Disclaimer: I own nothing.
Warnings: coarse language (to be expected with Haymitch as a narrator), mentions of suicide.
Somehow destiny comes into play. These children end up with you and you end up with them. It's something quite magical.
I can still remember the first time that I saw her.
My supply was running low as it always does in spring and I had to make my trip out to visit Ripper at the Hob. As a boy, I'd always enjoyed the Hob. As a man, I could barely step foot inside and usually did it so drunk I couldn't even remember doing it the following morning – until I saw the bottles lined up on my table.
That day, I had wanted to go to the Hob even less than I had wanted my name called out for the second Quarter Quell. But we do what we have to do.
Living in the Victor's Village, I heard less gossip than everyone else but I still heard some when I had to go into Town. I was the only one in the Victor's Village. I had no mentor for the Games. I'm pretty sure if I had my post-Games interview would have gone better. My family wouldn't have been dead. I would've known to play nice with Snow. But I didn't have a mentor so my attitude wasn't calmed by anyone, my family ended up dead, and I locked myself in my new home until the peacekeepers dragged my sorry ass down to the Justice Building for the reaping. After that, I made my way into Town every so often. My list was short.
Alcohol from Ripper. Bread from the damn smiling baker. Fresh fruit from the grocer because the Capitol bimbo that called herself an escort refused to allow the train to bring me any orange juice to use as a chaser. Eventually, I didn't need a chaser anymore and my list lost a certain item.
That day, I had to make my way into Town to get alcohol and bread to soak it up.
These days were the days I heard the gossip. Women with their perfect blond hair and pressed dresses whispered behind their hands just loud enough for me to hear. He's going to kill himself one day. I wished. I couldn't kill myself. What if some poor sod ended up winning from Twelve – a long shot but who knew – then I didn't want them ending up like me: mentorless and stupid. So no, I wouldn't kill myself. Numb myself, yes. Kill myself, not purposely. I saw Seam women that I had used to know and like and sometimes even dated shake their heads. I saw old friends of mine avoid my eyes.
That gossip never hurt me too much. That was all true. It was the stuff I heard about other people that did.
It was that gossip that made me not want to go to the Hob because I knew he would be there. He always was on Sundays, ever since we were kids, and I didn't want to see him. Not after I heard about his little one, the little one I'd started having nightmares about turning twelve without even knowing what the damn thing looked like. I didn't even know if the Everdeen kid was a girl or a boy, blond or dark, blue-eyed or gray-eyed. All I knew was that kid was going to turn twelve and I sure as hell didn't want to mentor it.
But, as if karma decided to remind me that it didn't particularly like me, my supply ran out on Thursday and by Sunday morning I was shaking with withdrawal so much I couldn't stand it any longer.
In attempts of avoiding my visit and knowing the times he frequented the Hob, I went to the bakery first.
Bran Mellark didn't look a day older than he did the last time I saw him before the Games. It had been a week before the reaping. I was sixteen and arrogant, he was eighteen and clearly enjoying some time with his girlfriend, interrupted to trade for squirrels at his backdoor. My hunting partner and I took the fresh bread he gave us for the dead animals his family liked and he wished us luck. I, of course, hated that he'd pitied us and our number of slips in the bowl because he was a Townie but Hunter Everdeen, oh well he just took the bread from me as if he was scared I'd throw it back in the baker kid's face and pulled me away down the road.
I shook my head of the memory as I entered the bakery. Damn Everdeen entering my head every day.
"Haymitch, the usual?" he asked, reaching with one hand to take a loaf and then another out of the case. He had a kid in his other arm but I hadn't been sure which one – definitely the youngest but I couldn't remember a name. I didn't particularly care. The kid was cute, I supposed, all blond with a few curls and the brightest blue eyes I'd ever seen. Bright blue eyes that stared at me.
I didn't say anything because I was too focused on the kid. He was probably a few months old, a winter baby, way too alert for his age. Normally kids didn't like me – the older ones knew me as the guy you only met on your way to death and the younger ones were scared of my gruffness. I didn't care either way. I didn't like kids. Kids were only there to torment me and haunt my dreams and remind me that I had killed many kids during my time in the arena, Maysilee Donner being one of them.
I let out a bit of a grunt hoping the kid would turn away. He didn't. Instead he stuck his whole hand in his mouth and started to cry. Good, I thought, I don't need him liking me. Let me get my bread.
Well, crying kids usually distract the parents and this did just that. Bran frowned in my direction. "Sorry, Haymitch. He's teething."
Teething. Another good reason not to like kids but one more innocent than the first.
The other two baking demons sat in the corner of the shop. The older one looked up when his father said it and walked over. Bran set the kid in some sort of swinging cradle and the oldest handed his brother a hard pretzel. The baby stuck the rod in his mouth and gurgled. He even smiled.
It passed my mind briefly in that moment that the Mellark boys might be on my train in the coming years. I hadn't let it bother me until I opened the door of the train sixteen years later to see Peeta Mellark sitting in a chair in front of me. Despite the fact that I was nursing a horrible hangover when I sat in front of him, I remembered the day at the bakery and how the kid with the teething problem had grown into a boy with just as horrible luck as I had.
If not worse.
Bran handed me my bread and I set the coins down on the counter, taking a quick look to see if the baby still liked me. He was too focused on his pretzel, sucking it on one side of his mouth. That was the only thing I decided I liked about babies – babies that grow into kids that get reaped and torn to shreds no matter what I did to save them – they have no attention span. His focus on me was entirely gone and I could leave the shop not even thinking about the boy with the incoming tooth.
It had made me forget for a moment about my dread of the Hob. Of course, that came back full speed when I heard a laugh I could recognize a mile away.
Like Bran, Hunter Everdeen hadn't seemed to age in the eight years since my reaping. He could still be sixteen – not twenty-four, married, with a baby – from his spot at Sae's counter. I pushed my way through, hoping to avoid him by looking at my destination. If I wasn't so desperate, I'd wait for him to leave, but I didn't even think I could make it home without a swig.
That's when I heard her.
This awful wail echoed through the Hob and it made me turn. Sae and a few of the other women vendors had left their stands to coo at Hunter's chest. At first I shook my head. I thought I was hallucinating, some post-Games trauma that comes about after nearly a decade in the arena. I looked for a place to hide, take cover. The mutts were coming – I knew it!
Suddenly, a voice echoed through the Hob and I stopped looking for a place to duck and cover. This time I looked passed the women cooing Hunter's chest and realized that Hunter Everdeen wasn't singing to the women. He was singing to someone else.
"…Are you, are you, coming to the tree…"
I even cracked a grin. Only Hunter Everdeen would sing The Hanging Tree to his kid as a lullaby. He was also the only person I knew that would bring his baby to the Hob. But I didn't go over. I walked to Ripper and took a swig before eyeing him from afar. He lifted the little thing out of some sort of contraption he'd wrapped around his chest and kissed the thing's nose before Sae reached out for it. He nestled the baby, complete in an old pink onesie, in Sae's arms and I took another swig.
She was younger than the Mellark boy. Just by size I could tell she was barely older than a newborn. Sae looked positively through the moon. She'd always liked Hunter and me when we frequented the Hob but that was before the Games. Despite me stopping, it seemed that she'd still kept up with Hunter.
Of course she had. Everyone loved Hunter. He was charming and friendly and perfect in just about every way. Guy could do anything – even snatch a pretty merchant daughter right out from under Mellark's nose without even batting an eyelash or realizing he was doing it.
He wouldn't have won the Games, though. That's for damn sure. He would've died in the arena because that's what happens to good people. And he sure as hell wouldn't have let Maysilee Donner die. He would've kept that alliance up until the very end and then would've sent her home with a sip of poisoned water on his lips.
It was somewhere between my fifth and sixth swig that I realized Hunter was gone and the Hob had gone back to its regular function and not some baby show.
It was also when I noticed Sae glaring at me over her bowl of soup.
"Haymitch Abernathy, you get your behind over here now!" she hissed, her voice echoing over the noise.
Only Sae would make me feel like I was getting reprimanded by my long-dead mother when I was not a child anymore and clearly not of the social status to be screamed at by someone in the Hob. Of course, I could've been sixteen again the way I just about ran to her like a puppy with its tail between its legs. I had always thought of Sae as my second mother, Hunter did as well, and when she asked we did. Apparently that was the one quality that didn't change while I was in the Games.
"Morning, Sae," I said.
"Don't you morning, Sae me! I saw you over there watching," she said, using the back of her spoon to hit my head. I made a noise I would have rather not and rubbed the back of my head. "Why didn't you come over, boy?"
I think I got my way with words from Sae herself. She never called me by my name when she was angry with me. It was always boy, or you, or fool, but it was mostly boy. And that had been when the worst thing I'd ever done was get ripped by the fence sliding under it trying to get stuff to trade with Hunter when we were teenagers. It was a lot simpler then and more innocent.
"I don't know, Sae," I told her, rubbing my head still.
"He misses you," she said, shaking her head. "And I know you know it too."
I did know. The day before his last reaping Hunter had come over to try and drag me back to the land of the living and I had told him to leave. I told him that I didn't have any friends anymore because friends were just used to destroy me. Snow would put a target on his back and that would be the end of Hunter Everdeen. I'd rather him alive and hurt by me than dead because of me.
"I know, Sae."
She stirred her soup. "I don't see what's so wrong with you making up. You two were like peas in a pod. I never saw one of you without the other," she said. "You should go see that baby. She's awful cute."
"She?" I found myself saying.
Sae nodded. "She. Now go see her. I ain't telling you no name. You can find that out yourself."
I didn't go see that baby. I left the Hob and drank a whole bottle before I fell into darkness. I had dreams of a little faceless girl running through the woods being chased by mutts. I was always there, watching, screaming for her. In my dreams she never looked at me and when I woke up I could never remember what she looked like. Sometimes I imagined this little blond thing that looked like her mother. Other times it was a girl version of Hunter. I liked thinking about her better when I was passed out – at least then I didn't remember her.
The next time I saw her was a few years later. Hunter carried her into Town on his back as she giggled, dark hair in two pigtails. It was at the Harvest Festival and I didn't usually go but I had run out of food and the train wasn't coming for a few days and I didn't fancy myself a trip to the Hob or the bakery. I knew that the Festival had food so I wandered down.
There was too much happiness at the Festival for my liking usually. Everyone always dancing around and having their merry way. I saw way too many people I used to be friendly with and could see that they were living their lives just fine while I was wallowing in my own personal hell. I stood off to the side and watched as the Seam kids rushed around the square that was only ever used for reapings. My eyes never left her. She must have been about five or six by then. A cute little thing that had a smile that radiated over the entire Festival. I wasn't the only one to notice. One of the damn Mellark boys just about followed her everywhere. She and her group of friends giggled when he got caught by his older brothers, being thrown over the shoulder of the oldest while what appeared to be the middle laughed and pointed at him.
I resisted rolling my eyes but I couldn't help let out a laugh. Hunter's daughter would draw a Townie just like he did.
While she played with her friends, I spotted Hunter over by Sae and walked in the opposite direction. I grabbed a couple cookies from the Mellark boys and went back to my spot, standing just far enough away to not be noticed as the pariah I was. The little girls had stopped giggling and had gone to playing some game where they held hands and spun around until they collapsed on the ground. I felt my eyes closing. I could never see kids playing that game without it triggering something.
Suddenly I saw Hunter's daughter falling out of a tree with an arrow in her chest while a group of kids with the numbers one, two, and four written on their sleeves laughed at the little six-year-old girl laying in the grass.
"Hey, Twelve," One's boy tribute sneered. "Say goodbye!"
When I opened my eyes, she was standing in front of me, her group of friends standing behind her with their eyes wide. They'd probably been told repeatedly by their parents to stay away from me. That thought was confirmed when one of them hissed at her. "Kat, Momma said not to bother him."
Hunter's daughter ignored her friend. "Are you okay?" she asked. "My momma has special stuff if you're sick."
This time, she did turn around, holding her hands on her hips. "Leevy, if you're scared go away!"
Leevy winced and eyed me with as much distain as a six-year-old can.
"I'm fine, kid," I told her. I wanted her to go away just as much as Leevy did. The last thing I needed was Hunter to come over. What would he do? Would he tell her never to talk to me again? Would he ignore me like I had done to him? No. I know exactly what he would do. He'd introduce me to his daughter, invite me to see his wife, welcome me like I had just come back from the Hunger Games as a victor.
"You're sweatin'," she said, shaking her head. She was basically singing the words, aware of my lie. "And it ain't hot out."
Kid's a friggin' smart ass, I thought.
You'd have thought she was my kid and not Hunter's the way the girl was talking. I had to bite my lip when she raised her eyebrow waiting for my response. She must have gotten this from her mother because, while she may look exactly like him, Hunter was about the most charming person in the whole damn district.
This kid, although cute, was about as charming as a dead slug.
"Where are your parents anyway?" I hissed.
She glared at me and then turned. She eyed the crowd for a moment before turning back to me. "Dunno," she told me. "Prob'ly up by Sae sum-air."
In the five minutes we'd known each other, Hunter's daughter's Seam accent had deepened so heavily, it was almost like talking to Mr. Winship who used to tend to people's dying animals. He was about eighty when I was ten and his accent was so thick – from the old days, my mother would say – no one could understand him at all. I rolled my eyes at this. A kid with Hunter as her father and a Townie as a mother did not have an accent that thick. No way in hell.
"Why are you talking like that, girl?"
She glared at me. "Miss Axelle talk like dis," she stated. "An' I like Miss Axelle."
The kid was a spitfire and I let out a breath thinking about what Hunter was going to deal with in the coming years. Then I thought of his little Townie wife and how her daughter's Seam mouth was probably making her wash it out with what little soap she had. Even Seam mothers discouraged the accent so I could only imagine what the prissy Townie Hunter married was thinking.
By now her little friends had disappeared but she didn't seem to care. She stood in front of me with her arms crossed, her eyebrows raised as if she was going to tell me off for trying to raise her when I wasn't her father. Hell, I was the district drunk and everyone, even a little six-year-old like her, knew that.
"Well, I think your real voice is prettier, sweetheart," I told her.
Her glare dropped a bit. Then her eyes landed on the cookies I had in my hand. "That your lunch?" she asked. It didn't escape me that she had lost the fake accent. Her voice was just as musical as her father's. "No wonder you're sick."
She turned around to face the voice and I raised an eyebrow, wondering if that was her mother calling her. When the woman stepped out of the crowd, a little blond girl on her hip, I had a feeling it was but I wasn't sure.
The woman spotted her and started walking toward us. "Katniss Everdeen, you get over here right now, young lady!"
As Katniss winced, I let out a laugh. She thought I was laughing at her because she turned to glare at me. When she faced me, my laugh stopped and all the blood drained from my face when I thought of the implications of her name.
Hunter, you son of bitch, I thought. What sort of idiot named his daughter after a plant you only find outside the fence? My heart started to race again, images of little Katniss Everdeen being chased by mutts and tributes flooding into my head. She was going into the Games. There was no way she wasn't, not with a name like that and a father who Snow knew was my best friend.
Thanks a lot, Hunter, I'm going to have to mentor your little princess and watch her die.
"You're not lookin' very good again."
Hunter's prissy Townie looked older than she did when I saw her last. Sure, it had been over a decade since my win but she looked gaunt like she had been living in the Seam her whole life. It occurred to me the irony of our positions. She was dressed in rags and I had on a suit from the Capitol, hand-designed by some ninny who'd been dressing me for years. We're opposite from when she came to me in the Justice Building, begging me to help her best friend Maysilee Donner in anyway I could. She'd been in a new blue dress and I had on pants that were a few inches too short and were wearing holes in the knees.
"Look, sweetheart," I had said. "It's a game and there's only one victor. So I'm going to look out for myself and not some stupid Townie nitwit."
"Katniss, we were looking everywhere for you," her mother said, grabbing her hand. She hadn't looked to me, so I wasn't sure she'd noticed just exactly where her daughter was. Another part of me knew she didn't notice me because, if she had, little Katniss Everdeen wouldn't still be in front of me, she'd be about as far away as Hunter's Townie could get her.
"But, Momma," Katniss said, pointing to me.
That's when the Townie noticed me. I tried to remember her name but I don't know if I ever bothered to learn it. Her blue eyes widened and then tried to avoid me. We'd never really spoken aside from that moment in the Justice Building.
"Come on, Kat," Hunter's Townie said, grabbing Katniss's hand and yanking her to her side. "Don't bother Mr. Abernathy. He doesn't want to listen to your stories."
Katniss glared at her. "Momma," she started, but she was interrupted by her mother telling her to shush. It was very Townie of her. Most Seam parents just flick the kid in the arm to tell them their place.
She turned to me. "I'm sorry about her," she said, formal, as if she was trying not to recognize me. "Katniss thinks everyone's trying to be her friend."
I eyed the dark-haired little girl. She wasn't scared of me. While her other friends had stood their distance, little Katniss Everdeen had expressed concern. I'd heard rumors about her on my infrequent visits to the Hob. They all said Hunter's daughter was trusting. Once, Sae even said she was a little too trusting, said it was a side effect of having Hunter as a father.
It made sense now that I saw she would go to the district pariah who was freaking out in a corner when no one else would.
Just as her mother went to pull her away, I tossed her a cookie. She eyed me dangerously – obviously aware of the unspoken rule about charity even at her young age – but didn't say anything. Instead, I watched as she kept the cookie in her hand until her mother set her and her sister together on the blanket. Little Katniss Everdeen handed that cookie to the blond toddler who sucked on it happily and then rushed off to push a Seam boy who was arm wrestling the middle Mellark, a typical contest that always routed the Seam against the Town. Once, I had won that game at the Festival. The Seam boy she pushed, a spitting image of a young Storm Hawthorne if I ever saw one, yelled at her for making him lose and all she did was smirk before going to join her friends.
I had never been more confused by a child in all my life.
I didn't see her again until the accident.
Well, that's a lie. I saw her every night. Even when I passed out, nearly dying from the amount of liquor I sent coursing through my veins, she still came to me dressed in her tribute uniform and getting killed. Sometimes mutts, like the ones that killed Maysilee, got to her. Other times it was crazy monsters that were always four times her size and so bloodthirsty they couldn't be described as humans. Most of the time, it was something stupid she did that ended up getting her killed – pushing a tribute like she did Storm's boy at the Festival, starting a fire to cook some rabbit, trusting too many people.
The worst nightmare I ever had was her teaming up with the youngest Mellark boy and he smiled as he betrayed her in the end, draining her of her blood as he told her that all she would ever be was Seam trash. I woke up to vomit igniting my esophagus.
I was outside when the alarms went off and I knew instantly that Hunter was going to die. All I could do was remember the last conversation we had together as I sprinted down the hill toward the mine. I told him to leave me alone because Snow would be watching and I didn't want him to end up dead too. I told him, when he tried to argue that it wasn't my fault, that I would rather die in the mine than go through what I was going through.
The accident, I realized, wasn't an accident. It was Snow getting to me once again. Reminding me that there was nothing I could do to protect the people I held so dear. Hunter was the only one left and there was no way he was coming out of that mine alive. When I got there I leaned up against the tree, brought the bottle I had carried with me up to my lips, and was just about to take a sip when I heard her.
My eyes fell on her. Hunter's little one, the blondie, was holding onto her mother as if the Townie was going to stop the entire thing. Katniss, on the other hand, sprinted out from the group when the miners stopped coming out. Shale Lockheart caught her and she was so emotional I don't even think she realized what was going on.
She beat her little fists against his chest, making a spectacle out of herself. I saw the flash of blond hair before I realized what was going on. That damn kid, the smiley one, came out and grabbed her out of Lockheart's arms so he could go greet his family. I watched as that little Townie, the Mellark kid that always smiled at me when I came in the damn bakery as if I was just another customer, held her close as she screamed.
And I fell to my knees, my mind instantly putting her scream to her face as she got chased by tributes and mutts and Gamemakers. It took me a while to pull out of my terrors and when I did most of the people were gone, little Katniss Everdeen included.
What I did notice, on my way out, was the way Mrs. Mellark just about dragged her youngest out of the Seam, screaming at him in an entirely different way than Katniss had been screaming. Everyone in the whole district came to the accident, as is procedure, even though I know that witch wanted nothing more than to stay as far away as possible.
She slapped the poor kid right across the face as soon as they were far enough away from the scene so that no one would really notice. I closed my eyes and took a swig of my liquor. If she didn't get called to the Games Katniss was going to be in trouble anyway because it was beyond obvious that little Town brat was watching her every move. If she fell for him like he fell for her, oh man, it would be the scandal of the year.
For some reason, it made my blood boil.
I heard the rumors.
It was hard not to every time I visited the Hob. It seemed that it was all anyone could talk about – the dying kids of District Twelve. Families started doing everything they could to survive. The problem was it was a horrible winter, bitter and cold, and the Capitol only gave a little here or there in aid to the families who lost their mining husbands.
I didn't have to see her to know she was starving to death. Sae pulled me aside and didn't say a word but I could see it in her eyes. Hunter's daughter was special to her, despite her own kids and grandkids, and I knew what she was asking me to do.
Everyone knew that prissy Townie wasn't doing anything, stuck in some sort of depression, and the girls were starving. It was the worst kept secret in District Twelve. Even Storm's wife was back to work and Hazelle had only given birth days after the accident.
But, what was I supposed to do? It's not like I could walk up to the front door and hand them food. That wouldn't do. Snow would see that the accident affected me. And Hunter's daughter would turn twelve in the spring. I didn't need her getting reaped that year. I needed to do everything in my power to get her as old as possible before Effie Trinket, our new escort who was even more anal than the last, called her name.
So, in March, around the time I knew the aid ran out, I walked myself down to the Justice Building and asked the peacekeeper about paying their bills. I knew Katniss, being eleven, had no idea about what it took to keep the house running. The Capitol didn't just give anyone anything. Luckily, the peacekeeper in charge of billing was a former customer of Hunter and me when we were younger. I didn't run the risk of exposure and no one would ever know.
That's how, each month, I paid for Hunter's house. Quietly. Discreetly. Pretending like I was attending to Capitol business. Worked like a charm.
Those weren't the only rumors I heard though. There were others that flitted by my ears, these about Katniss herself. Most of it came through Ripper, since the one-armed alcohol vender was one of the only people I really talked to then. She would tell me about the damn kids coming in the Hob trying to look cool and then slip in that the Everdeen girl didn't come by when her friends did. A bowl of soup with Sae alerted me to Katniss not having any friends anymore, how when Sae stopped by to ask if she needed anything the girl eyed her warily and shook her head, not even speaking.
The girl who thought everyone was trying to be her friend no longer trusted anyone or anything. I knew exactly what she was doing. She was building walls, guarding herself. She was doing just as I did when I got back from the Games.
Because it's easier not to care than to lose.
After every Games, I imagined her getting attacked by the newest victor. I saw Finnick Odair slay her with that damn trident for a good month. I saw her drown because she couldn't outswim Annie Cresta. I saw her get axed by the suddenly violent Johanna Mason all year after that.
Every reaping I listened merely waiting for her name.
Her first year was a girl named Aspen. She died at the Cornucopia bloodbath and for the rest of the Games I had nightmares of Katniss getting slashed like she had right across the throat by the Four brute.
Her second year was a girl named Meadow. She was a bit cleverer than the previous but died from eating poisonous berries. I had nightmares about Katniss seeing nightlock and thinking they were blueberries just like Meadow.
Her third year was a girl who was also fourteen and had been her friend before the accident – Lark Overstreet. I saw Katniss in her every time I looked at the damn kid and tried my hardest to get her home. She placed ninth, the best I ever had, before some oversized rabbits attacked her.
Her fourth reaping was hard. Fifteen was a ripe age for tributes but again it wasn't her. That year it was some girl named Arrow. That was my warning. I knew it. I didn't even try to save Arrow because I was too focused on the fact that next year I would be mentoring Hunter's daughter.
I showed up late to the reaping of the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games. I didn't want to hear her name get shouted across the square. I did, however, get to the door of the Justice Building just in time to hear her volunteer.
You've got to be kidding me, I thought as I took a swig. Who the hell would she volunteer for?
Right before I walked out, I heard Effie ask her if Primrose was her sister.
The Mellark boy was persistent if nothing else. Damn boy came to me early the morning after the reaping and demanded I put all my effort into getting her out. I merely rolled my eyes and he took it as me blowing him off because he lunged across the table, grabbed my flask, and chucked it across the room. If I hadn't already spent the night convincing myself that I was going to do everything I could to get her out – even if it included playing favorites – I would have though Mellark would have a chance of winning.
I can't say, after the first few days, it wouldn't of hurt my feelings to see it happen.
To be completely honest, Peeta was my favorite. How could you dislike the kid? As much as I had always hated his optimistic and smiley personality at the bakery, Peeta was so easy to get along with it nearly made me sick to my stomach when he convinced me not to send him anything in the arena, not knowing it was already my plan to save all of our sponsor money for his district partner.
"I won't use it," he said. "It'll be waste."
To top it off, Katniss wasn't nearly as likeable. We butted heads constantly. She was nothing like Hunter. She was still the same little spitfire from the Festival but it was different. She was angry and frustrated. She had nightmares. I would hear her screaming in the night for her father.
She was exactly like me. Both of us as charming as dead slugs.
Needless to say, when Peeta asked if it would be a good idea to say he liked her during his interview, I jumped right on it. I needed to make Katniss desirable to the sponsors. She had the score and the skills but not the bubbly personality to pull through.
If I could have put the two together, I had been sure I could get them out. But there was only one victor and I had decided at the mine accident that that victor was going to be Katniss. Peeta had just been the unlucky sod to be reaped the same year she did.
Watching her was a nightmare.
I couldn't sleep. I couldn't take my eyes off the screen, even when Effie, Cinna, and Portia all tried to pry me away. I couldn't even drink because I could barely swallow my own spit. When Effie tried to tell me to sleep, I walked right out of the suite and toward the mentor lounge, hoping to get some peace and quiet and watch my tributes.
When I got there nothing had changed. They were sleeping in the cave waiting for the rain to stop, food in their stomachs from the gift we had recently sent. I don't know why but the sight of Katniss's head on Peeta's chest made my nose flair and a low growl escape my throat. That was the game we were playing, the game that would bring home my girl and my favorite if they didn't do anything stupid between then and the finale, but it still made my stomach curl.
I stayed in the mentor lounge through the night. No one was there. Enobaria had even left her tribute to his own devices after he got Chaff's kid. That kid was a piece of work and would prove difficult but my girl had her arrows and my favorite being well meant Two would be outnumbered.
I didn't even hear the door open.
"You got attached."
My head spun around to see Chaff, a cup of what smelled like whiskey in his hand and another cup held out to me. "Gin," he said. I shook my head and looked back to the screen.
"Haymitch, what the hell are you doing?"
I turned to look at my old friend. Chaff shook his head, lifted the whiskey to his mouth, and leaned back next to me on the couch. He shook his head and set the gin meant for me on the table before pointing to the screen with his cup of whiskey.
"What are you talking about?" I asked.
Chaff let out a breath. He wasn't nearly drunk enough for this conversation, which surprised me because he just about drank himself to death when he and Seeder lost little Rue. His boy had just been beaten and here he was sober next to me.
"You got yourself attached," he said, nodding to the screen where Peeta had woken up and was taking a shift watching the entrance. "You really think the Gamemakers are gonna let the both of them come out?"
I swore. It didn't take me long to figure out what he was suggesting. It was a trap to get Katniss and Peeta to the finale and have one of them kill the other. How had I not seen that coming?
Chaff saw the emotions on my face and sighed. "You were blinded. That's why you don't get attached," he said. "And, if one of them does come out? Look at them. The girl's beautiful. She'd end up the next Finnick, sold to the highest bidder. Do you want that? And that boy? Coming out alone? He'd be even more screwed up than Annie."
I glared. "What are you trying to say?"
He shook his head. "Haymitch, have…hmm…has it ever crossed your mind that it might be…better for them if a bit of lightning struck that cave right here and right now," he said. "I'm saying this as your friend. That girl isn't made to be a whore, we both know it. The boy'll go nuts the minute her cannon sounds. You'll get a victor if one of them wins, but it won't the victor you're expecting."
I didn't say anything because deep within me I knew he was right but I couldn't think about losing the last bit of Hunter I had left. I had hope and hope is dangerous.
"Look, I know it's tough," he said. "You saw me when we lost Rue. But it's better for the good kids not to come out because they come out ruined. The best scenario I see is the girl from Five. She's the only one that won't have emotional baggage when she comes out. Two's already a mess. Your boy will be a mess if he wins and your girl's so pure she'll be messed up as soon as Snow gives her the first client."
He nodded and took a sip of his whiskey. "Five. She's unobtrusive."
I couldn't look at Katniss the rest of the night. Every time I did, I saw her sitting on the edge of a bed in one of Finnick's silky robes. I wasn't going to let that happen. I didn't know what I was going to do, but I wasn't going to let that happen.
I let her be mentorless and stupid. I always said I wasn't going to kill myself so if some poor soul actually won from our district they wouldn't mess up like I did and lose everything they had. I should have just killed myself because I didn't do my job when it finally came time to do it. My mentor work didn't stop at the welcome back ceremony. It should have extended into their everyday lives, knowing full well that Snow had eyes everywhere and any inkling that Katniss and Peeta couldn't even look at each other was a nail in their coffins.
However, I let us fall back into our regular routines. Peeta baked, Katniss hunted, and I drank white liquor from Ripper. If I was a halfway decent person, I would have told them to suck it up, prance around Town with their tongues in each other's mouths, and act all lovey-dovey at home for the bugs. I would have stopped drinking, since I had basically sobered up since Katniss's reaping.
Instead, I had this fire in my stomach every time I saw Peeta even holding her hand during the fancy dinners and fought the urge to throw my knife at his head. I told myself this was my duty to Hunter, to look after her and make sure she didn't get hurt. When I couldn't stand watching her paraded around anymore, I turned to my drinks. It didn't quite make sense. She wasn't my kid and Hunter's prissy Townie didn't even seem to care I used her as the scapegoat, telling everyone she didn't want her daughter dating when it was really me.
If I was a halfway decent person I would have made sure they kept up their little charade. But, I'm not, and they didn't.
So, when Katniss told me Snow paid her a little visit, I blamed myself.
When Katniss told me the Hawthorne nitwit kissed her in the woods, I gripped the handle of my knife and then blamed myself.
When Peeta and Katniss decided jointly to fake an engagement, my stomach bubbled in anger, I pretended to agree, and then I blamed myself.
When President Snow said the Quarter Quell tributes were to be reaped from a pool of existing victors, I decided to finally kill myself.
No one would miss me, so I figured it would be easy enough. I'd drown my sorrows in white liquor and everyone would assume I offed myself because I didn't want to go back in. On the contrary, that wasn't the problem at all. If I was going back in, it would have been golden. I would be able to watch Katniss and make sure she lasted as long as she could. I had friends all over the victor circle that would aid me in my endeavors. Everyone loved the star-crossed lovers because they were inciting rebellions. What better than to have Katniss come out to Peeta's awaiting arms and then take down the Capitol?
Only problem is that, before the boy even knocked down my door, I knew I wasn't going back in.
"You owe me," I heard.
I turned to see the boy with his eyes glaring at me and my bottles. It hadn't been long, maybe five minutes since the announcement, so he practically ran here when he heard, probably trying to beat Katniss. I didn't expect her for a while though. She was definitely going back in and right now she was off somewhere feeling sorry for herself. She's too much like me to even think about someone other than herself first.
"Well, aren't you the king of our trio," I slurred. Katniss was probably off in some hole somewhere in the woods. I was trying to off myself so I didn't have to see her die. And this kid was knocking down my door to ensure he was the one to go in so he could make sure she came out.
Pathetic. Kid was more of an adult than I was.
"Here's the deal," Peeta said, snatching the bottle of liquor out of my hands and slamming it on the table. "You chose her last time." He conveniently forgot that he asked for me to get her out, but – then again – if he hadn't I would have done the same thing.
Maybe the kid's smarter than I give him credit for.
"So you owe me whatever I want," he said, getting right into my face. "And I want to go in."
I smirked. "How very Career of you," I slurred.
He glared. I hadn't thought he had it in him to glare but he did. "Listen. You stay on the outside. You know what you're doing with sponsors and, lets face it, even with my leg, I'm in better shape than you. I can protect her. So, if you're reaped, I volunteer. If I'm reaped, you stay silent. Deal?"
The kid was better than both of us. He didn't deserve to have me as a mentor or to have Katniss as a lover. But, like last year, I was willing to do anything to get her back.
It was a split second decision.
Plutarch's instructions were for one more grab. The Capitol's hovercraft was right on us. We could save one more person. We hadn't been expecting the Capitol to come so quickly, so we hadn't grabbed people by importance but by location. Had it been by importance, the two people I had to choose from would already be on the hovercraft.
Coin's instructions had been clear. I recited them in my head.
Mellark's the most important to us. His words will incite the nation. Everdeen next. We need her to be the face. Beetee after her for his weapons skills. After that, your choice. But you make sure we get those two and if you can only choose one, you grab Mellark and you martyr Everdeen.
The claw went down and wrapped Katniss in metal just as I saw the Capitol's hovercraft snare the boy.
When she wasn't in restraints, she spent her time in closets.
Coin, to be honest, wasn't the least bit thrilled with me. My hands shook with withdrawal. My outbursts were snide and sharp. And I insisted on doing everything against what she wanted, from pulling Katniss up instead of the boy to maintaining a group of kids that walked by the supply closet Katniss occupied to ensure some of her brutish guards didn't pull her out. The first time they tried, I saw them grab her while she screamed and I nearly passed out on the floor, my mind putting her back in the Games, my body so weak without alcohol that I couldn't be sane no matter how hard I tried to convince myself Coin wouldn't kill her. Yet.
I made a friend in Boggs. He saw through Alma Coin the same way I did. She was a power hungry witch that wouldn't think twice to silence the Mockingjay, or soon-to-be Mockingjay. At this point, Katniss wasn't stable enough to even think straight.
It was my guard duty. I took over from the little Hawthorne demon, the one that batted eyelashes at Hunter's little one, and he said she'd been awful quiet. Normally, Katniss's sobs can be heard at least once during the day. It made me curious.
When I opened the door, she was gone.
Where the hell could she go?
I ran around like a victor on his first morphling high. If it wasn't after curfew, I'm sure the Thirteen nitwits would have thought it hilarious to watch – the old drunk from Twelve finally lost his mind. I looked in her family's compartment and found Prim sleeping in bed, their mother at a night shift. I ran to Finnick's room to see him strung up on morphling and muttering to Annie in his sleep. I barreled head first into Boggs, who was on patrol, and the two of us joined forces to find the goddamn Mockingjay – me because she was my girl, he because Coin would kill him in the morning if we had to tell her we lost her.
Her sobs echoed through the cafeteria and we stormed through the doors into the kitchen. At first, I couldn't see her, but the further in the room we got the more apparent it was she was hiding. I walked around the cooking island while Boggs started opening cabinets.
I will never forget the sight I came upon.
My hands latched around her wrists, slickening with blood as I held on as tight as I could. Her body shook with sobs as the red liquid oozed down her arms, landing in a puddle on the floor. It took me a moment to realize the labored breathing wasn't from her, but me, as I stared at her in disbelief.
"Holy hell," Boggs muttered behind us.
"Don't you ever try this again!" I shouted. "You hear me?"
She looked down in her lap. "Haymitch," she cried through her sobs. "I wanted to see Peeta."
I shook my head as Boggs attempted to find some sort of first aid kit to use while we took her to the medical wing. The claw marks she made on my face when we told her about Peeta's capture and unknown status in the Capitol suddenly began to ache. The realization that she fell in love with the boy, despite her efforts not to, left me cold. As carefully as I could, I ended up with her in my lap with my hands still wrapped around her bleeding wrists as she cried as hard as she did at the mine that day so many years before.
"Shh," I said, not entirely sure what to do. I had dealt with an angry Katniss, a scared Katniss, and just about every other Katniss imaginable. A heartbroken Katniss was not something I ever wanted to deal with and not something I ever thought would be on my plate.
"You have people that care about you, sweetheart," I told her. "Don't you give up yet."
Boggs took her wrists out of my hands and covered them with tiny bits of gauze. Then I let him lift her down the hall toward the medical wing while she looked over his shoulder at me, her gray Seam eyes haunting and filled with tears. I had never felt so ashamed of myself. I was her mentor and I couldn't carry her to the medical wing.
I should have realized this from my frantic searchings, but the night nurse on duty was Hunter's prissy Townie. Her mother's eyes went dead for five seconds before she snapped into healer mode, a doctor behind her as if the Thirteen officials didn't trust the girl's own mother to do the job adequately just because she was from Twelve.
They forced her into a watch room for a week before they allowed her back to a normal room without a one-way window for the doctors to stare at her as if she was a rare animal. A week later she ended up back in closets, pulled out with panic attacks and ear piercing screams. It took a while to get her back to some level of sanity.
The sanity didn't last long.
She came in and out, usually stable but some days she'd sit in her room and rub that damn pearl on her lips. I just about sang to the mockingjays when the rescue mission was a success. However, this time it was the boy that wasn't right. They pulled her out of the room, bruises lining her throat, and I launched myself at the boy. It took two guards to pull me off and out, which, looking back, was impressive for an old drunk.
Hunter's Townie and I kept vigil like we did every time Katniss was brought in and sedated. We bolted every time she woke up. The Townie wasn't exactly Twelve's best mother and I was ashamed at how lousy a mentor I was to her. Every time they sent her on missions we ended up sitting together when she came back broken, me on one side, her on the other, making sure Katniss was still breathing even though the damn machines beeped loud enough to alert the world she was still alive.
Then, as if my girl didn't lose enough of her marbles, Coin sent her goddamn sister to the frontlines knowing the medics were going to get blown to smithereens and, in retribution, Katniss sent an arrow through her skull.
At the trial, the judge asked for a guardian.
"In order for District Thirteen to release the Hunger Games victor and Mockingjay, Katniss Everdeen, to District Twelve, the court will need a guardian as she is, and will remain until May eighth, a minor child. Without a legal guardian, Miss Everdeen will remain under the custody of District Thirteen officials and tried again as an adult for the charges of high treason on her eighteenth birthday."
I looked around. Hunter's Townie had long since left. She bolted with Annie Cresta to District Four as soon as news came in on Finnick and Primrose. It didn't break my heart all that much. It was the Townie's fault, after all, that Blondie was dead. When the Capitol released a statement declaring Katniss, the boy, and Hawthorne dead, she took some of her pills and vacated the real world, leaving Primrose alone and, therefore, the perfect target for Coin. Before I could do anything in Command to stop it, Coin sent the little one out with the medics, clearly wanting all the Everdeens gone. It worked well for her – if Katniss was dead, it meant no one would latch onto the Mockingjay's sister as their new idol, and if she wasn't, it would leave her insane.
"Oh, hell," I hissed. I stood up, Johanna staring at me with wide eyes, and smirked at the judge trying to piss him off. "Where's my kid?"
This is the last time I'll see Katniss Everdeen.
She looks up at me, Delly Cartwright fiddling with one of her curls. It's a nice look but it reminds both of us that Cinna could've done better. That, in turn, reminds us of a lot of people that won't be here tonight – Cinna, Portia, Finnick, so many more. Little Primrose.
Her gray eyes fight tears and I swallow hard. "Delly, give us a minute," I tell the blond. She nods and leaves the room. I pull my chair up to Katniss, sitting with my chest up against the back and close enough to her to feel the emotion radiating off of her skin.
"Suck it up, sweetheart," I say. She scowls and I bite back a grin. "You cry and that make-up's coming right off. Then Delly's gonna have to fix it, you're not going to like being prodded again and then everyone's going to be miserable."
She rolls her eyes and lets out a breath. "I'm not going to cry," she hisses.
"Good," I tell her. "I don't particularly want to see it happen."
She inhales and looks up at me, her damn eyes still wet. "Haymitch, I don't know if I'm ready," she says.
Of all the stupid things she's ever said to me, this one takes the cake. I get out of my chair and move it so I can kneel in front of her. She's a little shocked, as am I, by the closeness of our interaction. We've always held each other at arm's length and this sentimental crap isn't good for either of us. But, right now, she needs her father and since hers is long since dead, I'm the only substitute.
Somewhere, I can hear Hunter saying thank you.
I reach up and pat her cheek. "Sweetheart, you're more than ready," I tell her. It might be the most sincere thing I've ever said to her. "And you deserve to be happy."
"I don't deserve him," she whispers. "You said so yourself."
She's right. I did once tell her that she could live a hundred lifetimes and never deserve the boy that is Peeta Mellark. However, between the two of them, they've lived though more than a hundred people combined. I've seen days where she can't move and he coaxes her out. I've seen her get him out of his flashbacks quicker than anyone else can.
"Well," I say, standing up. I kiss her forehead. "Mentors aren't always right, are they?"
She smiles and I shake my head. "Besides, you run out on that boy and he's going to bother me," I grunt. "I don't need a housewife, sweetheart. You, on the other hand…"
I'm greeted by a soft giggle, something I never thought I'd hear coming out of her mouth. I take a step back and look at Katniss. She's beautiful. She really is, even though there are times when I know she doesn't think so. There are days when she looks at herself in the mirror and sees monsters, times where she can't focus on anything but her scars. I see her look at her arm, the place where Johanna dug out her tracker in the Quell.
"Scars remind us that we're human," I tell her. "That we aren't being tampered with by Capitol ninnies anymore."
She looks up at me, startled that I'm watching her so closely. Her eyes soften and she shakes her head. "That's what Peeta says."
"I'm sure your boy calls 'em ninnies."
She scowls at my sarcasm and I let out a bark of laughter so loud I don't hear the door open. Someone clears her throat. Speaking of ninnies, Effie stands in the doorway, her arms crossed over her chest. "Haymitch, we are on a strict schedule!" she exclaims.
Katniss's eyes fall to her lap and I let out a grunt. Plutarch made a deal with them – broadcast their wedding and he doesn't bother them again. We'll see how long that lasts. Peeta nearly threw his hands up in surrender when the offer was put on the table. They just want privacy.
It was me that reminded them that the toasting wouldn't be aired.
"We'll be down in a minute!" I grunt, watching Effie glare at me before tapping her precious clipboard. It's broken in half, fixed with medical tape, because Katniss got so frustrated with her attempting to pick the flowers she chucked it across the room.
Effie storms out and I glance down at Katniss, holding out my hand to help her up. The dress they've put her in, one of the designs Cinna created and was salvaged from the Capitol, is a monstrosity. I'm not sure how she can even walk in it. She reminded me when I walked in on Delly fixing her hair that it was dress four. She also grumbled that, out of them all, this had to be the one saved. Her least favorite.
It doesn't matter. The fact that Cinna's fingers had stitched it meant she was wearing it, even if it's so heavy it makes her bleed. It made her smile when Effie sniffed that this was the one that came in dead last in the voting back after their Victory Tour.
She trips and I let out a bark of laughter. Graceful Katniss has finally found something she can't do, even with years of practice. Effie's going to have a fit when she sees her stumbling around in the heels. She'll probably blame me, think I've slipped her a few.
Not a bad idea actually. My flask is in my pocket.
We make it to the car with a grumbling Effie, Katniss and Peeta's unofficial wedding planner. The rest of the district, as well as some invited from others, are already there. Annie. Johanna. Even Gale Hawthorne showed up in the dead of the night yesterday, dressed in some spiffy uniform from District Two. Her prissy Townie of a mother couldn't put it upon herself make the trip, it didn't surprise either of us, but seeing Gale had lightened her spirits a little, even though she still hasn't quite forgiven him for the double-detonating bombs.
I'm not her father, not in the slightest. Hunter Everdeen will always be ten times the man I ever was. But I couldn't be more proud of the progress my girl has made in the time since the war ended. I help her out of the car when we arrive at the square, her scowl set in place at the fact she can't do it herself. I bite back a laugh knowing it won't get us anywhere and, if anything, it'll get Effie to slit my throat.
Or steal my flask. I'm sure I'll need that tonight.
Everyone seated in the chairs stands up. I had thought Effie was crazy when she suggested the star-crossed lovers get married in the same square the whole mess started. I envisioned Peeta falling into a terrible flashback sequence no one could pull him out of when Effie told them her plans. I imagined Katniss drowning herself in the tub at the thought of getting married where she volunteered for the sister she watched die despite all her attempts. I told Effie if she asked them I'd kill her myself.
It didn't surprise me that Effie asked them anyway. It didn't surprise me when she told me Peeta gripped the back of the chair and shook for a few minutes warding off flashbacks. It did surprise me that Katniss said yes almost immediately. I never asked her why but I think I know. It's like how I feel Hunter when I sit by the old mines or venture out for my yearly trip beyond the now-useless fence. It brings her closer to Prim, the one person she wishes could be here more than anyone.
I guide her to the aisle and then go to stand by Effie, whose whisper-yelling at some poor kid with flowers, but Katniss grabs my arm. "I am not falling down on my wedding day," she hisses. "If I'm doing this, I'm not screwing it up."
I'm not her father but she doesn't have one and this is as close to a will you walk me down the aisle as I'm going to get from my little slug. I don't even know what the hell I'm supposed to do. This is a Capitol wedding, one designed by Effie Trinket herself, and completely different from the quiet signing of the papers and toasting Katniss and Peeta were hoping for. It's not the Twelve wedding that I'm use to but more and more people tend to do it this way now with people moving from district to district, bringing different customs with them.
When we're halfway down the aisle, I imagine a different wedding. I think of a real Twelve wedding – where the father would walk his daughter to the Justice Building to sign the papers and then the happy couple would walk home together where everyone would watch the toasting. For a minute, I see it playing in my head. Katniss in a white dress, not nearly as fancy as the one she's in now, but one she can walk in. Hell, she'd probably be in her hunting boots. Peeta would be with her, dressed in his best, probably his reaping clothes. There would be no cameras, no Capitol ninnies like Effie calling the shots or Plutarch making them do it in front of the whole damn country. Instead, they're just two kids untouched by the Games and war, Peeta no doubt leaving Town for the Seam just as Katniss's Townie mother did for Hunter. Instead of me walking her, Hunter would be here and Prim would be jumping around all excited that her I'm-never-getting-married sister was finally tying the knot.
It's a wedding that never would have happened in a world where I would still be on the outside, watching Hunter's family from afar.
We get to the front and I hand Katniss off to Peeta. She smiles nervously at me and I kiss the top of her head. Her eyes well with tears she's determined not to let fall. The boy's smile is big enough for both of them and I have half the mind to slap the back of his head for looking so ridiculous.
It's only when I go to stand by Effie and she gives me a look that I realize my eyes are just as wet as Katniss's. I shake my head and reach for my flask. I knew I was going to need it. I may not be her father, but I've watched that little girl grow up right before my eyes. But, she's not a little girl anymore. She's not the crying newborn Sae yelled at me to go see. She's not the six-year-old unafraid of the district pariah. She's not eleven and screaming for her father nor is she sixteen fighting for her life just as she always did in my nightmares. She's not faking pregnancies, hiding in closets, getting shot or blown up on missions. She's not lost in a fit of depression after losing her little sister.
No, she's not a little girl anymore. She's twenty-one and getting married to the only person in the entire country I trust with her. This is the last time I'll see Katniss Everdeen because in a few hours she'll have a new name. Marriage isn't something I can help her with. She's on her own this time. But that's what a father does. He lets go and allows the little girl to become a grown-up.
After she kisses her husband – Plutarch so excited he nearly falls into the boy holding confetti – her eyes scan the crowd. They pass over Johanna and Annie, linger a second on Gale and the Hawthornes, before landing on me. She smiles and kicks off her heels, ignoring Effie's groans I'm sure people in District Eleven can hear, and hikes the skirt up her leg so she can walk back down the aisle, the boy struggling to keep up with his damn limp.
We're being more emotional than we've ever been together and I'm tempted to pour my entire flask in my mouth before she gets here. But she's fast and silent as she and the boy wind through the crowd.
She looks up at me when she gets to us. "We better not get a goose for a wedding gift," she says.
"I was thinking of putting it in a silver parachute," I tease. "Or maybe you can just borrow one while this gimp of yours paints the nursery duck-themed?"
Peeta laughs as Katniss scowls. "I've told you," she hisses, although I'm not sure if it's to me or the boy, "that I'm not having kids."
Effie rolls her eyes and huffs while the boy shakes his head. I smirk at her and pull her into my arms. We both tense but then we relax. "That's fine with me, sweetheart," I tell her. I still have nightmares about losing Katniss to mutts and tributes. I don't need to think about her dying in childbirth. "That's fine with me."
Then I watch them go through the throngs of people wishing them congratulations. And that's the last time I'll see Hunter's little girl. Now she's Katniss Mellark, starting a whole new journey, and I have to take a sip of my flask before I lose it.
"A sight I never thought I'd see," Effie says beside me. I turn to her with a raised eyebrow and she shakes her head. "Haymitch Abernathy actually cares," she sings.
Damn straight I care. She may not be my blood, but that's my little girl.
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