The rain was pouring down. Peeta Mellark, lone victor of the 74th Hunger Games, looked with disinterest out of the train window. Fall in 12 was dark, and dreary, and wet.
The string of parties he had attended the last three weeks or so in the Capitol had been anything but dark and dreary. They were full of glitter, lights, outrageous clothes, loud music and entertainment that he didn’t quite understand. Though after fourteen years, he knew the drill. Drink. Eat. Take that little glass of emetic. Throw up. Eat some more. Suck up to the right people. Laugh at the right places. Flirt, but not too much – except with the client of the night.
So it would seem that the parties were dreary, too. Just dreary in a different way.
The trick to survive was not to drink right before he took the emetic, because if he did, he wouldn’t get drunk. He had to give the alcohol time to reach his intestines before he expelled the contents of his stomach. He really needed the alcohol to numb his body, numb his mind. Numb his world. Wigs, glitter, make-up, expensive clothes, mindless conversations about nothing. Oh, he knew how to play them now. The men and the women. He wasn’t the most popular victor, but he was close. He knew the prices he commanded weren’t far behind Finnick's or Cashmere’s.
The drugs helped, too. Thankfully. They worked even better than alcohol to numb his mind. And if his body wouldn’t cooperate, if whoever bought him was particularly ugly, particularly boring, or particularly nasty, well... the Capitol had pills for that, too.
He had a couple of months off now, at least until the next Victory tour. Some poor girl from 1 had been the victor of the 88th Annual Hunger Games. She’d been a vicious killer with impressive knife throwing skills, but he felt sorry for her nonetheless. She was pretty. He’d just witnessed her first season “working” in the Capitol. He wondered if she would last in the long run. At least she had Cashmere to help her out.
In January, the Victory Tour would come to 12, and he’d be expected to put on a show at the reception and then the party. Twelve was the last stop before 1, the new victor’s home district, and they saved the Capitol for last as always. Peeta had been a mentor 14 times, and not even once had he been even close to getting a tribute out of the arena alive.
Perhaps that was for the best.
The train approached the electric fence, and came to a stop. Peeta poured himself another drink. They’d be there in five minutes. The train passed through the electric fence, and he studied the armed peacekeepers outside of the window because he didn’t have anything better to do. He saw their closed faces. They looked wet and miserable.
Haymitch met him at the train station. There was no one else. He guessed he shouldn’t be surprised, his family hadn’t met him at the train station in years. That was probably for the best, too.
“You didn’t even bring an umbrella,” Peeta huffed at Haymitch. The old drunk was still ruggedly handsome, but his lifestyle was starting to take its toll. The sclerae of his eyes now had a slight yellow tinge to them. Peeta made a mental note to make some phone calls to the Capitol. If Haymitch died… Peeta shuddered.
If Haymitch died, he’d have no one.
Haymitch was already soaking wet, but by the looks of it, he was so drunk that he didn’t care, anyway. He just guffawed at Peeta’s umbrella remark.
“How was the Capitol?”
“Same, same.” Peeta pulled up the collar of his jacket, but he knew he’d be soaked through by the time they got home, anyway. It was only a ten minute walk, but he wished they’d had cabs in 12, like in the Capitol. Even the Capitol had its perks.
It was getting dark, but he was grateful. He didn’t feel like meeting anyone today. They all knew he’d been in the Capitol. They’d also more than likely seen him on TV – in the arms of one socialite after the other. When he first came home as a victor after miraculously surviving the 74th Hunger Games, he’d thought his life would return to normal. It didn’t take him long to find out how wrong he was. Not even his own family could handle it – that their son was no longer one of them. He had seen and done things that they could not understand. He found himself somewhere in the gray zone between 12 and the Capitol. Too Capitol for 12. Too 12 for the Capitol.
“There’s been an accident in the mines,” Haymitch said.
“Oh.” Peeta didn’t even try to fake an interest in it. There were accidents in the mines all the time. “How many?”
Haymitch shrugged. “Who knows? Right before the winter, too.”
Peeta nodded. He knew what Haymitch meant. It was very bad timing for the widows and children to lose their sole provider at this time of the year. He didn’t see the point in discussing it, though, so he changed the subject to something more pleasant. “Finnick says hi. He also sent you some liquor from 4.”
“Bless him!” Haymitch accepted the bottle Peeta pulled from his pocket and immediately opened it. After taking a few deep gulps himself, he handed the bottle back to Peeta. “Let’s go home.”
They walked in silence for a few minutes. As they were almost at the end of the Main Street, the only street in 12 with streetlights, they saw a small group of people walking in their direction. Peeta recognized Mr. Halloway, the leader of the mining operations, as well as Cray, the head Peacekeeper of 12. He despised them both. He also knew what it meant.
They were on their way to the mining company’s headquarters to give the widows of the miners who had been killed today their last paycheck. The mining company was generous. It was only the 11th, but they would still pay the miners up until the end of the month.
Then the families were on their own.
“Fuck, Haymitch, I don’t think I can deal with this tonight,” he hissed, but it was too late. There was nowhere else to go, they were forced to pass the small, pathetic group of people. He could already hear the sobbing of the widows and the cries of a baby.
Peeta kept his eyes fixed on the ground. Common courtesy dictated that he had to greet Mr. Halloway and that old fucker Cray, though. He was protected by his victor status, but it was always a good idea not to piss off Cray.
“Mr. Mellark, such a pleasure to see you,” Mr. Halloway said with a smile on his face. He was always trying to suck up to 12’s biggest celebrity. Well, 12’s only celebrity. Peeta muttered something in return, hoping to avoid any further contact with them. He couldn’t deal with actual human emotion tonight. He was already longing for another drink.
He gritted his teeth. There were perhaps ten women in the small following, and a disturbingly high number of children. They were all underfed and underdressed, and it seemed like they were all covered in a thin layer of coal dust. Peeta always tried to stay away from the people from the Seam as much as he could. Being around them was a too painful reminder of… something that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Something he tried his best not to think about.
Just as he was about to direct his gaze to the safe ground again, he saw her. At the very back of the group.
His eyes met hers for just a split second. She was carrying a baby in a pale orange wrap on her chest. The baby was the one he’d heard crying in the distance. It still was. He couldn’t see clearly, but the infant must be very little, perhaps only a few months old.
He’d seen her with a swollen belly months earlier. In early summer. She had looked so beautiful, with flowers in her hair.
The woman held a boy’s hand, the boy must’ve been 4 or 5 years old. Like all the other Seam children, he had that look in his eyes. The look that told him this boy knew what hunger was. He guessed the boy would be even better acquainted with hunger soon enough.
Her cheeks were covered in tears, but unlike the other widows, she didn’t make a sound. She swayed slightly, trying to soothe her baby on her chest. Peeta opened his mouth as if to say something, but thought better of it.
Then they had passed the group of women and children. His gaze returned to the dirt on the street. When they were out of earshot, Haymitch asked him: “Who was that?”
“The one you looked at.”
“Oh. It was Mrs.… Hawthorne.”
“Oh.” Haymitch paused. “Such a shame. I remember her, I just didn’t recognize her with the children and all. It’s the Everdeen girl, right?” Peeta nodded. “I used to buy squirrels from her. Long ago, before she married that Hawthorne boy.”
“Yeah. Long ago.”
The victors returned to their empty, dark homes in the Victors’ village. Peeta got one last mouthful of strong District 4 liquor before they parted. He could swear the shit had an aftertaste of seashells, although he didn’t even know how that was technically possible. When he arrived home, the house had that stale smell that houses get when no one lives in them. He didn’t bother showering or turning on the lights, other than the few he needed to locate the liquor cabinet. He found a bottle of scotch and downed two glasses along with some Capitol pills he had in his pocket.
He went upstairs. The world was starting to become shiny. It sparkled. It was familiar. Safe. It guarded him from the darkness.
Soon Peeta Mellark, victor of the 74th Hunger Games, was unconscious in his bed.