A/N: It feels good to be back with my latest story! I should warn you that this story will deal with some dark emotional matters which may not be easy to read at times but I hope it still keeps you interested anyway.
Thanks to my Beta, LavendarVanilla, for her help on getting this chapter ready for you all. Her enthusiasm for this story has really made me excited for the rest of you to read it.
Warning: There is some mild violence at the end of this chapter
Disclaimer: I do not own the Hunger Games or any of its characters
The dusty bar is empty. Sunlight peeks through the cracks in the shutters and creates a striped pattern on the floor. The ancient jukebox stands silent in the corner and the pool table sits like a deserted island in a dark wasteland. The wallpaper is curling and peeling off the walls. Framed photographs of happier times hang on the walls, faded from the exposure to daylight. The chairs and tables all sit empty as the ghosts of previous conversations, arguments and declarations of love float around them.
A shiver goes up my spine as I look out onto the lifeless bar. The hour before we open is always the most unsettling time. Eerily quiet and dark. Without noisy patrons to fill the place the decaying nature of the bar is made more obvious. The place is slowly crumbling and threatening to bury the ghosts hidden within. It is the only time I don't like being in the bar alone.
But I force myself into the empty space to start my routine for the day. I pull the chairs off the tables and set them out, roll a fresh keg of beer up from the basement and wipe down the counter. This routine is so ingrained into my body that I barely have to think as I go through the chores.
Once everything is set up, I go through to the back to find my uncle sprawled and unconscious on the moth eaten couch. His muddy blond hair is plastered along one side of his face and he is drooling down onto his greying beard. His grubby grey shirt is open down the front and reveals his rather unattractive and hairy belly. There is a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a knife in the other. I sigh as I lean over to remove the knife from his grasp.
"Uncle Haymitch, it's time to get up. You promised to help out with the bar today," I say, giving him a large nudge in the shoulder.
He grunts and rolls over, clutching the whiskey bottle to his chest. I sigh again as I shake my head. I know the bastard can hear me. He's clutching that bottle a little too tightly. But he's been passed out in here for two days now. It's time for him to own up to his responsibilities again.
"Uncle Haymitch!" I shout a little louder as I shake his body.
He's stubborn though and won't budge from his sleeping position. I let out an exasperated huff as I look around the cluttered room to try and find something to wake him with. As my eyes scan the mess of empty bottles and food packets I spot a jug of water sitting on the table. With a smile I make my way over and bring it back so I am holding it above my uncle's head.
"If you don't get up in five seconds, I'm pouring this jug of water over you," I state.
I tip the jug forward slightly as I begin counting to five.
"One…two…three…" I begin.
With each number I tip the jug just that little bit more forward in preparation for giving my uncle a well needed bath.
"Four…" I carry on.
"Okay! Okay! I'm up! I'm up!" Uncle Haymitch grumbles as he turns round with his hands up in surrender.
I smile at him smugly as I pull the jug back and watch him heave himself into a sitting position. He roughly wipes the drool off his face with one hand before taking a swig out of the bottle in the other.
"You couldn't just let me sleep, sweetheart," Uncle Haymitch grumbles.
I huff again as I shake my head at him.
"This is your bar. I'm tired of running it by myself," I reply.
Uncle Haymitch squints up at me as he tries to get used to the light in the room.
"You just don't like being in the bar by yourself. Too many ghosts," he says.
I scowl at him as I cross my arms over my chest.
"You're hardly one to talk. You drink yourself into a stupor to forget your ghosts," I snap back.
He's already irritating me today. I keep this bar running for him. If it wasn't for me the bar would have fallen into decay and he would most likely be dead in a ditch somewhere. He has no right to slam me for my own painful memories.
He senses that he's over stepped the mark and shakes his head. Pushing himself off the couch he stands in front of me and bangs a hand against his chest. A loud belch leaves his lips causing me to crinkle my nose up as the foul smell of alcohol hits my face.
"Sorry, kid. Just let me button up my shirt and I'll be right out with you," he says.
I raise the jug and pour its contents over his head before he can even look down to do up the first button. The water splashes all down his face and dribbles down his shirt as he looks at me in surprise.
"Damn it, Katniss! You said that you weren't going to throw the water over me!" he yells.
"That was for the smell. I could smell you all the way from the bar. You are not serving in those clothes. Go take a shower," I reply.
Uncle Haymitch grumbles as he pulls off his sodden shirt and discards it on the ground. I stay standing until he makes his way up to the bathroom. Eventually I pick up his shirt and throw it in the washer. I am the one left to pick up his messes.
Uncle Haymitch comes down twenty minutes later, his hair still wet from the shower and, at least for now, not smelling of alcohol. He's even managed to find a reasonably clean shirt and a pair of pants without stains on them. It is the most presentable he is ever going to be.
Uncle Haymitch has had this bar for the last thirty years. He'll never admit it but he loves this bar. It is a reminder of what he and his wife built together. But he almost let it go to ruin when she died. As soon as I turned twenty-one I took over the bar and made sure he would always have this place to crash at the end of the day. And if I'm honest I need this bar too. It distracts me from the gaping holes that I have in my heart.
The bar may be crumbling and out of date but it is the only bar in our small mining town of Seam. Most nights the bar is filled with locals either unwinding after a day spent in the mines or escaping for a few hours from their wives. I know every regular by name and drink order and it's nice to feel like I have some sort of family in the evenings. There is no one waiting for me back at home.
Uncle Haymitch is the only real family I have left. My parents were killed in a car crash when I was sixteen. I have no brothers or sisters and I was entrusted in the care of my alcoholic uncle. He also battles demons of lost family and we sought solace from each other as we mourned our loved ones.
He may not be much but he made sure there was always dinner on the table and I did my part, hiding the bottles he used in an attempt to forget the past. We may both grumble about each other but we both would be a little lost without the other.
Uncle Haymitch pulls out a bottle of vodka as soon as he gets back downstairs. I watch him with a disapproving shake of the head as he fills the glass up and swallows the contents in one go. He bangs the glass down before going to pour another one but I reach over to snatch it out of his hands.
"You know, we might actually make a profit if you didn't drink all the stock," I say.
Uncle Haymitch leans against the counter as he looks at me.
"And you might be more fun if you allowed yourself a drink every now and again," he replies.
I sigh as I turn to look at him.
"I work in a bar. I see what drink does to people. I don't want to lose myself in it," I say.
Uncle Haymitch shakes his head at me before taking a step towards me. He looks at me sadly as he leans in to whisper in my ear.
"You've already lost yourself, Katniss," he says.
I pull back to look at him and he gives me a sad smile. The use of my real name tells me he is being serious. He obviously believes I'm not myself any longer. We stand staring at each other for a moment before I shake my head and turn away from him. I'm doing fine. I am not as lost as him.
The bar is quiet through the afternoon but picks up around 7 o'clock when the miners get in. It's a Friday night so I know we will be busy. I make sure we have enough alcohol upstairs and enough clean glasses to handle the rush.
I hardly say two words to Uncle Haymitch throughout the afternoon and he is just fine with that. He's pissed with how I woke him up and I am put out by his suggestion that I have lost myself. I throw him a few angry glares as I see him topping up his own glass more often than the patrons'. It means I am the one left to serve nearly every person in the bar as he stands about laughing with his buddy Chaff. I spend a lot of the day think about pouring all his alcohol away once the bar closes.
I am so busy fuming at my uncle that I almost miss the new guy that enters the bar. We don't get many new faces in here so I immediately recognise that he's not from around here. I eye him carefully as he scans the bar before walking up towards Uncle Haymitch. I need to make sure this new guy isn't going to cause trouble.
He's good looking, that's for sure. Stocky build, ashy blond hair that falls in waves and a strong jaw. A few of the female patrons turn to appraise him as he walks past. He stops in front of my uncle and orders the cheapest beer we have on draft. Uncle Haymitch eyes him carefully before a smile spreads across his face.
"Sorry, can't serve you right now," Uncle Haymitch replies.
The man looks confused and turns to look up and down the deserted counter. It's a rare quiet period and there is no one else standing here.
"You're not serving anyone else," the man says.
Uncle Haymitch just grins again and turns to smile in my direction.
"My niece will serve you. Katniss could do with an attractive young man to chat to her. It'll give her self-esteem a boost," he says.
The man at least has the decency to blush but I still scowl at my uncle anyway. I don't need a set up. Uncle Haymitch just laughs though and then removes himself from the counter. I am left alone with the blond stranger.
He looks at me for a moment before giving me an awkward smile and moving along to stand in front of me.
"Did you catch my order or do you need me to repeat it?" he asks.
"No. I got it," I reply.
I then turn to find a glass and fill it with the amber liquid. The blond man stares at me while I do this.
"Katniss. That's a pretty name. At least you're named after a plant. My parents named me after a type of bread, Peeta," he says pointing to himself
I look up at him with a frown.
"My uncle was joking. I don't need you to flirt with me," I reply.
Peeta holds up his hand in a surrendering gesture.
"Hey, I was just making conversation. Clearly you're not that type of bartender," he says.
"Look. We're busy tonight. I don't have a lot of time for chit chat," I reply.
I don't do small talk with people I don't know. And most likely this guy is just passing through. I don't want to get to know him.
He looks up and down at the counter again, noting the lack of other people needing served, sighs and shakes his head.
"It amazes me you get any customers. Your uncle and you are such receptive hosts," he says dryly.
I scowl at him again. I don't like his attitude. He knows nothing about my uncle and me. He's got that boy next door look that suggests that he has never had any hardship in his life. I suspect he gets through life with a good smile and charming words.
I bark out the price and he hands me the appropriate coins. I snatch them out of his hand and slam them into the till.
I expect him to move on afterwards but he lingers by the counter for a moment longer. He takes a sip of his beer before digging into his pockets and pulling out a square of paper. It's a photograph which he lays down on the counter and flattens out with the palm of his hand. Taking a deep breath, he brings his head back up to look at me.
"Look, clearly you don't want to speak to me, but I'm looking for someone. Have you seen this girl? Her name is Prim, or Primrose, and I heard she was living here a few months back," he asks.
Something in the tone of his voice changes and I catch a hint of desperation. I look back up at him slightly confused. I didn't expect that from him
It's then I notice the colour of his eyes. They are a brilliant blue, the colour of the sky on a summer's day, but there is something clouding them. A darkness and longing that I am all too familiar with. Whoever this girl is, she must mean a lot to him.
I keep staring at him for a moment and see the almost pleading look in his eyes. He's desperate for me to have any answers for him and I suddenly realise that his smile before was fake. A mask to hide his real pain.
I look back down at the picture of the girl. She looks young. Maybe eighteen. She's skinny and dainty with blond hair and blue eyes. A sister, perhaps? Or maybe a cousin? The blue eyes are very similar to the man standing in front of me. The girl is smiling in the picture but there is a slightly glazed look in her eyes that suggests she's not fully in the moment.
I do recognise this girl although I only spoke to her once. New people tend to stick out in our town and her and her boyfriend made quite a splash when they turned up a few months ago. I kept out of most of the gossip but I know they gave my friend Darius a hard time at the police station.
"I spoke to her once and that was to throw her out for being under age. I don't sell alcohol to kids," I say.
Peeta nods his head sadly as if this news doesn't surprise him.
"Is she still here?" he asks.
I hate the look of hope he has in his eyes. I can't tell him anything that is going to make things better. I shake my head.
"She and her boyfriend left about three months ago," I reply.
Peeta's eyes darken when I mention the boyfriend. His shoulders hunch forward and his eyes become glued on the glass in front of him. It's clear he doesn't like him.
I was a little creeped out by the boyfriend as well. It was clear he was a lot older than this girl. Maybe a couple of years older than me and he was always feeling her up in public. But I didn't question the relationship. I hate people poking their nose in my relationship so why would I poke my nose in someone else's. Suddenly I wish I had questioned a bit more. What was a young girl doing away from home with a man nearly ten years older than her?
After a long moment Peeta pulls his head back to look at me.
"Do you know where they went?" he asks.
I shake my head again. He lets out a weary sigh.
"Is there anyone here who might know? Was there anyone they talked to?" he asks.
I shrug my shoulder.
"Maybe. But I didn't see them talking to anyone from here. They kept close together," I reply.
Peeta lets out a resigned sigh and I suddenly want to reach over to give him a hug. He begins to shrink into himself and casts his eyes down to the floor. It is clear this is not the news he was wanting to hear.
"Thanks for your help," he says, disheartened.
I watch him as he trudges over to an empty table and sits slumped in his chair. He looks at the photo for a long moment and the despair in his eyes makes my heart clench. I recognise that pain.
After that, I can't keep my eyes off him. It is something to do with the haunted look in his eyes. I misjudged him. This man has his own ghosts and I know all too well how hard it is to battle them. I empathise with him as he sits staring longingly at the photo.
He finishes his first beer quickly and then gets up to go round the bar and ask more people if they have seen the girl. I watch them all give him an apology and shake of the head before they turn away from him. He gets more disheartened as more and more people tell him they have no news.
He starts to drink more as the night wears on and the hope of news about the girl diminishes. He begins stumbling about the place, knocking into people and tripping over chairs. The locals all turn to him with hard glares and I get anxious that he is going to cause some sort of trouble. When he comes up to the bar again I refuse to serve him.
"Come on! Just one more drink. I'll buy you one too. You're kinda pretty, ya know," he slurs as he slumps down at the counter.
I sigh and shake my head at him. I've seen this behaviour too many times before. The drinking to forget your problems and then losing yourself in the process. It's why I don't drink, which many people find amusing since I work in a bar, but I have seen what alcohol does to people. And I know from watching Uncle Haymitch that once you are sober it only makes things worse.
"You don't want to buy me a drink. Go home. Sleep if off. You'll feel better tomorrow," I say.
Peeta shakes his head as he tries to get to his feet.
"I doubt it," he mumbles.
My heart clenches in pain for this man. I briefly wonder what has caused him so much heartache.
He does pick himself off the bar though and begins making his way to the door with his head hung low. However he's not looking where he is going and he knocks into Delly, a bubbly blonde I went to high school with, who is standing talking to her boyfriend Thom. She stumbles forward and spills her drink all down herself. She catches Peeta's attention with a shrill shriek.
He looks up at her and sees the mess he created. The drink has splashed across her chest and drops of it roll down her ample cleavage. Peeta's eyes flick to Thom standing behind her with a look of anger in his eyes.
It is like something clicks in Peeta's head and he straightens up to look Thom straight in the eye.
"Sorry. Wasn't watching where I was going. I'll just clean her up," he says.
He then reaches his hands out to start patting the liquid off Delly's chest. Her eyes widen in shock and she shrieks at him.
"Get your filthy hands off me!" she screams.
Thom tightens his grip on her shoulders and stares angrily at Peeta. But Peeta doesn't stop his movements as he continues to wipe and clean her chest. Thom's eyes narrow and he steps around Delly to stare down at him.
"She told you to get your hands off her. If you don't then we have a problem," Thom says.
Peeta's hands stop but he doesn't remove them from the girl's chest. He turns to look up at Thom.
Thom is at least half a foot taller than him with arms the size of tree trunks. He is an intimidating figure. Peeta should apologise and get out of here before Thom throws a punch.
But Peeta doesn't back down from Thom's stare, rolling his shoulders back as he drops his hands from Delly's chest. He takes a step closer to Thom and smiles up at him.
In that moment I realise that Peeta wants to be hit. I've seen this behaviour before with Uncle Haymitch. He wants to get in a fight. He wants to feel physical pain to stop himself from feeling the pain over the missing girl.
"Sorry, man. She's got real nice tits though," Peeta says.
The hit comes in before I even have a chance to jump over the counter. The sound is so clear and loud that the whole bar falls silent. Peeta falls to the ground clutching his face as Thom drops down to throw in a few more punches. The sounds of Thom's knuckles crunching against Peeta's skin and Peeta's moans are the only sounds that fill the room. I rush around the other side of the bar to put a stop to it.
I can't believe I let this happen. I should have cut Peeta off hours ago and when it was clear to me that he was drinking to forget. Just like I suspected, he's not really putting a fight back against Thom and lets Thom hit him again and again. Probably as punishment for losing the girl in the first place.
I race forward and clutch Thom's shoulders to pull him back. He's panting and I can feel his body tremble with anger but I manage to get him to stop punching.
"Stop. I won't have this nonsense in my bar. Everyone get out. It's time to go home," I declare.
Delly comes up to put an arm around Thom and he looks down at Peeta with disgust. The bar has gone silent as they see him twitching on the floor. But I know they will all clear out soon. I may be small but they know I mean business when I intervene. No one wants to be barred from the only bar in town.
"Go back to where you came from," Thom spits at Peeta. "I don't want you touching my girlfriend again."
Peeta is barely conscious and I worry that he's got concussion. Thom squeezes Delly tighter to him, kisses the top of her head and then walks with her out the door. The other patrons follow soon after.
Peeta is left lying bloody and bruised on the ground. I go back to the counter to get some ice and cold cloth and press it against his swollen eye.
"You go looking for trouble," I sigh.
Peeta winces as I place the cold compress against his eye but says nothing to contradict me.
Uncle Haymitch decides to finally come back through after sneaking away about an hour ago. He frowns at the empty bar and then looks down at where I am nursing Peeta.
"What in hell happened here?" he asks.
"It seems the new guy wanted a fight. He tried to feel up Delly in front of Thom," I say.
Peeta winces as I get him up into a sitting position and check his other wounds.
"Jesus, kid. Of all the men to pick a fight with. You must have a death wish," Uncle Haymitch says as he pours himself another drink and comes to sit on a chair near Peeta and me.
"Well, I was wrestling champion at school," Peeta replies.
He gives me a crooked smile and I let out a small laugh as I begin wiping the blood from around his eye.
"You didn't use any of your moves in that fight. You just let him hit you," I say.
"I deserve it," he replies solemnly, the grin dropping from his face.
Uncle Haymitch and I share a worried look. We both recognise the pain in his voice. This man may be the most lost of us all.
I should be mad at Peeta for coming into my bar and starting a fight but his pain is too familiar. I know what it is like to lose someone and the helplessness and guilt you feel for losing them. I find myself wishing I could have helped Peeta more when he asked about the girl.
We are all quiet for a long time as I clean up the rest of Peeta's wounds. He lets out a small shout of pain every now and again but on the whole is a relatively good patient. I'm worried about concussion though and I'm a little scared about letting him walk out of here alone.
"Where are you staying tonight?" I ask.
He just shrugs his shoulders as he looks down at the floor.
"I think I saw a motel about a mile away," he replies.
I shake my head at him in disbelief.
"I can't let you stay there by yourself. You might have concussion," I say.
Peeta then turns to me with a small smile.
"What else do you suggest, bartender Katniss?" he asks.
I quickly look to Uncle Haymitch who gives me a nod of the head. I sigh as I turn back to Peeta.
"You're coming home with me. I have a very comfy couch you can sleep on," I say as I put my arms around him to pull him up.
Peeta sways slightly on his feet once he is standing and I have to stick my hands out to steady him again. He wobbles as he leans his head in closer to me.
"Just to let you know, I don't normally let strange women take me home the first night I meet them," he says with a smile.
I roll my eyes at him. At least he seems to be joking again. Though I suspect he uses humour to deflect things. He stumbles forward again and I have to reach out to catch him. I put my arm around him as I prepare to take him back to my apartment.
"Damn it. Drunk and beaten up men are just my type!" I reply jokingly.
Peeta laughs and I realise it is the first time I have heard it tonight. It's a deep laugh that warms my heart. I suddenly wish I heard it more tonight.
As I half support, half carry Peeta back to my apartment I wonder what exactly happened to stop him laughing so much. There is a lot of pain there and I don't know if I will ever be privileged enough to know exactly what caused it. But I realise, that if he lets me, I want to help him.