You guys make my world better. I'm updating way slower than I usually do, and I'm really sorry. I could make a million excuses, but I won't. I'm just sorry.

If you haven't read Surviving, I'd suggest you read the chapter "laughing". It contains Johanna and Katniss' conversation: Johanna's flashbacks about Gale originated from that conversation. You don't have to read it, though.

Present tense is in italics. Past is not. Hope it's not confusing.

The Hunger Games belong to Suzanne Collins, not to me, though I do enjoy playing with her characters.

She's dusting herself off outside the bakery, listening to the old lady sing to her granddaughter, and watching the girl get closer, trying in vain to glare her down. She was clearly expecting her knight in a shining apron, because her face is unusually sour. "What are you doing here?" Johanna smirks.

"Sent your boy home, to drink with Haymitch. He was shaking like a leaf. I finished the ledger for him."

She nods. "He didn't have an episode, did he?" Johanna shakes her head.

"Nah. Just started messing up all the orders." This, for some inexplicable reason, seems to piss Katniss off. Shouldn't she be grateful he didn't have an episode? Or, even more to the point, shouldn't she be grateful that Johanna's picking up her slack?

"He does an amazing job with those orders, considering he never finished school," she snaps at Johanna.

"Never said he didn't," she muttered. "And I didn't finish school either, brainless. None of us did. Victors don't finish school."

She glares at her for a moment before the two women sink wordlessly onto the steps. Johanna waits. She's reluctant to start a conversation with Katniss, when they're both so damaged, because she has a feeling her usual bravado has been permanently marred by what the Capitol did to her, what the Capitol did to them.

Not to mention that the fact that they fell in love with the same moron tends to put a pretty large elephant in the room.

"So, we gonna talk about this or what?"

Not her most stellar lead-in, but she's tired. Balancing a ledger takes work, though not quite as much work as worrying about what your boyfriend's up to in the woods with another woman. Nothing, clearly, seeing as Katniss is here and Gale's still off ordering people around. She feels Katniss tense beside her at the question, and she wants to scream at the younger girl; for thinking she can hide from Johanna, of all people, for thinking she can lie to someone who's such a better liar, and most of all, for having energy to waste, because she has to know faking it to Johanna would be a waste of her energy.

"Sure," Katniss mutters. She grabs a stick, of all things, and starts drawing weird shit in the dirt with it. Seriously, what's wrong with this girl? "What'd you wanna talk about?"

Johanna rolls her eyes. What the hell kind of question is that? What the hell else could she want to talk about? Sometimes it feels as if they're competing for some unnamed award in sarcasm or pettiness or something. Sometimes it feels like they're sisters thrown together to compete for attention. Johanna's unbelievably grateful she never had a real sister to begin with. It must be exhausting.

"About freaking butterflies, moron."

This is clearly going to be a long conversation, so she holds out the bag of pastries to her pseudo-younger-sister. They sit in silence for awhile, just chewing. In a weird way, Johanna misses her.

"He's not really here for the fence, is he?"

And suddenly Johanna doesn't miss her quite so much. Why is she asking such goddamn stupid questions?

"Haymitch told me you were smarter than you look. So why the hell are you asking that?"

"What are you doing here?" Katniss bursts out suddenly.

It's a perfectly valid question. In fact, part of her is proud of the ex-mockingjay for busting out with it quite like that. Except that she's going to hate the answer. There's a part of Johanna herself that still hates the answer. She's suddenly caught up in a memory so strong that there's no point in pushing it away…

They'd been at a beach. They never knew where shoots for propos were happening until they got there, but the minute she'd seen water, she'd had the ominous premonition that this probably wouldn't ever hit people's television sets. She hated that they even had to do this in the first place, though Gale's logic of keeping Plutarch the hell away from the star-crossed morons was pretty solid. The public was sated by a Victor and soldier inspiring them on TV, and the kids got to heal back in 12.

But a beach? She'd always known Plutarch wasn't particularly empathetic, but this is a new low. She glares at Cressida, who seems to have been expecting this.

"You won't go in the water," she hastens to say. Johanna's eyebrows shoot up.

"Oh, really, genius? I thought you were gonna dunk me. Oh, wait, some other Capitol idiots already did that!"

Cressida flinches and even Gale seems taken aback by the venom in her voice.

"It's just five minutes on a beach, talking about your victory in the Quell," explains Plutarch, putting an arm around her and pulling her off the train. Doesn't he have more important things to do?

"What victory?" she snaps at him, drawing away from his embrace. "The Mellark kid and I wouldn't call that a victory."

He flinches; he clearly was expecting her to handle this better. Part of her brain, the part that still recoils when she hears a child talk about turning twelve, the part she's fighting desperately to shut down, reminds her that he has no idea how permanently she's been affected, has no notion that water will always set her off because he could care less about the after-effects of the pain he inflicted on his tributes. He's wired to bring on pain to give a good show, not to worry about the effects of torture. He's still just bringing on pain to give a good show. Doesn't he get tired of it?

"What happened to you and Peeta was regrettable," admits Plutarch, pulling her down to the beach as the camera crew sets up. Gale is in make-up but is watching them closely. "But here you are, safe and sound, so why don't you get some make-up on and give us a Victor to root for, hmm?"

It's the fact that he called her a Victor that did it. Because maybe she was, once, but the last time she was on a beach, she was surrounded by people who were anything but Victors. She thinks of the knife in Beetee's back, of Mags' suicide, of Blight hitting the force field, of the look on Katniss' face as she tried to kill the jabberjays, of Finnick, who fought harder than anyone to get them out, and what good did it do him? And then there are tears on her face, and she knows she won't last even five minutes on this beach, because she can't do this anymore.

"I'm not a Victor," she snaps at Plutarch, wiping away her tears impatiently. "There's no such thing as Victors anymore, so don't freaking call me that ever again. Your Games are over, you sadistic bastard. Why would you bring me here?" She's openly weeping and grateful to find that she doesn't care. "You didn't stop to think for a moment about what this would do to me! I get that you just want to entertain, but I'm not your goddamn tribute anymore!"

And with that, she takes off.

She doesn't make it very far before she collapses against a tree, sobbing. What the hell is wrong with her? She's supposed to be the fearless Johanna Mason. But she knows, deep down, that she's not that person anymore. She wants to be the brave Victor who screamed for rebellion during the Quell, who was Finnick's best friend, who wasn't afraid of the Capitol's Games. She knows she's not. Something came undone inside her sometime between when she found herself in the Capitol jail cell and when she found herself alive, addicted to morphling in 13. She's not sure when or how it happened, but she's not the fearless Victor anymore. She's just a scared little girl.

She doesn't hear his footsteps, so she's pretty shocked when Gale appears out of nowhere, crawling under the tree with her.

"Hey," is all he says. She smirks.

"Hey yourself. You're pretty good at tracking, aren't you?" He shrugs.

"Had a lot of practice."

They're silent, and though she really wants to start crying again, she can't now that he's here. After awhile, she gets curious.

"You know, you could still do it," she tells him, begrudgingly. "They need a show."

"I get that the Quell was pretty damn awful for you," he mutters finally, "but it wasn't any picnic for me, either."

Oh, right. Because he'd been in love with Katniss then, and watching her roll around with Peeta in the sand probably brings up all kinds of happy memories.

"What the hell did you see in her?" she asks, before she can stop herself. Damn, she's been trying to be a little more polite in front of Gale. Too late now, she supposes.

"An escape," he answers. At least he's honest. "She's smart and she makes me laugh, but what I really saw was an escape from my life."

She nods. She's never had a lot of sympathy in the past, mostly because she's pretty jealous he even had people to take care of. But it can't have been all fun.

"An escape would be nice," is all she says. It would.

"I can't stop seeing Prim's face," he whispers. He's pale. Just as haunted as she is.

She shrugs.

"You kill a few more kids and you kinda get over it," she tells him, even though it's a downright lie. And, for the first time with him, her bravado sounds false. He knows it's a lie.

"I killed a few hundred," he reminds her. "I'm not getting over it. But you keep telling yourself that."

"At least you can't see their faces," she snaps at him. "Sure, you remember Prim, but try being forced to kill kids in an arena, or lead year after year of underfed girls to their deaths. You think you have it rough? I can never, ever stop seeing their faces in my mind. Ever. I mentored a 15-year-old girl I grew up with who had a boyfriend in my grade. They would've had beautiful children, but instead, she got chopped to bits and he hung himself the next day. You think you know anything about death? About setting traps? Try helping Finnick and Plutarch plan an escape from the arena that can't possibly save you, and then find yourself alive when you wish more than anything you were dead. Try—"
"I do wish more than anything I was dead!" he bursts out. There are tears on his face. She probably should've been gentler, but she doesn't do gentle real well. "I can't do this, I don't know how to keep doing this!"

"Join the club," she mutters. She wants to scream but she feels like this is heavier than a screaming match she knows she would win. She doesn't want him to be here, trying to seek comfort or comfort her or whatever the hell he's doing. "You're a Victor, Gale. The minute that bomb went off, you became a Victor. Welcome to our arena of hell. Once you enter the Games, you're never, ever done being a tribute."

He sighs, runs a hand through his hair. It's the first moment since he sat down that she sees how gorgeous he is. She's attracted to him, no doubt about it, but until this moment, she's never felt like she wanted it to go anywhere between them. She always felt like he belonged to Katniss: to some extent, he always would. But Katniss is far away, undoubtedly being wooed by the boy, and he's here, with her.

"Do you ever forgive yourself?" He asks so quietly she's not sure he wants to hear the answer. She gives it to him anyways.

"No," she says, quietly but firmly. "You never do. None of us ever has."

"So, what'd you do?" He's looking at her for answers, and she has a moment of feeling angry that he's here because he's seeking comfort, not to comfort her. But when the hell has she ever needed to be comforted or taken care of?

"Well, I generally throw weapons and stare people down a lot. I either drink coffee so I don't sleep or drink booze so I pass out and don't dream. I also tend to run away whenever there's water. "

She says this all in a casual, conversational tone, but she knows he sees her shaking. What does she do?

"If you're asking how I survive as a Victor, that's a really stupid question."

She hadn't meant to sound quite so callous, but she can't help it. "The boy told me you were smarter than you look, so I'm guessing that's not what you're asking."

He sighs, but she sees the hint of a smile playing on his face. Some part of her that she thought was long gone, destroyed by Snow and the other sadistic Capitol bastards, gives a gentle flutter at the fact that she can make him smile. She's left wondering what else she can get him to do, and if she would get these strange butterflies in her stomach from making him laugh.

"Peeta said I was smarter than I look? You sure you're not confusing me with someone who…I dunno, likes me?"

She smirks at him arrogantly. "I'm always sure."

There's the Johanna Mason she recognizes.

"I'm asking…how do you escape?"

There's a silence that feels uncomfortable, because she's desperately seeking an answer he wants to hear. She feels like they were starting to turn a corner from hopeless despair into something that might help them get on their feet, however temporarily. But she's got nothing: she doesn't escape. Nothing ever makes her forget the fear or the pain or the…

"I don't," she whispers, finally. "I…I have no idea how to escape. I'm as trapped as you are."

He sighs, leaning against the tree. The same part of her that liked his smile flickers with excitement at how close he is.

"I just want out," he sighs. "Just for a minute."

"A minute?" she asks incredulously. "Hell, I'd settle for ten seconds."

She sees a spark of something in his eyes, something devious. For a moment, he is a mischievous little boy. It's a good look on him (though, then again, isn't everything a good look on him?)

"I can think of one way to escape," he suggests, his hand sliding onto her leg. The glint in his eyes tells her he's kidding. She doesn't let herself wonder how she'd feel if he wasn't. Instead, she raises an eyebrow at him.

"Please tell me you'd last more than ten seconds."

His smirk wavers, but only for an instant. "Only one way for you to know, isn't there?" he teases.

She throws back her head and laughs, and realizes, in that moment, that somehow, Gale Hawthorne is her friend.

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