"And though in all lands, love is now mingled with grief, it still grows, perhaps, the greater."
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
He's had death and destruction before his eyes for so long that he's come to believe he's never going to see beauty in anything again.
The war. The loss. The disappointment. The shattered dreams. The uncared pieces. Each opened a crack in his soul that he hasn't even tried to fix. He's fixing other things, now, cracked and broken just like he is, but more important than he feels. Building, streets, bridges, devices. Even people need to be reconstructed. He's never been good with people, though, so he sticks to unanimated things. Things he can't hurt.
Just break, in case, but not hurt.
Because he's already hurt enough people.
All he wishes now is to repair, to revive.
But you can't revive the dead.
x x x
The after-war world doesn't look any different from before, to her. Deserted places and damaged things and miserable people are just a pathetic reflection of what she's borne inside for such a long time she's almost forgotten when it began.
It was the Games.
The Games took her and never gave her back. And then, one by one, took all the good things she had, leaving her with nothing but herself and the sorrow, the rage, the bitterness.
The Games took her and never gave her back. As it happened to twenty-three other people, that year. Every year. But she was the last one standing. The one who made it through the slaughter.
A kid. A tribute. A weakling. A fighter. A survivor. A Capitol doll.
Still, she's never felt a Victor.
And yet, she's been so many things in the last few years, she can barely tell herself from each of those.
Maybe she's all of them.
Maybe she's nothing at all.
She wanders District 7 like a stray cat, lonesome and peaceless in a place she can't really feel like home anymore. It's like the war made everything become like her: empty, and broken, and ruined. Beyond hope.
The word is a stranger upon her tongue. She's never had a good relationship with it. Even back when she used to feel it, she's never relied on it, and now it's only a long forgotten arch enemy she's buried along her way, together with the ones she loved.
She might be still standing, still walking on, but she has no idea where to go. There's nowhere worth going to. Every step she takes, she feels like the next it going to fall into the end.
And yet, somehow, she's still here.
x x x
He's grown addicted to working. He rises before the sun and goes home after everyone else has left. Works his heart off until he just can't stand anymore and feels his knees start to give in.
The sore muscles and joints, the tiredness oozing from every breath he takes, the calluses and bruises in his dirty skin… it all helps him drag himself from day to day, consuming time like it was venom to get rid of before it overcomes him.
He barely eats. Enough to survive but never one bite more. He thinks of the old days when food was a luxury he would hunt through the forest and carry home to feed his family, and realises he misses the way it used to be. Poor and humble and hard, and yet real.
There are times he thinks the times he could feel life are over for good.
When he's asked to move to District 4 for a while to help the local people rebuild their homes, he doesn't give it a second thought. One place or another, it doesn't make any difference. His conscience is his grave and it will follow him wherever he moves, however far away he runs.
He's okay with it. It's what keeps him going: the will to suffer any of his days the way the ones he's lost suffered because of him. Some of them are dead, some are alive and carrying on with their lives.
Katniss married Peeta. He always knew she would and doesn't really care anymore.
Finnick left a wife and an unborn child to deal with their new life on their own. Little Finnick Jr must be one year old or something, now. He's not sure.
Haymitch is doing fine, as far as he knows. Alcohol and self-seclusion. Harsh manners and little patince. He hasn't quite changed, in fact.
And Johanna. He doesn't know much of her. He only remembers her the day they parted – wild and skinny and worn and diffident – her last look to him, like she knew they would never meet again. He watched her leave with her bundle of spite and regrets, her addiction to morphamine and fear of water. She never looked back.
He reckons 4 is a good place to go. No risk of unwanted encounters. Plenty of work to do. Nothing to remind him of bad memories.
So he goes.
Because – really – from here to there, what difference could it make?
x x x
It feels strange.
It feels strange and uneasy.
It feels strange and uneasy and somewhat bad to sit with Annie in front of a cup of tea and cordial platitudes, dunking homemade cookies like drowning unpleasant memories. Because this is not her stuff, really. She's not that kind of girl. But she obliges, because Annie cherishes good manners and hospitality and it would be unkind not to return her niceness.
Even though Johanna was never a nice girl to anyone.
She didn't even want to come. She got a card from Annie inviting her over for little Finnick's first birthday and just couldn't say no. Out of pity, or out of self-harmful tendencies, she accepted. She's a few days late, though. On purpose. She couldn't stand the idea of meeting Peeta and Katniss. She quite likes the boy, but archer girl will never be welcome in her personal space. They're too much alike, she thinks.
So here she is.
The kitchen is small, humble in a cosy way. It smells like the sea, of salt and sand and windy shores. She can see al of this from the window she's sitting by.
It feels strange and uneasy and bad and even a bit sad.
Because of the excess of tragic events Annie and her son remind her of.
Because of the lack of something she wishes was there.
Because of Finnick.
All the empty spots within these walls seem to mourn him, even though this house never met him.
"He loved you, you know."
She stares at her tea, made pearly white by a sprinkle of milk. She stares and blinks, not in bewilderment. Not at all.
She blinks two tears away. They sting in her eyes like thorns.
"What are you talking about?"
Annie shakes her head gently. Raises little Finnick onto her lap and looks up with a smile.
"My husband. He loved you. In a way he would have never loved me."
There's nothing reproachful in her tone. Nothing but serene acceptance.
"You know it's not true," Johanna replies, and her heart, if she still has one, breaks a little more.
But Annie smiles again, and there's the sweet brightness of the setting sun in this smile, a light Johanna will never own, will never be able to even reflect.
"You know it is."
Plain, gentle Annie. Johanna can see why Finnick liked her but can't see why he loved her.
"He loved me, too, that's right. But he loved you as much. He chose me because I'm not like you. I'm not strong, I'm not brave, I'm not sassy like you. He chose me because I needed him. You didn't. Not really."
Blood runs colder through Johanna's body.
Annie's right. It's been a whole life's goal, to be independent and self sufficient. Not to need anything or anyone. That's why she's alone: she's nobody's priority. It was her choice.
Yet it hurts. Down her throat, deep in her chest. It hurts and burns and bruises to hear such tender words from a person she's always found so unworthy of Finnick's love.
And now she's the unworthy one.
Johanna knows she loved Finnick, but she never had the guts – the heart? – to admit it. It would mean weakness. It would mean to be vulnerable. And, after the Games, she never wanted to feel vulnerable again.
Even if this meant to lose the most precious thing she could ever dream of.
"He chose you," she retorts, a she wants it to be definite. "This is all that matters."
Annie makes to say something but Johanna addresses her a piercing glare that silences her. She doesn't want to listen. She doesn't want to speak. She sips her tea and makes silly remarks about the landscape outside, the warm weather.
Annie indulges her. She's said what she had to say. She's heard the denial she expected to hear.
Johanna locks herself back into a sound, safe silence.
She doesn't want to speak, nor to listen.
Her soul is screaming.
x x x
Awkward. That's what it is.
The bunch of wild flowers in his hand, picked in the fields on the way. Different colours, different shapes, different lengths. It's a random stain of nature. Awkward.
The sweat of his hands holding it uncomfortably. Awkward.
The patches in his clothes. The untidy mess his hair has become. The inelegant, unshaven beard. Awkward.
Everything about this visit is awkward. He doesn't even know why he came.
He was never truly close to Finnick and he barely knows Annie and the child. They haven't even kept in touch. It's not like he owes them a greeting or anything.
He felt like he should.
He's been in 4 for two weeks, now, close enough to Annie's place to pay a visit any time, and there's no reason why right now. He just felt like it was the right time.
It's been a while since he's had any contact with somebody from his past. A while since he's done anything nice for somebody. Since he's done anything nice at all.
Nice doesn't quite match his lifestyle, or his life in general, as a matter of fact.
When he knocks on the white wooden door – so 4, he thinks, almost smiling – the last thing he expects is to find himself facing a pair of dark eyes that at least seem to share his own puzzlement.
The sight of her literally strikes him.
One look, and all he can think about is that it's amazing how different a person can be without changing at all.
It's an unwilling whisper coming out of his lips without permission. He's surprised his mind recognised her while his eyes are still examining her so intently.
Long, slender legs giving away way too many inches of unusually pale skin from under the ragged jeans shorts. White tank top designing soft curves with unintentional and yet quite remarkable sensuality. She's grown her hair a bit. It tickles the nape of her neck in uneven brown locks, a neglected mess as if she's just come back from a run in the wind. She looks weird, he muses, but can't seem to come up with the right word to define what he's perceiving.
Hands on her hips as if expecting something, Johanna scoffs at him.
"Whatcha lookin' at, Handsome?"
She doesn't inquire why he's here. How he is. What he's done all this time.
Cheeky, shameless, old Johanna, blurting out thoughts like she had no filters between her head and her mouth. Or maybe she has, but just doesn't care. Her eyes are just like he remembered them: a well of darkness, fierce like burning embers even as she efforts some sort of welcoming grin that seems so much like a challenge to step closer.
"Good to see you, too, Mason," he greets as cordially as he can.
"Fuck off," she spits back.
She crosses her arms as she steps aside to let him in. The way she eyes him – idly, almost uninterestedly – gives him a taste of past times, when they would hang out in the dim corridors of District 13, talking about trainings and weapons and who knows what else. He's totally deleted that part of his life. He wish he could, at least. He just doesn't want to think about it, and Johanna reminds him of too many painful things.
Because they shared something none of the others shared.
Because Katniss and Peeta, and Finnick and Annie had each other, and she and him didn't have anyone. They were alone during the war.
Alone together, sometimes. When the night was so black and silent there seemed to be nothing else but whispers and quiet, gloomy laughs, half-hearted confessions of fear and anxiety for a destiny nobody truly wanted to discover.
Alone together and side by side on a bed that could have become their grave any moment.
Shoulders touching, hands skimming casually and promptly drawn back, hearts divided by a wall of infinite distrust. And yet still there. Together.
Oh, so alone.
Gale will never forget.
Because he was there. When everything happened – the bad, the worst – he was there.
He was there when they couldn't save her at the end of the Games.
He was there when they went to look for her in the Capitol.
He held her in his arms when they rescued her, light as a ragdoll, so weak and helpless he nearly thought it wasn't her, that they had taken the wrong person.
It was the first time he saw her for what she truly was: nothing more than a girl in a land of monsters.
He still remembers her face, the lost look in her eyes that made his heart sink deeper than he'd always thought his soul could be. He still feels her shaking. He still hears her crying. He saw her, tortured and defeated, and this is not something he can simply wash away.
"Really, Jo," he says, mustering up a small smile – so difficult, so faltering, so damn coy – as he walks inside. "It's good to see you."
x x x
It's much like the old days. Actually, it just seems like they're still underground in 13, thrown in the darkest corner with so much on their minds and so little to say.
There's the dim lights, the quietness of an empty place, that closeness they used to share but were never able to deal with. The only difference is that now they're not underground, but outside in the open air, with a soft, fresh breeze caressing their faces.
And it's odd.
Odd and funny, considering she's been avoiding human contact during the whole past year.
But it's also nice, even if Johanna doesn't like the inaccuracy of this definition.
"Well?" he begins at some point. She knows he's been telling her about what's been of him so far, but she hasn't really listened. Not because she doesn't care, but she's afraid of what she might learn. "Got nothing to say yourself?"
His grey eyes shimmer in the pale moonlight as he considers her sceptically, as if he didn't really expect her to answer.
She finds him grown up, compared to the boy she used to know, the one who wouldn't stop moping like an idiot over a stupid little girl who didn't deserve him anyway.
He's taller, which is pretty remarkable, for one who's always been a giant, and you can tell how hard he's been working by the way his shirt stretches around his newly developed muscles. His face is still the same, that peculiar mixture of toughness and sweetness she could never quite place.
"What about the beard?" she asks, ignoring his previous question.
Instinctively, he rubs his chin between his fingers, as if only now he realises he hasn't shaven for days, and this gesture, for some reason, elicits a small laugh from her.
"Don't worry, you look fine. And don't take that as a compliment," she adds immediately. "Because it's not. I guess people like you just can't help looking anything less than fine."
"Alright. It's not like I expect compliments of any sort coming from you, anyways, you know?"
"Good for you, then."
The sound of the sea washing the shore is like a soothing midnight lullaby in this night so full of stars and poor of dreams. She's never heard such a charming song in all her life and she could just sit here and listen forever.
"Johanna?" he says after a while. His voice is so low and wistful she could have not heard him.
But she did.
"How long are you staying here in 4?"
"No idea. You?"
He shrugs. That kind of shrug you use when something is important to you but you'd rather die than admit it.
Figures, she thinks, as she rolls her eyes. She can sense his need for something, the unspoken plea in his tentative speech.
She reflects about it.
There's nothing, nobody waiting for her back in 7. Nor anywhere else. And here's Gale, appeared out of thin air after months of mute distance, alone, just as she left him.
It's much like the old days.
But maybe this time she doesn't feel like pretending she doesn't need something to rely on.
"What if I stayed?"
His gaze, transfixed on the ink-black line of the horizon, enlightens a bit, or perhaps it's just the moon shining brighter.
It can't be that.
It can't be.
It can't be hope crawling though Gale's words, making them weak and shaky and so boyish he's surely ashamed of how they came out.
Hope is dead to them. They were both there when it happened. They mourned it together. He and his guilt. She and her scars, inner and outer. And the unforgiving hatred they both foster within.
"Would you mind?"
"Would you care?"
"I don't know."
She shrugs. That kind of shrug you use when something affects you but you'd rather die than admit it.
"I'll stay. I've got nothing better to do, anyway."
Finally, Gale turns to her.
She shrugs again. She doesn't know what kind of shrug that is. She doesn't know if this is important to her, if this affects her.
She guesses she will find out.
A/N: alright, I haven't been writing fanfictions for a ridiculous long time, but I've been reading a lot lately and my inspiration came back all at once, so here's the result. This is going to be the first of three parts, so there's more coming up.
Reviews and comments are very appreciated, and , please, be patient if you find any mistake or typo, it's late and something might have slipped, even after the re-reading!