I watch the screen with a blank expression, bored by the persistent static. Beetee created some sort of broadcast system- which he explained to me in great detail once and I paid no attention to him- which allows each district to air their own television throughout their district and the entire country. They only set up basic lines in District 12 for now because really, when your overcoming an unimaginable loss whose concerned about television? I don't know why, but I always find myself flipping to the District 12 station and listening for an hour or two to the static. Sometimes you can catch bits of a new report, but there is a very low chance of that.
Suddenly, a voice comes from beyond the static and an uneven picture comes on the screen. It's someone reporting on the restoration process in 12. They show footage of my old crewmate Thom pulling a litter of bones, a bit of video that they show with every report I've seen. It seems they mix old clips with new clips. I don't mind watching this repetitively, because even though they don't say anything about the people around him, I know that Katniss is asking him a question. It could be any other girl from the Seam, because you only see the hair and a split second of their face, but I just know it's her. They go to a shot of a live reporter, and the camera pans around the main square which has taken seven months to partially rejuvenate. New shops are opening where old ones were. The butcher reopens where he used to be, because he was one of the few merchants to make it out alive. The facade of the bakery has been restored, but there are no cakes in the windows- which are dusty from the inside. Despite its forlorn appearance they say that it is to reopen within the next month.
They don't mention who is opening it, but I know it's Peeta. They never mention Peeta- or Katniss. It's not as though I constantly am able to see the newscasts, but I hear other people wondering aloud about Peeta and Katniss. So I assume they are never shown or talked of. I know why though. They're both too unstable to face the world, and I honestly can't blame them.
Something catches me off guard. My mother is suddenly on the screen with Rory, Vick and Posy. I silently beg the static to clear entirely. I can make out the reporter and Rory on either side of my mother, and Vick holding Posy's hand beside Rory. My siblings look so much older than I remember them. Rory is fifteen now; I think. That would make Vick twelve and Posy six. And my mother, I quickly do the math, is only thirty-nine. Each of them looks as though everything they've experienced is far beyond their years. I remember Posy, in District 13 looking quizzically at one of Katniss' prep team wondering why they were green, and then telling her that she would look pretty no matter what colour she was. I sigh, Posy has always been able to see the pretty things in life. Maybe all five year old girls do, I don't know. I hope she has the same outlook on life now, even after witnessing all of this destruction.
"I know this must be incredibly hard on you all," the reporter says solemnly, "but there must be a sense of joy in this restoration project. What are your thoughts on the entire process?"
My mother looks extremely worn, but a happiness that I haven't seen for years flickers in her eyes. Or maybe it's just the static. Either way, she replies in her familiar soothing voice. "It's hard for everyone, but it helps with the healing process. It's going well, because everyone is motivating each other, and people are motivated by their loss, rather than hindered. Things can't ever go back to how they were, we've all suffered too much, but since we are all working together I personally believe things are going better than expected."
Hearing her talk about this union, this bond between the survivors of 12 makes my entire body ache with longing. I've always wanted to be part of something bigger, to be more than just a miner of District 12, and now I am. But seeing my friends, my family and everyone I've grown up around coming together as one, and doing something bigger than anyone thought measly District 12 was capable makes me feel like I have abandoned them. I've deserted my home, but they're continuing on without me. The thought makes me thankful that they can do it, no matter who's there and who isn't. But there is still that sense of loneliness and I can't figure out what to do with it.
"And the sense of unity in District Twelve has never been stronger," the reporter says. "We all want to know, what is it like for the family, to see the hero of District Twelve, your son Gale, on television more than you see him in person."
I let out a bark of laughter. Hero? Really? They're calling me a hero? The irony is almost too much for me to bear. Obviously nobody knows that I created those bombs, the ones that killed all those children. No amount of saved lives could make up for the ones I took.
"It's different," my mother admits with a sigh. She bites her lip, which she only does when she's trying not to cry, "A lot different. We all miss him more than..."
She's still speaking, but a knock at my door cuts off her voice. I leave the television on in hopes of hearing what she has to say. I'm an hour into my three hour break; who could possibly want me right now? The only answer that comes to mind is a girl. But no. I got rid of her yesterday. I've been with four in the past six months. I'm not a womanizer, I'm just trying to drown my sorrows. Then I realized I didn't even know exactly what I was being morbid over, and I decided I should sort out everything that has happened first. The last one looked like Madge and it just felt... wrong. I know she's dead. I knew it the minute I saw the Mayor's house collapse. Thom and I were so close, but then we turned out to be so far. She was screaming, I heard her; her voice among others. When the house fell there was no way anyone could have lived. Part of me told myself to go and find her, to see if she was dead, but everything else was a raging inferno and Thom had to drag me away to get me back to my senses.
I think in some other life, where there was no thought of rebellion, I might've married her. If Katniss did marry Peeta. She would've no matter what, they seem to be the only ones that fully understand one another. Anyways, Madge was a good kisser. And pretty. And nicer than any other rich girl. I thought that maybe I loved her for a wild moment during the Quell. Katniss was crying over Peeta's body, and I knew that without him she wouldn't want to live. I couldn't exactly love a dead girl, and Madge was the first alive one around. Then Peeta came back, and I realized again it was the hysterical girl on television I loved.
"Gale," comes Beetee's voice from the other side of the door, "It's me." Sighing, I push form my seat and wander over to the door. There is a grey pad on the wall where I place my hand for identification.
"Open door or ignore?" comes a robotic female voice.
"Open," I say. I'm tempted to say ignore, because the door would just sound proof itself and I wouldn't be able to hear anything from the other side. Which suits me just fine usually, but I'm curious as to what Beetee wants. The door slide open and I lean against the frame. "Can't it wait?"
"I'm sure she would've found a way to break down this door if she had to wait," he says, looking like he's suppressing a laugh.
I'm instantly concerned. The only person I can think of it being is Katniss, and I have to admit I don't want to have to face her. She's not allowed out of District 12 anyways, except for medical conditions in which case she goes to the Capitol. If it is her though, for some bizarre reason, I have no idea what I would do. We've talked on the phone once, and that was because she called me to ask if it was okay to write me a letter. I told her yes, because I wanted to have some sort of contact with her.
I think of the letter, the one that's hidden in my desk drawer with her hand writing on it. It talks about how she heard Peeta and I talking that night in Tigris' cellar. I knew that night that she was choosing Peeta, and that there was nothing for me to do about it, but seeing it from her hand, her decision, was incredibly painful. Like a bullet wound. Except that this agony burrowed itself beyond the depths a bullet could go.
"Fine," I give in. I press a button on the wall quickly, which turns off the screen behind me.
"Gale Hawthorne," a vaguely familiar, bemused voice comes. My insides flip restlessly and something tells me I don't want to know who this voice belongs to.
With hair longer than I've seen on her, and wide eyes not as feral as usual, Johanna Mason appears in before me.
I'm so puzzled by this series of events that I laugh in confusion. My eyes dart around ; up and down her body, at Beetee, down the empty hall, to my own body pressed against the door's frame. I feel silly and so I push away from my position. She narrows her eyes, extremely unimpressed as Beetee joins in the laughter and vanishes down the hall.
"You are one of the last people I expected to see," I inform her. She laughs now, and pushes past me and into the threshold of my office. I cringe at the thought- I'm still not entirely comfortable knowing that I have an entire office to myself, while in 12 people don't have anything.
"I might say the same to you," she retorts with a smirk, crossing her arms over her chest. "But after everything you've done, why should you be anywhere else?"
I ignore her and sit in a lounging chair by the television. I don't invite her to sit; maybe she'll go away faster if I don't say anything. I don't know why I'm so hostile, but I think maybe that's the way everyone gets around Johanna.
"So those were your bombs that killed Prim?" She asks with interest. "Or is there another reason you couldn't go back to Twelve?" She walks over to where I am and casually takes a seat across from me, examining the velvet pattern on the arm of the chair.
My throat tightens and my hands form fists in my lap. I'm extremely tempted to hit something, Johanna maybe, but I'm not generally the type of person to hit someone. Except when I hit Boggs all of those times, which I feel terrible about the more I think of it.
"My we're to the point," I say stiffly, trying to figure her out. She's really quite small, the size of Katniss maybe. Her attitude is a thousand times bigger than her body, and it's very overwhelming. At least she says what needs to be said, and doesn't try to make everything sound flowery like every other girl I've talked to recently. She tells it as it is? "Yes."
"You disgust me," she spits, jaw taunt. "Katniss said you didn't know."
"I lied," I say shortly. Johanna just shakes her head. I keep watching her, to see if she says anything else. She's pretty I suppose. I've never looked at her very long, or seen her in a healthy state or in normal clothes. But since I've been looking at almost nothing except girls recently, I can't help but to observe. Her face is extremely unique with her wide set eyes and pointed features, but that's what makes it so wonderful to look at. Her wavy hair is to her shoulders now, a deep reddish brown. I have to admit, it's a relief to see her in something rather than a hospital gown, or a jumpsuit from the games, or the uniform from 13. The deep blue leather jacket she's wearing shows just how small her body really is. It's almost like if you touched her, she might shatter. Then again, I'm forgetting this is Johanna Mason in front of me. "Wait, when did you see Katniss?"
A sly grins creeps onto her face. "Oh, you would ask. It was two months ago. She's doing better, but she's still not doing good. Same thing with Peeta, but who is?" Her chocolate brown eyes hover around the around. "Well, other than you of course."
"Why were you in Twelve?" I want to hear about Katniss, because this is the longest I have ever gone without talking to her since I met her in the woods all that time ago. Actually, five months ago is the longest I've gone without communicating with her.
"Oh," Johanna says, as though shocked by my question. She see's my interest and I can tell from the glint in her eye that she's going to use that to her advantage. She leans toward the coffee table, which separates us and says in a mysterious whisper, "that is a very long story."
I check my watch. "I have two hours," I offer, but her expression tells me that she would explain it even if I only had thirty seconds to spare.
"In that case," she sinks deeper into her seat, "I'll need something to eat and drink."
I must admit, she's not horrible at playing the part of a weary traveller. "Not happening," I say shortly because I just ate, and I'm too lazy to go look for food for Johanna of all people.
"Fine," she raises an eyebrows and smirks, "I won't tell you."
"You're dying to talk to someone, you'd tell me eventually anyways."
"I get food once I'm done," she persists, narrowing her eyes.
Nodding, I say: "deal."
"Well, unlike you, Paylor had nothing for me to do in the Captiol, so I was shipped back to seven," her face takes on an odd expression, almost like hurt. It changes back to her sarcastic scowl just as quickly as it came. "You saw the jabberjays in the quell- wait. I take that back, you were probably busy seducing some poor girl. Well, I'll pretend you saw because I really don't care enough to explain. They had no effect on me, because as you may or may not have heard, there wasn't anyone I loved back in Seven. So naturally, sending me back to Seven flunked. There were people who knew me, and I would like to say I knew them, but I just didn't put in the effort of ever getting to know someone. I decided I should go on a little trip and find somewhere that I could live.
"I skipped Thirteen because really, who could live in that stink hole unless you're forced to? Next on the list was twelve." She pauses and I just watch her with the most bored expression I can manage.
"I stayed with Katniss because I had no idea where to go. Since I was on morphling last time I lived with her, I didn't remember how exhausting it was to live with someone so afflicted by everything. She was screaming or crying half the time, Haymitch was always drunk and Peeta never knew where to stick his head. It was strange, because even in the Capitol before he was hijacked, Peeta always knew what to say and when to say it. And now, he doesn't even know what he should be thinking. It was nice to share a few drinks with Haymitch though, for old times' sake. Then there was everyone rebuilding and uniting and I wasn't a part of their sorrow, and I didn't belong. Then I went to Eleven, but I only thought of that little girl Katniss was allied with in her games. In Ten there were too many cows and everywhere else was extremely boring. I stopped in Four for a while, because I needed to see Annie and because she needed help preparing for the baby."
"Wait," I hold up a hand to stop Johanna. "Annie's pregnant?"
Johanna bites her lip and nods slowly.
"Shit," I say, struck by the tragedy of the situation. I still can't believe Finnick's dead. I didn't know him that well, but whenever we fought he was so sure of everything, it just didn't seem like he would ever get hurt.
"I know," Johanna says quietly, letting her gaze fall to the coffee table. "I have no idea how she's going to do it. I think she has a cousin there, and Mrs. Everdeen was with her a lot. I could only stay there so long though..."
"Water," I say for her as she shudders. I remember finding her in the Capitol. In a room filled with live wires and puddles of her blood and water mixing into some sick sort of concoction. She didn't say anything as we rescued her, not until we made sure there wasn't any water around.
She swallows. "It reminded me of Finnick too. With all that water I just expected to turn around and see him swimming somewhere, or weaving a net or just stripping down. It's funny how many things I forgot about him, that came back when I was in Four. I don't want to know how painful it is for Annie."
I think of the woods, where Katniss and I hunted and the empty sensation I got during her Games when I hunted alone. During the Victory tour, I decided I should dwell on more pleasant memories to get me through the day. It wasn't easy, because the memories seemed to have hidden themselves in unreachable vaults in the back of my mind. Vaults that took me a long time to figure out the combination for. "She probably focuses on happy moments," I say.
She nods, fixated on the table. This isn't the Johanna I remember. Shouldn't she be degrading me, or shooting around random insults? Maybe she only ever did that because she was suffering from withdrawal from morphling. I don't really blame her if that's why.
"So naturally you come to Two," I say as I receive a glare for what I'm implying.
"I couldn't exactly stay in Three," she snarls. "Or are you as stupid as you seem and forgot how they tortured me?"
"No, I remember," I cringe. "What about One?"
"They're all too rich and pompous," she says quickly.
"Pompous?" I raise an eyebrow and smirk. If anyone is pompous, it's the girl in front of me.
"Whatever, I just didn't like it there. And you could only get me to go to the Capitol if it included knocking down all of their buildings and locking people up far away from all of their stupid makeup and clothes. Or maybe just massacring them all."
"You really hate everything don't you?" I ask her, slightly curious.
"Maybe. I hate people and sometimes when you hate someone you hate everything to do with them," she explains. "And I hate a lot of people."
"Is there anyone you don't hate?"
She considers me with a small grin for a moment. "Peeta, I think. He took longer to break than I did. He tried to stop them from hurting me. I have more respect for him than I do anyone else. Annie too. There's only so much of you left when you suffer that much, and those two just keep pulling through no matter what you throw at them. You hate Peeta though." It's a statement, not a question.
Part of me says that I hate him, but more of me says that I like him. I want to tell Johanna I don't hate him, but I can't. He has one of the people I love most in the world.
"He's better for her," I say instead, because if I tried to explain what I really thought of Peeta, Johanna would take advantage of my confusion and go try to find food for herself.
"As much as I can't stand being around people who don't regularly keep their tongues to themselves, I have to say I agree. Katniss would work herself into a frenzy, and when Peeta didn't have the urge to tear her apart he would say the simplest thing and she would calm down. It's like Finnick and Annie all over again, except Finnick was more sane than Peeta." Her tone is less malicious than usual and I can tell she just wants to inform me, rather than to sting me.
"So then why Two?"
Johanna stands up and extends her arms outwards overenthusiastically. "I saw you on so many televisions, and I couldn't believe you have this!" she twirls suddenly and laughs loudly. I cough to smother my laughter.
"When I wound up in some stupid little village that looks like Plutarch had a very pleasant time making-" she throws a stabbing glance in my direction, dropping her arms, "and by that I mean it looked like shit- I asked if you were really Secretary of Defence." Her voice rises into an exceptionally impressive Capitol accent.
"Plutarch happened to be there, when he saw who I was and what I was asking he whisked me here incredibly fast. But I like it around here. It's like seven, but with less trees and a more interesting landscape. And I think I could handle the snow when it melts," she says. She seems to genuinely like where she is.
"It's nice to know you're in your comfort zone," I say because I can't think of a better reply, and I'm slightly bitter at her happiness.
Her wide eyes narrow and she rewards me with a critical glare, as though I should've known better. Maybe I should've. "I don't even have a comfort zone, Hawthorne."
"Is that you're entire story then?" I ask.
She shrugs. "Yeah."
"That barely took half an hour," I say checking my watch. I was expecting more.
"You know," she glides to the far end of the room where shelves laden with books and random metal instruments. She flicks ones which whirs into action, making a faint metallic chiming noise, "Finnick and I decided we'd have some fun with Katniss before the Quell. While we still could, just in case anything went wrong. Before the opening ceremonies, Finnick fluttered his eyelashes for her while wearing his ridiculous netted loincloth. Katniss hardly reacted, she was so blind and pure. Then after, I found her and Peeta in the elevator and I was dying of heat and revulsion at my costume, so I just took it off. Peeta didn't even look at me he was so absorbed in Katniss. She looked disgusted that anyone would take off their clothes in front of other people of their own free will. It was hilarious, and I heard Peeta laughing afterwards at her discomfort. I didn't even consider how awkward I should have felt and then I realized, I just didn't give a shit about anything anymore.
"I told Finnick after and he just laughed and said, 'You've never cared Johanna. After everything they've done to you, you haven't cared. And that keeps you who you are. They've tried to change us all, but the best of us just hang on to who we are, and we won't ever lose ourselves.' He was a lot smarter than he seemed, you know." She continues down the line of shelves until her fingers slide onto a map of Panem.
"I've had people die on me before. My older brother was crushed by a tree when I was ten. When I was here," she taps Two on the map, "on my Victory tour, my mother died of some disease she didn't have when I left. I never defied Snow in my Games, but he wanted me to stay in the Captiol after I won, said something about me being unique and pretty, and I told him no. When I got back to Seven, my dad was dead. Everyone said he died in the same way my brother did, but I knew better." Her voice lowers to a whisper because she's so transfixed on the map. "I've never told anyone that. It feels good though. Maybe if I start mourning properly, I can find something to do with myself that they'd approve of. Maybe they'd want me to be here."
I stand up now, because she's so far away and since she's whispering I can't hear her properly. When I'm at her side, she breaks her gaze on the map and stares up at me. Her fingers, which I can only describe as being thin and delicate, trail to Twelve. "You're from here," it goes to Seven, "and I'm from here."
I haven't the slightest clue where she is going with this. Now her finger returns to Two. "We're both here." I'm watching her eyes, not her hand hoping that they betray some sort of emotion. They go so deep, these dark orbs that are her eyes. I'm trying to resurface when she speaks again, "I was about to go all Peeta and Katniss on you there. I was going to ask you questions that I don't think you know the answer to." Slipping between the map and I, Johanna finds her way back to the door.
"I still get food out of this deal, right?" she asks with a small grin. The way she moistens her lips with her tongue, she knows she's lured me into whatever sort of trap she's set.
Still entranced, I run my hand through my hair attempting to comprehend her words. "Oh right. Yeah."
"Gorgeous," she says excitedly, walking out of the room quickly. I remain standing by the map, then I realize what I'm supposed to do and I hurry after her. We walk in silence and I quickly recall the time I visited Katniss after she had been shot. Johanna was with her, but left after sneaking some morphling. She had called me gorgeous in the exact same tone, and there was no way the morphling had worked its magic on her yet. Maybe she was trying to make me feel intimidated. Maybe she wasn't.
"Johanna," I reach in front of me and grab her sleeve, turning her around to face me. Her eyes are red and puffy. I hadn't noticed she was crying. "Why did you really come here?"
She swallows and considers my question for a moment. Her eyes close and the slightest of tears roll down her cheeks. "Because I need to be with someone who understands what it's like to be cast off. Who knows what it's like to be alone."
"What about Annie?"
"She's had enough happiness to keep her until she has the baby. I've never been happy- or at least I never remember being happy. And if you were half as smart as they make you up to be, you'd realize you can't remember being happy either!" Johanna's hysterical sob is enough to make me back away as she sweeps past angrily, wiping her eyes.
She came for me.