I wake up because the mattress dips to the side, just slightly, stirring me from my curled up sleeping position amidst a cocoon of blankets. I raise my head and blink blearily into the room, but it’s still dark outside and at first I can’t really see anything. Just a shadow, moving beside me, rustling around in the sheets.
“Shh, go back to sleep,” whispers Johanna, already dressed. “I’m just looking for the gloves.”
I don’t ask why she thinks her gloves might be found in the bed - Johanna’s things have a way of turning up in the strangest places, usually after she spends hours looking for them elsewhere and cursing a blue streak. I also don’t ask what she’s doing up at this time of day because our sleeping patterns tend to be erratic at the best of times, and downright chaotic at the worst.
Instead I follow her advice and bury my head back in the pillow while Johanna crawls up towards the headboard on her hands and knees, where she finally seems to come upon her prey.
“Here we go,” I hear her mumble to herself, satisfied, as she tugs something out from between the bed frame and the mattress. Then she jostles me around again as she draws back, presses a quick kiss to my temple to stop me complaining, and vanishes out the door.
I fall back asleep almost immediately.
The next time I open my eyes, Buttercup is lying right in front of my face, purring loudly and kneading the pillowcase with his claws. I groan. At one point, I foolishly began feeding him a bowl of milk every morning, and where before he couldn’t care less, he now resorts to veiled threats if I don’t get up early enough for his liking and serve it to him. I suspect the purring is just supposed to distract me from the fact that his claws are wandering ever closer to my face.
I yawn and roll over, fumbling for the edge of my blanket. “Alright, alright, I’m coming.”
As I’m stumbling through my morning routine I dimly remember Johanna’s stunt from earlier this morning, and now I do wonder what it was she was up to. Especially because there’s no trace of her anywhere when I come down to the kitchen with Buttercup hard on my heels. The poor creature acts as if he’s never eaten a thing in his life, purring and winding around my ankles in a heartbreaking display of neediness. As soon as he has his saucer of milk, though, I might as well have winked out of existence, which suits me just fine. I leave him behind in the kitchen and go looking for Johanna.
The fireplace in the living room is cold, but I find a piece of paper on the table that simply says ‘Be right back’ in Johanna’s broad, hurried letters. Somehow, that makes me smile. A little more information would have been nice, I guess, but it’s just so typical Johanna. Nobody else I know would write a note like that without even thinking to put their name under it as a default courtesy. Well, except probably me, that is. Haymitch might like to tease me about it but actually, he’s right: we are pretty well matched in more ways than one.
In the hallway it turns out that Johanna hasn’t just taken her gloves (however they ended up behind the mattress in the first place) but also the heavy winter boots and everything else I’d expect a person to put on if they didn’t want to freeze to death out there… wherever it is she went. On third glance I notice one of her axes missing, too: the slightly smaller one that normally hangs right next to my bow and quiver of arrows on the wall.
I frown slightly. Now that is weird. We’ve been out chopping some wood just a couple of days ago, and we brought in enough of it to share with Peeta, who doesn’t enjoy cutting down trees much, and who has a hard time navigating the uneven forest paths in the deep snow with his leg anyway. It doesn’t make sense for Johanna to go and get more. But the only other option involving an axe that springs to my mind is that she’s gone out in order to viciously murder some unfortunate person or other, and considering the circumstances, that doesn’t sound very plausible either.
A loud Thunk from the front door makes me startle. There’s a very large, dark shape moving blurrily behind the frosted glass window of the door, and a moment later somebody is rapping their knuckles against the wood.
“Katniss! Come out and give me a hand, will you?”
Johanna’s cheeks are red from the cold, her legs dusted almost up to the knees in snow, and she’s grinning at me when I open the door. “Thought I saw you lurking around in there,” she says, sounding rather badly out of breath. “I swear, I won’t be able to drag this thing a single inch further on my own.”
“I wasn’t lurking,” I retort, but my heart’s not really in it. I’m too distracted by the green monstrosity that Johanna is trying to hold upright with one hand, wavering precariously on the doorstep. “Why did you — what is that?”
Johanna rolls her eyes but, surprisingly, doesn’t come back with one of her usual sarcastic remarks that such a glaringly obvious question should have merited. Maybe it’s the Christmas spirit. Instead she shrugs and smiles at me, rather sweetly. “You know perfectly well what it is, brainless. Are you going to help me now or not?”
“You went out into the woods before dawn to get us a tree?” I say. “Why?” I know the tradition, of course, but the whole concept of going to such lengths to have a chopped off fir tree around for a few days still seems strange to me.
“Remember when you told me last year that you’ve never had a Christmas tree?”
“Yeah, but that wasn’t just me. Nobody here ever had one.” And how should we have, with a barbed wire fence between the District and the woods all around? The only actual Christmas tree I have ever seen here in 12 was in the living room of Madge’s father, Mayor Undersee. He’d had the connections and privilege to get one from somewhere else, I suppose. And he also wasn’t busy trying not to starve.
“Well, I decided I just couldn’t let you go on like that,” Johanna says. “The tree is the best thing about Christmas!” She sounds so sincere about it that I can’t help but laugh, though I more or less manage to smother it with a hand. District Seven, Lumber indeed, I think. Johanna raises her eyebrow at me. “What?”
“Nothing, nothing.” I quickly try to school my features. “Just — does it even fit through the door?”
“We’ll make it fit if you help me,” Johanna points out. She’s trying to tip the tree forward so she can get the upper half through the doorway, and I squeeze through to the other side of it to help, but it quickly becomes apparent that it’s just not going to work. After ten minutes we’re both sticky and covered in needles, and the tree is partly in the hallway but certainly not going anywhere further.
“Oh come on!” Johanna kicks it. “The fucking thing looked smaller when I chopped it down!”
“It must have looked a lot smaller,” I say, trying to wipe my hands on my trousers, “unless you were planning to just sort of lay it across the living room floor. I don’t think we could stand it upright, the ceiling’s too low.” Then something else occurs to me. “Johanna?”
She looks up, scowling. “Hm?”
“Did you get anything to decorate it with? I have a few things we used to put on the windows, but —“
As soon as I say it, it’s clear that the answer is no. Johanna curses and makes as if to kick at the tree again, but then just turns away. “Fuck, I didn’t even think that you wouldn’t have anything,” she says, angry and, I realize, clearly disappointed. Christmas with or without a tree may not make much of a difference to me, but for Johanna, it very obviously does.
I look at the giant tree, stuck in the doorway. With luck, we could maybe cover the upper fifth of it with the decorations I have stashed away somewhere, but surely not more than that. It’s just too big. Johanna gives the tree a last futile shove.
“We’ll have to chop it off,” I say.
“Oh sure, go ahead and chop it up for firewood —“ Johanna starts, but I catch her with an arm around her shoulders and pull her in.
“I said chop it off, not up,” I say. “We’ll just take the tip and put that in the living room. It’s maybe not that big, but at least we can properly decorate it.” I squeeze her shoulders. “Okay?”
Johanna sighs, the angry scowl easing a bit. “Yeah, okay,” she says. “It’s better than nothing, I guess. Even though if I’d known that, I wouldn’t have trudged out into the forest in the pitch dark to get the damn thing here in time for breakfast.”
“Next year you’ll know better.” I smile teasingly. “Just find a very small tree.”
"Nah." Johanna shakes her head, an ambitious glint in her eyes. “Next year,” she says, and kisses me on the cheek before she goes to retrieve her axe, “I will have found us a very large box of decorations.”