"We must prefer real hell to an imaginary paradise." - Simone Weil
Johanna sat in the shadows of the trees near the edge of the compound. The weather had only recently gotten warm enough that she could sit outside without a jacket and not freeze, so she'd been taking advantage of the outdoors more lately than she had in the past. If she'd positioned herself near the main entrance of the base, then that would be a coincidence and nothing more if she was spotted.
The Hawthornes were coming today. They weren't able to stay on the base as they weren't military personnel or the spouse or children of military personnel. Gale was paying for accommodations at a small hotel that had opened recently in the nearest town almost entirely for these sorts of visits. Johanna thought they'd spend more time in the town the hotel sat in than here at the base, but Gale had made a throwaway comment about his mother wanting to see where he lived and worked before they did anything else.
Johanna wasn't sure why she was staking them out. She'd seen all of Gale's family back in District 13. She hadn't spoken to them much, but she thought she'd had at least one brief exchange with each of them even if she couldn't recall them now. Gale's two brothers had each seemed impressed by her. They'd probably heard stories of her games, although she didn't think either of them could have vivid memories from that year. Well, maybe Rory could. She wasn't actually sure how old he would have been when she "won."
Maybe that was why she was waiting here to see them. She'd met Gale's family, but she didn't really know them. Gale didn't mention them to her often, and if he did, it was never anything that revealed much about them.
Johanna got it. She knew far more about Gale's family than he knew about hers. Johanna had never so much as used the names of her family members for years now. Not since the last of them died. She couldn't fault Gale for not discussing something that was such a touchy subject for her.
Still, Gale's family was alive, which was far more than Johanna could say. Yes, his dad was dead, but he still had his mother and three siblings. Johanna hadn't had that in a long time. His father also hadn't been personally ordered to die by Snow as a punishment. Johanna didn't want to belittle someone else's loss, not really, but she couldn't bring herself to think of it as the same thing.
Maybe that was why she was so fascinated by Gale's family. They were still alive, and hers wasn't. Families had piqued her interest in a morbid sort of way since she'd lost her own. She was interested in how they worked and how people felt about their families. It was a painful interest. One that always dug up painful memories if she explored it, which was another reason why she was unsure about why she was doing this.
Her breath caught in her throat as she saw the group at the gate. Gale was in his uniform even though it was his day off, and Johanna stifled a laugh, knowing he was trying to impress his family, especially his younger brothers who were undoubtedly fascinated by getting proof that their brother was a real soldier.
They all appeared in good spirits except the young girl Johanna recalled as being named Posy. She was eyeing the gun carrying guards at the entrance with distrust. Her eyes widened further as said guards approached the group. Everyone entering the base, except military personnel who could produce an ID, had to be searched. Johanna had been surprised when she'd learned that anyone could visit the base as long as they accepted a quick background check and weren't found to be carrying any weapons. It was far more than the previous government of Panem would have allowed.
Posy latched on to Gale's arm as the soldiers waved special wands around the visitors that would detect anything suspicious they were carrying. They came away clean, of course, and the men went back to their posts, taking their guns with them. Johanna watched the tension leave Posy, even though she remained leery of everyone roaming about this area of the base.
Gale wasn't paying much attention to Posy, although he let her keep her grip on his arm. He didn't seem to put much stock in her fears or worry about shielding her from the soldiers that he knew wouldn't harm her.
The girl relaxed as she realized that most of the soldiers she was encountering didn't have weapons on them. It wasn't common for anyone to carry them around unless they were on guard duty or training with the weapons, so Johanna doubted the family would encounter anymore guns until they decided to leave.
The family was walking towards the housing buildings, and Johanna figured Gale planned to show them his room. Johanna didn't know why. There was nothing remarkable about it. It was plain and hardly looked like it was even occupied. Johanna didn't know Hazelle at all, but she thought the woman would be disappointed at the lack of personalization Gale had attempted. It was probably nothing like the Hawthorne family home back in District 12. Johanna imagined Hazelle kept that as warm and inviting as possible, even back in the years where they were barely able to survive.
Soldier's barracks weren't like that, although Gale was lucky enough to have a private room to take them to. It was hard to brighten up something made so uniformly and without a care for anything but efficiency. Johanna had always felt her house in District 7's Victor's Village was the same way, even though it was nicer than any of the soldier barracks here in District 2.
The Hawthorne family had disappeared from sight now, and Johanna stood with a sigh, dusting away any dirt clinging to her pants. They were about to begin serving lunch in the mess hall, and Johanna had nothing better to do but be there right on time. She and Gale had been eating every meal together over the past several months with both of them showing up right as the mess hall began serving. He hadn't been there for breakfast this morning since he'd picked his family up from the train station in town. Johanna had already prepared herself to eat every meal alone while Gale's family was in District 2. It wasn't as if she hadn't done so before.
The mess hall was quiet when Johanna entered. The newer recruits still had mealtimes set for them in a more rigid fashion than "this is when the mess hall serves." All of those units were out training. Everyone else seemed busy at their jobs as well because the earlier hours of meals were always the quietest. Johanna supposed that's why she gravitated towards them. She didn't like that much noise these days. Quiet had a nice, calming effect.
Johanna was halfway through her meal, which was composed of rather unremarkable food, when the presence of others at the table she sat at surprised her.
"What?" she questioned before she could process what was happening.
Gale smiled down at her, but it was with hesitation as his entire family slid in to the right of Johanna and Gale as well.
"It's so nice to finally meet you, dear." Hazelle smiled at Johanna from the seat she had taken at her side.
Johanna looked at her in surprise before mumbling, "Uh, you too."
The shock had managed to penetrate Johanna's usual walls, but she quickly worked to put them up again. Being caught off guard made you look weak. Johanna looked at the rest of Gale's family. Posy sat at Gale's side, unwilling to leave any distance between her and her brother while she got to have him. Gale's brothers, Rory and Vick, sat on the opposite sides of Posy and Hazelle, and they were already off in a conversation of their own. From the small bit Johanna paid attention to, they were talking excitedly about the parts of the military compound they had seen.
"We have a bit more company for lunch than usual today," Gale remarked.
Johanna raised an eyebrow in his direction. "I'd noticed."
"You should have seen Gale when he realized he was running late for lunch with you," Hazelle began. "He shooed us out of his room as quickly as possible." Johanna smirked as Gale blushed a bright red, but she thought her own cheeks might have been flushed as well. "I think it's wonderful that you two have a routine like that. People need some sort of routine in order to feel at home."
Home. Johanna had never thought District 2 could be described that way. She lived on a military base after all. It wasn't somewhere that many people felt at home. Most of the people here thought of their jobs as temporary before they settled down and did something else with their lives, and even those planning life-long military careers eventually planned to live off of the base and down in town. Johanna had never tried thinking of this place as home. District 7 would always have that distinction.
"Our lives are built around routine, Mom. That's how the military works. Most of our lives are scheduled for us."
Hazelle shrugged. "Perhaps, but those sorts of routines aren't what I mean. You need routines outside of work."
"Mom," Vick interrupted. "I'm done eating. When do we get to go explore some more?"
"I want to see the town!" Posy spoke up excitedly, even though she was wasn't even halfway done with her food.
"We will," Hazelle assured Posy before turning to her youngest son. "Not all of us can inhale our food. Be patient. You'll have plenty of time to explore while we're here. Johanna," Hazelle turned suddenly to the woman sitting beside her, "Would you like to come with us? Gale said today is your usual day off, and I think we're going into town later."
"Yes!" Posy said with even more excitement than she'd shown before. "Please come with us!"
Johanna watched the little girl smile brightly up at her. She couldn't remember the last time someone had looked at her so happily and without an ounce of fear or trepidation. Johanna wondered how much Posy had heard about her from others. The boys had clearly heard about Johanna's games and possibly more. They weren't looking at her in fear, but there was a sense of admiration and hesitance there that showed they were aware of her more violent capabilities.
The thought of spending the entire day with Gale's family was one of the most terrifying ideas that Johanna had encountered recently. They'd only been reunited earlier that day, and Johanna wouldn't have wanted to encroach on their time together, even if she wasn't a bit wary around them for other reasons as well. Now they were all looking at her expectantly, and she knew she would only get out of it with a good excuse. One that Gale knew she never had on her days off.
"I guess," she offered, trying not to show her worries while also not appearing falsely eager.
"Wonderful," Hazelle said as Posy cheered.
Johanna noticed the other soldiers in the mess hall looking over at them, not used to hearing little girls make so much noise as they ate. All of the Hawthornes seemed oblivious to it. Even Gale had adjusted quickly to having his sister with him again.
Since she'd already been halfway through her meal when they arrived, Johanna was the first one done with her meal after Vick and Rory who ate at unbelievable speeds. Her original plan had been to excuse herself quickly, but with that no longer an option, Johanna was forced to sit with the family without the distraction of food allowing her to focus on something other than their conversations.
Gale had shifted back into his dynamic as oldest son and brother easily. Watching them, Johanna had a hard time remembering that he'd been away from his family for the better part of a year. Possibly longer if she added the rebellion into that. Rory and Vick got into an argument out of nowhere, and Gale was there to put an end to it quicker than Hazelle could. Posy chattered incessantly to Gale and even Johanna about everything she'd been up to in her recent memory, which most notably included starting school, and Johanna found it endearing, even if it was also annoying to feign interest in things like which color Posy preferred drawing with the most.
By the time everyone was done eating and they were making their way out of the compound, Johanna found herself more at ease with the family. Gale, who had sensed her discomfort from the start, was being careful that she didn't feel shunned or unincluded. Hazelle was doing the same and paying more attention to Johanna than anyone else. Posy was too, although this seemed to be more of a fascination with Johanna than any sense of Johanna's own feelings. Rory and Vick were paying her much less mind, but they were disinterested with their family as a whole.
Johanna didn't travel into town often. There was no point unless she needed something, which wasn't often when her meals were provided in the mess hall. She wasn't a fan of the town that sat in a valley between the mountain that held the base and another mountain left largely undisturbed. The town was a newer one that had old roots. It had been a mining town many years before that had been abandoned once the mine held nothing more of value. The previous inhabitants had been relocated by the Capitol to newer mines where they would be useful.
With the new freedom to move about, many District 2 citizens had quickly moved back into the town and taken over the abandoned buildings. Some still looked dilapidated, but others had been nicely restored. Still other buildings were actually new. With no other industry here, the citizens made their livings by providing things needed by the base, which meant there was little more here other than shops and one bar. Johanna wasn't sure what the Hawthornes planned to see.
"Is that what's going to be the movie theater?" Posy asked, pointing at a building under construction while bobbing lightly on her toes.
"Yep," Gale informed his sister with amusement. "I bet it'll be up and running by the time you visit again."
Johanna's nose scrunched up in distaste. "I didn't know they were building a movie theater."
"You're never interested in what's happening in town," Gale pointed out.
"But why do we need a movie theater?"
Gale shrugged. "It gives the soldiers something to do other than drink."
But movies were always terrible, Johanna thought. She never understood the point of sitting there for a couple of hours to watch some people who didn't really exist go through something deemed tragic by Capitol-standards only to have everyone come through and have perfect, happy lives at the end. That wasn't entertainment. It was cringe-inducing.
She didn't say as much out loud, not wanting to bring the Hawthornes down when they'd invited her along with them. Instead, she trailed along behind the others as Gale pointed out what each of the buildings were.
"It's so different from District 12," Posy remarked from her new perch on Gale's shoulders.
"Not really," Vick told his sister petulantly. "There are mountains just like at home, and most of the same types of buildings. They even have a mine like we do in District 12. We just don't have a military base."
Posy shrugged, not believing her brother but too cheerful to put up a fight.
"It is a lot different in some ways, Posy," Gale assured his sister. "Just not obvious ways like Vick pointed out."
Posy smiled with the pleasure of having her statement verified by the brother she admired most, and her posture improved as she sat high on Gale's shoulders.
They'd been walking around town for an hour when Hazelle dropped back to walk at Johanna's side. Johanna's nerves returned as she readied herself for what the woman was about to say to her.
"You don't have to be so tense, dear. I'm not going to do anything to hurt you."
The words were meant to create comfort, but the idea of receiving comfort from anyone was enough to put Johanna more on edge. She didn't offer Hazelle a response. The woman sighed, having expected this sort of reaction.
"I wanted to talk to you while I could. You know you're one of the only things my son ever tells me about other than work. That seems to be all he ever cares about: work and you. Don't worry. I'm not going to ask about what's really going on between you or anything like that. I'm not going to be one of those mothers who pushes her son at a girl. You two will work that out in time if it's meant to happen."
Johanna could feel a blush on her cheeks that she willed to go away, but she didn't bother to interrupt the woman.
"I'm only bringing it up because I want you to realize how important you are to Gale. I don't think you do yet, and because you're important to my son, you're important to me. I know what happened to your family. I don't know all the details, of course, but I've learned enough to figure out what happens to the families of just about all the victors.
"I can't imagine what it must be like to lose everyone like you did. I try to imagine it sometimes. It's not like I'm a stranger to suffering, but I sit there and I try to imagine the pain of losing my husband magnified for each of my children, and it doesn't seem like enough. I can't possibly sympathize with you, but I do want you to know that, as a friend of Gale's and even as a friend of Katniss's, I consider you a member of our family. I don't know if that means anything to you, but it's how I view things. I'm not expecting anything from you, but if you ever need anything that I can help you with, then you should feel free to ask."
"Thank you, Mrs. Hawthorne."
"Hazelle," she corrected with a small smile. "You should call me Hazelle."
"Thank you, Hazelle," Johanna corrected herself. She offered the woman a small, hesitant smile. She felt incredibly uncomfortable, but she was also touched. Hazelle had just done more for her than most of the people Johanna had ever met, and she wanted the woman to know that she was grateful, even if she wasn't sure how to show it.
"You're welcome, sweetheart."
From anyone else, Johanna would have throttled them for using such an endearment, but she let it go with Hazelle. There was something about the woman that had softened Johanna a bit. It was probably her motherliness. It was the first time anyone had shown Johanna any maternal affection since her own mother was killed. Ever since that day, Johanna had told herself that she didn't need to be mothered, and maybe she didn't need it, but she realized now that it was nice sometimes. It made her feel warm in a way she had forgotten she could feel.
Hazelle offered Johanna another smile before turning to her bickering sons and attempting to quell their yelling. Gale fell back at her side with Posy trailing beside him, now holding his hand.
"My mom likes you," Gale remarked, watching the woman and his two brothers.
Johanna shrugged. "I guess she does," she said, unsure how to tell Gale what his mother had said to her.
"She does," Gale continued. "She's always asking about you whenever I call, and I can always tell she's concerned about you. Sometimes I think she's too caring."
Johanna shook her head. "No, I think that's a good quality. Not many people in the districts have it anymore."
They fell into a comfortable silence, but Johanna was comparing Gale's words with his mother's. Hazelle had made it sound like Gale was talking about her of his own volition, but Gale made it sound like his mother was always the one to bring Johanna up. Which was the case? And if Gale was the one always talking about her, then what did it mean? It could easily mean that she was the closest friend that he'd made on base, which she knew to be true, and nothing more, but Johanna had only recently let herself admit that she might want it to mean more than that.