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Away From All the Fears and All the Faults You've Left Behind

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The actual hour on the clock didn’t matter much, because it was still full dark when Haymitch woke up suddenly to the sound of Johanna letting out a cry of terror, one he knew all too well meant she’d jolted awake in a cold sweat. It was almost February now, two weeks gone by since they’d come back to District Twelve from the Capitol after Brocade Paylor’s election. He and Johanna had been sharing a bed long enough now for him to know there were the nights when both of them slept soundly, untroubled by memories or nightmares or fears. Compared to even last fall back in Thirteen, those already happened more often. Maybe they’d become even more frequent as time went on until the bad nights were far outnumbered.

But that was neither here nor there for the present because obviously this was going to be one of the bad nights. Backing off, he gave her a few moments to wake up more fully, hearing her panicked breathing and knowing better than to have her come to awareness with him too close to her or holding her. Two trips through the arena, years of Snow whoring them out, six weeks of being tortured in the Capitol, and fighting a war meant that for both of them still, being held onto by someone in the dark might instinctively be seen as an attack, not an attempt to comfort.

Once he thought she’d had long enough to be able to hear something besides her own harsh breath and her heart pounding in her ears, he queried, “Hanna?” The old name she’d told him that her family used to call her, a name they’d kept private between the two of them. Hearing it usually helped her place where she was and who was there beside her all the quicker than the more common “Jo” would.

“Yeah,” the flat reply came after a moment’s pause, and he heard the faint rustle of the covers as she relaxed and tried to settle back down again.

He didn’t ask her whether she wanted to talk about it or tell him what she’d dreamed. She never did either when he was the one that woke up screaming. If she wanted to say, she would, but he wasn’t about to pry.

Now that she was actually awake, he moved back closer to her, and when she curled up against him, the warmth of her welcome against the bitter cold, he knew she was fully aware and not lost in whatever nightmare had been running through her head. “Still here,” he told her quietly, putting an arm around her. He wouldn’t say It’ll be OK because it wouldn’t, not really, not after everything. Neither of them was the sort to resort to sweet and gentle words anyway, especially not when they were obviously thinly veiled white lies. But that, the words they’d said to each other through the air vent in the Detention Center to let the other know they were still alive and at least a little sane, was maybe all that really needed to be said anyhow. I’m not going anywhere, you’re not alone.

He waited and stayed awake until he felt the tension ease from her and heard her breathing turn to the deep, even rhythm of sleep. She gave a soft snore and he couldn’t help a little smirk at that, amused by it, but closed his eyes and soon went back to sleep himself.

In the morning, he didn’t say anything about it. She was there for him when it was a bad night for him, and he was there for her. That was how it worked, no need to talk about it at length. The wedding song for Twelve said as much—committing to be there in good times as well as bad. She’d told him Seven pretty much had the same.

Besides, their days were always busy enough to not waste time staring and mumbling at each other about it. Even Victor’s Village in Twelve wasn’t exactly soft living. That wasn’t a judgment, only simple fact. The one blessing was that the water pipes had been buried deep enough, and apparently were insulated enough, to have withstood the Capitol firebombs that rained down last July immediately after he and Plutarch Heavensbee sprung Katniss from the Quarter Quell arena.

So they had running water, at least, and the convenience of being able to use indoor bathrooms rather than having to try to fuck around with digging a privy back in the middle of January when they arrived. Of course, all they had readily available was cold water. The water heater was yet another thing that ran on electricity, and the power had even been out last summer when Snow dragged him back here to take a forced tour of the death and devastation. The Capitol camera crew had gasoline-powered generators then to let them shoot the newsreel footage and Haymitch’s interview. No such luck now; Brocade had much more essential uses for the country’s limited gasoline supply than the comfort of four citizens of Panem, and he could hardly blame her for that.

So any kind of cooking, heating water for bathing, or the like, required going out into the forest and chopping wood to fire up the stove. Well, just one more instance where having a wife who was more than handy with an axe was useful, not to mention one who knew what kinds of woods burned best, longest, or when still green.

All four of them had grown used to relying on lanterns and candles for light, and a fire downstairs in the fireplace to keep warm in the evenings before bed. After all, for himself, Katniss, and Johanna, that was how their childhoods had been. Even Peeta had endured some of it too in the inevitable blackouts when the electricity failed. He remembered those times too, sitting here in this house with a lantern, willing it to last with a fierce intensity so he wouldn’t be left alone in the dark.

Leaving the warmth of their bed was always something he didn’t look forward to, but it had to be done. Shivering and quickly cleaning up with the cold water on hand and getting dressed in a hurry, they were on their way to Katniss’ house where Peeta had also taken up living, trudging through the cleared path in the snow. No sense wasting wood by lighting two stoves for each meal, so they alternated that duty and all ate together at meals. In a way that was actually comforting, to sit down with all four of them so regularly, as a family, rather than keep to two houses, close but separate.

Katniss answered the door and Johanna swept by her, singing out cheerfully as she stomped the snow off her boots, “Morning, Kittycat, you might want to put on a scarf. Or tell Hotbuns to get less enthusiastic with the hickeys.” Haymitch tried to keep a straight face at the sight of the vivid bruise on the side of Katniss’ throat.

Katniss scowled, and Johanna told Haymitch in a mock-whisper that was obviously meant for Katniss to overhear it, “Hell, it’s a good thing I’m not naked, imagine them seeing all those marks you put there with that beard....” She ran a playful finger down his cheek, because both he, and Peeta as he peeked his head into the hallway and waved good morning before heading back to the kitchen, were sporting some stubble. No point in shaving daily, especially not when it was a shave in freezing water.

As usual, a faint choking noise came from Katniss at the thought of Haymitch having sex, and she said with an irritated sigh, “Are you two gonna come help with breakfast or mess with me?”

“Breakfast,” Haymitch said readily.

“Mess with you,” Johanna said at the same time. She looked over at him and raised an eyebrow.

“What? I’m hungry.” He grinned and said with mock innocence, “Worked up a real appetite, you know.” He couldn’t resist it. “Mess with Katniss” was too damn easy, and she knew they meant it affectionately anyway. Considering even Peeta was chuckling from the kitchen, Katniss once again realized she was outnumbered, sighed, shook her head, and gestured them towards the kitchen.

At the very least, the winter snow meant that keeping food locked up in the old groundskeepers’ shed served neatly to keep things cold in lieu of having a working refrigerator. So while they were having to carefully ration things like butter and the bread Peeta had baked last week, they weren’t entirely without small comforts like that. Though Peeta was the first one to bring up, as they were sitting and tucking into the hot food with relief, “I was doing inventory again this morning. It’s still two weeks until the next hovercraft and we’re burning through our supplies too fast.”

“I know,” he said. Considering everyone across Panem was probably tightening their belts some this winter with food in shorter supply, they could hardly expect special privileges there.

“The snares just aren’t getting quite enough, and we can’t find any plants to gather,” Katniss continued glumly, taking a sip of coffee. “So we keep on having to use that stuff as our primary supply rather than supplements.” Given that he, Katniss, and Johanna knew a good bit about snares, and even Peeta was somewhat competent after their Quell training last year, they’d hurried to set up a trapline out in the forest during their wood-gathering expeditions.

She was right, though. The occasional rabbit or the like wasn’t much to prevent them from relying on those Capitol-sent supplies, and as he met her eyes across the table, he knew the notion of dependency on anyone, of therefore owing someone, even a woman as generally benevolent as Brocade Paylor, sat as ill with her as with him. She’d been raised Seam, after all, same as him. “I wish I had my bow,” Katniss said in frustration. “The one I had to leave back in the Capitol sewers.” The fancy bow they’d made her in Thirteen, left behind because there was no way to conceal it up on the Capitol streets. “Or even one of my old ones. Game will be scarcer in winter, but I’d still get something more than the snares.”

“You don’t have any of ‘em?” Johanna asked, sounding surprised.

“No, Gale,” only a moment of hesitation at the name of her best friend, dead in the attack on the Capitol, dead defending Katniss and Peeta down in the sewers from a mutt attack, “took the couple bows he and I used regularly after the firebombing to help him feed the refugees while they were heading north. Those bows, they’re still back in Thirteen and I’m not gonna ask someone to spend hovercraft fuel sending ‘em.” Not to mention asking any favors from Thirteen while they were still settling things in their own district was going to be a touchy proposition considering the four of them had been among the victors that denounced Coin in a propo to the entire nation. When he’d talked to Plutarch last week, the newly-appointed Secretary of Communications had told him that Coin had been arrested for crimes against the people.

“So can’t you make a new one?”

“My father, he knew how,” Katniss said with a sigh of frustration, “but he died before I got to learn. Unless Haymitch knows...”

“Not really,” he said almost apologetically. “Burt did a good job so we always had him make the bows when I was a kid.” Burt made the bows, Haymitch handled making the equipment for snares, sticking with what they were best at.

“Well, that’s that, I suppose,” Peeta said. “We’ll just have to make do as best we can and hope the snares produce better.” It wasn’t that they were badly placed; even his rusty skills had sharpened up pretty quick. Simply that there wasn’t all that much to catch out there this time of year, so Katniss was right—increasing their chances with a bow would definitely help. Better than a gun too, because the noise of that would start to spook the already-scarce game, and besides, they didn’t have a rifle anyway.

“Even a rough bow in the hands of a good archer, though,” he pointed out, “is better than nothing.” Katniss was good enough she’d probably learn to compensate quickly.

“You’re forgetting something,” Johanna said, sitting back in her chair. They all obligingly glanced her way, waiting to be enlightened. She put down her mug of coffee and said, “Oh, hey, I come from the lumber and carpentry district, kiddies. Maybe I know a few things about working and shaping wood?”

She had a good point there, and hearing it was a definite relief. Katniss’ expression pretty much said the same. “So you can make one?”

“I know the general ideas, yeah, but it’d be better if I had a good prototype to work from. We couldn’t make bows in Seven.” No, he imagined not, given that the woods were swarming with Peacekeepers while the people of Seven were busy at their summer lumbering camps. Apparently they looked the other way on kids setting snares, but something so obvious as a weapon couldn’t have been condoned.

“There might be some out there that just got left hidden over the years,” Katniss said hesitantly. “My daddy’s old bows, or the ones I used when I was a little kid that I outgrew.”

“Fine,” Peeta said. “Then Haymitch and I will run the trapline today and you two can check to see if you can find any of those old bows. And even if Katniss gets a bow, at least I can keep doing the snares,” he said with a sheepish look, all of them knowing full well how noisy his footsteps were naturally, and the artificial leg didn’t help either.

Finishing up the meal and making their way back to the house to layer up, Johanna joked to him while she was buttoning up her coat, “So, plans for the evening after dinner? A nice hot fire, maybe a nice game of chess?”

“Do you know how to play chess?” he asked curiously.

She gave him a look of vague irritation out of her brown eyes. “Lots of long cold winter evenings indoors when I was a kid. So yes, I can play. Besides, I saw you had a set in the parlor. Nice pieces, but that carving isn’t Seven style, so we didn’t make it—you got it from One?”

“Nope. I got the wood from One,” because if he was going to have to order wood for carving since collecting it in the forest was prohibited, he figured he might as well make it nice stuff, “but I made it.” He shrugged slightly. It wasn’t like he’d decided to become a lousy drunk overnight. At first it had been keeping busy to fill the awful, empty hours. Then eventually it became keeping busy and drinking. Finally it turned to just pure drinking. But in the years before that he’d done his share of things, and making that chess set had been one of them.

It had only ever seen use after Katniss and Peeta won their Games and they started to visit, and last winter he’d used a chess game over the telephone to tell Plutarch the rebellion was ready to go. Stupid, really. Putting in all that effort towards making a chess set, when year after year he never had company seemed like one more futile act in a life that had been full of them.

Seeing her slightly surprised expression he said wryly, “Well, I always was handy with a knife.” There came a point where he figured if he was going to have it nearby him all the damn time anyway he might as well do something productive with it.

“Not bad for an amateur,” she said, though she was smiling as she did it. That chess set was about the only thing he’d ever successfully finished carving. That and one pendant, its interlaced spirals carved out of simple pine, that Hazelle gave back to him last year before he went into the arena a second time. The same pendant he’d once made and given to her sister, back when he was young and stupidly in love with Briar Wainwright. He’d looked at it last summer and seen that it really was laborious and somewhat amateur work, unlike Johanna’s joke now, but she’d worn it proudly all the same, for that last year of her life. He’d tried to give it back to Hazelle but he’d found that she’d left it here after he left for the Quell last summer, and he didn’t have the heart to send it back to her in Thirteen. Besides, it was the one piece he had left of Briar.

Obviously Johanna hadn’t seen that pendant, still tucked away in the nightstand drawer. Odd, considering she’d been through most of the drawers in the process of unpacking her own things. Though why the sudden thought of her digging in that particular drawer caused that momentary spark of panic made no sense—really, it was her bedroom as much as his, her house too now. But the notion of her seeing it and having to answer questions wasn’t pleasant. She’d known he’d had a girl then; he’d made no secret of that, but being confronted with the evidence of it nearly twenty-six years later probably couldn’t end well.

But clearly nothing like that weighed down Johanna’s mind as she grinned and said, “So maybe I’ll let you do some of the carving on that kitchen table.” They already had plans to honor Seven tradition where the couple made a piece of furniture for their new home. The materials for it were due on the next hovercraft and they both agreed, it’d be a good way to pass some of the long winter days.

“Good to know I’ve got official approval,” he said, putting Briar and the past from his mind and thinking instead of Johanna and the present, that kitchen table to make and the trapline to go check this afternoon. Thinking about the present was a hell of a lot more pleasant than the past, or even the immediate future.

Life right now was hard work, when even small tasks like shaving or brewing coffee meant extra work compared to when it had been just turning on a faucet or the stove. Constantly chopping and carrying wood from the forest, setting and checking the traps and skinning the game, heating water all the damn time for any number of chores from taking an actual bath to doing laundry by hand to scrubbing floors to cooking, melting chunks of beeswax and dipping fresh candles, helping Peeta out on his weekly baking day—all of it meant he’d found quickly that every day was full of something to do in the ordinary tasks of making a living here in Twelve. It was a constant flow of mental and physical exertion and sometimes he didn’t even know where the hours went before it was suddenly time for dinner and the sun was going down. Even if he’d had more than a couple bottles of liquor in the house, he’d have been too busy to need the distraction of drinking.

These days, just like Katniss, Peeta, and Johanna, every night he climbed the stairs and went to bed tired. Despite that, every night he found he wasn’t too weary, though, to make love with Johanna, because after how awkwardly they’d started out in Thirteen, coming back from years of being so shut off from everyone, to be able now to feel so close to her was something that still carried a sense of profound wonder to it.

He’d known plenty about giving pleasure to the patrons forced upon him, even knew what a friendly fuck had been like, but night by night he was still learning more of what it was like to be with a woman he loved, and with Johanna in particular. He knew how to touch her now, what made her laugh from ticklishness and what made her grumble in irritation and tell him to hurry up and what made her gasp incoherently in pleasure. He knew the feel of her body, the feel of her scarred skin and her short hair when he touched her, and the how her own hands on him felt. He knew the look of her now by sunlight, by candlelight, by firelight, by moonlight, and how her brown eyes looked at him. He knew the sounds she made and he reveled in them, especially when it was the sound of his own name.

He knew too what it a subtler but no less keen pleasure it was like to lie there peacefully afterwards curled up together, keeping each other warm, and be able to talk about the little things: plans for the next day, colors to repaint the rooms that hadn’t been done in twenty years, whether they could bribe Peeta to put some cookies on the baking list. Bicker a little bit sometimes too, because that was how things went for them, and seeing that even with this kind of intimacy they could still keep up with each other in terms of words and wit definitely satisfied.

He knew what it was like to go to sleep and know if the nightmares came, he wouldn’t face them alone. He wouldn’t have to constantly reach for a bottle of white liquor to try to knock himself out enough to get to sleep as the sun was finally coming up. In short, he was learning new things each day and felt smarter and thus stronger than he’d ever been.

The days were busy and the nights weren't lonely, which meant he was probably the happiest he’d been since he was a kid, before his name got pulled from the reaping ball the first time. He was trying to not let that scare him shitless with the occasional stab of irrational fear that somehow he would inevitably lose that. Sometimes he succeeded better than others.

All of that, though, was better than the near future. For right now they were four people living a demanding but still somewhat idyllic existence after the ordeals they’d been through. Once spring arrived, things would change. With the spring thaw, the carnage throughout the district would be revealed again, whereas to this point by unspoken agreement they never took a path through the snow-covered ruins. There would be thousands and thousands of dead to be dealt with and to mourn, and they’d have to think about the future of their entire district since Twelve, as it had been, didn’t exist any longer.

Beyond that, he and Johanna had to go see the damage done to the other districts in their official assessment for the government and while he was glad they could do some good and he was looking forward to seeing old friends and seeing more of Panem, he also knew that wouldn’t be the easiest task. At the same time there was the matter of Ash and Heike to investigate; their younger siblings Snow had secretly kept alive as final pieces of leverage to ensure good behavior by signing off on their being sent to Two and brainwashed with tracker jacker venom into obedience and becoming Peacekeepers. That little secret had been something Snow confided to them the night before he committed suicide by poison to escape his execution, as one last twist of the knife. Not knowing where their siblings were now, whether they were even still alive, and who and what they were if they were was still something that held more than its share of anxiety from how unknown its outcome would be.

Selfish as it was in some ways, he thought, wrapping his scarf around his neck and looking over at Johanna, up against the burdens that were ahead, sometimes he almost wished spring would never come.


They’d poked at every damn log out in the woods in hopes of finding a cache of weapons there, and Johanna was getting convinced Katniss had forgotten where they actually were, if she ever knew to begin. “You sure you know where to look?” she asked bluntly, because wasting her time when it was cold enough to freeze her ass off wasn’t high on her list of priorities. Besides, unlike with Haymitch, she wasn’t going to end up cuddling with Kittycat here to keep warm. In spite of herself she ended up smirking a bit, remembering the cold zone of the arena and how much she and Haymitch bitched at each other while they were showing off for the cameras. No clue back then it could ever lead to something like this. Living in District Twelve—shit, when she was a kid that idea would have been considered a joke, because while Seven was one of the poorer districts by far, Twelve really was scraping the bottom of the barrel. Funny how three of the people she cared about most were here now, her closest family, even if she wasn’t ready to admit that fact too often or too openly.

“It’s kind of hard to navigate when these are caches I haven’t been to in six years and all the markers are underneath the snow,” Katniss snapped irritably.

“Yeah, fine. Let’s give it another hour and give up, huh? I’ll make do if need be.” She might have to engage in some trial and error on bow-making in that case, but even her worst efforts, informed as they were by a Seven citizen’s understanding of how wood worked, would likely be better than whatever Katniss would slap together. Already she was musing in her head what kind of wood to use. Light but strong, flexible: yew would likely be best but she hadn’t seen any yew trees here in Twelve, and they were rare in Seven anyway. Walnut, hickory—there were some options to be had.

Katniss crouched down in front of yet another snow-dusted rock pile and carefully poked a gloved hand into a crevice at the base. “Ah!” she exclaimed happily, pulling out an oilcloth-wrapped bundle. “Got something here!”

Brushing off the top of the boulders for her, Johanna indicated she ought to see it down and they could see what goodies they had here. Putting it down and undoing the folds of the cloth, Katniss hunched over it, sort of blocking Johanna’s view. “Got some arrows in here, that’s good, and they look decent, because getting new feathers for fletching right now could be harder.” Yeah, given the geese had flown south, Katniss was right on that score. “Um,” she pulled out what looked mostly like a stick to Johanna’s eyes, which must be an unstrung bow. “This is one from when I was a kid. I think this is one from the fall before my pa died. It might be a little small now but I could probably use it until you make something better.”

“No matter the size on it,” she said, shrugging. “I can scale up, no big deal. It’ll still give me the idea of what I’m working with.” It looked like today had been something of a success, so that had her well pleased.

“One more in here,” and Katniss drew out another bowstave, one much longer than the beechwood one sized for a pre-teen girl, and one that had Johanna inhaling sharply at the sight of it.

“Where did you get that?” she demanded, her voice maybe a bit harsher than she had intended, but she couldn’t help it. The instinctive fear and even something like dread at seeing anyone out in the districts carrying a chunk of that wood around was there.

“It was my pa’s favorite,” Katniss said, though her face said she’d heard the alarm in Johanna’s voice. “He used it all the time.”

“Yeah, because that’ll make a damn nice bow.” The properties of that particular wood would be really fine for a hunting bow.

“Johanna, seriously, what’s got you so freaked out?”

“That’s pure blackspire,” she said. “The winter I was thirteen, one of the sweep-up boys at the mill pocketed a piece of it to carve something for his girl.” Pocketing the unusable odds and ends to take home for carving was generally overlooked, especially if the more benevolent Peacekeepers were on duty. But not in that case. “Stupid bastard, like she could have ever shown it off anyway. That piece, and it was about as big as your thumb, got a fourteen-year-old boy beheaded the next day in front of the Justice Building.” She still remembered it. The Peacekeeper holding the axe had looked sick to do it, and botched it so badly one of the lumberjacks finally grabbed the axe and finished the job, and got twenty stripes himself for his mercy. “There’s some particular rare woods in Seven that are grown only to get sent to One for Capitol buyers, either as raw lumber or as finished products, and they always watch us like hawks while we fell the trees and while we mill the wood and while the carpenters and carvers turn it into something. And stealing any piece of them is punished by execution. Mahogany. Cardinalwood. Ghostwood.” She nodded towards the bow in Katniss’ hand. “Blackspire.”

Staring at the bow in her hand like it was a burning brand, Katniss mumbled, “I just figured it was some wood from higher up in the mountains where we never went.” She shook her head, sounding puzzled. “But how would he have gotten his hands on it?”

How an ordinary clodhopper of a coal miner had a bow made out of a recognizable pure luxury wood from another district was a damn good question indeed. Though thinking about that conversation about chess this morning with Haymitch, about that carefully hand-carved chess set made out of blackspire and ghostwood, it became readily apparent to Johanna just how it had probably happened. “I don’t know, who could your father have possibly known in District Twelve with both the clout and the cash to order a nice chunk of blackspire from One?”

Thankfully, Katniss might be annoying sometimes, but she wasn’t an idiot. “Haymitch,” she said.

“Got it in one,” Johanna said. “He must have given to your dad as a present.” Back when Haymitch was still a kid himself and he was still friends with Katniss’ father, because there was no way in hell Burt Everdeen had been able to front the money himself. Obviously at sixteen or seventeen Haymitch had been too shortsighted to realize that his fancy present for his friend meant that if Burt was caught with it, Haymitch was readily implicating himself. But then, before her own friends drifted away when the gulf of becoming the bitch with the axe and the terrible secrets of what a victor’s life was really like opened up between them, she’d been giddy and stupid about all the nice things she could suddenly buy them too.

“Oh,” Katniss said faintly, now staring at it in an entirely different way, as if she wasn’t sure quite what to do with it. Carefully, she wrapped up the blackspire bow, the child’s bow, and the arrows. “Well, I can’t use that one. It’s too long and the draw’s probably still too powerful for me to manage. But at least we got what we came for.”

“Speaking of gifts,” trying to knock that dazed and confused look off Katniss’ face and trying to keep her from moping about memories of her dead father and his favorite hunting bow, “Hotbuns has a birthday coming up, right?”

“February 21st, yeah,” Katniss confirmed.

“And Haymitch is April and you’re May.” She didn’t remember the exact dates. She was the odd one out with her birthday in August. Doing the math quickly, obviously the coal miners got randy during the summer. She laughed in spite of herself, seeing just another way Twelve was unfamiliar to her. “Most kids are born in the late summer and fall back h—in Seven.” She’d almost said back home because this place hadn’t yet settled in as home in all her instincts. At Katniss’ questioning look she gave her a wicked grin and said, “C’mon, you know plenty now about how to keep warm on a winter night.” Before Katniss could splutter indignantly, she switched tacks back and asked, “So what are you getting him?” Eighteen wasn’t as big a birthday for a victor, and the Games were over now anyway, but it would be his first birthday with Katniss as his girlfriend for real, so that had to count for something.

“I was thinking maybe some more paints?” she said, though a tone of doubt was in her voice.

“Kittycat. Seriously. Paints? Take it from me. You want something special. Give him a blowjob. It’s a gift a man’s never gonna complain about receiving for more than one birthday.”

There was that strangled goose noise again. “But…”

“What, you need advice?” she asked, enjoying this far too much. “Be more than happy to provide.” She was on the verge of pushing Katniss’ lingering prudishness even further and quipping that hell, even Haymitch could give her some solid advice on giving blowjobs. But at the last moment she held back the words, because suddenly it wasn’t all that funny given that it was different with Haymitch than with her. She’d been forced sometimes, true, and her skin still crawled to remember them, but she’d done it willingly other times with Finnick, even after they couldn’t claim it was in the name of training in order to keep her patrons happy. For Haymitch it had always been out of pure necessity and duress.

Shit. She really must love the snarky bastard to pass up an opportunity like that to render Katniss speechless. For her part, Katniss didn’t reply to the offer, but recovered enough to say, “I’m kind of afraid to ask what your idea of a great New Year’s gift will be.”

“Ask me again in December,” she said with a smirk.

“Maybe I need to give him a clean house next door for his birthday,” Katniss said bluntly. “All his family’s things are still there and I don’t think he’s ready to deal with them yet.” Well, that neatly killed the merry mood, but Johanna understood. No wonder Peeta had moved in with Katniss. Johanna herself still had a house full of things in Seven she hadn’t dealt with yet.

“Anything he’d want to keep?” she asked, equally frank. “If not, the three of us could pitch in and get it done.”

“I don’t think so.” She sighed, tying up the oilcloth again and picking it up. “They weren’t that close, you know, except Peeta and his dad. But he still...”

“He’s mourning them but he’s not exactly missing them.” Not the way Katniss did her father, not the way Johanna did for her mom and dad and Bern, and had for Heike for years.

“Yeah. And I think he feels guilty that he doesn’t.”

Talking feelings and the like wasn’t her strong suit, and she knew it wasn’t for Katniss either. But putting it out in the open like that, sheared of fancy words or attempts to soft-peddle it, somehow made it something they both could handle. “We’ll bury them in the spring and clean out the house and then he can start to move on. You’re his family now.”

“You and Haymitch too,” Katniss said, and Johanna couldn’t help but still kind of feel a stupid warm glow at that notion of belonging.

“We’re his guardians, after all,” she said dryly, dismissing it because she didn’t want Katniss getting mushy about it. “And it sounds like his mother was a prize bitch and neither of his brothers was that close to him either.” At Katniss’ questioning look, she shrugged and said, “He doesn’t mention much in the way of personal memories,” and given what a warm person Peeta was it would be natural for him to do it if he had them, “and neither of them volunteered for him, did they?”

“Farl was already too old, but Bannick—Nick,” Katniss’ voice faltered. “Look, not everyone has to be like me and Prim, OK? I mean, volunteers aside from the Career districts are so rare, that’s why everyone was so amazed when I did it…” Johanna knew that Prim, still with Perulla Everdeen in the Capitol busy recovering slowly from a shot to the spine that had paralyzed her, was constantly in Katniss’ thoughts. At Johanna’s silence at that, she finally ventured, “You’d have volunteered for your little sister, wouldn’t you.” It was a statement, not a question.

“For Heike? Yeah. And Haymitch would have for Ash.” She was certain of that. Maybe, in a way, it would have been better to deliberately volunteer for Heike, thirteen and gentle and clumsy. Better than hearing her own name called and losing herself to mindless terror until it almost killed her in the arena. Maybe then she would have been the heroine rather than the villain the Capitol expected her to be. Maybe then she wouldn’t have become the person she had. But given how it had turned out in the end, what good things she had now, she couldn’t be as angry and bitter about it as she’d been for years.

“You’ll find them,” Katniss said quietly. “I’m sure of it.”

That’s kind of what I’m hoping for and what I’m afraid of, she thought, but didn’t say as they trekked their way out of the woods as the later afternoon shadows were starting to fall from the sun sinking.

When they got back to Katniss and Peeta’s house, she spared a glance at Peeta’s house next door and figured she’d mention it to Haymitch. Though when they stepped inside, she yelled, “We found it,” and sauntered into the kitchen to see Peeta plucking a wild turkey and Haymitch sitting at the table attending to some bloody gouges in his left hand. “Oho, is that a turkey?”

“Good to see you too, darlin’,” Haymitch said sarcastically, “and yes, my hand’s fine.”

“Then why are you whining?” she said with a snort. She knew he wouldn’t want her fussing over it anyway. If it was serious, he’d tell her. It looked more like surface scratches anyway.

“We caught him in one of the snares,” Peeta said. “It’s too late to start roasting him today, but he’ll make for a great dinner tomorrow.”

“Yeah, fine, send him home with us,” Johanna said. It was their day tomorrow to heat the stove.

“Well, save some of the wing and tail feathers,” Katniss said, coming up behind her, “because we’ll need them for fletching arrows.” She stared at Haymitch. “Uh, what happened to you? You didn’t get that from a turkey.”

“Brilliant as ever, sweetheart.” He nudged the game bag on the floor with his foot. There was a yowl, and Haymitch grumbled, “Shut up, you foul bastard,” and reached down and loosened the drawstring. A blur of dirty, mustard-yellow fur sprang out, hissing all the while.

“Buttercup!” Katniss stared at the ugly, smelly, burr-spangled and bedraggled cat that perversely twined itself around her legs, continuing his yowling. “But he was staying with Hazelle in Thirteen after we left for the attack on the Capitol.”

“Yeah, well, obviously he escaped and made his way here. Ended up caught in one of my cloverleafs. Clawed me when I tried to get him out, too, the ingrate.” He held up his bandaged hand, explaining the injury. “So much for all the times I slipped him tidbits when you had me over for dinner.”

“You were feeding him?” Katniss said with disbelief.

“Is it really that hard to believe I might feel some kinship to an ornery asshole like him?” Haymitch said sweetly. Johanna couldn’t resist a snicker at that. “Anyway, you might want to let Prim know you have the thing here next time your ma calls.”

Katniss gave a snort of amusement. Buttercup kept up his insistent mewls. “She’s not here, stupid cat,” she told him. Suddenly she thrust the blackspire bow towards Haymitch, putting it down on the table with more force than necessary. “Here. Looks like you’re going hunting with me. You’d better not be terrible at it.”

The expression on Haymitch’s face said pretty obviously that he recognized the bow on sight, and that told Johanna that he was indeed responsible for it being here in the first place. “Well, well.” He raised a dark eyebrow at her and said with a smirk, “Give that mangy bastard a bath. He needs it before he stinks up the house.”

“Aw, isn’t that touching,” she said wryly, though she was glad neither of those two made a big fuss out of what it actually meant that Haymitch bothered to rescue Katniss’ cat and she gave him the bow that he’d given her father years ago. Following the situation enough to realize that Haymitch was probably going to be spending the rest of the afternoon practicing archery and Katniss on cleaning up the cat, she looked over at Peeta and said, “So, Hotbuns, looks like they’re leaving you and me cooking tonight.”

Peeta shrugged and mouthed with a smile and a roll of his eyes, “Seam people,” to her, to which she just laughed, reaching for the potatoes on the counter to start preparing them.