“I think she hates me now.”
“She hates the whole world. Don’t take it personally.”
Peeta let a small laugh rise up out of him, but his chest still ached in its aftermath. The hollow feeling that had been there since that morning, when he finally laid eyes on her again after months of spending every waking hour trying to sort out the real Katniss from the corrupted one in his brain, only grew, and now it felt emptier than ever. He was beginning to wonder whether the void would ever be filled. Dr. Aurelius assured him that it would in time, but what did he know? This was the same doctor who had told him that Katniss would welcome the sight of him, that it would give her an anchor to hold onto.
Some advice that turned out to be.
“I shouldn’t have planted the flowers,” he said. “It was… I should have asked her first.”
Haymitch took a swig out of the bottle. Why bother with glasses at this point?
“Did she aim an arrow at your head?”
Peeta looked at him incredulously. “Of course not.”
“Then she practically welcomed you with open arms.”
He drained the bottle and set it down, then pushed back his chair and got up to retrieve a new one from the counter. Peeta thought it was quite remarkable how they were all lined up neatly in a perfectly straight row. It was probably the only thing in Haymitch’s entire house that was in any kind of order.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have come back.”
“Thanks for the pep talk.”
Peeta got up, anger suddenly flaring up inside of him, and he thought he felt the ominous beginnings of a flashback starting to creep its way into his bloodstream, like a poison gaining strength. His balance was off, though; the foot of his metal-and-plastic leg jammed hard into his chair, and he had to grip the edges of the table to keep from falling over, heat rising in his face, making his skin throb.
“Sit down, boy-”
“Don’t call me that!”
Haymitch sighed and put down the bottle. Peeta assumed it was some sort of conciliatory gesture, but was too irritated with him to give him any credit for it. He should never have come here in the first place. It wasn’t as though Haymitch was in any state to give him what he needed.
Not that there was anyone who could give him what he needed right now. Except maybe Katniss.
“So what’s keeping you here? Because it sure as hell can’t be my sunny disposition.”
Peeta avoided Haymitch’s eyes, but could feel them boring into his skull. He traced the grain of wood on the surface of the table, feeling the grooves beneath his fingertips, and slowly, the wave of anger that had overtaken him just moments before began to recede, leaving that familiar emptiness in its wake.
After a long silence, Haymitch let out something akin to a grunt, then said, “I thought so.”
He let the words hang, as though he wanted to give Peeta time to absorb their meaning. And his face registered no hint of surprise when Peeta said softly, “I remember loving her now.”
The hollow in his chest gave another twinge, the crevice running ever more deeply. Was this always the way loving her was going to feel?
“Just give her time,” Haymitch said. His hand lingered on the neck of the bottle, but he made no move to bring it to his lips. “What else have any of us got?”
Peeta nodded, then after some time said, “Give me some of that stuff, would you?”
* * *
“I’m going to ask her to marry me.”
Now that he’d said it out loud, it felt real. Not that he had any reason to doubt this moment, this memory in the making, but Peeta found he still needed validation of sorts from time to time. The confirmation that he wasn’t just living inside his own head—that he was seeing and hearing and experiencing the same things everyone else was, too.
“Well, say something.”
Haymitch made a sniffing sound that sounded suspiciously like a laugh. Peeta was certain that this meant a wisecrack was coming—or maybe the beginnings of a lecture about how eighteen was far too young to be proposing to anyone, even if he’d been in love with the girl his entire life, and besides, why would anyone want to do a crazy thing like get married, anyway? It’d be just like him to say something like that.
But to Peeta’s surprise, Haymitch didn’t follow with a flippant remark. Or any kind of remark, for that matter. Instead, he circled the rim of his glass with his finger, making it hum, then he raised his eyes to meet Peeta’s and lifted his glass in the air, the blocks of ice inside it colliding with one another, causing bits of white liquor to splash out.
“It’s about damn time, boy.”
Peeta felt the corners of his mouth lift up into a grin.
* * *
“Maybe not having children isn’t such a bad thing.”
“You have me almost believing you.”
Peeta kept his back to Haymitch. Just keep slicing the bread, he told himself. Just grip the knife and keep slicing. If he pretended that everything was fine, that everything was as it was supposed to be and all of this was part of the plan, he might just get away with it.
Didn’t they always say that this was his special talent? Convincing anyone of anything?
He set the platter of sliced bread on the table. “Anything else you need?”
Haymitch stared at him. Peeta wasn’t sure what Haymitch was expecting to happen, exactly—that Peeta would blink first? That he’d bare his soul? Well, the joke was on him. Peeta wasn’t about to do anything remotely like that. The last thing he needed was the second coming of Dr. Aurelius.
“Shoving your feelings down into a black hole isn’t going to make them go away, you know.”
Peeta let out a laugh. “Says the guy who drinks himself into oblivion every chance he gets, just so he can forget.”
He regretted the words as soon as he said them. Haymitch broke the gaze and turned his head to look out of the kitchen window, where clouds were gathering, in anticipation of a summer storm.
“Yeah, and look at all the good that’s done me.”
Silence stretched, hanging in the air, until finally, Peeta pulled a chair and sank down at the table. “I can’t ask her again, Haymitch. There’s too much pain there, and… she’s had enough pain for a lifetime.”
“And what about you?”
“What about me?”
“What about your pain?”
Peeta shook his head. “I’ll deal with it.”
“Well,” Haymitch said, “you always were the noble one of this trio.”
* * *
“How is she?”
“Tired. I told her to go to sleep—she needs it.”
“Yeah, I’d guess eighteen hours of labor will do that to a person.”
Haymitch’s face broke into a rare grin. Peeta caught his eyes glancing down towards his sleeping daughter, and he came closer, facing her towards Haymitch so he could see this precious little being who had everyone at her mercy already, in her first few hours of life.
“Do you want to hold her?”
Panic flickered in Haymitch’s eyes. Peeta had never seen fear on his mentor’s face, not even in the old arena footage of him, but here and now, Haymitch Abernathy was finally forced to show the one thing that he’d spent a lifetime trying to hide: vulnerability.
“Katniss won’t mind?”
“Of course not.” Peeta shifted the weight in his arms, cradling his daughter’s head with one hand and the rest of her tiny body with the other. “Here… go on, she won’t break.”
Haymitch looked rather dubious, but eventually raised his arms to take her from Peeta, looking unsure of himself at first, then slowly starting to look a little more comfortable, even beginning to rock her in a somewhat awkward rhythm that gained a little more confidence as the moments passed.
“Look at you,” Peeta said, smiling. “You had it in you after all.”
“Let’s not go overboard here,” Haymitch said, with a little extra gruffness than usual, as though to prove his point. But there was a smile just beginning to form on his lips, and he wasn’t doing too good a job of hiding it. Peeta wondered if he was even trying.
After a while, he raised his head to look at Peeta again.
“I can’t mentor you on this one,” he said. “You know that, right?”
Peeta smiled. “Don’t sell yourself short.”
Haymitch cleared his throat and gestured to Peeta to take the baby again. He didn’t seem to know what to do with his arms afterwards, finally settling on crossing them. Peeta pretended not to notice, so as not to add to his discomfort, but caught Haymitch’s small nod from the corner of his eye and looked up to meet his gaze once again.
Peeta was surprised to see something there that he rarely saw. Pride.
“You did good, boy,” he said. “Both of you.”
“Thanks to you.”
And it was true. Because if it hadn’t been for Haymitch’s guiding hand, for his unwavering belief in the two of them, they wouldn’t have ever gotten to this place. Never would have gotten past the arena, never would have survived the war. Never would have had the courage to start living again.
Haymitch Abernathy had kept his promise to them. He kept them alive. And Peeta Mellark would never be able to thank him enough.