear her stand up and move the chair back to its usual spot. “I can’t work out on an empty stomach. And neither can you.” I crack open my eyes to see that she is standing over me again. “Get up,” she orders brusquely. When I don’t move, she tosses my covers aside, grabs my legs, and pulls them over the side of the bed so my feet land on the floor. I hardly have time to groan in protest. She stands back up, impossibly close, and looks me dead in the eye. I gulp automatically, although she really would look much more intimidating if she weren’t a sick greenish color and shaking like a leaf. “Come on,” she urges me, “we have to get to training.”
“I don't think I can do it,” I confess.
“You can do it. We both can. We're victors, remember? We're the ones who can survive anything they throw at us,” she snarls at me. She disappears behind the half-drawn curtain to access the clothes in her bedside table, and is probably mostly dressed by the time I have made my way around my bed and grabbed my own clothes. I am able to lift my arms to remove my hospital gown, but it hurts like hell. I pull on a bra and t-shirt, but when I try to bend over to put underwear on, I let out a wail of pain before I even reach halfway down my shins.
“You okay?” Johanna pulls back the curtain and catches an eyeful of me bent over my naked lower half. I immediately cover my groin with my hands and glare at her. I am honestly surprised that she hadn’t whipped the curtain back earlier and given me a free show of herself changing, since that seems to be her style, but I guess shock value isn’t her biggest concern right now. She looks like she’s trying not to laugh for a second, but then eyes me sympathetically. “Do you need some help, Everdeen?”
“That depends,” I snark. “Can you not be a pervert for thirty seconds?”
“Maybe twenty.” She wiggles her eyebrows at me as she rounds my bed, and I am careful to turn according to her position so she never gets a good view of my butt. “Calm down,” she teases, “if I really wanted to check you out, I could knock your hands away in a second right now.” She guides me backward so I’m half-sitting on the edge of the bed, in a move that makes my stomach turn. “Besides,” she chuckles as she kneels down in front of me, “your ass probably isn’t as nice as Finnick’s.” This brings a question back to my mind that I’d first pondered during the Quell, and now that I know that Finnick hasn’t always loved Annie, curiosity gets the better of me.
“So have you two…” She looks up at me from the ground, and I feel my diaphragm constrict uncomfortably. “You know.” I lift one hand to make a gesture for her to continue that thought on her own. Her face splits into a grin.
“I think you mean this?” She grabs my hand and bends my ring and pinky finger to my palm, and then repeatedly thrusts my first two fingers in and out of the loose fist she has just created with her other hand. I don’t think I’ve ever turned redder in my life. Johanna just laughs and plucks the underwear from my hand that’s still over my crotch, and then sits back on her calves. She pauses to examine the tight miniature shorts and comments, “I like this style too,” as if this had to become any more embarrassing. It isn’t until she has poked my feet through the leg holes and handed the underwear to me above my knees that I am able to speak again.
“I guess your twenty seconds is up,” I comment as I stand to pull the shorts over my hips. I pick my pants up off the bed and hand them to her before sitting back down.
“You started it,” she points out as she guides the waistband over one foot and bunches the pant leg up over my lower leg. “You asked.” I can’t argue with that, so I don’t bother trying. She has just finished repeating the action on the other side when she adds, “No.”
“No what?” I query, squinting down at the girl.
“To your question, brainless,” she replies, catching my eye again with a hint of a smile. “No.” I somehow feel relieved. I’m too distracted by our conversation to grab the top of the pants that she’s now raised above my knees, so she rolls her eyes and stands up, pulling them up with her. “Finnick’s just Finnick. Most of the victors have seen his ass at some point or another,” she explains as the pants reach the bottom of my butt and I’m forced to stand up. “Hell, most of the country has.”
“I’ve seen him in his underwear,” I contribute.
She wrestles the pants up over my hips and smirks. “I’m sure that was very traumatizing for everyone’s favorite virgin.” I scowl at her and she laughs, “What? You’re a terrible liar. It’s not like I even need to ask to know that your and your ‘husband’ never did the do. Poor boy’s probably never seen boobs in his life. Other than mine, of course.” As I quietly fume over the many horrible things she just managed to pack into that ten seconds, she looks down at the pants that she is still grasping at my waist and gives them another tug. “Do I have to do these up for you too, or are you capable of managing that on your own?”
I suddenly shove her, sending her stumbling back the five feet to the wall before hitting it hard. Her eyes widen as I take a step closer. “Fuck you, Mason!” I spit.
The woman stares up at me with a similar look on her face as when she kissed my knuckles on the dance floor, only perhaps more surprised. And just like it did then, it makes me uneasy now. After a few seconds, she grins and pushes off the wall to come clap me on the shoulder. “All right, the girl on fire burns again!” she cheers. I swat her off of me and storm away.
“Go to hell!” I call over my shoulder as I fasten my pants on the way out the door, slowing only briefly to jam my feet haphazardly into my ill-fitting shoes. I can hear her hot on my heels by the time she replies.
“Already there, darling.”
It’s a merciful miracle that my ribs are in a little less pain by the afternoon, because if they weren’t, even the small bit of recoil from the guns we are shooting would have been unbearable. The fact that my injured side is not my shooting side also probably helps in that regard. I empty my magazine for the umpteenth time this afternoon and step back from the line to reload.
“Nice round, Twelve,” Johanna remarks from beside me, looking clearly impressed and perhaps a bit jealous.
“It’s a lot like shooting a bow,” I shrug. “You’ll get the hang of it.” She nods, pulls her ear protection on and steps up to fire at the group of targets we have been sharing for the last couple of hours. She would probably be getting the hang of it faster if we weren’t isolated over here at the farthest set of targets from the compound, far away from Soldier York and her instruction, but Johanna had insisted that she didn’t want York breathing down her neck while she practiced. I’m pretty sure it actually has more to do with her not wanting York to notice her deteriorating condition, although the scores are reported electronically so it’s not like no one would notice that she is struggling. She could power through the strength training and running this morning, but the precision exercises of gun assembly and shooting have been made nearly impossible by her shaking that has only intensified since we stepped outside and into this downpour. I had assumed her withdrawal symptoms would be alleviated with time, like the pain in my ribs has, but maybe they have to get worse before they will get better. She is operating on an empty stomach too, given that she tossed her field lunch after getting only half of it down.
Johanna tears her earmuffs off halfway through her round and yells, “Hey, Everdeen! Can you give me a hand here?” I begrudgingly sling my gun over my shoulder by its strap and nod. It’s not really fair that it’s fallen to me to be the teacher when I barely even know how to use one of these things, just because she doesn’t want attention from York.
“What is it, Mason?” I mock as I come closer. “Not capable of managing that on your own?” Her face dissolves into a pleading look, and it hits me that she is actually at the end of her rope. I still can’t stop myself from adding, “Well, apparently it was funny when you said it.”
She snuffles and looks down at her foot that is toeing the puddle she is standing in. “Don’t right now, okay? Make fun of me all you want later, please do, just…” She looks back up, and when I squint I can tell that not all of the wetness on her face is from the rain, although it is really starting to pick up again. I never thought I’d see the day that I’d witness Johanna crying once, let alone twice. I sigh and nod, motion for her to continue. “I can’t hold this thing steady,” she complains. “I don’t know how you do it.”
“It would be a lot easier if you weren’t shaking from withdrawal,” I start. “But you probably have to work on your breathing too. Remember what York said, you have to shoot when you’ve just finished the inhale or exhale, not while you’re actually breathing. And your breaths are too shallow and fast right now to do that properly.”
“Yeah, I noticed,” she snarks.
“Do you want my help or not?” I snap.
Johanna’s eyes blink away and she nods. “Yes.”
She catches my eye again and looks particularly annoyed. I have a feeling she’s going to make me regret this later, but for now I’m enjoying the reversed power dynamics. “Yes please, Miss Soldier Everdeen Mockingjay sir ma’am!” she shouts with far too much enthusiasm, and I have to bite my lip to suppress the smile I feel coming on.
“Okay, then.” I motion for her to face the targets, so she does, raises her gun, and clicks the safety off. “I think you’re holding it right,” I analyze, running my gaze from her left hand steadying the gun all the way down her body to her feet. I walk around to her other side and slightly adjust where the butt of the gun rests under her right collarbone. “That’s good,” I muse. “Now try and breathe deeply for me, okay? Nice and slow.” I reach around her and place a hand on her upper back. “I want to feel my hand move every time. At least three seconds in and three seconds out. I’ll count for you.” Between the counting and the pressure of my hand to focus on, Johanna manages to even her breathing out a bit, so after a few breaths, I instruct her, “Now shoot after this exhale.”
The bullet hits the intended target – not in the center, but decently close. She turns her face to me and grins hugely. My gut tightens at the sight, and I’m definitely enjoying seeing her happy due to my influence again, but I keep my face straight and jerk my head to the right. “Don’t look at me,” I chide, “look at your next target.” She obliges and starts the deep breathing again. I start counting on the second inhalation.
“One. Two.” A flash of lightning brightens the sky, but I stay focused. “Three.” Two booms sound loudly right then: a crack of thunder, and Johanna’s gun. I startle at the second one, as I was not expecting it yet, but I downright jump at the piercing scream suddenly coming from less than a foot away. Johanna is standing stiff as a board, mouth and eyes wide open, pupils dilated. “Johanna!” I shout over her voice. “Johanna, snap out of it!” I reach over the barrel of her gun and backhand her across the face. She stops screaming, recoils and looks around frantically, but seems to look right through me. Her breathing is shallow and irregular again, only much more so. I wrap my arm around her gun and pin it against my side so she can’t point it my way, then grab her chin with my left hand and pull it to me. “Johanna,” I yell from inches away, “it’s okay! It’s me, Kat-”
A second lightning bolt strikes behind me and lights up the sky, and from the almost simultaneous crack of thunder, I know it must be close. Johanna falls to the ground and tightens into a ball, and because I have an iron grip on her gun, I go down with her. Her screaming resumes, but now it’s between shallow inhalations, so it’s not nearly as loud. I fumble to lock the safety on her weapon, then try to wrest it from her grip. As with all of her limbs, her trigger finger is locked tightly – thank god these guns don’t fire in bursts. I brace a foot against her ribcage and push. When I manage to peel her finger off the trigger, the gun goes flying out of both of our hands, but I only care that she can no longer shoot or hit me with it. I quickly toss my own weapon behind me and drop onto my stomach beside the girl, whose screaming has subsided into labored whimpers. She’s now rocking herself in the fetal position, but it’s hardly noticeable because she is shaking so badly.
“York!” I holler toward the compound. “York, I need a medic! Medic!” I scream fruitlessly. We are too far away and the storm is too loud. Thankfully, the younger teenagers at the next two sets of targets have witnessed the commotion and are watching us. I point to the closest one. “Kid, go tell Soldier York I need a medic!” I shout, hoping that the panic I feel is not too evident in my voice. “Now!” He turns and sprints away, and I return my attention to the other victor. “Johanna!” I grab her wrist tightly, and instantly her eyes lock on me. She lets out another blood-curdling scream and starts kicking wildly. “Johanna, stop!” I manage to get past her thrashing legs and roll her onto her back and into the puddle. I see her eyes go wide and any remaining color drain from her face just as I pin her wrist to the ground.
“No!” Johanna shrieks. I would think that her finding words again would be an improvement if it weren’t for the fact that her panic has visibly transformed into pure terror. She swats at me with her free hand and keeps trying to kick her legs, but my shins are on her thighs now and weighing them down. I catch her left wrist mid-slap and hold it firmly, restraining her last limb. “Help!”
“Jo! Johanna, I’m trying to help you!” I yell in return, forcing her second wrist down into the muddy water.
“No!” she repeats, her thrashing intensified. “Katniss!” I freeze, and she takes advantage of this, nearly shaking me off of her before I regain control. So she does know it’s me. Then why is she so scared? She doesn’t honestly think I would hurt her, does she? “Help!” Maybe she thinks I’m returning the favor after she attacked me in the arena. “Katniss, help!” My eyes widen and refocus on her hysterical features as it dawns on me that she is not screaming at me.
She is screaming for me.
“Johanna!” I bellow. “Jo, it’s me! I’m here!” I lean down so my face is only inches above hers. “It’s me, Katniss!” I would yell right in her ear, but I’m afraid she’ll hit me with her head and give us both another concussion. I’m not sure that it matters, because my words don’t seem to be getting through anyway. I look back toward the compound and see no one nearby. The pounding rain obscures any long-range vision. All the kids must have gone back inside because the storm is getting worse. Where the hell is York?
“No! I won’t tell you a thing!” Oh, god. No. “I won’t!” Fuck me. She’s having a torture flashback, and I’m restraining her. I am the biggest idiot in Panem. I can feel the blood draining from my head, but I scramble to release her limbs before I can pass out in this position. Instead I press my left cheek to hers and grip the back of her head with my right hand to hold her head to mine, and then tuck my left arm into my side. I can only hope this protects both of my sensitive areas from further injury as she flails underneath me. I lower myself down so I’m covering her body with my own but not pinning her down, and lock my knees around her hips.
“Shhh,” I croon directly into her ear. “Johanna, it’s okay. It’s Katniss.” She continues to writhe and shriek, and I wrack my brain for a way to break through, to establish my identity. It takes a moment before I find my solution. It should have been glaringly obvious all along. I lick my lips, take in a breath, and whistle the string of four notes that I used as a signal to Rue in my first Games. The signal that originally meant that I was okay; the signal that has become a significant identifier of the Mockingjay. Johanna ceases all movement, and for a moment I could swear she is back. But then she starts shuddering violently and I feel hot tears running down between our cheeks.
“No!” she wails. “You can’t! Katniss!” I lift my head and take another look at her face. Her gaze is still unfocused, her pupils still dominating her eyes full of tears. Her lip trembles as she shouts, “Don’t! Please!”
Perhaps I’m asking to get my throat ripped out, but I do the only thing I can think of. I lean in and kiss Johanna full on the mouth. Her trembling lessens a bit after a few seconds, but her eyes are still wild. “Shhh,” I breathe. “I’m here.” I return my lips to hers, and after a moment, I can feel hers responding, moving against mine. I pull back and look down on her once more. Johanna squints up at me. She says nothing, but exhales deeply and slumps back into the puddle.
“Jo,” I whisper, “it’s okay. You’re okay.” I press one more peck onto her lips. “It’s me. It’s Katniss. We’re in Thirteen. No one is going to hurt you here, okay? No one is going to hurt you.” By the time I’m finished, she is already hyperventilating again and her eyes have resumed darting around. “No,” I command her steadily, “no, look at me.” She does, and gradually manages to slow and deepen her wheezing breaths a bit, but I find I’m holding my own breath as I attempt to mask my anxiety. I have to appear calm if I want her to regain her composure.
“Katniss?” she croaks out. I practically burst into tears at the sound of her voice, her lucid voice. I nod enthusiastically and cup her cheek, something vaguely resembling a sob escaping from my chest. I wipe a stray tear from her face as I feel a few beginning to roll down my own. Johanna just stares for a moment before suddenly scooting backward and out of the puddle. Now several feet away from me, she collapses on her side in the mud and starts to bawl. I slowly crawl up behind her, and when that doesn’t seem to spook her, I lay a hand on her shoulder. She trembles under my touch and chokes out a few sobs. “I’m sorry,” she rasps from her raw throat, “I didn’t mean to.”
“I didn’t, either.” I rub my hand up and down her arm a few times until her crying quiets down somewhat. “Let’s get you inside, okay? Before there’s another lightning strike.” She shudders and nods. “Do you think you can walk?” She weakly turns her head to look up at me, and I know right away that that is not an option. Instead I plant my left foot on the ground and reach under her neck and knees, and before she can object, I have scooped her up off the ground. I moan and grimace at the agony inflicted on my ribs as I slowly straighten up and dig my right toe into the ground to propel myself up onto both feet, but I don’t stop. Johanna turns and buries her face in my shoulder as I begin the walk back to the compound. I silently curse her again for picking the farthest target range from shelter, but am grateful at least that she is fairly lightweight. She grasps at my soaked t-shirt as silent sobs continue to shake through her.
“Don’t worry,” I murmur. “You’re going to be fine. We’re almost back.” That last part is not really true, and I’m not sure about the rest of it but I’m certainly hoping it’s true. I catch a glimpse of two figures walking toward us through the rain and let out a sigh of relief. I’m not sure I could have carried her much farther by myself. “Hey, Jo,” I say, “it’s York. It’s York and a medic. They’re here to help you.”
Johanna’s head suddenly shoots up in panic. I almost think she’s lost in a flashback again until she says frantically, “I had a seizure.”
“What? No,” I explain, “you had a flashback or something.”
“No no no, I mean I need you to tell them I had a seizure, brainless.” I smile at the familiar nickname falling from her lips, but my eyes must give away how perplexed I am. “I need you to lie for me.”
“I thought you said I’m a terrible liar,” I scoff.
“Then learn fast. Trust me on this one, okay? They might not let me go to the Capitol or even continue training if they knew what happened.”
It is impossible to miss the desperation in her voice and her eyes, so I nod my agreement before looking back up. It turns out that the field medic accompanying Soldier York is my little sister. I am disappointed for a second because a larger medic means less chance of me having to carry my roommate any farther, but then I realize that this could work to my advantage when it comes to storytelling. As we close in on them, I whisper, “I’m going to put you down, okay?” She nods, and I stop walking. I gently lower and then let go of her knees so she can drop her feet to the ground and stand on them herself. She loops an arm around my waist and leans on me for support, but at least she looks halfway functional.
“Soldier Mason,” York says as they reach us, “I’m glad to see you up and moving.” Her eyes analyze how Johanna is leaning on me and she adds, “Somewhat.”
“She’s still feeling weak,” I explain, “but the seizure ended a few minutes ago and she’s been improving since then.”
“Seizure?” asks Prim, narrowing her eyes in confusion.
“Are you sure that’s what happened?” asks York. “Soldier Kearns said she was screaming. And not just for a second like you’ll sometimes see when seizures start.”
“What? No! It was me that was screaming,” I object. Both newcomers stare at me and I quickly add, “And of course I’m sure! Our mother’s a healer. We saw a few seizures back in Twelve, so I know one when I see one.”
“That’s true,” Prim chimes in. “If Katniss is sure that’s what she saw, I’d trust her judgment.” It’s not true at all, actually. I’d heard my mother speak of the phenomenon enough times to have a general idea of what it looks like, but I’ve never seen one myself, and Prim knows it.
York narrows her eyes at me and shakes her head. “If you can recognize one and know how to manage it,” she inquires, “then why the hell did you pin her down? Some of the other soldiers saw you do it.”
“For the same reason I was screaming,” I reply emphatically. “She was shaking like crazy and was holding a gun! Okay? I was scared. I freaked out and forgot you’re supposed to just let them ride it out.”
Soldier York purses her lips and looks from me to Johanna and back again. She nods, seemingly satisfied. “Speaking of which, just where are your guns, Soldier Everdeen?” My face falls and I turn my head to look back at the trail I’ve just conquered. “Never mind,” she grumbles, “I’ll go get them. You two take Mason to the hospital and get her checked out. Make sure they send me a full report on her condition.” York stalks away, and I let out the breath I’ve been holding. I turn my face to Prim, who is already looping Johanna’s left arm over her shoulder.
“We’ll each take some of your weight,” she explains. “All you have to do is try to keep your feet moving, okay?” Johanna nods gratefully.
“Thanks, Prim,” she says. We continue the trip back, but it is slow going with Johanna tripping over her own feet, and I can hear the buildup to thunder rumbling in the air. Jo must recognize the noise too, because her face jumps skyward and her eyes glaze over in alarm. Her legs start trembling and then give out under her.
“No time!” I call across her to Prim. “We need to get her inside, now. Help her get on my back.” My sister immediately obeys, guiding Johanna behind me and then hoisting her up so her legs can wrap around my waist. “Hold on,” I order the smaller victor, before taking off in the fastest speed walk I can manage without jostling my ribs too much. Prim jogs up beside us, and I nod gratefully. “Thanks,” I say. My mind flicks back to when she confirmed my fib earlier and I add, “for everything.” The look on her face tells me she understands exactly what I mean.
“I’m going to run ahead to the hospital and make sure they’re ready for her when you get there, okay?” I nod. “You can manage her on your own?”
“I’ll be fine,” I assure her. “Go ahead.” Prim takes off, and I tighten my arms around Johanna’s knees. “You all right back there?”
“Yeah,” she confirms, pulling her elbows over my shoulders to further secure my grip on her. Her breath brushes against my neck, sending a shiver through me as she mumbles, “Thanks. You pulled that off pretty well.”
My mind flashes back to another lie, at another time, in another place. I smirk a little at the fact that I just proved someone wrong again, and I can’t help but tease her. “Who can’t lie, Johanna?”
I know she recognizes this infamous line from my first Games, because she immediately huffs into my ear, “I’m not your fucking boyfriend, Everdeen.” I never thought this type of sentence would make me smile, but it does, because I will take this Johanna over the one I just witnessed any day.
Even over the sound of the hair dryer in my hand, I can recognize my roommate’s indignant objections through the door. It’s not bathing time yet, but nobody tried to stop me from jumping into the shower in our cramped attached bathroom given how muddy I was after the incident on the shooting range. I asked the even muddier Johanna if she wanted to go first, but she was being examined physically and verbally by various doctors and clearly didn’t have the time. I just tossed her a towel, as per her request. If the voices coming from the room are any indication, the examinations aren’t over.
“It’s not like I’m some sort of invalid!” I hear clearly as I turn the machine off. “This is bullshit!” The doctor barely starts his muffled reply before she cuts in, “You said yourself that if I got one it wouldn’t necessarily mean I’d have more.” I tentatively open the door and poke my head out, but neither of them notices me. Only the one doctor remains, standing a few feet from Johanna with a clipboard, while she glares up at him defiantly from the edge of her bed she is perched on. She is wearing a clean and dry change of clothes, but dirt is visibly streaked on her face and hands where she tried to wipe away the mud. She’s clutching the soiled towel tightly in her white-knuckled fists.
“That is true, Soldier Mason,” he replies patiently, “but there is a greater likelihood, especially in the coming days. We need to ensure your safety and everyone else’s. Imagine if you’d been holding a semi-automatic weapon when your muscles went tonic. You could have shot Soldier Everdeen or any of the other soldiers nearby, multiple times.”
This seems to get through to Johanna, perhaps because it is true even though the reason that it happened is a lie. She looks away from him glumly and her eyes settle on me. She lets out a weary sigh and shoots me a pleading look. “Katniss, can you please back me up here?” Yeah, I was right at the wedding. I really can’t say no to that face.
“Depends,” I answer as I take a few cautious steps toward the pair. “What exactly is going on?”
“They’re trying to take my gun away!” Johanna complains.
“Only for a few days,” the doctor cuts in. “And we need to keep her in the hospital for observation for 24 hours. After that, she can resume training and even take part in SSC if that is part of her regimen. She’s just not allowed to handle live ammunition for four days.”
“Four days!” she echoes him in disbelief. “This moron doesn’t understand that we only have a few weeks to prep for the invasion. How are my gun skills going to be good enough by then if I can’t practice?”
“We felt that four days was the bare minimum we were comfortable with,” he argues. “It’s actually quite a compromise that we decided to make in light of your situation.” He turns back to me and adds, “And she can participate in SSC, which will still give her plenty of opportunities for target practice.”
“I told you, we’re not in SSC yet!” Johanna directs back at the doctor.
“What’s SSC?” I ask.
“Simulated Street Combat,” the doctor explains. “Also known as ‘the Block.’ It’s basically practicing potential scenarios for the invasion. You get fake guns for it, among other things.”
“Yeah, and we don’t get to do it yet!” Johanna turns back to me and widens her eyes pointedly. She wants me to take up her case. I don’t really have any desire to get involved, partly because I want to avoid Johanna’s ire and partly because my best argument is that we don’t have to worry about her having more seizures because she didn’t have one in the first place. But since she seems intent on sticking to that story, I can’t tell him that. On the other hand, even if I can’t convince him to change his mind, making an effort to help Johanna will at least keep me on her good side.
“What about other forms of ammunition?” I suggest. “Rubber bullets or something?” Johanna doesn’t look particularly pleased with this attempt at helping, and the doctor shakes his head.
“It’s still too risky. Those can badly injure somebody too.” It’s useless, but I try one more thing just so Jo can’t say I didn’t.
“Are you sure it has to be four days?” I implore. “Can’t you cut it down any more? Like she said, just because she had one doesn’t mean she’ll have more.”
“Four days is already something we aren’t entirely comfortable with,” he reiterates firmly. “Perhaps Soldier Mason should consider asking your trainer to recommend her for SSC or at least put in a word to let her practice with those simulated weapons. It’s the best I can do.”
I turn to Johanna and shrug. “Maybe York would do that for you.”
“It’s not like York’s going to come visit me down here,” she grumbles. “I won’t get to talk to her for a couple of days at least. They’re forcing me into hibernation down here.”
“For good reason, Soldier,” the doctor interjects with waning patience. “You need rest more than anything after a seizure. The best thing you can do right now is sleep.” He accentuates this by manually dimming the lights in the room halfway before backing out the door and shutting it behind him.
Johanna scoffs half-heartedly and launches her towel at the small table next to the door. “That’s the worst thing I could do right now. Fucking idiot.” I would point out that he could probably give her better advice if he knew what had actually happened, but it’s not worth arguing over, not after what just happened not even an hour ago. Johanna’s fingers fidget in her lap while she starts swinging her legs off the side of the bed, letting them bounce off the frame under the mattress. “Maybe if I had some morphling I could handle it, but…” she looks up at me and shrugs in resignation. “Of course. Bad timing.”
“To take the edge off the nightmares, you mean?”
Her eyes darken and narrow. “No, so I can hallucinate colorful forest creatures and have a fucking tea party with them,” she fires back. “Of course the nightmares, brainless.” I keep my face as impassive as possible, refusing to take the bait, and after a few seconds she exhales shakily and looks down at her swinging feet. “Sorry,” she mumbles. Many people would see this as a good thing, but I know that Johanna must be in an extremely vulnerable emotional state if she is actually apologizing for something. I do have an idea of how I could help her with that, and with the nightmares – a solution that I know works for me somewhat from my time on the Victory Tour. But my stomach churns at the thought of broaching the subject, because in a way it turns this situation around and makes me the vulnerable one, whether Johanna realizes it or not. I decide to risk it anyway.
“Would it be easier if I stayed with you?” I venture, fighting to keep my voice steady. I slide my hands into my hip pockets both to suppress my sudden need to fidget and to discreetly wipe my sweaty palms. I can’t tell whether or not Johanna understands what I mean just from her facial expression, but if she does understand, she plays dumb.
“What,” she asks, “were you planning on running off somewhere else?”
“No, I mean…” I cautiously walk past her. “I mean stay with you,” I explain as I sit down a couple of feet away, just below the pillow. Johanna studies me over her shoulder but says nothing, so I lean back onto my elbows and raise my eyebrows. My stomach drops and my vision fogs as she remains unresponsive, and my brain starts moving way too fast. Maybe I’ve stepped over the line. Or maybe she’s just being coy and defensive. That’s entirely likely. Maybe she’s about to slap me for being too forward. Maybe she legitimately doesn’t want me to hold her. I swallow down the forming lump in my throat and try to will the knot in my stomach to loosen.
Johanna finally gives me a reaction of sorts, forcing out a weak snort and trying to smirk. “You know, Everdeen, just because I’ve seen you half naked now doesn’t mean you’re suddenly welcome in my bed.” I roll my eyes. Of course she has to make this difficult.
“Like you actually saw anything,” I scoff.
“Not saying I did, and not saying I didn’t.” She winks, a glint of playfulness back in her eyes and voice. I suppose I can put up with her teasing if it makes her feel more secure for a moment, but I’m not about to let her push me away unless I’m sure it’s what she really wants. On the contrary, by the longing in her face that she can’t totally hide and the tremor in her hands that has picked up since I offered, I’m pretty sure my suggestion is exactly what she wants. And needs. Not that she would ever admit it.
“Just shut up and lie down,” I demand with a huff and another roll of my eyes, reaching up to grab her arm. I only have to give a light tug to convince her to do so. I shift so I’m actually lengthwise on the bed, and Johanna crawls up on my right. I have just settled on my back when the smaller girl tucks herself into my side, causing me to twitch in nervousness and surprise. She lays her head above my breast and a hand on my stomach, sliding it along until her fingertips bump into my hipbone. The jolt down my spine is immediate and strong, and travels beyond her hand. Unlike when she lay on me when I was doped up on morphling, the heat and spasms don’t wait to spread that far. That whole experience felt quite intense at the time, but now it’s like the shadows of those sensations have burst forth into full color. But given that they say morphling dulls the extremes of all emotions, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised by my body’s reaction to a similar situation when sober.
I push out a shaky breath and attempt to regain my composure. I wrap my right arm around her and lay my other hand on her forearm, and then drop a kiss onto her forehead before I even realize I’ve done it. I pull back warily and ready myself for a physical or verbal reprimand, but thankfully she grunts only in acknowledgment as opposed to protest. I almost grin at this sudden change of demeanor in the plucky victor. The cuddling came unexpectedly easy given how much of a chore it was to get her to lie down at all. Then again, if I were afraid of slipping into nightmares recalling my own torture, I would probably latch onto the nearest warm body I halfway trusted as well, especially if it belonged to one of the few people who truly understood what was going on.
That’s something that is still bothering me, actually. Johanna was worried that being honest about the fact that she’d had a flashback would get her kicked out of the military, but the story we concocted is also impacting her ability to train, and having to keep it up has already proven to be taxing for me. I sigh deeply as I envision trying to explain what happened to our friends while working around a crucial part of the truth. I have to fight to suppress a shudder when the girl’s thumb starts sweeping back and forth over my stomach. If Johanna ever realizes I’m ticklish, I’m done for. I start speaking mostly because I’m afraid of what other sounds might come out of my mouth if I don’t.
“This seizure story is more trouble than it’s worth, you know,” I complain. “It’s only holding your training back.”
“You don’t understand, Katniss,” she mumbles into my chest. No kidding. “The doctors and higher-ups that know the details of… of what happened to me in the Capitol took some convincing to let me train. They think I’m too unstable and that I could be a major liability during the invasion.” She tilts her face up a little so she can look me in the eye. “They’d told me that a possible side effect was abnormal electrical activity in my brain, resulting in seizures. So it was a convenient thing I could blame what happened on without it having anything to do with my mental state. Make sense?”
I nod, even though it only sort of makes sense because why she’d potentially be having seizures in the first place is beyond me. I want to ask what happened to her, out of both curiosity and concern, but I’m not sure I’ve earned the right to that information. I could try to guilt it out of her because I’d had to bring her back from her flashback, but honestly I’m the one with the guilt on me, because it’s indirectly my fault that she had been tortured in the first place. But it might be better to know just in case I need to help her again in the future.
“Why did they think you might get seizures?” I hesitantly ask. I feel Johanna subtly tense against me, so I start moving my hands in small comforting circles over her clothes. “It’s okay if you don’t want to tell me,” I assure her gently. She says nothing for a while. If it weren’t for the almost imperceptible trembling in her hand and her jaw, I might wonder if she’d fallen asleep.
“Because of the electrical shocks,” she finally explains. “That’s one of the things they did to me in the Capitol.”
I instinctively tighten my arms around her. She has suffered far too much. I mull the new information over and finally make the connection that probably should have been obvious. Brainless. “So, the lightning...”
“Yeah.” I feel her swallow against my side and burrow her face deeper into my chest.
“Shit.” That’s all I can think of to say. There really isn’t much else I can say. “I’m sorry, Johanna.”
“It’s not your fault,” comes her muffled and deflated reply.
“It kind of is, though.”
She shakes her head. “No,” she states, more firmly this time. “I made my own choices.” She runs her hand up and over my lower ribcage as she says this. I would object because of the pain it causes me in the sore spot she briefly presses on, but the movement somehow feels good despite that. “I signed on to the rebellion, on to protecting you, of my own free will.” Her hand circles around and farther up, and comes to rest on my sternum just as she curls her top leg up and over my knees. “Don’t feel bad. The revolution could have died if you did.” Right, the damn revolution again. Where all of my worth starts and ends these days. The tension in my stomach has increased, though I’m not sure if it’s due to the subtle and probably unintentional insult in what she just said, or a deepening of my desire.
Wait, desire? Is that really what I’m feeling? I scrunch up my face but resume the soothing movements of my hands as I take stock of what is going on in my body. There is the familiar warm comfort of holding someone or being held, but there’s also something else that’s familiar. It’s similar to what I felt when I was tangled up with Peeta on the beach, but stronger. Much stronger. And from much less than kissing. But then again, I have kissed Johanna, and I’d felt nothing at the time. Well, not nothing, but nothing of this sort. But how can I judge how I feel about kissing her when our only kiss was an impulsive attempt to pull her back to reality? Maybe I should kiss her again so I can figure out if it would make me feel something in a different situation. Oh, there I go again. I considered kissing her on the night of the wedding too, although that was more so out of pity so I’m not sure that counts. Then again, using that criterion, a lot of my kisses don’t count.
Johanna lets out a sleepy whimper and fists my shirt between my breasts, and instantly another surge of spasms and fire rips through my torso and down between my legs. A frustrated grunt escapes me as I uncomfortably shift my body under hers in an attempt to quiet the effects of this latest wave of desire. Okay, fine, desire. I reasoned that it was the morphling causing these reactions a few nights ago, but in my sober state I can no longer lie to myself. I’m physically attracted to Johanna Mason, at least in some sense. Sexually attracted, maybe? I think so, but I’m not really sure. Although the right parts of my body are certainly stimulated, I’ve never really consciously thought of her that way. I guess I never thought to. All I really know is that I like holding her close. It feels dangerous, yet somehow comforting. Great, more danger. This is one more thing that I really do not need right now. But it just might be something that I want.