Title: Let Me Name the Stars for You
Spoilers: HG, CF, & MJ (post Mockingjay)
Summary: This is the story of how the Hawthorne family puts Johanna back together again. Or maybe it's the other way around.
Author's Note: I listened to a Birdy's version of "Skinny Love" and Ingrid Michaelson's "Soldier" a million times and somehow ended up with something strangely hopeful.
We have not touched the stars, nor are we forgiven,
which brings us back to the hero's shoulders
and the gentleness that comes,
not from the absence of violence,
but despite the abundance of it.
- Richard Siken
The look on his face when he opens the door and finds her standing on the other side is kind of hilarious. Like she's the last person in the world he expects.
Well, maybe not the last.
She leans against the doorframe, her sharp hip jutting out as she looks at him with unreadable eyes. "Hawthorne."
"What are you doing here?"
She does not say checking up on you or I was lonely or I have nowhere else to go. Instead Johanna just says, "I heard the weather's nice in 2 this time of year."
Gale quirks an eyebrow, and she just shrugs.
"Are you going to let me in, or do I have to set up shop on the fucking front porch?"
He rolls his eyes. "Well, since you asked so nicely…"
Gale opens the door wider and Johanna stops short as she is immediately greeted by four other sets of wide gray eyes. It hadn't even occurred to her that he would have his family with him, but now it seems obvious that of course they'd be here. Not everyone's an orphan. "I don't -" she starts and she's already halfway out the door again when Gale slips his hand under her elbow, and cuts her off.
"Johanna Mason's here," he announces without preamble. Like it isn't totally fucking weird that she just showed up on his doorstep. The rest of the Hawthorne family just stares at her, mouths slightly agape.
There's a moment that is so painfully awkward that she wants to laugh, but then Hazelle Hawthorne stands up and brushes her hands against the front of her dress.
"Rory, go set out another plate for supper," she commands with the sort of practiced briskness that only years of motherhood can instill, and in a flash, a boy who looks exactly like Gale darts out of the room. "Vick, help your sister wash up," she says next, and the two younger Hawthornes scurry away without another word.
Then Hazelle turns towards her. "We're having rabbit stew," she says, and it's not really a question but Johanna still feels like she has to answer.
"That…" she shoots Gale a look but he just cocks his head to the side like you're the one who decided to come for a visit. Johanna supposes it wouldn't kill her to have one damn meal.
"That sounds great."
When Gale comes back from tucking Posy in later that night, Johanna's sprawled out across his bed, all lanky limbs and no sense of proper boundaries.
"I see you've made yourself at home," he deadpans.
She yawns, stretching her arms above her head. "Nice place you got here."
"President Paylor gave me a job."
"Fancy," she says, somehow managing to make the word sound not the least bit fancy at all.
Gale looks at her feet like maybe he wants to shove them over and sit on the edge of the bed, but he stays where he is. "What have you been doing since…"
"Since we won the revolution?" Johanna drawls and there's a mocking bite to her tone. "No job offers for me. Seems everyone still thinks I'm…unstable."
He shoves his hands in his pockets and digs the toe of his shoe into a knot in the uneven wood floor. "Where are you staying?"
"I hadn't thought that far ahead. I just needed a change of scenery."
"You can – " he hesitates before continuing. "You can stay here. If you want."
Johanna barks out a laugh. "One big happy family?"
"I just thought -"
Part of her likes watching him fumble over his words, but the other part of her has no place to sleep tonight. Without warning Johanna swings her legs off of the bed and stands up in one fluid motion. "Okay," she says, cutting him off. "Until I find something else."
Johanna can tell that Gale expected her to say no, because it takes him a few seconds to reply. "I'll — I'll, uh, get you some blankets for the couch."
"Pity," she smirks, brushing by him as she moves through the door. "Your bed's so comfy."
She can hear his low chuckle from the hallway and it makes her smile in spite of herself.
Johanna tells herself that she's only going to stay for one night. Two, tops. But just like that a week has passed and Hazelle's asking if she needs her sheets washed and there's a fucking toothbrush for her sitting on the bathroom counter next to all the others. Johanna hates it, except maybe she sort of doesn't.
The Hawthornes are surprisingly functional for a family that has lost everything they know. Everything except each other. Rory is like a miniature Gale, all stoic silences and wounded eyes. He's always the first one up in the morning, even before Hazelle. Johanna hears him padding around the house, his footsteps light and purposeful. First he leaves through the back door to gather a few logs of wood, then he starts a fire in the hearth in the kitchen, then he pulls down the plates and silverware and sets them in stacks on the counter. Every morning, like clockwork. By the time Hazelle comes in to start breakfast, Rory has already disappeared back into his bedroom to wake up his younger brother.
Vick is…well Vick is a lot like Rory, but also impossibly different — softer, somehow. There's an open, innocent dreaminess to his expression that makes him look younger than he actually is. Johanna often catches him sitting on the edge of the windowsill with his nose pressed up against the glass, hungrily watching the people as they come and go along the road outside the house. He talks more than Rory, but that's not saying too much.
Posy Hawthorne is a tiny little thing. She's five years old but the years of malnutrition have made her small. Even still, she's got everyone wrapped around her little finger. Gale picks flowers for her every day while he's walking home from work and Vick pilfers pencils for her from school so she can draw pictures, while Rory spoons her vegetables onto his own plate when no one is looking, and Hazelle will always stop whatever she's doing if Posy wants to crawl onto her lap for a story.
Johanna thinks it's ridiculous the way they all dote on her, but sometimes she catches herself smiling at the childish antics of the youngest Hawthorne. The innocent confidence she has — the way she never doubts that she is cherished — is strangely comforting.
Hazelle keeps everything moving along with a quiet constancy, but it quickly becomes apparent that Gale is the pivot point around which they all orbit. It makes sense to Johanna. He is, after all, the one who kept them safe when the drones screamed through District 12 and left nothing but ash and bones behind. The one who went to hell and back and watched the whole world burn just so they could be safe.
She doesn't know exactly what Gale does when he leaves for work every morning, his stride brisk and purposeful, but she gathers that it must be important. She finds out that the government gave the Hawthorne family this house when they arrived in District 2. It was full of the furniture of people who were long gone (no one likes to think about who they were and exactly where they had gone to), but Gale dragged away everything except the bare necessities and they made a fresh start.
The house is still pretty bare, but Johanna can see how they've started to slowly claim the space as their own. There's a threadbare blanket draped over the back of the chair in the living room that Hazelle likes to wrap herself up in it on colder days. Posy puts the flowers that Gale brings her into mugs and tiny vases and scatters them around the house, while Vick and Rory tack their school assignments up onto the kitchen cabinets so that Gale can see them when he comes home from work.
Nobody ever talks about the war or about home. Not if they can help it. But two weeks into her visit, Katniss comes up for the first time. They're all sitting in the family room one night after dinner — Gale is looking at some papers from work while the boys are taking apart a toy car they found behind the house to see how it works and Johanna is flipping through a book that Hazelle brought from D13. All of a sudden Posy says:
"When are we going to go visit Katniss?"
Everyone's gaze darts to Gale and he keeps his eyes trained on the papers in front of him, the picture of nonchalance, but Johanna knows better. She didn't live among the pampered Capitol frauds for years without picking up the tools to spot a liar, so she sees the telltale tensing of his shoulders and the way his jaw twitches ever so slightly.
Hazelle strokes Posy's smooth black hair. "Soon, baby. We'll go visit her soon."
There's a long, stretched-out moment when they all feel the ghosts of things left unsaid curl around them, heavy and cold, but it passes as the little girl accepts the answer without protest. Vick and Rory go back to their deconstructed toy and Posy leans her head against Hazelle's breast, her eyes heavy with sleep, and the room falls back into a comfortable silence.
Johanna keeps her eyes on Gale. It takes a long time for the taut rigidity to leave his body — for his breathing to return to normal. But it does. Eventually it does.
If Hazelle's brusquely efficient kindness is inescapable and Posy's lack of boundaries is blissfully, childishly ignorant, the boys are another story. Their glances seldom stray towards Johanna and conversation, on the rare occasions it happens, just barely meets the minimum for politeness. Which is fine with her. Not like she ever cared much for rugrats.
Still, she can't help but notice the wariness in their eyes — the way they avoid the family room when she's sprawled out on the couch and duck back into their bedroom when they see her in the hallway.
Johanna doesn't think too much of it until she one night when she's on her way back from the bathroom and she overhears Gale talking to Vick before bed. "She doesn't bite you know."
"Johanna's just trying to get by. Same as the rest of us."
There's a long silence and Johanna is about to walk away when Vick speaks, his voice low and hesitant. "It's just…I used to have nightmares about her," he confesses.
Her shoulders tense as she sucks in a sharp breath, and she finally realizes why the boys have been avoiding her. Rory and Vick are old enough to remember her Games. Old enough to still be terrified of the girl who lodged an axe right between the eyes of the boy from District 12.
She slips away before she hears Gale's response and sweeps out the front door, not even bothering to slip on shoes or a jacket. The dirt is cold beneath her feet and she can see her breath against the navy sky, but Johanna doesn't mind. The brisk air reminds her of home — reminds her of the little girl with the cocky laugh who used to bet the mill workers that she could hit any target with an axe. Back when the targets were just trees.
She walks for a long time. Long enough for the stars to come out and for a sliver of the moon to rise high up in the sky. Long enough that she's nearly certain no one will be awake when she gets back to the house, but when she opens the door Gale is sitting on the couch with his head in his hands like some kind of statue. What an idiot.
He looks up when she comes in and takes in the half-dressed sight of her. "You're shivering," he says, tossing a blanket across to room. It falls next to her dirt-smeared feet and she leaves it there.
"You didn't have to wait up."
He sighs. "Yes I did."
Johanna rolls her eyes. "How'd you know I was listening?"
"I used to hunt," he says, and it's not really an answer. "Vick didn't —"
"I used to have nightmares about me too, you know," she cuts in. Johanna begins to walk toward him slowly and it's so dark that she can barely see his face, but she knows he's watching her. "I used to dream that I was this horrible thing with bloodstained fingers who murdered a whole bunch of other kids. And then I woke up and it was still true." She's standing right in front of him now, close enough to reach out and touch him if she wanted to but she keeps her arms folded tightly against her chest.
"Look, I know that taking care of people is, like, your thing," she warns. "But I don't need taking care of."
"I know." Gale rises to his feet and they're so close that she can feel his breath against her face. He stares at her for a long time and she's about to say something nasty just to break the heavy silence when he turns away and walks across the room to pick the blanket up from off of the floor. He drapes it over the edge of the couch and turns to leave the room. Right before he gets to the hallway Gale turns back towards her.
"Tomorrow will be better," he says, his voice whisper soft in the silence of the night.
Johanna shakes her head. "Will it?"
"It's what I keep telling myself."
Then he is gone. Johanna sighs as she lifts the blanket and wraps it around her shoulders.
Since the moment Johanna first arrived Posy has been watching her with a sort of active curiosity, like she's trying to figure something out. It's not until Johanna's been there three weeks that the little girl finally reveals what she's been puzzling out in her head.
"Why is your hair short like a boy's?"
They're all sitting at breakfast and it takes Johanna a minute to realize that Posy is talking to her. "Someone - ah - someone cut it for me," she replies, squirming in her chair.
"But you're not a boy?" Posy queries as she chews on a piece of bread, her big round eyes staring up at Johanna across the table.
"You're a girl."
"That's what they tell me."
Posy nods her head thoughtfully and Johanna thinks maybe that will be the end of it. She shoots a sidelong look at Gale, but he's just smiling at Posy. There's a softness in his expression that she doesn't think she's ever seen before. He looks like a brother instead of a soldier. It's nice.
"Maybe you could cut my hair like yours," Posy says suddenly.
Johanna almost chokes on her eggs. "I don't -"
"Mama, can Johanna cut my hair like a boy's?"
Hazelle Hawthorne's got the same gentle look in her eyes and Johanna knows she's not going to get any help there. "Sure, Pos," Hazelle tells her daughter. "Whatever you want."
Posy grins as she wipes the crumbs from her lips with the back of her arm. "Oh please! Will you cut my hair like yours?"
Johanna opens and closes her mouth, dumbfounded. She looks around the table but all she sees are five sets of gray eyes staring back at her expectantly, waiting. She sighs. "I guess…"
So later that afternoon Gale pulls the pair of scissors out of the kitchen drawer and hands them to Johanna before he hoists Posy up to sit on the edge of the sink. Her little legs dangle against the cupboards as her childish giggle tinkles and something about the whole thing makes Johanna feel short of breath. The sharp metal feels heavy, so heavy, and she realizes that her hands are shaking.
"Maybe it would be better if you -" she starts to say to Gale, but Posy shakes her head.
"No, I want you to do it," the little girl pleads.
Gale laughs and shrugs at Johanna. "We Hawthornes have a stubborn streak."
"So I see," she mutters under her breath. Johanna lifts the scissors and takes a single step towards Posy. Then another. She waits for the flinch she knows is coming - waits for the child to shrink away from her in terror. After all, she's Johanna Mason and she's got something sharp in her hands and everyone knows how this story ends. But Posy just smiles and leans forward to whisper, "It's okay. You'll do a good job."
Johanna takes a deep, shaky breath and catches a coal black lock in between her fingertips. She closes her eyes and counts to five before closing the scissors with a snap. The sharp sound cuts through the silence and Posy laughs.
"You were talking in your sleep." It's the middle of the night and she's standing in the doorway of his bedroom, trying to make out his figure in the darkness.
Gale scrubs a hand over his face. "What was I saying?" His voice is thick with sleep.
Johanna leans against the doorframe. "You really want to know?"
He sighs as he rolls over to switch on the lamp next to the bed. "No, probably not." They both blink as their eyes adjust to the dim light. "Sorry I woke you."
"I sleep light," Johanna shrugs. "Side effect of spending your 15th birthday worrying that someone will kill you in your sleep."
Gale opens his mouth to say something, but then he just closes his eyes and leans back against the headboard.
"I used to get pills for it in the Capitol, but now…" she trails off, remembering the pharmacist with the fish scales tattooed down his neck who used to lick his tight, thin lips as he leered at her breasts, counting out the pills one by one. Johanna shakes her head and steps into the room without warning. "Move over Hawthorne."
His eyes bug out and suddenly he looks very much awake. "Um - what, I don't -"
She rolls her eyes as she walks toward him. "Relax. I just figured if we're both not sleeping we might as well not sleep together." She shoves his feet further up the bed, forcing him to fold his legs so she can flop herself down across the end of the mattress.
"That doesn't look comfortable," Gale says, eyeing the way most of her legs dangle off the edge of the bed.
"It's more comfortable than the goddamned couch."
He smirks. "Are you seriously complaining about the free room and board we're giving you?"
"No." They lapse into a comfortable silence.
"This is strange," Johanna says after awhile.
"The fact that you've invaded my bedroom in the middle of the night?"
She elbows him in the calf with a sharp jerk. "No. I mean this. Being in District 2, this house…fucking all of it."
Gale nods thoughtfully. "Yeah."
"Want to know a secret?" Johanna turns onto her side and props herself up onto her elbow. "I didn't think we'd win. Or I didn't think I'd live long enough to see it happen."
"I did," he says without hesitation. "Even before everything."
He doesn't say what everything was because they both know. Everything was a girl with a bow and arrow who shouted I volunteer and ended up bringing the Capitol to its knees.
"You never had doubts?"
"Sometimes, but…" Gale pulls his knees up towards his chest and wraps his long arms around them. "There wasn't another option. We either won or we died."
Johanna thinks back to the moment when she first set foot inside the Training Room and saw all of the other tributes standing there in crisp red and black uniforms, different numbers on each of their shoulders. It's either them or you, she had thought, ever the grim pragmatic. It wasn't until she dropped the mace and heard the boy from District 1 laugh at her that Johanna realized exactly how she was going to make it them.
"Would you do things differently?" she asks, her mind drifting back to the Arena and the way the blood smelled bitter and metallic on her fingertips. "If you could?"
He sighs. "Yes. No. I don't know."
Johanna lets out a mirthless chuckle, because yeah, isn't that the cruel cut of it all.
"We won the war," Gale says after a long time. "I wouldn't change that."
She's sitting on the wide wraparound porch a week later, her face tipped up towards the midafternoon sun, when she hears two sets of footsteps gingerly walking toward her.
She tilts her head to the right and there's Rory shifting from one foot to the other while Vick stands just behind him.
"You -" Rory hesitates, gathers himself. "District 7 has a lot of wood, right?"
She nods but doesn't say anything. Rory turns back to Vick and the two boys whisper about something for a few seconds before the older brother turns to look at her again.
"We want to make something," he says, his voice more sure this time. "A - a rocking chair. We used to have one in our old house. It was our father's and Gale used to sit in it but then…" Rory's expression darkens as he trails off and he doesn't need to talk about the bombs or the burning or the people who never made it out of District 12 because it's all right there on his face.
"So you want to make a new one," Johanna surmises, keeping her tone even.
"Yeah," Vick says as he steps forward to stand next to his brother. "Do you know how…how to do stuff like that?"
She lifts a hand to shield her eyes from the glaring brightness bearing down on them. "I haven't made anything for a long time," Johanna muses, and if she was really going to say no, the crestfallen look on their faces would be enough to change her mind. "But yeah, I know how to do that."
"So you'll teach us?" Rory presses. "We — uh — we wanted to surprise everyone."
Johanna's got half a mind to say no, but really, what else is she doing with her time? "Sure. Why not?"
The wide smiles that split both of their faces are almost as bright as the sunshine.
"Is there something wrong with the couch?" Gale says when he comes back from the bathroom to find her sprawled out on his bed for the third night in a row.
"Yes. It's a couch."
"I can get you a bed," he says, walking toward her. "We can put it in the extra bedroom." Gale moves to sit on the edge of the mattress but she darts out a leg to prevent him. He stares down at her bare calf pressed against his T-shirt and Johanna smirks as she sees a ghost of a blush creep up his cheeks, before he pushes her leg aside and climbs onto the bed.
"I don't need one," she says when they're settled on opposite ends of the bed. "I'm not staying that long."
Gale rolls his eyes. "So you keep saying."
"I mean it."
"Of course you do." He's nodding his head but there's a devilish glint in his eyes that tells her that he thinks she's full of crap.
Johanna fixes him with a glare but Gale just lifts an eyebrow and smiles innocently. It's totally infuriating and before she knows it she's slithering up the bed and shoving him onto the floor with a grunt. Gale hits the floor with a dull thud and she lifts herself up onto her knees to stare down at him.
"I don't need my own bed because I'd rather have yours," she says, smug, before she flops back down onto the comforter.
It takes a few seconds, but eventually Johanna hears Gale let out a long, low chuckle. "Duly noted."
She stares up at the ceiling, expecting him to climb back onto the bed any second, but he stays down there for awhile — so long that she starts to think maybe he's fallen asleep on the floor. She twists around to poke her head over the edge of the bed to check, and that's when Gale's hands dart up out of nowhere and suddenly she's tumbling down onto the hardwood floor and he's scrambling up onto the bed triumphantly.
She's sprawled out awkwardly on the floor and her elbow hurts from where she banged it against the box spring on the way down, but Johanna laughs in spite of herself. "Touché, Hawthorne."
After a moment, Gale reaches a hand down to help her up. "Truce?"
She smirks as she takes his hand. "We'll see."
Building the rocking chair is harder than she thinks it will be. Every day when Vick and Rory get home from school they drop their bags by the door and immediately set to work helping Johanna. In the weeks since they first asked for her help, the three of them have been busy gathering the wood, chopping it, and sanding the rough pieces into smooth shapes. They only have a few hours every day before Gale gets home, so there's always a frenzied rush to get as much work done as possible before they have to hide the evidence underneath the porch.
Johanna finds she likes working with her hands again — likes the smell of the wood and the way it feels heavy and strong beneath her fingers. Likes the process of creating something instead of tearing it apart.
She also likes the Hawthorne boys, two separate entities but somehow intrinsically linked together. Vick & Rory. Rory & Vick. It makes sense, really. Gale had to be the man of the house and Posy was just a baby and they were stuck somewhere in between with only each other to hold onto. She remembers what Gale told her when she first arrived and noticed the empty bedroom just off the kitchen.
"Something wrong with that room?" she had asked as she watched him scrub the dinner dishes from her perch on top of the kitchen counter.
"It was Vick's," Gale had replied. "But he didn't like being alone so I dragged his bed into Rory's room. I – I think they both sleep better when they know where the other one is."
She had barely known them then, but now, as she watches them working in tandem to shape the wood into pieces they can fit together, it makes perfect sense to her.
Sometimes Posy comes out and watches them work. Rory and Vick swore her to secrecy with some sort of spit and dirt handshake that Johanna vaguely remembers from her own childhood. Every so often the little girl carries out plates of sandwiches and mugs of sweet minty tea that Hazelle makes for them, and they take breaks in the warm glow of the late afternoon sun.
The three of them talk about all sorts of things while they work. School, the funny trees in D2, a girl from down the street that Rory thinks is annoying (Johanna is always careful to hide her knowing smirk). The boys love how Johanna swears in front of them and they fervently promise not to tell their mother.
It's all trivial topics, though. Casual conversation. But then one afternoon they're sitting on the porch, pieces of wood scattered around them and rough pieces of sandpaper in their hands, when Vick says suddenly:
"Johanna? Where do you think people go when they die?"
They live on the insides of your eyelids and you see every time you go to sleep, is the first thing she thinks. But she just says "I don't know" as she rounds out a rough edge with quick, even strokes.
"Rory thinks that dead people are just dead," Vick murmurs. "Gone."
"I didn't say that," Rory argues hotly. "I just said it didn't matter where they went because they aren't coming back anyway."
The kid's too young to be such a fatalist, but that's what happens when you grow up in Panem. "I think…" Johanna starts. She doesn't want to lie to them but know one knows what happens after death so it's not a lie. Not exactly. "I think maybe good people go somewhere good when they die."
"And bad people?" Vick prompts, his eyes wide.
Johanna shrugs. "I don't know." She wonders, briefly, what category she falls into.
"Did you know Prim?" Vick asks a moment later. He's looking down at the piece of wood in his lap, but his hands are still. Rory's gazing somewhere out into the distance, his shoulders curved and tense.
"Just a little bit," Johanna replies. She tries to keep her tone careful and soft. "You been thinking about her?"
They both nod mutely.
She sets down the long, smooth panel of wood that she has in her hands and takes a moment to think about what she should say next. "I think about my friend Finnick sometimes," she tells them after awhile.
"Do you miss him?" Vick asks.
"Of course," Johanna replies without hesitation. She sees Vick looking at her, his eyes wide and searching, so she adds, "Be kinda weird if I didn't, right?"
The answer seems to satisfy Vick — seems to absolve some of the guilt that had been mixed in with the aching. "I bet Prim would have liked it here," he says after awhile, his voice still wistful but not quite so sad.
Rory sighs and starts to shake his head, but then he looks out at the other houses around them and the row of trees that dot the side of the road and the bright azure sky above their heads. His lips quirk up into a sad sort of half-smile. "Yeah, she would have."
"I don't know how to do normal," Johanna declares one night when she's laying next to him. Again. She comes almost every night now, but she always tiptoes back out to the couch after Gale falls asleep. This time she's got her head down at the foot and her feet perched up against the headboard. He's got his arms folded up behind his head and Johanna's gaze keep sliding over the sinewy lines of his triceps because…well, she's got eyes, doesn't she?
"I don't either," he replies. "I keep waking up at dawn and thinking that I need to get to the forest before the Peacekeepers start roaming the streets. And then I remember that we've got this whole cupboard of food downstairs and there are no more Peacekeepers. Sometimes I feel useless."
She scoffs. "You feel useless? I never even got to fight. All those years of planning, protecting everyone during the Quarter Quell, and I was strapped to a hospital bed when it finally all went down. It would be funny if it wasn't so fucking pathetic."
He doesn't say anything at first, and when he does speak, it's not what she expects from him at all. "I could get you a job. If you wanted one."
She waves her hand in the air dismissively. "I'm not good at taking orders. In case you hadn't noticed."
The corners of Gale's mouth twist up into a half-smile as he narrows his eyes at her. "Oh, I noticed. But what if you got to give the orders?"
Johanna yawns. "I guess that could be…tolerable."
"Tolerable?" he smirks.
"I'm a difficult woman to please," she says, shifting up onto her elbows.
"Is that so?"
Johanna thinks that she sees Gale's eyes darken, but maybe it's just a trick of the light. They hold each other's gaze for a few seconds before she looks away. "I should go to bed…" she ventures, but she doesn't move and neither does he.
"Are you tired?"
"Then stay." Gale's voice is low and scratchy. The sound of it makes Johanna's head spin just the slightest bit so she closes her eyes. He doesn't say anything else, and before long the only sounds she hears are his quiet, even breaths.
Johanna has one last fleeting thought of the couch and boundaries and the perils of falling for boys who are in love with other girls before she thinks fuck it and lets the sound of his breathing lull her to sleep.
She isn't really sure what Hazelle Hawthorne thinks of her. She doesn't say anything when the blankets on the couch stay folded up in a neat pile because Johanna has fallen asleep in Gale's room. Again. So there's that.
But when Gale's at work and the kids are away at school, they don't really talk. Johanna putters around, trying to pitch in with the housework where she can, but she's shit with cooking and cleaning so mostly she just fixes the things that break — nails down loose floorboards and unclogs the sink and things like that. She likes feeling like she's contributing, even if Hazelle only asks for her help every few days.
Johanna's just finished cleaning out the gutters one day (the people from here say it's going to be the rainy season soon and she figures they should know) when she walks into the kitchen and finds Hazelle humming softly to herself as she kneads a mound of dough with smooth, skillful squeezes.
She flips on the faucet with her elbow and the burst of cold water sends the dirt on her hands swirling down into the sink. "You're making bread."
Hazelle nods but doesn't stop her humming.
"My mother used to bake bread," Johanna says without thinking as she watches the way Hazelle's fingers keep working the dough over on itself.
"She wasn't much for cooking but she liked kneading the dough. I think it relaxed her." Johanna shuts off the water and turns away to grab a towel from the edge of the counter.
"Where's your mother now?" Hazelle asks.
Johanna flinches, the damp cloth now still in her hands. "She died in an acci —" The she stops herself. Remembers that there is no President Snow anymore — no cruel Capitol capable of punishing her for the things she says. She turns back around and starts again. "They were murdered. My mother and my father and my brother. Because I didn't want to do the things they made Victors do."
Hazelle nods, her eyes never leaving the dough pressed underneath her knuckles. "I'm sorry."
"It was a long time ago." Johanna hates the practiced indifference in her voice but after so many years it kicks in by default.
The older woman breaks apart the batch of dough in her hands and slides half of it towards Johanna. "Would you like to help me?"
Johanna balks. "I don't know how —"
"Just keep folding it over on itself. You'll get it."
She feels her fingers flex involuntarily as she stares at the gooey brown pile. "I'll just ruin it."
"Nonsense," Hazelle says. Then she reaches over, grabs Johanna's right hand, and places it on the dough.
Johanna sucks in a sharp breath as her fingers make contact with the gummy softness. She tentatively presses one finger into the mound and finds it's just the slightest bit warm. She lets another finger sink itself in as Hazelle takes away her hand. They stand there in companionable silence for a while as Johanna lets herself get used to the feel of the dough squishing underneath her knuckles.
"Tell me about them," Hazelle says after awhile, her voice warm and soft.
It's been a long time since anyone remembered that Johanna once had a family. That she existed before the arena. Finnick tried to ask once, but she bit his lip so hard she drew blood and then kissed him as the copper taste slid over their tongues. Haymitch had his own ghosts, so he couldn't be bothered with hers. It was better that way, anyway. That was one of the things you learned when you became a Victor — that there was no point talking about things you couldn't change and people you couldn't bring back.
But now, standing in this kitchen with the war behind her and memories of her mother pressed in between her fingers, Johanna finds that she wants to talk about them. Wants to remember that they existed. So she does.
She talks about her father, about the way he smelled like the forest. About the way that his hands were always sticky with sap, but she liked the way his fingertips stuck to her cheek when he leaned in to kiss her forehead at night.
She talks about her mother. About how she carefully squirreled away the ingredients for her bread over the course of the month. About how the smell of the rising dough would fill the whole house as their mouths watered for a taste. Johanna laughs when she remembers how her mother accidentally burned the bread one time when her daughter came home from school with a note from her teacher — a boy had called Johanna a name and she had punched him so hard that his nose had split open. The kids in her class avoided her after that, all the way up until the day her name got pulled from that goddamned glass bowl.
She talks about her brother, who was soft in all the ways that she was hard. About how he ran to her when she stepped off the train after the Games, while everyone else just stared at her with thinly veiled terror. About how he hugged her and refused to believe that everything (everything) had changed.
Johanna talks for so long that she doesn't notice Hazelle quietly pulling the dough out of her hands; doesn't notice her putting it in the oven and taking it out again, steaming and golden brown. She doesn't stop talking until she feels Hazelle place a gentle hand on her shoulder and a warm, freshly cut slice of bread in her hands.
"It's good to remember," the older woman says with a kind smile. "Even when you want to forget."
For the first time in a long time, Johanna agrees.
"Why did you come here?" Gale asks her one night out of the blue. They're stretched out head to toe again and the bed is still way too small for the two of them, but they lay closer together now so it somehow works.
"I told you. I needed a change of scenery."
She sighs and knows there's no way he's going to drop it. "You looked so lost the last time I saw you, okay?" she admits, remembering how she watched him standing in that Training Center hallway listening to broken little Katniss Everdeen singing one god awful dirge after another. She discovered a few weeks later that the Mockingjay had flown to District 12 and that he had gone to 2, and on a whim she had hopped on a train and found herself on his doorstep.
"I guess I knew the feeling," she adds as an afterthought.
"You wanted to see if I was all right?" he asks, and he's trying to keep the surprise out of his voice but she hears it anyway.
"Not what you would have expected out of me?"
Gale shrugs. "We barely knew each other."
He's right, of course. They'd both been in District 13 and they'd eaten meals together and watched over Katniss together, but they hadn't ever really talked. Still, she knew a kindred spirit when she saw one. "I guess you were the least horrible person I barely knew," she says, and it makes the corners of Gale's mouth tilt up into a smile.
"Johanna Mason," he deadpans, a mischievous glint in his eyes. "That might be the nicest thing you've ever said to me."
She barks out a laugh and makes a move to kick him in the head, but he dodges and grabs her foot. He holds it in his hand for a moment and suddenly the whole atmosphere of the room changes. Johanna sucks in a sharp breath through her teeth as Gale tentatively presses a thumb into her instep. She lifts her other foot, but before she can do anything Gale has his other hand wrapped around her ankle and he's bringing it down on the other side of his chest so that her leg is halfway draped across him. He stares at her through hooded eyes, then squeezes her ankle tentatively. His grip is firm, yet gentle, and suddenly Johanna has the feeling that she's about to do something really, really stupid.
She starts to lift herself up onto her elbows, her eyes fixed on the way his tongue is pressed between his lips, when a tiny voice cuts through the loaded silence with a plaintive "Gale?"
In a flash they've disentangled themselves and Gale is halfway to the door. "Posy? Are you okay?"
The little girl peeks her head in and Johanna bolts up so that she's sitting on the edge of the bed.
"I had a bad dream," Posy whispers, her eyes large and shiny with unshed tears. Gale scoops her up in his arms and carries her to the bed, all the while whispering soft, soothing words against her hair. He positions them so that he's sitting against the headboard, Posy cradled against his chest.
Johanna stands up to leave, but Gale reaches out his hand and wraps it around her wrist. She turns to look at him and at Posy, quietly hiccupping against his shirt. He doesn't say anything, but the word stay is written all over his face. Gale shifts over to the other edge of the bed and Johanna stares at the empty space next to him, hesitant. Then she gingerly climbs onto the bed, folding her legs up so that they're tucked against him.
A ghost of a smile passes over Gale's lips before he whispers, "So what were you dreaming about Posy?"
Johanna closes her eyes, and the two of them listen to Posy talk about the mutts under her bed.
Johanna gives the rounded wooden dowel one last quick brush with the sandpaper before she sets it down next to all the others. She stands up and brushes off the fine layer of sawdust off of her pants, surveying the pieces spread out in front of her on the porch.
They're finally reading to start putting the rocking chair together. Johanna smiles, knowing the boys will be thrilled. She spots them just then, turning the corner a few houses down. They have their heads together and they're whispering animatedly about something she can't quite make out. Vick clams up as soon as he sees her and elbows his brother sharply in the ribs, but Rory just laughs.
Johanna raises an eyebrow at them as they traipse up the porch steps. "What are you two magpies gabbing about?"
"Nothing," Vick says with high-pitched, overdone nonchalance that makes it apparent it's definitely something.
Johanna narrows her eyes at the two of them. "Oh really?"
Vick nods emphatically. "Yep."
She smirks. "We both know I'm going to get it out of you eventually, so why don't you just tell me?"
"It doesn't -" Vick starts, but then Rory cuts him off.
"Vick's teacher keeps asking about Gale," he announces with a sly sort of grin. "She has a crush on him."
Johanna thinks back to the few times when she's walked with them to school and remembers a pretty girl, about twenty, with auburn hair and a round, open face. Miss Beth or Bess or something like that.
"Oh," she says, and suddenly her skin feels prickly and hot. It's not jealousy — no, that's not it — it's just annoyance. Annoyance at this girl's stupid sweet face and her questions about Gale. Like she even knows him at all outside the images of his face she saw splashed across TV screens during the war. God. But Johanna pushes all that down and tries to keep her face smooth.
"I don't care about that," she says, the words coming out just this side of hollow. Johanna scowls and turns back to the pieces laid out in front of her. "Gale can do whatever he wants."
Vick doesn't say anything, but Rory lets out a snort.
"What is so funny?" she spits out, whirling around to face them.
"You guys are idiots," Rory states. His arms are folded across his chest and he's got this shit-eating grin on his face.
Johanna opens her mouth to fire off a retort, but then she shuts it. "If you boys want to gossip like a bunch of schoolgirls, be my guest," she sniffs haughtily. "I have a rocking chair to build."
She turns on her heels and stomps inside to grab the hammer and nails, doing her best to ignore their snickering behind her.
"What is the deal with you tonight?"
Gale is stretched out across the length of the bed, his head propped against his arms, but she's been pacing around the room for the last half hour like some sort of caged lioness.
"What? Nothing." Johanna snaps.
He cocks his head to the side and gives her a look. "That's obviously not true, so why don't you just tell me what's bothering you."
"Nothing is bothering me," she says sharply. Then, "It's stupid."
"I don't care."
Johanna strides back and forth a few more time before throwing her hands up into the air. "Vick's teacher has a crush on you," she finally spits out, the words jumbled together into one long stream.
The corners of Gale's mouth start to turn upwards, but he quickly squelches the smile. "I've only met Vick's teacher twice."
She rolls her eyes. "I told you it was stupid."
"Jo, I —"
"We never talk about Katniss," she says abruptly, cutting him off. It comes out of nowhere, but if Johanna's being honest with herself she's been wondering for weeks how they've managed, night after night, to avoid talking about the one thing that brought them together in the first place. She hadn't wanted to bring it up — had figured that it was Gale's sob story so she might as well let him be the one to tell it. But she barely ever sleeps on the couch these days and Vick's stupid teacher is asking stupid questions and suddenly Johanna doesn't feel like tiptoeing around the ghost of Katniss fucking Everdeen anymore.
Gale goes rigid and doesn't say anything. He just stares up at her and she doesn't move and the room is deathly silent for a long time. Johanna thinks maybe she's crossed some sort of invisible line — broken the boundaries of whatever this is between them, and she's about to leave when he finally speaks, his voice barely above a whisper.
"Okay. Let's talk about Katniss."
Johanna falters. Now that she's brought it up she doesn't quite know what to say. "Have — have you heard from her?"
"No." Gale shifts his gaze up to the ceiling and sighs. "She blamed me for what happened to Prim."
"I know," she says. It seems silly to lie to him so she doesn't.
Gale rubs the heels of his hands against his eyes. "I — I loved Prim," he whispers, his voice thick. "Loved her like she was my own sister. I never wanted…"
Johanna takes a step forward and sits on the edge of the bed. "Do you miss her?"
"Of course," he says without hesitation. "We all do."
It takes him longer to answer this time as he stares down at his hands. "Yeah, I do sometimes. She was…family."
Johanna nods but doesn't say anything. She thinks of Finnick and Haymitch and Blight and Annie — thinks of the way they all knotted themselves together into a motley little unit. "Are you —" the words catch in her throat but she refuses to think about why that is. "Are you still in love with her?"
Gale shifts his gaze so that he's looking right at her. "I was in love with the girl from District 12 who used to meet me every morning in the forest," he says after a long time. His voice is soft, but sure. "But that girl went away to the Capitol and she never came back. Not really. It just took me awhile to realize it."
Johanna thinks of her own time in the Arena — of the way it split her life into a before and an after. "The Games change people."
"I know," Gale replies quietly. Then he tilts his head and says something that she isn't expecting at all. "What were you like? Before your Games?"
Johanna shakes her head and laughs softly. "Me? I ran my mouth off and I was always getting in trouble." She pauses, thoughtful. "I was just a girl."
Gale smiles. "We would have been friends," he says, and then he grabs her hand with his own and threads their fingers together.
She tries to imagine them as children — tries to imagine how they might have met in a world without the Games and the girl on fire and the revolution. Johanna thinks they probably would have never met at all, and something about that makes her stomach twist. She keeps their hands linked together as she crawls up the bed and tentatively lays her head against his chest.
Gale tenses beneath her for a split second, but then he brings his other hand up to thread his fingers through her hair. They fall asleep wrapped up in each other, and Johanna dreams of a little boy with soft gray eyes chasing her through the pines.
She meets him by the door when he comes home from work a week later and tosses a thin strip of fabric at him.
Gale looks at her curiously. "What's this?"
"It's a blindfold, dummy. Put it on." His eyebrows climbs almost to his hairline at that, and instead of waiting for him to do it himself, Johanna wraps the cloth around his eyes and knots it with a sharp, quick pull.
"What's going on?" he laughs, fumbling around as he tries to set his bag down by the door.
She darts around and pushes him forward from behind. "Don't you dare peek," she warns.
"Peek at what —" Gale almost trips over the edge of the rug when they step into the family room, but Johanna catches him before he falls. Hazelle, Rory, Vick, and Posy are all standing shoulder to shoulder near the corner of the room, so she maneuvers him around the little coffee table and past the couch.
"Shut up, Hawthorne. We're almost there," she says as she finally gets him to the spot just in front of everyone. She looks to Rory and Vick for confirmation and they both grin as they nod their heads. "Okay," she tells him. "You can look now."
Gale pulls off the blindfold just as Hazelle and Posy move to one side and the boys move to the other to reveal the rocking chair swaying ever so slightly in its place next to the window. Johanna had stained it a deep mahogany brown a few days ago, but the light from the setting sun is currently bathing it in a rich amber glow.
Gale's mouth falls open as he takes in the chair. "How?" he stutters after a moment, shifting his gaze to everyone's faces as they watch for his reaction. "Where…?"
"We made it," Vick tells him, a proud smile stretched across his cheeks. "Johanna taught us how."
"You – you made this?" Gale's voice is thick with emotion as he turns toward her, amazed.
Johanna shrugs sheepishly, shifting from one foot to the other as she watches him. "It was all their idea."
"I don't know what to say..." he whispers as he turns back to look at the chair.
"Do you like it?" Rory ventures after a moment.
Gale's eyes shine as a slow smile spreads across his face, and Johanna thinks this might be the happiest she's ever seen him look. "It's perfect."
"And mama and I made the pillow!" Posy announces with a gleeful giggle, and they all laugh as she launches herself forward and throws her little arms around his legs.
"Did you?" Gale grins, reaching down to ruffle her hair. "It's the best pillow I've ever seen in my whole life."
Then he disentangles himself so that he can hug them all individually, first Vick, then Rory, then Hazelle. Johanna can see the sheen of tears in the woman's eyes, which just peek over her son's shoulder, and she realizes that the chair probably means as much to her as it does to her son.
Gale turns toward Johanna last. "Thank you," he whispers in her ear as he steps forward to wrap his arms around her. She's about to reply when he twists his head around and presses a soft, quick kiss against her lips. It's over before it even really starts, and when Gale pulls back he looks a little bit dazed, like he's somehow managed to surprise himself.
"I –" he starts, but Johanna cuts him off with a pointed look.
"Later," she murmurs, pretending not to notice the other four Hawthornes watching them out of the corners of their eyes. Then she presses a hand against the small of his back and turns back toward the rocking chair. "You can't thank us until you've sat in it."
Gale looks at her like he wants to say something, but then he shakes his head and turns back to everyone else. "Okay," he declares, scooping Posy up in his arms. She squeals with delight and the others laugh as he steps toward the chair. "Let's take this thing out for a spin."
It's late when Gale finds her standing outside, leaning against the porch railing as she stares up at the stars.
"Everyone go to bed?" she asks without turning around.
She hears him close the front door behind him softly. "Posy's still all riled up. My mother's reading to her."
Johanna laughs softly, wondering how she got here. Rocking chairs and bedtime stories. But there's only a hint of sarcasm in the words when she offers, "It was a big night."
"They can't stop talking about you, you know," he says as he steps forward to stand next to her. "Rory and Vic. It's all 'Johanna said this –' and 'Johanna taught us that,'" he's smiling as he says it. "I think Rory's developing a crush."
She drops her face to hide the smile spreading across it, and scuffs her toes against the foot of the railing. "Yeah, well, don't worry. I'm sure it'll pass. Always does." She chuckles bitterly. "I'm kind of a handful, Hawthorne."
"Don't do that," he sighs, one hand gripping her shoulder and turning her to face him.
"Make light of it. Pretend it's nothing." Gale shakes his head, his serious eyes fixing on hers. The hand on her shoulder slides a little closer to her neck, and his thumb brushes a line against the edge of her collarbone. His voice drops low, as he says, "They love you, you know."
Her breath catches. The words, his tone, that look in his eyes — it's all too much suddenly, so she pulls away and stares out past the yard into the thick forest that surrounds the house. Neither of them says anything for a long time, and the only sounds are the rustle of wind through the trees and the even cadence of crickets chirping in the grass.
"I never expected any of this. When I came here," she confesses. She'd come on an impulse — a haphazard thought that she might kill some time before she moved on to something else. She had never imagined that this might be the place she was meant to end up all along.
"Neither did I," Gale whispers, and Johanna hadn't heard him step closer, but she can feel the heat of his body at her back. His hands settle on the porch rail, one on each side of where her own, fists curled tightly around the wood. "I should have kissed you a long time ago. I wanted to."
"Why didn't you?"
"I guess I was scared."
Johanna tenses. "Of me?"
Gale shakes his head. "No. I was scared of…" he starts, but then stops and she can feel his breath on the back of her neck. "My whole life," he starts again. "I never got to keep anything."
He doesn't talk about his father or Katniss or District 12 or any of the million other things that were torn away from him over the years, but he doesn't have to. She lost her family and her body and the golden-skinned Victor who always knew how to keep her from falling off the edge, so she already knows.
"Guess I figured you'd go away too," he finishes. A hint of humor laces his words, when he adds, "Maybe because you keep telling me you will."
Johanna sighs. "Sometimes I don't know what I'm still doing here," she murmurs. But she inches back as she says it, just enough so her shoulder blade brushes his chest.
"You need us," Gale says, like it's the most obvious thing in the world. "And we need you." He shifts forward slightly, arms pressing closer around her as his hands slide over hers on the railing, "I need you." Johanna closes her eyes, her chest aching. "I think you should stay," he whispers against her temple.
She wants to say something — she doesn't know what — but her voice is caught somewhere in her throat.
"Stay," he whispers again, and then his arms wrap around her and he turns her. Johanna opens her eyes and stares up at him and Gale brings his hands up to cup her face. Then he's kissing her again, but this time it's soft and slow and purposeful.
She kisses him back, but it's not like any kiss Johanna has given before. Her lips don't battle his for dominance, her tongue doesn't drive into his mouth with hunger or fury, her teeth don't snag his skin hoping for the spill of blood. Instead, her mouth meets Gale's surely but gently, tentatively, like maybe she's afraid this might fall apart just like everything else in her life. Johanna realizes with a start that she doesn't want it to and reaches up to cover his hands with her own.
"Okay," she whispers against his mouth when they finally break apart, and it's just one word but it somehow manages to feel both heavy and light as it slides off her tongue.
Gale pulls back to look at her, and she can see it in his eyes. Hope. "Okay?"
"Okay," she repeats as she brings her hands down to rest them on his chest. Johanna can feel the steady pulse of his heartbeat beneath her fingertips and it steadies her. Makes her feel strong and hopeful in a way she hasn't for a very long time. "I'll stay."
A wide smile splits Gale's face and she stares at it for a moment, still processing that she's the one who put it there. He opens his mouth to say something, but she cuts him off. "Only on one condition, though."
Gale tilts his head to the side, curious. She lifts up onto her toes and presses her lips against his ear. "You need a bigger bed," she teases with a wicked whisper.
His booming laugh cuts through the silence of the night as he leans in to capture her lips with his own again.