A/N: A tremendous thanks to Fresca for betaing this. Title from the City and Colour song of the same name.
When everyone knows that you are literally an ax murderer, it's not hard to find an empty space at the bar.
If Johanna had someone to joke to (she will not think of Finnick, she will not), she would clutch her hands to her chest and say, in her uncanny imitation of a Capitol accent, "It really is about the small things."
But, of course, there's no one here to listen, so she slides onto the barstool, rests her hands on the sticky counter, and lets the hem of her black dress ride up. She always forgets the bartender's name – Sparkle or Sequin or Sassafras – but he always remembers her whiskey before she asks, so there's that.
The wide berth everyone gives her makes it easy to watch the rest of the bar. Sometimes people catch her looking and come talk to her. Sometimes she goes home with them. Sometimes she makes them walk away before they can say a word.
Tonight there's a guy at one end of the bar who reminds her of Kennedy Maple, the boy she had a crush on before her Reaping. Kennedy, that sweetheart, was the first person to call her a monster when she got home. At least he had the guts to say what everyone else was thinking.
Next to him is Gale Hawthorne, which is a little unusual, but not particularly surprising. She's seen him here before a time or two, and it's been weeks since he moved to District 2. It's not like Johanna tracked down the information or anything. It was just something everyone at worked talked about — the way they mentioned that Mimi Callington was pregnant – again – and that a man from the office a floor down was cited for public indecency – also again.
He looks like she remembers, which makes her wonder if she looks the same, too. Her hair has grown back, just enough that she looks more like – well, not like her old self, but at least like a version of herself, not quite so strung out, not quite so manic. (She will forever be walking on the edge, but sometimes her balance is better.)
Gale is staring at something – someone – so Johanna follows his gaze across the bar. The girl is slim and dark, her thick hair in a careful braid down her back. The whole thing is so very predictable that Johanna doesn't know if she should laugh or yawn. She downs the rest of her drink, then creeps along the edge of the bar until she's right behind him. "You might feel better," she whispers next to his ear, "if you fucked that girl who looks like your Mockingjay."
Gale doesn't tense or flinch, but she's not really surprised. Johanna wonders how long he's known she's been here. His knuckles are turning white against his glass, and it's a wonder, really, that he doesn't break it. Johanna leans closer, and this time her lips brush his ear. "And you know what, gorgeous? I bet she'd even let you call her—"
"Johanna," he says, low, flat, dangerous. It almost sounds like a threat. She hates threats.
She opens her mouth to say something else, but he turns his head to look at her, eyes calm, hands steady, voice flat. "I've seen you go home with anyone who will take you. Except," he adds, "the boys with red hair. Go back to your barstool."
She was wrong: His voice is a knife, nothing dull about it. She manages not to freeze, not to slam that glass into his face, not to scream or curse or completely snap. Instead, she turns and walks out of the bar without a word.
Johanna hates that, in all the ways that count, she's just as predictable as he is.
A week later, she's at her stool, an arm's length of space on both sides, when Gale walks in. Johanna's thinking she'll save them both the trouble and just leave now, but that's when he comes over and sits next to her. He flags down the bartender (turns out his name is Sam, after all), and orders whiskey for her and something with white liquor for himself. She thinks he probably should have ordered champagne to celebrate the fact that no one's fighting yet. Still, she recognizes the drink for what it really is. A peace offering.
Which is why Johanna pretends – rather valiantly, she feels – not to notice the look that crosses his face when the girl with the braid walks inside. And for his part, he ignores how much her hand shakes against her glass. (The liquor isn't morphling, but what is? She'll take whatever version of oblivion she can get.) For the rest of the night, they sit next to each other in silence, memories screaming.
When Johanna stands up to leave, she murmurs, "The small things," and when he looks at her, she just laughs her sharp, bitter laugh.
Johanna's not sure who's more surprised when she shows up at his apartment at two in the morning, pounding on his door like her life depends on it. It doesn't, for the record, but she would still like him to hurry up because it is freezing outside.
Gale pulls open the door and the look on his face is so priceless that Johanna almost forgets why she bolted out of her own apartment in the first place. She found out at work a few days ago that she only lives about two blocks away. Thank god for talkative neighbors who spy on that 'dreamy guy in apartment 3B.'
She should explain why she's here, but she doesn't. She just stands on the step, thinking of floods and too much water and drowning (choking, struggling, what do you know? tell us and it will stop, can't breathe, burning, maybe I've caught fire, too).
He speaks first. "Jo – what are you – why – you don't even have on a jacket."
She laughs. She honest to god laughs. She thought maybe she had forgotten how. "I'm standing here in the middle of the night, and you're wondering why I forgot my coat?"
Gale shakes his head and pulls the door wider. He steps aside so she can walk in. "Never mind."
They stand in the living room, both quiet, and Johanna looks around. The walls and the furniture are all dark, but instead of being depressing, it just seems comforting. She likes it. There are pictures of his family, and she wonders if he talks to them or not. His family, she means, not the pictures. Either way, it must be nice to have the option.
Finally, Gale clears his throat. "The couch is awful," he says. "If you promise not to kill me in my sleep, we can share the bed."
"Don't worry, gorgeous," Johanna says, forcing levity into her voice. "I don't have any plans to kill you. Not yet, at least."
She follows him into the bedroom and wishes she weren't quite so thankful that he knows exactly why she's here.
Her brother was named Jason. He was four years older than her. She used to hang out with him and his friends in the woods behind their house. When she came home after the Games, his friends wouldn't look at her (terrified, all of them), but Jason hugged her and whispered over and over, "I'm so sorry, Jo, I'm so sorry."
Her mother smelled like lilacs, and Johanna was never quite sure why. She hates that she didn't get to ask.
When she was nine, all bony knees and knobby elbows, she fell out of a tree and broke her left wrist. There's a scar from where the bone poked through skin, and it's the only one her body she doesn't mind looking at. She's proud of it actually, because she climbed higher up than all the other kids that day.
She can whittle. Her grandfather taught her before he died – of a stroke, not of Snow. That honor was reserved to her father, her mother, her maternal grandparents, and Jason.
She can't cook. She has her father's eyes. When she was five, she wanted to be a professional tree climber. Her favorite time of day is dawn. She hates pineapple. She loves strawberries.
These are the things there is no one left to know.
This time, it's Gale knocking on her door. It's late, but it's storming outside, so Johanna hasn't even bothered trying to sleep. She pulls the door open to find him looking about as awful as she feels. She lets him in without a word and watches as he looks around her apartment. Everything is clean lines and bright colors (no blues, no greens, no grays), and she thinks he looks a little surprised that there aren't heads mounted on the wall.
She looks at him flatly. "I keep the dead bodies in my other apartment." He glances her way, his lips tugging up. "And just so we're clear," she adds, "I don't sleep with an ax under my pillow. I know that was a rumor for a while."
To her surprise, Gale laughs. A true laugh, deep and loud, and it's a sound Johanna doesn't think she's heard in years.
(There is an ax is under her bed, but she thinks she'll save that little piece of trivia for later.)
Even now, the whispers follow her everywhere she goes. They aren't all bad. Some people thank her for helping take down Snow. (Stuck in a bed, she thinks, I wasn't there at all.) Some people say they're sorry, say she didn't deserve what happened to her.
But a lot of the time she hears, Killer. Psychopath. Murderer. Unstable, unhinged. She's a monster. She doesn't feel a thing. She doesn't care at all.
They underestimate her, even now.
As the weeks pass, they fall into a pattern. It's not every night, but Johanna gets used to the knocks, gets used to walking the familiar blocks to his apartment.
One night, she asks, "Will you tell me how he died?" Her voice is flat, emotionless.
Gale tells her the basics, then the details when she asks. His voice is steady the whole way through, and he doesn't bat an eyelash when she picks up the ugly, empty vase from the table and smashes it to pieces. One of the shards cuts her palm – deep enough that she should probably get stitches, but who really cares? What's one more scar?
She lets the blood dry on her hand. It's always there, so she might as well be able to see it for once.
Her lease runs out first. It was only for six months – signing anything more seemed too permanent, too optimistic. She's still not used to thinking that, for the rest of her life, she's free. That she's allowed to plan farther ahead than this hour, this minute. Neither of them makes a big deal out of it. He just says, "If you don't want to look for another place, you could stay here."
"Don't you want your space?" she asks.
He shrugs. "Compared to where I grew up, this is a mansion."
Johanna brings over her things the next day. She doesn't have a lot – neither does he – but she likes to think what she does have fits in nicely. Besides, she tells herself, it's a little closer to work, and it's not like she liked her old apartment that much anyway.
It works out all right, too. He has a spare room, which is technically hers, not that she spends too many nights in her own bed.
There's only one bathroom, though, which is fine for a while. But one morning, Gale walks in just as she's stepping out of the shower. It's pretty unlucky, actually, since she's only ever in the shower for a minute or two. Any longer and the walls start to close in on her.
There's no time for her to grab a towel, but to be honest, she doubts she would have bothered even if there had been. He blinks almost owlishly, so caught off guard that Johanna laughs. "You don't need to look so surprised, gorgeous," she says. "Unless you've spent the last three months thinking I was a guy?"
He shakes his head, opens and closes his mouth, then turns to leave. When she walks into the kitchen a few minutes later, she finds him staring into his coffee. He doesn't look up when he says, "I should have knocked, sorry."
Johanna shrugs and grabs the orange juice from the fridge. "It's nothing all of Panem hasn't seen before." Off his confused look, she explains, "Tracker jackers. My first arena. They sting through clothes, so I had to take off what I was wearing to treat the bites." She tugs the vee of her shirt down so he can see one of the scars just above her left breast.
His eyes get a little darker. She doesn't mind, but sometimes she wonders what he sees when he looks at her. Murderer? Victor? Victim? She thinks it's probably all the same, and they're just words in the end.
They don't usually talk about their dreams, but one night, she wakes up screaming (her throat must be bleeding, all of her is bleeding) and they are both awake and she says, voice rasping, "Mutts, everywhere. They tore my family to shreds – literally, to shreds of skin – while he made me watch." There is no need to clarify the he.
He says, "My nightmares are always worse this time of year."
Around what used to be Reaping time, he means.
She says, "It wasn't a nightmare."
He says, "God, Jo, I –"
She kisses him so he'll stop talking, but that's not really why she does it.
(He kisses her back, then holds her until she falls asleep.)
On the night she's supposed to meet Gale for dinner, a group of boys starts yelling at her. It's nothing Johanna hasn't heard before, but she always thinks it's worse when it's teenagers, kids just a few years younger than she is. She keeps walking without saying anything, but she wonders what would happen if she stopped to chat and pulled out her knife for good measure.
Since she doesn't, they follow her all the way to the restaurant, hissing insults and curses and saying things they think they mean but don't understand. Gale is leaning against the outside wall, and as soon as she and her little entourage come into view, he pushes off the bricks. The look on his face is enough to make the kids walk away, but not before Gale hears some of what they've been saying.
He starts to say something to her immediately, but Johanna holds up a hand and says, "Could we just go home? I'm not that hungry."
Gale nods, and they walk to their apartment in silence. As soon as they're both through the door, he turns to her and says, "I could have punched those kids. I can't believe they would have –"
"Just stop it, would you?" She's not angry, just tired. So, so tired. "It's not like anything they said was a lie."
Johanna tries to walk away, but Gale reaches for her wrist and gently tugs her back. "Jo, you don't mean that."
She does, actually. "I've only ever been what they made me."
"That's not true. They're just stupid kids."
She could keep arguing – hadn't they beenjust stupid kids? – but she doesn't think Gale will ever get it. Instead, she looks at him for a long time. "The worst part," she says finally, "is that I don't really wish I had died in the arena. After everything, some part of me still thinks I deserve to be alive."
"Johanna, of course you deserve—" He shakes his head, then takes a step forward. Johanna instinctively moves back (an old strategy: keep your distance, keep out of range), but her back hits the wall. Trapped.
And then he kisses her. It's too fast and too hard and too much, always too much, but her fingers slide through his hair, and she can feel the noise he makes all the way to her toes.
"Jo," he murmurs against her mouth, and she should stop him now because she is in over her head and maybe there are other ways to drown.
But his lips move to her neck, and she arches into him, pressing against every inch she can find. He lifts her up like she weighs nothing, and her legs lock around his waist. She's tugging at his shirt, and then he's walking them down the hall. As they fall to the bed, she hears, I will kill everyone you have ever loved.
Johanna freezes for a moment, caught in that room, years ago, losing everything to save herself. Gale notices, but she shakes her head and says, "Old memories. Don't stop." He watches her carefully. "Please, Gale, don't stop."
He lets out a little breath. "Thank god."
(Later, when she is curled up next to him, she says, "I didn't tell you the truth before, you know." He traces a path across her collarbone while he waits for her to continue. "I don't sleep with an ax under my pillow, but there is one under the bed."
He laughs and laughs, then pulls her closer.)
A few weeks later, despite her complaints and excuses, he makes her come to an office party. Part of the city that the war destroyed has finally been restored, which is a Very Big Deal, apparently. Everyone stares at them, but Johanna tries not to mind. It's nothing she's not used to, and at least the dress she's wearing is worth looking at.
There are four other guests at their table, all of whom talk to Gale easily. Two of the guys and one of the girls won't meet her eyes and don't ask her any questions, but the last woman, Marianne, talks to her about Johanna's job. Small talk is still such a ridiculous concept to her, but she does the best she can. Throughout the night, there are speeches and toasts and a lot of talk about "promising progress." Johanna tunes most of it out, but says a prayer of thanks that there was food catered (it's not that fancy, but still).
When it's finally time to eat, Gale's the one who grabs her plate and dishes out a serving of fruit from a giant bowl onto her plate, then his own. Johanna stares at both portions for a second, then says, "You took all the pineapple."
"What do you care? You hate pineapple. You think it tastes like, and I'm quoting here, 'cat piss.' Though I don't want to think about how you'd know that." He grimaces, then waves his fork at her. "What's that face for? I gave you all the strawberries. You would have stolen them off my plate anyway."
She's quiet for a long, long moment.
"Thank you," she says.
He laughs. "For what? Keeping the pineapple away?"
She shakes her head. This isn't about fruit at all. "I –"
His expression sobers. "Is everything all right? We can leave if you want. I shouldn't have made you come; you said you'd be uncomfortable, and –"
"Shut up, you idiot." Johanna leans over and kisses him before he can say anything, not caring that they're in front of too many people who have started watching them again.
Thankfully, she's used that sort of thing. Perks of being an ax murderer and all.
(Maybe it really is the small things.)