Between the blizzard and the Capitol, it was the roughest winter in Twelve anyone could remember, even the most ancient oldsters who’d seen the hard times shortly after the Dark Days. Haymitch looked at all of it, at the gallows and the whipping post, the harsh Head Peacekeeper, the Hob burned down, the tesserae that came late if at all, the longer shifts and higher coal quotas in the mines. His mind went back to a summer garden when he was seventeen, to blood and roses and that threat of Do what I say or else, those cold, precise Capitol tones describing to him exactly what he was seeing unfold in front of his eyes if he didn’t play Snow’s game.
He’d sold himself on Snow’s whims for years trying to keep this from happening, and seeing it come to pass now, the old guilt was right there, like a dog that never left his heel. He’d done this, he’d called down the wrath by thinking he could challenge them and bring two tributes home alive, and one of them a dangerous one like Katniss Everdeen to boot. He'd foolishly figured after all this time, after what a complete fuck-up he’d become, Snow stopped considering him a threat. He should have had more sense than that.
There wasn’t enough white liquor in the world to deal with that, to wash away the desperation of the district all through the winter, and with Ripper out of business, he was having to stay a hell of a lot more sober than he’d like to begin. That just made it all the worse, because the stretches of reality were right there, too bright and too awful to bear.
The kids brought Hazelle Hawthorne to him one day, asked him to hire her on to housekeep for him, said she was out of the washing business after her boy Gale got flogged half to death and nobody wanted to risk it. They had no idea, of course, about things from long before they were born, but it was Hazelle so of course he nodded and agreed to it. It embarrassed him to have her of all people see the place, both the dusty untouched rooms upstairs where he hadn’t ever dealt with the things belonging to his ma and Ash, and the liquor bottles and the assorted clutter downstairs where he’d just really ceased to give a shit.
It embarrassed him even more to think how he hadn’t stepped in and helped her out before, because Jonas must have been dead five or six years now. What a thing that was. Briar died in that fire long ago, Jonas and Burt died together down in the mines. Of the four of them, their little pack that had been out scouring the woods together back when he was young, he was the one still alive. Well, he’d proven in the arena he had a survivor’s talent for outliving good people. Life really was a bitch like that.
But she was truly desperate now. So he could suck it up and suffer some embarrassment. She cleaned the place top to bottom, dragging out the broken furniture and broken liquor bottles, polished and dusted. As she left him with a hot dinner and a clean house, she told him with some irritation, “She’d be ashamed to see you like this.” No malice, just a simple statement.
He didn’t have to ask what “she” was being referred to here. They both knew she wasn’t referring to Katniss. Nor did he flinch at the harsh truth of it. “I know she would,” he said, staring bleakly at a half-full bottle of white liquor and wondering if he could make it somehow last more than a day or two. Of course Briar would be ashamed of him, if she’d lived to see what he’d become. Unfortunately, she wasn’t the only one because he’d found shame in himself was one of those things alcohol didn’t quite manage to drown. “Hazelle,” he said, using her full name rather than the fond and familiar "Haze" he had as a kid, sensing she was about to go. “Take some of the food back for your kids.” She’d be too exhausted to go home and cook another meal, and his pantry, even as little as he cared about food most days, was a hell of a lot better than whatever she was scraping down together in the Seam. “Too much there for me to eat. Call it part of your wages.”
There was a lot he could have said about how he was sorry, about how he realized now he should have stepped in long ago to do something for her. In a better world than this one, she’d have been his sister-in-law and those four kids down in that house in the Seam would be his niece and nephews. He’d just gotten so out of touch with everyone and everything years ago because he didn’t belong any more, and it was easier anyway to not be involved in their lives given that any misstep would be taken out on them. Plus there was the little fact he brought two of their kids to their doom every year.
But apparently he was still Seam born and raised enough, grey-eyed and black-haired and olive-skinned as the open proof of it, to know full well if he said it and tried to explain, tried to make it about what he felt he owed her and about his sense of guilt, her pride would hate it. Putting it simply as part of employer and employee, that was acceptable. She ladled up some of the stew to take back home, though he wished she’d take more of it. He made sure she took some of the bread. “Thank you, Haymitch,” she said quietly, though he much preferred her flash of temper because it felt more honest than that weary gratitude. “Good night.”
She walked out into the cold and he sat at his kitchen table wondering how much more they could all endure before they either shattered and Twelve just disappeared, or they rose up and gave Snow that excuse for active annihilation that he so obviously wanted.
He got his answer right quick come the spring after all of Panem watched Katniss twirling and modeling her wedding gowns and they moved into a public announcement with President Snow. He remembered how little he’d thought about the reading of the card last time, how he and Briar had both tried to ignore the danger of a double reaping, so unaware of how it would wreck his life and eventually end hers. Should have figured it would find a way to do it to him again. Reaped from the existing pool of victors. He didn't hesitate to reach for the liquor. He figured he deserved it.
After he woke up the next morning, having gotten good and fully drunk for the first time in months, he remembered sometime the night before he’d promised a drunk Katniss he’d save Peeta after he promised a sober Peeta he’d save Katniss. Well, wasn’t that a nice little conundrum. He sipped a cup of broth that Katniss handed to him when she padded over to his house, and as she sipped hers too, sitting beside him, they watched the sun rise, and he started to think what the hell he was going to do here.
Then Peeta dumped out all the liquor, bullying and threatening them into the notion of training their asses off for the Games, claiming they had to train like Careers and that being drunk was just going to hold them back. OK, so he was right about that but it was annoying to hear the self-righteousness in it. Complaining about Haymitch being too reliant on a fucking crutch that would become his weakness in the arena, when his own was standing right there with her braid down her back, listening to the same lecture. At the same time Haymitch really wanted to strangle him, some part of him was laughing grimly, realizing he’d actually run up against a superior force here. The boy had more balls under that gentle demeanor than a lot of people wanted to believe. He was sort of impressed even as he was furious.
Of course he found out later from Hazelle that Peeta had dropped by over the next few days while Haymitch was in his bed, busy rolling on the painful waves of sudden total withdrawal. He didn’t even know it, too caught up in shaking and raving insanely at nightmares of a burning Seam house and candy-pink birds and Sapphire with her empty eye socket and dozens of dead kids both merchie gold and Seam dark that he’d tended down in the tribute morgue and some of his worst nights being whored out, the ones that had usually left him in Doc Sixleigh’s care and with some of the other victors looking after him. Dropped by to bring him food he was too sick to eat, and some herbs from Perulla Everdeen for settling the nausea once he could keep anything down, but mostly to make sure he was still alive. Katniss, of course, had been nowhere to be found. That was actually a relief. She already held him in more than enough contempt. He didn’t need to hand her one more reason, seeing him that weak.
He didn’t ask Hazelle what he’d been screaming in his delirium. She didn’t offer to tell him. At least she let him pay her extra, claiming that nursing hadn’t been in the contract. Cleaning up vomit buckets, forcing water down him when she could, and changing sweat-soaked sheets--well, so he managed to embarrass himself a little more in front of her. On the bright side, not much more he could do to look worse to her, right?
He sat on the porch again, sipping the herbs she’d made into a tea for him, feeling it settle his uneasy stomach. So this was full sobriety, a day without even a sip of something so mild as wine, probably for the first time since he was twenty or so. The morning sun was too bright and his head hurt, his ribs ached from all the heaving, and he felt about as weak as a kitten. He felt the press in of all the darkness that was as ever waiting just at the edges of his vision, creeping up on him. He winced. Yeah, he definitely preferred being drunk.
But poking cautiously through his mind, he had to admit that so long as he deftly avoided a lot of dark areas that loomed too big without the hazy filter of alcohol, getting out of the starting gate when it came to thinking was looking a bit easier. He turned his mind to the Quell problem. Never mind the horror of all his friends in it. He shut that behind its own door for the moment with some effort and he just pondered the issue at hand here in Twelve.
Obviously the boy deserved to be the one saved this time, just like he and Katniss had agreed. But Katniss didn’t even realize how important her life was. All those little district rebellions since the Victory Tour, the way Snow put the screws to Twelve all winter long, just hoping they’d rise up and give him reason to crush them. The way there was no fucking chance that Quell card had been put there seventy-five years ago. What were the chances back then they could rely on all twelve districts having at least one male and one female victor still alive for it to be a full Games? He didn’t bother doing the math yet on whether that even applied currently, because that would mean running over the names of too many friends who were caught up in this abomination. What were the chances that particular twist would happen to be just in the year after a potential challenge to Capitol power popped up? He was no math genius like Beetee, granted, but being from Twelve, he was naturally very familiar with the notion of next-to-none odds.
He’d told Peeta he’d save Katniss. He’d told Katniss he’d save Peeta. Frankly the thought of sending either of them to die like this when he’d actually managed the impossible and saved them both seemed unbearable. It really took him a bit longer to fully grasp it than it should have--blame his brain still trying to settle down from its years-long spin and secure itself down in this new sober world--but he laughed as the solution, almost elegantly simple, came to him. It was all right there for the taking, wasn’t it? He spent the rest of the afternoon starting to put the pieces together of how it ought to go.
After he ate a good dinner, managed to keep it down, and Hazelle went home for the night, he picked up the telephone and he called up Plutarch Heavensbee.
The call came just as Plutarch Heavensbee was sitting down after dinner with some plans for the new arena, with creative suggestions for each particular “hour”. He pinched the bridge of his nose, hoping that upset people hadn’t actually gotten hold of his home number. Five days since the reading of the card and already the call log at the office for the number of citizens asking if something couldn’t be changed was in the hundreds. At the same time he was dealing with the sense of Capitol outrage, he was seeing decades of carefully buried traces of a revolution in the making burning down before his eyes. In short, it had not been a good week.
“This is Plutarch,” he answered, with as cheerful a tone as he could muster.
“It’s Haymitch Abernathy,” came the voice on the other end. Plutarch raised an eyebrow. Same rough district twang but lacking his usual slurring. Interesting.
“Haymitch, let me save us both some time. No, there are no current plans to alter the Quell. Yes, a petition is circulating to be presented to President Snow. No, I cannot tell you anything about the arena.”
Haymitch laughed, that low bitter-black laugh he had. “I didn’t call to whine at you about that, Heavensbee. You said call if I ever wanted a game of chess.” Plutarch’s fingers tightened on the phone at those words. “I can’t get a decent player here in Twelve, though the boy’s coming along nicely. Plan on teaching him everything I know. All my tricks.”
“I thought you said you didn’t have a telephone.”
“Trinket took care of that months ago. Very good at twisting arms, our Efficient Effie. She apparently got tired of hearing about people having to call the mayor on matters related to our little victors rather than dealing with sweet ol’ me and told me it was presenting a poor image, or something. Look, we gonna play or not? Even if you’re the bastard who’s busy trying to be killing me off, you’re about the best I’ve played. So pull out the fucking board, set up those little pawns of yours, and let’s have us a game.”
“Give me just a minute to get my board.” With that, Plutarch hurried for the parlor and the chess set there, his heart thumping with a wild excitement. He’d been waiting years for this call, been on edge for it ever since the Victory Tour when he was one of the few in the Capitol to be made privy to the uprisings that were brewing. He’d expected it and when winter passed and it didn’t come, he’d started to think it never would.
He brought the board back to the table near the phone, set it up with its handsome carved onyx and alabaster pieces. “It’s difficult to flip a coin for who’ll take white. I can’t see it or you can’t see it, so that’s hardly fair.” He imagined Haymitch sitting there, eyeing his own setup, wondering what was going through his mind.
“Nah, whatever. I’ll take black.” Yes, this was apparently that call. He found he was grinning as they made the opening moves and he watched Haymitch’s game to see what message it contained, what hint of strategy he was offering up.
They’d started to play chess over twenty years ago now, when Plutarch was newly arrived from Thirteen and working as an aide to the victors. He’d tried to befriend Haymitch on the orders of then-President Link because they’d seen his victory, the defiance of the Capitol in it, and thought that this might be the moment, the right spark for a rebellion. By the time Plutarch found him, though, Coriolanus Snow had already put the chains on him good and thick.
Haymitch’s game back then was deliberate, cautious, loath to sacrifice any pieces. Given what he’d been through and what terrible price he was then paying to keep Snow away from his district, Plutarch wasn’t too surprised. He’d found chess was an excellent mirror to hold up to someone to know the truth of their nature and current mindset.
They’d kept playing chess for a few years until Plutarch moved up to being a junior Gamemaker, and he told Haymitch, Anytime you want to play a match, just call me on the telephone and let me know.
He’d carefully let Haymitch know over the years what pieces were in place, just waiting for the right moment. So when he said that, he’d seen in Haymitch’s grey eyes the other man understood the message, and in how he casually answered, Yeah, maybe someday I’ll call you up. I'll even give you the white pieces. After that they mostly lost touch except for a few matters here and there related to the Games. He’d meant to talk to Haymitch last year after the girl came along, that marvelous girl with her fire and her fearlessness, but there had never been a good opportunity.
Yes, something had definitely changed. Haymitch now played swiftly, aggressively, his moves spoken over the telephone with barely a pause. Ruthless too; he didn’t hesitate to sacrifice pieces. He kept putting his queen in play, putting his most powerful piece at risk, though Plutarch noticed the black queen’s bishop was usually right with her as protection.
He thought he was starting to understand this developing message very well. Then came the point where under the pressure of an attack Haymitch casually left that bishop for the taking to protect the queen’s aggressive push towards the white king. “Really? You’re sure of that move?” Plutarch asked him, trying to not let surprise show. “It seems like a mistake.”
Haymitch let out a snort of confident amusement, as if he knew something Plutarch didn’t. “What, losing the bishop? Fuck him. He’s past his usefulness. No, take a look at my little queen there, Plutarch. She’s the one that matters, and she’s got your king in checkmate in two moves.”
Plutarch looked. “I count three.”
“Two,” Haymitch insisted. Taking another long, careful look, Plutarch sighed as he realized the other man was right. It was in two.
“You sure your own king’s as safe as you think?” It sounded like the standard insults and attempts to fake each other out, but the deliberate question was there. He hoped Haymitch understood.
Another of those amused laughs answered him. “He’s snug as a bug back there where he belongs. You're not getting anywhere near him.” A pause and then Haymitch asked, “You wanna play to clear who’s left off the board or just call it quits here?”
“Fine. Checkmate in two. I admit it.” He tipped over the white king with a sense of satisfaction. “You win this one. Well played. Apparently you haven't lost the touch.”
“Well, hey, I win at chess, you win at the Quell, so I think you come out ahead.” Damn him, making it all about reality for a moment like that.
He sighed and shook his head, “If you want another game, go ahead and call me. Just don’t ask me for tips about the arena.”
“Yeah, well, I’m going to be a bit busy. So much to do, planning for the fun of the Quell and all. Trying to manage my adorable lovebirds and this new little tragedy. But tell you what. You’ve got two weeks to improve your game. I’ll expect some development by then.” With that Haymitch hung up.
Trying to not think about some of the implications Haymitch had just implied with his game, Plutarch immediately turned around and sent a coded message to President Coin on Thirteen’s wavelength. Mockingjay will be ready to fly if we get her out of the cage. Need progress report in two weeks.