Disclaimer: The Hunger Games are not mine.
He is running, but he never seems to get anywhere except exhausted. The path (or lack thereof of one) that he is following never seems to end, but he knows that that can't be right. Everything has to end somewhere. He just has to find the place where it does. It burns his lungs so badly when he breathes that he isn't entirely sure whether he is still breathing or whether he has somehow managed to poison himself with something that is burning him alive from the inside out. He can't think about that because the only thing that makes sense in his world right now is his overwhelming need to keep moving, to flee, to not give up – no matter how easy it feels like it would be to drop in his tracks and just let everything be over. He forces himself away from those thoughts (he isn't the giving up kind, he isn't), and he finds himself wondering if finding the end is really the best plan that he has because it isn't like he will be arriving there alone. He's being followed, chased really, and wherever it is that he is going, he's leading them to it right along with him.
The part of his brain that is sixteen and trapped and frightened can muster up just enough teenage male angst to roll his eyes as he runs and wonder if there could be anything more damaging to his self-image (and the image he projects to everyone around him because, after all, he may be about to die and the last thing they see of him will be what sticks with them) than the situation in which he finds himself. They're squirrels. Squirrels. They are little things made of meat that are rarely encountered. When they are, they are supposed to find themselves being digested safely inside his stomach – not the other way around. If he doesn't keep running, he may very well meet his demise by reversing the natural order of things and being eaten by squirrels. It's even worse than that (if there is a worse than that). He's going to get eaten by fluffy squirrels. Fluffy. It's a word that should be reserved for little girls talking about the dandelions on the school playground after they have gone to seed. It is not a word that should be used in conjunction with the means by which someone is going to die. He pushes himself a little harder even though he still can't draw in enough air over the burning, and it feels as though his legs are going to collapse into goo at any moment. If he has to die, can it just, at the very least, not involve being eaten by fluffy squirrels?
The part of his brain that is older (so, so very much older that it wouldn't really be fair to try to assess a mere numerical value for comparison) and knows that this place where he is trapped is really a nightmare and also knows that there are far worse things in the world to inspire fear than that arena can muster up plenty of cynicism and general bitterness to scoff and tell himself that while the squirrels wouldn't have been pleasant at least they would have been a way out. He knows that his younger self was right – the path does have an ending. He also knows that once you find it there is just another trap to find your way out of and then another and another and another. He still thinks, deep down, that all things have an ending, but he has also decided that sometimes that ending is so far away that you get to your own before you reach it. That, however, is only when he is in a proper mood to think of such things. Most of the time, he can't be bothered to worry over it. Most of the time, he is far too busy thinking of the next step out of the trap or, even better, trying to make himself not think of anything at all (which you would think he would be better at after nearly 25 years of practice).
He can't tell the part of him that is his younger self these things (and he isn't entirely certain that he would believe himself even if he could), and he doesn't try. The one thing he knows he has gotten better at after nearly 25 years of practice is knowing that nightmares follow their own rules, and you just have to let them run their course. He keeps running from the squirrels. He is himself now, and he is himself then, and somehow he is both of them together at the same time. It should be strange, but it is far too familiar by now for strangeness to enter into the equation. He is so very tired (and that is more familiar than the not so strange anymoreness), but he keeps going. He pushes through the ache in his lungs and the numbness of his legs and the fear of dying and the indignation directed at all things fluffy and the anger that he ever had to live through any of this in the first place and he keeps going because running and thinking are all he has left in his world and despite everything running is still the easier of the two.
It ends, he knows, in the only way that it can. He stumbles, and his now useless legs crumple. The pain and the exhaustion overwhelm, and there is no getting up and pushing forward. He has one brief moment to compose himself before they will be on him, but he uses it only in an attempt to pull more air into the inferno that his lungs continue to be. It is likely better that he doesn't think about what is coming at all. Except, it doesn't come. The fluffy abominations aren't climbing over him to sink their teeth into his flesh. There is no pain. There is only a soft whooshing sound accompanied by a padded running. The sound of the running is the sound of running away. The two sides of his brain finally merge completely, and he knows what (or rather whom) it is he will see. He rolls and sits himself up (the ache in his chest and the sense of exhaustion falling away inexplicably in the standard manner of dreams). He is right about what would occupy his range of vision when he looked up (not that he ever doubted his conclusions; he knows these nightmares better on some days than he knows reality). She stands there with that blow gun held in her hand as if it is an extension of her arm. She's chased off the squirrels. She's saved him. She always does. They stand there for a few minutes simply looking at each other before he decides to break the silence. It is, after all, his mind that they are inhabiting.
"What took you so long?" He grumbles as he notices the scenery has changed. They are in a peaceful seeming woods with fallen logs (one of which he finds himself seated upon). He wonders which of them conjured the change.
She doesn't reply to his question. She settles herself on a log opposite him and straightens her skirt over her knees. She isn't dressed for the arena or for the woods. She is wearing a white dress that seems familiar to him, but he is fairly certain that he has never seen her in it before. His face must have registered his confusion (or she knows him that well, that's a part of this whatever it is that they have that he has never quite figured out).
"It isn't my dress," she says looking mildly annoyed as she pushes some flyaway strands of blond hair behind her ears. "If you were going to dress me up as someone else, you could have at least gotten my hair out of the way with the ribbon as well." She huffs.
It all clicks in his head, and he finds himself missing the comfort that being able to short change answers by taking sips from a bottle provides him with. He doesn't want to admit that this new image probably occurred because his memory of the details may be getting fuzzy. That thought isn't comfortable, and he is uncomfortable enough already. He settles on the first answer that presents itself to his mouth.
"I hate pink," he states with a shrug. His eyes narrow in accusation (because offense while hiding in defense has always been his forte). "You should too."
She laughs, and the sound is far louder than it should be for such a small person. He vaguely wonders why the sound is familiarly pleasant when he knows good and well that he never heard it in real life.
"Nice try," she tells him with a smile that he has seen in real life. "I'm pretty sure a dislike for pink is just you, Haymitch," she insists. "It goes well with surly."
He glares at her, and it's her turn to shrug. "You can't blame the arena for everything."
Maybe not, but that doesn't mean that he can't try. He has no intention of breaking the silence that ensues, but she is apparently not similarly inclined.
"So, I can't have the pink ribbon, but I can have the dress?"
He doesn't want to answer that, but he knows he will. They always answer each other's questions eventually.
"She's been around," he tells her knowing that there is no reason to clarify the use of she. It will be understood without extra unnecessary words. "Lots," he adds. "They say she's bringing them information. I say she's sticking herself in where she's got no business being." He snorts in an attempt at sounding derisive, but they both know that it is too half-hearted to really be successful. "What else can you expect from a Donner girl?" He grumbles with a glare in her direction.
"Technically," his companion supplies in a tone that makes it clear that she has no intention of letting any amount of glaring and grumbling interfere with her composure, "she's an Undersee."
The derisive snort that immediately comes actually manages to sound derisive this time (and it didn't even cost him any effort to get it to come out that way). "Not where it counts." He continues in response to the raising of a blond eyebrow. "Undersees try to work inside the rules." He offers. "Think they can change things from inside of the box. Donner girls . . . " There is something funny happening to his voice, and he doesn't like it. He pushes on anyway because it is her (and what does it matter because what condition hasn't she seen him in?).
"Donner girls work their way around the rules. They muddle them. Slide around underneath everyone's notice. Donner girls like their little touches of rebellion." He shakes his head, but he doesn't make eye contact. "Crazy girls." He concludes. His fingers automatically reach out for a bottle, but there isn't any bottle sitting there to be reached for. The groping gesture ends abruptly, and he buries his head in his hands.
"Sobriety not treating you well?" She questions sounding some bizarre cross between amused and sympathetic that has become familiar even if it is still unappreciated.
"Mays . . ." he mutters in what can only be termed a warning tone. She doesn't catch on, or (much more likely) she just chooses not to heed it.
"What?" She counters. "It's not like I invited myself to this party." The tone stops barely short of challenging. She always says she can't stand it when someone tries to bully her. Maybe she considers this one of those occasions. "The least you can do is make an attempt to be sociable."
"Sociable, she says. Merchant manners." A few choice words enter the conversation. He says them in an under tone. He knows she hears anyway, but they both pretend that she doesn't. He comes to the end of his muttering and shifts back to his version of answering her question. "I may kill that boy myself. It'd save everybody a world of trouble. And that girl . . ."
"I like her." She interrupts him.
"You would." He scoffs.
"She reminds me of you." The petite blond looks like she is gearing up for a thoroughly canvassed disagreement.
"I haven't had alcohol in weeks, Maysilee. This is not the time to try out your rotten sense of humor on me."
"I mean it." Maysilee insists. "She does. She hasn't really exhibited a stunning display of your ability to see the big picture and plan accordingly, but there's something about the way she handles herself in the moment, under pressure." She cuts herself off and grins at him. "Besides, she's surly, and I bet she doesn't care for pink either."
"The two of them are more trouble than they are worth." He tells her. "Starting things, and the rest of us have to deal with finishing them."
"It's not like they planned it." She reminds him.
"Hmmph," is the only response that she receives. She waits for a few minutes to be sure that he isn't going to add anything. When she determines that he isn't, she makes her own addition.
"Although, it couldn't have worked more perfectly if they had." There's a far off look in her eyes as if she sees something that his vision can't reach. He decides to pull her back to his choice of reality.
"What'd I say? Donner girls like their little rebellions. Even when it's watching from the sidelines." He shakes his head and makes a noise that is intended to indicate frustration. "It didn't work perfectly." He insists. "It's a mess. It's a mess that's gonna drag all the rest of us down into the muck with them. Just look at what all they've stirred up with Snow. This Quarter Quell nonsense is all because of them."
"Are you insinuating that our beloved President would stoop to fabrication of the contents of a sacred Quarter Quell card?" The Capital accent is a perfect rendition, and he shudders at the mental picture of Effie Trinket that comes to his mind when he hears it. That woman has no place here, and he frowns at the one who caused his thoughts to veer in that direction.
"Everything's rushed." He tries to explain. "No one's ready. Their stupid sense of timing and their stupid love nonsense is going to cause everything to blow up in our faces. Things moved faster than we thought. Why'd it have to be now?" His tone has gone plaintive. He's half afraid that she'll call him out on it, but he's more afraid that she'll only look at him with that small pitying smile that she uses sometimes that he hates.
"You're thinking things that you shouldn't be thinking, aren't you?" She asks. So, she has called him out, and she's smiling that smile. It's the only one of her smiles that he doesn't want to see. The only defense he has is to get angry, so that's what he chooses to do.
"Don't tell me what I shouldn't be thinking." He snarls. He should know by now that it won't throw her. He does know that, but he can't always seem to make himself process that fact when their conversations cross into this territory.
"Why else would I be here?" She retorts. She glares back, and he finds himself relieved that the pitying smile has gone away. "It wouldn't have worked." She tells him. She's a little bit angry and a little bit insistent. Mostly, she sounds like someone who isn't going to back down until he agrees with what she's saying. He would recommend that she not hold her breath but given the circumstances . . .
"It wasn't the time. It wasn't us." She's still talking, and he wonders if she even knows that he isn't listening to what she's saying so much as waiting for an opening to derail her. "Don't go getting all mushy on me."
"Mushy on you?" He laughs. "I had a girl you know."
"So I've heard." She's still unthrown. Sometimes he wonders if he'll ever manage to say something that really, truly catches her by surprise. "Why don't you let her haunt you for a couple of decades and give me a break?"
He's not going to bother to answer that. He knows she doesn't really expect an answer. Their vigil in their woods continues in silence. It isn't uncomfortable despite their discordance on the previous topic. Perhaps, it isn't so much discordance since he knows that she is right. He isn't about to say it. After everything, he ought to be entitled to doing his brooding in peace.
"Is it making it worse?" Her voice is so soft that he wonders if he might have imagined it. He almost (almost) laughs out loud at the irony of the thought as it passes through his brain. "Having her around so much?"
"Does it ever really get better?" He asks in return. He isn't really sure.
"Some days." She tells him, and he finds himself agreeing with her. She's right. Some days it's better. Some days it feels like nothing will ever change. Some days it feels worse. Some days it . . . well, some days are better left never discussed or remembered at all.
"I should have known last year was going to be nothing but trouble." He's jumping back to her question, but he knows she'll be able to follow. "I looked out at the crowd. I never look out at the crowd." He stops, and she nods. She knows. He's told her before how hard it is to look – how awful it is to see.
"Those eyes were starting right at me. Your eyes with your hair twisted up in that blasted pink ribbon. That pin shining in the sun. I almost tripped right into that Capital woman. She thought I was trying to hug her. Her expression was so funny it was almost worth it. Almost." He stops, and his hand once again moves to grasp a bottle that still hasn't appeared.
"Then, there the pin was on the train, stuck right into that other girl's shirt. Glaring at me just like she was. I've never needed a drink so badly in my life." He confesses, and he knows that she knows that that isn't just a throw away phrase. "Why'd she do it? Does she know? Was she telling me something? Or did it not really mean anything at all?"
"I wouldn't know." She answers. "I only know we Donner girls like our little touches of rebellion. We're crazy, I've been told." She smirks at him, but he doesn't rise.
"You should tell her to stop doing things like running through snow storms in the middle of the night to deliver things no one asked her for." He responds.
"I can't do that." Her voice is defiant with a hint of gentleness because she knows just as well as he does where those words will lead them.
"Why not?" He demands pushing them both into a corner.
"I'm stuck here." She sounds resigned but not upset. He still isn't certain how he feels about that.
"Why?" He insists.
"You already know why." She answers.
"It's been 25 years, woman." He sounds exasperated because he is. "Why can't you give me a straight answer to that question?"
"Why can't you stop asking questions that you already know the answer to?" She counters. Maybe she is right. Maybe he does know. Maybe he doesn't want to know. Maybe he just wants to hear it from her. Maybe he is tired of always living with maybes.
"You should tell her." She veers them into a new direction after the silence has once again settled around them.
"What?" He's startled because while he never seems to take her by surprise, she somehow (completely unfairly) catches him from time to time.
"You should tell her that she shouldn't run through snow storms." She elaborates. "I'd like to see it."
"Not going to happen."
"I think it would be hilarious."
"For you maybe." He's returned to his gruff voice. "She'd want to know why then she'd want to know the why of the why. She asks too many questions already. Like someone else I know."
"I don't know what you're talking about." Maysilee blinks at him with an expression of absolute innocence plastered across her features.
Snow himself might fall for it. No, no he wouldn't. That man spends so much time in plots wrapped up in plotting tied up with extra plots that he doubts Snow believes there is any such thing as innocence in the world. He almost throws up when he realizes that he is sitting here contemplating the way in which Snow's mind works. It just goes to show how much this whole impending debacle is messing with his mind. He quickly pushes his thoughts in a different direction.
"Why are we still going this way?" He mimics in a horribly high pitched tone. "Why do you want to get to the other side of the hedge? What are you looking for? How much further?" He drops the painfully pitched tone. "It's a wonder every tribute in the place didn't find us from the sound of your voice."
"You memorized my words." She clasps her hands over her heart. "I'm touched."
"You're still annoying."
"Yet I'm still here." She counters. They're good at this – this back and forth. They should be. They've had plenty of time for practice. "You aren't always the best of conversationalists yourself."
"I hate conversations." He rubs a hand over his forehead. He isn't sure whether it's the conversation or the withdraw, but he feels like there should be a headache. It's disconcerting that it isn't there.
"So you say." She doesn't miss a beat.
"What's that mean?" He's building himself up to be ready to find himself offended.
"I don't think you always mind." She shrugs. "It depends on who's doing the talking."
"Hmph." He has nothing to say in response to that. He doesn't think she really expects him to anyway.
"That's another thing you have in common with Katniss." She tells him.
"Don't start." She, of course, ignores his command.
"You like her." She informs. "You like her fight."
"Her fight is probably going to get a lot of people killed." He reminds her.
"It wouldn't be the first time."
"You're awfully calm about it."
"Maybe this time will be better." She says, and the smile he sees on her face can only be described as wistful.
"I don't see how." It's making him feel (yes, he'll admit it) surly looking at that hopeful look on her face.
"Because maybe this time will be the last?" She turns her gaze from whatever far off, invisible to him place she's been studying and locks her eyes with his.
"You don't know that." He wants to be angry, but he's finding the feeling difficult to muster.
"I don't." She admits. "I don't know otherwise either."
"How do you still hope like that?" He demands. "They killed you. Shouldn't that put a damper on the optimism?"
"I prefer pragmatic. It's part of my slip under their notice rebellious Donner girl charm."
"You know you aren't fooling me, don't you?" It isn't as if she really needs to remind him. "You aren't nearly as cynical as you pretend. You wouldn't be helping if you were."
"Maybe I've got a death wish."
"We both know you do, and we both know that it isn't that kind." They slip into these calm silences when he has no reply for something that she has said. He's noticing that tonight. He wonders if he's ever noticed it before and forgotten that he had.
"I'm proud of you." She tells him. He's a little shocked because those aren't words that he ever hears. He's pretty sure the last time was . . . he's not going to think about that.
"That came out of nowhere." He's treading carefully with his words wondering where she is going with this unexpected revelation.
"I'm proud of you for what you're planning." She elaborates. "You're good at planning. You're good at the big picture. I'm glad you're doing what you're good at for something that's important to you."
"I hate this." It's the only thing he can think of to say because they are the only words that make sense to him right now. He's tired, but he's still fighting. Sometimes he isn't sure why, but he can't seem to stop. He doesn't really want to stop, but it's lonely. Intentionally so. Sometimes he can't figure out why it has to be him. Even then, he can't see himself any other way. It feels like too much while feeling like too little, and he hates things that he can't figure out.
"I know." It's all that she says, but it's all that she needs to say. Anything else would have been too much, too trite. The words would have been meaningless coming from anyone else, but it's her. She can get away with it because he knows that she actually does.
"It could have gone on for decades more before a moment fit." He sounds disgusted (even to his own ears) as he says the words. That could be because the only thing that upsets him more than the thought of the whole half baked, too many things could go wrong (there are so many things that he can't control and so many things for which he can't plan that it's a wonder that he isn't completely insane) situation he's in the middle of is the thought of things continuing unabated as they have been for the past 75 years.
"It could." She agrees.
"It could have been your niece on the train that day." He isn't sure why he's reminding her. She knows that as well as he does.
"She took her chances like all the others." Why does she have to be so calm?
"That would have been . . ." He cuts himself off. He doesn't know what word he wants. He wants her to find it for him.
"Unsettling?" She supplies. He doesn't know if it's right or not.
"I don't know."
"What would you have done?" She inquires, and she sounds genuinely curious. "Tried to bring her home, or tried to get her killed quickly?"
"You know what the answer to that should be." He's hedging, but he doesn't know why he bothers. He knows she'll fill in the blanks.
"I also know that you know what coming home means."
"I don't know what I would have done." He maintains. "It doesn't really matter now, does it?"
"Maybe not, but I think I know what you would have chosen."
"How?" It doesn't come out quite as sharply as he was hoping for. "I told you I don't know."
"Because I've been here a long time." She offers. "I know how you think."
"Half the time I don't know how I think."
"I know how much it bothered you when the boy told you what he wanted before they went into the Game." She says it like it's simple. It isn't simple. It wasn't simple. At least, not for him. She probably knew what he was really thinking before he had time to make his way through all the jumble of thoughts.
"That was obvious." He offers.
"I know that if it didn't work, if it came down to one of them without the other, I know who you would have been kinder to." She sounds completely certain. She generally is completely certain. Certain is just part of who she is. He doesn't have to ask her what she means by "kinder."
"That's a messed up way to put it." It would be a messed up way to put it for someone who doesn't get it – which means it isn't for either of them. He says the words anyway.
"Maybe." Her voice doesn't sound like maybe. Her voice sounds like she knows that he knew exactly what she meant. It sounds like she knows that he agrees with her.
"You and your maybes." He offers with a sigh. Sighing isn't really his thing, but it seems appropriate for the moment.
"You and your surly, barely functioning alcoholic act." Maysilee doesn't offer a sigh along with her statement. She sounds amused.
"It's not much of an act." He tells her while looking down at his still empty of a bottle hands.
"Maybe you're just really good at it." That strikes him as funny, but he can't place why.
They lapse into one of their silences, and he notices that the stars are really quite lovely. If only all of the things inside his head could be this peaceful . . .
"She would have survived." She tells him after he's traced all the patterns that he knows names for. "That's really what it is about her that reminds me of you." Is there a reason that she can't seem to let their silences be?
"Surviving. Yeah." He pulls his eyes away from the pictures he was focusing on in the stars. "I've done that. Can't say it's been much like living."
"Welcome to my world." She sounds unsympathetic to his plight. He thinks he is grateful to her for that.
"Were you always this snarky, or did I teach it to you?" He wonders out loud.
"I can't remember." She replies honestly.
"Why are you still here?" He asks. It's time. She doesn't hesitate.
"Because you want me to be." He did know that. He still needed to hear her say it.
It's her turn.
"Why am I the one that haunts you?" She asks. This time he's ready to answer.
"The others all haunt me. They're in the nightmares. They are the nightmares." He takes a deep breath and a long look into her blue, blue eyes.
"You're the only one who chases the nightmares away."
They settle back into silence and neither one of them breaks it this time. Everything is calm. Everything is peaceful. It's just the woods and them. It's just a place where he doesn't have to plan. It's just a place where he feels safe with a person that he knows he can trust. He stays as long as he can where there is no withdraw, no worries, no responsibility – just a friend who understands.
They always answer each other's questions eventually.