Author's note: The world of "The Hunger Games" and all of the characters therein are Suzanne Collins' property. Fanfiction is my way of expressing deep admiration for her world-building and storytelling.
Rose is mine, and at some point her story will leave the original plot as we know it and delve into "what would have happened if…"
Chapter 1 - IN THE NICK OF TIME
The school. The train tracks. The bridge. The Seam. The Hob. The square, and beyond that, the public market with the merchant buildings, shops on the ground floor, living quarters above. And in the very centre, the Justice Building.
Rose Cumberland sighed in relief. Not that District 12's central town was that big. Still, it had taken her three weeks to navigate the warren of clapperboard houses of the area Twelvers called the Seam, the small gardens and backyard alleys. But here she was, and even in time!
She felt with both hands to make sure her hair was securely pinned up, and checked her appearance in a shop window, ignoring the prettily decorated cakes and tarts behind the glass. In her first days in town she had spent hours gazing into shops and wishing for things she'd never have. Living on a teacher's meagre salary had been so much easier in 12A, where there was hardly anything you could buy for money. But by now she'd seen how many of her young pupils lived. Cramped rooms, floor scrubbed painfully clean. Rationed coal supplies, enough for one hour of warmth. Mothers who skipped supper, to provide their kids with a piece of coarse bread for lunch.
Nobody in the Seam could afford cakes. The merchants' customers were the Capitol officials stationed in the district, the Peacekeepers, the engineers and the few professionals who lived in the area north of the square, as far away as possible from the grime of the mine and mill.
Poor and wealthy, each group kept to itself. The merchant's had their doctors, the poor at the Seam had their wise women. Cakes north of the square, black bread in the south. A school for the children whose parents dug for coal, and another one for those who pushed paper or sold goods. Only once they'd reached the age of 12, they met. By then hard conditions and recurring sickness had diminished their numbers enough to need only one school building. But by then the damage was done, the lines were drawn.
There were really two towns, Rose thought. Three even, if one counted the Victors' Village. Rose had never been there, had only glimpsed it when she'd explored the trail that ran from the school house along the train tracks. Beyond a copse of trees and a stretch of field one could see a wrought-iron fence and beyond that twelve white marble mansions. Right out of a fairy tale, offensive even, if one knew the hovels at the Seam. Still, as far as Rose knew, no children lived there, so the village was none of her business.
The children of the Seam school were.
She took a last look at her reflection. Brown hair, pinned up into a braided chignon. Brown eyes. Pale freckled skin, like most people in 12A. She fit neither with the dark colouring of the Seam nor the delicate blond-and-blue the merchants cherished so much in their wives and daughters.
'Back straight and chin up!' she admonished herself when she climbed the steps of the Justice Building. The generously spaced front porch served as a stage for all official functions. She'd only once entered the building when she reported for duty. But she'd stared at that porch every Reaping day, counting the bricks, the posts, the window panes. This was where they drew the tributes, these steps they walked up and out of the lives of their families, never to return.
She rubbed her arms, and reminded herself, that this was not Reaping day. Today was a happy occasion.
Before she even touched the door handle, the mayor threw it open from inside. When he saw her, his face fell.
"It's just you, eh?"
Mayor Undersee was a tall, balding man, and this was the second time Rose met him. He'd somewhat absentminded presented her with the keys for the school, one eye always at the airframe on his desk, where replays of the Hunger Games flickered.
Taken aback, Rose shrugged. "I'm afraid so."
"Anything happen to Madge?" There was real fear in his voice.
"No, no." Rose tried to placate him.
Madge Undersee was 16 and the mayor's only daughter. She wanted to become a teacher – to her father's great disappointment, as Rose assumed - and had badgered him until he allowed her to help out at the Seam School. The girl was friendly, kind and good with children, and Rose could not imagine work without her. There were more almost 60 children between 6 and 12 to teach, and it didn't look like the second teaching position would be filled in the near future.
"Madge is fine. Actually, she's great," she assured him. "She'll make a wonderful teacher one day."
"Yeah, yeah," he sneered. "Time will tell. I'd rather see her married with children of her own." He frowned at Rose. "So if nothing's wrong with Madge, why are you here? If this is about the power shortage let me tell you that…"
Rose waited until he had to breath and hurriedly inserted "The feast" into his monologue.
"You requested that all pupils take part in the feast tomorrow evening. I wrote it all down, this is the schedule…"
Her carefully prepared speech faltered when she found him staring transfixed over her shoulder and spreading his arms.
"Welcome!" he shouted, pushing her aside. "Welcome home!"
She turned and saw what had obviously erased her presence from the mayor's memory. It was one of those shiny Capitol cars she's seen only on the screen before now, polished metal and glass, powered by silent electricity.
Rose took a hasty step back, when the car doors opened and people poured out. A camera crew, assuming position on the porch to best catch the scene. Effie Trinket, District 12's escort, gleaming white smile and turquoise curls. And there came the victors…
Of course Rose knew them by now. All of Panem did. You had to live at the bottom of a coal mine to not be aware of these three: Katniss Everdeen, Peter Mellark and, maybe a bit less famous for his role as mentor, Haymitch Abernathy. Rose had never paid him much attention, not with all eyes on the two young victors, but close up he was – if not a looker – quite handsome with a Viking's face, deep set blue eyes, a broken nose, sun-bleached hair hacked off at chin's length. By himself with a butcher's knife by the look of it, she thought.
It was, of course, rude to stare – even at a victor whose face had been plastered all over Panem. But it was interesting to see how the news reports and reality matched up. They still wore Capitol couture, pricy material in rich colours. The girl was undoubtedly pretty, hair immaculately braided in what had immediately become the "Katniss-style". She wore a mulish expression that told Rose clearly she'd rather be elsewhere. Peeta's eyes were kind, he was not particularly tall or exceptionally good looking, but he glowed from the inside. Compared to him, Katniss and Haymitch looked exhausted and sleep-deprived. The Capitol Express had arrived long after midnight, with only close relatives allowed to greet the victors who then had been whisked away to the posh Victor's Village on the edge of town. The real celebration of their success – and District 12's rise to glory - would take stage the next day.
Amused, she watched Haymitch give Katniss a little shove to move her in the direction of the beaming mayor. Peeta followed serenely.
Rose stepped further back to let them pass.
"Katniss! Peeta! … Haymitch." The mayor's jovial face glistened with sweat as he opened the door wide, trying hard not to look into the camera. "Come in, come in, dear children! You have done us proud in the Capitol!"
He hardly spared Rose another glance and waved her to wait on the bench on the porch of the red brick building. "Miss Cumberland is of course prepared to wait. Actually she is here to discuss the school's involvement in the victor's feast tomorrow evening."
"The school?" Peeta looked at her with interest. "Are you a new teacher?"
Rose smiled. "Not so new anymore. I arrived the day after the Reaping. I am the replacement for the Andersons."
Haymitch's head snapped up. "Thatcher and Flora are gone?
"Miss Cumberland is from 12a, no less!" the mayor interjected loudly. "Who knew they had schools up there, eh? Quite a step up in the world, I say!"
Rose bit her tongue and gave him a sweet smile. "A huge step! I wrote a letter home to tell them I've got glass windows with hardly any cracks. And my very own train track right through my back yard."
Katniss snickered and stopped abruptly when Peeta wacked his elbow into her rip-cage.
Peeta tried to save the situation. "A train track? So you teach at the Seam School, not on the square, I take it."
Only the school on the Seam was close to the train tracks.
Rose nodded und offered him her hand. "Rose Cumberland."
He blushed. "I guess. ... It is rather annoying that everybody is a step ahead and knows everything about us."
"Listen," Rose ventured. "If you are not too busy, would you terribly mind to come to the school and talk to the kids?" She looked at Katniss. "Or you both?
Rose had to concede it to her - the girl shot her arrows straight.
"How about you?" she asked Haymitch Abernathy who leaned against a porch post and swigged from a small silver flask. From what she had seen of him in the background reports it was certainly not water.
"Sweetheart," he drawled. "I'd rather have my tongue nailed to that post."
The mayor coughed anxiously. "Well, I would not want to keep my three victors too long." He shot Rose a glance that plainly said he did not care how long he kept her waiting.
So she sat on a bench by the sunwarmed wall and closed her eyes. Far away a dog barked. Children played a skipping game. The district flags, newly strung high in honour of Katniss and Peeta, snapped in a brisk breeze. The air smelled of coal dust and camomile flowers. The world was at peace.
When a shadow fell over her, she shivered and opened her eyes.
Haymitch loomed over her. "Your turn," he said curtly and nodded vaguely towards the office door. "Peeta softened him up for you."
Rose sighed and rose from the bench.
"Thanks." She smiled at Peeta. "Will you be gone when I come back? I'd really appreciate you coming to talk to my first graders tomorrow."
"I'll wait here," he shrugged. His eyes wandered across the square, along the shop-fronts, to the bakery. "I'm not in a hurry."
To her surprise the meeting with the mayor lasted only five minutes. Instead of complaining about the school's consumptionof water, coal and kindling wood and Rose's predecessor's 'unreasonable' demands for new books, Undersee leaned back in his swivel chair and grinned at the ceiling. A battered airframe took pride of place on his desk. Rose craned her head to see the projection - three victors and the mayor, the pale colours flickering.
"52 children," she checked her list. "They'll sing the anthem when the victors arrive. The little ones have painted pictures we will put up on the doors around the square."
"Do whatever you deem right," the mayor allowed generously. "We haven't had a victor's feast in decades. Not for 24 years, since Abernathy won, right? So whatever happens, people are going to enjoy it." His happy grin widened even more. "Lucky you! Came here just in the nick of time, eh? District 12, the place to be right now, eh? Eh?"
Rose balled a fist under the table and dug her fingernails into her palm.
"Yeah, lucky me. … So there will be a children's lunch at noon," she insisted stubbornly. "Paid for by the District."
"Yeah, yeah. Whatever. I talked it over with Nettie Mellark. She'll provide the catering at a discount. " The mayor tapped the buzzing airframe and the picture flickered back to life. "There'll be the feast in the evening, and lunch and a memorial coin for every child."
She stopped short. "A coin? You mean ... money? Real money?"
His eyes widened. "Let's stay reasonable, young woman. A medal. Bit of pretty shiny tin. For commemoration purposes only."
"Of course." She rose and shook his hand. "I'll bring the children to the square at midday."
"You do that. We'll show them folks from the Capitol that the districts know how to celebrate, eh?"
"Folks from the Capitol?" Rose asked while she plucked her jacket from the clothes rack.
"Effie Trinket! Such a delectable woman!" the mayor gushed. "The camera crews. And an additional contingent of Peacekeepers. "
Rose winced. "More Peacekeepers? Why's that?"
She gripped the rack hard to keep the creeping fear out of her voice. Something metallic dropped to the floor and she swiped it up. The rack hung decidedly loop-sided now.
"Capitol's rules. 12 is an important district now." His pride was obvious. He started the projection again – the three victors and the mayor, smiling and waving at the camera.
"One last thing, Miss Cumberland."
She froze, one hand in her pocket, the other on the doorknob.
"Tell the children to stay away from the fence. The wire will be alive for the next few days." He chuckled. "No poaching, eh? You hear me?"
"Right." Rose let out a breath. "I hear you." The Peacekeepers came because of the victory. No connection to Gale's nightly endeavours. Still, she had to make sure he stayed out of the woods for the time being.
When she stepped out of the building the sunlight blinded her for a moment.
Peeta and Haymitch sat on the steps, Haymitch quietly drinking, Peeta still gathering his courage to go home. Rose pitied him. He had survived incredible hardships - and for what? Then she reminded herself that it was Katniss' love that had kept him alive. He would live in the Victors' Village, maybe move in with the girl right away, get married. At least Rose hoped he would. His family home was obviously not where he wanted to be.
"So, what time do you want me to come to the school tomorrow?" Peeta asked when he noticed her standing in the door.
"How about half past ten?" Rose sat beside him. "That gives us enough time for a talk and questions afterwards, before we all go to lunch at the square."
"They get lunch?" Peeta perked up. "That's good. Kids are always hungry, especially those who live in the Seam. I never noticed how awfully thin they are. Kids in the Capitol are much more ... pudgy."
Haymitch snarled something unintelligibly under his breath.
Peeta just shook his head and turned to Rose. "I'll be there in time."
"Thank you. The children will be out of their mind when they hear about it."
She stood up. "Peeta."
He smiled. "Now I'm all grown up, it seems. I won the Games and I am on a first-name basis with a teacher."
Rose turned to go, then stepped back and pressed something into Haymitch's hand.
"And this is for you. For your tongue."
She gave him a sweet smile and left.
Haymitch's brow furrowed when he stared at the rusty nail in his palm.
"What the ..."
"If you need help nailing it to the post, just say the word. "
The next morning.
"That should be enough." Gale Hawthorne lifted the wooden bench and carried it outside, into the shady yard of the school building. He and Madge Undersee had arranged the seats to form a crude auditorium for the anxious children, who lined the front porch. There were on the look-out for today's guest of honour. From the moment they'd heard who'd visit, there'd been not chance for orderly lessons.
Gale wiped sweat off his face ."I am off to the mine."
"It's a holiday!" Rose protested. "Today is Victor's day and …"
"And the coal won't dig itself up." Gale rubbed his neck and avoided her eyes. Although she'd only known him for three weeks, Rose knew he wasn't telling the whole truth.
"Oh come on," she tried to convince him. "There will be honey cake and music and … and fireworks!"
For a moment his wistful look reminded her of a young boy's. A boy who had grown up too fast, had carried too much responsibility too soon. She had met Gale Hawthorne on her first morning in District 12, when she'd desperately tried to fix the water-pump in the yard. Water and electricity in the schoolhouse had not been turned back on yet. The young man had almost given her a heart attack, when he suddenly appeared out of the underbrush behind the garden fence, a brace of rabbits on his shoulder. He had fixed the pump, she had fixed him breakfast, and in the days that followed he'd stopped by now and then to borrow a book - or hide poached game in the earth cellar under the porch until the coast was clear and he could take it to the Hob.
She'd met his mother, Hazelle Hawthorne, a hard working woman who had lost her husband in a mine accident five years ago. Rose remembered the disaster. She'd been freshly engaged to Jacob and terrified something similar could happen in 12A. Jacob had only laughed. 12A-miners, he'd boasted, were much better and smarter than those in the District centre. She needn't worry. – Only ten months later the 12A main shaft had caved in…
Rose gripped the bowl of precious Capitol cookies the children would have as a treat. This door was closed, she admonished herself. She was not going to open it again and fall into darkness and despair.
To Gale she said: "You really should celebrate with your friends."
"It's double wages for a holiday shift," he shrugged. "You know my family needs whatever I can earn. And I'll be done before the fireworks have fizzled out, I promise. Wouldn't want to miss that."
He raised a hand in salute to his little brothers who climbed off the fence and ran to hug him.
When he disappeared beyond the trees that bordered the dirt road to the school house, Rose sighed. "Hunger is a cruel shackle."
Madge stared at her worriedly. "Don't let anybody from the Capitol hear you say that. Or my father. In fact," she covered her ears with both hands, "you should not let me hear you say things like that. It smacks of…" her voice was only a whisper, "rebellion!"
"Don't worry." Rose petted her blond head. "I just have my dark minute. Life isn't all bad."
"No, it's not." Madge's gaze wandered to the road. "There is always hope."
Suddenly it all fell into place. The girl's readiness to start work so early. The way she casually remarked that her father, the mayor, had a yearn for pheasant. And if only anybody happened to kock at the backdoor with a bird, the mayor would pay a tidy sum…
"You are in love with Gale Hawthorne!" Rose burst out and immediately covered her mouth with her forearm. But the children were too engrossed in their waiting game to listen to the teachers.
Madge blushed violently.
"Oh come now, admit it!"
"Maybe. Only a little bit."
"And he? Does he know?" Rose lifted the two jugs of lemonade she had prepared.
"Gale?" Madge laughed, honestly amused, and opened the door for her. "He keeps forgetting I exist, and when he remembers, he accuses me of being wealthy. Which isn't really my fault, is it?" she added matter-of-factly.
"But I saw the two of you sit on the porch and talk."
"He took it very hard when Katniss was reaped. Of course there was nothing anyone could do. We all thought we'd never see her again. So he'd at least talk about her with someone who grieved for her, too."
"Because you and Katniss were friends?"
"Katniss doesn't really do friends," Madge shrugged. "But I knew her a little. So yes, I am probably the closest to a friend he could find."
"It must be painful for him to watch her and Peeta in every news report, in every Games review."
"You know how sometimes a girl and a boy are a couple in everybody's eyes, right from the start? 'Such a perfect fit', everybody says. 'They belong together'." Madge took one lemonade jug from Rose's hands and pushed her gently through the door. "Katniss and Gale were such a couple. They even look alike. But now there is Peeta…"
Rose understood. Gale's whole world must have shattered.
The siren signalled the change of shifts.
The children's excited chatter grew louder. Rose and Madge herded them to the benches.
"Sit down and think about what you want to ask Peeta. He should be here any minute."
A small boy with bright eyes raised his hand. "Can we ask him anything, Miss?"
"Hm." Rose pretended to think hard. "I don't know. Can you?"
He winced. "I mean… may we ask him?"
A soft chuckle made her turn around.
Peeta considered the chair in the middle of the half-circle of benches and sat down cross-legged in the grass.
"My old teacher, Mr Doogal, always asked that: Can I? Can you?"
The children laughed.
"I always thought it was funny, too. Why would anybody care so much about words? And then I heard Cesar Flickerman talk. Now, that man can talk an ice block on fire just by setting his words the right way!"
Rose took a seat on the porch steps and listened in awe. She had spent considerable time pondering how to prep Peeta. She did not want the children to think there was any glory in killing or in the Games at all. On the other hand they'd all celebrate the victors today, so they needed something to be proud of.
But Peeta delivered without being prepped. He told them few details and none of the gruesome things that had happened to him and Katniss – although Rose was sure that many of the older children had been allowed to watch the Games, especially when the odds turned in favour of District 12. He talked about cunning, about strategy. How a well set trap, a clever plan, would bring better results than brute force. And how love, pure and desperate love, had saved them in the end…
Rose saw tears in Madge's eyes when Peeta finished his tale. The children applauded and Peeta bowed solemnly.
Only now she noticed Haymitch Abernathy, perched on the railing of her front porch. He was watching Peeta with a peculiar look on his face.
'Pity," Rose thought, bewildered, 'he pities the boy. But why?'
Haymitch watched Peeta give his speech. He remembered the boy who talked for his life in Flickerman's hot chair… The boy who made up convincing stories on the go, stories the sponsors lapped up like cream. The problem – the heart-breaking problem – was, that Peeta had started to believe his own stories and would suffer for it. Maybe not now while all parties involved were drunk with happiness and relief, but soon. Reality and the Capitol would catch up with them. These two young people thought they were survivors, when they were really the walking dead.
He had heard Katniss cry in her sleep on the train, and knew that Peeta had taken to staying up as late as possible. The boy wasn't drinking or popping sleeping pills yet. But there would be ten-thousand nights to come, each with its very own night-mare…
Haymitch patted his jacket to make sure the flask was there.
After the last question was answered and all the cookies demolished, Peeta came over to where Rose and Madge sat.
"Thank you for letting me talk to the children. I really enjoyed that."
Madge beamed at him. "You did great! I didn't know you were such a good storyteller!"
For a moment a dark cloud moved over Peeta's face. "I learned that in the Capitol." He nodded towards Haymitch. "I was told early on that a good story could be a lifeline."
The teacher – Rose Cumberland, Haymitch remembered – shook Peeta's hand, a grateful smile warming her brown eyes.
"Thank you. I have to admit, I was a little afraid of what you'd say. The children are confused anyway. They feel the fear every Reaping day, and all of them know tributes who never returned."
Haymitch closed his hand around the flask in his pocket. She had not blamed him explicitly, had probably not even concluded yet that he, and he alone, had been mentor to ALL the district's tributes for the last 24 years. And that he had failed each and every one of those 46 children before Katniss and Peeta. She did not need to lay the guilt on him. It was with him every waking hour.
"On the other hand," she continued, "they watch the reports. All the sparkle, the glory and the glamour… Hard to see through."
Interesting, thought Haymitch. How did this woman get through the very thorough brain-wash the teachers' college in the Capitol applied to all its students?
"Maybe it is more merciful to let them go into the Games convinced there is glory in there somewhere?" he growled under his breath.
The teacher met his eyes in open contention. "Maybe they wouldn't go to the slaughter if they knew the truth?"
Madge wailed. "Don't! You promised!" She looked imploringly at Peeta. "Tell her not to talk like this! Remember the Andersons."
Rose looked from Madge to Peeta. "The teachers? I was told they applied to move to 12D."
"12D is a closed pit. Has been sealed for two years," Haymitch interjected. "Only a dozen men up there, no children."
Peeta avoided Rose's eyes. "Madge and I, we overheard her father talk to my mother, on the day before the Reaping. How there was nothing they could do for the Andersons now the Peacekeepers had taken them to the Capitol. How there was proof of their… their…"
"Insurgency," Madge whispered.
Haymitch watched the teacher come to the right conclusion while Madge talked. He could read her pretty face like a book. And if he could, the Peacekeepers and the intelligence officers from the Capitol could, too.
"Madge is right," he stated, his voice carefully blank. He had known Thatcher Anderson since they were boys. "Enough with this. You should let the little buggers go to lunch."
Madge raised her hand, relieved by the change of subject. "I'll take them," she offered, smiling at Rose. "You have put a lot of work into this, and it's going to be a long day. Take a few hours off." She pointed at the big wooden box Gale and a man from Capitol Administrations had delivered this morning. "Unpack."
Rose worried her bottom lip. "Are you sure?"
Madge linked arms with Peeta. "We'll be fine. The kids will stuff their faces, Peeta will help me put up the paintings they made, and I'll keep his mother off his back. I did that since we were children."
Haymitch stayed put on the railing while the children marched down the lane in twos, Peeta and Madge in the lead.
"Madge Undersee is a good girl," he remarked casually. "And she is right. You have to learn to keep your mouth shut."
"Easy to say when you are a victor, living in your wealthy village. No hunger and no hardship for you," she shot back. "Winter is coming, and people will starve and freeze to death while you have your brandy express-delivered from the Capitol to your nice warm mansion."
He pressed his lips together. She could not know he'd rather live in a cave in the woods or the poorest hovel than in his lonely prison in the Victor's Village.
And why was he even lingering, he thought, suddenly cross with himself. She was no beauty with her brown hair and brown eyes. Not even pretty, compared with the stunning women who threw themselves at him in the Capitol. Still, there was something…
Had the booze finally killed his last brain-cells? This was not the time to get involved with anybody. Bad enough he had Peeta and Katniss to think of. He who had always been so careful not to give Snow and his henchmen any angle…
Her hand lay flat on the wooden box. It was clear she would not open it while he was watching.
With surprising grace he slid off the railing and landed on his feet.
"You don't know nothing about me, sweetheart," he said derisively and bowed. "Do what you wish, preach rebellion. Just don't get yourself killed before the kids have learned their ABC, so they can at least spell 'Down with the Capitol' correctly."
She only bared her teeth.
He walked down the road, careful not to look back. Only when he was out of sight, he kicked a fallen tree and cursed under his breath when he almost broke his toe. He limped on towards the square while he unscrewed the flask and took a big gulp that burned away the confusion, the regret, the pain. The relief lasted only a moment, as always. So he'd keep drinking until he was numb again.
It took Rose all afternoon to get over Haymitch Abernathy's contempt, and even two hours into the feast she still felt raw. Again and again she composed scathing answers to his last sentence in her head, well aware it was too late even for the most scornful of them.
Why she even cared she did not know. From all she had heard about him in the last two days, Abernathy was a hopeless drunk, a social disgrace, and completely without manners. So why did she feel she had to stand up to him, to make him see her point?
She waved over the milling crowds at Madge, who sat with her father at the table of honour, next to Katniss's stylist. The girl's revelation about the Andersons had shaken her. The relocation order had not given any reason. She'd had only three days to introduce her replacement, a freshly graduated teacher, to 'her' kids and to move from the branch to the district centre. There had been no cause to question the explanation the mayor had given for the sudden vacancy.
With growing unease she remembered her first meeting with Gale Hawthorne, his barely concealed shock when he saw her – and not Mrs Anderson. He had told her over that first breakfast how chasing a flock of turkeys had taken him far from his usual track. But was that the truth or was there another reason to show up at the school at the break of dawn?
"Oh, curse Haymitch Abernathy!" she hissed when she almost stumbled over a chair while carrying a large tray with empties. She had to get him out of her mind and concentrate on the here and now.
Later she helped Mrs Mellark to serve small bowls of syrup pudding and did her best to blend out the older woman's constant muttering about the expenses the District went to for this feast. Shouldn't Peeta's mother be happy to have her son back? But at least the food - roast and white bread and pudding - was a great success with the citizens of 12. The mayor held a speech which the camera crew dutifully recorded. Later Rose overheard Effie and the chief camera man discussing how much they'd have to edit out to make it a feasible sound-bite for the Capitol news. Still, Effie seemed truly excited about the colourful images they caught.
"So many happy faces," she exclaimed at the crowd filling the square. "Dreadful clothes of course, and all that soot and grime! But they are so happy and proud of their victors! That's so cute, don't you think?"
And happy and proud they were... A string of small lanterns decorated the utility poles in front of the Justice Building. Long trestle tables and wooden benches bordered three sides of the square. A long sturdy board across some beer casks formed a bar where Peeta's father was busy. Live music played, already a dozen couples were dancing. And later there would be fireworks, courtesy by President Snow.
Suddenly Rose felt utterly alone.
She gathered empty glasses from the tables and deposited them on the makeshift bar. Mr Mellark nodded at her gratefully and pushed a bottle of beer her way. Rose shook her head, but then she called herself to order. This was a night to celebrate, even if she was not part of this community yet. One had to give thanks for two young people still alive against all odds.
She watched the dancers and smiled. Old and young, Seam and Square, united for one night without sorrow or hunger.
When she stepped back to avoid a passing couple she bumped into the bar. Glasses clanked alarmingly.
"Watch it, for Snow's sake!"
The voice slurred a bit. "This is perfectly good whiskey, you don't want to spill it."
Propped on one elbow, Haymitch leaned on the bar, eyes hidden behind chopped-off hair. For an instant Rose thought: 'He's watching, and not drunk at all."
Then she counted the glasses in front of him and changed her mind. Other men would be on their hands and knees after that much whiskey. Haymitch was still standing, which only proofed he was a seasoned alcoholic.
"I am sorry," she apologized and took a hasty sip of beer. She'd finish the bottle and go home. Nobody would miss her.
He reached across the bar and grabbed a fat stone jug to refill his glass. "Here's to the victors."
She politely rose her beer bottle and finished the toast. "Panem forever."
He stared at her, his eyes suddenly icy. Then he downed the drink.
"Not to your liking?" He waved vaguely towards the dance floor.
"No one asked you to dance?"
"No," she replied dryly. "Are you offering?"
"I could never remember the steps. Not even when I was sober."
"And when was that?" she asked sweetly.
He grinned appreciatively. "In another life."
In companionable silence they watched the scene. The bar area was a quiet island within a sea of laughter and music and chatter.
Rose finished her beer and resolutely set the empty bottle on the bar. She shrugged into her jacket.
"Well, I am off. Good night."
He lifted his head. "You are going home? All alone?"
She bristled. "It's not really your business, is it? But yes, all alone."
"No, you are not." He waved across the bar, and one of the young miners set down his drink immediately and came over.
"This is..." Haymitch's brow furrowed. "What was your name again?"
"Wash," the miner replied anxiously. "Wash Havers. You know me. My mom used to be Milli Westport before she married my father. She lived next door to your family until..."
Haymitch cut him off mid-sentence. "Young Wash here is going to bring you home, Miss Cumberland."
For the miner he clarified. "Right to her door. And you wait until she is safely inside, understand?"
"Yes, Sir ... Haymitch," The boy - because he was nothing more than a boy, even younger than Gale - nodded.
"Off with you then."
"I don't need a guard!" Rose protested hotly.
Haymitch opened a fresh bottle with his teeth, poured a generous amount of whiskey into a bowl with syrup pudding and ignored her.
She stormed out of the bar area, the young miner hot on her heels. The guts this man had! With considerable effort she slowed down to give her bodyguard time to catch up with her.
Wash's face was flushed with embarrassment when he reached her. "Sorry, Miss."
"Is he always like this?"
The miner glanced back at the bar. "He is a victor," he explained, simple as that.
"And that gives him the right to boss people around?"
"I guess." The boy shrugged. "Most times he doesn't say much. But when he does... and when he gets that edge in his voice..."
"Well, that's just plain silly!" Rose hissed. "He is a drunkard! Is he ever sober?"
Wash fell into step with her. "Hard to tell with Haymitch. Only I would not want to cross him, drunk or not."
Rose sighed. "Look, this is ridiculous. You should celebrate with your friends."
"He told me to bring you to the door."
"But my house is right over there!" She pointed in the direction of the school beyond the small neighbourhood allotments. "See? You can go back now. Nothing will happen to me."
He stood, drawn between his orders and the wish to be back at the feast. "You sure?"
With a reassuring smile she turned him around, towards the square. "Have fun, enjoy the evening."
"Okay. Thank you, honestly." He left, walking at first, then almost running in his eagerness.
Rose shook her head and looked around. There was the lamppost with the broken lights, and there was the narrow alley that cut through the gardens. She was almost home, could already see the flickering candle she had left in a jar by the doorstep, when she heard steps behind her, closing in rapidly.
She froze, listened. Hard steps. Work boots? Gale, using the noise and lights to sneak away for a spot of poaching? But she had warned him about the fence, and had seen him with his family and Katniss at the square just minutes ago...
Furtively she glanced back. Her heart sank. Not work boots - uniform boots. The Peacekeeper's white uniform appeared a dullish grey in the darkness of the alley.
The order came in a low voice.
Rose ponded her chances at running, but he would taser her before she could get out of the alley. So she pulled her shoulders up, kept her head down and walked on.
"I said: Halt!"
She ignored him.
He grabbed her arm. "Are you deaf, woman?"
Rose kept her eyes down. She only had to reach the school. Be firm and strict and keep him at bay until she was inside the house and could bar the door. "No, officer. Not deaf. Just tired."
He was young, his hair shorn so close to the skull it resembled a dark fuzz. The helmet had left a reddish welt where it sat at his forehead. He had stuffed the gloves into his belt, the helmet hung off the shoulder-strap. But he was armed with a taser, a baton and probably a gun.
His eyes dropped to her cleavage. "Bored with the district bumpkins?"
'Great', she thought. 'Armed man in search of amusement. Now what?'
Aloud she said: "I am tired, officer. Actually I feel a bit sick. I might vomit any minute."
It did not scare him off. He fell into step with her.
While her eyes darted left and right to find an escape, she kept walking. The light of the last houses did not reach past the gardens, and the unpaved road that led to the school lay in shadows under the trees. Only ten more meters.
When she reached the steps to the porch the Peacekeeper's baton barred her way. "I could show you a good time, show you how we celebrate in the Capitol." He reached for her and unpinned a strain of hair. "Why don't you invite me in? Let your hair down, ha ha. Tomorrow you can tell your friends you made out with a Peacekeeper. There might even be some extra rations in there for you."
Rose felt like throwing up for real. What now? What now? Her brain stuttered to a halt.
Suddenly a loud singing voice cut through the darkness, painfully off-key. "So many stars and only two moons..."
The Peacekeeper straightened. His hand shot to his belt. Rose saw him grip the baton, ready to strike.
Haymitch genially waved a bottle at them. His blue shirt was undone, the trousers stained with what Rose hoped was syrup pudding.
"Move on." The Peacekeeper snapped. "Or I'll take you to the station."
"No need, son," Haymitch replied with a happy smile. "They know me at the station. Actually they know me everywhere in the District."
"Well, I don't." A sharp snap with the baton. "Identity card. Now."
Haymitch patted his pockets and sighed. "Seems I left it at home."
"Under article 3/7 of the District code every citizen is required to carry means of identification at all times."
"Oh. Means of identify… thingy." The blond man swayed a bit and stretched out his right arm, the sleeve of his shirt rolled up. "Here's mine."
The Peacekeeper stared at the bared forearm, at the pale scar of a tracker.
His head shot up, his face suddenly in awe. "You are the 50th victor!"
"So I've been told." Haymitch gave a lazy salute. "Panem forever, and all that."
While he talked to the Peacekeeper, Rose eased around them and climbed the steps to the porch on tiptoes.
"Woa, Rosie, sweetheart..." Strong hands gripped her upper arms and pulled her back. "Let's kiss and make up…" And Haymitch covered her mouth with his and gave her a big sloppy kiss.
Rose was so shocked she could not react instantly. For a few seconds she just gave in. He tasted of syrup and cinnamon and malt whiskey. The bristles of his five-day beard scratched her skin.
When he ended the kiss, she felt dizzy and strangely disappointed. Then her brain caught up with reality. She stepped onto his foot as hard as she could. He winced but did not let go and warningly tightened his arm around her shoulders. "Smile, sweetheart, if you want to live!" he hissed.
Lazily he nodded at the Peacekeeper.
"Now be a good boy, return to the feast and leave my woman alone."
The Peacekeeper stepped back from her hurriedly. "Your woman? I ... I didn't know, Sir! Doesn't she live in the Victor's Village with you?"
Haymitch patted Rose's behind and winked at him, man to man. "Not that kind of woman, if you know what I mean, son. Not the 'one', just the 'one right now'." He waggled his naked ring finger at the younger man.
"Oh." The Peacekeeper blushed. "I understand."
"Good. Now let's pretend this never happened. You don't have to file a report and I don't have to complain to your superior officer."
It took the young Peacekeeper only a moment to make up his mind.
"Sir! Evening, Ma'am."
Hurriedly he turned heel and disappeared into the darkness.
Haymitch stared after him until he could be sure the man was gone. Then he let go of Rose so abruptly she stumbled against the porch.
"What is wrong with you, dammit? Which part of 'don't go alone' did you not get?" he growled.
Rose shivered. Now that the immediate threat was gone, her knees started to tremble. She gripped the railing.
Haymitch's fist hit the door jamb.
"There are more than hundred newly transferred Peacekeepers in town, and they are bored and pissed off and easy to annoy. Do you have a death wish?"
"I didn't know... I never thought..."
He raked his fingers through his hair. "Don't they have any Peacekeepers up in 12A? These bastards are dangerous. You were lucky that one was only a rooky. An older, more hardened man would have..." He spit at the floor. "I need a drink."
"A drink," she repeated, stricken by his demand. "Sorry, there's none."
She sighed and slid down along the railing post, until she sat on the wooden floor of the porch, her head between her knees to battle the nausea.
"One bottle of brandy, but I use that to soak mountain tobacco for medicine. Not even you could drink that." She winced. "I apologize. That came out all wrong."
He shrugged and sat down next to her, his legs dangling off the porch.
"What about your mysterious box?" He pointed at the now empty wooden crate at the bottom of the steps. "What was in there?"
Rose's breathing slowly calmed. She appreciated his attempt at polite conversation to give her the time to compose herself.
"Books. Shoes. My mother's good china. More books." She shrugged. "Everything I own, really. I could not take it with me when I was ordered to relocate, so I asked a friend to pack it and send it by freighter train."
The train from the district centre to the branches transported food and supplies once a week and brought back coal. It moved along fenced corridors, through mountain valleys and dark woods. She had taken the train three times - when she'd been admitted to the teachers' college in the Capitol at age 18, back home again four years later. And then three weeks ago, when she's been transferred.
"From 12A?" Haymitch asked with mild interest.
"How's it, up there?"
Rose shrugged. "Remember the Games, two, no three years ago?"
"The frozen wasteland?"
"12A is a bit like that. It starts to snow soon after Harvest day, and keeps snowing until May. The ground is craggy and rocky, lots of fir and spruce, no deciduous trees. No fields or gardens. Nothing much grows at that elevation. There is the mine, of course, and a few dozen houses, but no shops or markets like you have here. Four Peacekeepers who have been up there for most of their life and hardly ever wear their uniforms. Everyone else works in the mine or for the mine. About 300 people, children and all."
"I remember seeing the children from the branches on Harvest day," Haymitch mused. "They always looked defiant and exhausted."
"We from 12A had to walk to the District centre for the Reaping every year," she replied defensively. "You soft townsfolk amble over in your Sunday best. But we had to start off at midnight to be there by 2 o'clock. And then walk home again, if we were spared."
She remembered those endless marches through the darkness and cold, younger children holding hands, older sibling singing songs or telling stories to cheer them up. She remembered the all-encompassing fear that took away your breath and turned your heart into a clump of ice. But that fear was true for everyone who had their name in the bowl, she assumed. Seam or square or branch – the memory of fear united them all.
"And your folks still live up there?" Haymitch asked. He kept his eyes open and his head back against the post, starring up at the stars.
"My father died when I was 18." She'd come back from her very last Reaping just in time to say good-bye. "Miner's curse."
"Silicosis." Haymitch nodded. "Hard way to go."
"Yes." Coal dust got in your lungs and caused inflammation and irreparable damage. "Coal for me, dust for you. First you cough, then you turn blue," she sang gently. "It's an old skipping rhyme. I never understood what it meant until I saw Dad cough up his lungs and struggle for breath."
"And your mother?"
"She died while I was at college. She never was well since my father passed away." Her mother had made everyone in 12A promise they'd not let Rose know of her death until after graduation, so Rose would not attempt to come for the funeral. Dropping out of college meant a job in the mine. Rose knew that her mother would never have wanted that for her.
"And Mr Cumberland?" Haymitch asked in a deceptively casual tone. A dark cloud moved across the moon and cast his face in shadow. "Is he going to transfer as well, now that you are here?"
Rose stood up abruptly. "No. He's not."
She wiped the sudden tears away with her sleeve. "I am tired."
He watched her unlock the door, before he got up as well.
A half mocking, half courteous bow, and he turned towards the narrow path that ran along the tracks and led eventually to the Victors' Village.
"Haymitch?" Her soft call made him halt.
She raised a hand in greeting.
To be continued…