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Here's the Smell of Blood Still

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Once, when he fell over and grazed his knee, he cried.

He never told anyone. It was the first time he had ever realized he could be hurt, that he could bleed, and the shock welled up in his stomach until he was shaking with the effort not to cry. He thought, I'm alone, and felt his unsteady control give way; he thought, I'm alone, and lost something in that moment. When he wiped the snot away with the back of his hand, he was a different person, though no one saw it, not even him.

The first time he saw the Capitol, he thought he was going to die. The city didn't look right, it looked ill, it looked sterile.

"I thought there'd be more people," said Maysilee, her hand curling into his. She squeezed hard, and it's this Haymitch remembers, Maysilee Donner's fingers digging into the back of his hand as the train rumbled beneath them. Her face was pale like milk and her jaw tight; she had decided to win.

"Well," said Messalina brightly, looking at their tangled fingers, "isn't it nice that you two are already working on your strategy?"

Maysilee said something chirpy and happy and false, but Haymitch had yanked his hand away, his throat closing up and his face burning. He didn't speak to her for the rest of the journey.

The day his name was drawn, his mother said goodbye to him with calm, fanatical faith. She knew he would come home, she said, because he was a good boy. His father's eyes were red, and he kept letting out little hiccupping sobs, which fascinated him, like watching something forbidden. Jasper buried his face in Haymitch's shoulder and it was wet when he finally turned away.

Tress came last, and they stared at each other in dead silence. "Good luck," she said.

"I don't think luck's on my side," he said. She laughed.

He remembers that she laughed.

Victors' Village was large, and well-heated, and empty.

He was trembling like he was diseased, and his nose and throat kept making scared wheezing noises. He tried to smile at the door, as if there was anyone coming through it, as if there was ever anyone coming through it, and he realized, not for the first time, that he was sobbing. He was babbling words he barely understood himself, I'm sorry, please, make it stop, I didn't mean to.

He tumbled off his bed, dragging the bedclothes with him and crawled to the door, still tangled in the linen. He fumbled at the wood desperately, trying to find the handle in the dark and he couldn't, he couldn't reach it. The nausea was rising in his throat again, and his vomit splashed onto his hands and the carpet, the pretty green carpet that Snow had ordered specially. It was only bile; there was nothing to throw up.

He thought something moved in the darkness and he froze, his right hand scrabbling for a weapon that wasn't there. He slid up the doorframe, breathing too fast, and this time he found the doorknob and escaped into the bright light of the street.

"What the hell happened to you, son," said Ripper, the minute he got into her shop. She was staring at him, at the Victor, at the vomit drying on his chin and fingers.

"What the hell do you think," he said, and got all the way back to his house before he realized he hadn't paid her for the new bottle.

Katniss, when he met her, had a way of sitting that was already half in flight, one knee drawn up to her chest and leaning forward. He thought it would stand her in good stead, and wondered in a rare moment of optimism if she would make it to the final twelve.

He saw her move, and upgraded her to the final eight.

The first tributes Haymitch ever mentored were awful. The boy kept breaking into tears at inopportune moments – like the interview – and the girl simply gazed out of the window, without focus. He was too inexperienced to realize that she was in shock, and of course no one in the Capitol bothered to mention it. He told them to grab the food and run like hell. The girl, too fat to be a fast runner, actually deigned to look at him for once.

"It won't work," she said.

The boy was killed in the fighting at the Cornucopia. Jonkil ignored the food and ran for the mountain, where at least there was the river source. Her indifference to the Cornucopia saved her life. She made her only kill on the second day, a boy from District 8. She stabbed him with his own knife, once, twice, eight times, and sat back, staring at him with that same unfocused look.

"Haymitch," she said. "Haymitch. I'm sorry, but I don't think I can do this again." Then she cut her own throat with the red-stained knife, almost ear-to-ear, except she bled out too fast and couldn't finish.

The people on the hovercraft gave him the knife as a souvenir. He has it somewhere, though he thinks Prim mistook it for something else, because one day she tried to be helpful to her neighbours, like she'd been back in the Seam, and washed it up with all the other dirty crockery.

The tributes to the 73rd Games were a spectacularly mediocre pair. On the train to the Capitol, they and Haymitch sat looking at each other while Effie tried and failed to start a conversation.

The boy pointed at Haymitch's drink. "Can I have some of that?"

"Why the hell not," said Haymitch.

They were both killed in the initial bloodbath and Haymitch stayed drunk for weeks.

Katniss Everdeen was the first person he ever saved. It ended up like the alcohol; it got so he couldn't stop doing it, over and over again.

After her trial, Peeta limped up and attacked him with a full-body hug. He buried his face in Haymitch's shoulder and his nose was in Peeta's hair. It smelled like the hospital, clean and poisonous at the same time, and he wanted to throw up.

"You saved her life," Peeta said, his voice cracked and half-broken with hope. "Part of me hates you for that, so you know how grateful I am." There were tears on his cheeks, and Haymitch wanted to shake him, yell at him, Don't you know anything? But words wouldn't come.

The eighth person to vomit up their dinner at the party was Pliny Castleton, and he did it on Haymitch's shoes. He raised his head, groaning, and saw Haymitch's expression. Which wasn't much of an expression either way, but it unnerved Capitol people when he seemed blank and immovable. Apparently, they thought the Victors hated them less when they were cheerful and happy. Pliny Castleton scrambled away.

Behind him, one of the other Victors was laughing. Not the hysterical giggle that some had, but genuine laughter, sweet and low. Chaff leaned forward and smacked Haymitch on the shoulder with his stump.

"You had a drink yet?" he asked.

"If this is what Capitol people think a drink is, yeah," said Haymitch.

"Nah, a real drink," said Chaff. "Come on, I'll buy you one."

"It's free here," said Haymitch, glancing at the bar.

"That's why we're going somewhere else," Chaff said. "You got to spend this money on something."

"I was thinking of buying a soul off someone here," said Haymitch. "Try it on, see if it fits."

"Tell me if you find a seller," said Chaff, and took him to the worst bar in the Capitol. He woke up the next morning in his own bed, with a note and a glass of water. He stared at them for minutes, wondering what it was Chaff wanted.

Nothing, as it turned out.

"I don't know what to do," Katniss said to the bottle. She pressed her forehead against it and swayed slightly, moving to a rhythm only she could hear.

"It's funny how you think I do," said Haymitch.

Katniss straightened. It was a hopeless gesture, because she could barely sit up, but she looked businesslike for all of five seconds. "There's only one way to keep him out of the Games."

"Yeah," said Haymitch. "Let's kill him in the morning."

"Right!" said Katniss enthusiastically. Then she slumped. "No."

She wormed her head into his armpit and fisted a hand in his shirt. It confused him for a second, until he realized that it was her attempt at snuggling. It was bizarre and foolish and Haymitch indulged himself by hugging her closer. He poured another drink to punish himself.

"Why the hell he wants to marry you, I don't know," he said.

"I know," said Katniss, rubbing her cheek against his arm. "I don't want to marry me either."

"Why the fuck couldn't you just murder him like a normal person would?" Haymitch asked, not expecting an answer, and not expecting the answer he got, which was a load of drivel about debts and kindness and incipient teenage romance.

"It's like you think I care," said Haymitch, and when Katniss scowled at him, he did, so desperately that he couldn't breathe.

"Any advice?" asked Finnick Odair. He was leaning on the barstool like molten gold, lazy and achingly desirable. His mouth was smiling. Anybody in the room probably thought he was soliciting, which, in a way, he was.

"I tried throwing up on one once," said Haymitch. "That was when I had a cat."

"A cat," said Finnick, and for a split second his mouth wasn't smiling either, before he recovered his balance.

"Yeah," said Haymitch. "All you need to do is clean up their shit and put food out when you're sober. Great pets."

"I'm sorry," said Finnick Odair, the skin around his eyes tightening. His mouth was still curved in an inviting smile. "How is this relevant?"

"Well, I don't have a cat any more," said Haymitch. Next to him, he saw the sudden light of understanding dawn on Finnick Odair's expression. Then it was gone.

"I have a cat," he said.

"Then I advise you to pretend you don't," said Haymitch.

"It might be too late."

"Then I advise you to have a drink," said Haymitch, and bought him one.

The cold water splashed over his face and he opened his eyes blearily.

"I wasn't asleep," he said.

"You were doing a good impression of it," said Katniss. "Hair of the dog, come on."

He drank the shot and felt better, but it was the smell of baking bread that made him blink twice and struggle to his feet.

"Peeta's cooking," said Katniss.

"I didn't think you were," he said.

They got to the kitchen and outside Haymitch could hear the honking of geese. Why the hell had he decided to breed geese? Had he been drunk? He'd probably been drunk.

"Here," said Katniss, setting a plate of eggs and bacon in front of him. "Eat." She stood over him while he did, and wouldn't let him get up until he'd finished. There was a point to it, he thought, and realized that he hadn't eaten in two days.

"You're going to come for a walk, now," said Peeta.

"Am I," said Haymitch, but, as it turned out, he was. Peeta took his arm in a strong grip and Katniss more or less marched him and the picnic basket down the street, until they were far enough away from the house for her and Peeta to decide in a loud consultation that it wasn't worth his while to make a break for it.

"You are going to eat this picnic," she said in a cross whisper. "Peeta made this picnic."

"You're right," Haymitch hissed back. "I'm obviously the person you want to use to make Peeta happy."

"Well, there's not much choice around here," she snapped, and they straightened, smiling, as Peeta turned round.

"Everything all right?" he asked.

"Perfect," said Haymitch, with such a big grin that even Peeta was suspicious. "Tell me, is this fucking nightmare of a life real or not real?"

"Real," they said together, like a chorus, and Katniss punched him in the arm.