"Damn," Johanna said to no one in particular. To no one, actually. "Damn," she repeated in the local flavor. It bore repeating. There was no one else to either second her feelings or complain about her way of expressing them. She was alone.
She had heard that her home in Victors' Village had taken significant damage in the war, but hearing it wasn't the same as seeing it. There was a magnificent hole tearing through the roof and part of one wall of her house, but it was still standing. Of the twelve dwellings that had previously clustered around the hill among the trees, only three could still properly be considered houses. Hers, Larch's, and one of the empty ones.
Presumably, there were a number of worthwhile belongings that could be recovered from her old place in that state. If her house had been leveled, she could've turned around right there. She hadn't come back to Seven with any intention to stay. It was just a matter of tying up loose ends. She would look around. She would sort her belongings. She'd tell anyone who cared that she was moving and they could split up what she left behind however they liked. Then it was off to Four to rejoin Annie. They called each other everyday while they were apart. Annie was staying with family members of some of the other District Four victors, but she didn't feel very comfortable around them. The connective tissue between them, never more than thin, was severed when their victors died (the man with the shark tattoo, the woman who did decoupage, the guy who baked tarts on the celebrity cooking show).
There were eight living victors in Four before the Third Quarter Quell. Now there was only Annie. It isn't too much of stretch to say that, to a greater or lesser degree, all seven of the others died for Annie (not for Annie only, but including her). She knew the least about the rebellion out of all of them. It wasn't because they thought she couldn't handle it, but for her protection. She knew there was a rebellion, that Mags had made sure that Four was in it deep, which victors in other districts were involved and things, but not the tactics they were cooking up to fight whatever Capitol minions stormed their beaches and threatened their sea. They did it because they loved her.
There were other victors once living in this burned and battered part of town, but Johanna has no doubt that none of them ever loved her. She found it questionable whether any of them had even liked her (she told this to herself, pushing down Larch's squinty smile and Hiro's gentle old man nonsense - Annie always used first names out of love; Johanna had kept her colleagues distant with their last names).
Johanna took a deep breath, cussed a bit more just to get it out of her system and decided she might as well get it over with. There was no point in making Annie wait too long ("Mrs. Barrow might make me eat her awful enchiladas again," Annie had squealed in horror over the prospect of being left in the loose care of her neighbors too long- the dead husband, apparently, had been the family's best cook). She could do what she'd come to do, get on the next train out, and be on her way over to Four before nightfall.
The process would start up again as soon as she got moving.
But only a few yards further along, she stopped again, taking in a new sight, if not a new shock. In the middle of the path that branched out to each of the houses (and plots and rubble where houses once stood), was a makeshift altar. A charred coffee table, possibly from one of the ruined homes, was the base and balanced on top of it were candles and incense, a slightly dried out orange, a plate of small local pastries, and five photographs.
Johanna, her center of gravity never quite recovered since the Capitol (the Capitol most recently, or the Capitol from the first? It had shifted between them, but it was hard to say definitively), was shaken by the sight. As always, she was the odd one out. The victors in Seven weren't close like that school of fish in Four, but they were their own sort of set (like wooden stacking dolls, maybe, pretty painted faces, but hollow within). That creeping feeling rose again from somewhere deep inside. They had told her it was called survivor's guilt.
There was Kayta Hiro, who was interviewed before the Quarter Quell as the oldest living victor (Johanna had always called him 'the old man of the mountain'), Reinhold Meyer, nearly as old, who had lived with his grandson, and Khamphan "Champion" Larch, the closest to Johanna's age, with his guitar.
The last time she had seen Hiro had been her second reaping. "No surprise the Capitol doesn't want to look at me any longer than they have to," he had quipped when Blight was chosen. There were no alternatives to Johanna. His final remark to her had been a nod to the rebellion. "See you on the other side, Ojo." It wasn't a nickname. It was a leftover fragment of one of the languages that had bled away into Seven's soil age ago. It was what he called all young girls.
The only other side they could meet on now was whatever came after death.
How had Hiro died? Had he known that they were free?
Johanna assumed that a man of his age had to find some contentment in falling for the cause though (if he had), the same as Mags must have. The best way to beat the Capitol was the live, of course, but the second best way to flip them off had to be by dying for someone else (Hiro, if he had, for others in general, Mags, for others specifically).
The last time she had seen Meyer and Larch had been in the Training Center. Larch- he wanted her to call him "Kham"- had officially been her mentor the second time around, but she'd just laughed to drown out her fears and told him to screw off (she knew he'd do what he could anyway). He was too earnest, and as a person trying to turn off her more tender feelings, that had bothered her. He would probably have liked Peeta. Meyer had been grumpy because he was having trouble with his rheumatism. She had parted from Larch with traditional Seven words of good luck, twisted and worn and reshaped, but passed down from the portion of their heritage that had been born far away in some part of the continent called Asia.
…would she ever exchange those words with anyone again? There were people here who knew them, but she didn't care for them even the fraction she had cared for Larch.
Hiro, Meyer, Larch. Those were the three she could've hoped for. There could've been a way for them to survive, couldn't there?
…Hiro, back in Seven, could have lived, couldn't he, if Thirteen had cared enough to rescue him? It was only her people, after all, like Haymitch and Finnick, that had pushed for them to have her rescued. Thirteen hadn't picked up a single victor they didn't think they could use.
Hatred settled Johanna's insides. It was a feeling she was not uncomfortable with; a feeling she understood. It occurred to her she was being a bit rude just standing and staring at the altar like this, but she didn't want to kneel down on the dirt. Her compatriots wouldn't have expected any different from her anyway. They knew it was nothing personal.
The other two photos showed victors whose deaths were less unsettling at this point, more real and cemented into her mind. Blight Alen, who had once been her mentor (the first time around), had fried on the forcefield before her very eyes (through a veil of blood rain).
Fleet Band, on the other hand, had died before Johanna had even been born. The frame holding her picture was slightly singed. The surge of black humor this awakened in Johanna was the last thing she needed to return to her usual self. It had been a morbid Seven tradition for the living victors to lug not only a picture, but this very picture, of Fleet to each and every reaping. She was smiling in the photograph- so very Seven, with her mixture of freckled olive skin, wavy, reddish hair, and almost-black eyes, a sampling of the many peoples who came together so long ago to make Seven. United by convenience maybe, or because they liked the woods.
Fleet's eternally captured smile condoned Johanna's continued existence. All six of Seven's victors were not meant to be in the ground just yet. Johanna grinned back at her. It was in her blood, as a Seven, to be an ornery bastard (maybe that was what had brought their ancestors all together in these woods). If it could be taught, instead of inherited, she'd pass it down to Finnick and Annie's kid. She'd salvage whatever she could.
She raised her hands to about chest level, put her palms together, and bowed to the altar.
"Kayta, Reinhold, Fleet, Blight, Khamphan," she whispered to herself, then made a small correction, "Kham." Way back when, her younger sister had been impressed by Kham, the victor who feed them and played the guitar. Something about this bittersweet memory caused her to detour a ways toward his house.
There was a wreath made of pinecones and silver bells hanging on the white door. Johanna clenched her fists and turned away, running (just to hurry- she wasn't scared, when was she ever scared?) to her own old home. The front yard was overgrown, but that was no different from when she had lived there. She'd never had much interest in gardening. There were yellow flowers blooming still. Gorse was never out of fashion.
The door was unlocked, just like when she'd left. For a while after she'd moved in (alone- she had never gotten her family out of the old house before she lost them all: father, mother, grandfather, sister, dog), she had always locked up carefully, just like she had done before in the house her grandfather had built, but the better Johanna came to know the Capitol, the more futile it had seemed. Locked doors hadn't saved her family. They wouldn't protect her from any of the really bad things out there. And anyone who wanted to come into her house unannounced was a first class idiot.
She didn't think any of her fellow victors had ever come into her home. She didn't go over to visit them either. Hiro had invited her to come watch the Quarter Quell announcement at his place, but she hadn't taken him up on that. At least that decision fell under the "no regrets" column of her mental accounting. She wouldn't have wanted the old man to hear what she said when she found out she would be returning to the arena. And her home was the one place she could break things and no one would care (Johanna would aver that everyone needed a place like this).
She had been in Larch's house once. He had owned a lot of house plants. Ferns mostly. Johanna supposed the Capitol couldn't hurt you very deeply if the only things you let into your life were plants. They were probably dead now too, wilted and dried up in their painted pots. She didn't remember what kind of family Larch had had before, if any. It was funny. She knew more about the families of Four's victors than Seven's. She had isolated herself from her neighbors, but had listened when Annie spoke about hers.
The coatrack had been overturned. Her raincoat and two umbrellas were lying in the hall. Johanna stepped over them and pressed onward. On the floor of her living room lay the item she wanted most- the one she had hoped to scavenge out of sentiment more than convenience- to her knowledge, the only existing photograph of her family. Her mother had owned an album where she kept pictures of all of them (including each school picture of both of her daughters, all lined up in neat rows), but it had been destroyed in the "accident" that had killed them. This one had belonged to a friend of her mother's. As far as Johanna could discover, it was the only existing picture of the complete family she remembered.
The glass of the frame hadn't even fractured. She picked up the frame and looked at their smiling- naively it seemed in retrospect- faces. Even Hammy, their dog, looked happy. Johanna wondered if Annie liked dogs.
The frame holding the best (her favorite) picture of Finnick and Johanna had broken, but the photograph was only a bit bent. She pulled it out of its holder to take it too.
It had been a "boating accident" for Annie's father, her older sister, her younger brother. A "boating accident" on a calm day. Three people who could swim had drowned. Annie still had all the photos of her family- her immediate family, Finnick, Mags, the other Four victors. Maybe Annie would like to assist her in the project of starting a new family album. They could combine what they had and just get going again from there. She and Annie and the baby. And a dog, if she liked dogs. …Then Haymitch. Beetee. Peeta and Katniss. Heck, even Enobaria. Only the best aunts and uncles for Finnick and Annie's child. They were all connected. They were all some kind of family now.
With these photographs secured, she proceeded with a slightly lessened sense of trepidation. In a downstairs closet, she found a box. She'd fill it with whatever loot (if treating her own possessions like pirate treasure made this more entertaining, why not?) she considered most worth dragging out to Four and let its size be the parameter limiting her.
Having decided that, she resumed her pawing around. Bringing her winter clothes to Four would be a waste. It never even snowed there. …But an axe… Well, she grinned to herself, that was useful anywhere. In the box it went. There was a pair of woven sandals Finnick had given her… A few pieces of clothing that don't have any particular sentimental value, but she might be able to share with Annie since they're not closely fitted. A really nice blanket Cecelia loaned her once and then told her to keep- that she could give to the baby.
After her time in Thirteen, where the ideas of sparsity, scarcity, and sterility ruled the day (and probably still do), Johanna could barely believe she owned (owns) so many things. All this, belonging to a person who was rarely reckless with her blood money. She always knew that material things didn't count for much (but not nothing, she would've told that damn smug Coin, a piece of rope for Finnick, a picture of her family, sometimes you need something solid in this screwed up, shapeshifting world).
No one could make her sentimental like herself- her own worst enemy outside of the Capitol. She gave in and crammed her box full of possessions: of the family cookbook her sister had always wanted more, of incense, of maple syrup, of dishes. Even feeling sappy though, she wasn't so wanting that she couldn't manage to fit it all in. The weight, not proportions, prove the tougher obstacle.
She struggled out the door after almost tripping on an umbrella that she should've bothered to at least kick aside on the way in.
Sorrel Campion, standing at the altar, saw her tromping through the overgrown gorse and started over in her direction. "Johanna!"
"Oh, good," she kept moving forward, concerned that if she allowed herself to lose momentum completely, she wouldn't be able to get going again without a significant break, "Someone I can trust to tell everybody that I'm not coming back."
"You're sure you wouldn't also like a hand with that?" he asked, falling into step roughly alongside her.
"Fine," she acted as if giving in were considerably more difficult than it was.
"Aah, this is heavy," Sorrel strained, but didn't stumble. "I should've known. You've always been so much stronger than you looked. …Where're we headed?"
"Train station. I said wasn't coming back, remember?" Sorrel seemed a bit rougher around the edges than she remembered. She hadn't seen him as much after winning her Games, when she stopped going to school. He looked older than she remembered him. Maybe it was the sideburns. "I don't know what you've heard out here, but, well, you know how it turned out for us," she gestured back toward Victors' Village.
"If it makes you feel any better, Mr. Hiro wasn't in his house when it blew up. He was out shooting Peacekeepers with a rifle."
"Actually…it does." This mental image was surprisingly easy to conjure up. In her mind's eye, Johanna saw Hiro hiding out in the roof of the lumber mill (the same place she would've gone in his situation), shouting at his opponents with each shot he took. It was a sad notion, but satisfying at the same time. She wouldn't want to learn any actual details yet that would spoil the fantasy. It hadn't been so long yet that she couldn't recreate his voice in her head: "This one's for Fishsticks! And here's one for Kham! And Reinhold! And Blight!"
Sorrel didn't interrupt her fantasy. He had changed in that sense too. Johanna had remembered him as almost obnoxiously cheerful and chatty. He had probably been the only kid in their age bracket who could smile on Reaping Day. "…I don't know if you care, but I'm moving out to Four," she said at last.
"Just gotta get out?" Sorrel wondered, "Away from the bad memories?"
"Well, yeah, I couldn't have stayed here, but it's not just that." She looked from Sorrel's face to the clock looking down on them from the front of the station. Tick, tock. Everywhere are the reminders. "If I just had to get out, I could've gone anywhere."
"Will you tell me then?" Sorrel puts the box down on the steps of the station and stretches to rub his aching shoulder. "What's there for you in Four?"
"Someone who needs me. …And I need her too." It gave Johanna a good feeling to think about Annie. It was really true. There were other people back in Four that Annie could rely on to see that she was fed and sheltered and received whatever care she and her child might require, but the one she wanted was Johanna. It felt good.
So good, apparently, that it showed on her face. "Whoever she is, I've never seen anyone make you so happy since you came home from the Capitol," Sorrel smiled. "I guess I better not keep you from her."
It was sort of embarrassing for Johanna to have her true feelings understood that easily, but, well, maybe there was room for a little bit of the old Johanna to resurface in this new world. "My train back out isn't leaving yet. …I wouldn't mind hearing what's up with you too before I go."
"It's boring," Sorrel laughed, "I'm on a building crew, I live in a dormitory. Maybe when I get my vacation, I'll have to come down and see Four for myself. It always looked good on TV, though," he took a realistic view of things, "I know they took some hard hits in the war, the same as us." He took a seat on the steps and Johanna sat down beside him. "I'd rather hear about you. You wouldn't believe how relieved we all were when the hostilities were wrapping up to hear that you'd made it. There was a while where the Capitol was showing these sort of mug shot pictures of rebel victors they'd "so sadly" had to execute every night."
She hadn't seen any TV spots about it, but she'd heard the news whenever Thirteen had chosen to share it with her. She'd known more of the victors than Sorrel or the others in Seven ever had. Sometimes there was some distance from the ones she'd managed to keep her distance from. Sometimes it was so personal she could've sworn her heart would crack and never heal. She wondered if Sorrel knew how close she had been to Finnick.
"I don't know what to start with," she shrugged. Maybe he wouldn't press the issue.
"Well, I remember you never really liked to talk about yourself, but there's obviously something in your life that you're passionate about." When he said something like that, it was clear that he meant "someone." "…You could start with her name…?"
"Actually," Johanna closed her eyes, "You've seen her before. She's one of my cohort. You just probably don't know what a lovely person she is. For that, you'd have to meet her. …I guess if you come out to Four, it would be mean of me not to let you call us up and visit. I hope you like kids. She's got a baby on the way."
"…Are we going to be friends again?" Sorrel sounded hopeful. They had been friends once. They'd climbed trees and swapped books and dipped their sesame cakes in maple syrup, which drove Sorrel's grandmother crazy. The Games had changed that. Johanna hadn't come back to school afterward. Sorrel had been scared of what she'd done. The fate of her family hadn't encouraged Johanna to reconnect with friends.
The possibility Sorrel raised was too much to promise. "I don't know. I guess we'll have to see."
"…That makes sense." He chuckled. "I suppose one thing it depends on is if she likes me- you still didn't mention her name."
A shrill, familiar whistle announced the arrival of her train at the platform.
"Annie Odair," she said. She'd see her soon enough.