Haymitch is alone when I find him. I take a discreet sniff. At least he’s somewhat sober. I am thinking how to present my thoughts to him when I notice he’s been staring at me for the better part of the last few minutes.
“She’s not here.” He finally drawls before taking a pull at the bottle that rests between his legs.
“I know,” My voice squeaks. I clear my throat and try again. “I know. I need to talk to you.”
“Well, I am your mentor.” Haymitch answers with all the enthusiasm of a man who would rather be doing anything else.
I cross the room and sit on the ottoman opposite his chair. The bottle Haymitch holds is emptier than I thought yet he is surprisingly lucid.
“I want to talk about the training,” I begin, falter and glance down at my clenched fists.
Haymitch says nothing. Just stares at me with eyes growing bleary at the edges. I don’t have much time.
“I’d like to be trained separately,” I gulp. My palms are sweating. Haymitch’s baleful glare completely unnerves me. “From Katniss.” I add just to fill the silence that continues to grow.
“I’m drunk, not stupid.” Haymitch sneers then takes another pull from the white liquor in his lap. “May I ask why?”
“Why?” I repeat.
“Yes, Peeta. Why?” He leans forward, bringing the details of his lack of hygiene into focus; the creased shirt; the dried food on the cuff; the grease spots that dot his shirt; a fleck of spinach still in his teeth. I grimace and lean back on the ottoman. Haymitch notices my expression and smirks. “You certainly had no issue being coached with her before. Don’t tell me you’ve had a change of heart?”
His raised eyebrow tells me that I am not fooling him in any way. He knows how I feel, probably has from the first time he saw us together. I glance away; Haymitch guffaws and I get light-headed from the fumes.
“Peeta," his voice sounds almost fatherly. “Do you really think that you can save her?”
I meet Haymitch’s eyes. I know I don’t stand a chance, but she does. Do I really think I can save her? Well, I did it once before.
I begin to tell Haymitch about the day with the bread.
Haymitch listens to every word of my story. He listens, doesn’t react - except for a very slight eyebrow raise when I describe my mother’s beating, but I may have imagined that - and doesn’t pass judgment. He sits with his index fingers templed under his chin, looking at me as if seeing me for the first time.
“And you’ve never spoken of that day - the two of you?’ he finally says.
I shake my head.
“You’re sure she has no idea how you feel?”
“Does it look like she does, Haymitch?” I snap. “Anyway, she’s all mixed up with some guy back home. They’re always together.” I shrug, feigning indifference.
Haymitch nods, “I wouldn’t let that get to you.”
“It doesn’t.” My answer is too quick; Haymitch smirks. “I mean, it’s my fault- not saying anything sooner.”
“So why now?’ Haymitch tilts his head. “Are you really that noble, Peeta? Willing to sacrifice yourself for the woman you love?” His words are scathing, but he’s not looking at me when he says them. As if he, too, has secrets to hide.
“Look Haymitch,” I tell him. “You and I both know I don’t have much of a chance in that arena,” Haymitch nods. “But, the way the crowd reacted to us at the Opening - tributes acting as allies instead of enemies - so why not give them more?”
Haymitch’s eyes narrow then he burst out laughing. I am completely befuddled. I wasn’t trying to be funny.
“You know, Peeta, I may have underestimated you,” Haymitch gestures with his hand. “They’ll love it - the star-crossed lovers of District 12!”
“But…” I begin but Haymitch shushes me. He takes a long drink and swallows audibly, gazing at some point over my left ear.
“It may not be enough,” he mutters.
“What? What may not be enough?” I wipe my sweaty palms on the legs of my pants.
“You. Katniss. The whole undying love thing.” Haymitch is annoyed by my apparent stupidity. “She got good scores, Peeta. Unheard of scores.”
“Ok,” I say. “So what does that mean?”
“It means she’s a target. It means the Careers have only one threat to their victory and it’s her. Don’t think word didn’t get out about her stunt with the pig.”
I nod thoughtfully, but I smile. Katniss shooting that apple was a moment of sheer brilliance. Haymitch glares at me again.
“Oh come on,” I plead. “You thought what she did was pretty cool, too.”
“I did,” he admits. “But it’s not going to save her life.”
My smile fades at that. “What do I have to do?”
“Well, there’s no question you can get the audience on your side with you declaration of love but once you’re both in the arena, you’ve got to keep the Careers away from her.”
I am at a loss. I’ve got nothing that would make the Careers willing to go after me instead of Katniss unless they have an all-consuming passion for sugar flowers.
“Let me see what I can find out,” Haymitch breaks into my thoughts. “I’ll poke around; learn exactly what the mentors from One and Two know about you. We’ll play up your strength.”
“I don’t have any strengths,” I remind him.
“Strength,” Haymitch stresses the word. “I told you physical power is not to be undervalued. That and that fact that we will make the Careers think that you are committing the ultimate betrayal.”
“I don’t understand,” I shake my head.
“It’s simple,” Haymitch stands, tapping the nearly empty bottle against the side of his leg. “The Careers will take you on because you’re going to promise to lead them right to her.”
My mouth falls open. I did not see that coming and I get the distinct sense that this little heart to heart with Haymitch has spun completely out of my control.
“I’m…I’m going to do what?” I begin to stand, sit down again and finally settle for rubbing my palms back and forth on the thighs of my pants.
“How else can you protect her if you don’t know what they have planned for her,” Haymitch frowns and shakes his head. “It’s the perfect inside job.”
My head is spinning. First, he goes along with my idea of publicly declaring my crush on Katniss and then in the next breath he’s telling me that I’ll betray her the very next day.
I begin to wonder if Haymitch isn’t the tiniest bit insane.
“It’s the ultimate double cross,” Haymitch enthuses. “It’s exactly what you wanted.”
“How?” I cry. “How is that doing what I wanted?” This time I do stand up and Haymitch takes a step back. I look down at him before turning to head toward the windows.
“Oh Peeta,” Haymitch tries for serious but I can hear the laughter bubbling under his words. “Did you think this would have a happy ending? That you’d bare your soul and she’d swoon right into your arms?”
Kinda. “No” I say to the pane of glass.
Haymitch stands behind me; he places a hand on my shoulder. “Try to understand. Katniss will believe you,”
“I’m not pretending,” I bite out.
“I know,” Haymitch says and this time there is real sympathy in his voice. “But she’ll think it is a strategy. You have to let her think that because when she sees you with the Careers, it will force her to survive.”
“She’s going to hate me.”
“Possibly, but she has to be alive to do that,” Haymitch agrees. “Anger fuels her, Peeta. She’s already angry at the Capitol for putting her in this position, but once she gets in that arena, it won’t be enough. Your betrayal will be enough to make her survive.”
“Out of spite,” I stare at the lights of the city until they blur.
Haymitch gives my shoulder a final pat, “Sometimes that’s all we have.”
I am the last one to speak. I can hear the crowd; make out the sound of Caesar Flickerman’s voice if not his words. I know Katniss is on stage now. She is twirling, flames encircling her. Blinding as the sun and just as enticing. Haymitch is right. She is a star right now ,but like any partner, it is my job to make her unforgettable. To make both of us something the world-weary citizens of the Capitol have never seen before. I startle at the tap on my shoulder.
“Are you ready?” Haymitch has actually combed his hair for the occasion.
I nod; my throat is too tight to speak at the moment.
Caesar is ushering Katniss off the stage and soon my name will be booming through the auditorium.
I look back at my mentor.
“Make them love her.”
I give him a curt nod in reply but his next words stop me cold.
“As much as you do.”
I square my shoulders and step onto the stage. For this is truly when the games begin.