For all that Haymitch knows about dying and killing and grieving, it’s not until he sees Peeta sitting across from President Snow on a giant screen in the mess hall in District 13 that he understands the phrase a fate worse than death. Haymitch came to know death intimately in the arena, flirted with it and ran from it and sometimes wished for it later, but he always thought that, as long as you’re still alive and breathing, all is not lost.
He changes his mind about that as he watches the face of one of the kids he tried so hard to keep safe, the boy he failed so spectacularly, condensed into a mask that betrays neither fear nor pain and yet screams of both.
Life in District 12 has never been easy, not even as a supposedly coddled victor, but they’ve settled into it. They found their rhythm, their little loopholes, and made themselves as comfortable as they could be.
After Katniss and Peeta win their games, that changes. This isn’t a surprise, not to Haymitch; whether they meant to or not, they showed the Capitol up. President Snow wouldn’t have gotten to where he is if he’d buy tales of blind teenage love. It’s the seed of something bigger, potentially dangerous to the status quo, and there’s a part of Haymitch that draws almost childish glee from the thought that his tributes started it. Take that, Snow. After all this time, Twelve’s back for another dance on the nose of the Capitol.
He stops being gleeful after they send a new set of Peacekeepers who act more like a pack of rabid dogs than reasonable guards and implement a curfew. He starts to get angry when they whip Gale.
Haymitch doesn't have a lot do with Gale, per se. He’s not angry on his behalf, exactly, or even on Katniss’s. The anger he feels is old and familiar, much as he knows it's futile. He does what he always does when it surges up in him; he goes home and crawls into a bottle.
Later that day, Peeta appears to fish him out of it. For what it's worth, he tries, always keeps trying no matter how mean Haymitch gets while plastered.
“He's with Katniss's mother. He'll get better,” Peeta says by the way of a greeting.
“Do I look like I care?” Haymitch snaps, but steps back aside to let him in.
Instead of answering, Peeta gives him one of those looks as they sit across from one another, and Haymitch puts the lid on his bottle and sets it aside. But he doesn't feel like being agreeable, not quite yet. “She must really like him,” he teases, and watches Peeta squirm.
“They're friends,” eventually comes the reply, but it's hardly more than a murmur, like he knows he's kidding himself. There are rumors when it comes to Gale and Katniss. He must have heard them too. But that's the thing about Peeta; he's sad, but not jealous. He doesn't blame someone else for getting something akin to the one thing he wants most and can't quite have.
Haymitch doesn't know what it's like to love someone with your whole being, to the point where a world without them is inconceivable and sacrificing yourself in their place seems like the logical choice. He did love the girl the Capitol took from him after he won, but not with such fervor, and after that he didn't dare fall in love again. He used to tell himself that to avoid it made him smart. When he first saw Peeta's desperation to save Katniss, he began to think it may have made him a coward. Ever since then he keeps going back and forth. Not like it matters; it's too late anyway, there's nothing left in him to love. He flushed it all out.
He shakes his head to push the thought away. No self-pity. Anger. He dug the bottle out because he was angry, not maudlin. The least he can do is stick to the mood he's currently drinking away. His eyes wander back towards the bottle just as Peeta pushes it further away, and Haymitch sighs.
“Why are they here?” Peeta asks after a long moment of silence. “Is it because of us?”
Of course he made that connection. He doesn't have the passion of a fighter, not the way Katniss or Gale or Haymitch himself do, but he's got a bright head on his shoulders. Haymitch knows he should lie, but doesn't have the heart. “Probably.”
“And what now? What do we do?” Peeta asks, and Haymitch's heart misses a beat. Cold fear curls around it, in a way he's almost forgotten until last year, when he rediscovered it sometime between loading another set of kids onto a train and letting himself believe he might actually get to see one of them through for once.
“Nothing,” he says, louder than he means to. “You do absolutely nothing.”
“But they can't do this,” Peeta insists, and there it is, the boy's steadfast belief there's a such a thing as right and wrong, however he managed to hold on to that in a world like theirs.
“They're the Capitol,” Haymitch says, scrubbing a hand down his face. “Believe me, they can do anything they want.”
When the Quarter Quell is announced, way before Katniss or even Peeta show up on his doorstep, Haymitch decides it's his turn to fight. Or to die. Possibly both.
Of course that's not what happens.
He finds himself in a room hidden deep in the underbelly of the training center only hours after they arrive in the Capitol, summoned by a note he followed merely because he recognized Chaff's handwriting and the signatures of some other victors, like Finnick and Beetee. They all sit around a large round table that's sparsely lit by candles; using the overhead lights would give them away. Haymitch all but walks back out when he makes out Plutarch Heavensbee in the dim light, but Chaff grabs his arm, beckons him to sit.
Before he has a chance to decide whether he wants to or not, the gamemaker clears his throat and all conversation in the room dies. “I have a plan,” he says, voice low and calm but confident. “And I need the help of all of you to make it work.”
Haymitch thinks of Katniss's fierce desperation and Peeta's sense of justice. He thinks of his family and two decades worth of dead children. He takes a seat, and he listens.
The recording from the Capitol ends, eery silence filling the mess hall, and Haymitch's and Katniss's eyes meet over a row of tables. In that moment, they're the same, united in grief and guilt. She thinks Peeta is a prisoner because of her, and Haymitch knows how wrong she is, how little she really did have to do with anything that happened. She set the spark, but others fanned the flames Peeta's now left in to burn.
“Peeta is the Capitol's weapon,” he says to her, later. “The same way you are ours.”
What he doesn't say is, it's not your fault. What he doesn't say is, it's mine.