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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.

Chapter Text

“This is cozy, you know,” Johanna said to Peeta wryly while she kneaded the bread dough on the counter with a little more enthusiasm than it probably required. “You, me, and our big tough hunters out in the woods while we sensitive types stay home and bake…” Katniss and Haymitch had set out early today with their bows to go see what they could hunt down. She didn’t resent it, not really. They all had their thing. When it came to gathering edible plants and making snares, she could still handily kick Katniss’ ass, because the girl had focused so much on her archery.

Peeta grinned over at her, and she saw he had a streak of grease shining on his cheek from where he’d been buttering the pans and wiped at his face. “But see, we’re warm and dry and they’re cold and wet,” he nodded to the glum, drizzly late March weather outside the kitchen window, “so we’re sensitive but we’re also smart.”

“You’ll still be sympathetic when she comes home cold and grouchy.” That was how Peeta was, after all.

“Of course. And you’ll tell him to get some dry clothes on, that he’s an idiot and if he gets pneumonia it’s his own damn fault. Which, coming from you, is pretty much the same thing as being sympathetic.”

So maybe he knew her a little too well. “You missed the part where I’ll offer to warm him up if he behaves,” she said with a smirk.

“Only if Katniss is there to overhear, because otherwise it’s no fun for you,” he countered. That proved handily Peeta knew her a little too well, but being read like that didn’t bother her like it would have before. In a way, it was enjoyable being around someone else besides Haymitch who could almost keep up with her verbally. He didn’t have the sarcastic edge at it that she and Haymitch had, though—Katniss provided that handily—so it wasn’t quite the same, and that was just fine by her. But in some ways Peeta reminded her a bit of her older brother Bern—well-meaning, funny, and even gentle without somehow becoming a pushover.

Having a baking day with him wasn’t really much of a chore, and besides, he did little kindnesses like making some of the dark, malty bread from Seven for her. “Yeah, sadly, we all know that ‘Mess With Peeta’ is a lost cause.”

“Living with two older brothers,” he said with a flash of humor, though there was the second of hesitation after he said it and the flicker of remembered pain as he recalled that no, he didn’t have two older brothers any longer.

Spring thaw had started, and the rains had washed away most of the snow. It hadn’t warmed up enough for the corpses down the hill to start to thaw, and begin to rot and stink. Frankly, Johanna thought once that happened she’d be glad to be out of Twelve because there was no way in hell the smell wouldn’t be in the air for miles. The cleanup crews would be starting soon, though, so maybe they’d have most of it done before the weather got too warm.

Turning away from the subject of his family because that was just waiting to explode in a bad way, given the way his eyes strayed again towards the window as if he was now thinking about the ruins of his family’s bakery, she said a little too hurriedly, “So, uh, Haymitch’s birthday’s coming up in a few weeks?” What a smooth transition that had been. She probably hadn’t done one that awkward in talking to a boy since she was sixteen.

“April 4th, right? I didn’t do anything for it last year,” Peeta said with a crestfallen, guilty look. “I didn’t know and I admit, it was only a couple of weeks after they read the card anyway, so my mind was on training and the rebellion and the whole thing with Katniss and me…”

“I doubt he has hurt feelings about that,” she said dryly. To be honest she doubted Haymitch had much remembered either. If he had, he’d probably just sarcastically told himself dying in the arena at forty-one was no damn different than forty. If he hadn’t bothered to tell the kids when his birthday was, obviously he didn’t want them making a big deal about it. “Anyway, yeah. Since Snow’s dead and we’re all not facing imminent death this year that probably calls for some cake?”

“Done,” Peeta said. She went back to her kneading. “Johanna.” She looked up at him. “I kind of need to know something about a cake so I can make it?”

“Make it with booze and he’ll be all over it,” she said with a smirk. Though to be fair to him, the whole winter she’d only seen him touch the bottles of white lightning a few times, and only for a drink or two with her.

Peeta rewarded that with more of a laugh than it probably deserved, though the patient way he kept waiting for some kind of answer had her relenting more than Katniss’ stubborn insistence would have. “He really likes blueberry. I know that.” A few weeks ago she’d found out exactly what lengths that man was willing to go to for the last of their blueberry jam. She had to say, he’d more than earned it, though he’d enjoyed himself plenty as well.

“What’s his favorite color anyway?”

“Blue.” Same as her own favorite, which made some things more convenient. “I only know that from talking paint,” she felt oddly compelled to defend her having that knowledge. “Reminds me, at dinner, you wanna do me a favor and agree with me if I say the kitchen would look really good in green? You’re the arty one who knows paints and all, maybe he’ll listen to you.”

Peeta glanced around at the yellow paint on the walls now. “What’s wrong with the yellow? Aside from the fact it ain’t pretty now, because it really needs a fresh coat, I’ll admit.” It had dulled to more of an ivory, and the curtains were also pretty faded by time and sunlight. “But it must have been a nice sunny yellow when it was new. It might be more cheerful to see that color in winter than green would be.”

“It’s been here forever,” she said bluntly. “And we’ve redone some of the place but he’s balking at the rest.” Some things she could understand, like leaving some of the upstairs bedrooms they didn’t need alone, for now. But they used the kitchen all the damn time, and was it so much to ask that since it was their house now rather than just his, she might like the kitchen where they were cooking to be hers too rather than carrying the stamp of whatever his decorating choices, or more likely his mother’s, had been twenty-five years ago? They’d already replaced the kitchen table, scarred with knife marks and liquor-stained, with the cherry wood one that they’d carefully made together these last long winter months, carved with a combination of the interlaced spiral designs of Twelve and the maple and oak leaf design of her family from Seven, and they were finishing up the chairs to match. If he was willing to replace the furniture, spend so much time carefully making a table with her and obviously enjoying it, what was the big deal about the paint?

Even the furniture was a point of contention sometimes. He’d been more than happy to replace his old bed with the one she’d brought from Seven, made by her grandparents as their own piece of wedding furniture. But when she’d talked about ditching the old green couch in the parlor, the fabric almost worn through in spots and smelling faintly of liquor like he’d either spilled on it or breathed drunken fumes into it for years, he’d gotten his back up enough like Katniss’ demon cat that she’d have sworn he was going to hiss and claw at her.

Nobody told her being married meant surviving war and torture and helping each other start the long road back from being completely fucked up, only to end up arguing about stupid shit like whether or not they could paint the kitchen or if they were going to keep a beat-up old couch. It would have seemed totally ridiculous if she wasn’t right in the middle of it.

Peeta grabbed a tray of biscuits from the wood-fired oven, the blast of heat hitting her directly, and put them down before he answered, “Katniss gets like that too. Because, you know, I want it to be our place together rather than me just hanging out in her house.” She should have figured that Peeta, being the one who’d moved into a house Katniss had established as her own, would understand some of where she was coming from here. “But I try to change something and she gets pissed off. It took me a while to figure it out. Everything’s changing, you see? The war’s over, Twelve is never going to be what it was, and nobody knows what Panem’s going to become. She used to go back to her house in the Seam, you know.”

“Because it was familiar.” She’d done that sometimes too, gone back to the old house back down in the winter town where she’d grown up because she could still feel the remnants of her old happy life there, until a newlywed couple got assigned to it by the Justice Building. She’d felt almost backstabbed by that happening.

A nod from Peeta, as he reached for the bread dough Johanna had been kneading. “She can’t do that now. And then I come in trying to change things in the house here. Look, you see it with Haymitch, I bet. We all have to change, because of the way the world is now, and because we’re with someone and that means thinking beyond ourselves.” He shook his head. “They just don’t want to lose everything from before, that’s all.”

“It’s not like he was happy then,” she said irritably, “and hell, you know that better than me. You actually got to see what he was like when he was away from the Games.” She could well imagine, though, and Katniss and Peeta hadn’t exactly hid it from her. Neither had Haymitch himself, for that matter, being brutally honest about it. Somehow Peeta got her talking about this crap the way the head doctor hadn't. Maybe it was because she actually liked him, so she didn't find his openness to be annoying or condescending or fake.

“No, and Katniss wasn’t always happy either, but at least she knew how things worked and who she was. I think it’s the same for Haymitch. He had a lot of time to be stuck in a rut and now it’s trying to figure out how to move on.”

“It’s not like I’m trying to get rid of something his mom actually made.” She wouldn’t ask that of him, knowing how little he had left of her. The woman had made some beautiful quilts; Johanna would readily give her that. Raised a pretty good son too, essentially doing it by herself, and that was perhaps an even more admirable legacy. “You’re telling me to be patient,” she said grouchily, recognizing it but not exactly liking it.

“Pretty much. It’s still his house too, and I’m trying to remember that with Katniss. I can’t expect her to change everything in it. I imagine he’ll come around to more changes eventually, though. With the house and otherwise. He’s come pretty far already.”

He had at that. “Yellow kitchen?” she said with a sigh, accepting it, and accepting the fresh, hot biscuit with a drizzle of honey that he handed her, sending up curls of steam. He was right anyway, yellow probably would be more cheerful to look at on lousy days.

“Yellow kitchen,” he confirmed with a nod. “But definitely, get new curtains.”

“I’ll let him keep the stupid couch but we’re getting new fabric to redo the covering,” she said defiantly, slapping down another hunk of dough with authority and dusting it with flour. Insisting on that much seemed only fair. “I’ll even let it still be green.”

“From what I saw, that couch was pretty much his bed most nights. Well, more like mornings,” Peeta corrected himself. “He was usually asleep there or at the kitchen table.”

“Well, you know now from experience, he always slept on a couch in Mentor Central,” she said, sighing tiredly at the memory from several years of Games of him curled up on that one particular couch, Twelve’s sole mentor and thus unable to go back to the Training Center and sleep in an actual bed, “so maybe that makes some sense.” She wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d slept on the couch in the Twelve apartments some nights. That realization of its link to the past, remembering how utterly fucking possessive he got about that Mentor Central couch and how it was just the same now about the worn old green couch, kind of really made her want even more to get rid of the thing and try to make him stop clinging to any echo of the Games, but she’d drop it. For now, anyway. Trying to turn away from that depressing thought, she licked at the honey before it dripped from the biscuit onto her fingers and groused, “Tell me, oh wise Hotbuns, since you’re on a roll here with the head doctor shit, why is it you and I are crazy enough to stick with two stubborn Seam idiots who can’t let go of things?” She smirked. “Aside from the fantastic sex?”

Unfortunately, she was discovering, Peeta had a bad habit of answering a question that she’d tossed out there more as a quip with something like total sincerity. “Because they’ve both had it tough and they learned to hide a lot away thanks to that, but when they do open up, when you see what’s underneath the grumbling and the glowering, and you know that’s real, that you’re seeing the real them?” He paused, blue eyes glanced away from her almost shyly and went on, choosing his words carefully as if trying to even figure it out in his own mind, “And maybe they show some of it to other people, but only you get to be close enough to see all of it. You can’t tell me that you don’t feel so incredibly loved, knowing that someone like that who’s been hurt badly actually now trusts you that much, and it makes you want to give them everything right back, because you love them and you know they’ll keep it safe and not take it lightly.”

She knew she was staring at him, speechless at the intensity and vulnerability behind those words, when he recovered enough to give her a sheepish grin and say as sort of a peace offering, “Well, and the sex is pretty great too?”

“Shit, Peeta,” she muttered. “Do you do this whole ‘Hey, let’s be devastatingly honest here’ thing to her on a regular basis?” Because damn him anyway, he was right. No question, she enjoyed being around Haymitch and his snark and his grumbling. But the times they got beyond that, put aside the armor, she felt that rush that came from knowing it could happen with each other, that they wouldn’t abuse the trust that let them show each other their vulnerabilities.

So she knew now that sarcastic, cynical Haymitch had a definite streak of earnestness and even gentleness in him, that he felt things deeper and was hurt more easily than he let on. It was rarely in his words—or hers, for that matter, since neither of them was exactly comfortable with the idea of just saying a thing—but it was there in his expression, the look in his grey eyes, and the way he touched her and held her, and she’d finally learned how to read it. The way he gave her that let her answer it with the best and brightest in her own self; the softer side that she’d stuffed down deep, hidden away after the arena.

“I like being honest now that I have the chance. Just because I don’t talk in monosyllables or sarcasm doesn’t mean I don’t understand what it’s like to have to hide behind a mask too,” he pointed out. “Growing up with my ma, I learned to lie about my black eyes and broken arms and say I was just clumsy. I learned to be nice and never get angry because it only led to trouble.” He let out a self-deprecating little laugh. “I fell in love with my dream of a girl I barely said five words to over the next eleven years and I was so ready to go die for the idea of love, just to prove to myself it existed and I could do something worthwhile with my life. All of Panem loved it, but you know, the reality of it sounds kind of pathetic now.”

Oh, hell. Here he was flaying himself open like this in front of her, and she really didn’t know what to say to someone who just put it out there like that. Although come to think of it, she did know something of what it was like to be the pathetic, unloved one. She’d fallen in love with Finnick because he was beautiful and he was kind to her and he was young and scared too, and she was so desperately miserable and alone that she’d needed to believe in something besides the shitty life she was living, both in the Capitol and back home. She’d been desperate and naïve and she’d turned a growing friendship and mutual comfort into some kind of grand romance in her mind because she might be seen as a vicious bitch and she was being forced to fuck a lot of people including some pretty creative sadists, but if Finnick loved her, it would somehow still be OK.

Having him tell her about Annie had been devastating and it shattered her pretty illusions, showed her that all along while she’d been spinning fantasies in her head, he’d been only a good friend to her. She’d confused friendship and sex for love. She could imagine for Peeta, finding out Katniss had faked the whole thing to help keep him alive had been every bit as hard to take. So for the sake of that, for how honest he was being, even if it still made her bristle a little bit instinctively, she tried. “But you both got past that. You actually fell in love with the reality of our sweet little pain in the ass rather than your dream girl, so more power to you.” Just like eventually, she’d fallen in love with the reality of Haymitch rather than her fantasy of Finnick. She arched an eyebrow. “Hopefully you’re honest enough now to admit you want to strangle her occasionally.”

He gave another of those sheepish smiles and laughed. “Haymitch told me last spring when I was really in love with someone I’d understand how I could like them and still want to kill them sometimes. I didn’t get it then, but yeah, he was right. I know she’s got her faults and she pisses me off some days, but I love her anyway.” He said after another moment, “I’d still die for her if I had to. But it would be for her now. That first time, that was really more about making me feel worthwhile.”

“Oh, you’ve got it bad,” she mocked him gently. “But letting her get you pissed off, that’s excellent progress. Aurelius would be so proud.”

“He probably would. Hand me the eggs, would you?” He nodded to the bowl of eggs sitting near her. “And that dough you’ve got needs to be rolled out.” He handed her the rolling pin and said jokingly, “I promise I’ll watch what I say while you’ve got that.”

From something about the way he said it, she suddenly wondered if his mom had ever beaten him with a rolling pin and had the thought that it was depressingly likely. She wanted to say something reassuring about that but the words wouldn’t come and she had the vindictive thought that never mind what Haymitch said and what Peeta thought, maybe Jinny Mellark actually deserved to get left for the buzzards. To cover that up she blurted awkwardly, “So, planning to re-open a bakery once things get built up again?” Smooth move, reminding him about his dead family.

“Maybe,” he said, and for all he’d said he wasn’t the type to be monosyllabic or grunting, that came pretty close. “There’s a lot about the future with Katniss and me I’m not sure about yet.”

“Ah?” Rolling out the dough, she gave him a faint noise of encouragement, figuring she’d politely let him ramble about whatever it was. Apparently this was stuff he wasn’t comfortable talking about with Katniss, and maybe it was Haymitch being Seam too that he didn’t talk to the other man around Twelve about it and instead wanted another outside perspective.

“Well, last week we were talking about going to Four to meet up with you and Haymitch and see Finnick and Annie, and how their baby will be born by then, and I mentioned having kids and…” He trailed off awkwardly.

She’d stepped right into that one, and there was a moment of something like panic where she wished she could take that little sound of encouragement back and cut off his getting going, however rude it would be. “You’re only eighteen,” she said, trying to keep the harsh edge from her voice and hoping she succeeded, “and the whole district is a mess still. No need to rush.”

“I know that! We haven’t even had our toasting, so I only wanted to talk about what she thought about it,” he protested. “But she changed the subject in a big hurry.”

She kept rolling the dough out, though she sort of wished she was kneading again because the force of that would be better for dealing with the damn emotions that came bubbling up.

Thinking about Finnick and Annie’s kid, and how their visit to Four meant they’d see the new baby, didn’t help. Well, even if they’d been scheduled by Brocade to visit Four earlier, a very pregnant Annie would have had much the same effect. It would be one more obvious instance where lovely, kind Annie had managed to get it right on the first try while Johanna had bumbled along and fucked it up.

Peeta didn’t know, of course. Both she and Haymitch made damn sure that the only people that knew were the two of them and a few medical staff. Hell, even she wouldn’t have known herself that she’d miscarried if the nurse hadn’t told her, because she was only about a month along. At the time the rage at Coin had been a comfort, the heat of fury sustaining her at finding out she authorized secretly injecting young women immigrating to Thirteen with fertility drugs instead of contraceptives in an attempt to boost the population.

Coin would answer for that at her trial, so now in the calm without the anger, there was only the bleakness. At the time she’d still been upset but known it was better to not have a kid anyway, since she and Haymitch weren’t any kind of certain thing then. But that was gone now too, they were married and on pretty solid ground with each other, and she could admit, if only to herself, that if the baby still existed, she’d definitely have wanted it. Maybe they weren’t the best people to be parents to a baby—being Peeta’s guardians was something totally different—but still they’d have tried.

They hadn’t talked about it since the night she told him, because it was much too raw to deal with then on top of everything else. But the longer things went on, the heavier it got and the harder it was to see how she could simply bring it up again. What were they going to say anyway? Too bad, very sad, shit had happened. The only thing worth discussing now would be whether he ever wanted a kid, and whether they felt like they could consciously make that choice given how fucked up they both were. She knew he’d been furious with Coin, but he hadn’t said anything about the miscarriage. Just another of those instances where Haymitch was keeping his feelings on something hidden, and he was impossible to read.

So every month they both faithfully took care of another contraceptive injection and nothing more was said about it. It wasn’t like she thought about the baby on a daily basis; it probably helped there were no little kids or the like running around Twelve as a reminder.

But occasionally it would cross her mind. Every month when she got her period precisely on schedule thanks to the injection, she couldn’t help but think about it, thinking about the fact she would have been two, three, four months along now and what it would have meant for her, for Haymitch, for the house here. Poor Haymitch probably just thought that she was a particularly moody bitch at that time of the month and she could tell he quietly tried to deal with it and go easy on her.

“You know how she and Haymitch are about things. She’ll talk about it when she’s ready,” she said, though in her mind she wasn’t sure when that would ever occur in Haymitch’s case.

~~~~~~~~~~

Haymitch still was no fan of cold rain, if he was to be perfectly honest. By now he could manage a shower perfectly well without flipping out, and a good part of his objection to the rain was the sheer misery of being wet and cold and feeling the damp of it seep into his joints. His old waxed canvas coat and leather boots kept the worst of the water out but he was wet and cold and tired anyway. His trousers were pretty damp. His hands were cold and his fingers were getting stiff from it. But along with that low level of discomfort, the cool rain falling on his head meant there was that faint edge right there too of remembering cold water thrown on him before the electrical wires were applied, or to wake him up after he fell unconscious. He kept it at bay but it still existed at the back of his mind.

“All right,” he said, seeing Katniss skip nimbly over a log ahead, turning up his coat collar, “think it’s about time to call it a day.” It wasn’t the best result for having been out for hours: two rabbits and a grouse. Unfortunately, March had been day after day of constantly pissing down rain so there hadn’t been that many good hunting days. It meant that they just had to push it all the harder, but it would be getting dark soon and he was in no mood to be stumbling around the woods then.

“I could have sworn that was a deer trail,” Katniss protested.

“It wasn’t. I told you that.” She readily admitted in most cases he had the better eye for spotting game and tracking, just like he’d freely admit she was still a better shot than him, but she’d stubbornly insisted today. He’d humored her because otherwise it was wandering around aimlessly hoping to stumble across something.

She turned and looked at him irritably as he climbed over the log himself. “We don’t have much to bring back. And one deer would feed us for—”

“Sweetheart, if I find a deer trail I will happily tell you, but I can’t make the fucking thing just materialize. Cut our losses for today and try again later. We’ve got enough for the moment.”

“Do you hate venison or something?” she insisted stubbornly. “You never seem too eager to find a deer.”

Well, that was an interesting question. He hadn’t eaten venison in years, and he realized with some reluctance it was all tangled up in his mind with other memories. The first hunt Burt had done with the same blackspire bow that was now slung over Haymitch’s shoulder. The way he’d blithely managed to lie his way out of Peacekeepers questioning him and Burt coming back to the Seam with eighty pounds of meat, and a good thing too, because that same day Fog had hanged Lorna Hawthorne for poaching. Fog, who’d apparently fathered him and Ash both, and who had bargained with Snow for Ash’s life.

He remembered that deer too for other reasons—the feel of blood on his fingers as he cut its throat, the feel of its guts in his hands, panting and puking behind a tree. “No. I ain’t picky enough to turn down good meat when it’s there.” He was Seam enough that the mentality of it came back easily in these leaner times, despite years of softer living. “If you shoot a deer, though, I’ll help you skin it and butcher it and all, even carry most of it back. But you’re gutting the damn thing yourself.”

She studied him with careful eyes, arms folded over her chest. Burt’s old leather hunting jacket hung loose on her smaller frame. She didn’t ask the obvious question, because apparently she had gotten smart enough to reason things out herself. “Oh,” she said finally, obviously realizing having held in his own intestines in the arena, the guts of something as big as a deer felt a little too eerily familiar. “Yeah, fine, I get it.” She sighed, disappointment sharp in the sound. “It’s going to be too dark to see anything to shoot soon. Let’s head back.”

At least he hadn’t had to argue with her about it too much. “We didn’t run the traps today.” The trapline was set up more to the north from where they’d been tracking. “You ought to take Peeta out tomorrow and do that.” He said it casually, not letting on that it was anything important.

“I figured you and I would do it.”

“Johanna and I have plans already.”

“I don’t mind running traps with Peeta but at least you can bring a bow along,” she argued, dark brows drawing together in irritation. “And when we’re not catching much, every chance we get, we should take—that’s more important than repainting walls or whatever you two have planned.”

If it mattered less, he would have happily told her that he and Johanna planned to spend the entire day naked and getting up to all kinds of naughty, filthy things because that would neatly shut her up. But given what was planned for tomorrow, and the realization that spring was coming quickly, he found the thread of his temper broke and he snapped at her, “For once, can you just fucking well do what I tell you, Katniss?” She never really had, not from the moment she’d tried to stab his hand on that train.

He expected a mulish, You’re not my father! from her, and like he needed a reminder about Burt Everdeen with her wearing his coat and his bow on Haymitch’s shoulder. Like he needed any reminder at all about any dead people in Twelve considering that yesterday when he’d dared to venture down the hill to check, he’d seen that the melting snows had exposed the bodies left unburied since last summer.

Apparently hearing genuine anger in his voice rather than just his usual snark or irritation when she was being a brat caught her attention. Rather than arguing with him about it, her voice went softer and she asked, as if she didn’t really want to know but felt compelled to find out, “What are you planning, Haymitch?”

Somehow it was more difficult to say something given he couldn’t just snap it at her, so he said carefully, even a little evasively, “Johanna and I went down the hill yesterday to check it out. I talked to Brocade last night. She’ll start sending cleanup crews here by the end of the week.”

She went silent for a while, leaning back against a tree as she mulled that over. But apparently the way they could figure each other out without spelling it out explicitly was still in force. “And you two are going to check out the bakery tomorrow.”

“That’s the plan.” He was oddly relieved she hadn’t made him say it. The thought of it was bad enough, given that the images of the corpses he’d seen last July were burned hard into his mind, and the thoughts of his old house back in the Seam all those years ago. “I told Peeta we’d bury them if we could.” He wasn’t going to leave them for the impersonal hands of the cleanup crew if he could help it. He’d promised.

“And you don’t want him there looking.”

“No. And I don’t want you there seeing it either and having that between you two,” he said bluntly. Trying to hide it from Peeta would be hard, and the boy would always know she’d seen it. “So just take him on the trapline tomorrow and don’t tell him.”

“What if you don’t find them tomorrow?” she asked, and it was a relief to see she’d accepted the reality and they were actually talking about it matter-of-factly, like a pair of adults.

“Then you get clever enough to find some way to keep him distracted the next day. Have him show you how to make cakes, make him practice archery again, screw him senseless, I don’t really care. Just keep him from going down the hill.”

This was how it worked between the two of them, the same way it had before the Quell. That understanding was there between them that they were going to do the best they could to protect Peeta. Then it had been the claim that he was the best of them, which was still probably true, but by this point they could maybe admit it was simply that they didn’t want to see him hurt.

In Haymitch’s mind, nobody ought to be forced to endure looking for the mutilated remains of their own family if there was any way around it. He’d been spared that horror, as had Johanna. The fact that the deaths in the arena and caring for bodies down in the tribute morgue meant they could well imagine how their families must have looked didn’t change the fact that they had never actually seen the bodies and thus there was still something of a welcome veil of never knowing for certain drawn over the matter, blurring its details. He and Johanna talked about it and had agreed that hard as it would be, they’d take care of it in order to give Peeta that last small bit of grace. “OK,” she said finally, nodding to him, Seam grey eyes luminous in the late afternoon sun. Then after a faint hesitation she added, “Thanks.”

He brushed that off with a dismissive gesture. “How’s he holding up about it?” he asked carefully.

“He doesn’t talk about them much. Like I told Johanna, I think he feels bad he doesn’t miss them more, except for his pa.” She took the lead, feet moving quietly through the forest on the trail back towards Victor’s Village. He followed behind, a little less graceful thanks to his bigger size and his age, but he’d still been surprised on starting hunting with her that old instincts came back to him and he remembered how to move swiftly and silently. He wondered some days if having him here carried echoes of hunting with her father for her like it did for him—maybe her dead friend Gale too, for that matter.

“Then all the better to get it done so he can let it go and move on,” he said grimly, remembering Peeta’s anguish last fall at Finnick’s wedding at how guilty he felt that his family was still lying there in the rubble, unburied.

“He’s trying to move on in some ways,” she said, as he picked up the bag with the rabbits and the grouse from where they’d stashed it to keep moving and slung it over his shoulder. “He was asking me about having kids the other day.” The way she said it, almost spat it, Peeta might have done better to suggest something really sexually perverted.

Now it was his turn to figure it out off of a few spare words, but he thought he followed it well enough. He didn’t much like the subject, that was a given, but unfortunately she’d brought it up and it would be better to casually let it go a little bit until she got what advice she obviously wanted, and then hope she dropped it. “And is that a ‘not now’ you’re looking at, or a ‘not ever’?”

“Not now?” Though the way she said it, he was pretty sure she didn’t quite know it for a hundred percent certainty herself.

“Well, you’re only seventeen. Don’t feel you have to be in a rush to repopulate the district here,” he said, deliberately flippant, giving her a half-shrug. He sort of wanted to tell her that talking to Johanna about this might be a better idea, but fuck knew what Johanna thought about having kids. She never gave him any hint about it, whether or not what Coin had done put her off the idea entirely.

Besides, he got it. Katniss was asking him because he was Seam, came from the same place as she had. Mostly she was asking because he was the man who’d put aside any hopes of marriage and children for two and a half decades, knowing it wasn’t safe, unwilling to put others at risk by letting himself have those things. Since the war had ended he’d taken enough of a leap of faith to get married to Johanna, and she’d likewise let Peeta into her life. If he could now tell her he was considering having kids that would be a sign the world was safe enough for her to do the same.

He couldn’t give her that reassurance, though. He wasn’t surprised when, not given him moving to say something, she awkwardly probed at it with a, “Uh, have you and Johanna…?”

“I’m almost forty-two, sweetheart, that’s an age most Seam men are hoping to stick it out a few more years and see a first grandkid before they croak.”

She didn’t let him get away with deflecting the question like that. Damn. “You didn’t mine coal for twenty years and you aren’t drinking obsessively now, so you’re not exactly on death’s door.”

“Aw, thanks. Nice to know you’re concerned for my health. You don’t have to worry about Jo and me plaguing you with kids anytime soon.” He relented enough to give her that much, but he couldn’t say that no, they hadn’t talked about it, and frankly he had no idea when they might, if ever.

He sometimes thought about the kid they might have had, despite how he tried not to, but he’d always been pretty good at punishing himself. He couldn’t help it. Talked to Finnick on the phone and heard him crow proudly about decorating the nursery or how he could feel the baby’s kicks when he touched Annie’s belly, looked at the empty bedrooms in the house and thought about what they could use them for, studied that fresh piss-yellow injection he and Johanna took each month to make sure a little accidental bundle of joy wasn’t in the cards. The thought worked its way in at times like that, making him want to reach for the liquor bottle at least a little. Because having that one moment of hearing the news and having it ripped away in the same instant, having it all be the result of one woman’s cold manipulations to boot, and knowing it was probably all he’d ever know about being a father, was a glum thing to have rattling around his head.

But aside from a blunt, If you want kids, it’s probably a good idea to get on that before I get old enough to likely end up dead while the kid’s still in kindergarten, there wasn’t much way he could see to bring it up to Johanna. He had the feeling it was her way of letting him know she didn’t want kids without being aggressively blunt about it. Sparing his feelings or something? The longer it went the more it seemed like it was simply something that was going to be left alone. That would be OK in the end because having her was far more than he’d have imagined was possible for him, so he thought he would be content with that. It would simply take a little time to get foolish and impractical dreams settled and locked away neatly; he knew that from experience.

“You’re young and things are still pretty up in the air with Panem.” Considering they were still hunting hard for their food a lot of days, bringing a baby into that wasn’t the wisest idea anyway. “No reason to let him push you into a decision, sweetheart,” he said, finally trying to give her something in the way of useful advice. “But at least let him know if it’s for sure whether it's 'maybe later’ or 'never'.” Might as well see those two have it be crystal clear between them.

“You think the new Panem’s going to be all right?”

He wished he could tell her that it would be everything they hoped it would, that of course kids would always have enough to eat and there would be every opportunity for them to have a great life and chase their dreams. Truth was, he didn’t know that for sure. But he knew a few things for certain. “No more Hunger Games. No more deliberately starving the districts to control us while the Capitol feasts away and thinks we’re not quite human enough to matter. So yeah, I’d say that’s a pretty damn good start. It’s a hell of a lot better world than we were born into.” Any child Katniss had would never have a life like hers, or Haymitch’s, a life full of the need to go hunting from an early age to put food on the table, take out tesserae, risk every Reaping Day in fear, and either die in the arena or come out of it alive but no longer a child. Katniss would never have to watch her child die on television to the cheers of the Capitol. “It’s worth putting some faith in it.” Taffeta had told him that once, and it was faith in that new Panem that was going to have him going around to all the districts, trying to help get them back on their feet.

If he could help build a better country where people like Finnick and Annie, and Katniss and Peeta, could feel safe to raise a pack of disgustingly adorable children, he thought that wasn’t a bad legacy. Better than his being Twelve’s embarrassment for all those years. “Anyway. Enough of this stuff, yeah? Let’s get back, have some coffee and warm up, and find out just how much they’ve been gossiping behind our backs.” He’d try to forget for tonight what tomorrow was going to be like.

Chapter Text

They left the sad, soggy, muddy, canvas-wrapped bundle in the front hallway of the house in the Village closest to the path down the hill, where it would be safe overnight. They’d built the coffin there the night before. Johanna might have said that precaution wasn’t necessary except for the fact that she’d seen the buzzards feasting on some half-rotted corpses in the rubble, and seen a glimpse of something else out of the corner of her eye slinking around, also searching for a meal. She’d seen that in the months Twelve had been abandoned that animals had been at the burned bodies, and despite having seen the worst of the mutts in the arena and the worst of people killed by predators in Seven, it still made her stomach churn. The kerchief over her nose cut down some of the lingering smells, though it must have truly been hell last summer, but nothing could kill the sight. She’d told him last night she suspected one coffin would be enough, but she wasn’t too happy to be proved right.

She’d taken a second before they headed inside their house, exhausted and filthy and soaked to the skin, to kick their wet clothes, shed on the front porch and ruined with mud and soot and damp ash and the sour-sweet stink of mustiness and decay, off into the bushes where they’d be safely hidden. Peeta and Katniss were hosting dinner at their house in a couple of hours. They could get the clothes later or tomorrow and burn them or bury them or whatever.

He murmured something about lighting a fire, while she lit a lantern and turned on the shower in the downstairs bathroom. There was still no hot water and thus the shower was about the same temperature as the chilly rain. It didn’t matter. Neither of them was in a mood to wait long enough to heat the water for a bath, not when the need to scrub the smell and feel of death off of them, teeth chattering the whole while, was so urgent it was almost a frenzied compulsion.

Naked and damp and shuddering in the unheated house, she hurried upstairs and dug through the closet, grabbing a spare quilt and then heading back down.

She found him away from the fire, looking out the window with the curtain half-drawn back, and she knew that particular view looked towards the path back down the hill. His hands braced on the window frame, his back to her, the firelight played over his bare skin.

She could see some of his scars, the thinnest knife cuts already fading to ghostly silver traces, but others were still stark raised, pink lines. She knew them all, even the ones she couldn’t see right now, knew the sight and the feel of them. She knew his body and its many scars that were so very like her own; with time now she was better coming to know his mind. She didn’t like what it implied that he’d turned away from the comfortable warmth of the fire to go gaze into the bleakness of the abyss.

He stood there with the air of wariness and dread like a man facing his own private hell. The lines of his body were drawn so tense she had the thought that he looked like the shivers racking him might somehow snap him in two. Then she realized, chagrined at her own slowness, maybe the tremors weren’t entirely from the cold.

Stepping up behind him, it was pure instinct that she wrapped her arms around him, breasts pressed against his back, her chilled skin against his. He startled badly as she did it, a sound coming from his throat that was half-gasp, half-growl, turning to confront her. Too late she recognized it might have been a bad idea to grab him from behind, and she let go and backed off, instinctively ducking and saying, “Easy, just me.” Instead of giving a panicked elbow to her face, she saw the flicker of recognition cross his face.

She could see his eyes, the silver-grey of them suddenly too bright in the firelight with the light shining off the tears there. He dashed the back of his hand roughly over his eyes and made a low sound in his throat, muttering thickly, almost embarrassed, “Never mind it, I’ll be all right for tomorrow.”

Tomorrow, for the funeral, she realized, because he wouldn’t allow himself to break down in public. He would be the strong one there, for Peeta’s sake as well as for some of his own pride.

Nearly eight thousand dead, and they had recovered four of them. Maybe four. It was so hard to tell when the jumbled remains they had uncovered in the rubble of bakery, burned and rotted and ravaged by animals, were barely recognizable as human any longer, let alone four distinct bodies. They would bury them all together, only one coffin needed. If there was any actual kind of afterlife, like her ancestors had apparently believed in the days before the Capitol abolished any formal religion, she’d trust to that to sort it out.

She knew she would have bad dreams off of it, just more for her collection. The sight and smells brought back too many unpleasant images of what her family must have been like, ravaged and torn apart by forest cats after being shot and left to rot in the summer sun. For Haymitch, it had to be far worse. She wondered if it was for the memory of the boy who’d buried the burned bodies of his family and the girl he had loved that he had so nearly wept in grief, or as the man who had lost his entire district. She suspected it was some of both.

The night Snow told them about Ash and Heike, they’d both been nearly wild with shock and despair. He was recovering more quickly than he had then. Even now, she could see he was rapidly regaining some composure, that the tears might have gathered but he wasn’t going to give in and let them fall. The catch in his breath was evening out. He had living here but staying solitary, not a part of Twelve’s community and its rhythms, for so many years. These dead still belonged to him in a way they didn’t belong to her, and so it hit him all the harder. But while he knew them, he hadn’t been close to them. He had begun the rift when he stepped away from them for their safety but over the years, they had rejected him as a failure and an embarrassment. So the deaths were almost unfathomable in scope, but still somewhat distant, more the concept of his people rather than specific names and friends.

It had been a shitty existence for him all those years but in that moment she was almost grateful. That distance was perhaps the only saving grace, the only thing that kept the loss from being so staggering he couldn’t be expected to bear it. No wonder he had refused to let Peeta go dig for his family and got Katniss to go with him too in the guise of keeping Peeta away. They were younger and softer and hadn’t been outcasts. The loss would cut deeper.

Sighing, she stepped forward and wrapped her arms around him, and the quilt with it. “C’mere, get your ass near the fire before you get pneumonia.” Not gentle words, but she knew him well enough to know that if she tried soft and sweet on him right now, he’d prefer she treat him more normally.

They settled down by the fire, the warmth of the flames and the quilt and each other gradually stopping the shivering. He hadn’t broken down, but she knew he’d pushed himself too hard for a man still grappling with more than his share of nightmares.

“It’s…not as bad as it was last summer,” he murmured, still sounding a little bit dazed, half-lost in his own thoughts. Yeah, she could imagine how it must have been seeing it only a few days after it happened. She still remembered how bleak his voice had been through that air vent, telling her Twelve had been obliterated.

Oh, not as bad as that. It’s still pretty fucking horrific. “Why do you do this shit to yourself?” She realized too late she’d muttered it aloud.

“Someone had to take care of it,” he said, and the answer was so calm and so oblivious that she almost wanted to yell at him. “And I wasn’t going to let it be Peeta.”

“So why does it have to be you?” she said, raising herself up on an elbow and looking down at him. Some days she thought the man didn’t have the good sense of a damn goose that he couldn’t seem to avoid rushing in to situations almost guaranteed to cause him pain or suffering. Hadn’t he been hurt enough already?

“Because, Jo,” Haymitch said, and now there was a spark of that contrariness in his face, telling her that he was winding up for a potential argument. Good. That meant he was more himself again. “I owe him. I always will.” The flash of steel in his eyes at the last bit and the tense look on his face told her that there was some weight behind that statement.

That whole Seam-debt thing, Peeta had called it, with a faint air of an outsider’s frustration that she found she shared, the way Katniss and Haymitch moved easily in that shared mentality and left anyone not born and raised to it trying to figure it out. “Care to clue in a stupid Seven gal?” she said with excessive patience.

“I wrote him off,” he said bluntly in reply. “She knows it, he knows it, and I know it. Fuck, everyone in Mentor Central knew it. Did my best to save her, put all the sponsorship money on her, and I cut him loose to go get himself killed however it would happen.”

“Yeah, with his urging you on to do it,” she said, resisting the urge to roll her eyes because even if she thought it was ridiculous, the intensity of it told her this mattered to him and she shouldn’t so lightly dismiss it. That didn’t mean she wasn’t going to try to convince him he was being an idiot. “And yeah, everyone in Mentor Central knew it. Because we all did it. Every fucking year, Haymitch.” She’d done it with Blight, each summer, picked one of the tributes they thought had the better chance of survival and banked all their hopes on him or her, turning their efforts away from the weaker of the two. That was how the Games worked for the dark horse districts. It was how it had to be if there was any hope of bringing one kid home alive. “You did the impossible, you idiot. You played the Gamemakers like you play that damn fiddle of yours. You brought both of them back alive.”

He looked up at her, eyes level and clear as he told her, “I know. But you never had to look a kid in the eyes with both of you knowing he was lying in the mud dying by inches because he wasn’t the chosen one. It wasn’t like I was the one that saved him in the end. Cost him his leg by not getting it treated earlier.”

“No lack of effort on your part that you didn’t get him that medicine,” she pointed out dryly. “I seem to remember you throwing a real fit because the Gamemakers made it pointless by throwing that feast.” He’d obviously been at the end of his rope, after putting away the booze and enduring days and days of keeping up the frantic pace of trying to watch two tributes and also go work the sponsors at every possible opportunity. It got to the point where all of the lame duck mentors were offering to keep an eye on Katniss and Peeta for a couple hours so he could go meet a sponsor or catch a nap. Her shifts, as she remembered it, had mostly been while they were cuddled up in that cave sleeping—boring and uneventful.

She would never tell him, but all of them with their tributes out of it early had stepped forward then because yeah, Katniss was inspiring and all, but at that point they really didn’t give a shit one way or another about her. They did it for him, because he had been there for them in the past. Because, for once, they wanted him to be the one to bring a kid home.

When he came back from a frenzy of fundraising, almost entirely sober, they knew he’d been working it hard to get the medication for Peeta’s infection. He’d dialed up the parachutiers only to find that after the Gamemakers had announced the feast, they’d priced that single precious syringe so far out of his reach he could never hope to buy it, he’d ended up swearing and breaking several chairs in helpless fury. They’d simply let him do it, despite seeing the mentor aides standing there wincing at the cleaning they’d have to do. They all knew the reality. The Gamemakers wanted to force the drama of Katniss risking her life for that medicine, and so all of Haymitch’s efforts had pretty much just been pissed down the drain. Even Brutus, still a good Capitol minion then with both his own tributes alive, had muttered something about it being unfair. “Did you have to sell yourself to anyone for that money?” she asked him, not beating around the bush with euphemisms. It would have been too personal to ask him that back then. It wasn’t now.

When he laughed, it startled her to realize that hearing him laugh genuinely of late, it had been a while since she’d heard that familiar sound, caustic and sharp and bitter. “You don’t do flattery, so that must be selective memory as to me back then.” Considering she’d liked Haymitch as a friend but wouldn’t have considered him insanely desirable, he probably had a point. “No. I even went to some old patrons, sure, to try to talk them out of their wallets. But shit, you know they didn’t want to fuck a fat, drunk, washed-up forty-year-old as part of that deal.” But she knew some of them would have wanted him last year, slimmed-down, sober, sharp, and forty-one.

“If they did, would you have done it?”

Something like pain flickered across his face, breaking through the veneer of amused sarcasm he’d quickly flung up. “You have to ask? Yeah. Of course.” He didn’t have to say I was well broken in already to whoring, it wouldn’t have mattered.

No, she hadn’t had to ask. She’d known. But she wanted him to say it for his own sake. To her mind that willingness to push himself to the edge, and even to endure shame and humiliation once again if it would have clinched the deal, simply to save a boy that wasn’t even his own kin made him a better man than the one being buried tomorrow, who’d stood by and let his wife kick the shit out of his own son. She knew better than to say it to either him or Peeta, though. Tact didn’t come easy to her but on a few points she’d managed. “So you hustle your ass off to earn sponsorship money, you would have sold your own damn body if it helped, you talk the Gamemakers into an unprecedented rule change. Still not seeing how you let Peeta down. Hell, you shoved him out of the way for the Quell and put yourself in it, planning to die, just to make sure he survived. So after that, do you really owe him?”

“So put it as,” Haymitch frowned thoughtfully, trying to think of something that framed it better. His voice lowered as he said, with a fierce edge, “I promised him I would help him take care of burying them, doing it proper. You and I at least had that for our people. He should too, rather than having them tossed in a common grave with all the others. Besides…I’ve lied to him before.”

Necessary lies, she was sure, but all the same, Snow’s defense lawyer had gotten him to admit to being a liar during the trial. His abilities to deceive and manipulate, well-trained in his years as a victor, had saved his ass and others too, saved his tributes and started a successful rebellion. But she could sense in him, in this world without the need to lie and cheat simply to survive, the craving to become a man with honor, with integrity. One who could give his word and have it regarded as solid. He’d promised Peeta, because he cared for him, and he would keep his word. “You’re not going to go on some quest to bury them all, are you?” she asked, and she wasn’t kidding.

“There’s close to eight thousand of them,” he said with a slow sigh. “I can’t, but hell, ideally I should do it. After all, it’s my fau—”

She knew what he would say. Knew him and his guilt too well, had heard him pleading with the ghosts of Twelve’s dead in his cell. She wanted to lash out and snap him out of those self-forged shackles, because seeing him determined to flay himself like this was no easy thing for her to bear. Yeah, well, she’d known he had his issues. Nobody drank most of the way to oblivion and death out of being happy. “No,” she said, interrupting him, trying to keep her voice even as she did it. “That’s all in your head, Haymitch. It’s just the venom talking, that and Snow.” Because she was sure that snake bastard was behind the idea being planted in Haymitch’s head. Why else would he have dragged his prize rebel prisoner on a tour of the place if not to rub Haymitch’s face in his supposed screw-up? The venom would have only made him more paranoid about it with the hallucinations.

“He called me in on their Tour. Told me to keep them both in line and make sure Katniss didn’t screw it up, or as I knew from experience, there would be consequences,” he murmured, looking away from her. “I didn’t take it seriously enough. I thought, you know, it would be their families. I had Plutarch ready to send a team to retrieve ‘em from Twelve if at all possible. I didn’t think it would be that fast, and be the entire district.”

“Then that’s on Snow. Not you. He dropped the bombs.”

“I know that. But you want to look at me and try to tell me you don’t still feel it in your gut about your ma, your daddy, your brother? That you should have done differently somehow, not taken the Capitol so lightly?” He was right, she’d acknowledge it. Gut instinct wasn’t rational, and the lingering shadow of doubt and guilt was still there sometimes. “Maybe it ain’t directly my fault, but yeah, I helped cause it by underestimating Snow. And I led an awful lot of people to dying last year. Including more than a few of our friends.”

How she could want to smack him and hug him at the same time never failed to amaze her, but somehow it happened. She didn’t reach out and touch him, though, not yet. “You forget I was in that damn meeting you held. Give us due credit. We were all victors.” Weak people didn’t survive the arena. “We weren’t a bunch of gullible little lambs that you tricked into sacrificing our lives. We knew we were all going to die anyway but you at least offered us a chance to die for something worthwhile. You asked, that’s all. Volunteers only, you said. So we volunteered.” They had gone into it with clear minds—all right, maybe people like Max had been a little less than clear but still pretty sane—but not duped or coerced or forced. He simply asked, as their friend. As his friends, they agreed.

She sighed, shook her head, and tried to think of where to go next on this. “So what do you want, Haymitch? Absolution? Because I can tell you things aren’t your fault but is it going to do a damn bit of good unless you actually decide you believe it? I’m really not into beating my head against a brick wall for fun.”

He pondered that a good while, the fire playing over the solemn, thoughtful expression on his face. “Absolution? No. Nobody can say a few words and make it all better. Look. I made a rebellion that turned into a war. Sure, it was a necessary war and Panem’s going to turn out a hell of a lot better for it. But a lot of people died. A lot of people right now that survived are cold and hungry and scared. I helped make that situation so I don’t get to turn away from what I created and say ‘We won, so tough shit that it’s hard right now, it’s not my fucking problem to deal with it.’”

“Some would have.” She thought about Coin, willing to claw her way to power over the suffering of others. Even others, like Katniss’ friend Gale, saw only the fierce bloodlust of the actual fight rather than the pain and frailties left in its aftermath. He was a better man than he wanted to give himself credit for that he actually thought about things like that. “So maybe it’s a good thing Brocade gave us this job.”

“Time to face reality. Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “These last few months…” A half-smile from him, the slightest bit self-conscious and therefore she knew it was entirely sincere, told her plenty about what they’d meant to him. They’d meant plenty to her too. She hadn’t been kidding when she told Brocade they both needed some time off before plunging back into the fray, time to heal and be away from everything. But spring was here and he was right, there were realities that couldn’t easily be ignored.

“Yeah.”

“But you’re right. It’s a good opportunity to fix some things for the whole country.”

“So you’re talking about redemption.” Not absolution at all with how easy that would be, but not drowning himself in damnation with no escape. At least he had a clear plan here of how to go about feeling like he’d paid what he owed, his path to becoming a better man. “Where does your responsibility stop?” she asked, wanting to be clear, because the idea of the next twenty years of living with him guiltily atoning wasn’t a pleasant thought. Even worse, she could see the notion of him doing something stupid and getting himself killed. “When does it finally balance? I mean, do you have to rebuild every fucking district yourself with a hammer and nails, or what?”

She got a quick laugh for that and was both pleased that he could see it as funny and irritated because she hadn’t actually meant it as a joke. “For that I’d need a woman who knows a thing or two about lumber,” he teased her lightly. But then his tone turned more serious. “When I finish this tour of the districts and I’ve done my part to help them on their way,” he said, grey eyes meeting hers. “I promise.”

Thinking it over, she decided she could accept that. They were doing this anyway to help the districts out, to help Brocade, and hopefully to find out about Ash and Heike. If in the bargain Haymitch’s conscience shed some of its burden that was even better. “Good. Remember it.”

“I will.” He looked at her curiously, reaching out and tucked a fold of the quilt around her shoulder from where it was starting to slip loose. “So aside from Heike, why are you taking this whole trip?” Another of those half-smiles as he said, “You’re no gullible little lamb getting led around by me, after all.”

She gave a snort of irritation. “So maybe you’re not the only one who’s looking for a change in life. Being a complete bitch day in and day out is a demanding job, you know.” Being known best for a supposed streak of vicious cunning was one thing when it was forced on her, but now that the Capitol had fallen, she was tired of imagining the rest of her life with people flinching like she’d bury an axe in their skulls as soon as look at them. She’d changed enough already to let other people into her life. Changed enough that unlike before, when she might have been one of those people too wrapped up in her own losses and saying, So what, it’s their problem to deal with it, not mine, she actually gave a damn now. She couldn’t go back to the sixteen-year-old, soft and innocent, who’d gone to the arena. Too much time and too much pain prevented it. She would have to decide who she wanted to be now, and trying to step away from some of the worst of that image was a daunting task. She’d figured this trip might help that, challenge her to become better still.

Obviously he didn’t need further explanation, because he stretched up enough to kiss her softly in response, and that said more than words might have done. She answered that, enjoying the feel of it, of being warm and calm, and not alone and loved and most of all, still alive. Poor bastards down the hill. The thought of it intruded and she knew closing her eyes wouldn’t help because the images were seared into her consciousness.

No better way to answer death than with feeling totally alive, and with the grief still at the edge of his consciousness from the look on his face, he needed to forget as much as her. She kissed him harder, hand trailing down beneath the quilt. She’d taken him in hand and with a few light strokes felt the ready first twitches of response against her fingers, and reveled in the sound of his swift, shaky intake of breath at it, but then his hand came down to cover hers and stop her. She couldn’t quite help a momentary embarrassment as she let go—the right to not be in the mood and be able to say “no” was precious to them both, and she wouldn’t take that from him for anything. But being rebuffed was something that she was still learning to not take as an actual rejection. “Later,” he told her, softening the blow with how he touched her face and looked at her. His smile was now that familiar cocky smirk as he said, “Since I aim to keep you up all night.”

Reading between the lines was getting easier for her. If they both were afraid of what dreams they might have tonight, no better way to handle it than staying awake and comforting each other as best they could. “We’ve got dinner to think about,” she agreed, remembering that, though she didn’t have much appetite. Neither was she looking forward to going over there and trying to keep a pleasant face around Peeta, still oblivious. But they’d do it anyway. “So get dressed. I’ll close up the fire.” The embers would still be there when they got back from dinner, ready to be fanned to life again.

She’d do that on the way upstairs. But, quilt still around her shoulders, grabbing the still-burning lantern from the bathroom, she padded to the telephone and dialed Brocade Paylor first. Brocade answered, sounding harried as usual. “Hey. It’s Johanna Ma—Johanna Abernathy.” She was still getting used to thinking of herself with that last name. “You’re busy, I get it, so I’ll make it short. If you can, try to keep people from Twelve from being on the cleanup crews. At least the earliest ones dealing with bodies. It’s not gonna help them to see this.” Haymitch was tougher than most and he’d still almost broken down tonight. People who thought coming back as early as possible and helping with the cleanup would probably just end up scarred for life for their trouble. Better to leave it to people from outside Twelve who wouldn’t look at those sad remains and imagine the faces of friends or family there, and be haunted by it.

“I’ll do my best,” Brocade promised, and Johanna actually believed it. “I was encouraging people from out-of-district to join the crews anyway since Twelve will need some new settlers.” She chuckled over the phone. “Guess you were the first and set the trend, huh?”

“Guess so,” she said, not in the mood for a prolonged conversation and thankful that Brocade seemed too busy for chitchat. “Thanks.” She hung up the phone and turned to see Haymitch standing there in the doorway of the kitchen. Out of the lantern’s light, the dim shadows of dusk made his expression impossible to read well, but obviously he’d overheard the phone call.

So maybe right now I’m attempting, say, an hour a day where I’m actually trying to be a hundred percent a good person and all that shit, she almost said. But she held her tongue. She didn’t need to defend it. Neither did she need him to try to reassure her that she was a good person. Like she’d told him, she needed to earn it and believe it for herself, not simply hear it said and have it fix everything. Besides, he didn’t need to say it. He’d proved it, since he knew her flaws and he’d been there for her anyway when she was anything but lovable. Instead she just waited to see what he’d do.

He came over to her, though he didn’t say anything right away or touch her. He reached behind her and picked up the phone, dialed it, and she heard him say, voice not giving a hint of the tired expression on his face, “Yeah, Peeta? Johanna and I aren’t gonna make it for dinner. Just feeling a bit sick.” Peeta obviously said something because Haymitch gave an irritated grumble and said, “Oh, shut up.” More talk from Peeta. “No, we’ll be OK. I swear we won’t starve. Fine. If you insist. Yeah, ‘night.” Obviously he’d come to the same conclusion as her: food and carefully keeping up appearances really didn’t appeal tonight so much as the idea of staying in and being with each other. He hung up the phone and looked at her and said with some chagrin, “Looks like I still lie to him some.”

“More like just not telling him everything.” Saying they felt sick was true enough—heartsick definitely counted. “And I think you get a pass on that anyway.” Letting Peeta have one last peaceful night rather than a sleepless, grieving one was a kindness. She thought that was well worth a little omission of information. Hopefully Katniss could handle it, but right now that wasn’t her concern.

He pushed the quilt from her shoulders, and she let it fall to the floor as he stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her, feeling the shock at the contrast of both the cool air and his warm skin suddenly against her. Reaching up, she turned his face to her and kissed him, smelling only him and the soap they’d scrubbed with, no scent of death or rot. There were nights she reveled in their lovemaking being playful and seeing how laughter made him seem younger, like the man he should have been all those years. Sometimes it was hot, all passion and urgency. Other times were a bit rough, full of dirty talk and dares, all the while fiercely asserting their claim on each other. They were even getting to the point of it being something soft and tender and all the finer for it. That wasn’t the case right now. This was one of the ones where I need you wasn’t simply about desire. It all hurt too damn much tonight. There wouldn’t be jokes or naughty whispers.

But they’d said it: in bad times as well as good, they’d be there for each other, keep each other safe and sane. He would turn to her rather than the alcohol and she’d turn to him rather than some stranger, and they’d be stronger for it.

In that rose garden, he’d snapped at Snow that he’d been forced to kneel down often enough in his life. He’d also put it to her bluntly later, Agreed that we’ll never try to order each other to beg for anything in bed? He did this because he wanted to, though, and she felt the affection in how he slowly kissed and touched his way down her body, that intense focus of his turned all on her. She threaded her fingers into his hair; let him nudge her legs apart, giving a small kiss to her inner thigh. Despite how demanding and bossy as she’d been with Capitol assholes, it was generally just straight-up fucking. Not like she wanted to give them the satisfaction of going down on her knees for a Capitol man, or woman, but it was easier to imagine doing that than to feel the sheer vulnerability of giving over this much control, of simply accepting that someone wanted to do this for her.

Even with Haymitch it was still both thrilling and terrifying, because he knew her so damn well. Tonight that thought was far more of a comfort than any kind of unease. His hand was on her hip holding her steady and with the way he looked up at her and then the touch of his tongue, as clever at this as with his words, making her moan and her knees go a little bit weak, her other hand went behind her to brace up on the table they’d made together. The horrors and the lingering guilt were real, but in that moment the tenderness and the trust was even more real.

~~~~~~~~~

They told Peeta at breakfast. Well, Katniss told him. Haymitch was bone-tired and sort of trying to not fall asleep into the potato hash before the coffee really could kick in and wake him up. Digging through rubble yesterday, staying up most of the night with Johanna, and then trudging to the cemetery to dig a grave all before daylight, all made him physically tired. The psychological weariness of the reality of what remained of District Twelve was draining in its own way too.

Peeta took it bravely, and excused himself. Katniss made to follow him but Johanna grabbed her wrist and said, “Let him have a minute first.” If she hadn’t found him last night, he could glumly admit he might have given in to the tears himself, and he thought that Peeta really needed to let go and give in more than he had. Katniss gave him a minute or two and then hurried to find him. When they came back to the table ten minutes later his eyes were red-rimmed but he was composed.

The coffin was fairly plain, a quick job done with the tools on hand. Johanna had taken enough time to give it the small personal touch of carving a sheaf of wheat into the lid, for a baker and his family. Peeta touched it, traced the design, looked up and told her, "Thank you for that.” Johanna just nodded in reply, not offering any wisecrack or the like. None of them said anything about the grim reality of the remains of four people only needing one coffin, but even for the sake of Peeta, he and Johanna couldn’t dig four proper graves by hand.

Johanna was even more exhausted than him, since even if she was strong for a woman, the physical toil had taken more out of her. So it was him and Peeta that took the ropes to lower the coffin carefully down. The muddy ground from the thaw and the rain had made the digging easier this morning, but trying to brace against the weight and not slip wasn’t easy.

When that was done, Peeta stepped back and Katniss slipped her arm around his waist, holding him tightly. She was obviously thinking of Peeta first here, and they ought to be buried by Twelve custom, which Johanna obviously couldn’t know. He’d been to too many funerals in his life, even before he stopped being invited to them. The words of the song were seared into his brain. Like he’d told Plutarch snarkily, he was probably more inspired by funerals than weddings, because he’d experienced far more of the former.

He was tired of the funeral song. One of his earliest flickers of memory was standing graveside with his ma holding his hand while they buried his father, or at least the man he’d believed held that distinction. About all he remembered was the fear of that yawning black pit, the feeling of terrified confusion, and the sound of singing. He wasn’t sure anyone in Twelve actually found much comfort in those words, pretty much observing that a hard, harsh life was finally over. In this case, a life ended badly to boot.

So instead he found himself singing another song, one from his grandfather’s music journal. They’d apparently sung this one during the First Uprising, and once he’d tried the song on his fiddle, he realized he’d heard some of the oldsters defiantly humming a few bars of the tune at funerals when he was young.

Sing a song, mockingjay, sing me a song
Remember the ones that now are gone,
Miles deep in the coal-black mine we die,
Dreamin’ of coal-black wings in the sky,
Can’t cage a song sung in the trees,
Can’t cage a soul longing to be free,
Sing me a song, and remember this,
We’ll see the day come we all can live.

They’d seen that day come and maybe it didn’t bring Peeta’s kin back, but at least it was a little more hopeful than “They’re dead and not hurting anymore.” Katniss shot him a look of something like confusion. He heard the whistle of a mockingjay nearby testing out the new song, and managed to not smile at it. Can’t cage a song indeed.

The damp clots of mud clattered heavily down on the coffin lid as Peeta threw in the first shovelful, and he saw Peeta flinch at the sound. Stepping forward and taking the shovel from him, trying to ignore his already-blistered palms, he finished the job as the rest of them watched in respectful silence.

“I’ll walk him back,” he murmured to Katniss. Surprisingly, she didn’t object, moving over to Johanna. He sort of wanted to get out of the cemetery himself, and up the hill back to the Village; he had too many people buried here himself and he didn’t want to start thinking about them today when the grief was already still too close.

The two of them headed up the hill and he surreptitiously tried to scrape some of the mud off his boots, but given it was a muddy path, it was pointless. He wished he had something profound to say, some kind of essential truth to impart that would ease things.

The truth was simply that he’d stood where Peeta had, burying his family, and had to deal with it. He was still dealing with it. For twenty-five years, inside he had remained that scarred, lost sixteen-year-old boy the Capitol had stripped of everything that mattered and the last of his childhood and his innocence, but wouldn’t allow him to ever escape the shadow of the arena. He was almost forty-two and it was a hell of a late start but he was finally getting the chance to leave the boy behind, finish growing up and choose the kind of man he wanted to be.

“They’ll never be there now,” he said finally. “When you’re still trying to cope with the arena. When you have questions about life. When you marry Katniss. When you maybe have kids. You’ve got no blood kin left to rely on and losing that, it makes you grow up too fast, become a man before your time.” Though the arena, and the war, would have done plenty towards that end anyway. Peeta wasn’t the scared boy who Effie had clucked about him weeping in the car on the way to the train.

Peeta inhaled sharply, as if trying to steady himself. “I know they weren’t the best family, but…”

“They were still yours,” he spared Peeta having to say it. “And your pa was proud that he knew you’d be a better man than him. That’s probably what any father would hope for.” In his case, in turning out better than either Phineas Fog or Blair Abernathy wasn’t saying all that much.

Liam Mellark never let him pay for bread now, at least while his wife wasn’t watching. Considering Haymitch had money to burn and had left Liam’s son to die in the arena that left him with that uncomfortable Seam sense of debt that even white liquor couldn’t quite kill. Back when he had liquor, anyway, before Peeta dumped it all out.

“Peeta says the training for the Quarter Quell is going well,” Liam said carefully, wrapping up the warm loaf of bread.

“Uh-huh,” he said dismissively, not really wanting to talk about that subject. “Let me have some of the sugar cookies too, and will you just let me pay for the fucking things?” The younger Everdeen girl was fond of them and Perulla had insisted he come over for dinner tonight. Katniss would scowl, as usual. He didn’t mention that, knowing Liam and Perulla’s history. Besides, if he knew they were for his old girlfriend’s daughter, Liam would definitely never let him pay. “And some cheese buns.” Between the lack of liquor and the training, he was surprised how he was constantly hungry these days. He felt like it was back when he was a kid, hungry all the time. His food bill had skyrocketed. Though it was still much less than buying booze would have been. “And what you really wanna know is: will I let him die this time? We talked about it. Don’t let it get around town since the Capitol will want the reaping to be a big thing, but he’s not going in the arena.”

Liam let out a slow, relieved breath. “Thank you,” he murmured softly, closing the glass display case. “He’s a good boy. He’ll be a good man.” Haymitch made a faint noise of acknowledgment, eyeing the bread again and debating whether he ought to get more. After the morning training he felt like he could devour an entire loaf with his teeth and his bare hands before even leaving the bakery. “Better than me,” Liam said finally to Haymitch’s back as he was staring at a blueberry-cinnamon loaf with probably far more lust than he’d showed for a woman in over a decade.

“That too,” he said, turning and pointing at the bread. “And yeah, I know he will.” No point denying it. He knew Liam hated how, with one mistake made in a moment of weakness when he was depressed over losing Perulla, he’d ended up doing the right thing by a woman and it led to a hellish marriage. He knew the man was ashamed how he was too weak, too beaten down by his guilt and how he felt he deserved it, to defend his children against the wife who never had wanted them.

Liam had never told him that. But he didn’t have to say anything, and Haymitch had the feeling the baker understood him and his own guilt in turn. Those that were inescapably drowning in self-loathing recognized their own kind.

Of course, after hearing that Haymitch was going to go off and die for his kid, the man still didn’t let him pay.

Liam had been a weak man, but he’d loved his son, and Haymitch knew that as Peeta got older, more sure of himself as a man in his own right,he’d probably see the matter clearer. He’d come to terms better with the good and bad of his father.

They were at Katniss’ house now, and Haymitch put a hand on his shoulder for a second to stop him from climbing the porch. The advice gleaned from years of his own sorrow came quickly now. “Don’t make yourself clean out the house alone, and don’t do it right away. Visit ‘em, and I’ll make sure to order a proper marker when Jo and I go to Two, but don’t linger there too much. Try to remember the good stuff and not how they died. Keep yourself busy. Don’t go try to help the cleanup crews, it’s just going to fuck with your head. And if it gets too bad, go break something or whatever, but don’t start drinking.”

He added, softer now, “But you’ll never be alone. We’ll all be here. You won’t ever have to worry you’ll be like me.”

“I could do a lot worse than turning out like a man who had no reason to do it but still gave it everything he had to save my life twice,” Peeta said, and wasn’t that just like him, to think of the best in Haymitch even as Haymitch himself automatically turned to the worst. He sighed, feeling oddly flustered at the compliment and the faith implied in it. Peeta gave him a slight, sad smile and said, “Thanks for looking after them for me,” before he headed inside, grief obviously still weighing heavy on his shoulders but not unbearable. They were buried now and he could start to try to heal.

Yeah, better to admit that Johanna was right. If he felt the pull of owing Peeta over the first arena, Peeta obviously felt he owed him in return, and he ought to accept that things between them were even. Though he suspected Peeta still wouldn’t ever let him pay for bread either.

Chapter Text

The soil was dark and cool and damp between his fingers as he and Johanna helped push it back over the roots of the sapling. He thought momentarily of burying Peeta’s family a few weeks ago, but he managed to put it aside from his mind. That had no place in this kind of moment. Giving the earth one last pat down, he pushed up off the ground, getting to his feet and dusting off his hands. His black trousers didn’t show the dirt that must have been on his knees but he could feel where the damp had seeped through.

Johanna, on her feet now too, crossed her arms over her chest and surveyed the two apple trees with satisfaction. “So, do we sing or what?” he asked, smiling to himself as she brushed a lock of hair off her forehead that had come loose from her blue kerchief, looking at the smudges of dirt on her face.

“No, we’d crack open a keg of beer and drink,” Johanna said, looking over at him with a smirk. “After a little while then everyone around us would be singing. Really bawdy stuff too.”

“Ask Peeta. I don’t think Katniss will sing bawdy songs for you,” he teased. “But we’d need the whole keg of beer to not wince at his singing.” They’d finally planted those trees to observe Seven’s wedding customs—apples meant shade and food both, nicely practical. That was after spending most of the day out in the backyard planting a vegetable garden. Tomatoes, carrots, peppers, and the like, seeds planted in the ground ready to grow. Though admittedly it would be mostly Katniss and Peeta reaping the benefit of that this year, considering both he and Johanna were going to be away so much.

There was still something satisfying about it, though, this particular little freedom, given that gardens had been forbidden by the Capitol. Independently growing food would be a step towards getting away from the shackles of reliance on wages and tesserae that were tightly controlled by the Capitol.

Right now there was only overturned black soil and the border of wildflowers that Johanna had put there after she’d gathered the plants with Peeta yesterday out in the woods. It was something unusually sentimental for her, so he teased her as he came up behind her, putting his arms around her, “What, is that so I always have flowers to bring you and no excuses?”

She chuckled wryly, saying, “Don’t bother. Cut flowers just die too damn fast. Deliberately slowly killing something just so you can put it where you want it and stare at it for a while? Kind of depressing.” Kind of like the Games, he thought, imagining she made that connection herself. Well, that practicality was more like her, but it made even less sense of the matter. She made a soft noise in her throat and finally said, “We couldn’t have gardens either. But my mom, she’d try to bring a plant or two from lumber camp sometimes. Plant it in a jar in the house. Mostly it was herbs or the like, but there were a few flowers. She’d say,” Johanna’s voice went a little softer, remembering her mother, “it was a little something, just for pretty. And that sometimes we all need that.”

Her fingers tightened in his, and he didn’t have to say that he knew she still missed them. He could imagine Petra Mason with her flowerpots. Instead he tried to lighten her mood by saying, “Well, my ma would probably say I ought to be damn glad to have some fresh vegetables so I’d better shut up and eat ‘em.” He could practically hear her voice still, and his throat felt oddly tight at the memory. Johanna’s answering laugh was a little shaky. They stood there, looking over the garden and finally he asked, “Do you want to bring them here? Or at least put up a stone in the cemetery?” They were already ordering the headstone for the Mellarks when they went to Two, it would be no hardship to order one for the Masons. At least it would give her a place for them. He wished in that moment that he could have known them. They must have been really something to raise a woman like Johanna.

She was silent for a good long while before she finally said, almost too soft to hear at first, “No. They’re a part of Seven. I don’t want to dig them up, and a stone here wouldn’t belong to them either. We planted a tree instead, at the memorial grove, one with a tag with their names. So we’d have something living to visit to remember them, instead of dead stone.”

Put like that it sounded like possibly a better idea than staring bleakly at polished granite. Unfortunately they didn’t have any kind of memorial grove here. “If you want a tree for them here, we should do that.” Because there was always that vague nagging concern that she herself didn’t feel like she belonged sometimes, moving to a place like this, and he wouldn’t ask her to give up everything she was, not for him.

“Thanks,” she said softly, turning to him, brushing her fingers over his jaw and then back, threading them through his hair. He knew she might have a few stray smudges of dirt on her hands but he didn’t really care. Dirt washed off. Feeling this from her was far more important. “You might need a haircut soon since you know we’re gonna end up on the newscasts,” she murmured, leaning in closer to him. “Back to shaving regularly too. Too bad. Looks good on you.”

True enough. It had been over eight months now since the guards had shaved their heads in the Detention Center as part of the Capitol’s execution rituals. It hadn’t gotten nearly to the length yet the stylists had kept it at so many years, down to his jaw, but he’d admit the tufts and curls of his hair would probably be getting sort of shaggy soon and thus longer than he’d like. Wryly, he was thankful she didn’t mention him dyeing out the few strands of grey that had finally showed up, but then, she wasn’t Capitol. He thought sometimes he could see a thread or two of grey in her hair too among the mingled autumn brown and copper and bronze, which he could well understand after everything they’d endured. “I’m not letting you give me a haircut,” he said, chuckling. “You forget I’ve seen your efforts on yourself.” Every year on Reaping Day recaps, she was on stage with her hair looking like she’d just hacked it with a knife.

She rolled her eyes and said, “Yeah, and you were always too lazy to bother.” They both knew he hadn’t given a shit and let his hair grow out every year, and they knew why she’d roughly cut off whatever growth she’d had in her hair since the last Games. It forced the stylists to even it out before she met the sponsors, and keep it trimmed like she wanted, short spikes that weren’t long enough to be grabbed. She’d had beautiful long hair as a tribute, he remembered, and she’d found out quickly enough once they put her on the circuit what a burden that could be with the ones who played rough.

He reached up and tugged at the knot of her kerchief, working it loose and pulling the blue cotton free from her hair, burying his fingers in the silky, short waves of it. She was growing it out now and he could imagine what it would be like in a year, but even now that she trusted him enough with that said plenty. Leaning in, he kissed her, thinking of the trees now in their backyard, the flowers bordering the garden, the kitchen furniture they’d made together, the bed and dresser upstairs that she’d brought from Seven, the fresh paint and new curtains and different fabric on the furniture.

Things were changing here, day by day. While it was harder than he’d thought to let some things go, once the changes were made he was surprised he was happy to see them, to make this house a place where this new Haymitch belonged and she did too, rather than the place for the drunk hermit he’d been and his many ghosts.

It had always been a house. But finally, it was starting to feel like home, and he desperately hoped it was for her too, that she felt she could belong here rather than a stranger trying to fit in.

Someone’s throat cleared and he heard Katniss’ voice, “Are you two coming to dinner or are you going to be otherwise occupied?”

“Shut up, Kittycat, we just got married,” Johanna said, breaking off the kiss but keeping hold of him, grinning up at him.

“Again?” Katniss said incredulously, and he looked over and saw she was leaning her arms on the waist-high brick wall separating his backyard from hers. “Isn’t this like the fourth time?”

“Yeah, we’ll be there,” he said, putting an end to the two women bantering with each other. “C’mon, let’s get washed up.” He stooped down to pick up her kerchief, handing it to her.

“It’s only the third time,” she grumbled playfully as she headed up the steps into the house. “The Capitol paperwork, and the ways for Twelve and Seven. I mean, everyone else gets married twice with the paperwork and the actual shit that matters, so that’s not unreasonable, for fuck’s sake. It’s not like we’re getting married by every single district custom.”

“Why, you want to?” he said glibly. “I mean, we know about Two and Four for sure. And I’ve heard some about Eight. The couple, they tie their two hands together with a strip of cloth and they have all kinds of talk about weaving lives together. Very poetic and all.”

She turned and gave him a look that suddenly made him wish dinner wasn’t quite so soon and they had time to head upstairs. “No, that’s OK, I feel pretty married now.” Amidst the more lustful thoughts he realized what she had said with some surprise and pleasure, that for her it finally felt real. But then, he hadn’t really felt married until the toasting. She must have been waiting for this, for spring to come so planting those trees was possible. “But,” she said, turning on the sink so they could scrub their hands and faces, nudging him playfully with her hip as he moved to stand beside her, “I seem to remember we had a pretty thorough list of how each district would probably have sex.”

He remembered that bit of banter one morning in the shower before training, scrubbing off that stupid purple schedule ink, though it took him a moment to remember some of the ideas they’d jokingly tossed back and forth. “I don’t think we ever came up with Eight, though.”

She gave him a smirk. “Given their wedding customs? Tie ‘em to the bedposts, of course.”

That she could even joke about that now, that he could laugh about it, said plenty that they were still coming back from that very dark place where they’d endured things like being tied down. Although joking about things like that and actually setting out to do it were two different things. “It’s a good list,” he said, grabbing a dishtowel and drying off, handing one to her to do the same. “Well-thought out.” Both of them seemed to be on the verge of that awkward lack of anything good to say, because the next rational step would be issuing the challenge to actually try that list out.

“And we’re going around to all the districts anyway. So I mean, if you wanted to, we could…” Her eyes were looking somewhere in the region of his shoulder rather than his face. He’d come a long way from the point where he would have been content to never have anyone touch him for the rest of his life, but he wasn’t sure he was ready for some of that and the reminders it might bring up. When he didn’t immediately answer she eventually scowled and muttered, “Never mind, stupid idea.”

“Not stupid. Just…” Not easy. What was mildly kinky stuff for ordinary people was a veritable minefield for them. It felt a bit like the countdown—step off the plate a little too quickly without thinking, and it would be a real fucking mess.

“I’m tired of them still owning me,” she said bluntly, tossing the towel on the counter. He knew what she meant. It didn’t even have to be related to sex, or something like the bloody business of hunting. It could be something simple that was said or done bringing up an echo of something from back then.

“I know.” They were fears that had to be met and confronted. He was tired too of feeling like a piece of his soul would never be his own because it belonged back in that past. “We’ll try, OK?” Might as well; they were already trying to manage some other things on this trip about moving beyond all the shit they’d endured. Mostly by this point he was confident that there was no need to worry; if they didn’t get it right the first time, if it was too much, they could try again later.

“OK,” she said, and her fingers were gentle on his cheek as she passed by him, though her voice was back to normal as she said, “But let’s get next door before she starts huddling in a corner whimpering and imagining we skipped dinner and went right to dessert.”

Though when they went next door, walking into the kitchen, he saw the kids had a cake on the counter, and from their eager grins he knew what was up. At least from their own experiences, they knew better than to do something really stupid like dim the lights and leap out at him yelling, “Surprise!” Yeah, it’d be a real surprise, all right, when he instinctively tried to fight them off.

He’d known it was his birthday, of course. He just hadn’t mentioned it, figuring it was no big deal. Birthdays were kid stuff, and the only ones that had really mattered in Panem for decades were being twelve and able to get those first tesserae, and turning nineteen and being safe from reaping and finally unable to claim any more tesserae. “I’m forty-two, damn it,” he groused, “that’s not something to actually celebrate.”

“Hey, it’s a lot better than being dead,” Katniss said, raising an eyebrow at him.

“Well, aren’t you a fucking ray of sunshine, sweetheart,” he said, though he knew she was right, and he was smiling reluctantly in acknowledgment of it.

Damn kids. He should have figured they’d pull something like this. He looked over at the cake sitting there. It was Peeta’s work, of course, the care obvious in every bit of the frosting. “There’s blueberry filling,” Johanna must have told Peeta about that, “and I used almond liqueur in the cake,” Peeta said. He saw the smirk passing between Peeta and Katniss, the very obvious joke about booze being in the cake. “The alcohol cooked out, though. Sorry, Haymitch.”

“Very funny,” he said dryly, seeing even Johanna was amused by it, leaning against the wall and grinning at him. “None of you deserves any cake.”

He’d never had a birthday cake before. Growing up, there was no money for store-bought treats, either from the Mellark bakery or the Donner sweet-shop. For their birthdays he and Ash usually would get an extra bit of jam for their tesserae biscuits, maybe a bit of cream if the hunting and the trading on the Hob had been particularly good, or if Fog had been unusually generous to his ma.

After they died, he hadn’t wanted to go buy himself a cake when he turned seventeen and his friends still couldn’t afford it. Soon enough nobody in Twelve cared and his birthday wasn’t during the Games when some of the other victors might have done something. Last year they’d all been so busy training for the Quell that even he hadn’t realized it was his birthday until it was almost midnight. He’d finished off that blueberry-cinnamon bread and went to bed, not particularly troubled that he expected it to be his last birthday.

He looked again at the cake, looked back at the three of them who’d made it a point to remember his birthday. “Thanks,” he said gruffly, because anything more than that would embarrass all four of them.

“Yeah, you get your birthday present later,” Johanna told him, and he was pretty sure he thought he saw Katniss wincing at that. What the hell that was about, he didn’t know, though he had the feeling “Mess with Katniss” probably played a role, as it usually did. Whatever it was, he was amused.

Dinner was excellent, as usual. Haymitch and the cat kept up their usual act, which pretty much meant hissing on Buttercup’s part and insults on Haymitch’s part, and the moment the cat was out of sight under the table he was slipping Buttercup some scraps of chicken. He looked over at Johanna and she might not be beaming openly, not with others there to see, but she looked pleased, trading quips with Peeta and prodding Katniss.

He wasn’t exactly shocked to realize that as Peeta dished out the cake that he was happy, but more than that, he would say he was actually content. That was far stronger than a single moment of satisfaction, quickly lost. He had lost one family and lost himself for so long, but maybe now he could get it right.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Going out into the woods one last time, he and Katniss had bagged a good haul that day. With the snow gone and restoration of the electricity a distant and forlorn hope, it had meant a lot of smoking and salting and canning and the over the last few weeks, since the ready refrigeration of the cold temperatures was no longer an option. But he was confident he and Johanna were leaving Katniss and Peeta well-stocked for the months they’d be gone and unable to contribute to the food gathering efforts. “I mean it though,” he said, pulling an arrow from the duck carefully, because even wasting an arrow meant labor to produce another one. “We’re leaving you and Peeta the numbers of all the other victors and you’ve got our schedule. If any shit goes wrong, call ‘em up and they’ll get us.”

“OK,” Katniss said, giving him a wry look. “Seriously, Peeta and I survived the arena, I think we can manage…so don’t send us any parachutes or whatever.”

He laughed at that. “Not even with lamb stew, huh?” After Peeta’s medicine was beyond his budget, he’d spent pretty much the entire load of sponsorship money on that one basket of food. Figured he’d give them a good meal to have some energy for the end, and yeah, maybe there had been a small element towards the Gamemakers of Fuck you, I’ll give them an actual feast. But at least now when she kissed Peeta it was honest. Watching her awkwardly play her role on screen, he’d known it was saving her life but still tried to not feel like he was turning her into a whore.

“Your aim’s a little low,” she said in response with a scowl, poking a finger at the arrow wound, whereas of course her duck was a clean, perfect shot. The fact that she was asserting herself with one of the few things she obviously knew she did better than him made him smile in spite of himself.

“Sure, sweetheart,” he said with a shrug, willing to concede the point. At his age, after everything he’d endured physically, the fact he could fire a bow with any kind of accuracy at all was something he’d count as a blessing.

Out in the woods now, after several months of constant hunting and trapping and gathering, he had stopped feeling that unnerving urge to keep looking over his shoulder and keep a hand on the hilt of the knife at his belt. The squirrels were just squirrels, grey and noisy. The butterflies were harmless. There would be no candy-pink birds.

He wouldn’t say he would be happy to wander the woods alone yet, but with Johanna or Katniss or Peeta, they were comfortable and familiar, no hidden menace lurking beneath the tranquility. They were again the woods of his childhood and sometimes he felt like he could close his eyes and hear Burt singing, Jonas hollering for them to come help with the deadfall, or even Briar talking about the various plants.

He’d thought about them lately. The destruction of the Seam made his mind go there sometimes. His birthday a few days ago had prompted it too, because not a one of them had reached this age. But somehow it carried less sheer pain now and more of a wistful kind of memory. He was thinking before he left it might be time to turn the page, as best he could. It wouldn’t be a clean break but it would be something.

As they sat there on a log in the woods in companionable silence, plucking and cleaning the ducks, stuffing the down feathers into a bag to keep, he heard a mockingjay above their heads caroling the notes of “Sing For Me, Mockingjay.” Katniss glanced up at it, grey eyes intent, and he looked up to see it there among the leaves. Then she looked over at him and said, “I’m done with being the Mockingjay, Haymitch. I don’t need her anymore. I don’t want to be her.”

“Mm,” he acknowledged. Only right that after all that, she should want to simply be Katniss again, to try to recover as much as she could of the girl she’d been before the arena as she became a woman, rather than basing it on being some symbol of hope to a nation. “Nobody can honestly say you haven’t earned that.” If anyone tried to say she hadn’t, to hell with them.

“I’m thinking that Maysilee should have her pin back.” Considering where his own thoughts had been just a few moments ago regarding the dead, sometimes it was damn scary how the girl could seem to know exactly what he was thinking.

It worked both ways, though. He didn’t have to ask if she wanted him there for that. If she didn’t she’d have waited until tomorrow when he was gone to just go do it herself rather than telling him like this. Besides, he was all bound up in the legacy of that mockingjay pin too. He’d been the one that took the pin from Maysilee the first time and carried it home to her parents, and the one who’d brought home the next girl to wear it, kept her alive through a rebellion and then a war. In a way, he was as glad of the thought of laying that to rest as she was. He didn’t need the Mockingjay either; he needed Katniss in his life as that sometimes annoying—what? Niece? Foster daughter? Whatever she was, she was family. “Then let’s take care of that when we get back.”

They said they were going for a walk before dinner and Peeta and Johanna didn’t question it. Though from the look on Johanna’s face, she seemed to recognize he was taking care of some kind of business. Of course, they didn’t see him sling a shovel over his shoulder on the way out the door. Going down the hill, he could see the crews at work in the distance, loading down another wagon to take to the open scar in the Meadow that was now the grave for Twelve’s people. He heard Katniss breathing a bit hard as she saw it.

He’d met with the foreman, Royce from Six, when he’d arrived a couple of weeks ago. Apparently far to the west, they were prone to some devastating earthquakes, and so they were grimly familiar with the idea of combing through rubble. They even had brought some machinery to help with the job, built in Six’s factories. Royce obviously knew his business and after discussing the plan of action with him, Haymitch had seen that quickly enough and pretty much wished him luck at it. Along the way he’d gotten a couple remarks on the status of things in Six, though he preferred to actually see it for himself.

At the cemetery, they slipped into the area fenced off for Twelve’s tributes. The stark white marble markers stood in neat rows. Even the first two, now nearly seventy-five years old, were still clean and bright and unweathered because it had been part of the Capitol’s tactics to keep the markers polished and the inscriptions sharp to keep the memory painfully fresh. One hundred and forty-six children were buried here, in rows of twenty-four. Six complete rows, plus two more starkly beginning a seventh for the two he’d lost in the 73rd, Jimmie and Fern. Forty-six had died during his tenure as Twelve’s mentor. Three more died in the arena the year of the Second Quell. A good dozen more he had known to some degree or another from when he was growing up.

He led Katniss to the marker, near the start of the fifth row, without even having to glance at the stones to locate it. He knew the names all too well, even the ones before his time. It said only “Maysilee Donner, reaped as District Twelve tribute in the 50th Hunger Games.” No birthdate and date of death, no personal inscription. There was only the stark, arrogant proclamation of what she had died for, what price her young life had supposedly paid.

Taking the shovel from his shoulder, he dug down into the soil by Maysilee’s marker. Not to place it in her coffin, there was no need for that. But he dug a good two feet down so it would be safely buried and not uncovered by rain or the like. Katniss crouched and placed the pin into the hole with careful hands, almost reverently.

She didn’t say anything aloud to him, simply bowed her head. What thoughts she had, she was communing privately with the girl in that grave, the aunt of the girl who’d given her that pin. For his part, he would wait a few moments here.

But standing there, remembering Maysilee, remembering how it had been with her, he realized something that had troubled him for years, the shame plaguing him over feeling like he’d betrayed Briar on national television by feeling something for Maysilee. Hazelle had wondered, true, but she’d told him last year that it seemed like simply one kiss on the cheek between two scared kids. She’d been right. He had felt intensely for Maysilee, cared for her, came to the point where he trusted her with his life in that place. It had been a unique bond of friendship forged by being in that kind of ordeal together. He could see the possibility that perhaps the person he would have been after the Games might have come to love her. But he hadn’t been in love with her before she died, not the way he’d loved Briar. Not the way he loved Johanna now, and having been through living hell with her too, he could see the difference all the clearer. It eased the old, tight knot of guilt to finally understand that and be able to step away some from the confused, muddled mind of the teenager he’d been.

“You want some time alone here?” Katniss said, and the sound of something living broke through his introspection sharply, startling him a little. He looked up to see she’d finished whatever words he had for Maysilee.

“Yeah, that’d be good,” he said, handing her the shovel. It was fitting she be the one to bury the Mockingjay. She carefully filled in the hole and patted it down, then turned to leave with one last glance towards Maysilee’s headstone. He saw her take a moment at her pa’s worn wooden marker, arms crossed over her chest. He intended to order a headstone there also, but maybe he ought to see if she wanted to put a tree up for him too. It seemed more peaceful than granite, given he imagined Burt had always been more at home out among the trees than when he was miles deep breaking unforgiving rock.

“Well, Maysilee,” he said, looking down at the marker, the stark black letters against the white marble, “she’s a pain sometimes, but she’s really something anyway. She wore that pin well, and we finally did it. Now we’re free.” He looked around, though why he thought anyone would overhear, he didn’t know. But he added, softer, “Thanks for saving my ass in there. And for being the one with enough guts to walk away so it didn’t come down to us two. It probably would have gone better with you the one who made it out alive, but…at least I finally made it happen.”

When he looked up, she was there, as he knew she’d be. He knew also, in the perfectly rational part of his mind, that these ghosts were just lingering effects of the tracker jacker venom. He’d seen so many of them when he was in that cell, crazy and hallucinating, that sometimes they still popped up now when he thought about a dead person, despite the venom having worn off months ago. It was something he was simply learning to live with, and to hope that maybe in time it would lessen.

This time was different too, as he looked at her. He usually saw her gory with the blood that had gushed from her throat wounds. This time, though, her fair skin and her blond hair were unstained. She wasn’t wearing that tribute uniform either as she always was, though he saw her wearing the mockingjay pin. She looked back at him without that accusatory stare he was used to seeing in his ghosts. Maybe she was even smiling, a little bit.

When he was a kid, they’d had a game where they dared to call the names of dead people in the cemetery after dark because the legend was their ghost might appear. He’d done that then as a stupid kid playing a silly game. He’d done it once more after the 51st Games, praying his own dead might appear and somehow forgive him for how he had let them down and let them die. He was pretty damn drunk that night, which hadn’t taken much when he was seventeen, but they never showed and he took that as a sign that of course they still blamed him.

Apparently he’d needed being overdosed on tracker jacker venom to make his ghosts appear here, not alcohol. It seemed to him that from how Maysilee appeared, lovely and peaceful and with no trace of the Games about her, she forgave him for not being able to save her, for screwing up the rebellion for so long. Even as he knew it was mostly his own mind producing that image, that this was him trying to forgive himself for that failure and let the guilt go, he knew he needed to see this anyway so he could believe it.

She touched her fingers to her lips and held them out to him and he returned the gesture. When he looked back she was gone and somehow he knew in his heart that he wouldn’t see her again.

His eyes moved down the row. “Larkspur.” The slim merchie girl with her kind face unmarked by axe cuts was suddenly there, stepping into his vision. “Dean.” A small Seam boy with a shy smile took his place by her side. “Josie.” Seam eyes and skin but dark blond hair that said her ma had either been with a merchant or a Peacekeeper, and she’d been defensive about it. “Willem.” Tall, buck teeth, and a gentle heart.

He called their names, all forty-six of them. He looked at them, Seam and merchie, tiny twelve-year-olds all the way to eighteen-year-olds on the verge of adulthood, boys and girls whose lives and futures had been stolen from them. But not, he finally acknowledged, by him. “I didn’t manage to keep you alive. Some of you,” he looked apologetically towards the last dozen or so, “I couldn’t even stand to go through the motions any longer. Wouldn’t have made any difference in the end, but I should have tried anyway, if only so you saw it.” He’d lost so many tributes by then, but all those last few knew was they had only their one life to lose and their mentor pretty much wrote them off. They must have died feeling particularly alone and forsaken. “I couldn’t have saved any of you.” Had he ever really admitted that before? “But the Games are over now, and the ones who made them paid for it. And I promise you won’t be forgotten.” Not what he knew of the people they’d been, nor what they had been put through before they died.

They left him, fading into the spring twilight. He felt strangely lighter. No, he wasn’t going to kid himself that this would suddenly fix everything and he’d be perfectly fine, but at least some of the burden had been lifted and he could start to try to move past it.

Leaving the tribute section, he closed the gate behind him, but he wasn’t ready to leave the cemetery just yet. Jonas’ wooden marker was closest, so he stopped there first. “Your oldest lost his way somewhere. Gale. Maybe it was losing you, maybe it was the war, maybe he was bitter about losing his girl Madge or having Katniss turn to Peeta. But none of us were all that smart when we were young.” Although at least most nineteen-year-olds hadn’t had the power to needlessly end thousands of lives out of a feeling of pure vengeance. “A lot of it was probably Coin encouraging him to head down that path. He might have grown out of it in time. I don’t know. He died bravely, at least, fighting for what he believed in. Rory’s a real good kid, Vick’s a know-it-all pain—yeah, I know I was too—and Posy’s a sweetheart. Haze…she still misses you, of course, but she’s strong.” He sighed and added quietly, “So do I, Joe. Wish it had been different all those years for you and me, close as we were once.” Especially given how they probably would have been brothers by marriage, if Briar had lived. “But even if she stays in Thirteen I’ll look after ‘em as best I can. They’ll be all right.”

Burt was next. “She’ll be a hell of a woman, Katniss. Prim will too. Not the same way, of course.” Prim’s strength was of a different kind, the quiet and resolute sort that let her bear all that punishing rehabilitation with courage and grace. “You had two good kids there, one of ‘em who made us all believe again. Even me. That’s being a hell of a father. Don’t know I can match up to that, but…I’ll keep an eye on her. Perulla too. There’s a reason she left Liam Mellark for you and for the Seam. Seems you made her believe again too. So maybe you gave Katniss something else besides your looks, your singing voice, and being a total fucking show-off with a bow.” He smiled wryly and added, “Glad you liked the bow that much, by the way. Sorry I never got to see you use it again. I missed those days all the time.”

With that done, he moved away from the crude wooden boards, worn or even splintered with time, marking where the miners were buried, or in some cases memorialized when there was no body, into the section with stone markers.

Seeing his brother’s name carved in the stone was an odd feeling given that he now knew Ash wasn’t dead. But his ma was definitely gone. “You always did say me becoming a good man and bringing a good woman home was all you needed to make me happy. They keep trying to tell me I’m actually good, so,” he shrugged, “I’m working on listening to that. Trying being better too. As for the good woman, I left it a long time. But yeah, you’d like Johanna, I know it.” He laughed and shook his head. “Hell, you’d probably both be ganging up on me and you’d be telling her every embarrassing story you have about me. But…maybe it’s a better thing you weren’t here to see how bad I got, or know they were whoring me out.” She’d have understood it all too well from her own experience and he could imagine how it would have broken her heart, how tough it had been to see what a broken mess the arena gave back to her.

He’d needed her then, boy that he still was. But he had family now of his own to turn to rather than only memories. “If I turned out all right, that’s thanks to you. Your life was always a lot worse than you deserved and I never got the chance to give you better than that, but you did the best you could with it. So, thanks, Ma. And I know you telling me someday I’d be tall…well, that was obviously total bullshit.” Considering the Capitol had to give him some growth drugs to even get him to five ten. “But that’s OK, you knew I needed to hear it.”

The small woman with her curly dark hair laughed as he said that, looking at him with affection. He smiled back at her.

Memories from when he was really little were dim; mostly brief images and impressions and feelings rather than clear remembrances. From when he was four and a half, he had a few memories of his ma getting strangely fat, and then there was that day he’d been sent to the neighbors to play and then stay there overnight.

After he came back home, he seemed to vaguely remember while looking down at the red-faced blanket-wrapped bundle that he got to hold, curiously poking it in the side and hearing the snuffling whine that resulted, that he’d asked in childish disappointment if he could have a dog instead of a brother.

Another woman there, probably the midwife, had laughed. But his ma had knelt down in front of where he was sitting in the chair holding Ash. This much he remembered utterly clearly, her pale and exhausted face, but her silver-grey eyes were intent on him. She’d told him, “It’s an important thing, to be an older brother. And I’m going to need you to be his brother and to help me look after Ash because he’s going to need you too, just like he needs me.” She’d reached out and touched his cheek and suddenly he felt better because all the attention wasn’t on the baby and he knew she still loved him and that she realized she was still his ma and that he needed her too. “Can you do that for me, Haymitch?”

He’d felt suddenly so grown up, being trusted with something important, and looked down at Ash totally differently. Suddenly Ash was his responsibility now, rather than just a strange, whimpering little interloper. After that it had always been like that.

He looked at the ghost of Magnolia Abernathy and said, more soberly, “I remember. I’ll find out what happened to Ash, bring him home if I can. I swear.” He bid her goodbye, and though there would always be the wistful longing because she would never meet Johanna or see any children he and Johanna might ever have, it didn’t ravage him like it had before.

There was one more stop to make. He’d argued with the Wainwrights about his wanting to order a headstone. She was their daughter, they’d argued, and not even his fiancée yet, even if they all knew he’d have asked her someday, so they would bury her and they couldn’t accept him handling it. Standing there he’d felt in some way they knew it was his fault and they blamed him and wanted to keep his dirty Capitol-bought headstone off her grave. Now he thought perhaps they’d had suspicions but it was more Seam debt that led them to refuse. So she’d been buried under a wooden marker that long ago had faded and worn down, the letters barely legible now. It didn’t matter. He would have known the location even without any marker.

He reached into his pocket and wound the leather thong of that wooden pendant around his fingers and looked at Briar, leaning against the stone wall and looking back at him with her Seam eyes. He could still remember the feel of her skin, the taste of her lips, how her hair smelled, as if it were yesterday. “I felt like the luckiest guy then. I mean, we all knew Jonas was taller and better-looking and Burt was sweeter, but somehow, you picked me. The prickly little bastard.” He grinned sheepishly. “No, I wasn’t above enjoying them envying me. But if you’d been with either of them, Bri…well, it ain’t fair, you dying like that.” Though he could imagine her saying with a chuckle And if you actually believe life’s fair, Hay, I’ve got a nice mansion in District Eight to sell you. “At least you know I killed the old bastard who ordered you dead. Sort of.” More like he and Johanna let Snow commit suicide by providing poison and giving him the option to take it, but it seemed like justice. “Don’t worry about Haze’s kids, I’ll help look after them.”

In some ways, this was the hardest one. He’d been tied so close to Briar, loved her so much. So letting go of the guilt of all those ruined hopes that she’d never gotten to see come to pass simply because she had chosen him and he’d pissed off Snow was difficult because they clung to him all the harder. Her death was no random draw of the reaping ball, no accident in the mine. It was revenge for Haymitch’s own actions. But having Johanna insistently make him see the destruction of Twelve wasn’t his fault had given him some perspective here.

Letting her go too was hard. She was his first love, the girl he had once thought he’d marry, the only woman he’d ever let himself love until recently. Perhaps the arena would have changed him too much, but he thought that she’d been stronger than to give in like that. She’d somehow loved a small, snarky, wiseass brat. Chances were she would have found a way to love the damaged Haymitch that came back from the Capitol. That chance had been robbed from her, but not by him.

“Got no idea why, but I’ve been lucky twice now with someone actually managing to love me when I wasn’t much of anything. So, thank you for that. Always.”

Carefully he dug a hole there, as he and Katniss had at Maysilee’s grave, and placed the pendant in it, and smoothed the dirt back over it. He and Katniss had indeed thought similarly. She’d wanted to bury the Mockingjay. He’d buried that pendant he’d made Briar, and with it, finally tried to let go of that sixteen-year-old boy. That meant letting go of the girl that boy had loved.

The guilt of thinking of Johanna, of trying to reconcile having fallen in love and even married with what he felt for Briar, had been no easy task. But eventually he’d realized this wasn’t the arena. It didn’t have to be one or the other, and loving one didn’t mean betraying the other. He would never stop loving her, as the first love of the boy he had been. With certainty he knew he would always miss Briar because nobody could touch someone, heart and soul, that deeply and not leave a lasting scar in their absence. But he could finally stop mourning her and grieving for the life they might have had. The man he’d become loved Johanna, wholly and completely, and his future was with her. His dead would always be with him as memories, but he felt his ties to the living people he claimed as his own: the woman he loved, the family he had found, the friends he had. That pull of the present and the future was finally growing stronger than the past.

He looked one last time at Briar, and gave her the Twelve farewell as he had the others. Instead, she touched all five fingers to her lips and then held her hand up. One last kiss goodbye. Yeah, that was right. He returned that gesture himself and looked away, blinking furiously, and like with the others, he knew she wouldn’t be there when he looked back.

As he walked through the gate of the cemetery he saw the familiar figure waiting for him a little ways away, sitting on her haunches with her back braced against an old oak tree with the bark a bit singed by the fires. The tree would survive, though. He went over to Johanna and she got to her feet. “Katniss tell you I stayed down here?” he asked.

She looked at him, eyes searching his face. “Yeah. I figured you might need it.” She suddenly looked a bit awkward. “Uh, you wanna walk back by yourself?” Apparently she was worrying she had intruded somehow in waiting for him. Probably just making sure he didn’t take it in mind to do something stupid like stay overnight down there.

“No,” he said, meaning it. “Let’s go home. We’ve got,” and somehow he felt his heart lightened enough to chirp at her in joking imitation of Effie, “a big, big, big day tomorrow!” The hovercraft would be arriving to drop supplies for Katniss and Peeta and the cleanup crews, and to take them to Two.

They would finish the official write-up of conditions in Twelve tonight, since “absolute devastation needing total resettlement” wasn’t that descriptive. It was a long list: burying the bodies, new houses, new buildings for businesses and the like, reconnection of the electrical supply, clearing the train tracks and station, recruiting lots of new immigrants, clearing out the rubble and ash. They also needed a new industry, because his suspicions had been confirmed when they’d tried to hike the miles to the mine entrance. They couldn’t get anywhere near it because of the overwhelming heat and the fumes. He knew coal, once lit, could burn underground for centuries so the mine was effectively permanently closed. Panem would either need to find a new coal mine, or hopefully, stop fucking well killing so many people to mine it in the first place.

“Shut up,” she groaned, “and if I ever catch you wearing a pink wig and lip paint I swear I’m taking pictures first and then I’m divorcing you.” He laughed at that, putting an arm around her shoulders as they walked up the path towards Victor’s Village.

Chapter Text

Being assigned to District One, for a Peacekeeper, was generally considered a pretty soft billet. Although they all spent at least their first two duty tours in the six outlying districts as junior officers, so ten years of that was more than enough to appreciate the easier conditions seniority brought. Though Theodosius Law would admit, quietly, he had found some fond memories of Nine and Seven, even before he moved to Six and now to One for his last five-year hitch. He could still appreciate a few comforts. He was thirty-seven now, after all, and so the winter felt a little colder and the mornings started a little slower than when he was twenty-one.

The first couple of years here had been simplicity itself. To be honest, things in One almost ran themselves, at least from the perspective of the Peacekeepers. The artisans really didn’t need much supervision in their workshops. Prosperous as they generally were they had no cause to steal materials or finished products, and anyway, who could they sell them to? Shipments to the Capitol went on schedule and with quotas filled. Shipments of raw materials came in from other districts: silks and the like from Eight, wood from Seven, spirits for ageing, and the like, and those went to the appropriate workshops. No fuss, no mess. Everybody was pretty happy, and frankly he liked it that way. He didn’t really enjoy cracking down, even if it was necessary to keep order and discipline.

That easygoing scenario which he’d counted on cheerfully enduring until his retirement in a year and a half had somehow gone to shit in the last couple of months. It was tough getting reliable news from other districts, except what the Head deigned to let them hear, but the rumor was that things were running tight in some other districts and quotas weren’t being met. So in the Capitol there had been something of a panic due to the shortages, and they went frantic to buy up those things and hoard them against a possible lack of supply.

Unfortunately for One, that meant the money that would have normally bought their luxury goods was already spoken for by other things. Demand had plummeted dangerously. It seemed like more workshops were becoming shuttered and dark each day. Their duties gradually turned back into old reminders of the low-tech districts—enrolling hungry kids for tesserae and distributing the grain, dealing with an explosion of cases of theft.

Sighing tiredly as he looked over yet another incident report about someone stealing bread and wondering what the fuck the world was coming to, there was a knock on his door in the December evening. Gladly dropping the report on his desk, he went to answer it. He expected it to be Myrina, coming over for dinner like they’d planned. It wasn’t her. Not someone he recognized, but the girl was half Rina’s age, all platinum blond curls and wide brown eyes and carefully applied lip and eye paint. Her pink cheeks might have been paint too, or just the cold. She was shivering, though her good wool coat should have kept her warm in the weather.

“Yes?” he said patiently. “Do you have something to report?” Why she wouldn’t have reported that to the duty officer down at HQ rather than coming here to his house, he didn’t know.

She shivered harder, and she licked her lips and grabbed the edges of the coat, pulling them apart so he could see the dress she was wearing underneath. It was fine sky-blue silk and lace he’d bet was hand-woven, obviously carefully hand-tailored to fit to her girlish curves. Probably her best dress. She babbled frantically through teeth chattering from cold and what he was recognizing was something like terror, “Please, sir, my name's Brandy and if you could…if you wanted, for tonight…I’d be good company. I…I’m still a virgin, and…so you’d be the first…”

He stared at her, knocked totally speechless. How old was she? Sixteen or seventeen, he thought, barely past the age of legal consent. Trying desperately to sell her body for a few pitiful coins to buy food, and she was terrified at the thought.

There had been times he’d had girls, and women, knock on his door before, back in Nine and Seven and even a couple times in Six. But they’d always been more, well, practiced about it, making their offer pretty matter-of-factly. Probably because it wasn’t the first time they’d done it.

Every time, he turned them down. “No, I just…” he said, turning to his white winter uniform jacket hanging on the hook on the wall, graced with the bars of a three-tour veteran and his various rank chevrons. He fumbled in the pocket, pulled out his wallet, and handed her some money. He didn’t even bother to count it, shoving it towards her. “Take it, kid. Go home.” Oddly he felt almost as panicked as her—he wanted her gone.

She didn’t thank him or argue. She just grabbed the money, turned and ran as quickly as she could in her high heels, as if she’d been spared a particular kind of torture. He slammed the door behind her, harder than the situation probably warranted, and headed back to the desk, pointedly ignoring that duty report.

Slouching in the chair and staring up at the ceiling, he honestly felt like shit about the whole thing. Sure, there were others in the Corps that saw no problem with it. Theo had come to be known among the Corps as a man with a pretty rational mind. He knew the Code of Conduct and knew how to apply it to keep things fair and consistent. He’d figured out, back in Nine, when it simply made sense to look the other way a bit and let the close-up workers at the mill take the leftovers from the day’s production, the half-bags of flour and the like, which would have gotten thrown out anyway. Over time he’d gotten used to being asked for advice on things by other Peacekeepers. So he trusted he could see something of the reasoning behind the matter. A simple business transaction, after all, and the woman, or man in some cases, was well-paid for it by the Peacekeeper, whether male or female. Plus it did avoid some of the complications that could result from screwing a coworker. He’d seen over the years how that could go sour.

The thing that always stopped him was this: he barely remembered where he came from. He knew the facts. He was originally from Twelve. His old name had been Alister Campbell. Obviously he’d had a Peacekeeper for a father, given his grey eyes, olive skin, and dark brown hair, and his being brought to the Peacehome after he was orphaned at age eleven. He’d had one older brother, Dougless, killed in the accident that also killed his mother and gave Theo a head injury that left him bereft of most of that old life. He had the facts, but not really any of the memories.

But now and again, a snippet of that old life would surface. It could be something someone said or did, a particular sight that tugged at his mind, or even no reason at all. Even though he knew he wasn’t Alister any longer and he ought to let it go, he clung to them as something precious as all of One’s gold and gems. A few were good moments, like Dougless laughing and rumpling his hair and feeling so damn proud of something he’d managed to do to win his brother’s approval, though he had no idea what. All he had was a jumble of moments, incomplete and without context. It was like flicking through a stack of photographs taken at random intervals rather than watching a movie with a complete story and movement and sound. He usually felt like he was viewing a stranger’s life.

But one that stayed with him vividly was waking up to the sound of his mother crying. He couldn’t remember her singing him a lullaby, but he remembered that.

”Stay here, runt,” his brother hissed, shoving him back down as he got out of their bed, the warmth dissipating as he threw the covers back. Of course the moment Doug wasn’t looking, he followed silently, standing in the shadows at the top of the stairs as Doug went to Ma in the kitchen and she realized he was awake and wiped a hand across her eyes. “Ma?” His voice, rough and impatient with Alister, was suddenly boyish and uncertain. “The traps weren’t good today, Ma, but I’ll look again tomorrow. And…and in six weeks I can go get tesserae for us three. You won’t have to go back to Peacekeeper’s Row. I’ll do better, I promise.” Doug’s voice wavered and his strong, tough big brother sounded like he was trying not to cry too.

Watching from the shadows he didn’t know what his ma did on Peacekeeper’s Row that made her come home crying sometimes, but it scared him that it hurt her that bad, and made his brother sound so upset too. She grabbed Doug and hugged him and said fiercely, “This ain’t your fault, baby. You don’t blame yourself, you hear me?”

The memory stopped there abruptly. The kid he’d been hadn’t understood what was going on. But when the buried memory surfaced one night in the Peacehome, he’d understood, all right. His mother had traded sex for money, to his father and maybe others too.

Ostensibly simple business, both sides gained something from it, and he would have been pretty undemanding and straightforward about it. But every time a woman came to his door offering to keep him company, no matter how nonchalant she seemed, he couldn’t help but wonder if she would have gone home and wept afterwards where her kids or her parents or her husband couldn’t hear.

Faced with that, or the potential headaches of sleeping with coworkers, he’d decided it was more worth his while to just generally try to keep his trousers zipped and not be stupid.

Of course, as another knock sounded and this time it was Myrina, when it came to her that ideal didn’t count. She was only on her third tour, so he’d have to wait for her anyway. But the trouble was figuring out what he’d do when his fourth tour was done. While Peacekeepers got a pension it wasn’t enough to live off. It was a fact of life that those with families back in Two tended to get the first crack at instructor positions and the like at training camps near their home villages so they could maintain their ties to family. The Capitol-born Peacekeepers were usually happy to complete their sentence or clear their debt and then forget they’d ever been associated with the uniform. But usually the rootless Peacehome orphans, both the Two natives and the Laws from the other districts, were left to find their own way at the twenty-year mark. A lot of Peacekeeper lifers, those who signed up for a fifth tour and beyond, were Peacehome raised—many of those who successfully tested and trained to become Gameskeepers and Heads were too, for that matter.

He wasn’t that fond of the Games, he admitted guiltily to himself, which he knew was a failing for someone growing up in Two with its fierce pride in its tributes and victors. While he could see himself sitting the exams for promotion to Head—he’d demonstrated leadership, knew the Code of Conduct—that wouldn’t be a solution either. Heads couldn’t marry. He’d have to find something that let him leave the Corps with a reliable job, because he was determined to be able to marry a woman that he loved. But that was still a few years in the future so he tried to not think about it at the moment.

She made it easy enough to put that aside. Taking off her hat and her winter jacket, hanging them beside his, she shivered and said, “Seems to get colder every year here.”

“That’s just the sun in your blood from Four,” he said jokingly, giving her a kiss, looking at the tan skin and freckles and pale green eyes that proclaimed that heritage in her. It had to be in her blood since it couldn’t be a childhood of growing up in the balmy climate down south. Myrina was a Law too, but she’d essentially been raised in the cool mountain climate of Two since she’d been brought there from Four when she was only a few months old. They’d definitely overlapped some years at the Peacehome because of that, but with hundreds of kids running around the place and a six-year gap between the two of them, their paths just hadn’t exactly crossed until they had met here in One.

“Better sun than fish slime,” she said with a shrug and a grin, smoothing a few snowflakes from her sleek dark brown hair. Like all female Peacekeepers she had to keep it cropped to shoulder length and then neatly pinned up. He took a particular pleasure in pulling those pins out the nights she stayed here, or when he went to her place, and seeing it down. A few months into the relationship, the Head had wryly reminded the two of them to tone it down a bit. Being engaged was all right, but they couldn’t openly talk about that or let it show, especially around the locals, and it had better never interfere with their duties. They’d agreed and remembered that ever since.

“Better than coal,” he agreed wryly. Most of them never knew who their Peacekeeper fathers—or mothers, in some cases—were. That was part of the rules. But at the least, they’d cared enough to not condemn a child of theirs to the local orphanage and a lousy life in the district industry. They’d escaped that fate and the job they had instead, as they’d often been reminded at the Peacehome, had honor and dignity, given a life of proud service rather than simply being an unwanted burden.

“You OK?” she asked as they sat down to eat. Perceptive as she was about him by now, she’d readily picked up on his unease.

“Nothing I can help,” he said with a weary shrug of his shoulders. “Just the way it’s gone to hell around here. I had a girl knock on the door tonight trying to get me to buy her, poor kid.”

“Shit,” she said, shaking her head. “You expect some of that out in the rural districts where they’re the poorest and it’s depressing, but…” Not here. Not in One, her expression said.

She’d awkwardly trailed off because what was there to say? There was nothing they could actually do about it. All a Peacekeeper could do was go out and try to uphold the law, not change the way things were. That was up to the politicians in the Capitol. That muted the evening some, though, and if he were honest it had muted the last weeks here in general. When he gently turned Myrina down on the idea of sex, because it would be too muddled in his mind with that girl’s desperation, but asked her to spend the night anyway, he was grateful he had someone who cared enough to stay by him tonight even when he was being frustrated and moody. In that, he was a lucky man.

Five days later, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark came to District One on their Victory Tour. The entire population turned out in the square, dressed in their best and with even those with now-underfed bodies bundled up in their fine but bulky winter coats. Only the thinness in some faces betrayed that it wasn’t business as usual here, because the attitude in general was as if it was simply another day and One was prosperous as usual.

He’d watched them last year in the Games with something of a stirring of excitement, a helpless, secret spark of pride that, despite his loyalties to Two and the impressive tributes they always sent, finally a kid from the district where he was born might win. OK, that and the fact he was recently in love himself certainly helped him sympathize with their love story too.

Today, standing at the edge of the square with Twelve’s victors standing on that stage, he was actually a bit disappointed, at least with Katniss. The Girl on Fire who’d captivated Panem might as well have been a wind-up toy built in Three, mechanically offering a few emotionless words to the families of Marvel Ketterick and Glimmer Northfield, both of whom she’d killed herself. Looking at the families, he honestly felt more moved by their stoic dignity in this moment, grieving and with their district suffering, than by the girl on stage, headed next to the Capitol and its affection and accolades.

Peeta at least showed some spark. He talked about the few days he’d spent with the Career pack, shared a personal reminisce or two about Marvel and Glimmer. Although he was smart enough to keep it toned down since he seemed to realize even his charm and good nature couldn’t hide the fact that his friendly words aside, they all knew he’d used them, and the Two tributes, Cato and Clove, to his own ends. That was playing the Games well, perhaps, but it didn’t mean the people of One had to like it, especially this year when a victor's Parcel Days would have been so useful.

The mood was ugly enough and Mayor Roseby seemed to pick up on it, hastening things along to get things towards the formal dinner. He was sure some people in the square resented the rich food being put before two children who’d helped kill One’s kids when they couldn’t even feed their own children tonight, but they would agree for the need to keep up appearances.

Perhaps it was the fact that he’d really wanted to instinctively like those two kids that left him so curiously disappointed by how flat they seemed. Maybe it was the fact that the local mood affected him more than he admitted it ought sometimes. When One tributes had won while he was in previous districts it hadn’t caused him much thought. But while he was in Nine on his first tour, he’d been pretty well pleased for them and their happiness when Rye Laaksonen won. Same story with Seven for Johanna Mason on his second tour, even if she was frankly a little terrifying.

Though being let down today by Twelve’s new victors shouldn’t be that unusual an idea. After all, Haymitch Abernathy had been successfully disappointing everyone for years now, even if he’d pulled it together masterfully this past summer. Keeping an eye on the crowd but not anticipating any kind of demonstration or trouble, he saw the man himself, bundled up in a heavy overcoat, over by the stage talking intently to Chantilly and Niello Dumas. According to the Capitol celebrity gossips, Haymitch and Chantilly had been involved back when they were young, so perhaps he was just taking the chance to say hello to an ex-girlfriend. Hopefully he was halfway sober in order to do it.

He thought he saw the girl again, Brandy with her platinum blond hair peeking out from beneath a knitted cap, but she was gone before he could be sure. The fact he saw a boy stealthily lifting the wallet of one of the master artisans more readily caught his attention.

In no time, he and the kid, who gave his name as Electrum Barnett, were having a nice chat in an alley about said wallet. “Dad’s workshop’s been shut down for weeks now and I’ve got two sisters to feed,” he said defensively, green eyes flashing with both shame and anger, “and Master Garristown can definitely spare the cash, his place is still open.”

Resisting the urge to rub his temples at the headache coming on, Theo pointed out, “Yeah, OK, kid, but that doesn’t give you the right to just waltz in and take whatever you want from whoever you want. If everyone did that it’d be a real mess.” Laws existed for a reason, to protect the people. Otherwise, it would be cue the riots and the anarchy, threatening everything civilization stood for.

“So what the fuck am I supposed to do? Great, I’m a journeyman carpet weaver, but there are no jobs here in One. I get to clean up only one evening a week for a glasswright because she’s got six others for the rest of the week so we all bring home a little something. It’s not enough and I’m the only one able to claim tesserae and we’re already taking that out. What’s your answer, Peacekeeper,” Barnett squinted at Theo’s nametag, “Law, apparent genius that you are?”

He should definitely run the kid in for stealing the wallet. He could throw in a charge while he was at it of blatantly disrespecting a Peacekeeper’s authority. But the defiant challenge of What’s your answer? stuck in his brain, and the desperation lying just beneath the surface of his challenge. Sighing, he stuffed the wallet in his uniform pocket and said, “You’re not gonna help your family either if I drag you to headquarter in cuffs and throw you in a holding cell. So beat it before I change my mind.”

It wasn’t a good answer, considering the kid’s family was left still hard up when it came to making ends meet. But it was the only one he had, and Electrum seemed to realize his luck in avoiding an arrest as he fled. He watched the boy go, thinking troublesome thoughts like the fact it wasn’t One’s fault that things were so rough now, that the Capitol had stopped buying their products, and he could understand that desperation. He must have felt it as a boy, growing up in the poorest district of Panem. Sometimes he had flickers of remembering being cold and hungry and sometimes afraid. But he had to uphold the law as best he could and if he started overlooking every theft because he felt sorry for someone, it would be chaos and violence before long.

Glumly, though, he tried to think if there was some possible course between fiercely cracking down because it was the law, and lazily letting it all slide because people were desperate. There seemed to be no middle ground. Either way people were going to suffer for it, but suffering eventually could become an excuse, not a mitigating explanation. If he quietly condoned theft today, what happened when someone breaking in to steal food or valuables actually killed someone in order to get away with the robbery? Hardship was no reason to take a life. He’d had to enforce the law before sometimes when he didn’t like it, when it didn’t seem to make much sense, simply because it was the law and therefore it was for protecting people and preventing much greater evils.

Things had been tough sometimes for people in Seven and Nine. In Six the morphling abuse had always bothered him but he’d been told to not ask too many questions whenever he ran yet another senseless junkie in to HQ to detox overnight in a cell. But then he’d usually been told he asked too damn many questions and to stop being such a brainiac and to just go do his fucking job. But in each case in those districts there was the steadiness of it being a long-standing and even accepted reality. People had learned how to cope with it and things stayed pretty peaceful. Here in One, the abrupt shift struck all the harder. It still sat ill with him, like he was seeing a disaster unfold in front of his eyes and he was helpless to do anything. He was supposed to help protect people, for fuck’s sake. On his way back to HQ he knocked on Carat Garristown’s door and returned his “lost” wallet, “dropped” in the square and “handed in” by a concerned citizen. When Garristown tried to give him a reward, he shook it off, saying, “Just the messenger. But if you want to reward the finder, give it to Electrum Barnett. Journeyman weaver, he told me, so if you ask the guild they could probably tell you where to find him.” It eased his conscience at least a little to imagine Garristown followed through on that, even if rewarding theft was probably an idiotic idea.

Katniss and Peeta, along with Haymitch and the rest of the Victory Tour entourage, left the next morning for the Capitol. A few days later, he watched the television with vague disinterest as the Capitol audiences screamed with delirious joy as Peeta proposed to the woman he loved and she accepted him. They'd probably get married before the Quarter Quell. Maybe even during it, to provide even more spectacle to the heightened drama of a Quell. Lucky Katniss and Peeta, able to marry when they chose. He wondered if Electrum was stealing someone else’s wallet tonight. He wondered if that platinum-haired girl was warming the bed of one of his fellow Corps members.

A week later, Leander Law, the Head, started calling all the Peacekeepers in One into his office according to their duty squads. “I’ve got lots of squads to get through so let’s make this brief,” he said, looking up at Theo and the seven other Peacekeepers on his squad. One of them was Myrina. “Things are in an uproar around Panem, and I don’t mean just here. There’s been an uprising in Eight.” Murmurs of shock greeted that news, and Theo caught the eyes of his friend Actaeon. An uprising? It was unheard of, not since the Dark Days. “The rebels have captured several strategic points in the district, including Peacekeeper HQ. A lot of your brothers and sisters in the Corps have died already there in the fighting, and I’ll be honest, there are some rumors of some actually being executed by the rebels.”

That brought the danger and the horror home all the sharper. It was bad enough to think of being killed during the fighting, but to be captured and then deliberately executed by a bunch of rebels was even worse. He looked away from the Head, thinking of what kind of fury and hatred that spoke of towards Peacekeepers. It hit like a slap to the face. It was the sort of nightmare he’d seen eventually coming to pass here in One, but it had already happened elsewhere.

“Fucking savages,” Ferric Wayon growled angrily. He had a younger sister in the Corps in Eight, Theo remembered with a sudden swell of sympathy for him.

He thought there was a trace of pity on the Head’s face too, but then he was all business again. “I don’t think I have to tell you how important it is that we root this rebellion out before it gets a chance to spread even further and get more people killed.”

No, he didn’t, and they all waited for what came next. “There’s also a shake-up coming in Twelve. Apparently Head Cray has been unsatisfactory in some way and he’s being replaced. They’re going to want a lot of new blood there too.” Which Theo dryly understood to mean that somehow, Cray had been found to be corrupt and they wanted to get rid of him and as many of his cronies as possible. “Obviously,” he glanced at Actaeon with his caramel skin and brown hair, “you can’t go to Eight as a duty station. And you,” he looked at Theo, “can’t go to Twelve.”

Rules were rules. Any Peacehome orphan who didn’t come originally from Two could never be assigned to their birth district. It was as much a kindness for the Peacekeeper’s peace of mind as in the name of efficiency. Sending any of them to enforce rules for people who could see from their coloring or features that a Peacekeeper was of their own blood and who might even remember who that Peacekeeper had been as a child in their past existence, was a scenario that was better simply avoided. Right now in particular he wasn’t sure looking into grey eyes like his own and trying to crack down on the people of Twelve was a good idea. “Yes, sir,” he acknowledged, hearing Actaeon echo him.

“In particular we can afford to reduce our forces here with fewer workshops to watch. Half of the Corps here is staying. Half of you are being temporarily seconded until this shit is handled. Yeah, I know, you’re senior officers and you’ve earned your way here to One, but it’s urgent. It’s duty. I expect you to not piss and moan about it. Most of you are going to Eight, so be ready to go into battle.” Ferric was one of the names he listed as staying, and Theo could only think that was probably a good idea. District Eight would be far too personal for him right now, and Ferric arguing angrily to get sent there only seemed to further cement Head Law’s resolve.

Myrina was going to Twelve, along with Actaeon. He was going to Eight along with Thalaea Thistledown, who’d been promised as a child to the Corps to pay her Capitol parents’ debts of honor. “You stay a minute,” Head Law said, gesturing for him to stay a moment as they saluted and turned to go.

“Sir?” he acknowledged, falling back into a relaxed at-ease.

Head Law shoved aside a stack of personnel folders, having officially signed the transfer orders already. Theo was sure he’d be making the entry in the log soon enough recording where each of his Peacekeepers had been. “You’re on your fourth tour. You’re good at it. You’re smart. You’re level-headed. So I expect you to help take the lead in a squad once you get to Eight, just as you do here.” He raised an eyebrow. “You also really overthink things sometimes. There’s a difference between our duties as enforcers of the law and as Panem’s soldiers. Be prepared to pull that squad together and make them ready to fight in a hurry.”

“Yes, sir,” he acknowledged. He was right, after all. The leisure of learning and debating things was for peacetime. War was all about survival, about instinct and reaction.

“Dismissed.” With that, he saluted and headed home to pack his things. It didn’t take long, and he went over to Myrina’s as soon as he was done. He didn’t say anything to her about how she was heading back to the place of his own birth. Twelve was something abstract. He had ceased to belong to them when his family died. Home was the Corps now. He was only glad she was heading to a place that, however much it might be looked down upon as the worst and least prestigious duty station in Panem that a Peacekeeper could have, would at least be safe compared to Eight.

She didn’t say anything to him either about him going to Eight, though her fingers were a little unsteady as she unbuttoned his uniform tunic. He kissed her, trying to shut out the morning as long as he could.

At dawn, all of the Peacekeepers being seconded out met the hovercraft. “Look after her, huh?” he said to Actaeon, the most he’d allow himself to express any concern, even to a good friend. “But not too close. Don’t want you stealing my girl.”

Actaeon grinned at him. “Careful, Theo. I hear the winters are long and cold and boring in Twelve. Might be she’ll turn to a good-looking guy like me to keep her warm and happy.”

“Oh, you wish,” Myrina said, smacking Actaeon on the shoulder with a snort of amusement. He gave her only a quick embrace, just the same as he did to other friends on their squad. The real farewells had been said and done in the still of the night, and so they both strictly obeyed the rule of not flaunting their relationship publicly.

With that done, he turned to Thalaea and nodded towards where the hovercraft bound for Eight was waiting. “Well, let’s go.”

Chapter Text

Somehow, Haymitch wasn’t too surprised when the hovercraft took a detour and stopped briefly in the Capitol, and he saw the familiar silver-streaked brown hair and twinkling blue eyes step aboard. “Plutarch,” he said, finding enough resolve within himself to suppress the sigh he wanted to let loose. “All right, what’s the propo?”

“Oh, fantastic,” Johanna muttered. They’d sort of known this was coming, but sometimes, he really hated being smart enough to foresee things and then get proven right on them.

“Well, it sounds like you’ve got it all figured out,” Plutarch said with a shrug.

“I thought being schemers was what Haymitch and me are generally known for?” Johanna said dryly, sitting back in her seat and crossing her arms over her chest. “It’s the first stop on the grand—what the fuck are you even calling it? Panem Rebuilding Tour?”

“Reconstruction,” Plutarch corrected, sitting down beside Johanna. “’Rebuilding’ implies simply fixing something, a house or the like. Reconstruction is bigger than that. It’s remaking something from the ground up…”

“And we know all about Remake, don’t we, Plutarch?” Johanna said, and Haymitch saw that Plutarch’s eyes fell to the visible line of scarring across the fingers of her right hand where he knew Brutus’ sword had sliced her at the initial melee at the Cornucopia when she and Blight were trying to gather up Beetee and Wiress. She’d been damn lucky to be quick enough to avoid a full-force blow and not lose those fingers. Damn lucky too she’d been able to use the hand for the rest of the Games, since apparently Brutus’ hit had still broken several of her fingers, but she was toughened against pain. Those scars she had kept, as she had all the others since.

Plutarch didn’t back down, though, which was somewhat surprising. “This isn’t about erasing the past and pretending it didn’t exist, Johanna. It’s about making a new future so we don’t make the same mistakes again.”

“Play nice, you two,” he said, shaking his head and not really in the mood to hear Plutarch’s high-flown dreams of a perfect Panem right now, or Johanna baiting him about it to cover her own irritation with him barging in like this. “So, propo.”

“It’ll do people good to see you and Johanna out and about on this trip. They’ll know that no matter how bad things may be, the government intends to help them back on their feet. Besides, they’ll be glad to see you both, heroes as you are.”

He glanced over at Johanna and in her smirk read his own thought: Glad to see us? That’ll be an interesting change. “And you were planning on filming what, precisely?”

“Oh, everything we can, of course. From the moment you touch down. People are starved for news and for something new to watch.”

“Not gonna happen.” He said it with assurance. The thought of a camera crew following him and Johanna around all the damn time was annoying enough. It was made worse by the prospect of them filming while they were in the business of trying to find out about Heike and Ash. Right now, the secret practice of sending orphans to Two to become Peacekeepers was a volatile bomb he wanted to keep under wraps, especially given their own siblings’ involvement in it.

“The people have the right to—“

“The people have the right to kiss my ass. And I’ve actually got an ass again, Plutarch, so there’s ample space for kissing,” Johanna cut in. “Wanna see?”

“It’s a very nice ass too,” he told her, enjoying seeing Plutarch’s vague discomfort.

“Thank you, honeybear,” she said with a smirk, realizing that once again he’d stepped in to join her efforts. Well, he was hardly going to support Plutarch on this.

He could see how this would go, though. They’d argue about it, all three of them stubbornly dragging their heels. They’d refuse to be filmed and Plutarch would either have the camera crew just follow them around anyway, or else possibly have Brocade call them up and ask them politely to play nice in the interest of the greater good. They’d spend as much time resenting that as doing anything useful.

Sometimes in chess, a sacrifice or two had to be made for the bigger win. He and Plutarch both knew a thing or two about that game—hell, they’d used it as code last year to discuss the rebellion—and most likely, politics and diplomacy was no different. “You film us arriving and leaving. That’s enough for people to know we’re alive and we’re there and give a damn.” He smiled at Plutarch. “King’s pawn to E4. Your move?”

Plutarch gave an appreciative laugh. “I know better than to play chess against you, Haymitch. Your game’s improved too much from when you were a kid. Arriving, leaving, while at important functions, and you agree to an interview or two.”

“Arriving, leaving, distance shots of shaking hands with really important people or visiting really important sites, and we’ll interview if we feel like there’s anything actually important for us to say to the public,” he countered. “It’s not like you want to film hours and hours of us talking to people anyway. You’re looking for a few reassuring images.”

Johanna, tension eased, leaned forward in her seat. “Not like people really need or want to hear the gritty details of how bad things are in other districts either.” Obviously she’d caught on to his tactic.

The fact was, they’d wryly agreed, they couldn’t escape some publicity. Unfortunately they’d all become too prominent for that, and he was under no illusions that even Katniss and Peeta’s privacy would be under siege once Twelve was in any fit shape for camera crews to visit. They could spend all their time trying to run from it and make the onslaught all the worse or they could turn and face it directly, demanding the thing happen on their own terms. If they didn’t agree to some camera opportunities, the vultures would be happy to surprise them with cameras when they least wanted them. “And if we say no cameras right then, we fucking well mean it,” Johanna continued, eyes intent on Plutarch. “Some things are private. We’ve earned that and it’s gonna stay that way.”

“Fair enough,” Plutarch agreed, obviously mollified by the two of them not fighting him every step of the way. Though the way his gaze didn’t waver told Haymitch that if he felt like the two of them were pulling the “Go to hell” card on the camera crew too often, they’d hear about it.

“And Katniss and Peeta get left alone. Entirely. No camera crews, no calls from you asking them to appear on camera.”

“The country could really use some inspi—“ Plutarch protested, obviously seeing an intended opportunity being yanked away.

“I don’t give a fuck, Plutarch. They’re two teenagers who need time and privacy. They deserve it. I hear that your dogs have been sniffing around them, Johanna and I start making things very difficult. Clear?”

“Clear,” Plutarch said with a sigh, seeing that half a loaf willingly offered was going to be a lot better than crumbs fought for tooth and nail. “Very well. Your preps will be waiting in Two, and Brutus and Enobaria will be there to greet you too.” He made it clear that a prep team was part of his own demands.

So it was that a few hours later in Two he found himself being whisked away from the hovercraft for prep before “officially” arriving. Johanna was led away by two of them, the younger woman from Katniss’ old team with her green skin, and the orange-haired young man—Octavia and Flavius, he recalled. She shot him a long-suffering look and he shrugged helplessly.

That left him with the older woman, Venia, with her formerly aqua hair now liberally sprinkled with grey but her gold tattoos still bright. The man—more of a boy, really—with her, he didn’t recognize. “You are?” he asked bluntly, eyeing the slit-pupiled eyes with a poison green iris, and suppressing an instinctive shudder. They were reptile eyes, though with none of the cold reptilian stare that he remembered from someone like Snow who had been a snake despite his physically still-human eyes.

“Catullus,” he said, beaming at Haymitch with teeth dyed artificially to a shade that was too white. “Venia’s my aunt. It’s an honor!”

“We’ll see,” he said noncommittally.

“Minimal prep,” Venia assured him, and he appreciated her being a voice of reassurance on the matter. “That’s why there’s only two of us, and Johanna has two.”

“No waxing, Venia,” he said dryly. “Don’t even suggest it.” She’d never been his prep. Last year he’d had the male tribute’s team, of course. But as the Twelve female’s team were the only preps left in Panem, obviously they’d been roped into this.

“Not much we can do about your hair,” Catullus sighed, “it’s at that length where it’s too short to be your old style. But that bit of grey definitely ought to be dyed out. You need to deal with that beard desperately too, you look like a barbarian from the districts. And that,” suddenly he brushed a finger over the scar by his right eye where Enobaria almost took out his eye, “should be covered up, but it should be easy though!”

The dictation of how he needed to look to be deemed a human being rather than a barbarian, and most of all the casual touch that asserted Catullus’ claim over his body and the right to treat it as he would, set Haymitch sharply on edge. Worst of all was how cheerfully and thoughtlessly he did all of it. The words Get your fucking hand off me before I rip it off and shove it up your ass were barely suppressed. Venia must have seen something in his face because she said brusquely, “Catullus, let me handle this. Why don’t you go get us all a drink?”

With that, Catullus left. “Trim the hair because it’s getting too long,” he said, controlling his temper with an effort, “and I’m not dyeing it. Or shaving. Or covering up the scar.” The notion of asserting himself by pretty much telling the kid to go fuck himself on every Capitol assumption he’d made satiated some of his anger. “I am a fucking barbarian from the districts,” he told her, and I’m damn well proud of it. “And I’m not going to deny that.”

Venia was silent for a long moment. Then her eyes, a refreshingly normal pale green even if they were bracketed by those golden tattoos, met his. That she had allowed herself to have greying hair and thus accepted her own ageing told him plenty about the changes in her, though. “Apologies that he upset you,” she said. “He’s excited to be involved in prep work, and really excited to be working with someone like you. He wants to make you look your best, he’s young, and he doesn’t always think about what he says.”

Actual apology from a Capitol citizen was more than he’d expected—the only one he’d ever gotten was from Effie last winter—so he covered his surprise at it. He did notice that unlike Effie, she didn’t openly say that Catullus was wrong, that the Capitol mindset was wrong. She only apologized that he was upset about it. Small steps, he thought with a sigh. Again, half a loaf freely offered was better than arguing over crumbs. “He’s young, but he’ll have to learn that Capitol ideals aren’t the rule any longer if he wants to have a future dealing with anyone who’s not Capitol-bred,” he said simply. “And he’ll have to do it too if he wants to stay on this job and not get fired. I won’t see any Capitol people suffer unjustly, you know that, but I’m damn well not going to let them keep treating me, or anyone else, as a fucking district slave to be taken for granted. Not anymore.”

On that, he wouldn’t compromise. He wouldn’t grit his teeth and smile and take oblivious, dehumanizing Capitol shit as he had for years because he was helpless to do otherwise. Looking at a Capitol woman and openly issuing challenge like that, asserting a demand for respect, made something within him still shiver in warning, expecting dire consequences. But the moment passed. I’m right, he thought, steeling himself to continue to believe it, making that his armor again the fearful need to apologize himself, to assuage any displeasure in a Capitol citizen. I’m damn well right.

Venia looked taken aback for a moment as if, even if she was one of the more enlightened ones, she’d expected him to hold his tongue or else dismiss Catullus as simply a foolish boy and somehow make the situation all right by underplaying it. “I’ll do my best to keep him in line,” she said simply. She looked him over. “OK, cut the hair a bit. No hair dye, no cover-up on your scar. Can we at least trim the beard?” she asked awkwardly.

Recognizing she was stepping back and trying to do it with some grace, he tried to do the same and let the matter go at that. He squinted at himself in the mirror, scratched his chin a little. “All right, I'll shave, it's kind of itchy,” he admitted. He hadn’t shaved in a while, or cut his hair, so while he didn’t want to go full Capitol on demand, a little tidying up before going on camera wouldn’t hurt. He’d trust that she wouldn’t go crazy and start trying to carve shapes in it like Seneca Crane’s. “But yeah, cut the hair. Thanks.” He grinned and joked, “Johanna’s actually kind of fond of the hair being shorter, so…I’d sooner keep it.” At his thanks and the humor, she nodded at that, posture easing and giving him a knowing smile in return.

“Cinna’s sent clothes for you and Johanna, of course.” Venia shrugged. “It saves us from having to deal with what might be available, and let’s face it, you should look good on camera for official events like this. People need to see it.”

Knowing Cinna’s fierce sense of organization, that probably meant much like the Victory Tour, there was an entire wardrobe labeled neatly with the district and occasion. District Four, dinner. District Three, arrival. He couldn’t help but smile a little bit at it. Yeah, Cinna would say, and Taffeta would agree, that he would want to present an image with his clothes during this trip. Sighing mentally, he bid farewell to his comfortable, casual jeans and the like that he’d been living in for months.

Catullus came back with coffee, which he accepted with some gratitude, and generally shut his mouth, which was accepted with even more gratitude. An hour later he was well-groomed and dressed in a suit and tie. Venia had sighed a bit over minor alterations needed from his measurements from last winter—the constant physical labor every day in Twelve meant his shoulders and arms showed it. Octavia and Flavius had apparently done their work on Johanna as well, because her short flyaway waves had been tamed a bit and she was wearing a dress of an embroidered powdery green that accentuated the hints of green in her eyes. “I think I terrified the preps,” she said softly to him as she slipped her arm through his, walking towards where Flavius gestured them to meet the welcome party.

“I think I did too.” He adjusted the tie to loosen it just a fraction. Ever since his torture team had enjoyed prepping him for his hanging with some short periods of strangling him, anything too constricting around his throat was an uncomfortable reminder.

“You look good, though. Didn’t let them talk you into shaving, huh?” He grinned at her, but then the cameras were there, waiting for them like Brutus and Enobaria were.

Brutus caught up to him first, clasping his forearm in that old Two greeting. “Still alive, huh?”

“I’m too much of a pain in the ass to die,” he said with a laugh.

“Fangless,” Johanna said, giving Enobaria a handshake and a smirk.

“Stumpy,” Enobaria returned equally, a small smile on her lips as she looked at Johanna. He suppressed a smile itself—it did fit. Johanna was an ex-lumberjack and five inches shorter.

“Nice job, Enobaria, you finally came up with a good one and it only took you all winter,” Johanna said cheerfully.

“Pressing concerns took my time.”

“Once you’re done rubbing elbows with the mayor and all, come to our place for dinner?” Brutus suggested. “You’ll be staying in Victor’s Village anyway.” He supposed it made sense. A house in the Village was a little more private than something like being guests at the mayor’s home given it was a much lengthier stay than overnight or the like. Plus, they both were victors and with Brutus and Enobaria there as friends, it was logical.

Still, this was District Two. Nineteen victors to their credit, which meant every house in the Village had been occupied at one time or another. “Whose house are we assigned to?” he asked carefully, hoping it wasn’t someone who’d died last year during the Rebellion, regardless of what side they’d fought on.

“Sedullus Rache,” Enobaria answered him, and he was conscious of the cameras filming them, four victors making friendly conversation. “14th Games. Neither of you ever met him that I know of. He didn’t go to the Capitol much. Died about ten years ago. It’s been our ‘distinguished guest’ house for a while.”

“Thanks,” Johanna told her with some sincerity, banter between the two of them dropped. Her hand grasped his for a moment, squeezing and then letting go, telling him she knew his thoughts were with hers on this. They both had enough ghosts already. To stay in the house of someone he maybe had known, someone like Lyme or Hannibal or Albinus or Hadria, someone who had died so recently, would have been hard enough. An unfamiliar older victor who had succumbed to an unremarkable natural death years ago was easier to deal with for them both.

Then it sunk in that Brutus and Enobaria were living in the same house. He’d known they were fierce friends, and convenient lovers, but it seemed it had turned to something more than that over the long winter. Maybe for him it had been losing Lyme in the war—he knew both of them long ago had lost their chance in the shadow of shame over Capitol indifference with things never risked and thus never grasped. Perhaps that had made Brutus more conscious of the need to really live while he could. “All right, we’ll be there.”

“Good,” Brutus said with a grin, giving Haymitch one last clap on the shoulder that fell hard enough that he wryly wondered if it would bruise. Tall and strong as he was, Brutus sometimes didn’t seem to realize his own strength. “All right, fuck off and go make nice with the mayor.”

Mayor Tertullia Sangus and her husband Lentulus were next in line. She was a short but formidable woman, probably close to fifty. He was already familiar with her from Katniss and Peeta’s Victory Tour when they’d been her dinner guests, and he imagined Johanna had met her on her own Tour nine years ago. But Capitol-enforced parties and speeches were a far different animal from a situation like this. “We look forward to discussing the future of District Two with you both starting tomorrow,” she said. Her face betrayed nothing of how frustrated or stressed she might be, and thus how monumental the task was here. Considering that the losses at Eagle Mountain—or “The Nut” as Plutarch had nicknamed it—had been high, and many of her citizens had been Peacekeepers who might well have been killed in the war, he could imagine Two was hurting.

He’d count on getting some more out of Brutus and Enobaria tonight. Forewarned was forearmed, after all. Shaking hands with various other officials and trying to remember their titles, he was relieved when the cameras shut off and he and Johanna were free to go to the Village.

The houses of Victors' Mountain in Two were perched on a lofty clifftop placed on the likewise named Victors' Mountain, with a grand view of the village below and the imposing Justice Building. If any of the victors had been at home during the bombing of Eagle Mountain they would have had a great view of it across the valley, though he doubted they had been. For well or ill, Two’s victors would have fought. He didn’t much want to ask Brutus or Enobaria who had been on what side. For them too it might be something of an unhealed wound that their district had torn itself in two like it had.

He glanced at the rubble and ruin of Eagle Mountain, looking like a giant fist had descended from the sky and pounded the mountain and collapsed it. Beetee had done his job well. Minimal and necessary casualties, and far fewer than some of the soldiers from Thirteen had been calling for, Gale Hawthorne leading the charge. But it still meant some people were forever buried within. It must have been a hard sight to see every time Brutus and Enobaria left the Mountain to head down into the valley. He wondered if people from Two looked at the sight like people in Twelve had looked at the mines, knowing it was a tomb for some of their own neighbors.

For a moment it was hard to breathe and he didn’t think it was all the thinner air of these mountains, higher than the ones back home. “Tell me again we did the right thing,” he said, looking at the destroyed mountain.

“We did. And we’re doing the right thing helping them out of the shit they’re in.” As wise as answer as he could have hoped for, and he slipped his arm around her shoulders as they headed for Brutus’ house. Pretty easy to tell as it was the only one with the lights on.

Dinner passed uneventfully, though the sight of electric lights was still hard to get used to after so many months without. The kitchen was painted a cool, pale blue he doubted spoke of Brutus’ taste, since Brutus tended to run towards practical dark colors in everything. Apparently Enobaria was putting her mark on things too, just as Johanna had. They talked of small things, none of them wanting to really probe at still-aching wounds. But the time finally came to bite the bullet on it.

“So what’s the situation?” he asked Brutus bluntly. “I’ll hope the mayor’s straight with Johanna and me but I’d hear it from you two also.”

“Electricity’s spotty sometimes,” Enobaria said, scraping the last of the stew out of her bowl. “Supplies are too. Obviously Eagle Mountain’s a total fucking loss.”

That was all fine and well, but considering Two had been a district virtually caught in civil war, it wasn’t answering the important questions. “The loyalists you were chasing down last fall?” That was the reason they had left Thirteen and Squad 22.

Brutus grimaced a bit. “A few of them, holed up fuck knows where deep in the mountains. A lot of them surrendered already over the winter. It’s popping a couple of annoying pimples, Haymitch. We’ll find them or they’ll starve themselves to death out there determined to hold out. But no big threat. Not any longer.”

“And?” There was still that air of hesitation.

“And what?” Enobaria said defensively.

“Your people want help or not?” Johanna said bluntly.

For a moment they were all bristling, the ready aggression of a victor coming forward, and seeing it that part of him forged in the hell of the arena was already instinctively reading the situation. Brutus had six inches and probably fifty pounds on him, Enobaria five inches and thirty pounds on Johanna. Not a prolonged battle then, not unless they wanted it to go badly for them. The weapons right at hand were only eating utensils, chairs and the like. Nothing too favorable. His hand was still instinctively wrapping tighter around his knife, ready to fight. Nine months ago they’d been trying to kill each other in the arena. Maybe some things didn’t change easily.

The moment hung there, all of them waiting to see what would happen, and then he realized it and said, “Shit. Enough.”

Johanna put down the fork she’d been clutching, reached for the last biscuit and said, “Fine, but if anyone tries to take this from me, they get the fucking fork in their hand.” That more than anything seemed to defuse the tension, and a few nervous bursts of laughter answered it.

“Baria,” Brutus said, looking over at Enobaria who was still looking at them with a conflicted look on her face. “It’s fine. They’re our friends.”

With that he understood it was something about her being fiercely willing to protect Brutus, though he couldn’t figure out what it is.

There must have been a confused look on his own face because Brutus sighed, leaned back in his chair, and looked glumly like he’d rather discuss anything but the topic at hand. “It’s my brother,” Brutus said. “Quintus.”

“Peacekeeper, yeah?” He remembered Brutus had told him that a few months ago when he and Johanna had been explaining about Ash and Heike.

“Yeah.” Brutus’ face had regained its usual calm stoicism. “My older brother. He put in his twenty years and then he got a job as an instructor at the training camp by Wolfshead Pass. He’s still there. With his wife, and no trainees now, wondering what’s going to happen to him and to our entire district.” His blue eyes lifted and met Haymitch’s. “It’s not just my brother.”

“Almost every family in Two has at least one member in the Corps,” Enobaria told them, folding her hands and putting them on the table. “That’s thousands and thousands of people.”

“You have one in it?” Johanna asked her.

“My sister Illythia. Word is she died during the fighting for Granite Pass,” Enobaria said, a flicker of grief on her expression. Granite Pass had been the last furious battle in Two to regain the access route to let the rebel forces move on the Capitol. Brutus and Enobaria had fought in that action and there had been a lot of casualties. He noticed she didn’t say what side Illythia Reska had fought on. He decided to not ask. “A lot of families are in mourning. Privately, in quite a few cases. It’s not considered…proper now to openly grieve for someone who loyally wore the white until the end and died in Capitol service.”

“The worse end falls on the ones who survived,” Brutus picked up where Enobaria fell silent. “Rebel or loyalist alike. They came back home out of a job, since no district is probably in a hurry to readmit Peacekeepers, and they saw the trials this winter and spring of some of their fellow Peacekeepers. They saw them condemned to execution.”

Haymitch had heard what some of them had been condemned for. He couldn’t exactly shed a tear for their fates. If Romulus Thread hadn’t been an apparent casualty of the bombing in Twelve, he had little doubt the man would have been on trial for his life along with the rest. Brutus held up a hand, anticipating the obvious protest and stifling it. “I’m not saying it wasn’t deserved. The things they did shamed the uniform and some of their fellows would openly say that. But they’re nervous. It was our people from Two as Peacekeepers, out in the districts as the hands enforcing Capitol will. It was the Peacekeepers who stood against rebel forces. And they wonder—with the reckoning at hand, are they all going to be put on trial next?”

“Right now, that means a lot of Two has no future they can count upon and they’re scared shitless. They’re back in their home villages hoping nobody will ask too many questions. Mayor Sangus will want to know what way President Paylor is leaning on the matter,” Enobaria told them. “She’s just not going to be comfortable enough to ask it directly.”

“And you are?” Johanna asked her.

“We know you both in a way she doesn’t,” Enobaria said it with the assurance of believing it true. “Besides,” she pointed out, dark eyes suddenly fierce, “it’s a question with some self-interest to you both. You’re in the shit with the rest of us, aren’t you? If your siblings are still alive, this affects you too.”

“Fuck,” Johanna cursed softly, glancing his way with an expression that was mingled concern and irritation. Because, he realized, Enobaria was right. If Ash and Heike were out there, their fate was tied to whatever happened to other Peacekeepers from Two.

“So where are they now?”

“A lot of them are back in their home villages waiting to see what happens.” Brutus sighed, looking reluctant what to say next. “Some of them may be out in the districts pretending they never wore the uniform.”

“Won’t help them in the long run. Any time official ID is needed, they’re screwed,” Johanna said. That was true. The Peacekeeper database may have been wiped by the Capitol, or perhaps by Peacekeeper officials, but they couldn’t hide their absence from the database any time they had a finger stick for official identification confirmation. Anyone with a brain would soon know that “Identity not found” meant a Peacekeeper in hiding.

“Word is there’s some Peacekeepers gone renegade out in the borderlands trying to set up a place to live apart from Panem. Others here, well, there’s some that are calling for declaring independence…”

“Seceding,” Haymitch said flatly, not liking the prospect of it. Though it struck him that was probably what the Capitol had called the districts declaring their own independence so he regretted the remark almost instantly.

“Can you blame them?” Brutus said defiantly. “They’re frightened because there’s a hell of a lot of ill will out there and they don’t exactly feel like Panem’s welcoming Two with open arms here. Do we still belong in this country or not? You’ve got to get Paylor to settle the Peacekeeper question first—are we expecting prosecution or not for a big portion of our surviving population? Everything else about rebuilding Two pales in comparison.”

“You want me to just say we’ll let everyone off the hook?” Haymitch said. “Come on, Brutus. You ever listen to Chaff talk about things in Eleven and how harsh Peacekeepers kept it?” Eleven had easily been the worst, from what he had heard. “You want me to tell you what it was like in Twelve under Romulus fucking Thread who took personal pleasure in his job because I killed his brother in the arena? Don’t people have some right to see justice done?”

“Justice, perhaps. Revenge, no. Wasn’t it you calling for reason when it came to the Capitol and trying to make the difference clear? Apply that in this case and figure out any conditions for prosecution versus amnesty,” Brutus said bluntly, “and make them clear, or else chances are Panem might lose District Two entirely before the government approves us being the nation’s pariahs.”

They all sat there in silence for a good minute. “At least you’re being honest about it,” Johanna said finally.

“Sorry,” Enobaria said. “We figured you’d rather have the truth.” She cleared her throat. “And we figured we could trust you with it.”

“Thanks for that,” he said with a sigh. If nothing else, knowing the situation and its reality was a better thing, even if it was a hard truth to swallow. An anxious, defensive district on the verge of secession wasn’t exactly an easy thing to confront, let alone as the first stop on this journey. He’d much rather that this had been a matter of fixing the district having no electricity rather than confronting moral quandaries like this. “Jo and I are gonna think on that tonight, maybe try to talk to Brocade in the morning. We don’t meet with Sangus until lunchtime anyway.”

“Thanks for dinner,” Johanna told them, getting to her feet and pushing in her chair.

Brutus gave a half-smile. “Always welcome back every night, you know that. I’ve got the ‘Splendor’ films if you’re interested too. You might need some distraction in the evenings.”

The peace offering, and Brutus carefully testing if the friendship was still sound, made him smile a little in spite of himself. “Yeah, we might take you up on that.” It had to be solid, didn’t it? Only a friend could have the balls to bring up something like this, hard as it was, disagree about it, and place trust that it wouldn’t be used to harm his other friends and neighbors.

“We won’t watch ‘Splendor in the Mines’, if it would bother you,” Enobaria said quietly. He realized she offered that for him, because that Twelve depicted so idealistically in the film, the district of the miners, was gone forever and it might be a painful reminder of that fact. But Two, while not annihilated, was facing something of the same—facing a past that was gone and having to find its future. They’d no longer be the district of Capitol loyalists and Peacekeepers.

“Nah,” he said, shaking his head, “we ought to watch it. It’s still probably as damn ridiculous as it was the first time I saw it. So, dinner and a movie tomorrow night?” They agreed on that and bid each other good night.

Walking over to Sedullus’ house, inhaling the crisp night air, Johanna was the one who spoke up first. “They’re right. We’re involved in this too, so we’d damn well better see it through.”

“There’s a difference between those who did what the Capitol and their Heads commanded, and those who were cruel in their own right.” Though even in the case of the former it was sometimes a blurry thing. Still, given that he had killed in the arena to survive, that innocents had fallen by his own hand, he couldn’t as readily condemn people for feeling forced to do things because if they didn’t it would have meant their own execution. “What would you do if Heike was one of the ones who actually enjoyed it?” he asked her bluntly. “The whippings, the torture?”

“What would you do if it was Ash?” she asked equally bluntly. “He’d almost put in his full twenty years. Heike had less than five. Lots more opportunity for him to have gone astray.”

“I know that,” he said, leaning his hands on the porch railing and looking up towards the starlit sky with something close to despair. “You don’t think I wonder that? Every single day?” Every day he was a little bit terrified that his smart, sweet little brother had been forged into a monster. “Even if he stuck to his orders, he must have done things I wish to hell he hadn’t.” He tried to not think about that too much, but the reality was hard to deny. He was deluding himself if he wanted to pretend that in all those years Ash had probably never had a hand in an execution for poaching or theft of food or the like.

She waited, saying nothing but slipping her hand into his. “I’d do what you would,” he said, confident that she would. “They may have been hijacked, but they’ve still made their own choices. If Ash became one of the ones who deserve to die for what they did, I’d condemn the man who did those things…and I’d mourn the brother I lost all those years ago.” He had spent more than half his life mourning that little boy. If Ash was truly gone, he would have to accept it.

“Then we know what to do.” There was no pleasure in her voice when she said it, only the resignation of pursuing a necessary course. “We’ll get Brocade on it. In the morning.” She stretched up and kissed his cheek. “C’mon, let’s get upstairs to bed,” she told him, voice more of a firm statement rather than a seductive whisper.

She was right. It cut too deep because it was so personal. Shutting it out for now and turning to each other, rather than tossing and turning all night over it, was the right course. They could confront it anew in the morning with clearer minds.

Someone had obviously prepared the house, airing it out and dusting the furniture and putting fresh linens on the bed. He didn’t doubt that their things, both the things from Twelve and whatever Cinna had sent for them as wardrobe, had probably been unpacked already too. The thought of someone else’s hands on his things bothered him a bit but he put it aside. He turned on the bedside lamp as Johanna turned off the light switch. “So easy,” she said, flicking it back on and then off again with a shake of her head. “I got so used to the lanterns and the candles.”

He moved towards her, wrapping his arms around her. “Think I’ll almost miss those nights. The days too.” The gentle glow of candlelight on her skin was something to behold, but he didn’t mean just that. Things had been so simple in Twelve over the winter, so free of complications. It hadn’t taken long for this trip to test them already, and he didn’t doubt it was only the trust of friendship from Enobaria and Brutus that had let them get right to the heart of the dilemma.

“Still here,” she murmured in his ear, fingers moving to undo his tie, and as ever, that was all that need be said.

Chapter Text

The insistent chime of the doorbell early in the morning, dawn’s rays barely peeking through the curtains, woke Haymitch, and he groaned, figuring it had to be important for someone to be at the door at this hour and that persistent about it. Rolling over, hearing Johanna mumble about throwing an axe at whomever it was, and putting on a bathrobe, he padded down the stairs to answer the door. Brutus stood there. “Well, go on and get dressed,” he said, and it wasn’t a request.

Haymitch yawned, rubbing his bleary eyes. “I’m forty-two, Brutus. Come back in a few hours. I don’t fucking well do perky and energetic early in the morning.” Not that he ever really had, considering that for his entire adult life he’d pretty much made a habit of getting to sleep around noon when it was finally safely broad daylight out.

“Yeah, and I’m forty-three and I’m already awake and moving,” Brutus argued, stuffing his hands in his sweatshirt pockets and looking totally awake and at ease. Meanwhile, in his bathrobe, Haymitch suppressed a shiver at the crisp early morning air and thought grouchily that he hated looking at all off-kilter in front of someone who was obviously fine and dandy.

“Are you going to hold ‘I’m a year older than you’ over me for the rest of our lives?” Somehow he could imagine it, with mingled humor and irritation. So that was Brutus’ idea of general inspiration—you can do it, you’re a year younger than me, so move your ass.

“Probably. So, are you standing here arguing with me or getting dressed?”

“This better be good,” he grumbled, waving a hand irritably for Brutus to stay put. “Five minutes.” Heading back upstairs he got dressed quickly, figuring from Brutus’ own attire that casual was just fine.

Of course, once he had his boots on and was ready to go, Brutus was totally clammed up as they hiked a trail away from the Village higher up Victor’s Mountain. Haymitch glanced into the distance towards the jagged, bare peaks of rock wreathed by clouds, touched by the pastel hues of dawn as the sun was rising above the mountains. This place was beautiful in its own way. But those mountains were lifeless and so it was a remote, alien beauty for him. It didn’t move him in the way the sudden pang of longing for the life and familiarity of the tree-covered misty mountains of home did. Favoring trees rather than stark rock—might be Johanna’s influence.

But looking over at Brutus, he could see the other man was watching the dawn with the peaceful satisfaction of a man comfortable with the world and his place in it, a man utterly at home. “So?” he said finally after a good ten minutes of appreciating the sunrise.

“I come up here every morning to think. To train too,” Brutus said, stretching his shoulders out as if he was preparing to do just that.

“War’s over and done, Brutus,” he observed dryly. “You can stop training, you know.”

“War’s done but it doesn’t change what I am,” Brutus returned sharply. “Or what you are, for that matter.”

“And what’s that?” he said, perching himself on a rock and folding his arms over his chest. As usual with someone scoffing, Don’t you know what you are?, the train of his thoughts took a familiar route and started at Miserable, ran steadily along the tracks to call in at Drunk, Has-Been, and Useless, took a stop at Embarrassment to take on a lot more baggage, and finally settled down for a good long stay in the rather bleak territory of Worthless. The habits of years didn’t change easily.

Brutus turned and studied him with that pale blue gaze. “You’re not an idiot so obviously you’re aware after your Games you had something of an…admiration here in Two. Ever think about that?”

“You people like a good fight, I was the smartass brat who unexpectedly killed two of your tributes. Pretty self-explanatory.”

“There’ve been big talkers in the arena before, and smart kids, and unless they’re friggin’ geniuses like Beetee, they don’t last until the end,” Brutus pointed out. “And some other tributes, well, they’ve gotten lucky and gotten the jump on a Two tribute and made the kill. No, with you…look, I watched those Games, OK? I was a cadet going into my final year. I can tell you what I would have thought, if I was Remus Thread.”

“And what, exactly, would that have been?” Aside from wishing he’d been in the Games next year like he should have, and thinking about his girl Aurelia right there by his side and how he really wouldn’t want to be the one to kill her?

That look changed and there was nothing soft or friendly in Brutus’ eyes suddenly, all calculating, impartial assessment. “I’d be thinking, here’s one of the Twelve boys. Got a seven and he’s lasted over a week already so he’s not going to piss himself and cry. But this year, we’ve got twelve Careers in here and probably four or five others all with higher scores than him. So he’s, say, mid-level threat at best. He’s a smartass so he probably got that seven by his brains. But he’s all alone. He’s small. We’ve got three of us and probably any one of us could take him. He’ll probably go down easy.”

“I didn’t.”

“You didn’t,” Brutus readily agreed. “You just grabbed that knife and fought because you realized that was the one chance you had.” He gave a diffident half-shrug. “Not that you were that great, mind. It was pretty obvious your technique was wild and barely trained.” Haymitch barely suppressed an almost nervous burst of laughter at the casual insult. “But you moved fast enough you had the element of surprise for a few moments, and more than that, you fought. No hesitation, nothing held back. Three on one, all of them trained and better fighters than you, and you ran headlong into it. Now why was that?”

“Well, begging for mercy never got anyone anywhere in the arena,” he said dryly, not quite understanding why Brutus was rehashing old memories like this and not exactly liking it. “And I was a fast runner but I wasn’t going to get away from all three of them. Besides, in the arena you have to fight eventually. I figured hell with it, I have to fight this out, so might as well get to it.” He hadn’t expected to walk away. He still wouldn't have, with the overwhelming surge that grief and rage gave to Aurelia, if not for Maysilee.

“And you were fighting to get back home,” Brutus said, strangely almost gentle about it. “I saw that with the interviews. You gave it everything and you were the one who walked away.” If Brutus talked about Ash’s interview, which Haymitch had never been able to watch, even after last winter, he would seriously want to punch the man in the face. “So, go forward to the 74th Games. You’ve got two kids that we all see you’re getting more attached to the idea of them surviving the more times goes on. Me, I’ve got two. Not the best I’ve put in the arena, but…” Brutus smiled, and shook his head. “You jumped right in there too. Sponsors, Gamemakers, political bigwigs. You fought for those two then with everything you had. You did last year too, matter of fact—you think anyone’s ever going to figure out you didn’t start masterminding a nationwide rebellion until you would have otherwise been forced to accept Katniss and Peeta were going to die in the arena?”

“Brute,” Haymitch said, his tone a warning. Just because the man was right didn’t mean he wanted to hear it. The truth in that case was an uncomfortable thing, given that people considered him heroic or whatever for kicking off an uprising, and perhaps even a dangerous truth because of it. All right, fine, there had been plenty that was selfish about his timing on the rebellion. All winter long when it was all about idealism and a hopeful future for the entire nation, he’d held Katniss back. Only when he’d have had to watch her and probably Peeta die, knowing if they did he’d probably finally just go beyond the fence like Nualla Clearly intending to die out there, did he bring the force of his mind and his will towards the problem. Brutus was right. He’d set out to save two kids’ lives for the second time, and he’d done it by starting a rebellion. He didn’t know if Johanna had figured that out yet—that part of his atonement was setting things right, making amends for the thousands who had died because he had been so determined to save two lives.

“You gave that everything too. Put yourself in the arena willing to die for it, rallied most of the other victors around you. Damn near killed Enobaria when you thought she and I had killed Katniss and you went berserk on her. Damn near killed yourself too.”

“She’d have had me anyway in another thirty seconds.” Obviously Brutus had seen the tape of his knife fight with Enobaria, since he hadn’t been right there seeing it when it happened. He wasn’t kidding himself. She was better trained and ten years younger than him. He wouldn’t have lasted in the end.

“True, but the way you were going she was going to be dead in a few seconds anyway if I hadn’t come along to stop you. Then you tried to get Snow to execute you so you wouldn’t be used as a pawn.” Brutus shook his head. “Now here you are on some quest to find your brother and Johanna’s sister and repair the districts while you’re at it. And you know what? I wouldn’t bet against you. You think you’re going to just live some quiet little life in Twelve? You’re a warrior. You only lost your way so badly those years when you had no choice but to submit, over and over.”

Maybe he had a bit of a point there. The helplessness, the inability to do anything but suffer and lose, had been what did him in over the years, slowly devouring him. “We all saw what happened with Two when it’s just a matter of living for the enjoyment of a fight,” he said, shaking his head. The loyal minions of Two, so admiring of the pure nature of a fight that they didn’t even give a damn that they fought for no reason at all rather than Capitol entertainment.

“Yeah, and it was you that made me and Baria both think about what we fought for, and why, and that the honor of the Capitol wasn’t worth it. That’s why you win, Haymitch. You always fight for what you love.” He chuckled slowly. “Even if that means something small like hollering at Boggs and demanding Johanna get another chance at the final exam on the Block.” Haymitch tried to suppress a wince at Brutus’ obvious amusement, realizing Brutus must have been arriving at Command when that happened and he hadn’t even noticed, so keyed up by concern over Johanna. “When your heart’s in it as well as your head, you’re apparently pretty damn well unbeatable. Accept that you’re a fighter. You’ve got that in common with your kids back in Twelve, right?” Brutus apparently saw things, at least related to battle, with eagle-sharp eyes. He thought of Katniss, who’d fought for Prim, and Peeta, who’d fought for Katniss, both of them willing to die for it. What’s this? Have I actually got a pair of fighters this year? he’d drawled drunkenly at the two of them. They’d been fighters, and they sparked the passion in him to win, to bring both of them home alive, to put in the hours and the charm and the lies and the risks it had taken to make the unprecedented thing happen. He’d been desperate and utterly terrified to fail when he’d begun to hope, but at the same time, the further he pushed the thing, he’d felt sharper and more alive than he had in years, a sort of odd enjoyment at the tightly-strung tension of confronting the challenge before him, of fighting and seeing how he was gaining ground by it.

“So I’m a warrior. And?” Interesting thoughts and all, and maybe Brutus had a point to it, though he didn’t see what exactly the end payoff of this little chat was supposed to be.

“So you use it,” Brutus said with a snort of exasperation. “A sword’s a fucking sword, Haymitch, it’s not meant to get hammered out into a plow. It’s meant to be ready for when it’s needed again. So after this whole Panem Reconstruction thing, if another fight comes, be ready and embrace that. You’re not meant to go pretend you’re happy just growing turnips and all you want to do is forget it ever happened.” Brutus gave a grunt of disdainful amusement. “We can’t ever forget, after all. We have the scars and the memories and the damn newscasters chasing us.”

He gave a sharp, sarcastic bark of laughter at that. “Ain’t that the truth.” The memories might dim a bit and come less frequently but they would never leave him, and he saw the scars on his body every day. The newscasters; well, that was unfortunately true also. “So why’s it matter to you so much, me accepting that or whatever?”

Brutus gave another of those small rolls of his shoulders that passed for a shrug. “I know what it is to live and be judged as nothing,” he said, glancing at Haymitch and then away again. “We’re lucky. We survived. Realized we could fight a good fight for a good cause.” A slight smile touched his lips. “Became something a woman could love.” Hearing the warmth hinted at in his words, Haymitch realized that yeah, the man was solidly in love with Enobaria.

“True enough,” he acknowledged with a sigh, remembering ten years or so gone, when he and Brutus were realizing they were finally waving goodbye to the last of their youth and that was it, that the men they had become, awkward and disgraceful, would be the men they were likely to be for the rest of their lives. They would always go home to their districts and instinctively cringe. Sure, they were still making fun of all those inane Capitol romance movies with harsh words and harsh shots of alcohol. But right there beneath it all was the rage and hurt of, Stupid fuckers, don’t know how lucky they are that love is such an easy right for them that it’s just a lark to giggle and sigh at.

“But the old ways are still there, aren’t they? Old habits. Old thoughts. They sneak back in.” Brutus said it carefully, almost reluctantly, but with the weary air of confidence in the truth of it. His voice went lower, barely more than a murmur over the morning breeze. “Some days…I think I’m still waiting for it to all come apart.”

“Brutus…” Seeing the man admit something like that, raw and painful as it was, was hard enough. But the fact he’d hit the mark as surely as one of Katniss’ arrows made it all the worse. The self-doubt crept its way in sometimes, the fear that someday, Johanna would call it quits and it wouldn’t be her fault because he’d always known she could—and should—do better.

“Ah, well,” Brutus said with a nervous chuckle that told Haymitch he was self-conscious about having said as much as he did. “She finally asked me a couple months ago if we were just fucking around or if I ever intended more than that. Put up or shut up moment, you know? Next thing I know, she’s moving in.” He blew out a slow breath and said, “Because I let Lyme go. If I lost Baria, that would be my fault. And so I realized this—this is something worth fighting for. To be worthy of her, to not be who I was.”

“It’s not a thing you can win with swords, Brute,” Haymitch pointed out. That was the hellish thing. It was nothing standing right in front of him that could be attacked with fists or weapons and killed. It was more like trying to contain that corrosive poison mist he’d seen on the Quell tape, the stuff that had killed Lamina. It was there and would always be there inside him, and it slowly ate away at the walls he had made to contain it. If he didn’t tend to that, constantly struggle to keep his shields against it strong, eventually it would work its way out, start eating him alive again and destroying him.

“No. But it’s a fight all the same. And I wasn’t raised to give surrender and I won’t. She’s something I’ll fight for.” He hesitated and then said, “I asked her to marry me. Last week.”

He’d proposed to Johanna while he’d been caught up in the whirl of emotions about Coin and the baby. She’d confronted him, demanded to know if all they had was a few weeks of careful sex in Thirteen. Somewhere in there, he had realized he didn’t want to lose her to his own fear, and though he never said it outright, he was grateful to her for confronting him and making him face it, telling him, If I said you had the right to ask?, because he would have never felt himself worthy to offer it without that. Apparently Enobaria Reska had done the same for Brutus a few months ago, and in time it had developed into enough for Brutus to take that final step. “Congratulations,” he said, his grin at that actually sincere. “Just couldn’t stand to let a Twelve upstart show you up, huh?”

Brutus gave a grunt of amusement. “That, and you and Johanna are here, and you’re the closest friends we have…” He cleared his throat. “It’s in three days. I know you’re busy and all.”

Piecing it together, he figured out Brutus was asking him to be at the wedding. It wasn’t hard to remember how touched he’d been that Katniss and Peeta had put the toasting together for him and Johanna a few months ago. There were so few of them left that to have someone close at the wedding had meant more than could be easily expressed. “Be honored by it,” he managed. “I’ll make time. I’m sure Jo will too.”

“I’m sure she and Baria are probably plotting right now how they’re gonna get the upper hand on us for the rest of their lives.”

He laughed. “Yeah, probably.” He reached out and clapped Brutus on the shoulder. “That’s all right. You and me, we’ll stick together too. And we won’t just roll over for them.” He loved her, but that didn’t mean he’d submit and let her have her way in everything. Besides, he was pretty sure she’d hate that. She wanted to win it in a fair fight, prove herself against him. “You know they don’t want that anyway. Too boring.”

“You’re a born fighter too, and Johanna is something you love. You fought hard to get this far away from who you were. So I don’t want to see you in five years with her long gone and you back on the bottle.” There it was, finally, and he understood, even if Brutus had meandered around a good bit in making his way there.

Looking at Brutus, he thought the other man needed to see it in him too, that determination to stand and fight and be a good man, to steel his resolve even further. For him, having someone else on that path who understood the doubt and the struggle to not relapse back into the past would be invaluable. He held out his hand. “Allies, then,” he said quietly.

Of course Brutus grabbed his forearm instead, Two-style. “Battle-brothers,” he corrected Haymitch with another of those slight smiles of his. Letting go, he fished in a crevice in the rock and pulled out two solid wood staffs. The tension in him evaporated, replaced by a confident ease as he apparently got on more familiar turf. “And since you’re a warrior, regularly continuing training, even in peacetime, to be ready for a fight is good,” he said, tossing one to Haymitch. Unprepared for it, he still managed to only fumble one and caught the staff before it hit the ground. “Besides,” Brutus said, smirking over at him, “no sense in letting you get lazy and fat again.”

For that Haymitch’s first blow was a stinging swat right across the knuckles of Brutus’ right hand. As Brutus let go with a grunt of pain, the tip of the staff was inside his guard and up under his chin. “Big men get so overconfident. They never learn,” he scoffed with a smirk of his own, “shut the fuck up and hit first while the other guy’s still mouthing off.”

“You did that in that clearing,” Brutus said carefully, pushing the tip of the staff aside and rubbing his jaw. “The girl said something…”

“Esca,” he said roughly. He’d never forget the name of the first person he’d killed, the Four girl with her tan skin and bright blue eyes. “And she said it looked like it wasn’t my lucky day…” Right about then was when he’d stabbed her, any words to end her thought lost in a grunt of pain and surprise. He hadn’t had to watch the life fading from her eyes, at least, because he was too busy trying to get his knife free and turn to fight the Two boy—Remus. “You still remember your first kill in the Games?” he asked. It wasn’t an offhand question. He remembered all those years ago, eighteen-year-old Brutus promising awkwardly and gruffly, I won’t forget.

“Dean. He was your boy that year,” Brutus said without hesitation. His lips pressed tightly together. “He yelled for his mother.”

He’d heard it over his headphones up in Mentor Central; that terrified wail from a boy knowing he was going to die that had haunted his nightmares for weeks. He still heard it sometimes, although now Dean wasn’t the only voice screaming for a mother that had stuck in his mind. “He wouldn’t have lasted,” he said, shaking his head and sighing. “You made it quick for him, at least. That’s as merciful as the Games let any of us be.” That was how it was. He didn’t blame Brutus for Dean. Brutus didn’t blame him for Remus and the path that had sent him, the distant second best boy of his year, to the Games and the disdain of his district.

A nod from Brutus at that, leaning on his staff as if it was needed support rather than a weapon. “You want to head back down?” he said, nodding downhill back towards the Village.

The past had come back and it stood there like a physical presence. So I’ll fight and I’ll tell it to fuck off, he thought. With a bit of effort, he gave Brutus a nonchalant smile, taking a ready stance. “Nah. C’mon. You haven’t even scored a point on me yet.”

Brutus answered with a grin of anticipation at that. “First to ten strikes and then down for breakfast?” Trust Brutus to think of food, he thought to himself with a laugh.

~~~~~~~~~~

She’d figured her turn was coming next once Brutus marched Haymitch off for whatever purpose. So when the doorbell rang, she answered it and said to Enobaria without preamble, “No, I’m not going hiking in the fucking mountains this early. I’ve got coffee ready.” Simply pushing a button on a coffeemaker rather than boiling water and brewing and filtering had been a giddy kind of glee, like a kid at New Year’s. “You want some or not?”

“Thanks,” Enobaria said, heading for the kitchen, with that lithe, alert walk she had that had always made Johanna think a little bit of a stalking forest cat moving through the trees. The fang-tips had only cemented the impression of a predatory animal even further, so seeing her with normal human teeth again certainly helped. Seating herself at the table, she accepted the mug of coffee Johanna slid across to her and proceeded to dump enough sugar in it to probably turn it into sludge.

“Never knew you had a sweet tooth,” she commented, guiltily realizing she was dumping a fair amount of sugar in her own coffee.

Enobaria shrugged diffidently. “That? It would have been too soft. The people in the Capitol always preferred seeing me eat meat, and the rarer the better.” Yeah, Johanna remembered that. There was a half-suppressed shudder from Enobaria that she caught.

She raised an eyebrow and asked, “More of a ‘well done’ kind of a girl on your steak?”

“Yeah.” That made sense. She could imagine taste of blood and meat in Enobaria’s mouth as she tore out the Four boy’s throat, and why the rare meat they liked to see her eat after that would have been sickening. She’d been eleven at the time, up for reaping starting the next year, and she’d had nightmares after Enobaria’s pretty violent win, terrified she’d be picked the next year and be eaten alive by some savage tribute from Two. It hadn’t panned out like that. She’d killed Nemesianus, the Two boy from her year, in the arena. He was her final kill. No blood in her mouth, no, but the close-up axe kills of several days meant blood was sprayed all over her. It had soaked in her clothes and in her hair, still long back then. She’d hated the coppery smell of blood ever since. “But they didn’t like you eating sweets either.”

“Nope.” The vicious little bitch with an axe eating cake? It wouldn't have fit with the image they forced on her. “They do like their savage women in the Capitol as bloodthirsty as possible.”

“Probably because all they had there was a bunch of soft, silly little overdressed and overpainted twits,” Enobaria said with a snort of irritation.

“Think that covers the men too,” she said dryly. “Especially the ‘little’ part where it counts, right?” Both of them had been whored out, after all. Enobaria had endured more than her share of Capitol men.

Enobaria gave an appreciating bark of laughter at that grinned and said, “Be right back.” Johanna shrugged as if to say, By all means, and Enobaria returned within a couple minutes with a covered plate, putting it down on the table. She must have gone back to the house she and Brutus shared to get it.

She lifted the dishtowel and cracked up, taking a cookie, seeing the rebelliousness in that little gesture. “Fuck ‘em,” she said, raising it as a toast of sorts, and taking a bite.

“Fuck ‘em,” Enobaria echoed neatly, taking a cookie herself with a smirk of satisfaction.

“So, this is nice and all. You, me, coffee, eating fuck-‘em-all cookies—hey, can I have the recipe?”

“You gonna label that recipe as ‘Fuck ‘Em All Cookies’?”

“Yep.” She grinned fiercely. “I’ll even give it to Peeta.” Though Peeta, diplomatic as he was, would probably call them something politely boring. Dark Chocolate and Black Walnut Cookies or whatever. She’d tell Haymitch, though, and she could imagine he’d get a kick out of it.

“Then by all means.”

“So, what, the idiots we’re with went to go thump their chests or whatever and be manly. Maybe tackle some bears?” Enobaria snickered at that. “Looks like we womenfolk get to keep each other company.”

“Going to insult me again for old times’ sake?” Enobaria said, sitting back in her chair and taking another bite of a cookie.

She gave a snort of amusement at that. “Wanna speculate just how many men were probably jerking off at you and me at the Cornucopia with the sight of two domineering bitches trying to kill each other?”

Enobaria didn’t seem to have a ready comeback for that, and it took her a moment to realize that had been when Katniss’ arrow took out Cashmere and Johanna had ducked Gloss’ hookblades to bury her axe in his chest. They were some of the few friends she could remember Enobaria having—she and Finnick had been next closest to them in age, and as a Career Finnick might have been expected to gravitate towards those three. But instead the two of them stuck together. “Sorry ‘bout Cash and Gloss,” she said. If she’d lost Finnick, or Haymitch, in the arena, it would have cut her as deeply.

“Not your fault,” Enobaria said with a sigh. “And to answer your question, probably a lot of them. Still got the scar from it.” She’d wounded Enobaria on her left leg.

“Yeah, me too.” A neat slice on her right arm, though it faded in prominence among the dozens of other scars she’d gotten in the following weeks down in that cell. She held up her right hand and showed off the scar there. “Got the nice one from your boyfriend too.”

“He’s got the one on his shoulder from you, so that’s even. Fiance, actually.”

“Haymitch has—” She knew full well the scars on Haymitch’s body from his last frenzied fight with Enobaria, and imagined that Enobaria still had her share from that too. But the last bit there hit her full stop. “Finally got him to come around, eh?”

Enobaria grinned in satisfaction, tucking a lock of her dark brown hair, growing out as Johanna’s was after being shaved, behind her ear. It was still a little weird seeing her with such a normal human smile compared to baring those gold-tipped fangs. “Yep. I realized eventually he wasn’t going to be the one to speak up.” She shook her head and gave Johanna a wry look. “No easy thing, a man who feels like he’s got nothing to offer you, huh?”

“Are we actually having a girly conversation here, Fangless?”

“Figured you’d be the one who knows what I’m talking about, Stumpy. But you were gutsy enough that you fought for Haymitch, didn’t you? You didn’t with Finnick.”

Mentioning Finnick set her bristling instinctively. “You don’t know the first fucking thing—”

“Oh, bullshit. I was right there seeing it every summer. You kept waiting and waiting for Finnick to say something to you.” She scowled and stared into her coffee cup like something was written in it. She had, she’d admit it. She’d been young and stupid and totally inexperienced in love because she’d always been the girl that boys liked as a friend. She’d been too scared to say something and force him to say something because maybe deep down she’d known Finnick was sweet enough that if he’d loved her already, he would have told her. So she’d waited on him, waited even after Annie, hoping stupidly that he’d get bored with her and come back to her. It was only seeing the two of them together before the Quell, and in Thirteen, how strongly the two of them were bound together, that she realized she’d lost him to Annelle Cresta. Or more like, never really had him, because he’d never loved her, not the way she’d wanted him to love her. He loved her intensely, but as his best friend. That was it. The sex had simply been mutual comfort against the unbearable.

“So maybe I learned my lesson,” she said defensively, feeling the sting of embarrassment. But she could still remember that night on the rooftop of the Training Center, even if she’d gone on the offensive and demanded to know if she mattered to him more than Katniss and Peeta and a bottle of liquor, if there was an us when it came to them. She’d felt her heart in her throat when she’d asked, waiting for him to say, You’re my friend, Johanna, to live that same nightmare again. But deep down she’d known he wouldn’t readily say anything of his own volition. Haymitch wasn’t Finnick, whose heart opened so quickly, who could say things so easily. She’d also suspected if she kept silent and she let him go back to Twelve, he would fall back into the old ruts and never imagine having anything more than what they’d had. “Problem with that?”

“Far from it. It means you took control of your own fate there. Good example, too. I thought about that over the winter. Figured he’d let go of Lyme years ago, really, so it wasn’t that holding him back. And if you were gutsy enough to tell the man you loved him and you don’t give a shit if he felt unworthy of you, no excuse for me.” She gave a self-conscious little smirk. “I am from Two, after all. We embrace the fight.”

“Crazy bastards that you are, yes. So, that means we actually get to see the whole swordfight thing, huh?” she said with a chuckle. “Or what, does he just let you be on top that night because you’re the big, tough, domineering woman and he’s the man that worships at your feet?”

Enobaria’s smile was like a cat up to its whiskers in cream. “You still always have to be on top, Johanna, or have you actually found a man that can keep up with you?” Something in her expression went sharp, almost brittle, flickers of half-remembered pain there. “Or better yet, got to a point yet where you don’t have to be in control?” She didn’t say To be safe at the end, but Johanna heard it loud and clear anyway.

She remembered that last night in Thirteen, impulsively pulling Haymitch over her with the thought of Don’t want to die in the Capitol without knowing if I can do this again. She’d done it with a sense of trepidation, trying to not feel trapped, shutting out the flickers of memory of the men who’d pinned her down and fucked her mercilessly, hands all too often on her wrists or her throat. He’d looked shocked, but he’d accepted that she didn’t want to be coddled or second-guessed. She’d known deep in her bones that if she told him to stop, he would have.

Their wedding night, maybe it had been overwhelming circumstances that finally did it, but it felt like both of them finally had let go and started to let go of the fear. Finally she was confident enough in herself as a woman again that his weight and strength and sheer maleness was something arousing rather an implicit threat to be kept under her thumb. He might have been on top but that didn’t matter, she’d had plenty of power in how she’d been able to make him respond to her.

“Sure,” she said, but she didn’t want to let the moment get too awkward and vulnerable, so she added with a casual smirk, “but it’s a hell of a lot of fun when I am.” Fun, now, to be the one calling the shots in bed, a source of pleasure and real power rather than something she’d desperately needed so she didn’t ever feel like that terrified, helpless girl again.

An acknowledging smile from Enobaria told her plenty. “The wedding’s in three days. I’m sure Brute’s asking Haymitch about it.” Those dark eyes studied her. “You’re about the only friend I have left.”

Oh really? We’re friends? she wanted to scoff instinctively, not liking being suddenly claimed like that, that old need to assert herself and be the one to control what was going on rearing its ugly head. The moment passed, though. “I’ll be there,” she said. She was surprised to see some kind of tension in Enobaria relax, and realized what it must have cost her to extend that hand of friendship. Sure, Haymitch and Brutus were pals. But that didn’t mean the two of them had to get along, and for years the two of them had hissed at each other like wet cats, Johanna’s defiance and Enobaria’s compliance when it came to the Capitol being the crux of the matter.

They were on the same side now and they’d endured a lot of the same things. Friend. She tried out the word in her head. She’d never really had a female friend, always played much better with the boys. She had Katniss, sure, although that whole thing was complicated by being family now, with its close ties of obligation as much as love. Katniss was more like having a little sister. “Friend” was something different entirely, and realizing that offer had been made, she felt stupidly grateful for it. “Didn’t waste time putting the wedding together once he proposed, huh?”

Enobaria grinned. “We figured we’d do it while you two were here anyway.” She winked then. “Besides, that’ll mean we’ll have been safely married for months before the kid arrives.” She said it with a sense of pride and something almost like wonder.

Her eyes flew to Enobaria’s stomach. Nothing showing yet beneath her loose shirt, which meant she was yet in the early months, but Johanna felt like she’d been punched in the gut. I’d be, what, five and a half months along now, definitely showing it, she thought, unable to help herself. “Congratulations,” she said, hearing the dull flatness of her own voice.

Something went tight and pained in Enobaria’s expression like she’d just been slapped. She wished she could be good enough to step forward and be the one to bridge that gulf, suddenly made so soon after that friendship was offered, but she couldn’t. It hurt too fucking much still. Finally Enobaria was the one that spoke up. “Is that why you told me about Coin and the fertility drugs, Johanna? I figured you and Haymitch were probably sleeping together for a little while. Things were…different between you two after Finnick and Annie’s wedding.”

Things had been different, sure, because they’d had a close brush after Finnick’s wedding. After that she hadn’t quite been able to undo it, be able to think of him as just her annoying bastard of a friend rather than a potential lover, because she’d seen a glimpse behind the mask. But they hadn’t started sleeping together until right after Brutus and Enobaria left. “No, not that long,” she said, reaching for the last of her coffee as much to have something to do to help steady herself as anything. “Just a few weeks before we left for the Capitol. But…thanks to Coin, it was long enough to do the job.” She couldn’t quite look at her as she said, “I lost the kid when they had to give me drugs to help fight my burns, and the nurse told me about it when she told me about the clomiphen. She assumed I’d been dosing myself to get pregnant. I didn’t know before that.”

“Shit. Want me to try and get you, what, ten minutes alone with Coin? Victors still have some privileges, you know.” Strangely, that offer touched her more than cooing in sympathy would have. Maybe Enobaria knew her well enough to realize that.

“No. She’s not worth me going to jail for killing her.” Although she’d admit that if she could get away with it there were still times she wanted to do it, at least for a moment. “She’ll answer for it at her trial.” She and Haymitch had sworn out affidavits already for that. Hopefully they wouldn’t have to testify. “For that and plenty of other things.”

“He knows?”

“He knows.” We just don’t talk about it. In some ways it was a relief to be able to talk about it now with Enobaria, to talk about it with someone. “Just don’t let it get around, huh?”

“Lips are sealed,” she promised, and Johanna actually believed it. Those brown eyes carefully studied her again, and Enobaria hesitated before saying, “For what it’s worth, I think you’d have done a good job. You’re a fighter. You’d protect that kid with everything you’ve got.”

She glanced down, throat suddenly tight. “Thanks,” she said thickly.

A few more moments, and Enobaria reached over and laid her hand over Johanna’s, her raw-honey skin dark against the light gold of Johanna’s, hesitating as if waiting to see if Johanna would flinch or pull back. “She’ll pay, and you’ll live a good life because you’re strong enough to do that. That’s the best revenge we can have on them, right?”

“Right.” She smiled and reached out, picked up another cookie. “Fuck ‘em all,” she said again.

“Fuck ‘em all,” Enobaria agreed.

Brutus and Haymitch came back in time for breakfast, and with a brief call to Paylor to get her considering the Peacekeeper question, it was Brutus who suggested they kill a few hours with one of the Splendor films. “In honor of you, Johanna,” he said with a grin, “’Splendor in the Forest’ comes first.”

“I’ll have to practice my Seven yodel to summon my little animal friends to save my beloved,” she cracked.

“Ah, shit, no summoning squirrels,” Haymitch groaned, and all of them snickered at him for it, because they all knew about his vendetta against them thanks to his arena. She knew by now he considered eating squirrel stew a fitting revenge to be undertaken as often as possible. She settled down beside him on the couch, tucking her legs under her and leaning on his shoulder with his arm going around her as Brutus started the tape.

It didn’t take for Haymitch to launch right into sarcastically ripping apart Loretta’s “Happy Working Song”. My axe toils for a better tomorrow, except tomorrow never comes… Surprisingly enough, Brutus seemed to cheerfully join in providing lyrics mocking the Capitol, and from the pleased smirk on Haymitch’s face at it, that was something new. She couldn’t imagine Hayitch would have been able to do that around Brutus before either. Though given the two of them knew the song well enough to think quickly enough to trade lines with Haymitch, he probably knew the damn thing by heart. Granted, she’d probably seen the movie a good dozen times herself since the Capitol was fond of reruns of the whole series.

“I think they’ve seen this a few too many times,” she told Enobaria, raising her voice to carry over the two men singing, Brutus a little off-key but not less enthusiastic for it.

“They’ve had extra years to do it,” she said back with a grin.

“Fucking idiot, that’s an oak,” she snapped at Lars who was yammering on about the beautiful maple wood that the tree would provide for beautiful, lasting furniture for so many couples out there, Loretta! Maybe even us, someday! “And like we’d ever buy that mass-produced shit we had to manufacture.”

“She’s pretty scrawny for a lumberjack, I always thought,” Brutus said, eyeing Loretta. “I mean, she’s no wider than an axe handle, and I figured those things are actually pretty solid and heavy.”

“Hey, Capitol fat-suction surgery does that to you,” Johanna said wryly. “And no, she wouldn’t be able to lift a real axe, let alone use it all day long.” She might be short herself, but she wasn’t tiny and skinny. The demands of working out in the woods had made her strong. “That’s gotta be a stunt prop she’s using.”

“Y’know, every time I see this movie, I’m pretty sure that’s a bunch of poison ivy they’re on,” Haymitch said, as Lars and Loretta settled down for their first big love scene.

“They’re having sex and you’re looking at the plants?” she said jokingly.

“That’s really lousy sex,” he said. “So yeah, looking at the plants is more interesting.”

“It’s not pay-to-view,” Brutus pointed out. “They can’t get too explicit.”

“Explicit nothin’, it’s just shitty acting.” Haymitch gave an irritated snort, probably viewing it as someone who’d had to act constantly, including when it came to sex, and make it utterly convincing. Wryly, Johanna was inclined to agree. She’d had to play her role plenty of times live, and even make some pay-to-views herself. She knew he had, and Enobaria must have as well. Their acting in those had clearly been better than this.

“But even if she can’t swing an actual axe that’s not a stunt prop, she’s so enthusiastic at handling wood though,” Enobaria joked as Loretta was gasping about how big and strong lumbering work had made Lars.

“She definitely loves to handle Lars’ wood.” She snickered. “And when we get to ‘Splendor in the Mine’, you know Senga wants Fergall to…hm…explore her mine.” Haymitch started laughing at that, his shoulder shaking beneath her cheek at the force of it. Smirking to herself, she made a mental note to use that one on him at some point.

Brutus said with a low chuckle, “I think they’re naturals at this, Haymitch.”

“Ladies, I admire your abilities,” Haymitch drawled.

“So, I’m curious, when did he have enough time to get his trousers back on to confront a dozen bears with only an axe? I’m pretty sure his chest is oiled too, by the way. That’s more than just sweat.”

“He didn’t have enough time. But they’ll pretend he did…you really want to watch a naked guy running around swinging an axe, Brutus?”

“C’mon, Haymitch, we all got to watch a naked girl running around swinging an axe.”

“Ah, fuck you, Enobaria. I did swinging an axe and then I did naked later. Not together.” The axe had been the arena. The naked thing had been because of the whoring. But then she relaxed, realizing it had been only teasing. “The combination would have been too much for everyone to handle,” she snarked, earning some laughs for her trouble.

In a few hours she and Haymitch would be meeting with the mayor to start dealing with Two’s problems and the whole thorny Peacekeeper question. She knew Heike was still out there somewhere too, caught up in that trap. But for now, she was busy watching the worst movie about District Seven ever created. Curled up on the couch like this with Haymitch, with Brutus and Enobaria likewise on the other couch, she was in good company where the warmth and friendship and laughter made everything else seem a bit more bearable.

Chapter Text

Things went easier with Mayor Sangus having pretty much sauntered in and presenting her with the fact they knew the trouble that had set Two off-balance, and had already passed it on to President Paylor. Spared from having to show the vulnerability of openly admitting whatever fears and trepidations Sangus had about it, the tension seemed to ease somewhat and everyone in Two suddenly grew rather more cooperative as word of They’re on our side apparently got around. Or at the very least, They’re not looking to blame everything on us.

Though Haymitch admitted the fact Brocade didn’t have a quick answer might not be exactly promising. He imagined she was arguing it with her new government and trying to come to an acceptable decision on it that would be fair, just as she had in running the War Crimes Council trials. He just impatiently hoped the wheels would get greased enough to give some kind of answer soon, perhaps before leaving Two, because dealing with the occasional electricity problem and the loss of the military complex in Eagle Mountain wasn’t much against a people who were stoically trying to hide their fear that they would be held accountable for being the hand that carried out the Capitol’s orders.

Bluntly, he’d told Brocade, “The reality is, we gave the Capitol mercy. So we actively tackle the Peacekeeper issue and find some way to include Two in as equals at the table, or they’re gonna walk away from Panem rather than accept being the ones that get scorned and spit on and watch hundreds or thousands of their own go to trial. And believe me, they’ll fight if we try to keep them as part of this nation by force.” An entire district born and raised with persistence and combat and honor as their touchstones wasn’t something he was too eager to start another war over. “We got Two into the rebellion by winning them over with reason, not by defeating them in combat.”

“You sure you don’t want my job?” she’d said, half-jokingly, half-wearily over the phone to him. But she’d thanked him and said she’d take it to her councilors. There would be long days ahead too, touring devastated villages, trying to deal with the awkwardly humbled fierce pride of the ex-Peacekeepers who now lived dependent upon the provisions and goodwill of the Panem government for survival. If he was of a crueler mindset he might find delicious irony in that, given that most of the other districts had been paralyzed, helpless captives of the Capitol that kept them in line by fear and threatened starvation, Two was now experiencing that firsthand. But there had been enough suffering, enough death. Hopelessness and despair didn’t look good on anyone, especially when it would fall upon children.

For the Peacekeepers, their supposed lives of duty had been flung back in their faces as the districts had all pretty much expressed they had no interest in letting a trained Peacekeeper force back within their borders. What the hell those districts were intending to do about, well, keeping the peace, that was going to be a headache he and Johanna would deal with as they made the rounds. Unfortunately, much as Peeta and others would probably like to believe everyone could just behave and get along, Haymitch knew better.

That was for tomorrow and after. Today, he let himself be absorbed in a wedding. Enobaria wore a dress of a rich crimson that complimented her dark coloring and stood out brightly in the dark, stately granite and dark wood of the Justice Building. Brutus wore the same shade on his vest and it almost clashed with his auburn hair, but Haymitch had the feeling the man didn’t give a damn about that right now. Red, vibrant as fresh blood—figured that would signify in a wedding here. He tried to not think of the deep, dark red of the uniforms Two wore in the arena, not to think of these two last year facing off with him and his allies at the Cornucopia, how they’d nearly killed each other. That had no place in this day.

He noticed, both amused and oddly touched, that the district vows included swearing to defend each other, to fight for each other. There was no wedding song, but Two had its own little ceremony as the couple headed home. As they left the office, he formed up with a few other men that he didn’t recognize—friends or family, with the women on the other side. They’d handed him a sword that he’d been left clutching throughout the wedding, feeling vaguely like an idiot as opposed to the Two natives who’d probably been training with swords since they could walk. The tall, dark man on the end barked with authority, “Form the arch!” as if this was the battlefield rather than a wedding.

Johanna grinned over at him, standing opposite, and he touched the tip of his sword to hers, as did the other pairs along the line. Arm in arm, the bride and groom walked out the front door of the Justice Building and down the steps through the sword arch, and some of them gave something that sounded like a fierce war cry as Brutus and Enobaria passed. So that passed for well-wishes. He was pretty sure throwing a handful of rice like they apparently did in Eleven might cause less fear in innocent bystanders.

That done, they all headed up Victor’s Mountain for the celebration. Johanna slipped an arm around his waist for a second and quipped, “Well, nobody’s dead or bleeding yet here. Is that a dull wedding for Two?”

He couldn’t help but snicker at that, though his ears perked as he heard the wailing sound of pipes being prepared for playing. Twelve had become more a place of the fiddle at gatherings, but one or two oldsters were—all right, had been was more likely by now, he admitted glumly—players of the pipes. Admittedly he associated them more with funerals than weddings, so it would be interesting to see them played here, lively and joyful. “Ah, sounds like they’re killing a cat. Or a goose. Never mind,” Johanna muttered, though the way she said it with a grin told him she was only teasing.

They watched the dancing a bit, people weaving in and out of complicated patterns with ease, the newlyweds easily visible by the red only they were wearing today. Johanna went to go get drinks, though he warned her, “It’s probably gonna be that sour wine they love to drink here.” Halfway to vinegar, to his mind, but for Brutus’ sake he’d drink a glass of it.

The commander of the sword arch found him, and Haymitch reflected wryly that unfortunately, he’d met few men in Two that were shorter than him. This wasn’t one of them—he towered a good half foot higher. “I’ll give the sword back, promise,” he said with a nonchalant air. “Knife’s more my weapon anyway, right? Or maybe smacking someone over the head with a liquor bottle.”

That got him the barest twitch of the man’s lips in response, which he knew was pretty much like an open guffaw from any other district. “Brute says you’re looking into some Peacekeeper records?”

“Yeah,” he said, sitting down on the bench. “What of it?” One thing he appreciated about people in District Two; they preferred it straight up and without bullshit. It saved a hell of a lot of time and hassle by getting right to the point.

Dark eyes looked him up and down carefully. He had the sense the man seemed familiar from somewhere, though damned if he could say. He’d run into more than his share of Two fighters during the rebellion, especially during that final push into the Capitol. “So he speaks highly of you. And apparently you’re one of the few people to stick with him throughout the years.”

“We disgraces have to stick together,” he said easily. Better to say it himself and rob it of its sting.

Man-Mountain sighed, lips pressed tightly together, and nodded. He sat down beside Haymitch. “I think sometimes it would have been easier if he’d placed lower in the tournament,” he muttered, sounding both wistful and irritated at the same time.

Thankfully, over the years, Haymitch actually had a damn clue what he was talking about. The annual tournament of seventeen-year-old tribute cadets to determine which of them would place first and get intensified training for the next year to prepare for the arena. But the Second Quell, that had messed things up. “He was second. Ain’t bad.”

“Distant second to Remus Thread,” his new friend said with a matter-of-fact tone. “He was first to admit it. And the second place from the eighteens, well, he was no great shakes, so of course they took Remus instead as the second tribute. The Quell calling for two more tributes fucked up a lot of plans.”

He couldn’t help a bark of incredulous laughter. “Tell me about it, friend. I was the second boy reaped from Twelve, after all.” If things had proceeded as normal that year, Dylan Wynngard would have been the Twelve male tribute, and Haymitch would have gone on his merry way to live a hard but fairly normal Seam life.

“Last tribute reaped, last standing,” came the cool response.

“Well, that’s a rarity,” he retorted. Only two male Twelve victors in the entire history of the Games proved that being the last tribute called in the Reapings was no positive omen.

“You and Peeta—“

He smirked. “Actually, If we’re getting technical, 'last reaped, last standing' never happened. I wasn’t exactly standing so much as on the ground trying not to die from shock before Sapphire died from an axe in her skull. As for Peeta, well, he was trying to not bleed to death and leaning on Katniss.” Besides, he and all of Panem knew if it came down to Katniss or Peeta, the girl would have been the one to make it out alive. “So, me and Brute, well, we have that in common too, the Quell messing up some plans…”

“Even if he wasn’t best of his year, if he’d gotten a good win that would still have been enough, though…”

“Any way you make it alive out of the arena is a good way,” he pointed out sarcastically. “He survived.” He wasn’t in the mood to hash out old wounds right now, especially when he didn’t see the point.

“And I’m thankful for that,” came the fierce reply. “I love my brother, all right? My good opinion isn’t the same as the rest of the district, or the Capitol, and twenty-four years of him being miserable is no simple thing, damn it!”

Brother. The other shoe dropped. “Quintus Allamand, I’m assuming.” He studied the man, seeing only a slight resemblance.

“Correct.” Obviously understanding the scrutiny, Quintus said, “I take after our father. He takes after our mother.”

“Ah. So, out of curiosity, what would have happened if he came in, say, third?”

“Same as me,” Quintus shrugged. “I was fourth in the tournament my year. You go to train as a Peacekeeper, but with higher status for having endured cadet training.”

“And your year was?” he asked, out of curiosity. “After all, might have been better for you to not be in the arena that year. There was a good run in the Forties there without many victories from One, Two, or Four.” He’d been the tail end of that, really. The group of them, the dark horses, had been so beloved by the Capitol starved for the novelty of fascinating victors. Victors…mostly forced whores too, of course. The Capitol’s adoration always came with a price. At least they’d had each other. Though it hurt to remember now, because of the group that had drawn him in and befriended him and propped him up that first year, Clover and Chantilly had survived, but Angus and Blight had both died in the arena. Chaff and Wiress too, their bodies never sold for sheer lack of interest in the imperfect, a maimed boy and a half-crazy girl, but they’d been his friends all the same.

“48.”

“Ah. Albinus,” he said, feigning cheerful reminiscing. “So maybe you would have come out alive. Although Albie, well, he never liked to talk about his Games much.” Albinus, on the whole, had been a quiet man who kept to himself and rarely came to the Capitol after his first few years, recognizing he was considered rather forgettable by its people. Winning thanks to simply surviving a Gamemaker-spawned tornado was as mundane and underwhelming to Two and the Capitol both as Brutus’ win due to so many deaths from freezing cold. It crossed his mind to wonder where and when Albinus had died, but he didn’t want to ask.

“Maybe wouldn’t have meant so much in the end. The Capitol was far more impressed with those victors in those years not from the usual districts.”

He smiled bleakly. “Well, any victor knows you only live because the Capitol likes—liked—it that way.” Sponsorships, or the lack of it, assured that much. “Wouldn’t surprise me if they gave the odds a direct nudge here and there.” He’d seen it happen plenty behind the scenes since, where a particular favorite might have some help from the Command Center. Finally it struck him—48th Games, whereas Brutus had been the 51st. “You’re the older brother, huh?” he said, the smile turning a little more genuine now. The awkward but bristling protectiveness made far more sense now.

“As are you. And your brother’s a Peacekeeper.” Quintus settled down, relaxing a bit more, hands resting lightly on his knees. “As is her sister,” he nodded to Johanna, over across the way talking to the woman handling the food, and he couldn’t help but grin as she casually swiped what looked like a meat pie and continued whatever story she’d been telling, pie still clutched in her wildly gesticulating hand.

“Yep, that’s about the shape of it.” Recalling that Brutus said Quintus had been a Peacekeeper, and then an instructor at a training camp for Peacekeepers, he got right down to business. “You run into either of them?”

“Saw their pictures from when they were kids. I can say for sure Johanna’s sister—Heike, yeah?—didn’t come through my camp for her training when she was eighteen, but there’s eight training camps throughout the district. And I don’t recognize your brother from my district tours.” He gave a resigned grunt. “Although, hell, you don’t know shit about anywhere but Twelve where it’s one small central area and the Peacekeepers are all there. It’s different in some places. I mean, you’re assigned somewhere like Nine with the farm collectives all spread out, you don’t even meet most of the Peacekeepers assigned to other areas of the district except for a quick nod when everyone’s at the district center on Reaping Day and Victory Tour Day.”

He admitted he was a little disappointed, but why should he have expected it to be easy? “Thanks for looking anyway.”

“It had to have been the Capitol that wiped the database, because that was kept up there. We always keep paper records. Relying on technology,” a snort from Quintus made his opinion of that patently clear, “fails too fucking much without one of those brainiacs from Three around to maintain and update the thing all the time. So the files should be there, but you’ll have to go search them physically. If you can get a name at the Peacehome for ‘em, that’ll probably tell you what camp they got sent to. From there you can probably get an initial assignment for Heike since she was on her first tour. For your brother…long paper trail, I’m afraid. If he’s on his fourth tour, though, you ought to be searching One through Six.” At Haymitch’s questioning look he explained, “After the first ten years in the uniform, senior Peacekeepers tend to get assigned the, ah, more central districts, if they’re not total screw-ups.”

“Nicer districts.” He said it bluntly, happier at the idea of being honest that Quintus trying to be soft. Coming from the district that had long been the butt of national jokes meant it didn’t affect him all that much.

“Pretty much.”

“So where were you, out of curiosity?”

Another of those faint smiles, and seeing it again, Haymitch could see the resemblance now between the brothers in that expression. “Actually, I got sent to Twelve first. I was there from New Year’s of 49 to the very end of 53.”

Doing the mental math on that was no hardship. He laughed, almost in chagrin, as he realized Quintus had been there both before and after his own victory in the Games. “Well, you missed out on some of my better years, then.” When he’d left, Haymitch had been only nineteen, slowly on his way down the drain but far from the bleak, broken man he’d been at forty. He hadn’t lost it all at once, nothing dramatic that he could look back upon and say there had been an overt breaking point. It simply left from him year by year in a slow bleed until there was nothing. “Hey,” he grinned and nudged Quintus with an elbow, “you there when I got flogged during the Dulcet years?” He ought to know better than to provoke him but somehow that little revelation unsettled him enough to do it, lashing out in pure instinct. Those years…the things Quintus had been there to see, the things he might have done, burned suddenly like the flames and the cigarettes his Peacekeeper guards had used on him in the Detention Center.

“Yes,” Quintus said tersely. “You’re really damn lucky you didn’t get hanged.”

“Fuck that,” he said. “I hit one of your colleagues who was groping a girl who obviously wasn’t sixteen yet.”

“I didn’t say you weren’t necessarily in the right, I just said you were damn lucky you didn’t get hanged,” Quintus corrected him sharply. “You think wearing the white’s all fun and games, Abernathy? We’re as bound by the law as the people in the districts. If we didn’t do our job and follow our orders and it was made obvious, we were transferred out and broken in rank. That was if we were lucky, if we had a Head who was willing to show some compassion. If not, if we had someone like Dulcet, we ended up an Avox or tied to a flogging post.” He was silent. “Or tied to that same post and shot by five of our own comrades if the Head felt like calling it treason rather than dereliction of duty.”

He was on the verge of calling that bullshit, complaining that a Peacekeeper was utterly powerless, but then he thought of Darius, lying on the winter-frosted stones of the square, bleeding from his head wound. Shoved aside and knocked unconscious by a Head hellbent on dealing out a punishment, and then taken to have his tongue ripped out.

“So it all depended on the Head,” he said finally. “The things you did.”

Quintus nodded, apparently relieved the point had been made. “Someone like Dulcet, we all treaded lightly and shut out mouths. Fog, well, of course you remember Fog. He was a different story. He was content to pretty much let things run smooth and quiet, at least until his last few years. I imagine something about Twelve came to President Snow’s attention and he told Head Fog he’d better shape up and crack down more, or else.”

Another of those almost painful laughs burst from his throat, well imagining exactly why Fog had cracked down. Coriolanus Snow always had been so very good at twisting the knife and bleeding someone in his power for all it was worth. In saving Ash’s life, Fog had effectively delivered his own fate, and thereby all of Twelve, right into Snow’s hands. It was something he both hated and owed Fog for and that was an uneasy thing. “Oh, I remember Fog, all right.”

“And you got away with publicly defying him the day he hanged a girl for poaching by going and cutting her down. You see the difference with him and Dulcet?”

“That girl was…” he half-snarled, remembering Lorna Hawthorne still with a particular agony.

“Young and probably doing what she had to do, I know,” Quintus snapped back. “You want to blame me for everything that went wrong in your district?”

He stared at him, and the words suddenly rose to his lips, the dread and anger that had been lurking right there since Quintus had said he’d been in Twelve, and when. “Tell me you weren’t there the day my ma and my girlfriend were shot, and they faked my brother’s death.” Because if Quintus fucking Allamand had been there, brother to Brutus or not, festive laughter at a wedding around him or not, Haymitch was going to tear him apart. “Tell me, and don’t you fucking lie!”

“Quin, c’mon, go easy on him,” Brutus called over to the two of them with a laugh, obviously seeing the two of them arguing. Though as Haymitch looked over at him, Brutus’ brows puckered in concern, seeing the tension there, and he made as if to come over and make sure it was all right. Haymitch waved him off. Let the man enjoy the day with his wife. Besides, trying to take on Brutus in hand-to-hand sparring in Thirteen had been tough enough. He was really in no mood to possibly engage both very large Allamands in mortal combat. Two might admire how he fought, but even with the frenzy of rage he wasn’t giving good odds on taking down both Brutus and Quintus down.

“I wasn’t,” Quintus told him defiantly. “I don’t know who was there, either. They never said a word to any of us about it. We had the feeling it was no accident, but nobody ever talked, and in that case we knew better than to ask. And whoever was there, they did what they had to do.”

“Shooting an unarmed woman and girl. Very brave,” he said mockingly, his heart twisting in agony, trying to not envision the scene that must have taken place in that old Seam house that day. He’d imagined it enough in his nightmares.

“You’ve killed to survive too.” Quintus’ eyes raked him up and down mercilessly. “You had some power as a victor too, at least compared to the average citizen. But you probably kept your mouth shut on plenty of injustices because you were smart enough to know that speaking up without the power to act would just end up causing far more trouble than good.”

The man had a point, though he was reluctant to admit it. Considering he’d just been talking with Brutus the other day about how he’d kept restraint on starting the rebellion until it was for personal rather than moral reasons, he hardly had the right to object too hard. There was a difference between being unable to act, and being obliged to act and thereby harm others, but truth was, he’d made the choice and killed innocent kids in the arena to preserve his own life. He was many things, had many flaws, but damned if he’d be a hypocrite. Still, given what he knew about Two, how hard it had been to turn Brutus and Enobaria to begin, how Peacekeepers had been loyal to the end, he was suspicious. “And you want me to believe none of you followed your orders eagerly, totally believing they were in the right?” The fact some Peacekeepers had been executed for atrocities pretty neatly disproved that.

“I’m not saying that.” Quintus gave an irritated, huffing sigh. “We all grew up believing in the rightness and the superiority of the Capitol, and us as their closest allies.” Servants. Slaves, Haymitch thought with a mental snort. “So plenty of Peacekeepers don’t think much about it—the Capitol said it, we did it. Especially the new ones. Being out in the districts, though, seeing it all up close, it’s easier for some of us to…doubt, at least a little. That’s why they moved us along every five years. Couldn’t get too attached that way, you see?”

He saw, all right. The Capitol had been very careful to keep things rigged just so to prevent the disaster of the districts seizing their own power. “So it’s a matter of risking letting the guilty go free or risking punishing the innocent.” Or at least, he thought, the relatively innocent. But nobody’s hands came out of the war all that clean, had they? It all depended how harshly the judgment on Peacekeepers fell. Personally, thinking that enough had died and suffered, perhaps it was better to come down on the side of mercy. It would be easier to have delayed justice and hopefully prosecute one of the bastards later if new evidence came forward rather than face having condemned someone unfairly. But at the same time, the right of those in the districts to demand justice was there all the same. It would be no simple matter, determining the guilty.

“Pretty much,” Quintus admitted. Looking out at the crowd at the wedding, laughing and dancing and competing in tests of strength and drinking and the like, he wondered how many of them had worn that Peacekeeper uniform mere months before. He suspected nobody here would openly volunteer that information if he asked, not without having some shape of the government’s intentions. Two citizens might be brave and almost insanely loyal, but they generally weren’t idiots.

“I’ll talk to Brocade about the thing,” he replied with an irritated grunt, stretching out his legs and leaning back against the table. He wasn’t going to say what he would tell her. He intended there would be no promises made that he might fail to keep. “So where else were you, by the way, so I know where it’s less likely I’ll find records of Ash?”

“Twelve—and he’d never have been assigned there, by the way. Too awkward for a Peacehome orphan if they went back to their home district and were recognized. Then I was in Eight, Four, and Two.” Quintus hesitated, fingers flexing as he clenched them into loose fists in an almost nervous gesture. “You do realize he’s not really Ash anymore?”

“Snow explained that,” he said almost boredly. “He was renamed and everything, apparently that’s standard.” In the case of Ash and Heike it would have been absolutely essential to cover up what had been done. “Of course, I really hope fucking up children’s minds with tracker jacker venom ain’t standard procedure.”

“I can’t say what goes on the Peacehome,” Quintus admitted, though his dark eyes betrayed a flicker of something that might have been a troubled concern. “What I mean is he’s not that person you knew. He left Twelve as a little kid who was your brother. Who he is now…Abernathy. Haymitch. Listen to me. He’s a grown man. He’s a veteran Peacekeeper. That he hasn’t been arrested or executed for failing in his duties means he’s almost inevitably done things you won’t much like. He may have fought on the other side of the rebellion. He may not have much use for the kid he was. A lot of the Laws really don’t. You ready to take on all of that and accept what it means and who he is now?” He nodded over to Johanna. “Her too with her sister, for that matter? Though it’s likely to be tougher in your case with more years gone by.”

That was hard truth, but truth anyway. It was like the bite of those golden squirrels, innocuous at first and slowly growing into a searing pain that couldn’t be ignored. He’d known it, but he hadn’t wanted to face it. Stubbornly, in his mind, Ash had been grown up from that gangly, smart but shy kid who’d hugged him so hard at the train station when Haymitch came back alive. To accept that Ash might truly be lost was something he’d told himself over and over in that rational part of his consciousness, bracing himself against it, but still, something in his soul murmured hopefully, He can’t be entirely gone, he’s your brother. Surely something about a bond that deep ought to survive even Capitol mindfuckery. “I know that,” he acknowledged wearily. “But let’s say, you and me, that when you were sixteen that Brutus supposedly died and you find he’s actually been, oh, why not…a coal miner out in Twelve all this time. You willing to just let it go at that?”

“I’m not that much of a coward,” Quintus snapped, though the way his eyes went to his little brother, currently joyfully making an idiot of himself out dancing, and the sudden softness about his eyes and his mouth spoke volumes.

“Neither am I,” he said in return, and as the other man’s gaze flicked over to him and a smile of acknowledgment crossed his lips, he saw that as at least in this one thing, he and Quintus seemed to understand each other. No matter how old a man got, being an older brother and defending younger siblings was a thing that didn’t simply wear away. “If he wants nothing to do with me and with the person he was, that’s fine.” It wasn’t, not really, it would be a wound he wasn’t sure that he could bear to put in so much effort and hope, and simply find out that Ash Abernathy really had died so many years ago. But he was hardly going to admit that openly. “But at least he’ll have a choice,” and he couldn’t help the tone of defiance in his voice. “That’s more than he was given then.” After a moment’s realization, he added, quieter, “More than any of us really had.” Obedience or death had apparently been Two’s fate, just the same as any other district, though their orders had been far more insidious.

“If I can help you and Johanna on it,” and the offer was unhesitating, “just call Brutus and he’ll pass it on to me.”

“Thanks,” he said, appreciating the offer and the kindness of it. Brother, he thought to wherever Ash might be right now, half hope and half despair, whatever you did all these years to keep yourself alive, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Hopefully Heike wasn’t lost to Johanna either, but he would glumly admit that Ash had been younger and been gone far longer besides, so the odds weren’t nearly as good.

Lost in heavy thoughts, he was grateful when Brutus came over just then, clapping a hand on Haymitch’s shoulder. “I’d tell you to stop hiding over here and go dance with your wife, damn it, but it looks like she’s busy.” Haymitch’s eyes went to where Johanna was standing with a little crowd around her and conducting what looked like some instruction in the finer points of axe throwing. Well, either that or she was maybe fulfilling some kind of a bet.

He cracked up, unable to help it, as she threw, suddenly a blur of motion, her arm snapping into a perfect throw that split the wood of the target post neatly. Some cheers and whistles greeted that. “She’s got local fans now, outstanding. Your wife included,” he nodded to Enobaria, standing there watching and cheering Johanna on.

“Quin’s wife too,” Brutus said with a low chuckle, nodding towards a short, brown-haired woman standing beside Enobaria. "Quin led the wedding dance, barely, but I'm pretty sure Lyra wears the pants."

He watched, figuring whatever it was, Johanna had it well in hand. Four more throws from Johanna, the last a finger’s width off center but still on target, and his wife jabbed a finger at a slim, blond man and hollered triumphantly, “And that’s five. Next keg’s on you, pal, everyone heard it. Still wanna talk down about District Seven, huh?”

Blondie gave a chagrined smile as another cheer went up and Johanna thrust a fist in the air in a sign of victory. “Thank you, I’ll be here all week,” she quipped and gave a half-bow, heading for the drinks table.

He made his way to her side, seeing the grin she gave him as she pressed a cup of wine into his hands. “This shit really is terrible,” she murmured. “But this is fun.” Taking a sip of the wine, suppressing a wince at the thin, sour taste of it and thinking wryly that he wouldn’t easily be tempted to have enough to get drunk off it, he agreed with her on both counts.

Caught up in the mood of the crowd, able to forget the frailties and uncertainties of their own future as people and as a district, it was easy enough to allow his own cares to slowly slip to the back of his mind. While he appreciated Quintus’ honesty and all, because he was here to listen to local perspective anyway and get the real story of conditions in the districts, it was no simple thing. “Nice wedding,” he said softly. Maybe theirs had been quieter, both the paperwork in the Capitol and the district traditions, but he didn’t regret that.

Someone teasingly called for the newlyweds to have their dance, and he was on the verge of asking if they hadn’t been doing that already. Though from what he saw, most of the dances here were made for groups, so perhaps like in Twelve, the first dance as a couple was considered something special. The guests cleared a place, and Brutus and Enobaria took the center, Brutus shrugging off his jacket. Enobaria’s dress proved to actually be a skirt and bodice, since she shimmied her way out of the skirt to reveal she was wearing closely fitted dark trousers underneath, getting some appreciative whistles along the way. It was only when the slim rapiers were brought out and handed to the bride and groom by Quintus and a woman he’d wager was another of Enobaria’s sisters, that he understood, remembering Johanna had told him about this as a Two tradition.

“Marks!” the Reska sister called, and after a flourishing salute with the blades to each other, suddenly both Enobaria and Brutus were all business, stances ready and tense, all stillness and poise and grace for a moment. Then Enobaria made the first move, just a flick of her blade against his, and Brutus readily answered it back in kind without hesitation, with the singing note of steel on steel.

“Real swords?” he muttered to Johanna, keeping his eyes as Brutus’ next move was neatly countered by Enobaria.

“They’d probably consider it an insult to use practice blades,” she said, shaking her head and laughing a bit.

It was insane in its way, but slowly he came to see that the rhythm of attack and parry, the back and forth of it, each of them alternately leading and then responding, was a dance in its own way. Maybe a dance of blades was the only fitting thing for these people and their pride in their martial prowess. Easily recalling Brutus talking to him on this same rocky ledge, it had seemed so damn simple for him—fighting spirit and skill simply was a virtue, not a thing to be wrestled with and agonized over as Haymitch had.

Faster and faster they went; moves more rapid and more intricate, sometimes with pauses at the end of an attack pass to wait for a response. He’d seen tributes from Two fight in the arena, yes, but they were children grimly fighting to the death. Two seasoned, experienced adults fighting not for survival but for the joy of it was something else different entirely. From the grins and looks they were giving, obviously blind to anything but the two of them, he suspected both Brutus and Enobaria were showing off for each other, testing each other too to the limit, and enjoying the hell out of it. It seemed like each time they managed another pass and found they both could rise to the challenge that it was a pleasure to know it. But then, hadn’t he found something like that with Johanna with their words, that keen anticipation and then the satisfaction in seeing that her mind and her tongue, and her will too for that matter, could keep up with his? She could match him, step for step, and each time he tested that anew and found it still was sound, it made him love her all the more.

So quickly the blades flew now that the moves blurred, flowing rapidly from one into another without those pauses now for the flirtatious looks and approving smiles. This was a final earnest frenzy, and he couldn’t help but give a choked laugh as Johanna leaned in to whisper jokingly, “Tell me you’re not thinking it’s basically like public sex with swords? I mean, they look about ready to drag each other to bed right now anyway.”

“Should we try it?” he murmured back with a smirk. They had teased each other about trying the whole fight-slash-sex thing in honor of Two, though maybe not with actual weapons. He’d slept with a knife for enough years he was in no mood to muddle that up with sleeping with his wife.

“First blood!” Quintus yelled suddenly, as both Brutus and Enobaria abruptly broke off the attack and stood there, panting and recovering, staring at each other intently. He would admit he could see more than a little similarity in that ritual to a fairly intense bout of making love. The thought was all at once oddly arousing, making his blood beat faster. Yet it was also somewhat uncomfortable—so much of his life had been stripped from him for voracious public consumption, so he and Johanna treasured the right of privacy fiercely now, particularly when it came to sex. If he sparred with her like this, it would be for their eyes alone.

Haymitch scanned quickly to see who’d scored the hit. That was a scratch on Brutus’ chin, and a small cut on Enobaria’s arm too below her sleeve.The precision of their bladework was keen enough that even with as hard as they'd gone at it, the touches scored were the merest brush, precisely placed. “A draw,” Brutus announced with obvious pleasure, handing off his sword. Recalling that this little ritual was supposed to determine who had the upper hand in the marriage, Haymitch was inclined to agree that it was probably a better thing they’d shown equal prowess, neither of them fearing being inferior.

“So we stand even,” Enobaria agreed, getting rid of her own blade, eyes sparkling and her grin broad. From the mood of the crowd, that apparently pleased most everyone.

“So who’s on top tonight?” Johanna joked softly to him. “Do they trade off?”

“Probably.” As the couple headed down the path for their house, sent on their way with bawdy jokes about a second bout of swordplay, he shook his head. “Want to wrestle for it ourselves?” He would tell her about what Quintus had said, what it implied for them both for their siblings. They’d check in with Brocade with whatever new thoughts on the Two situation they had to offer. They would start touring the villages tomorrow and go to the Peacehome sometime next week with Sangus’ authority to check the files.

Her hand slipped into his. “Later,” she said. Her eyes were steady and calm as she looked at him. “We’ve got years for that, if need be. People were chattering at me some today about Peacekeepers, looks like Quintus was talking your ear off too. Things to discuss first, right? Both about Ash and Heike, and the whole situation here.”

“Work first, play later,” he agreed, resisting the urge to kiss her, fierce and fine as she was. Keen a joy as it was to make love with her it was an even better thing to realize he’d married a woman who could determinedly turn to what was necessary first before allowing the abandon of that private world with just the two of them, and not complain about it. “You want to get some more thoughts so long as we’ve got plenty of people here?” Chuckling, he nodded to a group of people clustered around a table, stabbing the table with the knife, patterns of it woven in between their spread fingers. “Ah, five-finger fillet.” He could remember the days of the group of young victor-whores, how he’d been an ace at them turning it into a drinking game. He’d been good with a knife even in those days, and back then his hands were steady enough to play the game. But they were steady again now. “Let me go see what tongues I can loosen up, huh?” Playing alongside the locals, proving some kind of prowess first, would probably go further here in Two than trying to simply pry the answers out of them.

“Don’t come crying to me if you lose a finger,” she said with a snort of amusement. “And try to not fuck up your wedding ring too badly by stabbing it either. It’s probably a bad omen.”

“Try to not chop any limbs showing off with those axes,” he teased her in return. “Well, not human ones anyway.” She snickered and shoved him towards the table, turning back towards the targets where some of the others were trying throwing axes and the like. He might not live this kind of life himself, not fully, but there were aspects of it he could understand already. Mostly, he suspected that if they were to find Ash or Heike or both, this familiarity of Two would be essential to understanding who their siblings had likely become, and it would be better to be prepared.

Chapter Text

Chaydell Falls roared its way over boulders and ledges and small cliffs of river-slicked granite, tumbling in fits and starts down to the valley below. Standing there, glancing at it, Johanna wondered with a sort of wry glum curiosity if any district child ever taken to the Peacehome, perched on the cliff and towering high above the valley, had felt the oppressive weight of that inescapable future and chosen instead to dash themselves upon the granite rocks of the falls rather than endure the imposing granite walls of the Peacehome.

Really depressing thoughts—almost as bad as Haymitch at his most grim and bleak back in the day. Usually when confronted with something so unbearably hopeless she didn’t get blue, she got angry, and so she winced and tried to put it from her mind. Still, the bleakness of it, of wondering about the generations of kids that had shed an old life here and instead mentally accepted the Peacekeeper white as the method of their survival, clung to her with chill fingers like the sharp spring winds roaring through the peaks. Maybe it was in knowing that Ash had been saved by having Peacekeeper blood, and that Haymitch had been a Peacekeeper’s son himself, so things could have been very different. He’d been an orphan at sixteen anyway, but a victor which set him apart from the usual course of things, gave him some odd status of legal independence even as a minor. If his Games hadn’t happened and his mom had died while he wasn’t yet of age, would the Head in Twelve have claimed both his sons and sent them here? Would he rather have done that than have them endure the local community home, just two more lost kids in a dirt-poor district that could barely feed those kids that were loved and protected by family, let alone those left entirely alone? He could have been one of these kids here. Ash had been.

She glanced over at him, his face unreadable right now as they walked the path up to the Peacehome. Trying to envision him with his messy dark curls cropped short and wearing that white uniform with its gold buttons, she suppressed a shiver as it worked its way down her spine. She had a funny urge to grab his arm and tell him, Look at me, watch those fine grey eyes of his and see that the Haymitch she knew was there.

But she could have ended up here herself. He’d told her Cray, the old Twelve Head, had said even pure district-blooded kids ended up here sometimes if the community homes were desperately overcrowded. There had been bad winters in Seven when she was young, some rough summers too out at the logging camps. She thought about kids she’d known of whose parents had died, who she’d never really seen again at winter school. She’d assumed they’d died too. Maybe she’d been wrong. There was a thin separation between fates sometimes, the matter of a single thing breaking one way or another and setting a path. She could have been here too, same as Heike.

Would she have rather died than see herself become something so foreign and in some ways so unthinkable? Her fingers clenched, making a fist or perhaps a reflex of wanting to clutch an axe that wasn’t there, to fight an enemy that wasn’t a physical thing anyway. She thought not. In the arena she’d finally turned killer to stay alive, then endured being sold again and again when some nights she’d thought with crushing fury and sorrow that it would be so much easier to be dead than endure. She’d taken stupid risks sometimes but she’d still tenaciously clung to her existence, the young woman that was simply unloved and feared. Sheer dogged pragmatism, rather than pride or idealism, had characterized her life. She probably would have taken the white, and done the best she could with it. Panem had been no kind place for fools and uncompromising idealists, because the latter pretty much implied the former. We do what we have to do, Haymitch told her wearily over drinks those years ago, eyes bloodshot and tired and looking about a thousand years old. We take our licks for it later.

Still, as he reached for the doorbell, she couldn’t help but be glad that apparently she and Haymitch were the two victors troublesome enough to have had this inflicted on their families. The rest had all fallen in line and she would never blame them for it, for protecting their own at whatever cost to themselves. Somehow she had a suspicion that if Katniss hadn’t been seen as so prominent a threat to Snow as to warrant elimination rather than being put on a tight leash, little Primrose Everdeen might have had a “fatal accident” and found herself at this place. “Hi,” she said brightly as a middle-aged woman with her autumn copper hair neatly pinned up answered the door. “So, we’re conducting a survey—what’s your satisfaction with the former Panem government and what improvements would you like to see within your district? All answers are confidential.”

“Jo,” Haymitch muttered, but she could hear the laugh in his voice and felt relieved at it, because it had jolted him out of whatever thoughts had them in their grip. He still moped too much sometimes. She couldn’t exactly blame him today, with the weight of the answers they might find, but it unsettled her when he was like that. He was too much like he used to be, back when he numbed everything with liquor. She sometimes dreaded finding the day it was all too much and what ties she had to him wouldn’t be enough to bring him back. “We’re here to check out the place, see how things are.”

“Why is that?” There was polite interest and maybe just a faint note of suspicion in her voice.

“Your district’s barely started recovering from a months-long civil war where, given the number of dead, I imagine this place is damn well full to overflowing. Besides, orphans usually feel the crunch early when things aren’t going well. Particularly when their future career path just got shut down,” Haymitch said bluntly.

“We are pretty full, unfortunately,” Matron Ironjaw said, though she didn’t show any of the usual human signs of weariness or sigh in exasperation or anything like that. She started it matter-of-factly. “It’s not been easy, this past winter.”

“I can imagine. So we’ll see what we can do about that. No reason for kids to suffer, yeah? And right, there’s this.” He handed over the authorization letter from Mayor Sangus explaining that she and Haymitch were to have full cooperation and access to Peacekeeper records.

She read the letter and folded it neatly, handing it back. “That appears in order. May I ask for what purpose?”

“What’s your name anyway?” Johanna interjected. She smirked. “Feels a little less like an interrogation on your part and an invasion on ours if we all have introductions, right? So hey, I’m Johanna Abernathy, this is my husband Haymitch—you may have seen us on television a few times…”

“Aurinia Xiphios,” she said finally, nodding. Shit, it was awkward working with someone who wouldn’t react by laughing or getting pissed off. That Two stoic reserve was a brick wall. “My husband Marcus and I run the place. He’s down to meet the train on a supply run. So again, you’ve got access here, but can I ask why?”

“Two district orphans that were living here were my sister,” she said. “His brother too,” nodding to Haymitch. “Snow faked their deaths and brought them here. We need names to keep following the trail there.”

Now there was finally a flicker of something real in her face. “I don’t know,” she said fiercely. “Any kid that gets sent here, they process at HQ near Misty Peak first. Paperwork ascertaining their status all in order, initial assessment testing done, immunizations they probably didn’t get out in the districts, all of it.” She gave a helpless shrug. “We just don’t have time for all of that here even normally, and since last year, I don’t even have records on almost any of the new arrivals. We usually have several hundred kids here at any given time of all ages, from newborns to eighteens ready to go to training camp. Right now, the staff’s trying to handle close to eight hundred. Some of those kids, I still don’t even know their names because they’re injured or traumatized enough to not speak.”

The crack in the dam of her formidable reserve was more than enough. She was obviously a woman at wit’s end, trying to keep things together. Peacekeeper or not, in the chaos after the war she was trying to keep vulnerable kids alive and warm and fed, and for that Johanna was inclined to cut her some slack on that point at least. “You usually know the kids that come through here?”

“I try.” A wry smile answered her. “It helps to know who’s here and who’s got issues and who’s prone to making trouble.” She glanced at Haymitch. “Don’t think I’ve been here long enough to see your brother come through. Your sister, though…”

“Henrika Mason,” Johanna prompted her, excitement fluttering suddenly in her chest. “But we called her ‘Heike’.”

“I don’t bother with their district names. That’s in the past and most of them are happy enough to leave it behind. It can’t help them to cling to it.” For that some of the goodwill definitely receded. Aurinia finally let out that very human sigh, pushed the door open wider and said, “You might as well come in and see the place, right? For your report and all. Have some coffee and then I’ll let you go through the records.”

It was a depressing tour, to say the least. They’d managed to keep the heat on, so that helped at least. But the place was overcrowded, stuffed to the brim with kids, the helpless human flotsam left behind by the prolonged and fierce fighting for control of District Two that had killed so many. Seeing the stacks of neatly folded blankets in the large dining hall, the high, large windows flooding it with light, she was pretty sure that kids were sleeping on the floor there in the evening, probably for lack of enough beds.

The kids peered at them as she and Haymitch passed by, children of all ages with wide eyes that were usually wary or hopeful, sometimes a bit of both at once. Eyes of that deep blue she’d seen sometimes from Six, sea-green from Four like Finnick’s. A lump formed in her throat as she saw a little boy with auburn hair and the Seven brown-hazel eyes that were so much like her own, like Heike’s. She had a glimpse of a girl with grey eyes against olive skin, so much like Haymitch, though her bright red hair wasn’t like Twelve.

But their clothes, though shabby and sometimes with knobby wrists and ankles poking out where they’d been outgrown, looked clean and mended and cared for, and though some of them currently looked a little hungry, they didn’t have the pulled-thin, starved look she’d associated with orphans back home. She didn’t doubt Two ran the place with strict discipline, and probably formerly with an intolerance for any criticism of the Capitol, and the forced life as a Peacekeeper was no picnic, but at least they were cared for. Granted, to have formerly had the supplies to care well for even orphaned kids came purely from the favoritism the Capitol had showed to Two. But how even running thin on supplies and overrun with kids, how the Xiphioses had still apparently done the best they can with it spoke to at least some kind of conscience. Maybe it was strict duty, maybe it was actual concern for the kids, but they hadn’t taken the easy way out and beaten and starved a bunch of vulnerable kids nobody would have cared much about.

Watching those faces and how their eyes lingered on her and Haymitch, hungry for far more than food, hungry for the security of a future currently so hopelessly unknown, she hurried after Aurelia’s brisk footsteps, cheeks burning hot.

Sitting down in the administrative office, shabby and with stacks of paper on every horizontal surface, she accepted a battered tin mug of coffee. “So, your sister,” Aurinia said, perched on the arm of her chair. “Marc and I, we’ve been here close to twenty years. Took over from the Dulcets.” She thought she heard a faint strangled noise coming from Haymitch at that but didn’t want to risk turning to him to ask what the problem was. “She came here when?”

“67, summer. During the Games. Fourteen, dark auburn hair, eyes like mine.” She sipped the coffee, feeling the scald and burn of it on her tongue, almost grateful for that.

“Purebred Seven,” Aurinia mused. “We got some of those, sure.” Another of those faintly wry smiles, and Johanna tried to not want to ask if she had any right now, to not give in to the immediate impulse they be returned home where they belonged. “We got all types, of course. Orphaned, you’re screwed, doesn’t much matter who your parents were or what district. Most of them were just glad to go somewhere they were actually wanted.” That was a depressing thought to her mind, but for a scared kid facing the community home, a place where they were warm and fed and told they were still worth something and had a future would be the security that was so desperately needed, wouldn't it? Maybe they hadn't needed to use tracker jacker venom on the rest to make them compliant.

“She wouldn’t have come in under Heike Mason, of course,” Haymitch said. “That would have set off too many alarms. I imagine Snow got all the potential stumbling blocks figured out on Ash—my brother, that is.”

“Snow said they used tracker jacker venom on them. To make ‘em forget their old lives.” To mold them into happy little Two citizens also, no doubt. “Too dangerous for them to talk about that to people, right?”

A soft murmur answered her, only half-heard. “Kallanthe.”

“Pardon?” Haymitch drawled, finishing his coffee and balancing the empty cup on the arm of his own chair.

“Kallanthe,” Aurinia repeated, though she was looking at Johanna as she said it. “I think that might be her. The age fits—she was an older girl—the hair color too. I think she had the accent, until she lost most of it after a few years. I can’t say I really remember her eye color, but with so many kids coming through year after year…” She broke off, realizing she was starting to ramble a bit. “Anyway. Thing is, she came here from HQ with a pretty hefty case of amnesia. Barely remembered anything about her old life. They told me she was a klutz who took a tumble off the training bars and hit her head.” She gave a faint sound of irritation. “Assessment injuries happened sometimes, but that was one of the worst. And she was clumsy, I’ll admit that, so it made sense. Broke more than her share of dishes on kitchen duty, but she was a good kid aside from that. She settled in well enough. Maybe even better than most for not having to let go of her old reality.”

Kallanthe. She tried the name in her mind, tried to shape it to fit Heike’s face and her voice and even yes, her awkward clumsiness. This woman had known her, and the surge of jealousy and even rage that she’d had some of Heike’s lost years denied to Johanna and couldn’t say more than that she’d been a fairly good kid prone to breaking dishes was almost overwhelming for a minute. She felt a light touch from Haymitch on her wrist, as if trying to bring her back to reality, and it helped. “Might as well confirm it with the records,” she said hoarsely, not sure she could stand to sit there much longer.

Led down to the room with rows of battered metal filing cabinets, Aurinia explained, “By year and then by month of intake, and the names are in alphabetical order. So that narrows it down for you, at least, and you can pull Kallanthe directly and make sure it’s her.” She hesitated a moment and then added, “Good luck..”

Haymitch led the way down the aisle, scanning the cabinets in the harsh overhead lights. She wondered if that, and the cinderblock walls, reminded him of the Detention Center as it did for her. It didn’t help, looking at all those cabinets, knowing each file was a child who had been molded and turned into a tool of the Capitol. She hadn’t asked upstairs because she didn’t want to end up causing a fight and getting their asses thrown out, but she had the feeling the problem children, the ones who didn’t take to their new life and its security with gratitude, would have been relentlessly disciplined until they fell in line. Perhaps not cruelly, perhaps so, but they wouldn’t have stood for it, as loyal as Two had been. Seeing the training in Thirteen, how demanding it was even on young kids, gave her some sense for what they must have endured here in the Peacehome. So the chill in her bones wasn’t entirely from the temperature.

She saw Haymitch bypassed the records for the kids taken in during the year of the Second Quell. “Ash?” she asked him, jerking a thumb towards it as he paused and turned on his heel.

She saw the flicker of hope and eagerness and trepidation in how he eyed the cabinet, but he shook his head. “We’ve got a likely name already on Heike, probably would be easier to find her file, and then look for his?”

He’d willingly give her that gift; patiently put aside his own anxieties and fears on this thing that mattered so much long enough to make sure she got an answer first. In that moment she loved him almost too damn much. Moving towards him, her fingers grasped the lapels of his coat. She glanced up at his face and told him, quietly but firmly, “Ash first. You’ve waited a lot longer.” At least she’d had almost a year with her family after the Games before they were taken from her, and she’d lived without them for almost nine years now. But he’d been alone almost as long as she’d been alive. It had been nearly twenty-six years for him, and he’d had his family ripped away from him as he was still fresh from the arena, trying to find a way to feel human again. He hadn’t even had two weeks with them. Her own ordeal was tough, but she could wait another hour, if need be.

He didn’t kiss her, not in this place. But the light suddenly in his eyes, the way he looked at her with such affection and gratitude, and his gruffly said, “Thanks, darlin’,” warmed her just the same. His hand brushed her face, gently and just for a moment, and then he dropped it, turning towards the files.

Finding the files for August of 50, it appeared that had been a bad month. Several dozen kids had come in then, but at least it was a limited number. The fact that when she opened the first file jacket, for Scamander Law, a picture in the upper right of the greeted her helped somewhat, though the burly blond boy in it was definitely seventeen or eighteen, old enough to be leaving the Peacehome. Scanning the form, she saw that was exactly what it was: the closing of Scamander’s file. He had graduated with mixed marks, Average all the way to Superior, and been assigned to Havenford training camp in the summer of 62. Flipping to the next sheet, the intake form, she saw another picture of the same boy at age six, small and skinny. Apparently Scamander Law had once been Obsidian Danforth of District One. There were grades for his initial assessments at Peacekeeper Headquarters, remarks on health, and the like. “Termination of Custodial Right” had been signed over by Peacekeeper Titus Abelaird, maybe Obsidian’s birth father, maybe just the Peacekeeper who’d taken him from the community home in One.

Putting down the file, she closed the jacket on it and tried to put the picture of that six-year-old kid from her mind, that open and vulnerable young face. She tried to not wonder what sort of man Scamander Law had become in over the thirteen years before the rebellion and whether he was still alive now.

The next file, for a Cordelia Yarborough, was obviously a girl and not a district orphan anyway, to judge from her having a surname that wasn’t “Law”, so she didn’t even bother with it and what about it might trouble her mind, setting it on top of Scamander’s. Haymitch, kneeling there beside her, was thumbing through another file hastily and muttering to himself, obviously not finding what he was seeking.

She reached for the next file—Theodosius Law. Flipping it open, she looked at the picture and knew, with a bone-deep certainty. She’d seen pictures of Haymitch as a new mentor at seventeen and eighteen, so the comparison was easy. The eyes were like his—a handsome silver grey, surrounded by thick, dark lashes. She could see the similarity too in the arch of brows, the cheekbones. The hair was definitely brown rather than black and the curl of it was tamer than Haymitch’s. Not close enough to be twins by any means, but enough for her easily to see the resemblance to the man she woke up with every morning, whose face was now familiar to her as her own. “Got him,” she said, her voice sounding like barely more than a whisper to her ears.

His hand was on the file instantly and from the way he clutched it, he looked on the verge of ripping it away from her. But then she could see he relaxed after a moment, though she let go of the file and let him place it down between them on the floor. Her hand sought his, fingers interlacing, and he held on tightly. “That’s Ash,” he confirmed, his voice all mingled wonder and pain and hope.

“Sent to Icewind Peak Camp,” she said, reading further down on the exit form. “Outstanding in Law and Custom, huh?”

“He always was a smart little bastard,” Haymitch said, sounding on the verge of both laughter and tears. “Always wanted to know a thing just to know it, and well, me, I wanted to know it to see what I could do with it.”

Carefully she reached out and flipped to the intake page. “Fog signed for him,” Haymitch noted, and Johanna’s eyes went to the neat signature of Phineas Fog. “No surprise, considering he was the one running the cover-up.”

“’Alister Campbell’,” she read Ash’s supposed former name. “Born in District Twelve, October 18th of 38.”

“Well, at least the prick gave them his actual birthdate,” Haymitch muttered. “Oh, hey, ain’t that a surprise.” His finger tapped the section for remarks on Health and Disposition. “Traumatic amnesia resulting from a head injury in an accident that killed his family, huh? Traumatic amnesia resulting from a fucking syringe, more like.”

“They could hardly admit that without exposing the whole cover-up for a kid who was supposedly dead,” she pointed out.

“I know that, just don’t expect me to like it,” he snapped.

“Not like I enjoy it either, Haymitch, it happened to her too.” But she could understand it somewhat. Hearing what Aurinia Xiphios had said, having it made all too concrete that Heike had been caught up in a web of lies, made it all inescapable and real. For Haymitch, seeing it on paper here was obviously having the same effect.

They read through the file, page by page, and she could feel Haymitch greedily soaking in every bit of information about his brother, even if it was just the sparse, dry details given in that file. Assessment marks, records of a broken arm when he was fifteen, remarks on his tenacity even if he wasn’t the biggest or strongest cadet in his class.

When he finally reached out and closed the file, she thought that now he knew who Ash had been up to age eighteen, but even that was almost twenty years ago. Still, it was a step forward, wasn’t it? Theodosius Law, Icewind Peak Camp, we can trace him from there. She saw how his hand lingered on the file, reluctant to let go of this small piece of his brother, that picture that was more recent than anything he had back in Twelve. “Bring the file,” she said. “I think they can spare it.”

He gave her a faint smile and got to his feet. “Heike now,” he said firmly, not allowing himself to give in to whimsy or sentimentality, even if she would have given him as much time as he needed to take it all in. “Let’s go have a look.”

Finding Heike’s file was easier. Aurinia had remembered correctly, since pulling the folder for Kallanthe Law, she flipped it open and saw the picture of Heike at eighteen, auburn hair darker and less frizzy, and some of her freckles had faded, maybe from lacking those long summers of days out in the woods. Studying her face, the calm, steady gaze in those woodland brown eyes, she realized anew with a feeling like a punch to the gut that Heike had gone and grown up without her, and she had no idea who this person, Kallanthe Law, even was.

“She went to Burnt Tree Camp,” Haymitch noted, his voice oddly soft, but he must know what she was feeling right now.

She read through the rest slowly. They’d called her Hannalore Gunderssen when they sent her here. Her family died in a logging accident, so the claim went. Minerva Law, whom Johanna remembered had been the Head at that time, had signed “Hannalore” over as a ward of District Seven. She wondered if Snow had needed to actually threaten her, or if the bastard had just commanded and Law had obeyed.

Kallanthe is pleasant to all around her, but lacks assertiveness. That had been Heike, all right—gentle and never wanting to cause trouble for anyone. That meant she was the exact wrong sort to be a Peacekeeper, really.

She sat there staring at the file. “They’re survivors,” she said finally. “They made it through this place and not remembering anything. That’s no easy task.” To suddenly wake up one morning and remember virtually nothing was a horror she could barely even imagine. To lose everything, all of who she was and had been, to have to rely on sparse bare facts gleaned from files given nobody around to tell her about memories of herself, was an unthinkable challenge.

“If nothing else,” he said, as his hand squeezed hers, “living in Two will have made them damn tough.” The unspoken hope hung there between them, frail and tentative. They might have been strong enough to make it through the rebellion and the war alive. They’re our blood, she thought. We made it through the worst they could throw at us.

Gathering up the two files, she suggested, “Why don’t we get the hell out of here?”

He got up and dusted off his trousers briskly. “I have one more to look for, if you’re OK staying.”

“Who’s that?” she asked in confusion.

“I don’t know exactly when he came here, but I’ve got the name for the file. Darius Law,” he told her. She remembered Darius. Or rather, she remembered Haymitch telling her about him, back in that cell. He’d only told her that they’d killed Darius in front of him, slowly. He’d never been willing to say more about what had happened. Perhaps then it was as much the audience listening in as anything that caused his reticence, but by the time they were both rescued and could talk about it, he had already locked it away and wouldn’t speak of it. She knew that he carried the weight of Darius all the same. Obviously now he wanted to know who the boy had been. “If you want to go, I’ll catch up with you la…”

“No,” she said, holding up a hand and cutting him off. “Let’s find it.”

This was the toughest search, given there were about twenty years of files to go through, and even reading the name tabs took a while. “Got it,” Haymitch called finally, holding up yet another folder, slightly yellowed by age. Ash’s had been yellower still. She wondered what secrets the oldest files might hold, from the earliest years after the First Uprising. Hostage children of rebels? War orphans stolen away to serve the Capitol?

“Rodderick Vicheron,” he said as Johanna came over, seeing the picture of a tiny boy who couldn’t have been much more than three or four years old, with straight flame red hair and wide brown eyes. He looked at the camera with a confused expression, maybe wondering what had happened in his life to tear it all apart. Probably just a week or two prior he’d had a mother or a father. “He was from Five. Thought that might be the case, from his looks, but…I wanted to know for sure who he was.” What his true name was, he didn’t say, but she heard it all the same.

He flipped back to the first page, the exit form, and now she finally saw the picture of Darius Law, an eighteen-year-old boy with a long nose and mischief in those brown eyes, a boy who couldn’t keep the hint of a smile off his face, even for an official picture like this. “He looks like he was trouble,” she said.

“He was. Flirting with all the girls—if any local girl was sleeping with him I doubt money was involved. Telling me that white liquor was better used as paint remover and I was better used as something besides a doorstop at the Hob,” he said with a tight, rough laugh. “But he tried to stand up to Thread. He was a good kid.” A moment’s pause and he corrected himself, “A good man. He deserved better than he got.” He was probably right; nobody who’d endured their tongue being cut out and then later being slowly tortured to death could truly be a child.

She slipped an arm around him and held on to him until he closed the file, bringing it with them too. “I’ll see it done right for him. We’re going to Five next anyway,” he said, half to himself. She wouldn’t argue with that. Whatever lifted the weight of any of his dead from his shoulders was something she would help with where she could.

Leaving all those files and the eyes of all those kids behind them, it felt like a shadow over things. “We should keep an eye on the community homes in all the districts.” It would be far too easy for kids left without parents to slip through the cracks in the turbulence after the war.

“We saw that pretty clearly here. I didn’t even think there were that many.” He gave a low, quiet sigh, kicking at a rock on the path. “I imagine it’ll be rough other places too where the fighting was pretty intense after the rebellion. Four. Three. Seven.” She realized he was probably right. Luoma hadn’t mentioned anything about the community home last winter when she’d been in Seven for helping out with the election for president, but she’d really only asked about things like buildings and food supply and the like. She hadn’t even thought to ask about orphaned kids or the like.

“Probably Eight too because they had the screws put to them early, maybe Eleven too,” she said. The thought Panem was raising a heavily orphaned generation now wasn’t easy to accept.

“Freedom comes with a price,” he said softly. “Looks like it falls down heavy on the innocent too. Saw that in Twelve. And if there’s orphans that have it worst off, there’s also gotta be plenty of kids who have it bad too because they lost their ma or their daddy.” He’d know that firsthand, having grown up without a father and taking on the burden of it far too young.

“Well, we’ll put it to Brocade’s attention. They won’t be overlooked, at least.”

Back at Victor’s Mountain, it was almost ridiculously easy from there. Figuring it would be easier to draw Quintus Allamand’s offer of assistance in and have him speak to former colleagues to get them to pull the files, Haymitch dialed him up, gave him the names and the training camps.

Two hours later, the phone rang at Brutus and Enobaria’s house, where they were gathered up for dinner. The newlyweds, being from Two, weren’t hanging all over each other, but Johanna saw some of the looks they exchanged. Brutus grabbed the phone. “Shut up, Quin,” he growled, looking flustered.

She nudged Haymitch and said, “Ah, the honeymoon jokes! Look at the fun we missed.”

“I’m sure Finnick provided plenty,” he muttered back with a quick smile.

He had, at that, considering she’d given him plenty herself right after he married Annie and the way he was always looking at her and holding her hand. Mostly friendly teasing, but part of it had been to cover her own sense of loss at finally accepting she’d never have him, and the faint tension of things left unresolved with Haymitch.

“Yeah, they’re here,” Brutus said, holding the phone out. Given she was closer to the phone than Haymitch, she popped to her feet and grabbed it.

“Hey,” she said cheerfully, “and I was just about to suggest a nice naked dinner here. You and Lyra wanna come over?” She was pretty sure she heard Enobaria chuckling in amusement behind her.

A grunt of amusement answered her, a sound the Allamand brothers apparently had in common. “Hello, Johanna,” he said. “Lyra says hello too.”

She’d liked Lyra, actually. A small woman but a fierce one who didn’t put up with shit, and one she had the feeling slightly held the upper hand over Quintus. “Likewise,” she returned. “So any luck?”

“I got ‘em to pull the records. Looks like Kallanthe—Heike, sorry,” he corrected himself hastily, and she liked him better for it, “went to Ten for her first tour, and Ash went to Nine.”

They weren’t due for their visit to Ten for a good while yet, she thought with a resigned sigh. There were a good number of other stops on the itinerary first. So it looked like it would be more waiting for answers when it came to Heike. But they’d be in Nine soon, and they’d have to check the records in Five and other places anyway just in case that had been Ash’s last assignment. “Thanks for making the calls.”

“Good luck to you both. Enjoy your dinner. Naked or otherwise. Give Brute some hell for me, will you?” She snickered and hung up the phone, resolving to tease Brutus and Enobaria unmercifully throughout dinner anyway, Quintus’ request or not.

Back at their house later, Haymitch kicked off his shoes the second they were inside the door, a habit of his that by now that she just smirked at. Sprawling out on the couch, he folded his hands behind his head and said thoughtfully, “Might be districts worse off physically, but I think Two’s gonna have a bad time of it.”

“It’s harder to come back from being broken down than being injured,” she pointed out, slipping off her own shoes and sitting beside him. His arm went around her, drawing her down against his side. “And they were in so deep with the Capitol they don’t know what way’s up right now.”

“Or if we’ll let them out of the hole they dug,” he pointed out with grim humor. “Those kids, though…shit.” He sighed. “I’d say they ought to get sent back to their home districts but if things are a mess there, they might be better off where they are for now. At least they’re not gonna be forced into Peacekeeper training and they’re cared for.”

“Might be wise. But once things have settled they ought to be able to choose whether they want to go back or not.”

Seeing his concern about the kids, how he’d immediately made the leap of logic that there might be others at risk in other districts, she thought with a sort of fond exasperation, There he goes again, seeing another problem he thinks he's somehow caused and trying to set the whole world right. Though close on its heels was the stray thought, He’d be a good dad.

Guiltily she was afraid for a moment something of that thought showed on her face and he’d see it, but quickly realized that was irrational. So long as he stayed off the liquor, it was probably true. He might not be the most openly gentle or warm kind of man to most people he didn't know well, but the side he showed her, to Katniss and Peeta, to Finnick, said plenty about his ability to love. He’d cared for his tributes, more than a lot of the mentors. She’d seen him down in the tribute morgue, obviously trying to be sober for this one thing, trying to prepare their bodies to go back home to the families who’d loathe him for failing. She’d seen that others usually went over to help him through it, seeing his shaking hands and the grief and guilt he couldn’t easily hide down there like he tried to do up in Mentor Central.

He’d cared for the dead tributes. He would have done anything for Katniss and Peeta. He’d lied for them, bled for them, would have died for them, and she accepted easily now that they were his family, and hers, as much as if they had blood ties. She had to think he’d love his own kid no less fiercely than that. Somehow it felt wrong to bring it up now, though, given the memory of those faces this afternoon, children without loved ones left to protect them.

Lying there, comfortable and at least at some kind of peace given the secure knowledge they would be there for each other, it was a while before she spoke up again. “At least we made progress on it.” Whether she meant making inroads in District Two and its problems and fears, or hunting for Ash and Heike, she wasn’t sure—probably a bit of both.

His breath stirred lightly in her hair, and his hand caressed her back softly, tracing the line of her spine from shoulder blades to hips. “It’s a start. Brocade’s gonna have to take the reins from here.” Deciding what to do about the Peacekeepers and their culpability under the law, figuring out what to do with a district of warriors that the other districts probably generally mistrusted and wanted to see stripped of their former way of life—she was glad it wasn’t going to be their headache to resolve it in the end. “And we’ll keep looking. We’ll get to Ten soon enough for Heike.” No guarantee her sister would still be there, of course, and chances are unless she’d turned rebel immediately and gained the trust of the locals by it that she wasn’t. But it would be the next step, at least.

“Still glad you weren’t elected,” she said, grasping his other hand in hers, stroking her thumb over it, feeling the scars and calluses there, the warm metal of his wedding ring. She had the feeling that if he had, she’d never see him again because he’d lose himself so utterly in the job that he’d have no time for himself, let alone for her. For well or ill, seemed like Haymitch almost never did anything halfway.

“Me too,” he answered softly. “Hopefully things will be easier in Five.”

Chapter Text

After Head Cornelius Van Horn telephoned all the duty posts in Ten with transfer orders, including the pig collective Kallanthe was assigned to, that was about all there was to say about it. She was heading to District Twelve tomorrow. Things had been pretty quiet in Ten for the last few months—back right after the Victory Tour there had been an uproar with quite a few Peacekeepers getting pulled to go to Eight to fight the uprising there, and a handful of replacements sent to Twelve. It had settled back down after that and Ten made it pretty clear they weren’t interested in throwing their own little rebellion party.

But it was March now and with Eight safely pacified, apparently Twelve was deemed enough of an existing threat to send reinforcements to keep a powderkeg from going off. Or at least, that was the whispered rumor in the duty post as they all compared notes. Not that they all deluded themselves they knew exactly what the hell was going on. They were all junior Peacekeepers, a bunch of first tour greenies for the most part, so shutting up and keeping their noses out of trouble was pretty much the rule of thumb.

Kallanthe in particular was hoping it was just a bit of a show of force in Twelve and things would settle down on their own. The reports from Eight were grim enough, and well, she hadn’t looked forward to combat.

She’d made it through training by sheer cussed determination because as an orphan, it was pretty much do or die. Maybe it was because she was an older kid when she got sent to Two, and being a klutz didn’t help, but she’d had to work at the training and the mindset furiously. When the time came for kicking ass and taking names, she found herself a bit reluctant.

She’d had to pass the training, had to do the best she could as a Peacekeeper. Her family was dead, her assessment accident meant she didn’t even remember them too well, and she didn’t have a life waiting for her back in Seven, even assuming they’d have been willing to spend the effort and money to send a washout Peacekeeper cadet back there. At fourteen she’d been forced to suck it up and accept that this was her life now and the world was tough for an orphan girl. Nobody was going to do her any favors or go easy on her. She was on her own.

It turned out OK for the most part. There were different roles among the Peacekeepers and Head Van Horn had been good at seeing that and choosing those who best filled each part. There were those that could play the tough for the problem citizens, those who were just assholes with their authority, those that were good with the legal aspects, those that were good with administration, and those that could just efficiently convince a drunk idiot or a bunch of rowdy boys to get their sorry asses home before they caused enough trouble to warrant actual intervention. Kally was usually lumped in with the lattermost group. “Peacemakers”, her good friend Naevia Girardoux liked to joke.

Naevia was coming to Twelve too, and that was a relief. They’d somehow come together in the Peacehome, the gawky new girl from Seven and the quiet girl from a Peacekeeper mother in Six who’d been there ever since she was born. Getting assigned to Ten together had been such a relief.

“Can you handle any extra-hands calls tonight?” Naevia asked her, black eyes solemn. “I mean, if it’s an emergency, of course I’ll be there, but…”

Kally understood. Naevia wanted to spend at least part of this last night in Ten with Euskal, one of the farm shift bosses. That was the trouble with a Peacekeeper taking on a district lover, part of the reason they were encouraged to keep it casual with the locals. It would be five years together, at the very most, before transfer to another duty station. Naevia would have had to say goodbye eventually and accept she’d almost inevitably never see him again, because there was virtually no chance she’d ever return to Ten.

But sometimes the heart wanted what it wanted so powerfully that it would clash with the rules. She’d caught a few glimpses of the two of them together, even if they were being largely discreet, and she didn’t doubt if Naevia had been born to Ten, the two of them would have been married already. Now and again the rules bent first under the force of emotion. Love had gotten two kids out of the arena alive this year rather than the traditional one—the two tributes from her new duty station, for that matter. But that wouldn’t be the case here. Kally just hoped it wouldn’t be tough for Naevia to constantly hear about Katniss and Peeta and their love story and know that in her case, the rules had been as unyielding as iron.

Still, she felt like Naevia was the lucky one in some ways because to feel something so deep as that had to be worth the price. She knew pretty much nothing about romance, and well, her experience of good old basic lust had been Albus, a friend of hers at the Peacehome before she went to Burnt Tree Camp. He’d teased her that being sent to training as a virgin would be a tragedy. Looking back she realized glumly that it had hit on her feelings of self-consciousness about her maturity and about fitting in, with his jokes about, C’mon, Kally, we’re in the Corps for twenty years, enough with being district kids and saving it for the wedding night!It didn't help she'd kind of had a crush on him at that point, because he'd been her friend. It had made her stupid and weak.

The whole thing had been a terrible idea. Even during the sex, she hadn’t enjoyed it. It had been awkward and anxious, and all too brief. It didn’t help she heard later that Albus was bragging about getting her in bed to the other male Peacekeeper cadets, and saying that she wasn't that good anyway. She should have broken his nose for that. But she’d never been the confrontational one. That was for people in their class like Helena and Daxos. That had been her older sister, Ingeborg. A name, a fleeting impression of beautiful hair she’d desperately envied back when she was little Hannalore from Seven, feeling safe and protected around Inge, and around her older brother Max too. That was about all that remained. It didn’t matter. They weren’t around to protect her any longer, were they?

She should have punched Al for being an ass, but she hadn’t. She’d ducked her head in shame and embarrassment, regretted ever sleeping with him, and been utterly relieved when he got sent to Twelve rather than Ten. Then she realized it and scowled. He had been in Twelve, might still be for that matter. Oh, fuck.

Admittedly after three years of hogs, if she went a good six months without eating another piece of pork, she might not be too unhappy about that. Stopping at various points throughout Ten, they collected an even dozen Peacekeepers transferring to Twelve. The hovercraft ride east was uneventful, and aside from a few murmurs about what they might find once they were on the ground, they were all pretty subdued. Nobody wanted it to turn into a repeat of the things they had heard about in Eight from the Head.

Immediately, they made their way to HQ to report in to Head Thread. Romulus Thread, as Kally understood it, was from an old, proud Two family with a long history in the service. She was pretty sure Thread blood had been in the tribute cadets and possibly even the arena at some point too; that tended to be the case with the traditional Peacekeeper families.

Thread eyed them all with his dark eyes, glancing up at them from over his desk. “I run a tight operation,” he informed them crisply. “This district has apparently suffered from shamefully lax mismanagement.” They’d all heard through the grapevine that Head Cray had been deposed around the time of the quashed Eight rebellion. “As a consequence, certain citizens here have apparently been laboring under the impression that the laws of our country are mere suggestions. We’ve been doing our best to correct that. It has been somewhat difficult a lesson to get across. I expect you all to do your part in that.”

“Yes, sir,” they said, and she didn’t think she was imagining that they all seemed to be in a hurry to get away from Thread’s intense stare. Obviously he was a man who followed his duty to the letter and the last exact dot and cross of it.

She met the rest of her duty squad in short order as they were assigned to go make their rounds. Apparently they were getting thrown right in the fire. Naevia came with her there, again to her relief. Actaeon and Myrina were both transfers from One, and Faustus was a third-tour from Five. Hard luck there, especially Actaeon and Myrina—they’d been taken from what must have been a cushy billet earned by hard work and seniority and sent out here to the absolute ass end of Panem. Virgil had been sent from Seven, and she tried to suppress a moment of wanting to ask him eagerly about that place she could barely remember. The last two had been originally assigned to Twelve, and remained there even after whatever purges of Cray’s incompetents had been enacted. Purnia, and joy of joys, Albus.

“Long time no see, Kally,” he said, giving her that grin of his, grey-green eyes looking pleased. She looked at him, thinking that nose of his still needed punching.

How dare he anyway? After how he treated her? She tried to think of what Helena would say, what Inge might have done, rather than stand there with her mouth flapping like a fish on one of Four’s boats. This place was awkward enough with the bad feeling that she was going to be required to enforce discipline harshly without Albus fucking Law making her look bad in front of her new compatriots by running his mouth again. “Yeah, not nearly long enough,” she said finally, and even as she felt a bit like a bitch for it she also felt a thrill of illicit victory at the stunned look on his face, that this time he was the one left all fish-mouthed.

“Uh, is this going to be a problem?” Virgil asked, looking between the two of them cautiously.

“Not at all.” Act like of course you can handle it and nine times out of ten they won’t question you, Naevia had always advised her when Kallanthe was mumbling and bumbling her way through things at the Peacehome. Apparently it worked in this case.

“OK, good,” Myrina said, green eyes alight with a fierce amusement. “So, new kids, welcome.” Her expression sobered. “Things here aren’t easy. I was in Ten my second rotation. So I know Head Van Horn runs things smart but easygoing. It’s a lot different here.”

“There’s floggings and time in the stocks on a regular basis,” Actaeon said bluntly. “We haven’t gone much more than a week or so without another hanging since Rina and I got here.”

“Good news is,” Purnia said quietly, “Head Thread already has his preferred enforcement team for carrying out punishments.” By which Kallanthe pretty much understood it was the ones already proven to not flinch and risk putting a crack in the solid front of enforcement and discipline that Twelve apparently so desperately needed. “But be tight on your reports. If you let things slide, it’s going to be noticed.”

“Head Thread doesn’t tolerate opinions of what the law means,” finally Albus spoke up, though it seemed like he was addressing someone invisible between herself and Naevia, considering his eyes didn’t meet either of theirs. “Let’s get that straight. His first day here he caught one of the young guys with a turkey he’d stabbed through the fence with a stick. See, Cray would have bought the damn bird from him. Thread went a hundred percent by the Code of Conduct, and strung him up for a flogging.”

Purnia’s blue eyes turned grim. “When Da—one of the Peacekeepers tried to protest—Thread arrested him. Not just for insubordination. Actual treason.” She shook her head. “They sent him to the Capitol for it.” That meant he’d probably become an Avox. Kallanthe tried to not flinch. “He whipped that boy half to death,” she murmured, still looking upset about it. “I know he had to prove the point that things around here had to change, but…”

“Do the best you can with it,” Actaeon advised tiredly. “Be vigilant. That’s all any of us can do.”

It wasn’t just the bitter winter that shivered its way down her spine. Winters had been cold in the mountains of Two, and she vaguely remembered bone-chilling cold in Seven sometimes. But seeing that even the other Peacekeepers were sort of afraid of their Head, given how swiftly and harshly he’d punished one of their own, made her ill at ease.

She was relieved when Myrina picked her as a partner to walk rounds, because she’d been half afraid Albus was going to jump on the opportunity. Bundling up in thick wool winter coats and the fur-lined hat and lined gloves, they headed out into the late afternoon. Passing the town square and seeing a lonely figure still hanging from the gallows, twisting in the breeze, she suppressed another shiver and tried to not make her steps swifter to get away from the sight. “Get used to it, Kallanthe,” Myrina told her softly. “We all have. The locals have too.” With a glance, she saw that the people scurrying to and fro didn’t even glance up at whoever had been executed. Only the woman in the stocks, with a forced view of the gallows, seemed to notice. “Ripper’s back in business, I see,” Myrina said dryly. “She sells black market liquor,” she explained to Kallanthe’s puzzled look. “So, public drunks get locked up in the stocks. That’s assuming they’re not violent and don’t do something stupid while they’re sloshed. That’s a whole different story.”

“Uh,” she said, pointing at a bobbing and weaving figure making its way across the square, obviously drunk.

“Ah, shit,” Myrina muttered, leaning back against what, to judge from the signs, was the alley between the butcher’s and the sweet-shop. She pinched the bridge of her nose as if she suddenly had a headache coming on. “Well, that’s the one exception to that rule. That’s Haymitch Abernathy.”

The infamous drunk victor of Twelve, though pulling off the neat trick of mentoring two beloved victors last year had certainly rehabilitated his reputation some that she could tell. “I’d have figured him for stopping the alcohol with how impressive a job he did last Games.” It wasn’t like he hadn’t proved a point and earned back some of the Capitol’s affection by it.

“Yeah, well,” Myrina said with a snort of something that might have been frustration, amusement, or both, “he didn’t. And victor discipline is a tricky business. That’s something that goes only through the Head, just so you know. I doubt you’ve had to deal with it since I don’t remember Ten victors ever giving a peep while I was there.” Wyandot Ingersoll, Angus Wahlstrom, and Sandy Marchand were all pretty private but well-behaved, from what Kally could tell. With as spread out as Ten was, she hadn’t seen them that often, only glimpses on Reaping Day and the like. Twelve, being one tight little population center, was an oddity to her. “But Haymitch doesn’t tend to cause problems, mind. Just gets his load on and then wanders back to Victor’s Village to sleep it off.”

“Katniss and Peeta?” she asked, watching the bundled-up figure of Haymitch making his way back towards the hill that apparently led to the Village. He’d been practically a legend in Two, to hear tell about it, a viciously talented fighter. But that was back even before she was born. Things had changed a lot since then.

“Peeta’s no bother at all. Katniss, we all got a warning to make sure she’s not out in the woods—nobody’s actually dumb enough to believe she learned that much archery inside the fence, right? But she’s caused no trouble.”

A snowball suddenly hit Haymitch’s back with a wet and heavy thump. He gave a grunt of surprise, or pain, but compared to how she’d have expected him to bellow curses or lash out, he didn’t do anything of the sort. Shoulders hunched inside his coat, he gave the impression of nothing so much as a man who was doing his very best to simply disappear. She had a funny feeling seeing it, given she’d tried to do the same plenty when she was young.

A pack of local boys appeared to be the culprits. She glanced over at Myrina, wondering if enforcing discipline and order held through to the point of dealing with something like this. “All of you!” came a shrill voice, the thick Twelve accent hard for her to decipher immediately, and a young girl came marching over to the boys, blond braids bouncing from beneath her pink knitted cap. “That’s enough!”

“Second Hawthorne son, aren’t you?” Apparently given that interruption Haymitch had stopped trying to impersonate a turtle, and brushing his shaggy hair from his face, his eyes had fallen on the boys, picking out the culprit.

There was another sound of indignation from the girl, as she apparently recognized the kid who’d thrown the snowball. “Rory Hawthorne, you ought to be ashamed! He gave your ma a job!”

“I’m not gonna be glad she’s reduced to cleaning up after a drunk loser to keep us fed,” Rory scowled.

“Much worse ways out there to make a living, though,” and Haymitch gave a dark, caustic chuckle. “Nice arm, boy,” he added with a smirk after a moment. “Throw a knife half that well and you might live till, oh, the fifth day in the arena?” Rory flinched.

“Pick on him again, Rory, and I’ll tell your ma,” the girl threatened, and seeing her face, the determination there, Kallanthe thought she finally recognized Primrose Everdeen, the girl who was saved by her sister last summer. “He saved Katniss, he tried to help Gale, so don’t you be mean to him.”

Rory and his friends beat a hasty retreat. Apparently she and Myrina still hadn’t been noticed because Haymitch leaned on the wall and told the girl, “Oughtn’t to have done that, girl. It’s hard on his family right now. Might be as he needs to blow off some steam, and better done on me than some others.”

“They’ve got no right to pick on you,” she said fiercely.

“Kiddo, I’ve been getting things thrown at me by kids since you before were just a glint in your daddy’s eye. Least it wasn’t a mule turd or a chunk of coal. And there wasn’t a rock in the damn thing.” How he could sound so nonchalant about it was beyond her. Maybe it was the drinking. A victor, even a rather faded one, ought to command some respect. Allowing local children to treat him like that seemed unthinkable.

“It’s not right,” Primrose insisted, as if she could make the whole world right by sheer conviction.

“Look. I take two kids to the Capitol every year and bring back two corpses,” Haymitch told her bluntly. “They lash out like that because they hate me and they’re terrified and they damn well ought to be. I’m probably the bogeyman parents threaten them with.” He said it matter-of-factly, but the words were depressing.

“But not last year.” Primrose tugged her scarf tighter around her neck.

“No. Not last year. But this year, with the Quell? Suppose it’s not much significance to me, really, being as they’ll want Peeta to take my place in that mentor chair. But no repeat performance of last year or last Quell, girl. Twelve likely ain’t winning this one.” Given their poor track record on the whole, Kallanthe wryly had to agree with that assessment. “So pray they don’t pull your name, that’s all.”

“Well,” Primrose said, “all right, I will. But if I did get picked, I know you, Katniss, and Peeta would do everything you could. That’s all I could ask. That’s all anyone could ask, right?”

Haymitch stared down at her, weaving slightly on his feet. Just watching him was making Kallanthe dizzy. She wondered if they hadn’t noticed her and Myrina, or if they were just overlooking them as if they didn’t matter. She'd gotten used to getting that feeling sometimes back in Ten, as if she was just part of the wall rather than a person. “You’re your ma’s daughter, no question. And the day the world finally lets you down, Prim, it’s gonna be a true fucking tragedy.” With that, he wobbled his way back up the hill, though Kallanthe noticed that Primrose trailed him carefully, as if making sure he made it home all right.

“What the hell kind of district is this?” she asked Myrina, shaking her head, as they left the alley. Though What kind of man just lets children abuse him like that? was left unspoken, because Haymitch had answered it himself, in some sense. For a victor he apparently didn’t think much of the privilege and respect it gave him.

“One on the edge,” Myrina said with a sigh.

“Do we need to report that?” she asked reluctantly. Because it seemed patently ridiculous, but she was the new arrival here, and given how paranoid the other Peacekeepers seemed, she ought to at least make sure. As for what Haymitch had said, there was nothing in it that was rebellious or alarming, but the hint of anger and weariness about the Games had been there, hadn't it?

Myrina clucked her tongue thoughtfully. “I don’t think so,” she said, though carefully. “Though Haymitch, he’s a representative of the Capitol and the Games, really, and disrespecting him so openly is treading a dangerous line. Not that the adults didn’t have choice words for him too, from what I hear, but sounds like they shut up a good bit after last year.”

“They’re a bunch of kids barely of reaping age,” she said softly, shaking her head. “Surely there’s some better way…” Some way to talk sense into them, if need be, rather than filing a formal report about some snowballs.

“Kallanthe,” Myrina told her, shaking her head with a wry, almost sad smile, “I’m not arguing that in this instance, but remember, do your job and be ready to speak up about things, or you may be the next to lose your tongue for lack of using it when it counted.”

It was a kindly meant reminder, but it was a hard slap of reality anyway. “Got it,” she said, feeling her cheeks flush with embarrassment that she’d been trying to argue with both the Head’s orders and a woman who probably had ten years’ seniority on her as well as several months more experience here reading the situation. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” she said, offering the proper deference to the rank and wisdom of a senior officer.

Myrina waved it off, as they passed the bakery and the smell of fresh bread made her mouth water. “It’s a rough assignment but we do the best we can.” She gave a soft groan. “Even if it’s so damn cold here I want to never leave HQ.”

“You’ve got at least one parent from Four, right?” she guessed. “From your eyes?”

“I’m a Law, yeah. And it was my mother.”

“Well, that’s just your blood being accustomed to warmer climates, right?” she offered cheerfully, wanting to like Myrina, wanting Myrina to like her. This place and the chill of both the weather and the feeling would be so much easier to bear if only she felt like she had friends to rely upon.

Myrina gave a low, throaty chuckle at that as they headed up the hill to Victor’s Village to continue the duty round. “You and Theo both say that. My fiancé,” she explained, and there was a sudden wistful softness in her voice. “He got sent to Eight when the rebellion there began.”

“You must be…” Worried out of your mind. “Proud of him.”

“I just hope he’s OK. News from Eight hasn’t exactly been forthcoming, and Head Thread isn’t much one to share.”

“No, I can imagine that,” she murmured. He was their Head and so of course they had to follow his orders, but compared to the laid-back style of Van Horn, it was a big change to come somewhere so rigidly controlled. Still, if it was necessary, if the threat of rebellion was serious, better that way than seeing more Peacekeepers die in putting down an uprising. “Hopefully this will all die down soon and you’ll see him.”

From the faint smile on Myrina’s face at that, and how she talked about Theo afterwards, Kallanthe knew with relief that yes, she’d made a friend.

The next weeks were hard, though. Reporting things she’d rather have overlooked or dealt with unofficially felt counterproductive, but she knew it was expected to keep Twelve in check. Though to be honest she got more of a feel of terror and weariness from the population than a simmering outrage. But who knew what they could be hiding? Eight had apparently given no warning. Besides, there was always the fear that a fellow Corps member could report her if she was less than vigilant in her duties, and the thought of a young Peacekeeper who’d tried to argue for mercy and ended up an Avox haunted her thoughts then.

She was filing paperwork on yet another drunk in the stocks while Katniss Everdeen’s wedding gown modeling special was on. “I’m sure she’s a good kid and all, but right now I fucking hate her, just a little,” Naevia said glumly. “She actually gets to marry the man she loves. Hell, the Capitol would riot if she didn’t get to do it.”

“Trust me, Nevvy, I know the feeling,” Myrina answered, leaning her chin on her hand.

“But you’re already wearing white, you two,” Actaeon joked. “What more could you want, really?”

“Oh, shut the fuck up, Teon,” Myrina said, throwing a crumpled up ball of paper at his head. “You’re my friend, and Theo’s too, but like you know the first thing about romance. With you, it’s the cock talking, not the heart.”

Albus chuckled from the corner where he had himself draped into a chair of his own, brown hair with its reddish cast drying in the warmth of the fire. “Stuff it,” Kallanthe snapped at him, feeling uncomfortably again like he was making fun of the fact she’d been stupid enough to let him talk her into sex. She wasn’t eighteen any longer and she wasn’t that naïve now thanks in good part to him.

“What is it with you two anyway?” Purnia asked in confusion, finishing stripping off the last of her own winter gear after coming in with Albus. “Did he kill your do—“

“Never mind it,” she muttered, not wanting to discuss it and not feeling rude enough to tell Purnia it was none of her damn business.

“Check that out,” Faustus said, waving a hand towards the television. “Looks like the fashion show’s over and they’re reading the Quell card.”

“Shit, I remember the last one,” Actaeon said, sitting forward in his chair with a frown creasing his face. “The double reaping and all. I was so glad I was too young still. That was when I was still a kid in Eight.”

Kally hadn’t even been born then, let alone old enough to remember, so this was a new experience for her. Watching as President Snow delicately drew out the yellowed envelope and cracked open its flaking seal, she felt like all of Panem was waiting with baited breath. No matter. Whatever twist this Quell held, Two’s tributes would be well prepared for it, even if dark horses had won both previous Quells. As for Seven, well, it would take a lot of luck for them to win. Johanna Mason was their last victor and Kallanthe was sure that now people were wary of a ringer from Seven faking incompetence.

There was a moment of remembered terror, though, the nauseating fear of She’s going to die please don’t let her die, and she must have watched those Games, as she’d watched others, seeing Seven’s tributes often fall early and gruesomely. Seven’s kids might have some training with an axe and some woodland survival skills, but they were often smaller in stature and in terrain other than a forest, they were hopeless. She probably had figured Johanna for a quick exit too and been relieved to see someone from her own district defy the odds.

Snow’s precise tones read the card for all of Panem to hear. “As a reminder to the rebels that even the strongest among them cannot overcome the power of the Capitol, the male and female tributes will be reaped from the existing pool of victors.”

That rendered them all speechless for a good few seconds, staring at each other. “Does the math of that even work out?” Virgil wondered.

“I think it does,” Albus piped up. “I can’t think of a district that doesn’t have at least one male and one female. I mean, some of them are in rough shape—like, say, Woof’s the only man from Eight and he’s old as dirt, sorry Actaeon….”

Actaeon gave a short, dismissive shrug that they all knew meant that Eight and what it held in his past didn’t hold much significance for him any longer. They’d all left behind their pasts at the Peacehome. It had just been a lot easier for Kally given that she couldn’t remember it. “It’s a bit of a shame, really,” Purnia said tersely. “Sending the likes of Woof back in.”

“But that’s the price of the rebellion,” Myrina said bleakly, possibly thinking even now of Theo in Eight and hoping another rebellion hadn’t cost her the man she loved. “It’s what the Treaty of the Treason said. The terms of the Games are set, the districts just comply.”

“There’s only one female victor here in Twelve,” Faustus spoke up thoughtfully. “Katniss is going back in no matter what.” He was right, and it seemed particularly cruel given they'd just been discussing how lucky she was to be getting married to Peeta.

“So’s Johanna from Seven,” she added, feeling oddly compelled to do so, probably given the victor from her childhood district had been on her mind just a few moments ago.

“Yeah, but they won’t care as much about Johanna,” Virgil pointed out. “Besides, Johanna’s kind of screwed. She can’t fake them out this time. But they’re really not going to like Katniss being sent in there when she was just showing off her wedding dress fifteen minutes ago.”

“But that’s the price of the rebellion,” she said, trying to hide the peevishness from her tone because she really didn’t want to start a fight. If they were going to argue it was a bit of a shame to send Woof and Katniss in, wasn’t it also a shame for Johanna and anyone else, really? They’d survived the arena once as the price of district rebellion. It seemed like that ought to be enough. “No matter how it upsets them they can’t afford to make an exception for her or anyone else unless they’re willing to let all the victors off the hook, and that effectively cancels the Games and undermines the whole thing, doesn’t it?”

“You’re right, it does. So, Katniss and either Peeta or Haymitch,” Actaeon mused. “Peeta’s going to be the stronger fighter, and I imagine he’d give everything to protect Katniss…”

“Nah. If Haymitch has any fucking sense he’ll volunteer,” Naevia said. “They already don’t much love him here. If he goes in he can maybe help keep Katniss alive. I doubt it’ll be a double win this year, and if Peeta goes in and dies to defend Katniss, Haymitch might as well end himself in that case.”

Remembering how bleak the man sounded the day she had arrived, not wanting to dwell on it because of the uncomfortable feeling of it, she said hastily, “So, who from Two, do you guys think?”

“We’ve got a nice pool to choose from there, and almost any of them would defend Two’s honor pretty well,” Purnia answered her. “I like Lyme’s odds if she’s chosen. It wasn’t all her fault her last opponents got mauled by that mutt. Her fighting before that was impressive.”

“Enobaria would definitely be allowed to go back in before Lyme,” Albus argued fiercely. “I mean, we’ve all seen replays of her Games, do I need to say more?”

Debating the merits of Two’s victors, knowing they’d send the best they had to represent their district, it wasn’t too bad. Much easier to swallow than thoughts of places where only one male or female tribute would be available, regardless of their condition.

Two days later, out on rounds, she and Myrina spotted the three victors out running laps around the Meadow. Katniss was keeping pace, Peeta looked like his artificial leg was paining him, and Haymitch was most definitely bringing up the rear and laboring hard for it. This time she didn’t even ask Myrina whether they ought to report it. They wasted no time presenting themselves in Head Thread’s office once their duty shift was done.

“It looks like they’re training, sir,” she told him. “Running, at least this morning.”

Thread gave a low chuckle, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “Even Abernathy was running?”

Somehow the sight and sound of the harsh Head who had calmly flogged and hanged people to enforce discipline and order with barely a flicker of expression now given over to laughter was a little bizarre.

“Yes, sir,” Myrina supplied. “When we came back it looked like they were working on some hand-to-hand combat, though.”

“Carry on then,” Thread said, with a dismissive wave of his hand.

“We should allow them to continue with this training?” Myrina said carefully, obviously looking to specifically clarify. “The rules of the Games specify…”

“We all know those rules are broken all the time in One, Two, and Four,” Thread cut her off neatly, glancing out the window towards the Meadow. “It offers a much better Games for it, really. Does better honor to the Capitol that way. If the Capitol specifies the need for a spectacular victors-only Games, then by all means, let the victors train to better enable it. It does their own first Games and those they defeated then no credit to see any of them go down in a pathetic manner at the starting gong.” Kally saw a faint twitch of his lips that might have almost been a smile. “Besides, I imagine between an overrated girl who everyone now knows is a one-trick pony with weapons, a cripple with no concern for his own life, and a lazy drunk old fatass, those three need all the help they can get. Pass word around that their training isn’t to be disturbed unless an imminent threat is posed by it. And in that case, I want to hear about it.”

She declined to point out that last year, Peeta and Katniss had pretty much held their own against the Career tributes. Thread might be a peculiarly good mood but she wasn’t going to push her luck by any means. “All right, thank you, sir.” She noticed Myrina also wasted no time escaping the office as quickly as possible.

Chapter Text

She remembered from her Tour that the district center of Five had been a glittering thing, not in the same way like things in One, but an airy thing of glass and thin steel framework. It was so unlike the comfortably familiar wood buildings back in Seven, or the solid and imposing stone of Two. Gemma Waltz, the Seven escort, had explained to her brightly that Five’s center was a marvel because it was engineered to help collect solar energy by all those glass and silver panels. Enduring it all by that point, she hadn’t much listened.

The buildings hadn’t changed in nine and a half years, although here and there a patchwork of blue tarps or canvas or even a sheet of plywood covered over a busted panel, like an ugly bruise. The hot dry desert sun off the red sand and bluffs in the distance, heat haze shimmering like water, was at least different enough from the wringing-wet humidity of the jungle arena that it didn’t cause too many uncomfortable reminders. She’d still rather get inside for some shade as quickly as possible.

The usual meet and greet happened when they exited the hovercraft. Laurence Talbot had fallen to Finnick’s trident at the Cornucopia and Lamina Rosencoff had apparently been killed by the poison fog at the two o’clock section of the arena. Greer Noyes, the other pair of eyes up in Mentor Central, had died during the rebellion. So now the only living Five victor was Dazen Connington, survivor of the 41st Games, far more Haymitch’s contemporary than her own. That alone was setting her a little on edge.

She shook hands and murmured greetings and accepted their gratitude that she and Haymitch were here. All the while, she was thinking at least a few vicious thoughts that a year ago, not a fucking one of them aside from Dazen would have given a damn if either one of them lived or died, the vicious bitch and the drunk disgrace that they were. A year gone by, a war won, and they were celebrities again, fawned over and welcomed with eagerness. It was like the abrupt shift from being a district nobody reaped as a tribute to being a victor, all fake and full of hypocrisy.

In some ways she didn’t want to be here because of that, but that wasn’t all. She wanted to be back in Twelve chopping wood and yanking Katniss’ chain and joking with Peeta. She wanted to repaint that upstairs bedroom they hadn’t gotten to yet. She wanted to wake up in the bed her grandparents had made, beneath his mother’s quilt, see the early morning sunlight on his skin and his unruly raven-black hair. She wanted to learn how to use a stupid bow and how to bake fancy pastries, for fuck’s sake. It was a simple life, a comfortable life, one that she loved fiercely and was confident she wouldn’t screw up. The four of them had made something good together, something that she loved and had hungered for all those lonely years. But leaving Twelve had meant putting that security aside, venturing into the unknown. Part of her, alone and isolated for so long, was a little alarmed at how big this was compared to that, and that she couldn’t face the challenge of finding herself again and moving forward on an epic national stage rather than the quiet peace of Twelve with a few people she trusted.

These people in Five, and those in Two for that matter, looked to her like she had the answers and the ear of the president and they desperately wanted that. If she fucked up it would be huge and public, and she wasn’t like Haymitch. She wanted to see Panem well off, sure, but she didn’t necessarily feel the calling—or maybe the debt—that he did towards making it happen so closely and firsthand, these huge things, lofty matters of laws and ideals and whatever. Far as she was concerned, building houses and growing food was far more important than all that, and that was something she understood, something she could touch. But she had said she would do it, so she would. There was Heike to consider too.

Besides, it wasn’t like the idyll in Twelve would have lasted. They wouldn’t be the only four people there forever. There would have been others to move in, people who didn’t know her and who’d meet her and judge her and expect things anyway, so she’d have had to deal with it in the end. But after having been so disengaged from the world, trying to find her role in it again, the place that fit her when she didn’t even fully know the shape she took, was no small thing. I’m no coward, she reminded herself, though her teeth might have been gritted more than smiling during some of those handshakes. Not since the arena.

So after Plutarch’s little dog-and-pony-and-cameras show was over, and they could pack it in for the rest of the day and tackle the matter anew in the morning, she was relieved to head to Victors' Mesa. Third district and I’m about ready to break cameras, she thought with weary humor, marching down the path to the Mesa, seeing the large windmills turning lazily in the distance.

Unlike in Two where all the houses had been owned by someone at least once, she was pretty sure none of Five’s own five victors had ever owned the one she and Haymitch were assigned to occupy while they were here. It was clean and comfortable and had the impersonal Capitol stamp all over it that she remembered from when she’d moved into her own house in Seven, the lack of any sign of something real and human ever existing there. It made her think all the more wistfully of home, because it was the exact same layout, but it was a pale copy at best. At least the house in Two had felt like someone’s home, even if not theirs.

They went to go pay a more personal call on Dazen at his house, without the cameras to bear witness. Stepping inside, seeing the personal touches, the old chairs with ugly flowers, the little brown dog who imperiously announced who owned the place with a rumble of warning, set her immediately far more at ease. It was comfortable and a bit shabby and therefore, in its way, honest.

Dazen himself seemed a bit like that too. He wasn’t much to look at, really. He had the red hair that was most common in Five of all the districts, and being in his early fifties, he was definitely balding a bit in back like someone had shaved a neat circle out. His cream-and-coffee skin was still mostly unlined, but he had a riot of freckles across his nose and cheeks. His eyes were a shade that could simply be described as a warm but fairly unremarkable brown.

All in all, he was no handsome man, though she was sure the Capitol had polished him up enough to find at least a few buyers for him when he was young and new and novel. For victors that weren’t Careers expected to produce spectacular wins and whose simple survival thus automatically made them objects of interest, unless they were irredeemably ugly beyond Capitol polish or even cosmetic surgery, or too badly maimed, chances were they’d endure at least a year or two on the circuit before the interest died down.

“I’ll make some coffee,” Dazen offered as he gestured the two of them to the kitchen table. Coffee, when it was blazingly hot outside, but she decided she wouldn’t chew him out about it. She had the sense, looking at him, that he was glad of the company. It must have been a long winter and spring as the only victor left. Cedrus and Blight might not have been close to her, but at least she’d never been entirely alone in her own district, unlike Haymitch then, unlike Dazen now.

Haymitch seemed to pick up on that easily enough, from the furrowed brow and thoughtful expression that told her that brain was at work again, all right. Arm draped over the back of his chair, he called lazily to Dazen, puttering around in the kitchen, “So Brutus and Enobaria just got married.”

“About time,” Dazen called back. “He and Lyme both messed it up royally, and we all saw how he never felt like he was good enough for Enobaria either. Idiot.”

“No regrets, Daze?” Haymitch said jokingly. “I mean, we all had you and Baria figured as a great match. Our two biters and all.” She hadn’t seen Dazen’s entire Games, of course, but Haymitch probably had as a little kid, and she’d seen clips. With that reminder, she recalled that he’d won by biting hard on the hand of a Career about to end him and pouncing on the knife faster than his opponent. In typical Capitol fashion, a sort of gruesome moment like that had been gleefully brought up as often as possible.

Dazen gave a snort of derision and amusement, putting a mug of coffee down in front of Haymitch with a bit more force than it needed, and another in front of her rather more carefully. “Oh, fuck you, Haymitch,” he said, but it was with that light tone that told her it was just the usual fond victor chain-jerking rather than actual temper. “No, I’ll leave fooling around with asskicking younger women to you.”

She couldn’t help a bark of appreciative laughter as Haymitch gave a rueful grin, acknowledging the hit, but it seemed like he’d deliberately provoked it onto himself, knowing it would happen. “Hey, trying to keep up with me keeps him from getting bored and getting himself into trouble,” she told Dazen sweetly as he took his seat.

He grinned at her, and if he wasn’t handsome, he did have a smile that lit up his face. “I don’t doubt it.”

By the look and smell, the coffee was strong and black and could just about dissolve a spoon—just the way she liked it. Still, she let it sit a bit to cool down first. “So,” Dazen said, “I assume you want the district report, huh?” He fidgeted with his coffee mug a bit, as if he wasn’t quite sure what to do to keep them around now that he had them here.

It had been different for her anyway from Haymitch, or Dazen now. Her isolation was somewhat self-imposed. People in Seven weren’t all up in each others’ business for the most part. She’d been at a remove, but she knew that while they weren’t quite sure what to make of what the arena had given back to them, they hadn’t hated her. They politely respected her distance, because she didn’t know how to talk to them any longer, but had she gone to them, she didn’t doubt they would have tried. It wasn’t like with Haymitch where, after he stepped away from his people to help protect them and became caught up helplessly in the Capitol’s manipulations, they shunned and disdained him, rather than thinking for an instant not all was what it seemed on the surface.

She’d stepped away from her people, but she hadn’t lost them. It was solitude—crippling to her in its way, yes—but not the guilt and self-doubt of rejection and isolation. Sometimes she wondered why Haymitch cared so much what the people of Twelve thought of him, considering she figured he didn’t owe them a damn thing after how they’d been towards him all these years. Seven might not be openly warm and fuzzy, but they tolerated odd folk well enough and let them live their own way. Twelve, it seemed like you entirely belonged and were embraced as “one of us” or you were something “other”, to be shunned and suspected and treated like shit. She wondered if the likes of Gale Hawthorne, pissed off as he was at the world by the end, would have so easily written off everyone else’s lives as acceptable loss if he’d been from another district with a less clannish mindset.

Haymitch wrapped his hands around his own mug. “Later, unless you think there’s something that’s urgent. How’ve you been, Daze?” he asked instead, eyeing the older victor. She knew him well enough to see a flicker of concern on his face, realizing he was picking up on the air of loneliness and awkwardness Dazen was giving off.

“Still alive. But you never did ask any of us that I know,” Dazen replied, something almost like mingled anger and pleading in his voice, taking another swig of coffee. “What happened, after the arena fell. Not even Tilly.”

She’d wondered sometimes about that. The only survivors of the victors had been the handful from the arena that ended up in Thirteen, and some of those who had been filling the chairs up in Mentor Central. Cedrus had died and she assumed as being the mentor of an obvious rebel, he’d been executed quickly. But all those victors left at home had died. The surviving mentors had already been in the Capitol when she and Haymitch and the rest of Victory Squad arrived.

No, she hadn’t asked. She’d had her reasons. Partly because none of the mentor survivors were anyone she was all that close to, but that wasn’t the entire story. Sounded like Haymitch’s were much the same as he said, “I didn’t ask because none of you asked me or Jo what the Detention Center was like. Same as we didn’t ask each other what our own arena was like. We all know better.”

“Talk if you want, but don’t ask?” Dazen said with a wry twist of his lips.

“Basically.” Haymitch waited patiently, obviously looking to see what Dazen meant to do here.

From how he’d brought it up, apparently Dazen had wanted it known. The fact that he mentioned it made her suspect some of his air right now had a thing or two to do with it. “So tell it, if you want.”

Dazen gave a low grunt at that and set down his mug carefully, as if afraid to make too much noise by it. “They rounded us up from Mentor Central and the Training Center. Dragged us down into the training room.” His brown eyes searched Haymitch’s. “They strung Luma, Spark, Carrick, and Cedrus up from the rafters right in front of us. I don’t think Snow much liked Katniss’ little stunt with the dummy.” He said it casually enough, but Johanna couldn’t help but close her eyes, flinching. She’d almost been hanged herself. Haymitch hadn’t spared her from the truth when she’d asked him that final night how bad a hanging would be. Easy enough, if the neck got broken, he’d told her. If not, a hard death. She didn’t doubt it had been the latter for the rebel mentors. She imagined old Cedrus choking, feet thrashing helplessly in the air as he slowly strangled.

Katniss had lashed out about Seneca Crane’s execution for sparing her, had hanged a training dummy in that gym during her private session with the Gamemakers, or so they’d all heard. Apparently Snow had neatly returned the gesture. Stupid fucking kid, she thought, didn’t think about how her little rebellion would cost other people, did she? But she forced herself to calm down, realizing with chagrin she hadn’t been all that wise at that age either. She’d challenged Snow too, hadn’t she, ignorant or perhaps just underestimating the severity of the consequences? Besides, Katniss had grown up fast and hard since then.

“And?” Haymitch said calmly, prompting him to go on, but she could sense that unease in him, and resisted the urge to bark at him that he’d damn well better not be trying to settle the blame of it on his shoulders. She’d told him before—he had plainly asked them that night in Four’s apartment, as his friends, not coerced or manipulated them. They had all agreed to be part of the plan, knowing it might cost them their lives. Sometimes for a ridiculously smart man, some things just didn’t sink in through his skull so easily.

When she looked, Dazen’s eyes had taken that faraway look of turning inside his own mind, remembering it. “They kept us locked up in the Training Center. Not sure what to do with us, I guess. And while executing those obviously tied to the rebels was one thing, killing off close to two dozen of us in one fell swoop might have looked bad.”

She hadn’t known. While she was sitting and suffering and bleeding in the Detention Center, listening to Haymitch’s screams and his hallucinations and his gradually fading sane moments, the other victors had been close by too. They’d stayed there even after Thirteen rescued the rest of them—four and a half, nearly five months anxiously waiting for the axe to fall, probably never knowing if each day might bring their own execution. “Did they torture you?” she asked him bluntly.

“No,” Dazen said, his eyes moving to the sight of how both she and Haymitch were wearing long-sleeved shirts to the wrist, even in the desert heat. They were light, loose cotton that wasn’t too bad, even somewhat cool, but it was long sleeves all the same, covering all the scars from the torturers and the ugly blotchy burn scars from the napalm. They were lucky in that nothing showed with the top button or two undone. Getting dressed this morning, remembering the long sleeves she’d worn sometimes in the Capitol to cover the bruises, or sometimes the marks of ropes or shackles, on her wrists, she wanted to laugh grimly. Only looking over at Haymitch and seeing he was enduring the same, that he understood, made it a bit more bearable. “Anyway,” he said, eyes moving back to his mug and the dregs left in it. “Lyme escaped about two weeks in,” he said half to himself. “Don’t know how she found an opportunity, but she did it. She was from Two, probably fought her way out at least in part. They dragged us downstairs and executed Hannibal for that. Then…let me see. Cotton died one month in. He went peaceful, though, Rice said. Old age and the stress of being held there, died in his sleep.” The calm recitation continued. “Georgette lost it after that, tried to escape. They shot her down—on the Six floor, so Lizzie told me, she heard the commotion outside her door. That was when they took us downstairs again to see another one of us was gone—did that after Cotton died too. I think they wanted us to see it and flip out wondering which of us was next. But that was the only time we got to talk to each other, so it was kind of a plus too. And Greer, well, after that…” He went silent then, shook his head slightly.

Eerily calm as he’d been in the recitation of the others deaths, terrible as those were, the loss of his district partner had obviously been the worst. “What happened?” she prompted him, her voice suddenly gone dry like the rustle of a turning page.

“We all knew the bedrooms didn’t have video surveillance, just audio.” His fingers wrapped around the coffee mug, clutching it like a lifeline. “So she strangled herself with a bedsheet and the closet rod.” Obviously from the way he said it, he’d found her. “She’d said she figured it was better we choose our own end than wait for the Capitol to do it for us. That was the day after you forced Snow into signing your execution order.”

She felt sorry for him but at that moment she winced and couldn’t help the spike of temper, You’ve known Haymitch how many years and you don’t realize he’s probably going to feel like he’s somehow partly responsible if you say that? “Shit,” Haymitch said softly. “Daze…”

“Not your fault,” Dazen told him, which smoothed over the jagged edge of her temper. “I’m sure plenty of us thought about doing the same, but they took the bedcovers away after that and left us just those foil blankets that couldn’t be twisted into a rope. And the mirrors were already shatterproof because of the tributes.”

Haymitch gave him a bleak smile. “If it’s any consolation, I had plenty of thoughts too. No good way to do yourself in at the Detention Center. That’s why I called Snow out.”

She’d known that had to be the truth and she was thankful he’d done it, tried to give them the only escape that seemed possible at that point. But seeing the two of them sitting there silently drowning in the remembered terror and helplessness, finally was too much. It was pulling her in too; making her begin to think about it, dwell upon it. She could swear her skin suddenly felt too tight, her scars itching in the heat. She’d started thinking about the Detention Center, and Blight’s sightless eyes and Cedrus being hanged in the training gym—then she realized the ones imprisoned in the Training Center had been dragged down there for Coin’s vote on a Capitol Hunger Games. They must have remembered that, being taken down there to see who else was missing from their ranks this time. They’d put on a brave face and hadn’t shown their scars that day, just as she tried not to show hers now.

“You didn’t say how they died at that last dinner,” he said, and it was more of a question than anything. “When we went through their names.” She remembered that night, going through all the victors. She’d been hesitant on the Seven victors, because two she’d never met, and the other two she had realized only then she hadn’t known as well as she would have liked, and she would never have the chance.

“You didn’t ask,” Dazen returned calmly. “And wouldn’t you rather remember how they all lived than how they died at the Capitol’s hands?”

Somehow she had the sense that he wasn’t talking only about the victors, but also the tributes. “Lots of fun,” she told them archly, “but how about something else before we three all start sniveling, huh?”

Haymitch gave a grunt of acknowledgment at that, nodding slightly to her. “Tell me something,” he asked Dazen, finally now reaching for his coffee. She did the same and found it was lukewarm, which meant it was finally tolerable. “What do y’all do here at the cemetery for a memorial?”

She resisted the momentary urge to reach over and swat him because apparently he couldn’t leave the dead behind, but she could see he was calmer now, having slipped the grasp of memory. This was the sort of thinking about the dead that was OK, that wouldn’t leave him with that thousand-yard stare rather than here among the living.

“We don’t bury ‘em, Haymitch,” Dazen said with a shake of his head, fingers nervously tousling his red hair now that the worst moment had passed. “Except the tributes,” he amended with reluctance. Yeah, of course they’d be buried, in a fenced cemetery with those identical white marble headstones, same as in Seven, same as in Twelve. Capitol property forever, denied the right to belong to their families and their district even after death. She thought about the cemetery here and felt sick, realizing one headstone that was there, a boy she’d put there herself. “We cremate them and scatter the ash. Most people choose to have their kin take the ash up on the bluffs—a few prefer having it scattered over the river.”

By the looks of it Haymitch was having a slightly tougher time wrapping his mind around that than she was. But she was from Seven, where they buried their dead in simple cloth shrouds so their body could readily help the trees grow. A person’s memorial tree usually meant more to the family than the body, after it was buried. “Part of the wind and water,” she said. “Some of the power sources, huh?” Becoming one with the lifeblood of the district—it made sense to her.

Dazen gave her another of those bright smiles, obviously sensing she understood. “Exactly.”

For his part, Haymitch gave a faint shrug. “Nah, for us, coal’s from plants,” he said, “and it’s a hell of a lot older than any of us anyway. Besides,” he said with dark, almost painful humor, “the mines were grave enough for too many already. Coal ain’t a thing any of us wanted to be a part of after we died.” She could easily recall him singing that song as they buried Peeta’s family, the mournful words about escape from the mines by either freedom or death.

“Anyway,” Dazen said, giving Haymitch a quick glance, “we do put their names up on the memorial walls at the Justice Building. And that’s where you go, light a candle for them.”

“Candle, huh?” She’d bet he was thinking about what he’d told her about New Year’s celebrations in Twelve, how they’d light a candle in the window to welcome the neighbors. Last New Year’s Eve they hadn’t had a chance to do that, or decorate a tree like Seven citizens did. They’d been at the Victory Ball first, then confronting Snow, then back at the apartment because between licking the final wounds from Snow and the fact it was their wedding night, turning to each other seemed like the only thing to do. “Bit old-fashioned for Five, isn’t it?”

“Hey, a memorial lightbulb just doesn’t quite have the same feel to it,” Dazen said with a half-shrug. “Who are you looking to light one for?”

“There was a young Peacekeeper in Twelve. Tried to stand up and paid hard for his troubles. They turned him Avox first, then tortured him to death in front of me,” Haymitch didn’t mince words. Apparently hearing Dazen and his cohorts had been through an ordeal themselves had left the door open for sheer honesty. “I found his record in Two. He was a kid from here in Five originally before he was orphaned. I figured he deserved to come home, if only a bit in spirit.” They’d explained the whole issue with Peacekeepers to the other victors last winter in trying to pick their brains for any sightings of Heike or Ash. She couldn’t say she was surprised none of them could say anything. Had she ever really paid much attention to most Peacekeepers, rendered into an inconvenience at best, an outright menace at worst, in an anonymous white uniform?

“Ah.”

“Plus I figured I’d do one for your girl in the 74th. Being as he killed her, even if it was purely a screw-up, Peeta would probably feel better knowing I took care of that for him.”

Dazen’s eyebrows rose abruptly. “Haymitch. Seriously, weren’t you watching that whole thing play out?”

“Me? I was a little busy at my station keeping two tributes alive. Real novel scenario for me, you know, that close to the end of the Games, and just a little pressure, so pardon me if I was a bit distracted from watching your girl.”

“Johanna?” Dazen queried with interest.

She shook her head. “You know we were all kind of watching Katniss and Peeta by then.” They’d been alternately hopeful and pessimistic about Haymitch actually pulled off the unprecedented feat of a Twelve mentor bringing a victor home, and both tributes to boot. She’d give him credit—when he did a thing, he either did it bigger and better than anyone had before, or he crashed and burned.

A faint smile crossed Dazen’s face, not the sunny smile like he’d given earlier, but something almost wistful and thoughtful. “Marissa was the smartest kid I ever had to put into the arena. Hands down.”

“And then she chowed down on a handful of nightlock. Starvation makes people do crazy things. Hell, the arena makes people do crazy things.” She thought for a second and corrected, “Did.” The arena had definitely made her do things little Hanna Mason from District Seven could never have imagined.

“She aced edible plants in training,” Dazen pointed out. “She knew a handful of nightlock berries when she saw them.”

Haymitch made a slight noise of surprise. “No accident, was it?”

“I think she was bright enough she saw beyond the arena, at least a little. She was fifteen. She’d seen more than her share of Games and how they worked. Probably knew from the rule change that Katniss and Peeta were meant to win, or else Brutus’ boy was going to kill them off in a finale for the ages. They wouldn’t let her make it out alive.”

Haymitch’s own smile was drawn taut as fiddle strings. “Snow didn’t much like tributes that saw the assholes behind the curtain.” Haymitch himself was living proof of that, wasn’t he? A boy smart enough to think like a Gamemaker rather than just a tribute, and he had suffered dearly for it.

“If she was smart enough to take the easy way out, good on her.” Nightlock poisoning was nearly instantaneous, and compared to starvation or being killed by either Katniss or the huge Two boy, it probably looked appealing. After longing for death in the Detention Center as she had, and after enduring the arena twice, she couldn’t fault those who quietly took their fate into their own hands rather than surrender it to the hands of the enemy. She’d been grateful that Haymitch manipulated Snow into that execution order. When it seemed no escape was possible, dying at least somewhat on her terms had looked pretty damn appealing.

“If you want to go to the Memorial Wall, I’ll take you down there before you leave,” Dazen said, as Johanna felt the dog twining its way around her ankles. She reached down to scratch it on the ears, feeling the silky warmth of its short fur. “I still go there for Sanne anyway.”

She didn’t know who Sanne was, but obviously she was someone dear to Dazen that had died. She realized guiltily just how little interest she’d had in most of the other victors. She’d trusted Finnick, and thus Mags by extension as his mentor partner and someone obviously dear to him. She’d trusted Blight and Cedrus even if she felt like she couldn’t rely on them fully. Of course she’d trusted Haymitch. Aside from that handful of people, she really hadn’t much bothered with the rest of them except in passing. It felt odd to think that as alone as he’d been, Haymitch had still had more friends, and closer ones, than she had.

“Thanks, Daze. Be taking you up on that,” Haymitch said in acknowledgment.

“Come over for dinner if you want,” she offered impulsively. “Be happy to have you.” She couldn’t say exactly where it had come from, but having seen how broken and lonely Haymitch had been, seeing the fingerprints of it on him still, she wouldn’t condemn anyone else to that.

Dozing through the worst of the early afternoon heat when it was too hot to do anything seemed like a good idea. The air conditioning was apparently broken, or maybe even here in the power-generating district, they had to conserve enough that it couldn’t be run constantly. Tugging off her shirt and kicking off her trousers, relieved that with him the scars didn't matter and lying down on the bed in her underwear, she said, “Seriously, don’t get any ideas. I’m just trying to cool off.” The idea of working up a sweat making love just didn’t appeal right then—maybe after dark when hopefully it cooled down.

Stripping down to his own undershorts, settling down beside her, he said with a smirk, “Wouldn’t dream of it, darlin’. Wouldn’t want to get you all hot and bothered so you need a cold shower to keep from jumping me.”

Anyone else making that joke would have gotten their head bitten off because fuck cold showers and the bad reminders they brought up. But considering he’d been through it as well, she gave him a pass. The fact the drowsiness of the heat was already making her sleepy probably helped too.

He was gone when she woke up, though she heard his voice faintly. Padding quietly downstairs, she heard he was on the phone. “…yeah, I get you, sweetheart.” Apparently he was talking to Katniss. He let out a deep, heavy sigh. “Katniss. Look. Ain’t saying he’s entirely right. But you make time with the dead too long, you start to forget how to be with the living.” The words were laced through with the bitter, tired knowledge of experience. He was right, though. He’d dragged himself back into the world of the living, and sometimes she thought he still dwelled too much with the dead. “Oh, for fuck’s sake, if you’re not gonna listen, why did you ev—“

So Katniss was ranting beyond the point of listening to advice. She held a hand out for the telephone. Shrugging, Haymitch handed it over. “Hey, Kittycat,” she said with a smirk. “What’s Hotbuns done that you want to string him up by his guts?” It had to be Peeta, after all. Nobody could piss a person off like those closest and most beloved.

There were a few moments of dead air. Then Katniss sullenly said, “I was trying to help the work crew at the mayor’s house. For Madge. My friend. The girl who gave me the mockingjay pin.” Another pause. “She was Maysilee Donner’s niece.” Yeah, she knew about Maysilee now, could put the name to the face of the blond girl who’d been Hayitch’s ally all those years ago. “Peeta was getting pissed off and saying I needed to not spend all my time down there, that I was coming home like I was a ghost myself.” Her voice was almost a mumble at that last. She could imagine Peeta getting frantic at seeing her slip away, unable to think of any way to bring her back except to try to keep her from that place. It wasn’t hard to remember that night with Haymitch after they’d recovered Peeta’s family and how she’d had to yank him back from the precipice of guilt and loss. “He got to bury his family. I want to bury my friend, that’s all.”

“Nothing wrong with that,” she said. “But?”

“But then when I’d had some time to think and I decided I’d tell him to stuff it where the sun ain’t shining, that Madge deserves as good as his family, he comes along and he’s acting like we didn’t even fight and he’s making cheese buns for me and trying to get me in bed!” The squawk of outrage must have been nearly loud enough to reach Haymitch’s ears.

She couldn’t help it, staring cracking up imagining it, Peeta ready to put it aside and Katniss just then spoiling to really start the fight. “Oh, hell. Sweetie. Let Auntie Jo give you some advice, mm? It’s like sex.” Haymitch got an exaggerated expression of interest at that, eyes wide and a smirk on his face, and she tried to not start snickering at him too. “Men, well, they’re quick to get going and quick to finish.”

“I ain’t quick to finish, thank you,” Haymitch pointed out with mock outrage. “You need me to prove it again?”

“Is Haymitch there making sex jokes?” Katniss groaned. She waved for Haymitch to shut up, though she was kind of enjoying the banter, and also enjoying how as usual it got to Katniss.

“Anyway, seems like we women take a bit longer to get warmed up and to get to the end. Sex and temper both. You ever see two men fight over something and ten minutes later they’re having drinks together like best pals? Two women fight and a week later they’re still saying ‘I hate that bitch’s guts.’ So when the thickheaded idiot we’re in love with,” she smirked at Haymitch, “is already done and moved on, we’re just getting wound up and ready to really fight.” She’d seen it a few times with Haymitch. She’d seen it with Finnick too, back in the day. After the initial quarrel, brooding and stewing and growing more pissed off about the thing, and when she charged out ready to fight with full fury and hit him up with it, it was catching him stunned and totally off-guard because he’d already left the argument behind in his mind. “So yeah, he already wrote the fight off as done.”

“But we weren’t finished!” Katniss said irritably.

“So sit him down and start it up again. Without yelling from the start,” she said with a shrug.

“Fine,” she grumped.

“Though you might get what you want by bringing it up right after giving him a good blowjob. Just saying.” In her experience it seemed like men were often both mindless and grateful enough to agree to pretty much anything at that point.

“Gee, thanks, Johanna,” and Katniss’ voice was a mix of exasperation and horror.

“Hey, it’s useful life advice. Here’s Haymitch.” She passed the phone to Haymitch who was obviously doing his best to contain his own laughter.

“Well, if you do kill him, remember, don’t use arrows because that’ll lead right back to you. Also you’re stuck hiding the body on your own, and he’s built damn solid,” Haymitch jokingly warned her. “Uh huh. Yeah, you too. ‘Bye.” He hung up the phone.

“Aw, their first big fight. They grow up so fast,” she said, and he laughed in answer to that.

“Chances are he’ll just go with her, probably better that he does. They’ll figure it out. They’re good kids.”

“You’re sounding disgustingly sentimental,” she teased him, leaning back against the countertop. “Whatever happened to Haymitch the cynical bastard?”

His smile was a little bit self-conscious, but sincere all the same. “Got some reason to care about the living now, don’t I?”

“Still here,” she reassured him quietly, reaching out and taking his hands in hers.

Chapter Text

“Well, ready for some more fun, Haymitch?” Dacia Goldgleam smiled at him, all white teeth unnatural against her sky-blue skin as her fingertip traced idly over his chest.

No, he wasn’t ready for more. Between multiple rounds with both Dacia and her sister Cherusca, frankly, he was fucked out and the thought of it was enough to exhaust him, but they’d injected him with something that made him respond nonetheless and his cock was still hard as anything, had been for the last few hours, and it hurt like hell. Most eighteen-year-old boys would happily fantasize about a threesome with two rich and horny nineteen-year-old girls. Of course, most teenage boys weren’t hired and threatened when it came to sex, and they weren’t facing a pair of freaks with dyed skin and dagger-like nails that had already left his back feeling like he’d had a cat dragged across it. He’d known from Briar that women took longer than men to get aroused, but yeah, they damn well could just keep going, and going, and going, and when it was two of them that were equally demanding, it was hell rather than any kind of fantasy.

But he could hardly plead that, or just beg for them to leave him alone already. So instead he struggled for a moment, casting around for something that would buy him even a little time but would fit with what they expected of him, the person they thought he was. Chantilly was trying to teach him how to deal with it better, the training they got in One about how to cope and how to gain the upper hand as best could be done. It was either that, or if he insisted on resisting and protesting, he’d end up with only the ones that wanted to make it as brutal as possible. With memories of last year where it felt like all he could do was submit and be fucked and then try to scrub his own skin off were still sharp in his mind, he had listened to her. He’d survived life in Twelve, harsh as it was, he would learn to deal with this. “Patience, ladies,” he said with an arrogant smirk he hoped looked real enough to pass muster. Remembering that once he’d actually been a cocky little bastard in truth seemed so far away now. “All good things are gonna come to those who wait.”

Cherusca’s hand brushed down his arm. He didn’t know what the Capitol doctors had done to give her that unnaturally snow-pale skin that shone like diamonds, but she felt cool to the touch too, like a reptile rather than the warmth of a human woman. “I never was good at waiting.”

“Cherusca!” Dacia snapped, scowling over at her sister and swatting the hand resting on Haymitch’s arm, “it’s my turn! He’s mine!” She reached down and grabbed his cock like she owned it, and he gritted his teeth and tried to not whimper or cry out because it was pure pain rather than pleasure.

He woke up with a gasp and the words he’s mine, he’s mine ringing in his ears and the memory of the Goldgleam sisters fighting over him. Like the butcher’s mutts fought over the few scraps and bones left each day when Callum was finished, back when Haymitch used to help out there when he was a little kid. With the snares the old man had showed him how to make, they’d gotten by at home. But when he was seven or eight, taking out the trash after school, those dogs and how they’d been ravenously waiting for the discards with hungry eyes had unnerved him.

Laying his head back on the uncomfortably hot pillow, his mind settled a bit and he realized he wasn’t eight and facing those dogs, or eighteen and stuck with the Goldgleam sisters treating him like their personal sex toy.

He heard the rustle of Johanna stirring next to him. He didn’t bother apologizing for waking her up. Neither of them did by this point. It was simply known and accepted that some nights, it would happen.

She didn’t touch him yet. That made him love her all the more, that understanding and acceptance that an instinctive move to comfort might not be for the best right at that moment. She’d wait for him to make that first move, as he did for her when it was one of her bad nights.

Some of those nights he’d start to shake it off quickly after waking, and others he would just wait it out. But there were times like tonight when the barrier between past and present seemed more like a gauzy curtain than a solid wall, when he could still feel those hands on his skin like it had been seconds ago rather than years.

He rolled over and kissed Johanna, hand turning her face towards his. A rough and desperate kind of kiss, needing this too much, to overlay the memory with this new reality, to banish the boy he’d been with the immediacy of the man he was now—a man who loved and was loved, who would never again need to submit himself to torture or degradation.

Her tongue pushed into his mouth and her hands pushed their way beneath the t-shirt he was wearing, shoving it up to allow better access. The feel of it, the calluses and the shape of her hands, how she touched him, was so familiar by now. With that response he knew she was all right with this, that she wanted him in return.

He felt the Goldgleam girls already receding a step away from him. Not nearly enough, though. He needed her closer than that. His hands were shaking like they used to when he’d been without a bottle of liquor for a day or so as he tugged at her pajamas, shoving her pants down her hips as she lifted them to help him out. He needed her so much in that moment he felt like he was going to fumble around or come in about ten seconds, like he was a teenage boy in truth.

He could hear his breathing, harsh and uneven, half panicked. Her hands were far steadier than his as they undid the drawstring of his pants and pushed them down. But at the touch of her hand on his cock, he froze, letting out a sharp, almost panicked protest of “Don’t.” The memory was right there of Dacia's hand on him, and the drugs and the sheer excruciating pain they’d caused, the hours and hours of that long night.

Immediately she let go of him. But for the moment it was no good, it was right there between the two of them. The awkward fear was suddenly there that hell, he wasn’t even sure he could get it up to make love to his own wife with how fucked up his mind was at the moment. Turning over and lying there on his back, giving a grunt of frustration, he put his hands over his eyes and let out a heavy sigh. Time to turn to Plan B, apparently.

The mantra had seemed utterly stupid the first time the head doctor in Thirteen insisted he go through it, especially doing it out loud for Aurelius. When he was more himself, in the light of day, even now he thought it was chock full of the “No shit, really?” fairly obvious kind of information. But it helped at times like these when he was unsteady and in need of finding firm ground again. Say the things that you know are true about your life.

“My name is Haymitch Abernathy,” he began steadily. When he heard Johanna call herself “Johanna Abernathy” now, he couldn’t help the small rush of pleasure and love and a sense of belonging to someone that went through him still. “I am forty-two years old. I survived the 50th Hunger Games when I was sixteen. And the 75th Games last summer, which means I’m the only person in Panem who’s ever endured two Quarter Quells. I messed up both of them so that’s something at least.” Focusing on slow, even breathing, he began hearing his heartbeat slow on down from its frantic pace from when he woke up. “I started a rebellion to overthrow that bastard Coriolanus Snow. We won. He’s dead. I helped take down Alma Coin. She’s on trial. I was captured. Tortured for six weeks. But I survived. And…I love Johanna Abernathy. My wife. We’ve been married, what, four months now.” She’s one of the few things that keeps me sane and sober every day, he added in the privacy of his own mind. His hands, clenched into fist, slowly eased.

“Better?” she asked him, propped up on one elbow, the skin of her forearm just brushing against him.

“Yeah,” he said. He reached out, his fingers seeking hers, knitting the two of them together and feeling more secure even by that small gesture. Some nights he wanted to just forget it and go back to bed, and she didn’t question that. But tonight it clung to him and he heard the questioning note in her voice that told him he’d probably said or done something before he woke up that caught her attention. So he asked, almost reluctantly, “What was I saying this time?”

She was quiet, too quiet. Then finally she sighed and said, “You were mumbling stuff like, ’Please. I can’t. It hurts. Don’t touch me.’” In his sleep, he’d been saying all the things his younger self had been screaming inside his head.

He rolled onto his side to face her and tried to keep himself relaxed. “You weren’t on the circuit long enough to find this out.” He was grateful she’d managed to get herself out of it, avoid the worst of the damage. “Eventually…they started to see you as an adult, not a kid.” That had happened sometime early in his twenties, and he could feel the shift in things. “The gloss wears off. The patrons that stuck with you, they wanted you to really play their lover, whatever role you’ve been cast in. It was…a lot easier, in a way. You knew exactly what they wanted and what to expect and how to play the part for them. And you were more used to it anyway by that time. But before you got to that point, those first few years were always the worst…”

“We were just a novelty fuck for them then,” she said flatly. “For anyone who had the cash and the clout. And they could do whatever they wanted with us. Was it one of those for you?”

“Yeah.”

“Are they dead?” she asked matter-of-factly.

“Not that I know of. Don’t know if Brocade’s people have arrested them either.”

“They probably will. She’d said she wants to nail them all for crimes against the people. It’s just a long list.” True enough, and it was all at once reassuring and depressing.

Feeling it recede from him a bit more than he was awake and calmer, he reached over and brushed his free hand against the softness of her cheek, thumb stroking the ridge of her cheekbone, seeing her eyes on him, wide and luminous in the pale moonlight. He cast around in his mind, trying to find something to help settle him again, and with relief, he thought he had found it. “Of course, Aurelius never got to hear the really good stuff about you…” Those last weeks in Thirteen, he and Johanna had been sleeping together, but they’d still been dancing awkwardly around what it meant, and besides, he wasn’t going to admit that to the damn shrink.

“Oh?” He could hear the amusement in her voice as she seemed to sense he was coming back to himself well enough to start to make jokes in that particular tone of voice. “Well, then tell Doctor Hanna all about it.”

“I’m married to Johanna Abernathy,” he said again. “Have been for four months. It’s maybe a good thing she doesn’t walk around naked much anymore because the woman is a fucking distraction. We’d end up having sex all the time.”

“Hell, we do that already,” she scoffed. “You’re about the randiest man I’ve ever met. Good thing we built that kitchen table solid.”

At least she didn’t make a joke about that being all the more remarkable given his age. “I’m making up for lost time,” he offered. After all, he’d pretty much missed out entirely on his late teens, twenties, and thirties in terms of living, period, let alone on having a normal sex life. Some days it felt like the formerly locked gates of something had been opened inside him, that he was rushing to experience all those things he’d been denied so long now that he could finally have them and take joy in them. “And hey, you were the one that insisted we needed to actually test the sturdiness of the table, so that’s absolutely on you.”

“Well, I’m not saying it’s a bad thing,” she answered, and he could hear the offer in her voice, and the question of Want to give it another go?

“Let’s see. Things I know are true. She’s small, but then again, I ain’t exactly tall either. But she’s made just right. Gotta admit I’m very partial to her breasts.” He reached out and cupped one in his hand, feeling the softness of it, the pebbling of her nipple against his palm. “Since they’re pretty magnificent, I have to say. Worth appreciating. Regularly.” He leaned down and kissed it, flicking his tongue across her nipple, hearing her swift inhalation, paying the same equal attention to the other one.

“Though her ass is damn fine too,” he went on, his other hand settling on the curve of it, gently squeezing. “After all, I really like a woman with something I can hold onto there.”

“Can you imagine the head doctor listening to this?” she said with a snicker.

“He’d be sitting there with his pen and paper going, ‘Oh, that’s very good. But how does it make you feel?’”

“How does it make you feel?” She wiggled a bit against his hand, the invitation now more than clear. To his relief, he could feel the first stirrings of interest in his cock at the thought of it.

He smirked at her, rolling onto his back and pulling her over him. “Randy?” He stretched up and kissed her again.

He’d covered well enough with the jokes, but the lingering last bits of the memory still made him a bit rougher than usual on her, but that was all right. She could take it and not be frightened or intimidated by it, just as he did the same for her when she woke up screaming. She’d walked that road too and she wouldn’t abandon him when he found himself stumbling in the darkness again. As he gripped her hips harder, urging her on, she moved on him faster and harder for it, her own fingers clenching tighter on his shoulders, as if she knew he needed the heat and the urgency and ferocity of it to successfully burn away the last traces of the nightmare. It worked. There was no room for anything else but her, the sight of her silvered by the moonlight as she moved and arched over him, the sound of the small gasps and whimpers and moans she made, the smell of her skin and her sweat, the feel of her body.

Feeling her shudder against him with a sharp gasp, feeling the pulse of her around him as she found her peak, she shifted and changed her angle just a bit and still kept pushing it relentlessly, giving both him and herself no quarter. Her cheek pressed against his as she seized his earlobe in her teeth for a moment and then said in his ear, low and fierce, “You’re mine, Haymitch. Not theirs.”

That too helped, covering over the words said then by Dacia, rather than being an uncomfortable reminder of them. There was possession in Johanna’s tone, yes, but love also. He was never less than himself to her, a whole man that she loved and lived with and bickered with and kept steady through the rough times, not just a victor to show off, not just a cock to fuck. “Yes,” he said lowly, nuzzling her neck. He belonged to her, body and soul, but she gave him the whole of herself in return, and so she didn’t own him. That was the difference.

Just before he gave himself up to the crest of pleasure he heard her cry out again. Leaning on him, panting with her breath warm against his neck, he held onto her for long minutes, feeling the calm lassitude coming over him, until she climbed off him. He lay back down then, pulling her in back in against his body. She lay there sprawled over him, head tucked under his chin, and her fingers trailed a path across his other shoulder, brushing for a moment through the hair on his chest. She laid her hand flat, her palm right over the still rapid beat of his heart.

“Still alive,” he told her. “In case you were checking. Still yours too,” he added softly.

“Finn told me about the forcefield, back in the arena,” she said. “That…” Her fingers twitched slightly against his chest. He tried to not think about the particular tone in her voice when she said Finnick’s name, even now, or about what whispered conversations the two might have had in the arena. More than that, he remembered hearing from Johanna how Blight had died. Maybe he’d been closer to him than Johanna had, but she had been the one left to find him, killed by the forcefield. Was she imagining him like that, lying there dead but for the lucky happenstance of Finnick knowing how to bring him back to life? “There were times I could tell they were working you over with the electrical wires,” she murmured. “By what they were saying, the sounds you made too. And…I kept thinking about Blight and thinking about you, and the electricity already killed you once, maybe all it would take was one asshole doing it a little too long, a little too strong, and…”

“I’d be more done than a New Year’s goose,” he said with dry sarcasm, because the horror of that was still too close to the surface too, and mocking it was the best way he knew to make it bearable. “It could have happened. They fucked it up with Lavinia, the Avox girl, and killed her. But…I’m OK. I mean, I got through all that training bullshit in Thirteen, couldn’t have done that with a bum heart. I’ll just try to—look, are you worrying about this because we’re in Five? I promise I ain’t gonna go play with any powerlines.” They’d toured one of the powerplants yesterday. Maybe that was it.

“Better not,” she said. “I don’t aim to lose you to something stupid like that.”

Somehow it was easier to talk about things in these quiet, relaxed moments together after sex than to just sit down and discuss them off the cuff. When they were like this, naked not only in body but in some ways, in spirit as well, the armor of wit and sarcasm had already been laid aside and the soft spots and the scars showed. Being already so vulnerable, the next step of laying more of their hearts and minds bare became easier. “You ever dream about that, me and the forcefield in the arena?” he asked her softly. “You saw the footage?” He’d seen it. Watching himself die had been surreal, to say the least.

“I saw it.” Her breathing was shaky for a moment, and she lifted her head, eyes on his face. “And yeah. Sometimes. And I’m the one there rather than Finnick and I don’t have the first fucking clue how to bring you back.”

He might have said something about Blight, about how by the time the darkness had lifted and she could have found him, she would have been far too late to save him anyway, but he knew it wouldn’t help.

He hesitated, his hand on her back tracing small idle circles, as much to touch her and reassure himself that she was there and real as for her sake. “Sometimes,” he admitted in a rough whisper, “I worry I’ll wake up. And I don’t know where I’ll be. Maybe I’m in that cell again. Maybe the arena with that shitty jungle. Maybe I’m drunk off my ass back in Twelve. Maybe I’m eighteen and I wish I was dead because I just had another half-dozen patron night. Hell, maybe I’m even back in the arena for the Second Quell. I don’t know…but I think when I wake up, I won’t be here. This is too good to be true. So it must be the dream.” He sighed softly and went on, “But that’s the venom talking, and the fear. And…this is real. I know that.” Cupping her face in his hands and kissing her gently, he told her, “Because you always bring me back.”

~~~~~~~~~

Time had passed swiftly in Five. Another meeting with Mayor Morath and Haymitch was busy once again arguing with the man about the electrical plants that were coal-fired. “Almost half of our production comes from coal!” Morath said with frustration. “If the entire electrical grid was up and running to all the districts, there’s no way we could supply all that power.”

“Yeah, but the Capitol probably made you build coal-fired plants so they could create a demand for Twelve to make us go mine coal,” Haymitch said, throwing his hands in the air in irritation. “And hell, we didn’t have power half the time in Twelve anyway!”

“That’s because coal’s so inefficient,” Morath said with exasperation. “The supply was shipped cross-country so it was always uncertain, whereas the hydroelectric and solar and wind sources are local.”

“So why the hell are we talking about needing coal for power plants you don’t even like? There ain’t gonna be coal mining in Twelve anytime soon, I can guarantee you that.”

“Well, we’ve got to do something because once the power grid is repaired, we simply can’t keep up with demand,” Morath insisted.

Seeing that Haymitch was stubbornly stuck on the idea of no more people dead in the coal mines ever and Esteban Morath was stubbornly trying to make the best of what he had in his district to keep all of Panem from bitching when their power didn’t work, Johanna decided to cut to the chase and reduce it back to practicality. “Does it strike you how idiotic it is that all the power production is in the southwest of Panem and you have to run lines all the way out to the other districts?”

Morath raised his bushy grey eyebrows. “Capitol made it that way,” he said. “But yes, the efficiency losses in running current from here all the way north to the farthest part of Seven or all the way east to Eleven and Twelve was…well, let’s be honest. It was ridiculous. We had to produce so much more power than ever made it out there just to account for that.”

Johanna let out a snort of amusement. “All the more reason to not keep it that way, right? Not gonna be able to use solar up in Six—shit, the sun probably ain’t shining there but what, five days a year? But I remember they’ve got themselves some good rivers. We had a dam in Seven in the north by Five Wolf Lake.” Apparently it had been badly damaged by the rebels during the fighting. “Ten and Nine have good rivers and some nice flat land for windmills. Probably makes more sense to build more power plants locally, doesn’t it?”

“But there’s nobody outside of Five who understands how power production and electrical conveyance works!”

“Yeah,” Haymitch said, leaning back in his chair, “but it’ll help that the borders will be open now and people from Five can travel—or move—to any district they choose. If you can get a few willing to move there, even just for a few years, and help train the locals, problem solved.”

“I suppose you’re both right. Line repair is honestly what most of our district’s citizens were employed in, because when something failed out in the borderlands between, say, Seven and Eight, we had to send a work crew all the way from here to go deal with it. Repairing and replacing cable too, constantly. It was…inefficient, to say the least. Us, Three with their communications lines, and Six with running the workforce transportation—we all have citizens who were probably only ever in-district for mandatory gatherings on Reaping Day and Tour Day.”

“So let’s not throw more effort in a bad system here. May mean the power supply is a bit dicey for a while as you’re building production places, sure, but it’ll work better in the end, right?”

“I’ll have to see who’s interested in moving out-of-district to help be some of the starter staff for new sites.” Morath gave both of them a wry smile. “Though since some of our people have barely lived here since they were eighteen that really may not be a hard sell.”

“Well, your people know better than I do what’ll work best for building a new power plant in terms of requirements,” Haymitch answered. “I know where there’s a river but I’ve got no damn clue if it’s a good one for your purposes. So if you’ve got some scout crews willing to go out to the other districts, check it out, and draw up some plans?”

“Of course. I’ll make the announcement tomorrow.”

“Ain’t it nice when we can just get along?” she said sweetly.

Back at the Mesa, sitting down to lunch with Dazen, she said to Haymitch, “You got pretty damn fired up about the coal. No pun intended.”

He looked at her and she could see from the intensity in his eyes he felt this one deeply as she had thought. “There were too many funerals in Twelve. Too many bodies families never even got back to bury. We all knew enough widows and widowers and orphans. If coal’s gotta be done, it’s damn well gonna be done a lot safer than it was. I ain’t letting Esteban Morath, or even Brocade, rush what few people are left from Twelve to open the mines again and cost more lives by doing it sloppy just so some lightbulbs can work.”

“I think enough have died overall since Panem began because for the Capitol, life was held too cheaply,” Dazen said softly. “We shouldn’t make their mistake all over again.”

Sensing the mood at the table, she said, “So what’s for lunch? Going to light our mouths on fire again, Dazen?” Dazen found out quickly he’d had to tone down his cooking for the two of them. The Five spices were mostly unfamiliar to begin—Seven and Twelve weren’t exactly known for spicy fare—and then Dazen apparently had an iron tongue and gut and liked to dump the hot pepper in.

“It’s duck today that a kid in the village snared for me,” he said, passing her the platter. “Supplies from Ten are unreliable at best right now, and I don’t want to start a meat war,” and that he directed jokingly at Haymitch.

“Meat war?” Obviously this was another of those references that was before her time.

Haymitch just grunted and with a faintly sheepish look, piled some of the duck on top of the thin flatbread made with tesserae grain. “Before your time,” he said, confirming her suspicion.

That left her looking at Dazen. “So?” she coaxed.

“Must have been when Haymitch was about twenty. It was the year they had the wild pigs…”

“55th. Spark was the victor that year. I was twenty-one,” Hayitch interjected, and by this point the sharpness of his memory didn’t surprise her. “The year before Greer.”

“Ah,” Dazen said, and a momentary sadness touched his expression at the mention of his mentoring partner. Recovering, he went on, “So anyway, some of the tributes were cooking pieces of one and Haymitch and Chaff get into this argument about exactly what sauce is appropriate to put on a slow-cooked pig. Apparently Twelve and Eleven have very clear ideas about pork.”

“We’d have a pig barbecue occasionally at a wedding if everyone could chip in a bit to buy one from the butcher. Same in Eleven, sounds like. And I told that idiot, you don’t ever put tomatoes in the sauce,” Haymitch scoffed, though she could see both fondness and pain in his face at the memory of a good friend. He and Chaff had been virtually inseparable during the Games. She could still remember seeing the two of them in their mentor chairs, passing a bottle and cracking jokes.

“Right, so they go back and forth and bellow about it and they’re getting more and more pissed, and we’re all just laughing our asses off, and Angus decides to poke the rattlesnake a bit more, chimes in they’re both morons, because if you wanted to do a barbecue right, you damn well use beef.”

“And me and Chaff, that stopped us both from yelling at each other and we both told Angus he was an idiot because everybody knows it’s about the pork,” Haymitch said, now finally chuckling a bit. He smiled, a little wistfully. “Maybe I ought to give the damn tomatoes a try. For Chaff.”

Reaching for another chunk of the cake-like bread they made with honey here in Five, she said, “Bet Brutus was listening to the whole conversation and just hoping someone would actually make some of that stuff.”

That set both of the men off laughing, and she smirked victoriously, taking a bite of the bread. “Anyway,” Dazen said finally, “I was going to the Memorial Hall today after the worst of the heat passes, so…”

“Ah, yeah,” Haymitch answered. “We should go.”

“Is the tribute cemetery right there?” she asked.

Dazen hesitated and then nodded. “They made us keep it here in the district center. If we’d had our way we’d have at least put them up on a bluff…” It had been like that in Seven also. If they could have, she was sure they’d have buried the tributes out somewhere peaceful in the woods, away from the lumber and paper mills and carpentry shops. That was what they did with their own dead, and planted the memorial tree in the winter town to visit. Instead they’d had to bury all the tributes in the winter town too.

Haymitch raised a questioning eyebrow, obviously wondering why she wanted to visit there, but apparently he was smart enough to reason it out. She was grateful he didn’t speak up. “Could you do me a favor when you leave?” Dazen asked Haymitch.

“Sure, what?”

“Communications in Nine are apparently down still and the phones don’t work. Clover and I, well, we talked a good bit those times were down in the training room in the Training Center. Since we were two of the ones left with nobody else in the room with us on our floors, you know? And I haven’t been able to get hold of her since we all split up. Maybe it’ll be fixed by the time you get there, but just in case, can I give you a letter to take to her?”

She saw Haymitch study Dazen with interest for a minute, and whatever thoughts he had must have been all right, because finally he nodded. She had her suspicions, but again, it was that frustrating wall of history she didn’t know and wasn’t a part of in the way these two were. “Of course. Be glad to do it.”

Walking down to the Justice Building a few hours later after another nap through the heat and calling Katniss to wish her a happy eighteenth birthday, she chatted with Dazen about the place, the odd material they used for it and the round tower. Timber framing, of course, which she was used to seeing, and apparently some bricks too, but it was all covered over with a hard shell of a pale, clay-like substance. It had interested her on her Tour, different and even more incongruous against the glass and solar panels of a lot of the other buildings, but she was hardly going to ask Gemma about it. “The adobe stays pretty cool in the heat,” Dazen said. “A lot better than the houses in the Mesa, actually. Apparently there used to be quite a few buildings like that back when it was North America.”

She could see he was right. Immediately after stepping inside out of the searing sun, the coolness of the interior was welcome. Brushing off her sweaty brow, she said grumpily, “And of course the cemetery’s outside.”

“Unfortunately. The exit to it is towards the back. But here,” Dazen said, nodding to a booth where a tall, thin woman with grey-streaked dark red hair had baskets of candles. “You want white, for remembering the dead,” he informed Haymitch.

“So what are the others for?” she asked, seeing red and blue also.

“Red’s for newlyweds. Part of our marriage rites.” He gave them that grin again. “Like I said, it seems more meaningful than a lightbulb, right?” Remembering coming out of the bitter winter cold and lighting the first fire in their house together in Twelve as part of their own marriage ritual, bringing light and warmth, making it into a new home for her, maybe home for the first time for him ever. Then she remembered what it had been like making love in front of that fire on her forest cat rug after they got Katniss and Peeta out the door. She remembered too how once they got to Two and the electric lights, some kind of the idyll and magic of their quiet life by candlelight had receded into the past. Glancing over at Haymitch, she wondered if he was remembering the same. “And blue’s for good wishes for a new kid,” Dazen went on. Haymitch didn’t flinch. His expression didn’t change at all.

“All right, white it is,” he said calmly, stepping forward to the candlemaker. “That’s the Memorial Hall?” He nodded to an open doorway where she could see the flickering shine of candles within, against dark walls.

“Yeah. Tribute cemetery’s this way,” Dazen told her, leading the way through the lobby of the building. Back out into the too-hot, too-bright sunlight, she squinted and saw the dazzling white of the marble headstones there, row upon row. “You want me here, or…”

“I’ve got it,” she said, shaking her head dismissively. “You go deal with your candle for Sanne.” She’d learned from Haymitch that she’d been Dazen’s wife, dead almost ten years now. Even the greater wealth of Five, and a victor’s riches, couldn’t deal with treating cancer. Only the very best hospitals in the Capitol had that kind of ability, and she knew Snow would have had no interest at all in letting a victor’s wife come there for treatment when simply letting her die slowly and in agony would have been such a more effective message to Dazen about how powerless he still really was. Her Auntie Inge had died of cancer two winters after Johanna’s Games. At least she’d been able to buy her morphling for the excruciating pain, which she wouldn’t have been able to do before. That had been one of the few times she actually felt good about being a victor. Dazen had been able to do at least that much to ease Sanne’s passing.

Moving among the rows, she read some of the names. Steven Flores. Maria Chapman. Finally, she found the marker. The girl from Five that year had been named Georgina Nunez. The boy…well, for her, there was no forgetting the boy. Clark Saunders, reaped as District Five tribute in the 66th Hunger Games.

She remembered him, big and stocky. She remembered his blond hair and the greasy feel of it beneath her fingers after four days in the arena without a bath, as she tried to push him away from her. She remembered his crooked front tooth she’d seen while his mouth was contorted in a grimace of lust and rage and fear. She remembered his dark eyes, wide and wild as he looked down at her, as he ground against her, pressing her down into the grass and forcing her legs open. Let’s give the sponsors a show.

Looking at his marker, she didn’t know exactly why she had come. She didn’t know whether she wanted to kick it or piss on it or break down or what. She only knew that whatever she’d become in the arena in order to survive, Clark Saunders and how he’d tried to rape her before intending to kill her had been the catalyst for it. That had been the thing that finally got through her terror, the realization that everyone back home would watch this, watch her being violated. She’d expected to die. She hadn’t expected that. She knew better now, knew it would have been edited out and the tape only sold to the most perverted Capitol types with a taste for that.

She thought she’d escaped that fate and a year later there she was lying underneath Gaius Luna and others after, enduring it times beyond counting over the next few summers, shamed and humiliated and hurt. It was all the same to them, wasn’t it? They thought they had the right to do what they wanted to her to get what they wanted. “Bastard,” she hissed at his headstone. “You fucking bastard. We all went kind of crazy, but…what kind of sick little shit were you to begin with? We knew we had to kill to get out of there alive. We didn’t have to rape. We didn’t have to torture. You motherfucker. You tried it because you wanted to, because you wanted to feel like you were powerful in that hellhole, and that’s all. Maybe nobody deserved the Reaping but I’m not going to damn well cry that I killed you. I’d fucking kill you outside of the arena if you tried it now. I defended myself. I’m not going to apologize. And I don’t forgive you. You know what? I’d never even been kissed yet and the first time a boy touched me, it was like that. But I’m not little Hanna now. I survived even worse than you. I’ve moved beyond you. So fuck you, Clark. You don’t matter.”

With that she turned and walked away, feeling like at least some weight had been lifted off her shoulders by it. She paused for a moment at the stone for Marissa Mellone, remembering a few moments of the red-haired girl from the 74th Games, and told her, “If you found a way out of the arena on your own terms, good for you. Means you were damn well smarter than the rest of us and smarter than the Capitol. And you found a way that you didn’t spend the next few decades suffering for it like Haymitch did. We’ll light a candle for you.”

Pulling open the door into the Justice Building, she stepped back into the cool shade of it. Walking across the multicolored tiles of the floor, she went to the candlemaker. “A red and a white one,” she requested. “Four months still counts as newlyweds, right?”

The woman handed them over, giving her a smile. “Congratulations to you too, by the way.” At least she didn’t jokingly ask if a blue candle might be needed in the future.

The Memorial Hall was made of polished dark stone, so the light of the flickering candles reflected all the more sharply. She looked and saw the names etched on the various slabs of stone by year, and some blank panels on the wall for Five’s dead yet to come. Several others were there lighting their candles also. Dazen was there, lighting several candles, presumably for his wife and for Laurence and Lamina and Greer, and she had the feeling he might be near the section that had Sanne’s name on it. Seeing Haymitch kneeling and finishing lighting what looked like a good dozen candles, she went and knelt by his side. “Who?” she asked, nodding to them.

“Too many,” he said simply. “That lady doesn’t have enough for ‘em all. So…just figured this might cover it. To let them know I don’t forget.”

That was both his blessing and his curse, in some ways. Reaching out, she placed the white candle upright in the clay rack, spatters and dribbles of wax speaking of other candles that had been there until they had burned out. Striking the match, she reached out and lit it. He didn’t ask who she lit it for. Maybe he assumed it was for Marissa, though she figured he’d taken care of that himself. Shit, she hoped he didn’t think it was for that asshole Clark. “For Marissa,” she found herself lying clumsily about it.

Sorry, she thought to the kid they weren’t going to have, the baby she would have had now in about three months. But somehow, watching the flame of it and how it reflected off the stone, it eased the hurt of it a little bit. I haven’t forgotten you either. She didn’t think Haymitch had either, but she didn’t know it mattered to him so much. Coming in the middle of everything as it had, and it wasn’t like they’d been trying for a kid, or known she was pregnant before that. Maybe he’d simply shrugged off the burden of it more easily than she had.

Taking a deep breath and trying to clear her mind, she put the red candle in the next holder. He looked at it, and even by candlelight she knew he could see the color was obviously different. “A little extra luck for us would never hurt,” he commented with warmth and amusement in his voice. Taking his hand in hers, they reached out and lit the candle together, watching the wick catch and the flame burst to life, another pinpoint of light in the Hall. “You’ll be my light in the darkness,” he murmured, words she remembered from the Twelve wedding song, as his hand squeezed hers.

“And you’re mine,” she whispered back, knowing that tonight, for the first time in years, she wouldn’t worry that she would dream of Clark.

Chapter Text

The people of District Eight clung to the shadows now, always in a rush in the cool spring morning, as if trying to melt into the shabby brick and timber walls of the slums they lived in and escape the notice of the Peacekeepers patrolling every street. The bright headscarves of their women made trying to blend in something of a moot point, but the haste and the fearful avoidance were there all the same.

Theo could hardly blame them. They’d blown up a factory. They’d blown up a fucking factory two months ago. It would have been one thing if the rebels had held the place and were shooting at the Peacekeepers trying to recapture the district.

It could have been that way. For a time it had been brutal fighting against well-supplied rebels making use of the armory from Peacekeeper HQ, and the Peacekeepers were capturing the district back building by building. He was lucky. He’d taken only minor wounds for his trouble, a few near-misses and clips by lucky shots, but nothing serious. He didn’t like to think how many rebels he must have killed. He knew of at least a half-dozen he knew he’d shot himself that he had watched die—however many more he hadn’t seen, he didn’t know.

But that had been putting down the rebellion. The factory, though, that clung to him still. They’d almost finished recapturing Eight and quieting things down, just mopping up a few last diehard holdouts among the rebels. There had been no good reason to do it. But all the same on a cold and grey Tuesday morning the explosion had rocked the air, and even most of the Peacekeepers hadn’t known what the fuck had just happened. They only heard back at HQ that they’d blown the factory as a message to rebels here and elsewhere, since apparently the rebellion had been conceived there, sedition and treason whispered below the whirring and clacking noise of the constantly flying shuttles and sewing machine needles.

Three hundred and thirteen dead was the official count, because the work shift had been running in full force. Even the children were there after their day at school. Men. Women. Children. Passing by the rubble, he had smelled the powder and smoke and the stench of burned human flesh. Body parts lay in the street where the power of the blast had thrown them. He remembered looking down and seeing there had been a hand too small to belong to anything but a child, the palm turned up as if in supplication, the fingers half-curled in.

It had the intended effect on the rebels. The other factories ran swiftly and efficiently and without a hint of dissent. Theo doubted they even really needed as many Peacekeepers as were set to guard the workfloor each day to enforce the total silence and isolation of the workers as much as was possible. The message had been made loud and clear.

True enough that children paid the price every year in the Games for the treason of the districts during the Dark Days, and maybe this was really no different than that. But still, that child’s hand haunted his thoughts sometimes. Had things been different, he would still have been out in the districts too. He might have had a kid himself, probably would have, given that almost nobody was unmarried by twenty-five when they all lived fast and died young. He might have been unhappy enough with his life…no, never mind those thoughts. Dangerous, and wrong besides. His life as a Peacekeeper was better than anything he would ever have had in Twelve, laboring his life away in the mines and like as not, dying while his kids were still young.

But he went around day by day still thinking that perhaps some kind of a line had been crossed now, and there was no way to step over it again. No way to take it back. So the days just went on and that was that. Eight had been recaptured and pacified and that was what mattered. At least they got permission for the locals to go dig in the rubble and retrieve what sad, pathetic broken bits they could of their dead so they wouldn’t stink with the warming weather.

Though then once the retrieval was done, they’d been ordered to confiscate the bodies and make the locals dump them in a common pit outside the district center. “They don’t deserve the comfort of laying traitors to a proper rest,” Head Bloodgood had said fiercely. “I don’t want any memorials to those bastards.”

The men and women of Eight hadn’t given any obvious lament as they carted the bodies to the trench, burned and broken pieces all unidentifiable. Maybe they were finally too broken to weep. Maybe how destroyed the remains were made it easier than putting a whole body in there, having to look upon the face of a loved one and commit them to that fate.

He could still look to the west from the third floor of HQ, outside the edge of the city, and see the brown scar of overturned earth where he was sure the grass wouldn’t grow this year.

Yet another routine patrol on a miserable day pissing down rain, seeing nothing but white winter greatcoats on their fellow Peacekeepers standing out stark against the dingy brick buildings—it was April already but chilly, as spring was coming late this year this far north—and the furtive figures of the natives. “Rather be inside right now with some coffee, I doubt anyone would even fart now in this district without a say-so,” Thalaea muttered to him, and he couldn’t help but agree with her.

They passed the ruins of the bombed-out factory. When they’d been supervising the workers in the excavation of the dead, they’d all seen the burned and shredded scraps of familiar white cotton and wool. They’d found out soon enough, those that hadn’t been on a duty tour in Eight prior to the rebellion, that the factory had been the one where the workers made all of Panem’s Peacekeeper uniforms. Every time he passed the place now and saw that silent heap of rubble, the uneasy feeling tingled down his spine wondering whose hands in that factory had made the uniform he currently wore even now, and whether or not they were now lying in pieces in that communal pit. It seemed significant to him that the whole thing had started there in the uniform factory, not the factory that wove silks to send to One to be painted, not the factory that made the denim for the jeans and canvas work trousers that the laborers wore in pretty much all the six outlying districts. They hate us, he thought with that icy feeling. And here we are in even greater numbers after kicking the shit out of them.

They’d quelled the rebels and that was necessary. But the uneasy feeling that they’d put down one rebellion only to sow the seeds of another clung to him. Panem couldn’t keep this many Peacekeepers here forever to maintain a hard hand on the reins of Eight. With the casualties to boot, pulling Peacekeepers from all over to come here meant ranks in all the other districts had to be running thin, and of course they’d reinforced Twelve also due to rumors of unrest there.

Thinking of Twelve brought thoughts of Myrina—how long had it been since he had seen her, heard her voice or her laughter? Near to four months now, it must be, and it seemed like the longer he was here, the grimmer it became, the dimmer the memory of her grew and the dimmer the memory of the man he’d been in One, when things were easy and life was good and it made sense.

He wished he could call her. Even just five minutes. But what would he say? I want to go home. Away from here. I don’t even know what we’re doing here anymore, babe. The things we did… Treason to speak it, certainly not within earshot of the Head since the only phone was at HQ. He ought not to even think it, but every time he thought of the factory, of that child’s hand, of that mass grave, it was right there, dark and looming over most everything.

So instead he just turned his face away from the rubble and kept on the duty round. As if anyone would cause trouble tonight—they would all be expected to be crowded around a television for the mandatory special programming anyway. Something to do with Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark’s wedding. He hadn’t even spoken to his own fiancée in months. He had dreams sometimes about the fighting, about the factory, and woke up in a cold sweat. He could hardly find it in him to care about those two young kids and their giddiness over some lavish Capitol-provided wedding. Fuck fairy tales, seems like the world is knee-deep in shit, he thought.

Thalaea seemed lost in her own thoughts. Seemed like most of the Peacekeepers on the duty squad he led didn’t say much of anything these days, except maybe Longinus. The boy was a first-tour, had been assigned to Eight, and wouldn’t stop running his mouth about being here from the beginning for the fight and how he’d show traitors what they deserved, and Theo had taken just about enough of it. Lon was young and cocky and obviously looking to earn his stripes by being a big damn war hero, but he was frankly sick of it. There was no glory to be earned now in babysitting a bunch of pacified, frightened people.

As if he’d summoned him with the thought, he heard Longinus’ voice then, raised from somewhere in an alley up ahead. “Don’t be in such a hurry, girl! Someone might think you’re up to something.”

With a quick glance at Thalaea, seeing her brows furrowed in concern too, the two of then approached. Not running, of course—it didn’t sound urgent, and it wouldn’t do to be seen to appear panicked in front of a district native. Peacekeepers had to strive to be calm and in control.

Longinus had a girl, by the look of her maybe sixteen or seventeen, up against the wall. Not holding her there with his hands on her, but his gloved hands bracketing either side of her shoulders and his arms right there made it difficult for her to try to get away. “Where are you in such a rush to?” he demanded.

“There’s…there’s the mandatory programming tonight, and my shift just ended…” she stammered, green-gold eyes wide with fright. “Please, just…”

“Or maybe you’re going to a meeting with your little rebel friends, mm?” Lon raised a hand and she flinched. He tugged at the edge of her purple headscarf, his other hand landing on her breast and squeezing roughly. “Maybe I ought to search you to see if you’re smuggling something out of the factory, huh?”

Theo couldn’t say whether she looked more afraid at the hand on her breast or the one looking to yank off her headscarf. He’d never worked in Eight himself, but Theo had always seen the women of Eight on television at Reaping Day and the like, all with their brightly colored scarves. Actaeon had grown up here, though, and he’d explained about the women. Back in the early days working in the factories, even before the Dark Days, too many girls and women were getting injured by their long hair being caught in the constantly moving machinery. The injuries from it were gruesome, to say the least. Apparently District Nine had the same problem with farm machinery. So the solution had been that all District Eight women, while at work, had to cut their hair, or cover it. They chose to cover it, and this being the textiles district, the covering apparently it had evolved from a simple cotton kerchief like most other districts into something utterly personal, the color of it and the embroidery and the fabric salvaged from the factory scraps all utterly significant to the woman in question. Even the way she tied it could apparently mean something.

So the headscarf had evolved from simply practicality to something deeply symbolic and part of the local lifestyle as well. The women of Eight wore their headscarves all the time now, not just at work. Apparently the only people who ever saw their hair were family. It’s considered immodest now for a woman to show her hair in public, Actaeon explained, and added with a grin, though it’s erotic as hell, we boys used to dream about untying a girl’s scarf and seeing her hair, getting our hands in it. Thinking of how only he saw Rina with her hair down from its regulation utilitarian hairstyle, how he loved to pull the pins loose and run his fingers through it, he could understand that.

He’d seen a few plain black headscarves lately, for mourning, alongside the bright sky blue and lemon yellow and fuschia pink of the usual offerings. That was the only defiance the local women had showed. He had the feeling more would have worn black if they hadn’t been afraid of it being seen as another attempt at rebellion. They needn’t have worried. He doubted most Peacekeepers even knew what it all meant.

Longinus had been here a couple years though, so he definitely knew what that scarf meant, and that in thinking of yanking it off her, from the girl’s perspective, he might as well strip her naked in public. He wondered suddenly how the girls from Eight felt every Games, since not only were they facing death, they faced it feeling probably ashamed and awkward besides because they always they went into the arena wearing a uniform with Eight’s deep blue, but not their headscarves. Between the scarf and how he was groping her, Longinus obviously meant to shame this girl as much as possible. It pissed him off, frankly. This wasn’t enforcement of the law, it was just a boy trying to be an asshole and frightening a girl to feel more like a man. “We have a problem here with her, Lieutenant Law?” he spoke up coolly.

“Colonel Law,” Longinus gulped, looking embarrassed and caught out for a moment, and then his expression hardened. “Sir, I’m investigat—“

“I really doubt she’s hiding a bomb in her headscarf.” He wouldn’t bark at the boy in front of her. It wouldn’t be professional. But oh, how he wanted to do it. Holding his temper in check with effort, he told her, “Take a hike and go home for the programming,” jerking his head towards the street. She wasted no time complying, her thick-soled boots echoing against the road as she ran.

Once she was gone, then he finally felt a little more free to let loose a little of the frustration. “Lieutenant Law, we enforce the law here and keep things from going totally to shit. That’s it. Feeling up one of the factory girls hardly—“ He realized he sounded a bit stilted, sententious even, but What the fuck were you thinking, you stupid little bastard? didn’t quite fit into the professionalism of the chain of command. At least, not with a rookie whose disposition he didn’t quite trust to not rat him out to the Head if his disciplining a junior officer wasn’t by the book.

“Sir—“

“Shut up,” he snapped. “You really want to stir the locals up again by being so obviously over the line in your enforcement? How many brothers and sisters did we lose in the line of duty putting down one rebellion? You were here since the start of it, so you keep reminding us, so you ought to know. Keep your hands where they belong if you have actual cause for a patdown search. And keep your fucking hands off the women’s scarves. I know you ought to know better than that.”

“Do we need to report this as a discipline issue?” Thalaea asked, her dark eyes carefully calm, making it obvious the call was up to him.

He sighed mentally. Filling out the forms for disciplinary action was a hassle and to be honest, with how savage Head Bloodgood’s mood was lately, he doubted it would really go anywhere besides. More than a few people at HQ probably felt the locals deserved whatever any Peacekeeper decided to put them through. “No, Major Thistledown. I’m sure he just misunderstood some things. Happens to first-tours all the time, right? He walks away with a warning.” He turned to glower at Longinus. “This time.

“Thank you, sir,” Longinus mumbled, making it all into one word, having at least enough brains to realize he’d gotten away easy.

Once the round was done, he and Thalaea went back to HQ and the next duty pair relieved them in patrolling their sector. Evenings were quieter, with the factories shut down for the night, so patrols were reduced compared to day duty monitoring the work floor. So that meant most everyone was crowded around a television—those just coming off duty were still here at HQ, while those finished for the night or with the late watch would be at their temporary housing on Peacekeepers’ Row. The only ones allowed to miss it would be those out walking the beat.

Theo kept himself busy filling out his duty forms while Katniss Everdeen modeled gown after gown for the viewers at home and Caesar Flickerman invited callers to cast their vote for her gown. He figured he was technically fulfilling the laws regarding mandatory programming by glancing up occasionally at the screen and halfway paying attention, then keeping busy with far more important things. “You wanna call in and vote, Jussy?” Marcellus called to his partner Justicia with a lazy grin.

“Fuck you, Marc,” she said with a snicker. “The last time I wore a dress was, oh…let me see, that would be never.” Growing up in Two as she had, raised at the Peacehome, Theo didn’t doubt she’d been in trousers and handling a stick-sword about as soon as she could walk.

“Well, I like the one with the pearls,” Thalaea said, and there was a hint of wistfulness in her voice. She was Capitol-bred, bound over to Peacekeeper training as the price for her father’s arrest for treason. Now she was past thirty, still single as all Peacekeepers had to be, but maybe when she was a little girl she’d dreamed of a cute boy and a pretty wedding gown too.

“Good thing Cinna Locke had the material for those dresses on hand already,” Justicia commented dryly. “He might have a harder time getting it now between things here in Eight and how it is in One.” Half the silk factory’s machinery had been damaged and the engineers from Three hadn’t come out yet to fix it. Suffice it to say that didn’t matter quite as much given that most of the silk dyers and painters and embroiderers were out of work in One anyway given nobody in the Capitol was buying luxury fabric.

The voters apparently did pick the one with the pearls, and white roses, and the music, and the cake. He was halfway amused to note that the close runner-up on that last one was that Peeta, the baker, ought to just make it himself but Joy Cloudmist, co-hosting with Caesar, was vocally aghast at the idea that the groom should have to lift a finger about his own wedding. “It’s about the bride!” she shrilled.

“And such a beautiful bride she makes, Joy. We can all look forward to the wedding day of Peeta Mellark and Katniss Everdeen this summer, right before the Quarter Quell!”

“Married while mentoring, and in a Quarter Quell,” because of course Peeta would take Haymitch’s place now as the male Twelve mentor. “One hell of a honeymoon,” Theo said dryly. He wasn’t quite sure where the sarcasm in his voice came from, but it was there anyway. Twelve’s kids were doomed anyway this year, everyone knew it. Katniss and Peeta won last year and Haymitch won the last Quarter Quell. The tributes of all the other districts, and Careers especially, would be targeting both Twelve tributes right from the starting gong to prevent a repeat win.

Of course, he shut his mouth in the next fifteen minutes when President Snow came on after the wedding programming, and he and all of Panem found out that the lovebirds would be in the arena rather than holding down mentor stations. “She might not need that dress after all,” Marcellus muttered, and strangely, he sounded almost sad.

“Well, let’s hope we’re all out of here before the Quell, because they’ll all be upset since Eight’s pretty hopeless,” Thalaea said. “Woof is past eighty and he’s deaf as a post. As for the women, none of them is that impressive. Taffeta—I mean, is Taffeta even involved in this? She’s been shacking up with the Secretary of Finance so long she’s basically a Capitol citizen by now.”

“No clue,” Justicia said. “But you’re right. Taffeta’s got to be almost seventy, and Cecelia and Georgette both won because they got lucky.”

“District Two,” Marcellus said with a swift shrug. “I’m not just talking district pride either. We’ve got the most and the best victors. It’s a safe bet.”

“Don’t count Finnick out,” Justicia argued with him.

“Just because you have smutty dreams about him…”

“Oh, shut up, what about you and how you have the hots for Sandy?”

“She’s cute!”

“Yeah, well, they’re pretty much all gonna be dead in July,” Theo cut them off, feeling impatient with the banter about it. “Twenty-three of them, anyway.”

“So much for the star-crossed lovers,” Thalaea murmured with regret. “There’s no way they both survive…”

“There’s only one way it happens,” Theo said, his mind already leaping to grasp something comfortably logical, the pure facts. “Haymitch goes in the arena in Peeta’s place, and before he gets killed, he somehow manages to keep Katniss alive long enough for her to outlast everyone else.” It seemed like the slimmest of chances, and there was little he could say that was inspiring or encouraging about the man he’d seen on the television these past years being able to protect Katniss long enough to matter. Not that Theo was a huge fan of Peeta and Katniss personally, not with how much of a letdown they’d been in person, but he felt for them. They had lost their chance at happiness through no fault of their own. Missing Myrina as he was, he felt it keenly. He wondered if in District Twelve tonight, where Rina must be watching this announcement even as he was, how those two had reacted.

There were a few moments of silence as everyone mulled that over. “Nah,” Marcellus finally said with a grin. “He might have been something to watch last Quell, but he’s an old drunk, he’ll be dead by the end of the bloodbath. He has to know that. Peeta has a better chance of living long enough to keep Katniss alive.”

“You want to place a bet on that?” Justicia said. “I’m with Theo. Haymitch deliberately takes the fall for Peeta and Katniss. It’s not like he’s got much to live for, and if he lets one of them die in the arena? He can forget anyone in this entire country speaking to him again.”

He shook his head wearily and finished the paperwork, refusing to get in on the betting pool that quickly sprung up. He’d always been a spoilsport about that in past Games. They always teasingly blamed it on him having some kind of born aversion to them thanks to being from hopeless District Twelve originally.

The spring and early summer months passed swiftly enough, more of the same humdrum patrols and assurances that Eight was well and truly crushed. A few Peacekeepers got sent to other districts where it appeared with the Quell approaching, there was some noisy and fury going on. Theo was relieved enough to see Longinus was one of them, sent off to District Eleven. By and large, though, those that had been there to fight the rebellion stuck around just in case Eight got any more ideas.

On Reaping Day they all crowded into the square where old Woof Jones with a few wisps of white hair and weary eyes stood alone in the section for the males. Taffeta Locke had indeed been recalled from the Capitol for this, and she stood with Georgette Watkins and Cecelia Vechter with the women. He thought, living in the Capitol year-round as she did, it was probably the first time she’d worn a headscarf in decades. Everything went orderly and pretty quiet. The rifles at the ready weren’t in any way needed.

Woof’s reaping was a foregone conclusion, but the women came first. Cecelia’s name was drawn. Her children clung to her, crying and wailing. Volunteer, for fuck’s sake, he thought, looking at the two older women. Georgette had never had kids, and Taffeta’s son was a grown man, Twelve’s stylist for the female tribute. Taffeta looked like she was about to step forward but Georgette grabbed her arm, shaking her head and saying something quietly to her. Seeing the rifles at the ready, he realized of course even something like that could be seen as dangerously defiant after Katniss. They were too beaten down and scared to risk it, not even for Cecelia’s kids.

After the train left for the Capitol carrying all four of Eight’s victors to serve as mentors and tributes in the Quell, the crowd quickly vanished back to their houses to start watching the recaps of the reapings around Panem. A few groans greeted Brutus’ volunteering for Two, but as most of the Two victors since him had been females—One and Four often tended to take the Two male out early once the pack broke apart, recognizing a large threat—it was reluctantly agreed that unimpressive in his first Games or not, he was probably one of the better options. Finnick Odair was reaped from Four as their male tribute, which would certainly make for an interesting Games. It meant at least one Capitol darling, either Katniss or Finnick, wouldn’t live to see autumn.

Justicia crowed loudly in victory, “Hand over the pot, huh?” as Haymitch, looking far more fit and sober than he had in years, volunteered for Peeta and made it clear he intended to sacrifice himself for the boy and his lover.

He looked desperately but he couldn’t see Myrina on the screen, just one uniform among the sea of white around the square in Twelve, and the cameras were hardly focusing on the Peacekeepers anyway, glued as they were to Haymitch and Peeta with pans over to Katniss. There was bitching and grumbling as Justicia collected her winnings. Theo could only think with these Games in particular, nobody won. It was brilliant, really, and perfectly timed given the unrest in the districts to remind them that the price paid for treason could even claim the strongest among them. Nobody was immune, no matter how strong or brave or cunning or publicly beloved. Almost too conveniently timed, he thought with another of those ugly uncomfortable musings that he tried to shove back down.

Haymitch must have pulled some kind of hidden reserves out because with a twelve for a training score, he might as well have painted a target on his back, and Katniss was in the same situation. Strangely, as uninspired as he’d been by her on her Victory Tour, now that her life and her love were on the line, he found himself secretly rooting for her and for Peeta. And for Haymitch too, whatever he might have planned. Somehow he didn’t think the man planned to sell Katniss out to save his own skin. He seemed too earnest, too fiery in his conviction about it, and finding out he was her father and Katniss was pregnant besides with Peeta’s kid only clinched the deal.

Cecelia and Woof died early, as predicted. Pathetic as most bloodbaths were, how easily the weaker kids died, there was something truly sad about watching this one and how Woof’s shaky attempts to fight were easily deflected by Gloss. Though the One victor’s look of regret as he made the kill was equally depressing—Woof and Mags had been around so long, gathered so much respect, that nobody could much imagine the Games without them. They would have to from now one since both of them would die in the arena.

Cecelia, brown hair bare of her headscarf of course, fell to Brutus’s sword and he thought of her husband and three kids watching her death live just over on Victor’s Row. What made it worse was realizing it wasn’t their house any longer. They would be evicted—maybe as soon as tomorrow, but suddenly he hoped maybe they would at least hold off until the Games were over. Once a victor died, their surviving kin no longer held any claim to that house. They’d have to go to the Justice Building and apply for an overcrowded apartment in one of the slum tenements, take up jobs in the factory again. No different really from anyone else in the poor districts having to suck it up and somehow carry on and cope with the loss of a spouse, a mother or father, and that happened every day. But somehow the drama of it being a victor’s family now left destitute cast it all into high relief, and it seemed like since the Quell card was read, all of Panem was thinking about things like that which they’d never really dwelled upon before.

It was quickly evident it would be a short Games. The field thinned rapidly. When old Mags died, gutsy to the end, nobody seemed to want to say anything for a minute. There didn’t seem to be much of anything to be said, period. There were a few moments of levity—Johanna Mason apparently deciding to start up an arena romance with Haymitch was one of them. “Bets that it’s a ploy on her part and she’ll slit his throat when his guard is down?” Marcellus offered wryly.
“I’ll take that bet,” Justicia said. “It’s for real. Hell, I won the last one.”

“But…Johanna and Haymitch? I thought she liked Finnick?” Thalaea said in confusion, sitting back in her chair. “I would have figured we’d see the two of them flirting if anyone.”

“Yeah, and Finnick likes everybody,” Marcellus said with a sly grin. “But don’t you see? If she likes Finnick, of course she’s going to fake flirting with Haymitch to get inside his guard, because she probably doesn’t want to kill Finnick, right?”

“She’s friends with Haymitch, though. I’m pretty sure. I mean, the newscasts always showed them drinking together—”

“Like Haymitch does anything else.”

“Apparently he still kills people just fine too.” Rye had found that out in the early minutes of the Quell. “And they were all friends until they got dumped in the arena together,” Theo pointed out grimly, just wanting the whole thing to be over.

Then the morning of the fourth day it was down to the alliance led by Haymitch, protecting Katniss, Chaff on his own, and Brutus and Enobaria together. The betting pool on when the alliance would tear itself apart started up. It all went to shit in a hurry and they watched in a daze as Chaff got eaten alive by insects, Johanna attacked Katniss and cut her badly then digging her fingers in the wound for good measure and making Katniss scream with pain before running off, Haymitch defeated Enobaria in a frenzied knife fight and apparently still managed to talk Brutus and Enobaria into a truce, and then suddenly with a blinding flash of light, the screen went black.

“Uh…what the fuck just happened?” He didn’t know who said it, but the sentiment was pretty well shared. The static on the television continued, and Thalaea reached out and carefully switched it off.

Within a few minutes the alert siren went off, ringing loud and clear throughout the district streets—the one telling all Peacekeepers to report for duty in case of a disaster. Or, perhaps, another uprising. He didn’t know exactly what had happened in the arena, but his suspicions of what the end of the Games being somehow spoiled by whatever Katniss and Haymitch and Beetee had done had galvanized the locals’ courage again. He could hear yelling and shouting in the streets already. “My guess? Round two just started,” he said, feeling depressingly like they’d brought it on themselves. “Let’s get to HQ and get into the armory.” No unsecured weapons—either they were in a Peacekeeper’s hands and signed out on the daily log, or they were locked up in the armory. Theo knew that rule had been instituted during the Dark Days and in seventy-plus peaceful years since then it had become kind of lax; more than once the quartermaster in his other duty assignments had just told him to keep the damn thing with him in his quarters and he only signed it back in when he had moved to a new district or he needed to turn it in for maintenance in favor of a new one.

But apparently being sloppy on that rule back over the winter had readily armed more than a few rebels here in Eight so it was enforced hard as iron now.

Still, that meant crossing several blocks of territory totally unarmed, and Marcellus unthinkingly bolted for it, making Theo swear and snap at the rest of them, “Let’s hurry it up.”

Of course, halfway there on Fustian Street, they ran into a gang of pissed-off locals. No guns, but several dozen people there with impromptu clubs, knives, wicked-looking boards with nails and the like—shit, some of the factory girls even had scissors clutched in their hands. Their weapons were crude and even ridiculous. But their expressions were full of wrath and hate and determination; and that was more dangerous than their weapons. Plus he and the rest of the squad were there with empty hands, and that and how vastly outnumbered they were, was more than enough to make him pay close attention. “Oh look,” one said with a wolfish grin, more like a savage and angry baring of his teeth. “Our helpful Peacekeepers are here to save the day.”

Sighing, the part of him forged in those years in Two at the Peacehome and at training camp was suddenly angry and ashamed at the thought of surrendering without a fight. But the rational part of him beneath that—maybe the part of him that had once been a ragged little kid in a dirt-poor district—said with cold, clear logic: Survive whatever it costs. Chances were in a few hours or a few days the armed Peacekeepers from HQ would put this whole thing down anyway. “Hands up,” he told the rest of them quietly. “Don’t fight.”

“Colonel,” Justicia protested, and he could hear how her own pride was bristling at the idea.

Do it,” he snapped, remembering the stories about Peacekeepers executed on the spot back over the winter. Realizing his continued existence, for now, rested solely in keeping an angry mob as calm as he could and offering them no excuses to bash his brains out onto the broken cobbles of the street, he nodded. “We’ll come quietly.”

Chapter Text

Late on the next to last day in Five, he and Johanna were sitting on the porch, enjoying the abrupt cool-down as the sun set and talking over some of the notes from the visit there. Dusk streaked the sky with the colors of fire, painting the red bluffs in the distance. Johanna looked…content, if anything, and he watched the light on her face, the slight smile that was on her lips in moments of silence. As sights went, he mused to himself, it was one to treasure. If he were a painter like Peeta he would want to depict it just so. But he wouldn’t paint this for the world to see. This was something between them, all the sweeter for being a moment only they had shared together.

Then he heard the telephone ring and gave a grunt of irritation as it interrupted the relaxed idyll of his thoughts. “Newscaster for an interview?” he guessed, already getting up from the comfortable chair.

“Someone else calling for our support in their political campaign,” Johanna snarked. Her voice was right behind him, obviously following him into the house. Yeah, they’d gotten a few of those lately. Seemed like every hanger-on and political hopeful was shamelessly looking for endorsements from those whose words they perceived carried some weight, and given that he and Johanna were pretty much Brocade’s right-hand team out in the field right now, people had been smart enough to figure that out. This business of forming a government was really a bitch in some ways.

So of course when he answered it, the voice of Brocade Paylor greeted him. “Evening, Madam President,” he said, offering her the respect of that title first. Hitting the button to put her on speaker so Johanna could hear also, he laid the phone down on the counter.

“Are you both there?”

“Of course,” Johanna said. He raised an eyebrow at her that said, Behave? He could easily have visions of Johanna just nonchalantly trying to yank Brocade’s chain by saying the two of them had been naked and occupied. Not that he wouldn’t be amused by it. She smirked back at him.

“Change of plans, I’m afraid,” and he could hear the strain in Brocade’s voice.

“What’s that?” Johanna leaned back against the counter, eyeing the phone with some suspicion. He noticed once again some of the similarities between the Seven and Eight accents, those rounded vowels they had in the north.

Brocade sighed audibly over the phone. “I’m altering the schedule a bit. You’re headed to District Thirteen next.” They had been due to head north to District Six. Easy enough journey up the western coast, and it made sense to look into transportation for the work crews next. “I talked to Six already, they said new production’s pretty much shot, but even with the bombing they endured, they had enough parts on hand they can keep things running for a while.”

He shook his head instinctively in disagreement, even if she couldn’t see him do it. “Thirteen’s in good shape in terms of infrastructure and all. Probably best in the country. They also ain’t producing grain or something we’ll need urgently. No cause for us to be doing a damages and reconstruction report there.” They’d hashed out the schedule carefully over several evenings during the winter, arguing about the priorities back and forth. Securing the essential resources to get Panem running again, how badly hit each district had been in the war, things like that. It took a while but eventually they’d come up with a list that seemed fair enough.

“No,” Brocade answered him, “but I’ve been on the phone with the leadership there and frankly, it’s a mess. Since Coin was arrested nobody’s stepped in clearly as their president, or mayor, or whatever the hell they want to call it. Because seems like they don’t even know whether they’re a district of Panem or an independent state. Neither do I, for that matter.”

“Bit of anarchy in oh-so-organized Thirteen? Oh, we can’t have that,” Johanna said mockingly. “Deposing that bitch was the best thing that could have happened to them.”

“I’m not disagreeing with that,” he told both of them, knowing full well that Johanna’s hatred for Coin—and his own—had become just about as personal as it had with Snow. “So fine, they’re having a bit of an identity crisis here. They’ve got good company there in One and Twelve, right?” It had rapidly become clear neither of those two districts could go on as they had before with their former ways and industries. When he thought it over, he might as well include the Capitol in that also. “I’m still not seeing the urgency, Brocade.” Formality offered up front, now he felt free to use her name as she’d invited him to do on their first meeting. “It’ll keep a few more months, right?” His mind was filled more with the problems of starving kids and districts that were half-destroyed than the growing pains of Thirteen. All right, the fact he was in no damn hurry to return there either might have a thing or two to do with it also.

Johanna was the one who made the connection. “Not returning your phone calls?” she asked Brocade.

“Not really. It doesn’t help they don’t know who’s in charge, but…”

“But you’re the usurper who snatched the reins away from Coin anyway.” Trust her to put it blunt as that.

“More or less. And…look, you might as well alter your schedule for late June and the first days of July.”

“To reflect what, do tell?” he drawled. “We’re supposed to be in One then, as I remember it.”

“One and Eleven, I think,” Johanna spoke up.

“Yes, well, you’re going to be in the Capitol instead.”

He looked up at Johanna. Neither of them said anything for a few moments. “Care to share some thoughts, Brocade?” he asked, trying to keep calm. Going to Thirteen and the Capitol too all of a sudden? It was like his worst fucking headache and nightmare all rolled into one. "I know the Capitol ain’t in great shape, but they’re better off than some of the districts.” The takeover had been swift enough, and without the airborne bombs that had hit many of the districts, that the physical damage to the Capitol had been more limited.

“The war's over but the real work is just beginning. I’ve asked all the district mayors to come to the Capitol then.”

“Yeah, we don’t exactly have one in Twelve, you know. Last I heard from Peeta a few weeks back they were digging Jarron Undersee’s bones out of his house to bury him proper—him and his family,” he said. It hit him with a strange pang of loss to realize anew that with Maribelle and her daughter Madge gone, that was the last of the Donner bloodline dead, the rebels who’d apparently fought and been executed alongside his own ancestors, the Dearborns. More than that, it was the last of Maysilee’s kin gone, and he felt like he’d finally lost the last of her. She’d saved his life and he’d had no way to save her sister’s and her niece’s lives. The personal debt he owed to her could never quite be repaid, even in terms of paying what he owed he’d done some in helping accomplish the Donners’ work left unfinished—after all, he had saved Katniss and sparked off the rebellion.

“I’m aware of that,” Brocade said, and though her voice was mostly steady he could hear the notes of stress and even some temper entering in. “That’s why you’ll be standing in for Mayor Undersee.”

“Uh…beg your pardon?”

“You have a current official population of four in Twelve, Haymitch. Two of them aren’t even adults yet under the law. One—sorry, Johanna—is a pretty recent immigrant, and after your entire district was destroyed at that.”

“Eh, no offense taken,” Johanna said dismissively. “It’s true.”

“Which leaves you as the logical choice—I imagine even your neighbors living in District Thirteen right now would agree you should represent them, seeing as they voted for you in the election. I’m holding a peace summit. The war is over, yes, but I want it official. I want it on paper what we fought for and what we all agree this country’s going to mean from now on.”

“No more Hunger Games, no more tesserae, no more second-rate districts, and so forth?”

“Exactly. So I want you there as the representative of District Twelve as we hash all that out. And the thing’s got to be debated, done, and then signed on July 4th.”

He laughed then, seeing the astuteness of that gesture and appreciating that she’d thought of it. “Signed on Reaping Day,” Johanna spoke up. “I like it.” Replacing the anniversary of that yearly horror with something symbolic and hopeful was a smart move.

“Also the day they signed the Treaty of the Treason,” he added thoughtfully. Apparently the Capitol, in a vengeful mood, had forced the districts to sign themselves into oppression on the date that back in the days when most of the districts were instead still states of America, a generation prior and easily within living memory, had stood for declaring freedom. Undoing that treaty on the anniversary of its signing would be a powerful thing too. “A very good choice.”

“So that brings us back to the trouble of District Thirteen. Back then, of course, they apparently signed the Treaty of Thirteen with the Capitol.”

“You read the thing?” he asked her with some interest. Apparently she’d found a copy of it, probably in Snow’s papers. He hadn’t seen it, just had the report from Snow of what it had said.

“Yes.”

“Anything in there about formally declaring independence from Panem?”

“No, just an agreement of mutual non-aggression and non-interference on both sides. You see where I’m going with this, don’t you?”

“Best to bring ‘em fully back into the country, and this is our chance to do it best, yeah.” Thirteen had existed as an independent state in fact, if not in law, for close to seventy-seven years now.

“I doubt you really want a rogue district pissed off at us over Coin sitting there with nuclear weapons anyway,” Johanna observed dryly.

“Also very true. I want them at that table too as a part of this new Panem. I need someone to make sure they’ll be there. So go there, try to get them to pick a representative and agree to attend the summit.” Wryly, he thought it would be either that or finding out that Thirteen would in fact be their enemy in the future.

“And you really think we’re the ones to do it? Hell, we’re the ones who led Coin’s denunciation.” Though when Peeta and Katniss went there for the election they’d reported some people approving of that, at least. He still wasn’t fond of the idea of going back to that place, the steel boxes and the iron-hard rules.

“The impression I’m getting is it’s a divided district. You both lived there for several months. You earned their respect by making it through their military training.”

“Barely,” Johanna muttered so lowly Brocade couldn’t hear, obviously remembering both their experiences on the Block, and how she’d needed a retest. “We also deserted,” she pointed out more loudly.

“Bygones. Nobody’s remembering that, because you deserted to actually go fight rather than run away, and besides, we won. You’ve got a better feel for things in Thirteen than me or most anyone else. Look, you’re the best hope we’ve got. So will you go? Please?”

The fact that she asked, rather than demanded, helped seal the deal. It reminded him once again that though she was tough and had been a military commander, Brocade Paylor had been the right choice for president. She wasn’t too proud to admit she couldn’t do some things and to ask for help. Looking at Johanna, seeing the slight nod she gave him, he gave a low sigh. “Yeah. We’ll go.” Pondering it for a moment he asked, “What are we allowed to deal with ‘em to get them to play nice?”

“Whatever you have to do.” His eyebrows rose a bit at her giving over that kind of license and the trust and faith in their judgment it implied. “Just so you’re not having to call back and forth with me checking every detail. I want this done. Do it within reason, of course. No point setting them up in a position of power over the rest of the districts or we’re making the same mistake again. Don’t give ‘em the whole bolt when a few yards will do.”

“Yeah, got it. It’s gonna be a long hovercraft ride, all the way from the southwest to the far northeast of the country,” Johanna cut in. “So I want an overnight stop back in Twelve before we make the final hop north.”

“It would be better…”

“It wasn’t a request.” In spite of himself he smiled at her blunt ferocity. “You want to send me and Haymitch into that shithole again to help out the country, we get to sleep in our own bed for one night first.” Grateful to her for that, he reached out and took her hand in his. One night back in the comfort of their own home, seeing Katniss and Peeta too and having even a few hours all together again, would be a boost of morale that they would sorely need.

“I’m sure the prep team would like a break before heading back to Thirteen also, seeing as they ended up chained to a wall there in a little misunderstanding,” he mentioned wryly. “One night stopover in Twelve afterwards also,” he added. “There may be folks wanting to come back to Twelve on that hovercraft if they can.” Assuming things were cleaned up enough in Twelve for people to temporarily stay in Victor’s Village. “I’m not making them stay there in Thirteen any longer than they have to.”

“Done.” Obviously their new president was more than smart enough to know when to give a little to get a lot done.

“I want a copy of the Treaty of Thirteen also to look over. If I’m going to have to wrestle any separatists there might be in Thirteen down to bring ‘em to that table, I damn well want to have actually something solid to back me on it.” Other than just the sheer spectacle of stalking in there and proclaiming they were being idiots and assholes—somehow he didn’t imagine that was going to work too well.

“Peeta and Katniss are taking some supplies tomorrow. I’ll make sure the document’s on that run.” She added, “Thank you both,” which pretty much said everything about her as compared to Snow and Coin.

That about settled the matter and with that, he made their own goodbyes and hung up the phone again. “So?” he said to Johanna. “A vacation in Thirteen might be lovely this time of year, don’t you think?”

“Maybe I’ll keep my axes up my sleeves,” she said dryly. “And not take any fucking drugs they try to inject into me this time.”

The door cracked open a little bit there, but given the whole heap of shit returning to Thirteen would be emotionally and in terms of stress, he didn’t think this was the opportunity to bring up that conversation. Besides, she’d mentioned the drugs and her rage about them. Not the miscarriage itself and her feeling on that.

In terms of things to cope with already, there was the whole political angle, the prospect of going back in as the people who had led a coup on the woman who’d led the place for several decades. There was the trouble of facing the people left from Twelve—while he was in Thirteen, recovering from the torture, focused on the war, and trying to push himself through their military training, he hadn’t mingled with them much. The habit of years of disengagement had remained, not to mention the fact his actions had led to Snow destroying their home and so many lives. That would have cast a shadow over things anyway.

He would have to face them this time, though. They knew the truth now, after Snow’s trial, knew he’d never been a willing Capitol sellout. But the uncomfortable feeling that he’d swapped one shame for another, of being a disgrace for being a victim, lingered. It meant in some ways he still felt awkwardly separate from them. They had voted for him in the election, though, placed their confidence in him. He knew that meant they accepted him, they actually believed in him in a way they hadn’t since he was a young victor. He just didn’t know how to handle that, and all the lost years, and how to talk with them about Twelve’s future. Not to mention he still had to sit down to talk with Hazelle about Gale, and even if Katniss had conveyed Haymitch’s regrets and Hazelle’s lack of blame, he needed to hold that conversation in person.

With all that looming over them, and Johanna having demons of her own about it, tentatively trying to bring up the miscarriage was too much right now, not when she didn’t give him indications she wanted to talk about it. She’d been the kid’s mother. If she didn’t want to discuss it, when it had been her body that suffered, he didn’t feel like he had the right to impose. Still, five months later, he wished he could just fucking well put it behind him if it couldn’t be dealt with openly. But he knew from the arena and everything else, it didn’t ever go away.

“So,” Johanna said, coming up and putting her hands on his shoulders and chuckling throatily, “Mister Twelve Representative. Or are you, like, the Twelve mayor now? Do I have to treat what you say as law?” The idea obviously entertained the hell out of her.

“Like you—or Katniss—ever fucking well listen to what I tell you to do,” he said jokingly, even that small jest starting to lift his mood.

“You wouldn’t want it that way,” she stated it with the simple confidence of absolute certainty.

“No.” He knew he wouldn’t. Someone constantly gentle and easygoing would have bored the shit out of him quickly. Not to mention he’d have felt awkward, stifling himself and his tongue because he’d feel like an asshole towards someone who wasn’t willing to engage him on it, always afraid whatever he said cut too deeply. Johanna could take it and give it right back to him, test him as an equal.

“Fighting a war with politics rather than weapons. This will be a treat. I imagine you’ll be far better at it than me,” she said with a shrug. He gave a snort of laughter. No, Johanna was damn bright, but on the whole, she and subtlety weren’t close friends. She called it like she saw it.

“Me? Successful in politics? I’ve had, oh, two jobs in my entire adult life. Mentoring? Two out of forty-eight…” He shook his head, not wanting to dwell too much on it. “On the other hand, being put out on the circuit, well, I lasted a long time there…apparently, I was actually a little too successful.” He thought about it for a moment and smirked. “Then again, being one of Snow’s pet whores, that’s probably great preparation for political life. Saying just what they want to hear, learning to give them nothing that much matters and still leave them satisfied because they think they got it all, and accepting, yeah, sometimes you’re just gonna end up totally fucked.”

She laughed, one of the few people he would accept that from on that subject. “Yeah, OK. I’ll try to keep my mouth shut and let you do the talking. In the interest of national peace or whatever.”

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “You call ‘em like you see ‘em. You and me both, I think we need to be ready to just cut through the bullshit. We’ll play nice with them to a certain point.” He gave her a wry grin. “But we’re victors. We know how to play rough when we have to.”

Late the next afternoon, the hovercraft dropped them on the green of Victor’s Village in Twelve. The mostly-untended grounds were now growing wild, the grass up to his shins now, and here and there he saw the pockets of dandelions that had settled and taken root, a splash of color that satisfied him more than the showy Capitol mutts the groundskeeper had been obliged to plant every year which promptly died every winter. The gaudy yellow of the weedy things seemed more peaceful than the scrupulous upkeep he’d lived in for so many years. He saw the door open at Katniss and Peeta’s house and tried to keep a smile from his face as he saw Peeta pop onto the porch, waving a hello. Stretching his back, trying to suppress a groan from hours stuck in a damn uncomfortable seat, he saw Johanna lift a hand in return. “Oh my,” he scoffed jokingly, “don’t tell me you missed those two brats. Getting attached or something?”

“Shut up,” she grumbled, though he could see the corners of her mouth lifting in a slight smile too.

Sitting down to dinner—Peeta and Katniss both beaming with pride that he’d set a snare that had caught a fat rabbit—he looked the two of them over. It had been only about a month since he saw them last, but just the same, he thought Peeta’s frame had filled out a bit more towards the promise of manhood—he’d need a new shirt soon enough the way his shoulders were straining the one he was wearing which had to be a year old by now—and Katniss’ face had slimmed a bit, not out of hunger, but just the definition of the bones finally coming forth as a woman from beneath the childish roundness. Mostly, they looked happier than he’d seen them since he met them, near to two years ago now on that stage on Reaping Day. It crossed his mind to wonder if they saw the same in him also.

“So,” he said, handing the bowl of carrots over to Peeta, “what’s the story around here?” He hadn’t asked them to update him. He figured if they wanted to start the conversation he’d listen, but he wouldn’t prod. The fact that they hadn’t, but for the subject of their brief spat regarding the Undersees, told him they were avoiding the ongoing efforts as much as possible. He wouldn’t blame them for that. Some things, for the sheer sake of continuing whatever sanity they had left, were better left to those with less emotional stake in it and less nightmares to begin with. “If I’m gonna be seeing our people,” he tried to not hesitate to say that and feel like he could again claim them as his also, “in Thirteen, I want to give a good update.” He intended to go walk the village since it was still light out, but they’d been here for the weeks he hadn’t.

“The bodies are all buried,” Katniss wasted no time and no words, getting right down to it. That was the most important thing, to be honest. “Out in the Meadow.”

“The bulldozers razed everything left in the Seam and the town last week and, well, the slag heap now has a nice big rubble heap to match it too,” Peeta added, looking down at his potatoes with far more interest than they probably warranted. “It’s…it’s all pretty empty. Just the Justice Building, really.”

Letting the weight of that sit there too long, Johanna finally cut the silence with, “So we’ll build it again, and better than those crappy shacks people were living in that I saw on my Tour. I’ll be talking to people in Seven about the lumber that needs to get sent here. So you know it’ll be the good stuff or they’ll hear from me.” He smiled a little to himself. Twelve, unfortunately, didn’t know much about building. He remembered tacking boards and nailing tar-paper on that old Seam house when he was a kid to help repair it. On building houses and the like, he definitely deferred readily to Johanna’s judgment. “We’re heading north. Either of you want us to take some letters to people there?” Maybe she was thinking of Dazen’s letter for Clover, tucked away in Haymitch’s things. They’d found out quick enough over the winter that Thirteen wasn’t accepting personal phone calls either. He wasn’t exactly surprised. Anything smacking of individuality in that place got shot down quick enough.

“Delly,” Peeta spoke up. “I mean, she’s one of my best friends, and…” Yeah, of course they hadn’t spoken since Peeta had left.

“Hazelle,” Katniss said. “Even without,” she ducked her head and her saying the name, “Gale,” was half-mumbled, as the loss of her own best friend still obviously cut deep, “there’s still Rory and Vick and Posy to think about. They’re family.”

“Write your letters and we’ll bring them,” he said. “Maybe with any luck a few folks can come back with us.” It couldn’t be many, a few dozen at most. With Brocade already sending a hovercraft out here to delivery supplies, it was almost more efficient to deliver for fifty people than four. But Twelve just didn’t currently have the houses, or the resources right there, to take on hundreds of people right away. Maybe by autumn things would be different but for now it would have to be those both eager to return and able to pitch in a hand on the reconstruction efforts, whether by building things or hunting or whatever.

After dessert, some kind of apple crumble thick with cinnamon and spices, he nodded to Johanna as they left Katniss and Peeta. “Want to go for a walk?”

“Sure.” Walking down the path to the town, he saw quickly enough Peeta had been right. The place was like it had been swept clean with a massive broom, just bare lots of brown dirt and no sign of what had once been there. In his mind he could still see it, though—the butcher’s had been there and he knew Callum’s seventeen-year-old granddaughter Tansy was one of the few merchies that had survived to make it to Thirteen, the Mellark bakery swept clean of the ruins he and Johanna had dug in, the sweet-shop that the Thirlbys had taken over from the Donners.

He didn’t aim to go as far as the slag heap. The mines were closed as a hazard—he could still see the wisps of smoke in the distance as the coal relentlessly kept burning deep in the earth—so no reason to visit, and it was out of town enough to be out of the way. He didn’t think seeing the rubble, and what remains of peoples’ belongings and their lives might be jumbled in it, would do his ability to sleep tonight all that much good.

In front of the Justice Building, he paused. A few shattered windows, a few scorch marks—it had held up well. Then as before, his eyes fell upon the ruins of the stage in front of the building. The thing was half-burned and some areas had collapsed, but unmistakably it was there all the same, like an ugly wound. It was one last piece of the Capitol clinging stubbornly to his district. Mounting the steps, avoiding the burned and collapsed patches, he stood there on that platform where he’d been for so many summers, caught helplessly in the Games over and over. He almost thought if he listened hard he could hear Honoria Delight’s voice calling Haymitch Abernathy again like she had so many years before, then Effie’s voice was there in close echo calling as she had last summer, Haymitch Abernathy. So many kids had stood here, condemned to die, and he’d had to be there every damn year for it. He couldn’t see this particular stage being a place for celebrations and speeches and the like. Too much fear and death were in its history. “Of all the things to survive a fucking firebombing, this does it?” he said, hearing the harsh note in his voice. “I want this thing gone.” The sooner the better, he thought, and by July for certain.

Looking out at his audience of one, Johanna stood there at the edge of the stage and looked back up at him steadily. “Then let’s go get some axes,” she offered simply. Her smile slowly turned into a bit of a smirk. “I’m not gonna turn down the chance to wreck some Capitol property.”

They had axes, all right, everything from a couple hatchets like Johanna carried in the arena and they used to split kindling, to the large axes they’d used in the forest and splitting logs for the fire. Prybars too for the nails, and he grabbed a couple of lanterns too while they were at it because twilight would be there soon.

At first they worked in silence, only the solid thunk of an axe biting home and the grunts of physical effort at swinging the axe again and again. Intent on the task, taking a small fierce pleasure in every chunk he split off the stage, he was surprised when the answering note of Johanna’s axe to his own fell silent and after a moment, Johanna spoke up. “Oh my, my. You’ve gotten good at this. I might even be able to actually claim you when we go to Seven.”

Turning and seeing her looking at him with that look she had, pulling out the neck of her sweat-dampened shirt and flapping the fabric to create the breeze, he laughed, giving another swing of the axe and feeling it bite home into the wood as he left it there. “Lots of practice.” The winter had made certain of that. She’d given him so much shit on his first shaky efforts to split wood, but then as a kid he’d never needed to do it. Their stoves and the like were all coal-fired, and gathering wood in the forest was forbidden. “Like anything. You get better as you go.”

“What do we want to do with all of it anyway?” she asked, kneeling down with a prybar and yanking the nails out, pitching those on a growing heap of them. Holding up the chunks of wood, she nodded to the pile of wood that had been steadily growing in the square where they threw each new piece. “Hold ourselves a nice big bonfire tonight?”

There was something in that notion that satisfied, seeing it all go up in one massive blaze. Still, given what a constant chore chopping wood had been, he hesitated. “Can you safely burn it?”

“It’s old wood. Dry as anything.” Staring at it, she furrowed her brows. “Looks like it’s untreated too. Probably so people would have to keep fixing the fucking things regularly and be reminded of just what that stage was there for.”

“Good. Then we’ll keep it around, people can burn it in the stoves and the like.” He shrugged swiftly. “Might as well have anyone living here getting something useful from the Capitol for once.” No point wasting the practical advantage of so big a supply just for a single moment of personal satisfaction.

Somehow, with that, it lessened the burden. The stage wasn’t a thing of dread any more, just a bunch of kindling waiting to be chopped up ready for families to make use of it. Hearing her tease and taunt him about her speed compared to his, taking turns swapping between the axe and the prybar, they worked through the rest of the afternoon. His shirt was about soaked through now and his arms and back had begun to ache a bit, but it was the good kind of ache, the sort that could be pushed aside from knowing something was being accomplished.

Somewhere around the first tinges of dusk, she started singing, a song about a girl at work out on a forest path and her meeting a wounded mockingjay who turned into a boy that she fell in love with, timed to the strikes of her axe. Busy with the prybar again, he stopped instead to listen.

And this to me he did say,
“Wings I had once, my love,
Strong wings to fly away”
For my love he gave them up,
An earthbound mockingjay.

Her voice wouldn’t put Katniss to shame, no. But it was a good voice, low and fairly true, weaving her way in and out of the notes of the unfamiliar tune. More than that, he could listen to Katniss singing with interest, because of the beauty of it, because he cared for her too, but there was something special to this. He knelt there, prybar in hand and watching the fireflies dancing in the dusk, listening to the story as, at the end, the lovers escaped an evil enchanter as they both transformed into mockingjays and flew away.

Rebellion song, he guessed. The mockingjay pretty much clinched it. One of those carefully veiled tunes that had sprung up in the Dark Days that sang about the longing for escape and freedom, but carefully enough that the Capitol wouldn’t be able to grasp upon it as anything solid. “Never heard you sing before,” he said, and she stopped, hands going from the haft of the axe to the small of her back, rubbing gently.

“Always been someone else around,” she said over her shoulder.

“I’m not ‘someone’?” he scoffed teasingly.

“That’s different. Anyone else in that cell next to you, would you have sung that ‘Hanging Tree’ song of yours?” Yes, he remembered singing for her that night, after talking about the realities of hanging. What fun they’d had, huddled there on the hard slabs of their sleeping shelves trying to say goodbye, and yet there had been a comfort in knowing it was almost over, and that they wouldn’t be alone.

“No.” He looked up as she came over and grabbed another prybar, working next to him in the lantern’s glow, hands steady and sure. “That was…for you.” Maybe even then, after those weeks stuck side by side being each other’s last link to sanity, he’d been a little in love with her even if he didn’t know it. The only kind of song he’d had in him to give her then, desperate and doomed as they’d been—the sort where dying together was the only sort of love that was left.

“I’ll sing for Peeta and Katniss at their wedding, whenever it happens.” She gave a snort of amusement, throwing a few more nails at the pile. “Gotta be better than Hotbuns was at ours. But that’s for them.”

He nodded, understanding. “And it’s for you,” he told her softly. He knew he hummed when he worked, yes, but he didn’t really sing. Not with other people there. But for her, he could. She gave him a quick smile of acknowledgment.

Gathering up the woodpiles well after dark, tired and aching and desperately in need of a bath, they walked back up the hill to Victor’s Village. Huddled together beneath the quilt, in the comfortable familiarity of their bed, he thought facing Thirteen might actually be halfway bearable.

Of course, that feeling lasted through bidding Katniss and Peeta goodbye in the morning and taking a bag of letters for folks in Thirteen. But touching down near the bombed-out crater and the old ruins of their Justice Building, he saw a welcome party that on some faces looked rather less than delighted to see them. He noticed nobody from Twelve had been permitted. It was all the bigwigs with their neatly tailored grey uniforms with badges of rank. “Soldier Abernathy,” one said—one of Coin’s faithful, as he remembered it. He didn’t see Boggs, which he didn’t much like. Maybe the stunt he’d pulled to try to keep the man alive and keep his reputation intact hadn’t fully succeeded.

“Which one of us are you talking to here anyway?” Johanna piped up insolently. “I’m ‘Abernathy’ too, you know.”

“Not a soldier anymore,” he said with an easy tone, wanting to get that across up front. With the handshakes and all, he had the feeling that while they were making nice for the moment, once the cameras were turned off and the negotiations began, that was when the real fun was going to start.

As was, they weren’t assigned to old Room 809. He had some fond memories of that room, he would admit, awkward and sweet by turns as those nights had been once Peeta moved out and Johanna moved in. But he was thinking enough of the clomiphen already and hoping they weren’t still injecting innocent women here with that shit—he didn’t need to lie in the bed where that lingering damage had been done for him and Johanna.

Instead they were escorted to Room D—the Everdeens had occupied Room E prior to Katniss moving out. He understood that to have that tiny window onto the surface was pretty much the equivalent of Victor’s Village here. Dropping her bags, Johanna turned to him and said, “Well, I can’t say the accommodations have improved much.”

“You wanted old 809 back? Great memories—me walking in on two half-naked horny teenagers, then there was that night you were so hot and bothered by me you were climbing me like a tree and ripping my clothes off.” That was hardly the truth about that night, or the nights they’d passed after that back here in Thirteen. They both knew it. But turning it into a joke made it all a bit easier to bear.

She snickered, hanging a shirt in the closet—not grey, defiantly bright blue here in colorless Thirteen. “And that would be the same night you were so excited by me you came in about thirty seconds, right?”

He grinned ruefully. But instead of teasing her right back again, he was remembering the two awkward people that had come together in that room, admitted in that night of sheer desperation they couldn’t do it alone, and finally started to put some of the broken pieces back together. He just reached out and squeezed her shoulder and said simply, “Well, we’ve both gotten a lot better since then.” He didn’t mean just in bed either, and he was sure she knew that.

“If they try to fuck with me this time, I’ll rip their heads off,” she said lowly.

Knowing they were going in as a united front here, steady and confident in each other, made a world of difference. “Well,” he said cheerfully, “since there’s plenty of woods and nobody uses ‘em, I’ll help hide the bodies.”

Chapter Text

He couldn’t help but admit a certain feeling of smug satisfaction at being able to wake up and more or less tell Thirteen’s rigid scheduling to take a hike. Unfortunately the door unlocking for the morning depended on submitting to the damn purple forearm tattoo as usual, but he smiled to see how small it was compared to the usual. Not much was formally scheduled in. Granted, that still meant the drab cafeteria with its sterile white walls at 0700 as usual because breakfast wasn’t going to wait on the two of them, and he was in no mood to go into these meetings without some food. Coffee too—that was for damn sure. He needed that sorely. He might have had some wistful thoughts too about a shot or two of alcohol as a bracer before the inevitable headache, but clearly that wasn’t going to happen here.

As his tray was handed over, he noticed the quality of the meal had gone down again as opposed to the last weeks of the war when the supply lines had pretty much been wide open. This was fare for Thirteen when it was self-sustaining. Apparently they’d drawn back from their talks with other districts, just like Brocade had indicated, while they figured some things out. The fact that they’d let him and Johanna come here, though, had to be a sign that at least some people with a lick of common sense were in the fight.

While he’d have been more than happy for another cup of coffee, he knew better than to go back to the serving line and ask. He’d had his rationed one cup and that would be it, diplomatic envoy from the national government or no. Dressed as they were, him in a dark suit, Johanna in her blue blouse, they stood out pretty well against the rank-and-file in their drab grey shirts and trousers. He suddenly felt the eyes of everyone, Thirteen and Twelve alike, turning towards them, wondering what they were going to do while they were here. The people from Twelve probably had much different hopes than the natives. Ducking his head and finishing off his eggs, not wanting to look around and see who was staring, he was suddenly aware of someone standing there at the table. Fuck, not Hazelle, he thought desperately.

But when he looked up, it was at the curvaceous figure and the heart-shaped face of Delly Cartwright, Peeta’s friend. The cobbler’s daughter, as he remembered it. Dougless Cartwright had been in his year in school. He’d kicked the shit out of him once, didn’t even remember now what they’d been fighting about. He did have one pair of boots Doug had made, though. Good work they were too, lasted him over twenty years now. Peeta had mentioned Delly’s parents had both been lost in the bombing—damn, what had her mother’s first name been, and into which merchie family had the now-dead Mrs. Cartwright been born? Not a Mellark, a Donner, a Banner, a Barrington, or a Hambly: the bakers, the old candymakers, the apothecaries, the greengrocers, or the butchers. Not the Taylors with their tailor shop, he knew from talking with her before sending her in for her interview that Larkspur hadn’t had any sisters. That was back when he’d been young and stupid enough to learn too much about the kin of the walking dead that were his tributes. Suddenly it seemed ridiculously important that he didn’t even know who Delly’s dead mother had been. She’d been buried in a common grave and he didn’t even know her name.

Oblivious to all that going on in his head, Delly looked in a good mood, blue eyes cheerful. Her hair was a riot of blond curls that a headband couldn’t quite restrain. Thirteen must love that. “Hello, Mister Abernathy,” she said cheerfully. “Miss Ma—oh—Miz Abernathy.”

“Delly,” he said by way of acknowledgment, wondering if they’d sent her as their own little emissary. “Things all been well here over the winter?”

“Oh, it’s been all right enough.” Her blue eyes betrayed no malice or disappointment or disgust which was still a wonder to his mind for someone from Twelve looking at him. “We’d…well…there’s talk among some of us, we’d sort of like to go…” Her cautiously hopeful expression told him plenty. People wanted to go home and were hoping he’d tell them it was ready for them to return. Looked like he’d be the bearer of bad news for Twelve yet again; far from the first time.

“Let us work through some of the stuff here with the Thirteen leaders, but…” He sighed mentally, committing himself to confronting the issue and facing them, for well or ill. “We’ll have us a meeting, Conference Hall, during Reflection. Say…two nights from now. Spread the word. Anyone from Twelve who’s thinking of returning.”

“Add in anyone not from Twelve who’d still like to get the hell out of here,” Johanna added with a pleasant smirk. “Unless you’re letting me be the only immigrant in Panem that’s gonna be allowed to move to Twelve?”

“Point taken,” he acknowledged with a weary shake of his head. If anyone, native to Thirteen or an immigrant from another district, wanted to get away to a fresh start in a rebuilding Twelve, he wouldn’t deny them that chance. Particularly given some of them were men and women and their children who had been caught up in the whole clomiphene debacle. It had been one thing when this was a refuge from Capitol tyranny—its restrictions and expectations, while a pain in the ass, had generally been a lesser evil. With the Capitol gone, that had shifted the whole balance of things.

“All right, I’ll let them know,” Delly said. “It’s good to see you back.” Hearing that from a kid rather than getting a half-rotted apple to the back of his head, he knew he was probably staring at her as she left. He couldn’t help it, and in his sheer amazement, he forgot to tell her that he’d brought a letter from Peeta for her.

He saw Posy Hawthorne from across the cafeteria, frantically waving a hand to catch his attention, flapping like she was trying to take flight, and gave her a small wave back. She beamed. What was she now, five, maybe six? What the hell he’d done to earn that, he had no idea, and he hastily finished his coffee before he ended up catching Hazelle’s eye, or that of her two living boys, for that matter. He knew full well Rory’s opinion of him—a drunk embarrassment he’d been ashamed to see his ma acting as housekeeper for—and he didn’t much imagine being the leader of the squad that failed to bring his big brother home would have helped that.

“Want to go topside?” he said hastily, seeing Johanna was finishing up her own oatmeal. The steel walls were already feeling like they were closing in. Not having something to fill the two hours until their meeting began in Command, he knew he needed to keep busy or this place was going to drive him crazy with both claustrophobia and anxious paranoia.

“Yeah. Get some air and all.” She grinned. “Have a little dance.” He smiled a little in acknowledgment of that. Going back to their room, changing into something more comfortable, they were headed to the surface access in a matter of minutes.

At the access hatch, one of the guards scanned their mostly-blank forearm tattoos and said, “Your surface liberty access is unlimited in duration so long as you don’t have anything already scheduled, but orders state you’re to stay within the confines of the training facility.”

“Fine,” he said irritably. He’d much rather walk out in the comfortable peace of the woods, but he’d take what he could get towards time out of the steel can. Obviously the brass wanted to know where to find him and Johanna, or else it was just a cheap way of asserting authority. Either way, he recognized as opposed to last fall when he could freely play the “Keeping Katniss happy and effective” card as much as he wanted, he only had so much latitude to buck the system and tell them to go to hell, so he was going to save those chances for something necessary at the negotiation table.

After they’d walked up the ramp past the hatch and emerged into the spring sunlight, he saw a group of kids out running. Looked like the military training was alive and well in Thirteen still. He and Johanna found a more secluded part of the training field. Stretching out carefully, feeling the warmth of the morning, he felt better immediately than when he’d been down in the vast underground hive.

Truth was, between Peeta’s hellish Quell training, then the military training in Thirteen and the sheer demands of roughing out a living in Twelve over the winter, over the last year his body had gotten used to expecting a certain level of physical activity. In some ways it actually felt good now, a way to help work out whatever trouble the day had brought. He had found that denied that outlet he started feeling sluggish and irritable. He could remember feeling some of that same feeling as a young victor, but there had been no good outlet for things, plus his isolation from people didn’t help, so he’d filled his time with frantic hobbies and then with drinking. Obviously that wasn’t going to work now. So going to Two first and having Brutus kick his ass out of bed for some training, had provided the answer. Keeps your mind sharp and your body in shape, he’d explained. By the third day Enobaria had been dragging Johanna up onto the training site on Victor’s Mountain too. After he and Johanna left Two, they’d kept it up every morning in Five, no reason to not do the same here given the chance to get up here to the surface.

So now, feeling his muscles warm and ease more as he moved through some of the basic forms he’d learned in Two, emptying his mind of the frustration and stress, he felt better as he tried to make the movements flow. Finishing up Mountain Cat Striking, he went next into Whirlwind, the spiraling movements of it familiar to him from the kali knife fighting he’d learned. The sheer exertion felt damn good; no need to even imagine opponents there. Too many people he might like to punch in the face of late, especially here.

They only had learned those two forms from their hosts, and so they felt comfortable and solid now. But Brutus and Enobaria had given them the parting gift of an old training manual with the rest of the three dozen forms to learn, and so, relaxing back to an at-ease stance, he looked over at Johanna and nodded towards the bag with a couple of water bottles and the book. “Your pick today.”

Crouched beside her, taking a few sips of water while she flipped through the page, he joked, “We’ve got that for the mornings, now all we need is one of those manuals of sex positions for the evening. I’m sure we could get one when we go to One…” He knew from Chantilly that was just another export from the luxury district also known for their sensuous reputation.

She gave a faint snort of mingled surprise and amusement. “What, you mean so I’m, like, balanced on one foot leaning back over a chair with my other ankle back behind my head? Never knew you were so kinky.”

“You’re learning,” he said, grinning at her, but certain she knew he was kidding. To be honest, testing out that joking dare of a list they’d made of the sex styles of the districts was more than enough variety for him. Maybe it was that he wasn’t all that young now, maybe it was the hell his sex life had been when he was young, but somehow, the novelty of seeing if they could wrap themselves into a human knot didn’t appeal near so much as simply being together once again and being able to just let go in each other’s arms. Somehow he thought that would never quite grow old. They knew the worth of it and the struggle to get there far too well.

“I’m thinking Cloud Hawk,” she said with satisfaction, shoving the book under his nose.

He groaned at the sight of the diagrams for the advanced form, the flurry of leaping attacks and aerial kicks. That was classic Johanna, never doing anything by halves, hurrying to go from mastering the basics all the way to the hardest damn thing possible. He loved her eagerness even as it sometimes frustrated him. “You are actually trying to kill me, right? Ask me again in a month.” Maybe with some more experience he’d be up to it, but the idea of falling on his ass repeatedly today trying to attempt all that didn’t appeal. He might still have good speed and strength and all, but he didn’t move as agilely or recover as quickly as a twenty-year-old any longer. “Let’s not look bad in front of the current audience?” he suggested quietly. Showing weakness right now wouldn’t be a good idea anyway.

“Fine,” she said with a snort, flipping more pages. “Wanna try Guardian of the Pass again? Couple more times, we’ll probably have that one memorized.”

“Sure.” They worked their way through that one, full of blocks and dodges and feints, needing only a couple of references to the book and its diagrams. When it was done, he caught her lightly by the wrist and said with a joking air, “Want a dance?”

She chuckled lowly and twisted her wrist out of his grasp, aiming a quick jab at his ribs that he slipped, and from there it was on. They wouldn’t use blades, not like in Two for their wedding “dance”. They weren’t Careers, raised to the sword. Weapons were something that both of them still took too seriously—if he ever drew a knife against someone again, he had the sense it would be in deadly earnest. Now and again he would train with those just to keep his skills sharp, but never against Johanna. He couldn’t say why, because he prayed that he would never be called upon again to use those talents. But perhaps having paid as much as he had in becoming that boy who had fought to live, the knives had become a part of him, his skill and his safeguard, and so he didn’t quite know how to put it aside. Maybe he ought not to anyway. He was who he was, and no point denying it. You’re a fighter. You don’t let a good sword rust, Brutus had said.

But this was something else, in its own way as much playful flirtation as honest sparring. The sheer awareness he had now of her body, of how she moved, and responding to her movements with his own that she took on and answered in kind, back and forth had an exuberance and lighthearted feel that was like dancing. A great deal like sex too, for that matter. No doubt it would be different sparring with someone else. But things with Johanna had all tended to spill over into each other from whatever neat compartments they’d been in to begin. It flowed together until it was all just her now, and so shifting from one facet of things to another was smooth and easy. Her hand on her shoulder was as much a caress as a grapple, her other hand brushing down his arm, and the way he successfully slipped it to get behind her and got his arms around her was more of an embrace than a restraint. “So I win?” he murmured in her ear, dipping his head to kiss her throat, feeling the rapid beat of her pulse.

“Not if we were really fighting,” she grumbled playfully, as he could feel the tension in her switch from combat to an entirely different sort of anticipation.

“I know.” He’d end up getting kicked in the balls or something, most like, rather than her just acquiescing like this. Feeling his mind more at ease, he let go of her and suggested, “Time to face the joy of diplomacy?”

Headed back below, he recognized their old hand-to-hand combat instructor, Soldier Shagreen, supervising a class of older kids. It looked like they were working on grapples and throws today. “Technique’s still good, I see,” she said approvingly, eyeing the two of them with her arms crossed over her chest, her almost gentle features totally at odds with her role. “Nice to see you two kept up on your training after you left us.”

“Of course,” Johanna said with the appearance of total sincerity. “He’s a good partner.”

“Always thought so. He fights smart. Carry on, Abernathy.” She nodded to him. “Ah…Abernathy,” giving Johanna the same courtesy.

They were almost back to the hatch when Johanna was the one who finally gave in and let out a brief hoot of laughter. “See? I always told you they obviously don’t know shit about foreplay here. They don’t even recognize it.”

With the good mood from that, after showering and getting dressed again in the more formal clothes, they headed for Command. Escorted to a conference room by two Thirteen soldiers, he saw a half-dozen men and women were waiting already. The rank insignia in Thirteen were discreet, just small pips on the collar, but he read their panel here as consisting of one general, two colonels, two majors, and a captain.

“Captain Abernathy,” the captain said, a man of about thirty. Olive-skinned, dark-haired; he could almost have been Seam but for the brilliant blue eyes.

“He’s not a captain,” one of the colonels said gruffly.

“Lieutenant?” the captain tried again. “Maybe he didn’t have official command but he was certainly 2-i-c of his squad…”

“He’s not anything but a deserter.”

“This whole thing about what rank I had or not is all very fine and well,” he said, as he and Johanna sat down at the two open spots, “but I ain’t in your military now so can we just settle on ‘Mister’ and ‘Miz’ and get down to business?”

Eyeing the group, one colonel, the majors, and the captain looked amused. The general and the other colonel didn’t. “So what happened to Colonel Boggs?” he questioned them idly, pulling out a pen and paper. “Still has his health, I trust?”

“Sergeant Boggs,” said the general icily, “is perfectly well.” So apparently Boggs had been punished by being broken in rank pretty severely.

The friendlier colonel, a middle-aged woman with the look of some Six blood about her from her warm brown skin and almond-shaped eyes, spoke up. “Very well. General Kettering,” she nodded towards the general, “I’m Colonel Thalric, Colonel West,” the grumpy-looking older one who was sixty if he was a day, “Major Sabetha,” a lithe dark-skinned woman with fiery red hair, “Major Compton,” fair-skinned like he’d never seen sunlight, blond and bulky, “and Captain Forrest.”

“Pleasure,” he said coolly. Whether that was true remained to be seen, though he somewhat doubted it. “So, as to the business at hand—who in hell is speaking for y’all anyway?”

Stony silence greeted the question. Kettering and West sat there. A few furtive glances darted between Sabetha, Forrest, and Compton towards Thalric, who sat there doing her best to look nonchalant. So that was the way of it. “General Kettering is senior officer of this council and holds command,” Sabetha said, and that was a fine piece of equivocation that said plenty with how utterly neutral it was.

“All right,” Johanna answered with the excessive pleasantness that told him she was on edge. “So that answers that question. We all know that you follow your orders here. So why are we talking to all six of you if he gets to make all the decisions?”

He wanted to laugh even as he wanted to throttle her, just a little, for kicking the tracker jacker nest so openly like that. Maybe it had to be done, to judge from the disposition of things, but that was Johanna, charging in without apology.

West growled, “I’m not going to stand for this, I wasn’t in favor of this pointless meeting anyway. I don’t need to hear what bullshit they’ve come to sell.”

“Oh?” he said, raising an eyebrow. “Really now?”

“You’re a liar and a cheat, Abernathy. Everyone knows it. So’s your wife. However you two seduced Paylor to make her just give you enough power to let you go around the country come here and try to play your spider-games with us, I don’t know, but I’m damn well having none of it.”

Yeah, everyone in the country knew it. He was well aware of that. Not like he’d helped free the whole country by it or anything, but in his heart, he knew that it was likely that he’d always be judged as a little too wily, a little too comfortable with deceit, to be fully trusted. People liked their heroes brave and blunt and sincere. No wonder they took to Katniss, who couldn’t lie worth a damn. If they knew about Peeta’s impressive ability to lie, well, then he wouldn’t be such a golden boy to them any longer. “’Seduced’? Is this about that whole forced-whore thing Jo and I had going on?” he said casually. Get them talking, let them make a mistake.

“You both obviously have the skills,” the last word almost sneered by Kettering, “in that direction. And a woman with no political acumen—she was a factory worker less than a year ago—obviously has handed the reins to you two. What else are we supposed to gather happened?”

That was partly true. Brocade had good instincts, and a good heart for that matter, and the people had responded to that. But she was the first to admit she didn’t know much outside of Eight—victors were some of the few people who knew about districts other than their own. Hearing them take her having the guts to admit her inexperience and ask for help and turn it into something sordid, though, was throwing a fresh shovel of coal on his temper.

“Better a couple of ex-whores than a couple of bitchy eunuchs,” Johanna piped up and he could practically feel her bristling. “Tell me, that whole fertility issue here, rumor is that the plumbing just doesn’t work now at all. That true?”

Sabetha stifled a somewhat horrified laugh and Kettering looked about ready to kill her. Johanna sat there, eyes hard and unapologetic. “If you think you two can simply walk in here and insult…”

“Well,” he said, realizing vaguely he was instinctively clutching the pen like a weapon, “you seem to think you have the right to do that. You really think that’s the smart idea here, given what’s at stake?”

“You really think you can bully us?” West scoffed. The posturing was getting annoying. “You’ll find you won’t like what happens.”

“That a threat?”

“If you, or anyone, are deemed a threat to the welfare and security of our district, the consequences to you could be severe. Or to others.” Kettering left than one hanging, though the implications were obvious.

For a moment he hesitated, the old instincts to accept the threat, to back away and deflect the suspicion that he was misbehaving in some way, still alive and well. Then he realized all over again that this time, he wasn’t the powerless one with no choice given but to panic and submit to it. With that came the surge of anger, remembering the slights, the discipline, the petty rules designed to crush a person’s sense of self, and most of all, the damn clomiphen they’d put into Johanna to make the two of them into a new pair of breeders for Thirteen’s use. The damage from that was still there and it fed his temper readily.

Seemed like after everything said and done and endured, for these people both of them were still nothing human and worthy of respect. Tired of this posturing crap, he decided to cut to the chase. “Chained up naked and starving on the Detention Level, I suppose,” he said, thinking of the preps probably nervously hiding in their rooms even now. “Or are we going right to execution?” Glancing up at Kettering and West, he eyed the two of them. “You really think that’ll frighten me? Snow was better at the whole implicit threat thing than you, Kettering. I’ve survived the arena twice. I was imprisoned and tortured and nearly executed. I led the plans that took down two presidents in the last year. So you really think your little implied threats are gonna bother me? That if you try to threaten me, or Johanna, or anyone else I care for with harm, I won’t be willing to deal with the problem of one pompous general and one annoying colonel? I won’t even fucking hesitate before I take you down, you arrogant shits.” He smiled fiercely at them, and he saw the way West’s eyes went to the pen in his hand as if worried Haymitch was going to stab him with it. “Or given what a devious little whore I apparently am, was that too obvious a threat for you?”

“Sir,” Sabetha murmured quietly, giving West and Kettering an awkward glance, but he could see they were set stubborn as rocks now.

“If you don’t want to talk, that’s fine, Johanna and I will just be leaving. I’ll tell Paylor we can consider that your formal declaration of independence from Panem. And I’ll be making an announcement before we go that we’re freely taking anyone who feels your laws have abused them along with us.”

“You can’t take our citizens away,” West protested angrily.

“Like shit I can’t,” he retorted. “I’ll call ‘em refugees if need be. And if you turn down a chance at diplomacy, you can expect us to be armed and ready. Sure, chances are nothing will happen. You sit there with your soldiers and your missiles, we sit there with ours, and we both wait for someone to blink because nobody wants to risk killing off the rest of the human race in a nuclear war. But you know what? The other districts, we’ve all got time and population on our side. We go about our business and rebuild our nation and raise kids and you here, with people immigrating out because you’ve treated them like they’re expendable, are going to slowly watch your district die off. We’ll just wait you out until you’re no longer a threat. So you want to rethink your position here?”

“And people were worried I was going to be the one to kill diplomacy,” Johanna said with a throaty laugh, sitting back and putting her hands behind her head.

Kettering and West were still busy choking on that, he saw. It was Thalric that spoke up calmly, leaning forward and putting her clasped hands on the table, “Then if you’re just here to try to tell us what’s what, Mister Abernathy, what is there to talk about?”

He sighed to himself, realizing he might have overdone it a bit, but really, he’d just needed to swat those two hard to get them to shut the hell up. “I’m not coming here to dictate. Just trying to see what you’re thinking towards your role in the new Panem.”

“Our position is that of course we couldn’t do anything that’s not in the best interests of District Thirteen.” He looked at Thalric with some amusement now, hearing in the cagey words a sort of wily intelligence that he had to respect.

“Are you planning on staying independent or not?” Johanna said. “Let’s just get to that before we’re wasting more time.”

“We’re currently undecided whether to rejoin the union of Panem,” Thalric replied with the air of a fairly practiced line.

“Technically, you never left,” he said with a raised eyebrow. “The Treaty of Thirteen never declared y’all an independent nation. Trust me, I read it over pretty thoroughly.” Very boring reading it made too. “And considering you just voted in a national election right alongside all the other districts…” Granted, it had presumably been to try to keep Coin in power.

“So what advantages are you offering us?” Sabetha asked next. “What do we gain by submitting to Brocade Paylor’s authority that we don’t get as an independent state?”

“Lack of concern about possible hostilities would be good,” he replied dryly. “You’ve got a few problems here. Your resources are limited to whatever you produce right here so you spend time and manpower on enforcing an insanely detailed set of rules to deal with that. You obviously have major problems with sustaining your population. And frankly, maybe it was necessary for the charade of being totally destroyed, but do you really want to keep living underground?”

“We lose our right to make our own laws, though.”

“You’ll be expected to listen to whatever national laws we come up with, yeah.” He shrugged. “But with less worry about your future being sustainable maybe you don’t need to put so much effort towards your laws.” At least that was his hope.

Compton looked unsettled by the thought of Thirteen’s laws being loosened up. Sabetha and Thalric looked thoughtful. He could tell he’d already lost West and Kettering and they were done but for finding the right point to make a dramatic exit. As for Forrest, well, no telling yet—he was busy writing, head bowed over the task.

“What’s our role expected to be?”

He shrugged. “You’re one of the more advanced districts in technology, medicine, and military.” Much as he hated to admit it. “So you have advantages to offer us. Chances are you’d stay a military training center, on behalf of all of Panem.” Particularly with the Peacekeeper question still remaining unresolved as it was. “No point wasting resources. Whether you want to get back into graphite, that’s your business. Figure we’ll all be thinking about what our role as districts will be anyway.”

“And as for the population issues?”

“Are you still using clomiphen on women?” Johanna asked, her voice suddenly taking on a deadly edge. “Without telling them about it?”

He watched their reactions. He thought he got a flicker of something from West. He’d been around a while presumably he’d seen and heard plenty. Sabetha actually flinched a bit. He wondered if possibly she had a kid herself she hadn’t planned on. “Not since Pre—Alma Coin was arrested and that was charged as one of her crimes against the people,” Sabetha said, recovering her aplomb.

He wasn’t sure whether he believed that or not. “That’s another condition of you accepting your role in Panem. No more clomiphen without consent. I ain’t debating that.”

“How are we supposed to repopulate…” Compton began to protest.

“How about making yourselves a place people want to move to?” Johanna retorted, cutting him off.

“Three may have more fertility treatments for you to try, if they’re so inclined to have reason to share them with you as fellow citizens.” He had a flash of inspiration in that moment, remembering the Peacehome, remembering the community home in Five too, also sadly grown full with kids left totally alone by the war. It could be an elegant solution to two problems, if it worked. “There are also,” he said slowly, “a lot of orphaned kids out there in need of a family now.”

“Haymitch,” Johanna said, her voice halfway to a threatening snarl. He could practically imagine her thoughts: You don’t get to use children’s lives as a bargaining chip, you asshole. He wasn’t. He hoped she knew that. He wouldn’t send any child to Thirteen as it was currently. They’d be better off still in the community homes, even lonely as they were.

“But there’s no way in hell I’m having a hand in sending any one of them to a situation where they’re just a fucking resource rather than a kid.”

“Terms?” West said tautly, the first crack in his facade.

“Rejoin the country. You’ll have the same rights and resource trade access as any of us and we’ll help you rebuild things on the surface so you don’t have to live down here.” Might as well throw that in there, he thought; hell, they were already rebuilding several districts. He could only think living aboveground like human beings would only do them a world of good here. “And maybe if you negotiate at the peace conference and show good faith in accepting the laws we’ll make there as your own, we’ll see if any kids are inclined to choose to give a family here a chance.” He gave them a warning glance. “Don’t think once they’re here that we won’t be making sure they’re treated right either.” That was about as simply as he could put it—it was on their heads to show it was a place for a kid to grow up and be made welcome.

“You’re asking a lot,” Thalric said bluntly, eyeing him from across the table.

“And you’ll be a lot better off for it in the end,” he said coolly, not backing down. “Your resource and population problems will be solved and you won’t spend all your waking hours worrying that people aren’t following the rules. How’s that a loss? Either you accept us as your allies and say you’re willing to compromise to gain some advantages you want, or else you accept your district is on a countdown to not existing.”

“I’ve heard enough,” Kettering growled, finally now taking that as his cue. “This is not how we do things.”

“Not before, sir,” Thalric said, still offering the old man the respect of his superior rank. “But he’s right. We can’t go on like this indefinitely. We should make use of advantages when they’re offered.”

“It’s basic tactics that a soldier is only as strong as his unit’s support,” Compton chimed in thoughtfully. “So standing alone isn’t the wise course.”

He wanted to risk a glance over at Johanna, sensing that if they didn’t have them, the door was at least open. “So we wouldn’t need to submit a formal declaration of rejoining Panem for the rest of the districts to approve?” Sabetha asked cautiously. Forrest was still busy scribbling notes. Apparently he was the designated secretary for this meeting rather than being entitled to speak up.

“Not if you agree that you really never left.” He shrugged. “Elect someone to represent you and show up at the Capitol next month to negotiate on your behalf and you’ve got the same right to be there as any other district.”

“We’ll have to discuss this, of course,” Thalric said smoothly. “But we should have a decision for you in the morning.”

“Thanks for the hospitality,” Johanna snarked, getting to her feet.

Following suit, she muttered to him as soon as the door to Command shut behind them, “Fuck it, Haymitch, I’m leaving the politics to you from now on. I spent the whole time wanting to throw things. Do we need to worry they’re going to murder us in our sleep?”

“I really hope not.” He leaned closer, keeping his own voice low as they walked the corridors back towards the hive of the cafeteria, since it was coming up on time for lunch. “The thing with the kids…” He knew he was hesitating, worrying that she somehow thought less of him for it, thought he was just ruthlessly using the lives of children for their bargaining value, rather than letting them simply have their own worth as human beings.

“It’s a good solution,” she said. “Lots of kids out in the districts need parents, lots of childless couples here in Thirteen. So long as we can be sure they’ll be treated right.”

“You know I wouldn’t send a kid into somewhere they’ll be badly used,” he told her quietly. The specter of all those dead Seven and Twelve tributes was suddenly there, unspoken but clearly acknowledged all the same. “They’re not just collateral to me. I was…just thinking of a way to solve two problems at once if this works out.”

“I know.” Her tone softened as she answered, and he felt himself relax as he knew she believed him, believed in him. “Those kids…” she said hesitantly, and he remembered the orphanages, the children who even if physically well-cared for as best as resources allowed, had that furtively depressed air of resignation, of desperately craving the acceptance and love of belonging somewhere, but not expecting to receive it. He could pick the new arrivals there out at a glance because they still had hope in their eyes.

“I know.” It would be far too easy for them to slip through the cracks as just another casualty of the war, a lost generation. The Panem they’d fought for was supposed to be a better place, but he feared for those kids maybe it wouldn’t be. Just because they needn’t be in terror of the Games didn’t mean their lives might not be hard and lonely and joyless from what they’d lost. “I know.” Suddenly it was on his lips, Maybe we should take one in? Hell, they already were approved as guardians, seeing as they served that role for Peeta. How to stop at taking in one child, though, when there were so many out there all equally deserving a home? How to choose one kid over another anyway? A Twelve kid orphaned by the firebombs? Someone from Seven for Johanna’s sake, so she’d have another piece of her own home? A district unrelated to them both to be fair?

That plus the nagging concern that him, with all of his flaws still, having children was an idea that really wasn’t smart, made him swallow the words unsaid. “I ain’t forgetting about them,” he said instead, holding open the door for her into the cafeteria.

“Oh, look, it’s mystery meat in gravy,” she said with a dramatic groan at the sight of the trays. “Goat?”

“I’m betting rat. They won’t even stand for the threat of pests here. It’s not keeping with their sense of order,” he said, tongue-in-cheek.

“I’ve had rat. We had some rough winters. Not too bad,” she said with a shrug.

“Dog ain’t bad either, for that matter. Or cat.” He grinned. “Bad winters, the mutts and strays around the Seam tended to disappear…”

“Cat pie? Really?” she shook her head. “And tell me, Haymitch, do you enjoy the taste of pu—“

“Mister Haymitch!” came the sound of Posy Hawthorne. He glanced down at her, relieved Johanna abruptly cut off the last of that little joke. She beamed up at him, and he could see Jonas in that stubborn chin, and her brother Gale too, and there was Hazelle written clear in her wavy black hair and thickly-lashed dark grey eyes, and the memory of Briar too. He and Briar might have had a daughter who looked like Posy, he realized, though the stab of pain was lesser than it would have been before. Probably because those rare times he let himself indulge in the wistfulness and pain of imagining the little girl he might had, she always had Johanna’s eyes, sometimes Johanna’s hair too. Posy would be a heartbreaker when she was grown, he was sure. “Mama and Papa Cory want to know if you want to come eat with us ‘cause you didn’t at breakfast.”

“Papa Cory?” He glanced over towards the table where Hazelle his morning, and noticed the silver hair and blue eyes of Corriden Boggs sitting beside her. He found himself smiling. “Well, well,” he said. Apparently Boggs had found something in his life besides probably brooding over his demotion.

“Miz Jo Hannah,” she pronounced it as two separate names, “you can come too, you’re married so that means you two eat together. And Mama told Rory he’d better be nice or he’s not too old for a good licking.” She bit her lip. “He’s angry a lot. ‘Cause Gale went away.”

“I’m sure he is,” he said, feeling the gathering dread at facing the somewhat understandable wrath of a fourteen-year-old boy who already had hated him given more cause to do so with the death of his big brother.

“Did Mister Peeta send cake?” she asked hopefully, tugging on his hand to pull him towards the Hawthorne clan. With a glance at Johanna, she shrugged in resignation, telling him to just go with it.

“No, sorry,” he said.

“That’s OK.” Cheerful as ever, she took her seat and started chattering away with Johanna. Rory was frostily polite. Vick seemed excited about the idea of going home. Hazelle—he didn’t even know what to say to her yet, but the cafeteria hardly seemed the right place for it. As for Boggs, well, he’d like to get some of his perspective on the would-be representatives of Thirteen.

“You two mind going for a walk during Reflection?” he asked them.

“If I can get Delly and Thom to watch the kids again,” Hazelle told him. It struck him that Reflection was probably their courting period, the only unscheduled part of their day. He hated to cut in on that, but there were things needing to be taken care of here.

“Ma, I can watch Vick and Posy,” Rory said with a scowl. “I told you…”

“You’re only fourteen,” Hazelle said.

“And Gale was out hunting when he was fourteen,” Rory snapped angrily. “You and Pa were courting when you were fourteen! Delly’s eighteen, not like she’s all that grown up, just ‘cause she’s our neighbor and all.”

“I’ll watch ‘em,” Johanna said with a shrug. “Don’t think this one’s gonna let me go anyway.” The way Posy was beaming at her said plenty. Seeing the way Johanna smiled back at her, at first tentative and then more genuine, he hid a smile himself.

“Fine,” Rory said, making it obvious it was anything but fine, scowling down at the last of his mystery meat.

Oh, this was going to be fun, he thought. He’d rather be back trying to endure West and Kettering’s taunts than this uneasy feeling of failure, especially in the face of Rory’s simmering anger about Gale. But the time came eventually to face up to the mistakes and apparently that time was now. That still didn’t mean he was looking forward to it.

Chapter Text

Leaving Johanna with the Hawthorne kids and hoping Posy didn’t try to play make-up with her and Rory didn’t piss her off, Haymitch headed towards the surface with Boggs and Hazelle. He figured it would be best to get the easy one out of the way first. Compared to all the complexity of things with Hazelle, getting some of the information on his compatriots out of Boggs ought to be relatively simple. “Mind if I borrow your fella here?” he asked Hazelle with a joking air.

“Have at it,” she answered, leaning against one of the broken pillars of the former Justice Building. “Don’t be too long, hear?”

Walking a little ways away, he started off with a casual, “So, you and Hazelle, huh?”

“So, you and Johanna, huh?” Boggs answered with a faint smile, countering him neatly. The fact he was using her first name told him plenty about his mentality now compared to Thirteen. “I knew it.”

He gave a grunt of acknowledgment, not wanting to say anything to that since about all he had was “Oh, shut up,” which would have made him sound about thirteen years old again. “She’s a good woman, Hazelle.”

“She told me about her sister.” So forget carefully probing things; Boggs was apparently just going at it full bore. Tucking his hands into his jacket pockets, Boggs said, “So I suppose you’re about the closest she has to a brother. You have a problem with that, her and me?”

He wasn’t certain he’d put it to the point of him being Hazelle’s brother—in a different situation, one where Briar had lived, sure. But too much time and too much distance had gone by then, he was sure. “She’s a grown woman. It’s her decision. But for what it’s worth, it’s good to see her happy.” Compared to the woman who’d been his housekeeper last year, still tired from the loss of widowhood and the stress of supporting four kids, she practically glowed now. “So no, no problems on my end.”

“When I came back from the Capitol, as squad commander I had to report to her about Gale, and, well…”

“Yeah.” He understood how it had happened well enough. “You never married?” He’d never heard about a wife in Boggs’ past, always had the impression he was solidly wed to his duty.

“No.” Boggs shook his head. “Too busy making my way through the ranks to help out the family, and looking after my brothers, and…well, just never quite happened.” Walking along the edge of the woods, seeing the bloom of wildflowers in brilliant splashes of color around the trunks of the trees, he could imagine that after losing his little sister Channi in the arena and leading his remaining siblings to Thirteen, he’d been fiercely devoted to protecting them in any way possible. Thinking of Channi, seeing the beauty of those flowers, he felt a shiver work its way down his spine and tried to not glance around wildly just in case some cute, ferocious cat mutts were lurking among the trees. Not these woods, he forced himself to calm down.

“Will you go back to Ten, then?” he asked.

“Nothing much there for me after so long,” Boggs said with a sigh and a shake of his head. “The rest of my family was all dead even then.”

It was on the tip of his tongue to say that to hell with Thirteen and their humiliating him with the demotion, he and Hazelle ought to just come back to Twelve. But seeing some kind of hesitation and tension in Boggs, he simply said, “Whatever it is, out with it.”

“I’m a colonel again, apparently,” Boggs told him dryly. “They came and told me shortly after lunch.”

“And why is that?”

“Colonel West informed me, seems they’d like me to be the representative for District Thirteen to the peace summit in the Capitol. As I was one of the highest ranked of the presidential small council before my demotion, and I dealt well with non-natives, they said it was only natural I ought to take the role rather than sending Kettering, or even Thalric.”

He couldn’t help it, letting out a bark of incredulous laughter. “Clever bastards. They’re apparently playing a better game than I gave ‘em credit for.” Better than he’d have thought given how asininely simplistic their tactics course had been, for that matter, stressing the unit and rank hierarchy as it did.

“Explain.” Even now the tone of command was instinctively in Boggs’ voice, making it more of an order than a request, the sound of a man accustomed to being obeyed from two and a half decades of professional soldiering.

“Oh, Johanna and I pretty much told Kettering and West to cheerfully go fuck themselves.” Boggs raised his eyebrows and stared at him incredulously. “They deserved it,” he told the other man bluntly, not willing to argue that point. “So now they elect you to the job—not that I don’t put faith in you to do right by your district and do a fine job of it, mind. Of course I do. But I’m thinking they asked you figuring as I’m there representing Twelve, I’ll be inclined to play nicer with you than them, and since they apparently think I pretty much control Brocade Paylor…” He gave a derisive snort at that, making his opinion of that notion crystal clear.

“This,” Boggs said with irritation, “this thing you do, all these schemes you can see and ferreting out things like that, I don’t do that. I don’t have the first damn clue on it. And I really don’t want to.”

“Good. I’d say Thirteen—hell, any district—needs a straightforward representative at the table,” he said with a shrug. “I’d rather it all goes honest and aboveboard myself. So you might not like their motives, but it’s a chance for you to help make the transition for Thirteen back into Panem a solid one by you being sincere as you are.” It struck him that perhaps the more slippery political minds had seen that too, that sending someone solid and honest like Boggs would help show Thirteen’s good faith with his sheer lack of guile more than a cunning negotiator who might set things on edge from the start. Surely they’d realized he could easily call bullshit on someone too smooth-tongued. But seemingly they’d realized they were up against the wall when it came to the rising power of twelve districts suddenly freed from Capitol chains, and they were making the best situation of it they could. So long as it didn’t deliberately fuck anyone else over in the process, he could hardly blame them for that.

Boggs gave a soft rumble of acknowledgement at that. “Fine.”

“I would,” Haymitch said carefully, “consider Hazelle and the kids coming back to Twelve for a ‘visit’ with Katniss and Peeta until the peace summit’s over.” He met Boggs’ eyes. “If they’re suddenly trying to make you play their role, it’s better to not have those you care about here where they can get to ‘em if you make a move they don’t like. Trust me on that.” He shook his head, because the moment after he said it he was already thinking it might sound a bit ridiculous. “Maybe I’m just being paranoid, but…”

“It’s probably a good idea,” Boggs replied, a flicker of concern in his blue eyes. “I don’t think any of them have Coin’s ruthlessness. But better to be safe.”

“You do what you have to do,” he answered. When it came to keeping people safe, that was worth any personal sacrifice, in his opinion.

Boggs stood there for a moment, arms folded, looking as if he was wrestling with something. Then he finally spoke up, almost in a rush. “Don’t hold your breath on getting anything from West and Kettering, but obviously you figured that out already. Thalric’s wily, ambitious too, you’ll have to deal with that. Sabetha’s probably the best of the lot, the most open to compromise. Compton tends to just follow the crowd, he’ll jump in to support someone else but he’ll never speak first. Forrest, he’ll probably be on the side of whoever actually bothers to make him feel like he’s more than the note-taker.”

He nodded, absorbing that, realizing that Boggs’ sense of loyalty was still strong enough that he was reluctant to feel like he’d sold out the secrets of some of his fellow soldiers. Just the same as bucking Coin’s authority and helping him and the rest of Victory Squad desert had obviously cost him, but clearly Corriden Boggs was a man who liked to do the right thing regardless of the price. “And you?” he said. “After the summit?”

“I’m still deciding,” Boggs said bluntly. “Whatever terms you make here with the small council for our future, and then whatever we come up with at the Capitol, will probably help with that. This place has become my home so I’m reluctant to just leave it, but I have to think too about what’s best for Hazelle and the kids too.”

“Well, if you do leave, you’ll always be welcome in Twelve.”

Boggs gave a nod of thanks to that. “Good luck. You’ll need it,” he said with understated humor.

“Jo and I, we’ll be in Ten later this year. Did you…is there anything you’d want me to do for Channi while we’re there?”

Now Boggs’ expression was genuine surprise, probably at the thought of the grave he hadn’t seen in so many years. Haymitch only wished he could have gone twenty-five years without seeing them. “We used to…” He spoke hesitantly, as if recalling something almost lost after all this time and buried beneath the Thirteen citizen he had become, barely grasped by now with just the fingertips rather than securely held. You do what you have to do to survive, he thought, even if that meant trying to not dwell on the memory of a dead younger sibling. Haymitch hadn’t managed that, given nothing but time and space to dwell on Ash. “Flowers wither and die so fast. So when you were missing them, you’d find a stone, a small one you could carry, and you’d make it represent some kind of memory of that person, and take it there to leave it on the grave. To remember some of the good and see it there next time you came to visit to be reminded of how they touched your life, and also to leave your grief just that bit lighter by the weight of that stone.” He gave a wry smile, his gaze faraway now. “Not as though we wanted any sort of rituals related to our industry, bloody as it was.” Given that after raising the livestock, butchering meat and tanning leather were major parts of Ten’s industry, he could well imagine.

“So give me whatever you, or your brothers,” assuming they were alive and inclined to participate, “want me to take with and I’ll see it put there.”

“Thanks.”

“Meat-producing district, though, I’m sure you had good wedding feasts,” he pointed out, trying to pull Boggs back from that somewhat stricken look. Even though it meant inviting the memory of Angus on himself, with the pang of pain that still came with it.

“We did at that,” Boggs answered him with that smile seeming more fondly reminiscing rather than with that edge of painful wistfulness. “I’ve never had a really good roast since I left, you know.”

“They tend to cook things to death here,” he offered. Mass-produced as it was for thousands of people, quality and taste wasn’t a concern so much as caloric content.

“They really do.”

Coaxing Boggs out of his shell that much, he couldn’t resist a bit of a grin as he said, with the memory of Angus prodding both him and Chaff fresh in his mind, “Sorry, but here’s fair warning. We like to cook a pig in Twelve, not a cow.”

“It’s all right,” Boggs said with a shrug. “I grew up in the mid-district, on a pork collective farm, so it’s not like I ate too much beef as a kid.” True enough that Ten was a huge and diverse district, he remembered. Angus had been from far south, down towards Four and Five, and apparently that was more of a beef-producing area. “So,” Boggs said, “we’re all right, Aber--Haymitch?” he corrected himself, and Haymitch could easily sense the offer of friendship from it.

“We’re all right,” he confirmed. “Corriden.” At least he thought so. “Let me go talk to Hazelle, huh?”

As he left Corriden there and found Hazelle walking the ruins of the Justice Building, it crossed his mind to wonder if they’d shot her up with clomiphen too once they saw her and Corriden were together. But no, by that point, Johanna had made people aware of the problem with her part in that propo so chances were women were asking questions before allowing themselves to be injected with any kind of drug. Besides, with four—no, three, by that time—living kids maybe they figured Hazelle had done her duty enough when it came to childbearing. “Haymitch,” she said, giving him a nod, her fine dark grey eyes studying his.

It seemed like no matter how old they got he’d never quite be able to look at her without seeing the similarities to Briar, just the same as looking at Ash’s picture at the Peacehome he’d seen too much likeness to himself at eighteen. But the pain was less now and more bearable for it. “Hazelle,” he returned, wanting to shake his head at that brilliant piece of delaying saying anything useful.

She spared him that by saying bluntly, “You look good now.” It was an assessment, not a come-on. “Tell me, are you still off the bottle?”

Anyone else, he would have instinctively wanted to say defensively, And what fucking business of that is yours? But for Briar, and for the realization that she’d been the one to care for him after Peeta dumped all the liquor, held his tongue. “Yeah.”

“Good.” She pushed off the pillar and moved towards him, just a few steps. Her black hair was in a loose queue with the end over one shoulder, a river of dark silk in loose waves. He’d always joked with Briar that he hoped their kids would have her hair rather than his messy riot of curls. All the Hawthorne kids had Hazelle’s hair, except Gale, he’d tended towards Jonas’ straight hair. “You have something worth keeping now.”

“I know.” He watched her as she walked, restless. It made him feel oddly like his own sudden nervous need to pace would be too much and so he stood there, bound by it. “I never did thank you enough for looking out for me, last spring. When I was…sick.” He realized it must have been a thankless job, dealing with him moaning and screaming and yelling at delusions, trying to keep water in him to counter his drenching the sheets with sweat and throwing up constantly.

She stopped and let out a deep sigh. “There were a few times I thought you were going to die. One point in there, Perulla said it was pretty much up to luck whether you’d make it through the night.”

He’d been convinced of that fact himself, that the pain and the horror of it was completely unsupportable, but in the hazy recollections afterward, he’d told himself that was just the madness of the moment talking rather than actually being in danger of death. The fact she’d gone and fetched Perulla Everdeen meant he’d been well and truly bad off. “Well.”

For whatever reason, and he doubted it was just the pay, Hazelle had stayed and cared for him. Maybe it was the compassion she’d always had, the sort of simple human decency that said even someone as disgraceful and wretched as he had been shouldn’t die totally alone. He remembered taking Maysilee’s hand as she slipped away so at least she knew at the end, he was there and he gave a damn. Considering for years he’d accepted the truth of being as solitary in death as in life, knowing that wouldn’t have been the case meant far too much. Things had changed, he wouldn’t risk dying alone now, but the man he’d been was still so close that it hit him hard.

He wondered if Peeta actually knew how bad off he’d been, or Katniss. It wasn’t something he felt like asking either of them.

“You actually asked me to kill you a few times.” He winced at that. “You also called Perulla ‘Maysilee’ and told her you were sorry you let her die.” He winced even more at that one. “And that she was just the first tribute you let down.”

Wonderful, apparently when he was delirious he pretty much spilled his guts. But then Hazelle had pretty much told him he’d said plenty, right before he left for the Quell when she came to tell him she forgave him. He just hadn’t wanted to hear it, and hadn’t wanted to confirm it for her. Too dangerous back then for her to know some of those things as certainties rather than delirious ravings, but obviously Hazelle knew better now. He knew from listening to Johanna in the Detention Center that she’d pretty much done the same when she was hallucinating. Chances were she’d heard more than her share of his secrets too. They’d just never said anything about it since then and that was probably better. “And what did I say to you?” he said, trying to keep his voice calm only with effort.

She stopped and now she did look up at his face. “You called me Briar.”

Of course he had. He’d been convinced he saw her, his befuddled brain automatically thinking the middle-aged Seam woman there had to be a vision of Briar because of course to his mind Hazelle wouldn’t have been there, she had no reason to stay. “I probably said plenty to her.”

“You did.” He could well imagine what it had been, all about his regret at his life and his utter shame and how he hadn’t been worth shit ever since he had been the cause of her death. He’d apologized but hadn’t pleaded for her forgiveness, he was sure, because he wouldn’t have thought he deserved it. Whatever hereafter there might be, he had been convinced then he was bound for the desolate part of it anyway. He was ridiculously thankful apparently Hazelle wasn’t going to tell him for certain. “And you told me I couldn’t tell anyone. Then you spent about fifteen minutes arguing with yourself about whether telling a dead woman would cause trouble for anyone.”

“And what did I decide there, out of curiosity?”

“I think you finally decided since you were going to die, either right then or in the arena, it wouldn’t matter anyway, since neither you nor Briar would ever tell.” Absurdly, he couldn’t help a quick, awkward laugh at the ridiculousness of it. “But things made sense then. About you. The Capitol. Your tributes. And your, um, supposed…conquests.” She didn’t have to say that his admitting to being a forced whore on national television had pretty well confirmed whatever he’d said to that delusion of Briar.

“Hazelle…”

“You think you’re the only one with that on your shoulders?” she challenged him, her tone suddenly fierce. “We all knew about your ma.” Of course they had. Ash’s brown hair made it pretty obvious. “If I hadn’t had a five-month belly on me when Jonas died I’d have been on Peacekeeper’s Row soon enough. But even after Posy came, laundry and Gale’s hunting wasn’t always quite enough, Haymitch. Not with three growing boys, and only one old enough for tesserae, and Gale growing big as Jonas like he was with the appetite to match.” She gave a diffident half-shrug, as if it hadn’t mattered. “It was only a few times. Maybe half a dozen at most, and only when things were really tough. That’s nothing in comparison—I mean, how many times was it for you?” The awkward way she said it, as if trying to convince herself it hadn’t mattered, told him that of course it had. How could it not?

“I don’t even know,” he said wearily. Eighteen years of it meant it was virtually impossible to know for sure, just blurring into a vague notion of something more than a hundred. “Not a big deal how many it was for me versus you. The first time you do it, that’s the one that matters most.” That was the one that made the change, and “whore” with all its awkward shame was a label that suddenly applied, and the knowledge that having done it and survived, it would be possible and even necessary to do it again. Beyond that first time, it was all just a matter of how long it went on and how much of a toll it took.

“I tried again after Gale was flogged,” she said nonchalantly, like discussing the weather, but he could see that she was tense, trying to get through it before it was too much. “Before you hired me. With Gale out of work and me out of a job, seemed the only thing to do. Nobody much wanted a woman pushing forty, though. Not with the young girls there too. One of the young ones—Albus, I think, that other one that was always hanging around with that boy Darius that tried to help Gale—he gave me some money and told me to go home. He meant well but I think the pity was almost worse.”

“The pity’s a real shit to deal with.” He could tell who saw him as a victim first and how stilted it made things. Plus the pang of guilt at being so wrapped up in his own problems that he hadn’t stepped in to help out until Katniss basically bitched at him that he was going to hire Hazelle or else, also hit him hard. “He knows?” he asked her gently as he could.

“Yeah,” she said. Corriden still loved her and the kids anyway, that was clear. “Being from an outer district like he was, he understands better than a Thirteen native might.”

“Probably so.” He remembered, with some chagrin, yelling at Gale for judging him, accusing him of being so full of his own damn pride he’d never submit himself to shame to save those he loved. If he’d known what his mother had been obliged to do, he might have acted differently. “Gale didn’t know,” he said, half to himself.

“No!” Her tone was sharp and her eyes fierce. “None of the kids ever knew. I made sure of it. I didn’t want that to touch them.”

Given how much it had affected him to find that out about his own ma, he could imagine. The door was open now with his mention of Gale’s name and there was no way to take it back. “I’m sorry about Gale. I should have…”

“He was a man, Haymitch. He made his choices and he went to war. He knew he might die.” At least the way she was saying it, the words didn’t have the toneless sound of being something recited rather than actually believed. “And I know you. Even when you were a kid you tried to take on too much of looking after people. Ash. Me. Briar. Lorna. I thought that had changed, that you’d forgotten who you were, but when I saw you with Katniss and Peeta, when I heard you…about your tributes…” She cut off whatever she was going to say about his delirious ravings. “You don’t take lives lightly,” she said. “So if he died, it’s not because you considered him expendable.”

He found himself staring at her, trying to accept the idea that with a few simple words she was trying to give him the grace of taking away the guilt. “Still. He was your boy.”

“He was,” and now she suddenly looked fully her age, a small, neat, olive-skinned woman with the lines of grief ravaging her face. “And now I’ll never be at his wedding. I’ll never hold grandbabies from him. There’s so much I wish...he didn’t even have time to fall in love, not with someone who loved him back.” There was no resentment at Katniss in her tone, simply the weariness of accepting all those broken hopes. But Hazelle Wainwright Hawthorne had done more than her share of that in her life already. She’d carry on, he knew, hard as it would be. She’d borne her losses better than him.

At least he could give her one small solace. It seemed if there were things Hazelle hadn’t shared with her firstborn, Gale likewise had his own secrets. “He did have a girl he loved. Who loved him back.” From talking to the boy, and from how she’d anxiously hovered around while he was recovering from his whipping, he was confident that last was true.

“Who was that?”

“The Undersee girl. Madge.”

“But…what in hell did he have in common with a merchie girl?” she asked in confusion, shaking her head at the inability of it to make sense right then. “He was always so angry how much easier their lives were, I don’t think that…”

“Madge was Maysilee’s niece. The last thing Maysilee told me in the arena before she died, didn’t make sense then, young and clueless as I was, but…I’m pretty sure the whole Donner family had a rebel streak a mile wide. I don’t doubt Madge was just the same. She gave Katniss that mockingjay pin. So I reckon she and Gale found that passion for being free of the Capitol in common and from there,” he shrugged, “things took their course.”

Hazelle sat down a bit heavily on a broken marble block. Her head sank down into her hands. “She died in the firebombing, Madge.”

“Yes.”

“But…oh, why didn’t he just tell me?” she said, the sound of it a wounded and bewildered cry. “I thought he was being so angry over Katniss growing apart from him and told him he was overreacting, that he couldn’t force her to love him, and he’d see that he’d get over it…that was when he stopped talking to me. His own ma. Went and got his own compartment, and I’d see him with some of those Thirteen girls after that, and I just…”

Yeah, he didn’t doubt that angry and heartsick and lonely as he was, Gale had probably taken advantage of a district where birth control was ostensibly freely available and going all the way to sex was a much more casual thing for it. He’d run across teenagers hanging all over each other in the corridors here in Thirteen and going in and out of each other’s rooms. Katniss and Peeta had obviously ended up sleeping together before the end of the war. Clearly being teen parents wasn’t the catastrophe it was in the districts because the risk of enduring the Games wasn’t there. He wondered if even now there might be a Hawthorne grandchild on the way, and decided to not bring that up. He wasn’t sure whether it would be a cruelty or a comfort for her. “He was angry.”

“All the damn time,” Hazelle said with a tired shake of her head. “That temper, he got that from Joe. You weren’t there,” and even if she didn’t mean it there was still a casual damnation in those words and how he’d left the Seam, “but after they hanged Lorna, after you and Burt brought her back to the Seam, he was threatening to go start killing Peacekeepers. It took all of us to settle him.”

“I remember Joe had a temper on him.” It burned hot as coal fires, and once Jonas Hawthorne was pissed off with someone, he tended to stay mad unless someone calmed him down. Probably a reason someone levelheaded like Hazelle had been such a good match for him. “After Gale’s first Reaping Day, he came up and told me exactly what he thought of me.” It was pretty much just confirming the opinion he knew people had of him in Twelve, but seeing the disgust and anger on the face of his old friend as he said it, the words cut all the deeper.

Now Hazelle winced. “I can imagine. That’s probably where Gale, and Rory, got their…opinion of you.” There was a distinct apology in her glance at him. “They looked up to him so much.”

“I wasn’t much to admire.” Whether he had good cause for that or not, the fact remained. “And with Rory, well, he’s lost his big brother…”

“Yes. And they were close. Very much alike too. Rory’s got Joe’s temper too. Though Joe grew out of the worst of it.”

“Maybe Gale would have too.” The boy, in his sheer grief-stricken rage, had lashed out viciously. Trying to kill all the civilians at Eagle Mountain, helping Beetee build those innocuous-looking explosive napalm bombs that had burned children—the things he had stood for were almost unthinkable. Given free rein, Haymitch didn’t know how many Gale would have seen killed in sheer dogged pursuit of his revenge and destroying the Capitol and its allies. But maybe one day, with greater maturity and wisdom, he would have looked back on what he’d said and done and been horrified, and tried to atone. He would never have that chance now.

The fact that there on the Exchange, he chose bravery and sacrifice, saving Katniss and Peeta’s lives, rather than ruthlessly pursuing his own agenda said plenty about the goodness that still remained buried beneath the rage. Haymitch thought on what he’d said at the military camp in the heat of temper about how Gale was apparently too proud and judgmental to suffer for anyone else’s sake, and somewhat regretted those words now. They had been a harsh slap of reality that was needed at the time, but Gale had proven him wrong after that. He didn’t sharply mourn the boy who’d been so filled with wrath, but yes, in his way, he now mourned the grief it caused the living Hawthornes, the selfless path he’d chosen at the very last, and most all, the loss of the potential of the good man he now saw Gale still likely would have become.

“Tell me if he died fast.” She wasn’t interested in whether or not it had been brave or heroic—she’d seen too much to put much stock in that. But she’d seen slow dying in plenty, starvation and bad hangings and disease.

“It was quick. I doubt he had time to know it.”

“You’re not telling me what I want to hear, are you?” He tried to not flinch, because he could hear that word liar right there plainly, and whether Hazelle meant it that sharply or she just wanted assurance and would have said it if he was known as totally honest, that she doubted him stung at least a little.

“I’m telling you plain truth and that’s it. He died instantly.”

“There was no body to bury when you had to leave him, was there?”

“No.”

She didn’t want details; that he could tell for certain. He didn’t blame her. Sometimes he still had nightmares about that skirmish down on the Exchange, just one more horror mingled with all the rest. She nodded, just accepting that. In a way maybe it was almost a strange comfort that they hadn’t been forced to leave his body to their enemies. He still didn’t know what the Capitol had done with the bodies of the dead victor-tributes from the arena, or those mentors they had executed during their captivity. Well, he knew the fate of one liver. Beyond that, though, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know the details of how their bodies had maybe been desecrated, and almost certainly given no care or respect by being sent back to their homes. “Briar died quick too,” he told her. Another thing he had learned since they last spoke before the Quell. “She…they were shot before the house burned.” It was a small saving grace, but having burned himself, and having the screams of Capitol children in his ears still as they burned to death, he’d a thousand times rather be dead when the flames were lit.

She was silent for a little while. “Thank you for telling me.”

“Ash is alive,” he blurted next, feeling like having edged onto the topic, it ought to be said. So many dead from their group then: Briar, Lorna, Jonas, Burt. For so long they’d thought Ash was among that number. “Or he was, past the fire.”

“What?”

“Fog begged Snow to keep him alive. Because he was Ash’s dad.” His too, but he wasn’t going to tell Hazelle that. “Snow agreed but had him sent to Two—to be raised there and become a Peacekeeper. Apparently they did that with Capitol traitors’ kids already. He was…they used tracker jacker venom to fuck up his mind and make him forget…but I found the record at the orphanage in Two.” He sighed, rubbing at his eyes tiredly. “Johanna’s sister too. Apparently the plan worked so well with Ash that Snow decided to do it to her. Kept them around as secret leverage, you know?”

“Where is he now?” Surprisingly she didn’t resent that his brother had lived while her sister had died.

“I don’t know. Last I know is he was sent to Nine when he was eighteen, but that was so long ago. I’m gonna have to check the records every place I go.”

“Good luck.” There was genuine warmth in it, but at the same time, a rueful tone that said she hoped he could deal with whatever he found. “He used to have the most awful little-boy crush on me,” she said with a slow smile. “I think in his mind—you know how he was, always thinking everything over—you and Briar, and then me and him, it made sense. It would make us all just one big happy family.”

He’d never known that, but maybe he’d been too oblivious to some things about his little brother to sense it. Things had changed since then. Briar was dead and he had Johanna. Hazelle had Jonas first, and Corriden now. As for Ash, or that stranger called Theodosius Law, who knew whose lips he might be kissing? Hopefully not some poor little district girl he had paid. “If there’s anything I can ever do for you…it ain’t pity, so don’t worry.”

“You don’t owe me either.”

That absolution from that careful system of Seam debt meant plenty to him, especially given Gale’s role in rescuing him and his own inability to return the favor. “Then even if you don’t move back to Twelve, you come and see me sometime because I’d like to stay in touch, all right?”

“Of course. I think we will, though. I don’t know there’s much here for Corriden in the future, he’s due some peace anyway, and…the kids and I miss Twelve. It’s home.”

“Yeah. It is.” Those two words, it’s home, simple as they were, still contained far too much loss and longing and belonging to be denied. “Then I’ll look forward to seeing you there. Plenty of houses left in the Village.” He figured Peeta would give up his too. “Might be nice for you to live in one rather than just clean one.”

She looked stunned at the idea of having that kind of abundance. “Well, it’s hard going still,” he pointed out. “No electricity yet, we get some food rations on the hovercraft but it’s mostly whatever you catch or gather, you’re always chopping wood…” He gave her a bit of a smile. “Though that might be just the thing to keep a fourteen-year-old boy’s mind busy.”

“He is going stir-crazy here. Rory doesn’t take to mindless discipline too well.” No, but he’d certainly listened to Prim Everdeen hollering at him.

“Well, Katniss might be glad to hunt with him.” It wouldn’t be Gale, but eventually, as he was finding in his own life, the memories of shared dead might be a comfort rather than a burden.

“Did you ever get rid of those awful curtains in the kitchen?” she asked, a glimmer of humor suddenly in her eyes.

“They were nice!”

“Twenty-five years ago when your ma picked them,” she scoffed.

“Yeah, we replaced them,” he admitted. Johanna’s urging, of course, but in the end he’d been forced to admit she was right.

“How about that ratty old couch of yours?”

He grumbled irritably, realizing unfortunately Hazelle had apparently seen every flaw in his house and remembered it. “Redid the padding and the fabric. Are you and Johanna allied against me here or what?”

Hazelle laughed, and the humor and warmth of it prodded against his awkward self-consciousness and helped neutralize it. “Well, then. That wife of yours is obviously doing a world of good for your house. Plus she’s apparently got good taste to boot.”

“Not sure about that. She took me on, after all,” he joked.

“My sister loved you,” she said simply. “And I know she had good judgment.”

He felt a lump in his throat at that. “Johanna isn’t Briar,” he said. There were a few similarities, perhaps—the strength and the humor, the ability to prod him out of his moods. But the two of them were different enough that he was thankful for it. It meant he could love Johanna simply for herself rather than painful reminders of the past.

“You ain’t exactly who you were then either. But a lot of you stayed the same, I think. And would you want her to be just like Briar anyway?”

“Would you want Boggs—Corriden—to be just like Jonas?” he countered. They didn’t have to say it. Both of them seemed to understand instinctively that wasn’t the case. “He makes you happy?” he asked her quietly.

“Yeah. And her?”

“She does.”

“Good. Bri would have wanted that.”

“She’d also have said at least I went for someone with the guts to chew me out when I need it.”

“She would at that,” and there was humor now in Hazelle’s eyes. “You play fair with Corriden at the peace summit, all right? You may not much like Thirteen, but he’s there to do the best he can for them.”

“Got it. I aim that we hopefully all play fair as we can anyway.” Otherwise it would just be sowing discontent and the next conflict. “I’d best go be the reinforcements for Johanna. I think Posy really wants to keep her.” The youngest Hawthorne seemed fascinated by Johanna, and he couldn’t help but be amused, and maybe a bit touched, at how Jo’s ferocity seemed to soften in the face of that kind of adoration, showing some of that tenderness underneath. Well, he realized, she’s never had anything like that. Right from her Games she’d been the trickster, the sly villainess. People had wanted to possess her, yes, but they never adored her like that had Finnick or Katniss and Peeta. She likes kids, maybe, he thought, trying to not let that run wild.

“All right. I think Cory and I are going to finish out Reflection up here, if that’s all right by you.”

“Yeah, you two need some time. I’m sure Jo and I will manage till you get back.” He’d survived two trips through the arena, the Detention Center, and a war. Half an hour with three kids ought to be all right.

Hazelle’s amused laughter at that followed him, and he shook his head, unable to help a grin of his own as he headed back for the access hatch.

Chapter Text

About five minutes after Haymitch left, Johanna was wondering what the hell she had been thinking. Her sitting there stuck in a steel box with three kids? “Guess what,” she said, looking at the trio of them, one scowling, one shy, and one eagerly bouncing from foot to foot. Black hair and grey eyes and olive skin; they might have been Haymitch’s cousins, like Katniss had claimed they were to her. They’d almost been his nephews and niece, she realized. “Fu—enough with this. We’re heading to the surface.” She had surface access, might as well use it.

“But Ma said,” Vick began quietly.

“Let’s go,” Rory said impatiently. He grabbed Posy’s hand and headed for the door. Posy was chattering excitedly, some kind of rapid-fire exclamation of andIwannaclimbatreeandIwanna

Vick glanced over at her. “We don’t get to the surface much except Reflection. And Ma worries,” yeah, she could imagine after being widowed and losing her eldest boy, she might, “and Miz Delly and Mister Thom are nice but they usually like inside activities when they’re looking after—“

“Babysitting,” Rory cut him off again with an irritated snort, helping Posy with her shoes.

Followed by a gaggle of mini Hawthornes, she made her way up to the surface. Figuring Haymitch had claimed the woods for his chat with the adults, she led them towards the training field. Them clearly having enough energy to burn like that, to her mind, it was a good idea to just let them run crazy a bit before bedtime safely outdoors rather than making noise in those cramped quarters where sound traveled so well.

Posy was off like a shot towards the training bars, climbing all over them like an agile little squirrel. Vick, at first standing there watching her like an awkwardly silent little eleven-year-old guardian, soon enough got coaxed up there with her. She shook her head, reminded too much of Heike by his gentle shyness. He’d be a sweetheart when he grew up, she was sure. “Might as well go play too,” she said, nodding to Rory.

“I ain’t a kid,” he scowled at her, and true enough, he was already a little taller than her, promising at a height he and Gale both inherited from their dad, to hear Haymitch remember him. But his voice was still boyish, his frame still childishly soft. Remembering him protesting he was fourteen, that Gale had been hunting for the family at that age, remembering that Haymitch had been doing the same, she couldn’t help but weigh that off against the memories of Heike. At fourteen she’d still been a child. Hell, even Gale and Haymitch had been kids—forced beyond their years, maybe, but children all the same.

“Yeah, you are,” she said. “Enjoy it while you can.” Being an adult wasn’t always all it was cracked up to be. At sixteen, seventeen she’d been ill equipped to handle being forced over that edge. Even now, at almost twenty-seven, she was dealing with repercussions of that.

“Gale was…” he insisted, folding his arms over his still-thin chest and his scowl deepened to something almost painful.

“And you’re not Gale,” she cut him off, not wanting to dwell on that, not wanting to remember how the man—still half a boy really—had died. She didn’t want to have the blanket of that grief wrapped around her too. She’d always managed to avoid the worst of it with the tributes. She’d figured Blight couldn’t handle delivering the bodies at the train station to the parents, or the community home in a couple of cases, and so she’d just gone ahead and done it herself. Steeled her nerves each year and been the heartless person they expected, giving them back their dead child with barely a word said about it, because she didn’t want to let it in anyway. Look how badly it had broken Haymitch over the years, taking it in as he always had and feeling the grief, letting it twist into blame. She didn’t blame herself, not really. Maybe one or two had made a harder mark—Willow, she remembered Willow all too well with her carved wooden ball and how she’d murmured goodbye to her mom before she deliberately dropped it.

But mostly she simply let the clean purity of her anger at the Capitol burn quietly behind that mask of bitchy indifference, so that along with all that she endured herself, each dead kid’s name became a new call for a reckoning.

“How would you know?” he demanded fiercely. “You probably didn’t know shit about him before you all let him die.”

I knew him enough, she almost snapped. I almost fucked your big brother, kid, because after he lost someone he cared about, the other person he cared about picked someone else, so what do you think about that? Thinking back on that night after Finnick’s wedding, reeling from seeing his happy ending come true and knowing it wouldn’t ever happen for her and then being pushed away by Haymitch from even a friendly fuck, she’d gone for the old standby—losing herself in mindless sex with someone likely. Seemed like Gale was developing that coping mechanism himself, she thought.

Back then she’d just been impatient with Gale to cover the awkwardness of suddenly calling it off when she realized, This isn’t what I want. She’d mocked him, of course, but the issue was probably more with herself, with the odd realization in the back of her mind of how tired she was of it. If anything after the triumph of a few moments she felt worse at what she’d let herself become.

She knew Haymitch had no patience for Gale and his temper; he’d made that plenty obvious at their base camp at the Capitol. But then it seemed like Haymitch’s entire life had been based around accepting the idea that a person simply knuckled under and did what was necessary. His priority was safeguarding people rather than securing vengeance. After what he’d paid to try to keep people alive, she could see how he’d criticize someone who seemed to hold other lives so cheaply, like the Capitol did.

His little show of rebellion against the Games had cost other people dearly and after that, he chose his way and he gave ground over and over to keep it from happening again. But in her case, she’d fought and swore and raged the entire way. Haymitch was quietly pragmatic, she was just pissed off.

There had been days where if someone had given her a button and told her that in pressing it she’d destroy the Capitol and everyone in it, she’d have wanted to press it, telling herself their entire society was a cancer. The desire to just make them pay had been there. So in some ways she understood where Gale had been coming from, much as Haymitch grumbled about him.

Gale had been young still and full of anger about the world and the way it was. Chances were he’d have grown out of it and realized what good things he still had, and what an angry idiot he’d been trying to punish the entire world. Able to step away from the worst of it now herself, she hated a lot of who she’d been. She’d made her choices during the war, and without people like Haymitch and Finnick and Katniss and Peeta to let her know she wasn’t alone and they wouldn’t abandon her, she might still have chosen the bloody path of vengeance herself.

“I knew him enough,” she told Rory, even as her temper wanted to tell him to shut the fuck up and stop being a brat, but she forced herself to calm down. “I know he went hunting to help feed you, your brother and sister, and your mom so he cared a lot about you. I know he risked his ass to come get us prisoners back from the Capitol even though he had no reason. I know he made some pretty bad decisions along the way he probably would have regretted. But I know when it counted his last choice was that he was going to protect Katniss no matter what.”

Something in Rory’s face crumpled, the angry defiance finally giving way to the lost boy missing the big brother he obviously had idolized. “You were there, huh?”

“Yeah.” She sort of hoped he wouldn’t ask for details on it. The last thing she wanted to do was give him nightmares about forest cats and his brother being blown to bits. “He decided he was going to save her life even though he died doing it.”

“She didn’t deserve that, she didn’t love him,” he mumbled angrily.

“She was his friend. Just because someone doesn’t love you like you want, doesn’t mean they aren’t still a good friend. Trust me.” If Finnick had died down there as he nearly had—she couldn’t even bear to imagine it. “You know Katniss,” she said with a shrug. “She’s not so good at saying things. But she misses him. And we’d have saved him if we could. He was part of our squad.” Maybe not a victor and thus already a friend of hers, but he’d pulled his weight all the same. All the rest of them had been through the arena and the hard choices and none of them would have been eager to sacrifice anyone of their group for the sake of survival.

Rory nodded quickly, more an awkward dip and duck of his head than anything. He looked over towards where Vick was helping hold Posy up so she could climb the bars. “Gale, he used to tell Posy stories,” he said. “Good ones, sounds like. Because I don’t know ‘em and mine are never as good because she still wants his and she doesn’t understand where he went…” There was a sudden crack in his voice and she didn’t think it was just hormones. “It’s not like with Pa, she wasn’t even born when he died and Vick was too little to understand. Vick, he just doesn’t say much at all about Gale...”

She looked over at him, a boy shoved into responsibility too fast by the hand the world had dealt him. “You haven’t said anything to your, uh, stepdad,” they might not be married yet but she figured it applied, “have you?”

“Corriden’s nice and he makes Ma happy,” Rory said with a shrug, “but...he didn’t much know Gale either. Besides, I’m getting too old for needing a pa anyway.” He was trying too hard to convince himself of that fact. She could see it.

“I wish I had mine still.” Had she ever really admitted that to anyone? “My mom, maybe even more. There’s…lots of things I’d want to ask her.” Especially now, as she finally made a life of her own with a man she loved. “I don’t think you ever get too old for having some use for parents, kiddo.”

“Your ma and pa died?” he asked her carefully, grey eyes not quite meeting hers.

“My mom, my dad, my big brother too.” She wouldn’t bring up Heike just yet; too confusing. “The Capitol killed them because I wouldn’t do what they wanted.”

“What was that?” It startled her to realize he didn’t know; it seemed like the entire country knew by now given how public and televised Snow’s trial had been. But he was so young. Chances were Hazelle wouldn’t have let her kids follow the trial and all its revelations, because of all the ugliness that came out from it. Being confronted with someone still ignorant of the worst abuses of the Capitol was an odd feeling. It was hard in one way because he had no idea what she was talking about, but on the other hand, seeing that there was still some innocence out there in the world was almost reassuring.

She almost said When you’re older but defensive as he was now, grown up beyond his years trying to fill Gale’s shoes, she shook it off. Finnick had been killing people in the arena at fourteen. Heike had her memories taken from her and been thrown into a new place and a new life at fourteen. “They wanted me to…” She hesitated still, not sure if she wanted to court Hazelle’s wrath by spoiling that innocence. “They asked too much,” she said. “That’s all you need to know for now, really.”

“You miss ‘em?”

“Every day,” she admitted.

He nodded again, breeze ruffling his wavy black hair, looking at her almost shyly. “You’re a lot nicer than you seemed on the television.”

“Thanks,” and she was trying to not laugh wryly at that. She ought to count that as a win, if she could manage to not terrify a kid.

“Ma says you’re going to the Capitol?”

“Be there in about a month, yeah. Why?” She grinned. “Want me to throw a brick through a window of the Presidential Mansion for you?” Brocade would probably even let her do it.

His eyes lit up for a minute at that thought but then he shook his head. “Nah. It’s…Prim’s there. Prim Everdeen.” Katniss’ little sister, still recovering from her spinal injury. “Are you gonna go see her?”

“We told Katniss we would.” Considering Katniss hadn’t seen Prim in months, it seemed the least the two of them could do.

“Can you say ‘hi’ for me to her?” he asked hopefully. “Maybe, I don’t know, bring her some nice flowers? I don’t have any money but…”

It took a moment but finally she made the connection. There was something almost absurd in the angry sullenness melting away to the awkwardness of a teenage boy anxiously in love. But she knew better than to laugh at him for it. “Sure. Haymitch and I, we’ll do that.”

“Thanks.” He scuffed at the dirt of the track with the toe of his boot. “If you could tell Hay…um…Mister Abernathy sorry about the snowball, and us calling him names…”

Now she really had no idea at all, but she could imagine. All at once she was trying to not laugh at him but the stir of anger at hearing it was there too. She almost wanted to tell him to have the guts to go apologize himself, but realizing it would be all the more awkward for Haymitch too, she just sighed and let it go. “I’m sure you’ll be fine with him.”

“He didn’t let Gale die?” he asked, obviously having decided he could trust her answer.

“No.” She couldn’t come up with any way that Haymitch could have saved him given how it happened.

He chewed his lower lip for a moment and accepted that with a soft, “OK.” Then he shook his head with an incredulous look. ““Are you really married to him?”

She held up her left hand with the gold ring there. “Yep. Got the paperwork to prove it too.” He gave her a look that said he really didn’t understand it, but at least he didn’t ask. “Don’t question me and I won’t question you about your liking Prim,” she told him with a snort of amusement.

He blushed and mumbled, “Deal.”

Collecting Vick and Posy again to herd the lot of them back downstairs, Posy looked up and her and said decisively, “You’re pretty. But you’d be really pretty with long hair, Miz Jo Hannah.”

“Thanks, kid,” she said, touched and amused all at once.

“Be careful,” Vick said with a trace of a smile. “You’re different, see. So she’d probably want to play with your hair like she does with Miz Delly’s.” The words You’re different suddenly didn’t sound like suspicion. She resisted the urge to self-consciously touch her hair, knowing the dark coppery brown of it, or Delly’s blond hair, probably was fascinatingly different to a little kid like that compared to so many black haired kids all around her and her black-haired mother to boot.

“Everyone has hair like me,” Posy complained with a melodramatic sigh. Oh, for the problems of childhood, she thought wryly.

“I think your hair’s gonna be real pretty too,” she said. Hazelle Hawthorne did have nice hair, she’d admit that freely. As for black hair in general, well, she was hardly going to tell a six-year-old that she was damn fond of Haymitch’s, especially how it felt underneath her fingers at night. He might joke about hating how it curled, but it looked a hell of a lot better on him than the disheveled, grown-out mop they’d stuck him with for years.

“You think Papa Cory and Ma might get me a little sister?” Posy asked hopefully. She heard a strangled sound from Rory like he was trying all at once to not choke and not laugh, and an awkward giggle from Vick.

“I…uh…really don’t know.” People thought she was blunt? Little kids obviously left her in the dust. She really wasn’t interested in the details of Corriden and Hazelle’s sex life, if they even had one in this place with three kids around, and whether or not Hazelle might be too old for another kid. “You’ll have to ask your ma about that.” Might as well put the discomfort where it belonged.

“I always wanted a sister,” she said wistfully.

“Or a puppy,” Rory muttered, but she could tell he was laughing.

“Sisters are great,” she admitted, thinking of Heike, wondering as ever where she was now. “But,” she told Posy, “I know brothers are pretty nice too. And you’ve got two good ones.”

“Fine, but they’d better not get me a brother. I don’t want another brother if we can’t have Gale.”

She was spared from having to answer that by arriving back at the compartment and seeing Haymitch already waiting there. “Took ‘em out for some air,” she told Haymitch.

“Hi, Mister Abernathy,” Rory said almost nervously. Haymitch raised an eyebrow at her and she shrugged.

“He doesn’t bite. Really.” She restrained herself from making the inevitable Enobaria joke—yeah, just what she needed to do, give kids nightmares. So maybe she was learning a little bit.

~~~~~~~~~~

After another few hours of sitting back and watching Haymitch try to deftly deal with the small council, and wondering, Why the fuck am I here when I could be doing something more useful than trying to not tell people off?, she’d finally excused herself and gone to talk to some of the people concerned with construction and repairs about rebuilding the district. They could hold their political pissing match all they wanted and she trusted Haymitch to get the better of them on it. She was going to focus on something actually useful that she was good at.

Maybe it was because every repair or addition was apparently an utter pain in the ass for them, but they seemed like a pretty receptive audience to the idea of stopping living like a bunch of ants underground. Sitting there talking with them, she had the unfortunate realization that she really knew nothing at all about construction with metal or brick or stone and so many of the baseline principles were different. She knew timber down to her bones, knew how to choose the right wood and then frame and build a home that was snug and solid. They’d need plenty of houses in Twelve, Thirteen, and elsewhere. But something on the scale of the Justice Building, or a hospital, or a school was beyond her and those were going to be sorely needed too.

Surprisingly enough, given it was Thirteen and she was naturally suspicious, the architects and construction crew didn’t treat her like a backwoods idiot. Maybe because none of them had the skill of working with wood; dealing exclusively with this metal hive as they all had, they’d apparently forgotten how to deal with any other material. So between the two of them arguing back and forth over ideas and merits of things, it seemed like they all learned a few things. They were all wryly forced to conclude that masons would probably be necessary for dealing with brick and stone. Unfortunately, she’d been a Mason by birth rather than an actual mason so she had nothing to offer there.

Still, she came out of it with a stack of books on architecture that they freely handed over, and promised to try to recruit some carpenters from Seven for the job. It felt like actually getting something accomplished. “Much more interesting than those law books you were so buried in last fall,” she snarked at Haymitch that night when he came back from his own meeting to see her hungrily reading away.

Picking one up, he flipped through it. “All that math in here. Sure you’re not going all Three on me, Hanna? As to how interesting, well, matter of opinion on that,” he teased her lightly.

“I don’t know. Managed to distract you from yours pretty readily,” she said, smirking at him over the top of the book.

Recognizing the challenge, he proved more than up to distracting her in turn. Though when he leaned down and whispered in her ear, “By the way, spouse, I’m about to enter you,” she got seized in a fit of laughter that put a pause on things for a few minutes, remembering how she had joked that matter-of-fact notification was probably Thirteen’s sole foreplay.

“I’m pretty sure foreplay’s usually supposed to get you hot and bothered, not giggling,” he said, trying too hard for a scowl, because she could tell he was on the edge of laughing. Finally he gave in, chuckling in turn.

When they’d both mostly settled down she managed to say, “Thanks for the warning, spouse.” She wriggled her hips against his. “Entrance is granted,” echoing the voice notifying someone that their keycard access had worked to unlock a door, which started them both up again.

Maybe it meant it took a while to actually get down to the sex, and the occasional snort of laughter kept breaking in, but it felt good to be able to laugh like that, especially here in this place with its memories of those first awkward nights together.

Arriving at the Conference Hall just before Reflection the next evening, it looked like Thom and Delly had done their job well. The place was packed thick as boards on the lumber trains. Thom loped up, seeing them, saying, “Looks like most of the people from Twelve want to hear the news—I think that’s over four hundred of the adults. And some others not from home too.” She saw some blond heads sprinkled in among the coal-black, and some red and brown and a few grey-haired oldsters. For a moment she saw the familiar golden skin and autumn brown hair of a woman originally from the southern lumbering camps of Seven, probably thirty-five, and she gave her a nod, whoever she was.

Things quieted down rapidly then and Thom went and took a seat beside Delly in the front row. The place was made for a voice to carry, so no microphone was necessary.

“So, welcome,” Haymitch said, raising his voice. “Everyone hearing me OK there in the back?” A few nods greeted him at that. “Good, good. Let’s see. Things back in the district. No power yet, water’s still running and the telephones are working, but the only houses are the ones in Victor’s Village, so it’s not ready yet for a lot of folks to move back in but if there’s some families interested in coming to help build houses and all, well…getting some rations from the Capitol, sure, but it’s mostly what you can catch or forage, so...” He was running rapidly through the list, almost too quickly, and she could see the tension in his shoulders as he stood there.

It was a far cry from the man who’d walked into the meeting with the small council and pretty much took control of the whole thing as he boldly told them all to fuck off, not giving a damn about their power or prestige, or how she’d seen him deliberately provoke them since. Far too, from the man who’d owned the room as he tried to draw all the victors into a rebellion he’d planned and managed to sell all of them on the crazy idea. If anything he was acting like a nervous boy on his first day at school, scared he might not be liked. The change was startling.

But, she realized, this mattered intensely to him. Stripped of his usual defenses of indifference or sarcasm, she could sense his awkwardness all too well. He desperately wanted them to like him again, these people of his district who had shunned him as a disgrace and a pariah, a selfish Capitol sellout, his entire adult life. He feared their judgment still, probably especially now that the entire country knew what he’d endured.

Unlike her, his first response wasn’t to get pissed off. A few times he had lashed out, but mostly he just quietly withstood it, as he took their cautious indifference now. It had cost him, though. She’d seen that firsthand. She’d clung to her anger so fiercely in part because she’d feared becoming like him, so used to submission and handing over everything without a fight that there was nothing left but medicating with some kind of drug to cover the emptiness and the depression.

Knowing how their lack of response must be feeding his awkward panic of Oh shit this isn’t going well, it stirred at her anger. Part of her wanted to tell them all to fuck off if they wanted to try to judge him. But she realized at the last moment, He needs this. Lonely for far too long, he needed to belong somewhere again.

He was right in needing that. Beneath the fury, she’d been tired of being seen as the angry bitch that chased everyone away. At the voting last year in Seven, the tentative gestures from some people to draw her back in had meant more to her than she could say. But it wasn’t worth bowing and scraping and apologizing for the rest of their lives to be allowed to live on the fringe of things, and always being afraid one screw-up meant being out in the cold again.

If he was still too accustomed to their years of shunning, though, and unable to find his way free to really fight for himself, then damn it, she’d do it. She didn’t owe any of them anything, having no shared history to bind her. Her only loyalty right now was to protecting him. He’d probably had people who reluctantly decided to put up with him, even some of the other victors who liked him, but she doubted he’d ever really had anyone to openly stick up for him. He’d been left defenseless all those years. Not this time, she decided.

“You want him to still be your little embarrassment?” she spoke up. “Fine. Then I’ll keep on being the bitch. Because if you’re going to judge a man who had his family murdered because he dared to challenge the Capitol, and still had the guts to do it again to play the Gamemakers and bring both your damn tributes home and then did it again to go into the arena and start a rebellion to try to save them and set all of you free, talk to me when you’ve done it. Talk to me when you’ve spent eighteen years being a sex toy for too many people. Trust me, we got fucked in ways you luckily can’t even imagine to keep Snow’s claws off our districts. When you’ve brought kids to the Capitol year after year knowing they’re doomed—hell, you did everything possible but without sponsors, it was a lost cause, and none of them were ever interested in kids from Twelve or Seven. You do all that for years knowing your district loathes you because you’ve been forced to hide the truth from them and be only what the Capitol wants you to be, and you manage to not give in to rage or despair or the bottle, then come talk to me and I’ll admit you’re a really good person. But I’m damn well not going to let him spending the rest of his life feeling like he owes you something. He gave everything he had too many times already.”

So perhaps it was lecturing him as much as them, with that last bit. She was getting tired of him feeling like he wasn’t good enough. If this was one of those lousy Capitol movies, someone would probably start applauding and then everyone would make some big gesture, clapping or rushing to hug him or doing that Twelve gesture with their fingers to their lips or whatever, and it would be a total triumph.

Life didn’t quite work that way. Mostly she saw stunned expressions like she’d hit them with a lumber post. Apparently being ridiculously blunt caught them off guard. A few closed expressions, or even some angry ones, told her she’d lost some of them. But she thought she saw a few that looked like they’d actually listened.

A man a few rows back, his hair far more grey than black now, raised his voice. “That true, Haymitch?”

Haymitch started beside her, as if coming out of a trance. “What’s that, Pavel?”

“I hear your wife there loud and clear,” and the old man looked at her with a nod of acknowledgment. “But that ain’t you talking. So tell me it’s true. You did everything you could for my Hyacinth?”

Haymitch was silent for a few moments. “Yes,” he said finally. “I went to the sponsors. Pleaded. Tried everything I could to make ‘em take a chance.” He let out a slow breath. “Fucked a few of them in the bargain,” he said, half to himself, but she was close enough to hear it. “None of them were interested in a nice little girl from Twelve who they thought wouldn’t last past the first night. They said,” and now there was finally the long-withheld rage at it in his voice, and she could see the audience stirring at hearing it, “she was a poor investment and not likely to be entertaining. That was that. Nothing else I could do.”

“They were wrong. She made it to day three,” Pavel said with something like mingled pride and anger and grief.

“She did at that.”

“You didn’t even say a damn thing to me when you brought her coffin back.”

“I quit saying ‘Sorry’ after five years. Got to the point I wanted to just skip it, because it seemed real pointless when I knew all of you thought I was too busy living it up and screwing around to try to save your kid and you’d hate me even more for an apology you didn’t believe. But I am sorry I couldn’t bring more of them back. Always was.” He shoved his hands in his pockets, looking out at the audience. “Lily,” his eyes wandered and settled again, “River and Sam, Tad, Pansy, the same for you.” Picking out the surviving parents of dead tributes, apparently, and she could only imagine the swift ease with which he identified them told those people that in remembering them he hadn’t taken their losses lightly. “I see Frank and Nola ain’t here tonight. If you’d be willing to pass that on,” he hesitated only a moment, “I’d appreciate it.” One of them, either Sam or Tad, nodded.

Things had eased a bit more with him actually having that opening to speak up, maybe say some things honestly that they’d needed to hear. She wouldn’t say he’d won the crowd, but the air of tension had slacked off considerably. “As to where things are going with the district,” now he seemed on better footing, less awkward and apologetic, “Brocade Paylor’s holding a peace summit in the Capitol in a few weeks to try to get things figured out for the whole country. Since Jarron Undersee’s dead, she asked me to represent Twelve there. If you’d rather someone else go, though, I’m leaving that to you.”

“Can’t Katniss go?” came the yell from somewhere in the back.

Johanna resisted the urge to slap her own forehead. “Putting aside the fact she’s not even old enough to legally be an adult yet, you really want an impulsive eighteen-year-old girl to be the one to argue your entire district’s interests for the future?” Sure, maybe they’d hand her everything simply because she’d been a powerful symbol. Chances were Katniss would be outplayed at the negotiation table, though, by people older and wiser and eager to get as much advantage for their own district as possible. Katniss was many things, but savvy at negotiation wasn’t among them. She’d have been as lousy at getting sponsors as me, she thought with a wry snort.

“Pavel?” Someone else this time, a woman, looking towards him as probably one of the oldest survivors from Twelve.

“Hell, I ain’t doing it,” Pavel said with a snort, leaning back in his chair. “If he’s the one that got the Games rules changed to bring two tributes back, I say let him do it.” He grinned. “Anyone with the guts to call out President Snow to his face on national television probably can handle arguing with the other mayors.” That earned a faint ripple of laughter in some of the others. Still not wholehearted acceptance, but it seemed like a fair amount were at least willing to give him the benefit of the doubt now.

Glancing at Haymitch she saw a brief smile on his face too. “I won’t let you down,” he said simply, and she was sure the whole room heard the implication of this time.

“Mister Abernathy,” Delly called, raising her hand like she was still a kid in school. But she had been not so long ago when Johanna thought about it. “Uh…I want to go back soon as I can.” Probably to be reunited with Peeta—she had to admit thinking of going to Four and seeing Finnick again had her excited. “I don’t mind helping out to rebuild things. But I’m seventeen, and, well, I really don’t want Thom to be my guardian…” Yeah, she could imagine marrying your own guardian might look a little weird.

“Anyone under nineteen whose parents are gone that wants to go back, you could get someone else coming back to sign to be your legal guardian. I’ll make sure the papers are in order so I can get ‘em signed by Brocade in the Capitol and make it official.”

“Or Haymitch and I can do it,” she spoke up. She shrugged as he looked over at her. “We’ve already got guardianship of Peeta, what’s a few more?” she quipped.

Haymitch shook his head a little, giving her that faint smile again. Leaning against one of the support pillars for the Hall, he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out paper and a pencil. “Well, if I’m gonna be arguing things for our district, I’d better know what I’m arguing about. What’s first?”

“If we’re going back down the mines there damn well better be some changes.” A chorus of agreements followed the speaker there.

“Well, West Hill and Blue Cloud are definitely closed for the long run ‘cause they’re still on fire,” Haymitch told them. “They will be for a long time yet at that. I’ve been talking to folks in Five, likely to be some changes made in the power supply so we’re needing less coal to begin.” Seeing surprise and even appreciation on some people at that, she hid a smile. He’d win them over yet; might take a while, but they’d see. He’d fight for them where he could. “Who was working Dunstan’s in town?” A few hands went up. “Convenient location compared to the others, yeah, but seemed like the production was going down.”

“We worked it too many years with too many miners. Went too deep, and we were working shittier faces all the time for lousier coal.”

“All right, so we resolve to close down Dunstan’s. Too many dead miners there.”

“You wouldn’t know,” one man called, “you never carried a pick and worked the face.”

She was tensed, ready to leap to his defense again, but it seemed like he was ready this time to do it himself. “No, but I watched my ma come back from Dunstan’s every damn day exhausted. I worked the surface as a shale-picker after school until my fingers bled, same as a lot of you did, till that damn pit finally injured enough miners to have a permanent picking crew and get rid of the kids. I heard the disaster bells every time. I knew plenty of good men and women that died down there. So let’s say nobody else dies down that miserable hole.”

“Piney Ridge has possibilities,” one of the women said. “It’s pretty new, still shallow, the coal’s still good quality. A fair haul from the town, took a good hour and a half to ride the train there each day, but…”

Watching him work with them, seeing how they tentatively were giving him a chance here and extending their trust in this much at least, she felt encouraged. Mostly, seeing how he responded to it like a tree suddenly given sunlight, gradually gaining more confidence in how he responded to them, she felt a swell of pride. He’d do right by them, and if they would give him that faith, she’d be all right calling them neighbors.

At least she got to chime in when it came to house building. She knew next to nothing about coal, but seeing them listen to her about that was gratifying. They all ignored the official Thirteen schedule and went long past Reflection, and the list they’d all worked out for the hopes of District Twelve was extensive. As they filed out, some of them still ignoring Haymitch but others giving a nod of acknowledgement or even a word or two, it felt good.

When they were finally alone he put a hand on her shoulder and said gruffly, “Thanks.” He didn’t have to specify for what.

“Hey, any time. It’s kind of fun defending you, really,” she told him, deliberately being a little flippant. “It means I get to tell people off again.” Leaning in and kissing his cheek lightly, she told him softly, “You’re worth it, all right?” Hearing the catch in his breath, she thought it wasn’t just the kiss that did it.

Walking back to their compartment, a grey-uniformed aide found them. “There’s a message for you up in Command.”

“President Paylor?” Haymitch asked, taking his arm from around her shoulders.

“No, from Finnick Odair,” the aide said, a frown coming over his face. “Non-essential calls are usually refused, but the council said to make an exception in your case…”

“Courting favor, no doubt,” Haymitch muttered.

“Finnick?” she said, wondering why he might be calling them here, knowing as he did what a task it would be to get through. It had to be important, and automatically her mind was going to the worst possibilities.

Holding the telephone, she was relieved the minions actually cleared out and let them have some privacy. Apparently Haymitch had really done a number on the council to make them want to curry his good opinion. Dialing up Finnick, she pushed the button for the speaker so they could both hear it. “Hello?” Finnick’s voice came over the phone.

“Finn,” she said with relief, hearing him sound not panicked or frightened, but happy.

“You called us?”

Finnick skipped the usual pleasantries of asking how they were and how things were going in Thirteen and got right down to business. “She’s beautiful,” he said, the joy obvious in his tone.

“Uh, who?” Annie? Yeah, she was pretty. Johanna would never deny that.

“Maggie. Nice head of black hair just like Annie’s and well, her eyes are blue right now but that’s normal, they’ll probably be green soon enough since we both have green eyes.”

Haymitch glanced at her. “Ah, Finn? Let’s just get this straight. Are you talking about your kid here?”

“Isn’t Annie not due for another month?” she muttered to Haymitch, seeming to remember the baby was supposed to come right about when she and Haymitch were visiting. He nodded, brows furrowed in concentration.

“Margaret Odair. She arrived at five seventeen tonight,” Finnick crowed jubilantly. “Annie’s just fine too,” and the relief in his voice was obvious. He’d confided in her often enough that he just hoped Annie would be OK.

“Good,” she said, imagining that tiny baby girl down south in Four. She tried to ignore the twist at her own heart thinking of another baby that might have been black-haired also. This wasn’t the time to be sad for her own sake; it was about Finnick and Annie and being happy for them. “Look, we’d better get off the phone before we get thrown in a cell for talking too long. We’ll be looking forward to meeting her, OK?”

“Be seeing you soon,” Finnick said. “I’ll try to have some pictures sent ahead to Nine if I can find a hovercraft headed that way.”

“If not, I’m sure if you step out the door a photographer would be more than happy to take pictures for the whole country,” Haymitch said with a wry grin. “Our best to Annie, Finn. And Maggie.”

Hanging up, she looked over at him. “Shit. For having two parents that are that laid-back, that little girl was in a hurry. We’d better bring her a present.”

“A toy axe is not a good present for a baby,” he mocked her gently. Then he grinned at her mischievously, reaching out and taking her hand in his. “Wait until she’s a teenager, and she can use it to keep the boys at bay. After all, any kid of Finn’s is bound to be a heartbreaker.”

Chapter Text

For the last five days, the television had been full of nothing but constant commentaries on the upcoming Quell, ever since the trains had arrived from the districts bearing the victor-tributes and their mentor colleagues. Speculation on training, the arena, the odds, the analysis of previous Games, protests from Capitol citizens.

Sitting in the common area of HQ and watching, Kallanthe wasn’t paying all that much attention, but it was mandatory viewing anyway and not having patrol to conduct, there she was with the rest of the squad. Right now, coming up on evening prior to broadcast of the training scores, they were discussing strategy. “If you ask me, Caesar,” Claudius said, “Johanna Mason doesn’t have much of a chance. Her previous tactic’s out the window, they all know what she’s capable of this time. And, well,” he gave a rueful chuckle, “she’s a girl who won’t form alliances too easily to help protect her.”

“Oh, I imagine Finnick will be by her side—that’s a staunch friendship that’s endured for years. More than a friendship too, perhaps?” She’d watched Johanna and Finnick on television for years. She’d place good money that they’d been screwing each other, but then, apparently both of them got around a lot so it wasn’t like it necessarily meant anything.

“If Finnick ever stopped breaking so many hearts! Now, how about Haymitch? It was a very emotional moment at the reaping when he refused to let Peeta take his place.”

“Oh, yes. But he made his intent very clear, Claudius, to sacrifice himself to try to bring Katniss back home to her fiancé.”

“We know that, Claudius,” Virgil said almost impatiently, waving a hand for emphasis. “We were there. So were the cameras.”

Yeah, Kally remembered it easily enough. For all the man had become an embarrassment in many ways, he’d obviously cleaned up his act. In the months Thread had let them train, he’d turned from a fat lazy drunk into a sober and trim man who seemed driven—watching from afar, most days Haymitch was the last one to leave the training, and she and Myrina had seen him out practicing in the moonlight sometimes, moving swift and silent through the movements of what looked oddly like the knife techniques she saw in Two’s arena tributes. To have picked that up he must have paid much closer attention to the Games than it had seemed, much closer than his tributes’ early deaths would have suggested.

At the reaping there had been a sort of dignity in that moment, when he talked to Peeta and told him to step aside and just let this happen. The crowd seemed too weary to respond that much to it, but she’d caught a few nods towards Haymitch, at least token acknowledgment. “…a pity, really,” Caesar was saying, “since it seems like he’s experiencing quite a revival. I don’t think anyone’s seen Haymitch this lively in a while, ever since his apparent long-term struggles with alcohol addiction finally became—well, no other word for it—unfortunately very public several years ago.”

“Hardly the first young victor to be unready for sudden celebrity, and to have it take a tragic turn. I imagine a high-profile win like a Quarter Quell, and being a young man from Panem’s most hardscrabble district, only made the matter worse. He really wasn’t ready for the heights of fame and glory. But it seems like given the incentive of protecting his young charges that the Haymitch of old is back.”

“He’s hardly a spry young twenty-year-old, though, and up against the likes of younger victors…”

“True. Gloss, Cashmere, Enobaria, and Finnick will be particular threats for any prospective victor-among-victors to confront, and Brutus is no spring chicken either but he’s still formidable.”

Getting to her feet and stretching, Kally grumbled, “Can we just open a window?” The mid-July heat and humidity was a killer right now and the rolling electricity troubles here in Twelve meant the air conditioning was unreliable at best. Even now coming up on evening, it was boiling hot. Power outages were apparently more frequent than before according to the long-term Peacekeepers here like Purnia, given that the electric fence had to be up and running even at the expense of everything else.

Myrina, who’d flung herself sprawling into an overstuffed armchair, shook her head, sighing. “Head Thread’s orders,” she said. “I asked this afternoon. He expects to maintain heightened security during the Games and that includes maintaining the integrity of HQ.”

Like some local’s going to lean in an open window and somehow shoot us dead with a slingshot, she thought with a sigh. As if anyone in this district had the will for defiance at this point, after months of showing them who was boss and systematically cracking down on even a whiff of toeing the line.

Or maybe Thread just didn’t want to risk a local passing by and looking in the window to see a group of off-duty Peacekeepers there in their summer trousers and sleeveless undershirts, miserably sweating their asses off as they watched the pre-Games. Being simply that human wouldn’t be acceptable because that had nothing about dignity or the majestic presence of the Peacekeeper authority at all.

“Crap, at least with Cray we used to be able to open the windows,” Albus muttered irritably, and she glanced over to see him swiping the back of his hand across his brow. The sheen of sweat and his half-closed green-grey eyes reminded her a little too much of how he’d looked just after he’d gotten done having sex with her and she looked away.

“Al,” Purnia said warningly, looking over at her patrol partner with a fierce expression.

“Sorry, you’re right,” he muttered, though there was a tightness around his jaw that said he really wasn’t sorry at all.

Hearing it was Darius that had been arrested for treason made something tighten in her stomach. Darius had been easy to like and quick to make friends. Though she'd liked Albus far better, to be honest. He’d been a latecomer to the Peacehome himself, apparently lost his family at age twelve back in District Eleven, so he’d known what a hard adjustment it was to come there as an older kid. Two years later when she arrived, the misfit idiot with no memories thanks to her own clumsiness on the obstacle course, it had been Albus Law that sat down next to her at that first meal and became her first friend. It made him shaming her like that in front of everyone four years later all the shittier.

Well, aside from the occasional helpless reminder like she’d just had, she figured it was better to try to put it behind her than to let it fester. He rarely said anything to her these days anyway beyond stuff related to duty. It had hurt. It had shaken her confidence in herself as a woman, which hadn’t been that great to begin with since she always felt hopeless on some parts of their training. It still caused her some doubts sometimes, knowing the only man who’d ever slept with her had openly talked about how lousy it had been. But maybe she’d learned from it and if she took another man to bed, she knew she wouldn’t let herself be pulled in by idiotic words because of a stupid crush.

Besides, things that had seemed so important in the confines of the Peacehome perhaps weren’t such a big deal out here in the wider world. So long as he wasn’t going to be an ass to her again, she’d do her best to keep letting it slide. “Water break,” she said with a sigh, nodding back towards the kitchen. “Anyone else?” A few lazily waved hands answered her.

Coming back to the common room with an armful of bottles of water, she tossed them to the others. “Anyone for a betting pool?” Faustus asked, catching his bottle one-handed. “I’m on for Finnick.”

Bets all taken and once the training scores and interviews were all done, she heard plenty of surprised and even angry mutters about Haymitch claiming Katniss as his bastard daughter. Among the Peacekeepers, nobody much gave a shit—plenty of them had been conceived by parents who hadn’t married. But the locals seemed to see it as a matter of honor one way or another, never mind that Katniss was been raised from birth by the people she considered her mother and father. She caught only snatches of conversation, quickly hushed as she and Myrina came into view and the locals saw the uniform. Some condemned, some merely accepted, but it was clear the notion of Katniss Everdeen as Haymitch’s daughter had rocked the district to the core.

“…much of a slut as he was in the Capitol, figures he’d have done it here at home…”

“…bad when even a little Seam tramp wouldn’t jump at the chance to marry a rich man…”

“….funny notion, him carrying on with a girl here, always acted like he was too high and mighty…”

“…seems like however it happened he’s doing right by Katniss now, though.”

“…smarter for him not to claim her, you know how bad victors’ children have it in the arena, and he was always a clever one…”

“…you ask me, he’s trying to pay what he owes, might still be a little Seam left in him…”

Finally the Games began and across Panem the lamentation of killing off victors was sharp, but maybe as Peacekeepers they were a little more pragmatic. It was what the Capitol demanded as a price for the treason of the Dark Days, so no point arguing. If there was blood to be had, best to honor it by not weeping and instead appreciating the quality of the fight among some of Panem’s finest. Not scared little children this year, even if some of the victors were sad ruins of their former selves, but there were enough prime fighters to make it a real show.

Still, it was a hard mindset to accept sometimes for her. Warrior prowess was admirable, and she was fine with fights to first blood, like the wedding dance. But to see a fatal fight as the utmost expression of the art—there was some part of her that couldn’t help but see it as a waste. This entire Hunger Games seemed a tragic waste; the tributes for years to come would be deprived of the wisdom and guidance of their mentors, and that meant it would be just mindless ugliness, like the earliest Games, rather than the ritual it had become, harsh but at least with some boundaries and attempts at holding things in check.

Probably that was why she’d been taken her specialty at Burnt Tree Camp as a medic rather than something like first-line riot response. She was damn good at it too, her trainers had all said so when she’d been sent to the medical training, and she felt pride in being capable at it. She’d taken to healing like a natural; one of the few areas of training she’d genuinely enjoyed because there, she felt strong and capable and sure. It was a necessary role anyway. Not like Peacekeepers could rely on good medical care out somewhere like here where it was all just apothecary herbs and whatever local superstitions went with it. Mostly her medic duties were dealing with people complaining about colds or needing a few stitches, though.

The Peacekeepers' sense of pride in Brutus and Enobaria showing off their prowess remained, though it was easy to notice a spark of something stirring again in the people of District Twelve when Haymitch and Katniss served notice they weren’t going to go down easy. Apparently the old man had been clever enough to draw in a strong alliance, even taking Finnick and Mags away from their traditional One-Two-Four allegiance.

Apparently he’d even caught the notice of Johanna Mason as more than an ally. “Hey, District Twelve men have their charms,” Myrina quipped with a laugh. “I can say that from experience.”

“Wait, you’ve been dipping into the local well?” Purnia said with a raised eyebrow. Her voice went lower as she advised, “That may have passed muster with Cray as Head, but you know Thread won’t stand for it, especially with you as squad leader!” After a moment, she added a halfway apologetic, “Ma’am.” They knew full well she was right, though. He’d had Peacekeepers disciplined for “inappropriate fraternization,” everything from reduced rations to flogging. They’d all gotten lectured about the paramount nature of duty and that keeping appropriate distance from the locals was expected, and that in general, thinking with organs rather south of their brains wasn’t going to be tolerated.

“The man’s probably never had a great lay in his life,” Naevia said with a sly smile, though immediately that faded to a nervous look, glancing back towards Thread’s office two floors up as if she was afraid Thread would somehow hear she had said it.

“Well, obviously he never married,” Albus pointed out. “He went for Head rather than mustering out, after all.”

“Probably would have been an arranged match with a woman from one of the other old bloodlines in Two if he had,” she answered. Those were common enough among the most fiercely traditional Peacekeeper families. “But he chose duty instead.”

“No,” Myrina finally circled back to the initial topic. “My, ah, fiancé. Theo. He was born here.”

“Ah, right, you mentioned him,” Faustus said with a shrug. “Well, probably the best thing he did was to get the hell out of here when he was still young.” Considering what a miserable place this seemed to be, Kally couldn’t exactly disagree. The smallest, poorest district in Panem, and along with Eight, probably one of the most tightly controlled now. Not a happy place by any stretch of the imagination.

“Hey, he’s a good man. Any place that raised him can’t be all bad,” Actaeon pointed out, leaping to the defense of his best friend. He grinned over at her, a friendly, teasing kind of smile. “So our fearless Major Myrina Law,” he elbowed Myrina teasingly, “is officially claiming Twelve men really are all that. They must be that she’d pick Theo over the likes of me. Tell me, Kally, Seven women have some secret charms we don’t know about that your sweet Johanna’s caught Haymitch’s eye?”

She felt frozen with dread as she mumbled, “I don’t know, sir.” Instinctively she backed away from the casualness of it, reestablished the formality of their ranks. “There was…I had…” She hated this explanation every time she gave it.

“Kally had a training accident at the Peacehome and she doesn’t remember her district life, sir,” Albus cut in neatly, sparing her once again awkwardly explaining what a clumsy idiot she’d been. Startled, she glanced over at him, wondering what he was doing in trying to be nice like that. He met her eyes for a split second, gave her an anxious smile, and looked away.

“Eh, no big thing,” Myrina shrugged, defusing the tension. “Me, I was raised at the Peacehome since I was just a baby, so it’s not like I had a district life. Theo lost his memories too in the accident that killed his family. I almost think in some ways it was easier for him.”

“Not having to try to forget? Probably,” Albus said, though it was in an undertone that none of them responded to.

Thankfully they dropped the topic and went back to watching the Games. The fourth day dawned and the plan Haymitch and Beetee had been discussing to try to electrify Brutus and Enobaria at noon was something she was going to miss, as her squad was on duty rounds. No fuss or groaning at possibly missing the climax of the Games; that was just the nature of the thing. Besides, the broadcast would be on the huge screens in the town square so if Myrina was really that desperate to see it, they could probably sneak a glimpse or two along the route. “Keep us posted on what happened,” Virgil called towards the off-duty Peacekeepers glued to the television. One of them waved acknowledgement of the request with an idle hand.

They were just crossing the square when Enobaria and Haymitch started into a frenzied knife fight. Standing there stunned at it, side by side with the locals, she heard one of them urge quietly, “C’mon, old man.” Enobaria was one of the best tributes Two had ever sent to the arena, a victor whose win left her covered in both pride and honor. But there was something terrifyingly relentless in Haymitch, some kind of fury that made him step right into her stab if only to have a better chance at taking her down. All those hours of his knife-dancing had clearly paid off. It was the perhaps the fight of a lifetime, and it frankly horrified her, ugly and bloody and brutal as it was.

Ideally, they would have kept walking their rounds, but it felt like everyone was frozen immobile, Peacekeepers and locals alike. Watching through to the conclusion, Katniss’ arrow fired into the air and then suddenly static, the silence was almost overwhelming. Everyone was just staring at the blank screen where a moment ago a girl had stood with her bow drawn and ready.

“Let’s keep going, you and me,” Myrina muttered finally, the confusion in her tone making it obvious she had no idea what had just happened either. Kally had no idea what it meant for the situation here either. Seeing the dazed locals, Myrina barked, her tone rapidly taking on the edge of authority, “All right, be ready to go back about your business. We’re resuming normal district activity, so those of you on shift right here at Dunstan’s,” the only mine in walking distance, “will report in for the afternoon shift. Those on the distant mines, back to your homes and report in tomorrow morning.” Thread’s strict curfew and lockdown rules wouldn’t want the off-duty miners in the further mines milling around, possibly causing trouble or muttering with discontent.

Slowly the people trickled out of the square, and the two of them went back to their route. “That’s funny,” Kally said, furrowing her brow in confusion as they left the town and reached the boundary fence. It was routine to check it daily to make certain it was still intact and still working. But the low-level thrum of the current buzzing through the wires was absent now. Considering the fence was considered the most important thing here in terms of electrical supply, it was odd to say the least.

Myrina grabbed a stick and threw it against the wire. The absence of the crackling and sparking told them that the power was indeed off. “Shit,” she sighed. “Something must be screwed up. Let’s walk the perimeter line, see if we can find anything obvious to report for damage.” If not, they’d have to report it to one of the Peacekeeper technicians trained to handle things like the boundary fences. Kally would be the first to admit she knew virtually nothing about electricity. A bit about electrical burns, sure, since fence techs occasionally got injured on the job, and if she’d ever been sent to Five she’d deal with her share of it there, but she’d learned nothing about how to repair the thing herself. “Head Thread’s not gonna like this,” she said softly.

“No,” she agreed grimly. He’d consider getting the fence up and running again to be highest priority. “Should one of us report it first?” she ventured hesitantly.

Myrina made a face, caught between the hard and fast rule that partners never split up, and the notion that walking the fence cost time that could be spent making the repair. “We probably ought to just report it first then come back with some other watchkeeper pairs and a tech and…”

Just then, a hovercraft decloaked over the town, materializing in a shimmer of silver in the noon sunlight. “What the…” She looked over at Myrina. “Uh, can I ask, did Head Thread mention anything to senior officers about maintaining hovercraft in the area?”

“Not a word,” she said, shaking her head and grimacing, obviously not liking being left scrambling to figure it out just like Kally was. “But obviously they were standing by close to Twelve already to have shown up this fast—what’s it been, only about ten minutes since the Games feed cut out? It would have taken the better part of a day to get a hovercraft here from Eagle Mountain.”

“Must be riot response,” Kally ventured, watching as several more hovercraft appeared. “They must have been anticipating some trouble if Katniss fell in the arena.” Having trained first-response riot troops waiting in the area ready to deploy in a hurry would have been a smart move, given how popular the girl was across Panem, let alone in her home district. Though if that had been the case, apparently the situation in Twelve was judged to be more unstable than they’d thought.

Obviously Myrina was coming to the same conclusion, because she murmured, “It’s really not that volatile here, the locals are much too pacified for a rebellion, but I suppose they’re just playing safe…”

But as they watched, the hovercraft didn’t come down to land and deploy riot troops. Instead, suddenly there was a burst of light in the center of town, right where Kally judged the square would be, a blossom of orange fire roaring to life.

Suddenly, where there had been an eerie silence after the Quell so abruptly ended, there was a high-pitched wail of terror, and even up on hill at the fence, she could see the figures of people in the distance running frantically. Another bomb hit, another burst of flame, towards the entrance to Dunstan’s Mine. She could see the coal dust there took the fire greedily, with almost explosive force.

Shocked, she counted a dozen hovercraft there in the sky. All of them were now raining down bombs left and right, and there had been no warning. Not to the people, and most of all, not to the Peacekeepers that were now caught up in the path of the firebombs.

“They’re here to wipe out the district.” The realization of it stunned her because it was unthinkable. It was what had happened to District Thirteen back in the Dark Days, obliterated, bombed to ashes, and another bomb fell, and another, and another, and it was happening in front of her very eyes.

One hovercraft, having sidled closer after bombing some of the miners’ houses, dropped another bomb close enough that she swore she could feel the heat roaring to life, and hear the screams of the people consumed in the inferno. Looking around, she realized with a moment of terror that they had been rapidly caught between the fence and the fire, and the flames were racing closer by the second, like a living, voracious thing.

Myrina shoved her towards the wire with enough force that she stumbled, caught off balance, almost falling flat on her face. As was, she caught herself on the fence post. “Move, Lieutenant,” she said fiercely, all command rather than her usual friendliness. “Get your ass through the fence.”

Good thing it wasn’t electrified, she thought with a panicked laugh as she scrambled through the wires, Myrina close behind her. Embers from burning things danced in the air like fireflies already, singeing her uniform and her hair. The heat was unbearable, every breath a painful gasp with her throat trying to close up against it. But if she faltered, if she stumbled, she was afraid that would be it and she’d be burned alive. That grimly pushed her onward.

Duty would have said they ought to be responding to the emergency, trying to control the population. But when they were bombing everyone, locals and Peacekeepers alike, there was nothing to try to contain when the intent was total destruction. All that was left was to try to keep alive.

Running, stumbling through the woods up the slope of one of the mountains that surrounded the valley of the town, Kally didn’t know how long they fled. It was until the roar of the flames had died down and the cries couldn’t be heard, until the heat was just the miserable humidity of July rather than the inferno.

She looked back, down the hill. She couldn’t help it. District Twelve was burning, every bit of it, consumed in painfully bright flame and oily, thick black smoke. The work of a few minutes and a dozen bombers had destroyed an entire district. Even District Eight hadn’t been subjected to this. She didn’t know exactly what had happened in the arena; she knew only that it must have led to this.

Trembling in shock at the unimaginable sight of it, she couldn’t even imagine how anyone else could have made it out of that hell alive. Being out at the fence had been the saving grace for her and Myrina. Back against a tree, she leaned over, trying to not retch, trying to not cry.

What was going on down there was bad enough, the thought of thousands of lives so casually obliterated. Innocent children too, even if children had been the price for treason for decades now in the Games, so perhaps the Capitol would have figured it was better to make an example of all of Twelve’s children on this massive scale.

But she realized with a sense of horror and growing betrayal that the Capitol that she had loyally served had just tried to wipe her out. It would have been one thing to have died in battle, like in Eight, trying to put down a rebellion, killed by the rebels. What had just happened here spoke of how easily the lives of hundreds of Peacekeepers, a significant chunk of the force, had been sacrificed needlessly, as if they were no better than the people they were keeping in line.

“They killed us all like we were rebels too,” Myrina said, her voice laced with anger and the uncertainty of having no answers. “No warning, no chance to suppress any trouble, no chance to even try to clear out if they were going to torch the whole place.” To hear someone else voice it was a comfort, to know that if they were the only two to escape District Twelve alive, at least they stood together in this.

They stayed there for lack of anything better to do, paralyzed with indecision. Their duty station had been destroyed. The Capitol they served had tried to destroy them. They were stuck on a hillside, a good week’s walk from District Eleven to the south or Ten to the west, and trains weren’t going to be running to a district that had just been wiped off the map. They had their soot-smudged uniforms and the rifles over their shoulders. Kally carried one canteen of water, standard issue for a watchkeeping pair walking rounds in the summer heat; though it was more than half gone now.

So they stayed and watched. The fires burned brighter as night was falling, still finding something to consume. Remembering that the fence kept out the predators, that bears and mountain cats might be prowling these hills, she kept her rifle at the ready. A flicker of memory crossed her mind, fear of the terrifying forest cats that roamed the north woods back in Seven, and how her brother Max had always teased her that she was such a soft touch that if she came across a wounded forest cat kit she’d probably try to make it into a pet. She hadn’t thought of Max in years, with his booming laugh and his brown eyes, but apparently death clung close enough tonight that she’d summoned what shreds she had of him, and of Inge, her sister too. If you’re lost in the woods, she heard Inge’s voice suddenly, the memory of a lesson learned long ago, you find high ground, you climb a tree if need be to check the lay of the land. Then you stay put until we come find you. Don’t just wander or you’ll get even more lost, especially at night.

Nobody would come find them this time, though seeing Myrina looking around like she was trying to decide what to do, Kally said with more confidence than she felt, “We’re on high ground. Wait here a bit. Stumbling around in the dark won’t do any good.” She saw Myrina nod slightly, resuming a nervous pacing as Kally tried to grasp desperately for anything more in her mind about being out in the woods. It was like groping in the dark to seize tiny specks, slipping through her fingers even as she thought she had them. The harder she tried, the more the memories eluded her. That had always been the case, but it was about enough to make her scream at the moment.

Suddenly then a voice, warm and deep with the round tones of a Seven accent she’d largely lost—her father, it must be him. She didn’t quite remember his face clearly but his voice was there. Give the mockingjays your whistle and we’ll know you’re out there looking for us. Every family had their whistle, she remembered, their call-signal out in the forest when they were separated. But of course she didn’t remember what the Gundersson one had been, try as she might.

But she had another whistle to offer, one for the family she had now. She gave the “muster” whistle, the same tone the bugler blew every morning at back training camp at the ass-crack of dawn. Any Peacekeeper ought to recognize it. Hearing a mockingjay pick it up and relay it, she smiled to herself in the dark. “Smart,” Myrina said appreciatively, getting back to her feet. “Got some survival skills to you, huh, Kally?”

Just then the sharp crack of a stick had them turning, expecting to see another white uniform, albeit one like theirs probably ruined with soot and ember-scorches, and rips and blood from scratches earned in frantic flight. Instead it was a young man of maybe twenty, tall and handsome, with the dark look of the Twelve miners. He stood there with a drawn bow, arrow nocked at the ready. Caught flat-footed, she realized she was probably going to die right then and there. Hearing the click of a safety behind her, apparently Myrina had been more aware and gotten her rifle to bear in time.

The miner stared at them intensely. The tip of his arrow moved up, towards taking out the more imminent threat of Myrina. “I ought to kill you both for what you’ve done to us,” he said, anger coloring his tone harshly. “And what you just did, most of all.” It was on the tip of her tongue to protest, We just got wiped out too, same as you, but it was perhaps more dread than wisdom that held the words back. “But I’ve got better uses for my arrows in the days ahead. So I don’t really care what the hell you do, but don’t interfere or I will kill you next time I see you. I’m going to let your precious Capitol look after you. I’m sure they’ll be here soon to celebrate anyway.”

With that he turned and ran, probably hoping he’d make it safely away into the darkness before Myrina could shoot him. She ought to do it, according to the Code of Conduct. Bearing a weapon like that, and especially threatening a Peacekeeper with it, was an offense punished with execution. But she didn’t shoot. Kally didn’t blame her. After surviving that, it seemed to her that anyone deserved a chance to live, and apparently the miner-boy had extended them that same grace.

They traded off watch during the night in case of animals or other locals, though what sleep she got was fragmented and haunted by visions of people burning alive. Occasionally there were voices in the woods calling out, but the mountain twang of them told the two of them it was better to stay silent. Twelve still burned brightly in the darkness. The flames finally began to die down towards the glum first touches of dawn.

No hovercraft came as the miner had predicted. She didn’t expect they would. Why would they be in a hurry to come check out the ruins of a place where they had planned to kill everyone? Still, in a stupidly hopeful part of her, maybe she’d thought they would come, that they would be rescued and someone would tell her it had all been a horrible mistake, of course they hadn’t meant to kill their own Peacekeepers, and here they were to find anyone left.

Yeah, and if she had a week cut off her duty tours by hoping for something, by the time she left the Peacehome she’d have been done with her twenty years already. “What are we going to do?” she asked Myrina, shaking her head with mute incomprehension. No food, minimal water, only a few bullets—it was bleak to say the least. Good thing neither of them was badly injured, given that all her medical supplies had been torched down in HQ.

Nearby, a mockingjay suddenly caroled the Peacekeeper muster. “Someone’s out there?” Grabbing her rifle again, Myrina carefully headed down the hill towards the sound. So much for staying put. She hurried to follow suit.

The mockingjays kept up the sound. About halfway back towards the smoldering ruins, in the distance she heard the sound again, but it sounded like the resonating tones of a human, not the pure, airy sound of a bird whistling. “Hey!” she yelled.

“Over here!” she heard the welcome call.

“Purnia?” she said, a little doubtfully. There were so many Peacekeepers, and maybe it was just wishful thinking.

But it was Purnia, her thick dark blond hair a singed mess. Albus was there too, a wound on his arm crudely bandaged with a piece of ripped uniform sleeve with the white fabric already bled through. He looked pale. Blood loss, shock, the medic part of her mind observed immediately. From the size of the blood stain, he might need that stitched. Stitched with what, she had no idea. She’d have killed for a medic kit right at that moment.

Her attention on that problem lasted as long as it took to see the third figure lying there on the ground. “Who…” She hated to have to ask, but given how badly he was burned on his face and chest and arms, skin charred black, it was impossible to know. He was unconscious—only the thinnest rise and fall of his chest told her he was clinging feebly to life.

“It’s Actaeon,” Albus said. “He got trapped underneath some shit when a house was falling…”

“We were at the fence when the bombs started so we just got out. But we went back in right before dawn when it looked like the flames were dying down some. Went in as far as the fire and the heat would let us, anyway. Al saw the white of the uniform,” Purnia nodded towards Actaeon, “at the edge of the town. He was awake long enough to tell us who he was. Then he passed out on the trip up here while Al was carrying him,” Purnia said tiredly. She looked at Kally and bit her lip, shaking her head. “Naevia must have been with him when the place collapsed. There was…someone else in the rubble there.”

She blinked back the tears. Hearing that her best friend was dead for sure made it all the more real suddenly, but she couldn’t afford the grief right now. She’d mourn Naevia later, when she could finally let herself feel all of it. “Nobody else?” she said roughly.

Albus was the one who answered her, his voice husky with the strain of carrying Actaeon while being injured himself. “We yelled and walked around as far as we could. Nobody else answered and we didn’t see…anyone moving. There’s nothing left. Just…just…” He stopped, looking sick, and instead mustered a faint smile for her. “Good to see you made it, at least.”

She glanced away awkwardly, kneeling beside Actaeon and starting to assess his condition, trying to ignore the smell of burned flesh. The thready pulse and the labored rasp of his breathing were bad signs. Maybe if they were in the Capitol with a state-of-the-art burn treatment clinic and every medical advantage, he might be OK. She wouldn’t give him good odds even then. Right now, without even something simple as a syringe of morphling to offer, she could only be grateful he’d slipped into unconsciousness, because the pain must have been unbearable all through the night.

“Kally?” Myrina questioned her, a tense note in her voice. She looked up to see her standing there looking at Actaeon with an expression already on the verge of mourning, and shook her head. No, Myrina was going to lose her friend too. Myrina nodded, her expression abruptly tightening with pain and then relaxing with a weary acceptance. “I’ll stay with him,” she said quietly. “He shouldn’t be alone. You three should stick together and see if you can find anyone else who’s alive and hasn’t maybe fled into the hills already. Be back within two hours.”

Partner teams weren’t supposed to break up; it was protocol. But to hell with that, she thought, watching as Myrina sat down in the green summer grass beside Actaeon in the shade of a tree—alder, that voice of the memories whispered. She clasped his hand in hers. Chances were he wouldn’t even feel it, but at least he wouldn’t die alone. That meant more than the rules right now.

Chapter Text

Johanna hadn’t been back to District Nine since her own Victory Tour, almost ten years ago now. Besides, it had been one of the earlier stops, and the whole thing blurred for her anyway which had been a mercy, as it was an ordeal. So seeing the district through something almost like fresh eyes, it startled her. “It really is flat,” she murmured, staring at the endless horizon of country far as she could see, seemingly even as a well-milled board. Only some buildings here and there punctuated it. Craving the forests of home, and the mountains of the north as she shielded her eyes against the sun and stared off into the distance, being able to see for miles gave her a peculiar sense of everything being far too big and leaving her far too exposed. What I wouldn’t give for a tree, she thought with some longing.

Here and there the sprouts of the crops had already broken through the black dirt, and that was at least some comfort to see something green and living. “Yep,” Haymitch agreed laconically, staring at things far less than her. But then, he’d been here far more recently, on Katniss and Peeta’s own Tour. Presumably at that point compared to his Tour as a new victor, he’d been less dazed and paying more attention to things. That was Haymitch anyway. Never stopping looking, thinking, analyzing; she thought she could just about hear the gears in his head turning away as usual.

By now the routine was getting established. Prep and primping beforehand—at least it wasn’t being plucked and basted like a roast goose before being whored out, so she was gradually learning to relax about it. Flavius and Octavia might not be the sharpest saws in the mill necessarily but there was something sincere and even kind in both of them that she couldn’t help but respond to in some ways. It would be like swatting a puppy just to be bitchy—a somewhat Capitol-looking puppy still in the case of Octavia. Flavius’ riot of orange curls was natural, and without makeup he looked strange, but that was just his features rather than bizarre Capitol artifice. Not much to be done about Octavia’s green skin, though, until the dye finally faded away entirely. Apparently it was quite long-lasting. When she looked now, as the coloring was still gradually fading, her first derisive impression from last fall that it was the uncomfortable green of a rotting corpse had faded too. Now it was more trying to decide whether those lingering final shades of soft green were like the underside of an oak leaf, or maybe more like a birch leaf, maybe even the green of spruce needles. Fuck, she missed the comfort of seeing trees. She hadn’t much seen them since they’d left Twelve.

Flavius was off burrowing in the wardrobe for whatever Cinna had sent for the meet-and-greet for Plutarch’s ever-hungry cameras. Octavia asked shyly in her high, soft voice, “How do you think things will be now? In the Capitol, that is. Since your schedule is due to have you there soon. I mean, I…I haven’t been back. Not since the Quarter Quell, and…”

It struck her that after being rescued by Thirteen and spared execution by the Capitol, and then liberated from what amounted to Thirteen’s dungeon, Octavia had just stayed there all winter long. It made her homesickness pale in comparison. She’d at least gone back to Seven briefly for the election, and even back in Twelve she been too busy and too surrounded by people who cared about her to genuinely feel lonely for Seven for more than a few fleeting moments.

But she’d been free, and happy, and confident that at least her own future held some brightness, even if not everything about it was clear. Looking at another young woman and seeing how uncertain she was about what would happen to her, she felt a pang of sympathy. To feel that awkward sense of no longer belonging was something she understood all too well. “I don’t know,” she said honestly. “We’re gonna be trying to make all of Panem better for everyone.” Although compared to the life she’d known before, high-flying and prosperous, maybe “better” wasn’t going to apply as much in Octavia’s case. “But the Capitol’s probably going to have to change the most. Can’t go back to the way it was.”

Octavia nodded, her brown eyes a little fearful, but taking it calmly enough. Apparently she’d done more than her share of growing up in the last year. “Oh, I wouldn’t imagine so,” she answered.

“You have family there?” she felt moved to ask, compelled by that strange fellow-feeling she was developing.

Octavia shook her head, her auburn waves bouncing around her shoulders. “Oh, no, I’m an orphan.” She risked a little smile. “My mother’s auntie was still alive and she took me in though, so I wasn’t sent to an orphanage. But Auntie Honoria died while I was still in beautician school. So it’s just me, I’m afraid.” From their time in Two, she knew that Capitol orphans usually ended up being shunted over to the Peacehome. Presumably the shining and prosperous Capitol didn’t want anything as ugly and useless as a bunch of orphans living right in their backyard, marring things. Too desperate, too sad, too close to the reality of what was going on for so many kids in the districts. They only wanted orphans on their television screen tugging at their heartstrings in carefully sanitized made-up stories about pluck and secret benefactors and whatever. So like with most other things they didn’t want to think about, the Capitol found a way to make it so the problem didn’t touch them, so they could safely ignore it. “I imagine all my poor little mice are long dead,” she murmured to herself regretfully. “The neighbors wouldn’t have fed them, of course…”

She could have been a Peacekeeper, Johanna thought, looking up as Octavia carefully painted green designs on her nails. Auburn hair, early twenties, brown eyes, the softer nature—yeah, she couldn’t help but be reminded a little bit of Heike, though to judge from the picture of Heike before she got sent to Peacekeeper training camp, the two of them looked nothing alike. But the connection was made anyway and it couldn’t be undone.

“You could stick around in Twelve,” she offered impulsively, but once she said the words, she couldn’t find it in herself to think they’d been stupid. “I mean, it’s pretty much gonna be a fresh start for everyone there. Hell of a lot more fun than going back to Thirteen. Besides, I imagine Katniss would be happy to have you around.” As much as Katniss let herself openly like anyone anyway, but she’d asked Johanna about the preps when they talked on the phone. Octavia seemed to be her favorite.

Octavia gave a nervous little chuckle, high and almost grating. “Twelve? But what would I be doing out there?” It struck at her temper, a Capitol woman asking a question like that, until she actually recognized the tone was uncertainty rather than dismissiveness. “After all, I’m not brave, or a hunter, or anything like you and Katniss,” she murmured softly, dipping the paintbrush into the lacquer again and painting another carefully precise spiral design on Johanna’s right index finger. “I don’t know I’d be of too much use.”

This was the point she wished she was good at reassurance. “Well,” she joked lightly, “you paint your skin green again and you’ll have fantastic camouflage all ready to go out in the woods and learn to hunt.” Realistically she figured the sheer roughness and dirt of being out in the thick of nature, to say nothing of the bloodiness of hunting, might not be Octavia’s style, but what the hell. Twelve would have a place for all kinds. Even shy young women who liked to paint intricate nail designs might well find somewhere to belong.

Octavia let out a genuine laugh at that, quickly followed by a snort as she gasped in air to keep laughing, and she covered her mouth at that, eyes going wide at the sound, raw and undignified as it was. But she kept giggling anyway. Johanna decided there might well be hope for her yet.

Camera-ready in a nice, simply cut raspberry-colored dress, at least she was thankful Cinna was handling wardrobe here and that he had classy taste. On her Tour here in Nine, Donnella had dressed her in some really fucking awful denim dress, complete with suspenders to counteract how low-cut it was. But that had been Donella, always looking to be as stereotypical as possible. After all, she was the woman who’d dressed Seven’s tributes as trees—nauseatingly skimpy-costumed trees—for forty years. She remembered Twelve’s dress that year more clearly than most, as it had been her first stop. It had been an ugly mottled dull black and grey fabric apparently meant to make it look like she’d been rolling around in coal dust. It was also much too short. She’d sat with her legs tightly pressed together the whole time she was sitting in Mayor Undersee’s parlor, convinced if she moved at all, they would be able to stare at her underwear. That was back when she’d actually been able to have something like shy modesty.

Oh, the joys of the old days. Shaking hands with the mayor, Acarica Watling, and her “friend”, Diedre, two women of about fifty, she and Haymitch made all the usual pleasantries, agreements to sit down for dinner, talk agendas, all of that. Everyone pretty much understood the euphemism when it came to Diedre. She knew full well, as everyone did, the Capitol wouldn’t have legally recognized two men or two women marrying, and every district had its share of two “friends” living together for the rest of their lives. Not moral objections on their part, considering she’d had more than her share of female patrons, and the Capitol let pretty much anything in terms of sex happen with a blind eye. It was simply the fact that it probably annoyed the Capitol that those couples wouldn’t readily be making any babies to contribute to the reaping ball and to provide the next generation of workers and of leverage to keep the system going and keep the districts down on their knees. At least, not without someone else agreeing to help them out in having a child, or reproductive technology like they might have in Three, but no way in hell anyone out here ever afforded that.

But she didn’t doubt that the two of them had been married by whatever district customs Nine had. Back home, Cedrus had lived with his own “friend” Mattias since before Johanna was even born, and the two of them had planted a pair of birches in their backyard to seal the deal. No time to change things like the present, she decided, and get rid of another bit of the old Capitol. “Pleased to meet you and your wife both,” she said to Acarica, loud enough for Plutarch’s camera crew, already practically hanging over her shoulder. She saw Haymitch’s quick grin at that as he stepped forward to greet the ladies himself, and the surprise and then a look of gratitude and something like glee on both the women’s faces.

Stepping down the line, she stuck her hand out to Clover Anden, Nine’s last victor. Clover had the same tall, sturdy build and fair skin Acarica and Diedre did—almost as tall as Haymitch, really. But her hair in its neat intricate braid was a light brown compared to the near-golden of the other two women, the same shade she’d always seen on Capitol movies of Nine that inevitably took place in the middle of fields of ripe wheat. Clover studied her with eyes the same dark brown as the upturned soil of the fields and some unnamed emotion came over her face before she gave a nod of acknowledgment. “Johanna. Good to see you looking well.” Her greeting for Haymitch was definitely warmer, but that was probably because she’d known him a long time. “Lunch, my place, before you get settled in?”

Following Clover to Victors' Field, seeing the house they’d be staying in, Haymitch asked quietly, “That one Rye’s?” He jerked a thumb towards one painted blue with white trim.

“No,” Clover said, pointing across the lush central green to a yellow-and-brown one. “That one.”

“Ah. I’d have figured…he liked blue.” She hadn’t known that. She’d slept with Rye once, felt his hands on her skin, heard the sounds he made, taken part of him inside her body, and she hadn’t even known that he liked blue. Frankly she hadn’t cared. He’d been just another fuck to her, a means to an end, a way to show Finnick that he hadn’t mattered to her either. She recalled how Rye had tried to make it a repeat performance later, and the next summer too. He’d actually been genuinely interested in her, maybe just friendly sex, maybe more. She’d never know now. But having gotten what she wanted, she’d had no further interest for him. Her cheeks suddenly felt hot with shame, not at having slept with Rye, but for having used him.

“I’m not going to come cut your throat while you sleep, Haymitch,” Clover said, shaking her head with some impatience. “We both knew Rye wasn’t going to join the alliance. Good kid, but he always preferred to just keep his head down and not cause any trouble. He tried to kill you and you got to him first. No blame. Probably turned out better for the whole country that you were the one left alive.”

“Yeah, but I shouldn’t have had to kill a man for what boiled down to his not wanting to join a rebellion,” Haymitch said with an aggravated tone.

“None of us should have had to kill anyone in the arena at all,” Johanna said wryly, thinking of blood on her hands, thinking of Sandy and Gloss, thinking of her five kills back in that horrible garden arena, lush and beautiful like the Field's central green was here. “But we did.”

She got what might have almost been a look of respect from Clover for that. “That one,” she said finally, nodding to the blue and white house Haymitch pointed out, “was Harvest’s. For the little time she lived there.” The victor of the First Quell, Johanna knew, had apparently “forgotten how to swim” one day in the pond of the Field here. Considering it was knee deep at best, that was quite a feat. But seeing how miserable living among people who shunned them had made Haymitch and her both, she could well understand how Harvest Anderson had likewise found it intolerable to live in the district that had rejected her when they voted her into the arena to die. Haymitch had just ended up drowning his sorrows in liquor rather than shallow water. Her own sorrows she had burned instead, in the fierce furnace of her anger, a heat almost nobody could withstand and which kept them at a safe distance.

Clover unlocked the door and nudged it open with her hip, grumbling, “Stupid thing always sticks now.” Without as regular maintenance in the Field these days, Johanna didn’t doubt it probably did.

“I could look at it,” she offered casually. “Know a thing or two about wood, after all.” Her suspicion was some rain or snow had slowly gotten into the wood from an untreated edge and swelled and warped it.

That earned her another nod of acknowledgment from Clover. Maybe a slight softening of that odd distance she sensed. Inside the house, she glanced over at the parlor and saw a jumble of kids’ toys there on the floor, a rag doll and a toy tractor and…her eyes widened. Stepping into the parlor and crouching down, she picked up the wooden horse, carved in beechwood, complete with an intricate leather harness like it was ready to pull the little wooden cart waiting there.

She recognized the work instantly. Blight’s victor talent had been woodcarving, and he always gave away toys he’d carved to the district kids for New Year’s. It struck her only now that he must have taken enough interest to find out at the Justice Building just who’d had a baby that year so he could make a toy for them. Back in Seven, on a closet shelf, there was still a box with Bern’s bear, her wolf, and Heike’s badger in it, put away long ago as a painful reminder of lost days, and because she’d known in her heart there would be no Mason kids to hand them down to in her life.

Well, it made sense. She remembered Blight and Clover had been friends. More than friends, really, they’d had one of those summer arrangements that even in her years as a mentor, other victors still used to tease the two of them about how noisy they’d been. She didn’t think Clover had ever married, not that the two of them had been close enough for her to know. But apparently she’d had a man here long enough that she had a kid, and Blight had sent that kid a toy. “Didn’t ever know you had a kid, Clover,” Haymitch said, his tone almost too guardedly casual, which told Johanna plenty.

Clover looked at the two of them defiantly and said, “Actually, I have three kids. Two boys and a girl. Barley’s ten, Alfafa’s seven, and Amitra’s four. My sister and her husband died during the war while I was stuck as a ‘guest’ of the Capitol and I came back here and found the kids in the orphanage.”

“Admirable,” Johanna said quietly, thinking of those kids in the Peacehome, in Five, imagining three little kids alone in the orphanage, just more lost children caught up in the tide of war. At least their ending had been happier.

But seemed Clover wasn’t done yet, her words coming with an almost physical force as if she couldn’t bear to stop now. “The last…the youngest. Amitra. She’s mine. I hid her away. Made sure nobody knew. I pretended I was sick that spring and stayed inside much as I could, and when she was born I held her, and I named her, and then I gave her to my sister to raise her and they registered her as theirs. Because I knew the moment my girl was in the reaping, as a victor’s kid, they’d want take her for the Games. I knew I’d rather have to be her ‘aunt’ and give up raising her as my own than see her die because of being mine. So no, I didn’t fucking well tell you that, Haymitch.”

It made sense and Johanna could imagine it. A horrible choice to have to make, to say the least, but one she could understand. Clover had done the best thing she could for her daughter, hard as it must have been. Coming back from the war to find the girl in an orphanage with her two cousins—no, brothers—Clover had repaid the debt to her sister by taking in the two nephews as her own sons. Repaying a debt; wasn’t she starting to sound like Haymitch?

“You didn’t think the blood identification was going to find her out?” Johanna said incredulously, still trying to wrap her mind around how the fearful risk of it had paid off. “That they wouldn’t know?”

“They only took the blood to associate with a name for the reapings, Jo, they didn’t run it to see if your parents are who the birth record says,” Haymitch said quietly. She looked over at him and something uncertain and almost embarrassed in his glance said, Or they’d have found it out about me. Remembering the story when it came to his father, she nodded in awkward acknowledgment.

Apparently hearing the voices, Johanna saw a little girl peeking through the slats of the staircase railing, hiding there most of the way to the second floor. That must be Amitra. Clover had obviously had her later in life, must have been in her early forties, but then again a victor’s body didn’t age and wear out as fast as the rest of the district’s did, being spared the hard labor.

“Ami,” Clover called, her voice suddenly gone softer than with her and Haymitch, “where are Barl and Alfie at?”

“Went out,” came a somewhat peevish, obviously pouty reply. “I wanna go out too, Mommy.”

“You’re grounded, kiddo. But you want to come down and meet our guests?” The little girl launched herself off the bottom step, Clover neatly catching her with the air of a routine that had been well-established already. Sulkishness forgotten at that show of affection, Ami giggled, burying her face in Clover’s shoulder for a second, then staring at her and Haymitch with shameless curiosity. “This is Amitra,” Clover said, and that edge was back in her voice as if daring them to make something of it.

She heard Haymitch’s soft sound of surprise the same moment she saw it. The eyes—it was a subtle difference. Most people would just see a brown-eyed girl from a brown-eyed mother. But they weren’t Clover’s rich earth-brown, they were a lighter brown, a green-tinged woodland brown so common and familiar. Someone not used to seeing a pair of Seven eyes probably wouldn’t even know, but those eyes were home for her. More green than hers, actually a true hazel, so those eyes probably came from bloodlines of the northern lumber camps. “Hello, sweetheart,” Haymitch said, not even sounding surprised.

“Hi,” Johanna managed, giving the little girl a smile. “Excuse me a second here?” The suspicion crystallized in her mind, put into bloom there by the thought of the mayor and her wife, and the memory of Cedrus’ wedding birch trees and the apple trees she and Haymitch had planted too back in Twelve. Crossing into the kitchen, knowing from the identical floor plans all the victor homes shared that it offered a great view of the backyard by that one particular window, she was almost certain of what she’d see back there. Blight had planted maple trees in his backyard—not a pair, everyone knew what that meant. He’d planted three of them, apparently to cover his tracks. Though it made a few of Cedrus’ remarks take a new light now as he always seemed to like to make a gruffly approving remark about how Blight’s maples were thriving.

Clover had two maples back there. But she could get away with that here in Nine where trees were just trees. Staring at the trees, she was all at once angry and hurt at yet another thing in her life Blight had never fucking bothered to tell her. Turning and seeing them both there, looking at Haymitch, she knew he’d been clueless about the little girl but he’d known this much, or at least suspected. “She’s Blight’s,” she said, just wanting to hear it confirmed unequivocally. She kept her voice low, conscious of Ami probably playing in the parlor now with her toys, still grounded and unable to go outside.

Hesitating at first, Clover finally nodded. “The 71st ran long. You both remember that.” It lasted just over a month, as Johanna remembered it, a hellish arena of bare rock and steep sheer walls in the bottom of a canyon. After the first week or so, tributes had holed up in little pockets of it until the Gamemakers had flushed them out and tried to force them together again with rock falls and mutts. “Apparently my injection ran out or wasn’t effective enough.”

“Ah,” Haymitch said simply. Yeah, that pretty much explained how she’d found herself pregnant. It also explained why she’d kept the kid, because it hadn’t been just some foolish district fling or the like. The girl was the only piece of Blight she was ever going to allowed to keep with her. Also made more sense of her hiding Ami away; bad enough to have one victor parent. She managed to suppress a shudder as she rmembered Snow musing last winter to her and Haymitch, As your children, they would have made truly magnificent tributes. Though whether they would represent Seven or Twelve would be something of a dilemma, I admit. He’d sounded so intrigued by the prospect of a new act to grace his circus. Clover had probably done the smart thing. The child of two victors would have been virtually guaranteed as arena bait.

“Are either of you going to ask if he knew?” Clover said somewhat sarcastically. “Or can we just assume I wouldn’t keep our kid from my own husband, even if he never got to lay eyes on her in person?” The faint tremor on the last words made Johanna want to wince. Blight hadn’t ever met her, and now he never would. She tried to not think back to those wide-staring hazel eyes looking sightlessly up at her after the darkness had lifted, loopy Wiress crouched nearby muttering nonsense to herself. She’d wanted to slap the older woman and scream, You’re all so fucking smart in Three, why didn’t you save him? “He loved kids. That was what they used to break him like they did. ” Now she was gathering anger again and that was OK, she figured. Sometimes anger was the only thing that kept the walls from crumbling down entirely. “Sick fucks! What kind of choice is it, having to hurt a kid to keep them from being tortured to death as a business lesson to their dad?”

“I’ve wondered sometimes,” Haymitch said softly, a little hesitantly, “if they’d have tapped me for that one. If I hadn’t been on exclusive contract that week to Lucia Flair. After all, they did make me play the sort that really enjoying ravishing virgins. It would have fit.”

“Even a twelve-year-old one?” Clover said, her anger rising to match Haymitch’s own.

“Twelve was old enough for plenty of district kids to die in the arena,” Haymitch pointed out with a sudden cynical smile. “Old enough to endure things in there that never made it past the editing room.” Johanna kept silent for the moment, aware of a conversation she had little place in right now, a history she hadn’t been a part of and didn’t know. It was an awkward feeling, given that Blight had been from her own district, and she knew less about him than these two did. Hearing about what had apparently turned him so panicked and nervous about anything to do with hurting kids or whoring, what had made him so absolutely fucking useless in doing anything to help her when she was on the circuit or to help the tributes as a mentor, she tried to keep her temper down and just listen. “I’m sorry.”

“They picked him because his role was playing the dumb thug,” Clover said dully. “They probably figured he’d be glad to help enforce someone’s will, and he probably didn’t care who he was fucking, he’d just enjoy getting laid.”

“I know,” Haymitch said, almost gently. “But we all knew each other better than the parts we had to play.”

She remembered now, Clover yanking her aside in the weeks after Finnick shattered all her illusions by telling her about Annie and made her realize he’d never loved her and would now never love her. Get over him before it screws you up even more. You thought you’d really be able to live a total happily-ever-after with a victor from another district? Being near him only one month of the year and not even able to give him a phone call the rest of the time? It doesn’t work out that way.

At the time, nineteen and heartsick as she was, she’d thought, What a nosy bitch, nobody asked you, Clover, and cheerfully flaunted her successfully fucking Rye in front of her as a figurative middle finger.

Now she saw it clear. It hit her like a punch in the gut because she remembered obliviously planning that somehow she and Finnick would be together, already thinking about how the hell getting married and having children would work out when they only saw each other at the Games. But what had just been confused daydreams for her had been a reality for Clover. “It was enough?” she asked, before she could help herself. “One month of the year together, a month in hell to boot because of the Games, and a kid he never got to meet?” A husband who’d eventually been so badly broken by the things he’d been forced to do that he couldn’t even bear to face them and spent most of the summer drinking and avoiding everything where he could? Almost immediately she realized she’d better not judge too quickly on that one. Haymitch had more than his own share of problems, and she’d sworn she’d stick by him, never mind if it was good or bad times. So maybe she and Clover had a bit more in common than Johanna had thought at first glance. She thought now it was likely Blight had been different with Clover, away from Mentor Central and the stress and horror, safe in the arms of the one he loved and trusted.

“No.” Clover shook her head. There was the crack of grief in her voice, harsh and painfully real. “Never enough, not when you come to love someone like that. But it was still more than they thought we should have, so we decided we were fucking well going to take back what we could from them.”

“I’m sorry.” Whether it was sympathy for Blight, apology for her naïve disappointment that had blindly festered into actual disdain, she wasn’t sure. Perhaps it was kind of for everything.

“He cared,” Clover pointed out softly, the aggressive edge fading now. “He knew he couldn’t help you. So he at least tried to find someone who could.”

Haymitch’s laugh was a sharp sound, wryness and pain all mixed together. “He did at that. Merciless bastard when he wanted to be.”

She stood there in that little apartment, staring at Haymitch Abernathy. Somehow, from seeing him on television, she’d expected he’d be taller when they finally met. But the man had a sort of presence anyway that seemed to fill the room. She wondered why Blight had brought her here. He hadn’t helped. He had done nothing when Snow called for her, done nothing when her family was dying off in the woods. Like he actually gave a shit now. What did Haymitch have to do with anything? “Shit, Blight,” Haymitch drawled, leaning against the dresser, a nice hand-carved maple piece, and folding his arms over his chest, “Mags already brought the Odair boy by yesterday to see me. Why am I suddenly being dubbed the Keeper of the Whores?”

“I’m not a whore,” she snapped at him, still terrified and sick at the thought of someone fucking her by her invitation, let alone against her will and finishing what Clark had tried to do. She thought she’d throw up. She wished right then she’d died instead, rather than her family who hadn’t deserved to suffer because she’d had a fucking panic attack there in Snow’s parlor. She wanted to go kill Snow for it.

He gave her a deeply amused look. She hated him a little right then, him with that smirk and his messy black hair falling in his eyes, looking at her like he knew just how powerless and scared and pissed off she was. “I am. Blight was. And you will be soon enough, sweetheart. So what’s this got to do with me, huh?” She realized he was addressing Blight again, ignoring her. She wanted to yell and make him pay attention but considering she had nothing to say, and the fear of things was stealing what words she might have, she just listened.

“I figured you’d be willing to help with Johanna.” He actually used her name, which startled her.

“Will I now?” She almost itched to hit him for that. “You’re making a big assumption there that I want to take on your responsibilities. She’s your district partner.”

Blight straightened next to her, and his voice went into a low rumble of indignation, powerful and sure, rather than the awkward way usually he wanted to just say something quickly to her and end the conversation. “We were there for you, Haymitch. All of us. When you were just a stupid fucking kid who didn’t know the first thing about what to do on the circuit or at a sponsor event, because we saw you had nobody. We were the ones that picked you up after a rough night and when your tributes died. We knew you needed us, so we were there. So tell me, you’re really gonna try to say ‘Not my problem’ when Mags and I need something in return?”

Haymitch’s eyes shot to Blight, and rather than the casual arrogance, now there was something glittering fierce and hard in his eyes, anger and pain mingled all together. “Fuck you, Blight,” he said, his twanging Twelve accent getting a bit thicker with the sudden edge of temper. “You manipulative shit, you’re gonna pull out the talk of owing? On me?”

“Seems that you’re making me do it.” Blight sighed, scratching fretfully at his brown stubble. “We need you. You’re in the know from still being on the circuit and obviously Mags and I aren’t. Also, you’ve survived it this long. So I’m here the same reason as Mags was—I know you’ll do a good job if you look after them.”

“Dammit,” Haymitch muttered, but it was more resigned now than angry. “Trusting me with kids, Blight? Really?”

“I’m not a kid,” she said, finally finding her tongue.

“That so, huh?” he said, regarding her now with something like a keen interest rather than that dismissive amusement.

“I’m not a kid,” she repeated, feeling the confidence of that rising within her. She hadn’t been much of a kid ever since Clark pinned her down, ever since she snapped out of it bathed in his blood, ever since she killed five other children to stay alive. What last bits of scared, soft little Hanna might have remained after that had been burned away these last few days, because her fear had cost her the only people who loved her still. Haymitch looked at her a few moments more, and simply nodded.

She hadn’t seen it then, young and confused as she’d been, knowing neither of them. But now, looking back, she could understand that Blight had ruthlessly used Haymitch’s own sense of honor, that damn prickly Seam pride, to twist his arm. He’d risked pissing the man off so much he could have lost one of his apparently few true friends. It may not have been a clean, shiningly noble sacrifice, but he’d placed trying to secure Johanna’s well-being above everything else at that moment. He’d cared enough to admit he couldn’t handle it and make sure he gave her to the keeping of someone who could help her.

It wasn’t love like in the stories her mom and dad used to read to her, the ones Clover probably read to her three kids now. That kind of love was so reassuringly simple. Good won, evil lost, everything was so black and white, and everyone got exactly what they deserved in the end. There was no place in that for a mother whose love meant giving up her child to her sister to try to save that little girl’s life. There was no place in that for a man who admitted his own failings and used the best of intentions to convince someone else into look after her. But there was probably no place in those stories either for Haymitch and her. She was no princess. He hadn’t awoken her from a curse with a simple kiss. They had fought for everything they now had, and darkness as well as light was permanently within them both. That was reality, messy as it was.

Truth was, apparently Blight had cared about her, as best he could. In a better, gentler world, maybe he would have simply been a toymaker, a man who loved kids, and a man who would have adored his own kids. But that wasn’t the world they’d all endured. She looked in the direction of the parlor and thought of Blight’s daughter there, and thought, Enough. There had been plenty of pain and hate and blame to go around. Blight had unquestionably let her down, but he hadn’t simply left her to the wolves like he could have done. He did the best he could for her and left it to someone more capable, and that was all anyone could do.

Though she knew it had taken its toll on Haymitch also, that with how deeply he took his responsibilities, looking after her and Finnick had been just one more factor in eroding what remained of his crumbling defenses. She was sure it was no coincidence over the next few years he’d finally lost his way entirely to drinking. Far easier to let go of Blight’s failings towards her than to overlook what grief they had caused Haymitch. But she thought of Rye again, of others she’d used, of her own failures. In that moment, she could let it go and forgive Blight his frailties. They’d all been made into broken Capitol toys in their own way, and none of them had meant to hurt each other. She’d been so thoughtless in her self-absorbed pain, but not deliberately malicious.

Right about then, a hollering whirlwind composed of two young boys came roaring through the front door—Barl and Alfie, presumably home for lunch. She heard Ami give a squeal of joy at seeing her brothers. The noise and ruckus disappeared upstairs as the kids presumably washed up.

“Lively place you’ve got,” Haymitch said, the edge of laughter now in his voice.

Clover grinned in return. “The kids definitely keep it interesting. I learn something new every day. Sometimes much to my chagrin.” She looked at the two of them with interest for a minute, and Johanna prayed with a nervous intensity that she wasn’t going to ask if the two of them were considering kids. But apparently she just let it go. “It’s nice, really, to have some noise of them just being happy,” she said, voice suddenly soft. “If it gets too quiet, it’s a little too much like being back at the Training Center.” Those months of imprisonment, Johanna thought, and in Clover’s case, living all alone on the Nine floor. She could see how the silence would be oppressive.

“Reminds me,” Haymitch said. “I’ve got a letter from Dazen for you. Sends his regards too. I’ll get it for you after lunch.”

“Thanks, Haymitch.” The easy rapport between those two appeared to be just fine. But as to her, Johanna wasn’t sure. Besides, much as it was Haymitch that had been raised with that recognition of debt rather than her, there was a feeling of something left out of balance that bothered her. So before they headed off to the meal and the moment passed, she figured she’d better just get it out there.

Looking over at Clover, she took in a deep breath and said, “When she’s older. Ami. She…you should have her come to Twelve.” Realizing it was a big assumption Clover would even give a damn, considering that she now recognized Clover’s attitude towards her was based on how Johanna had disdained the man she loved, she rushed to explain, feeling stupidly self-conscious. “Haymitch knew Blight. And me, I can…I can teach her. About Seven, I mean. She ought to know where she came from.” She owed Blight that much, to see that his kid had that legacy that was hers by birthright.

It seemed like an eternity before Clover finally nodded, expression easing. Johanna read with relief that apparently, Clover had let her own resentment go. She wouldn’t judge them to be best friends, but they would give each other a chance now free of those old burdens. The scales balanced again, apparently.

Chapter Text

The Peacekeeper Headquarters in District Nine looked much like the one had back in Five when Haymitch had checked that one also—a scene that spoke of violence followed by neglect. Rebels had ransacked the place, presumably for weapons, though they’d taken the time to destroy some of the furniture and scrawl anti-Capitol epithets on the walls, the mark of people frustrated and oppressed and abused by Capitol power for far too long. The place smelled of mildew and rot where the rain and then the winter snows had gotten in through a few broken windows.

Gingerly stepping around the smashed remains of a desk, he cracked open a file cabinet labeled as containing personnel files, thankful the anger hadn’t extended to the point of burning these files. The filing cabinets labeled for incident reports and punishment records and the like actually had been yanked open and emptied and their contents presumably destroyed.

Flicking through the files, his heart suddenly beat faster as he saw one labeled, “Law, Theodosius,” and the serial number that had been on the file back at the Peacehome. Yanking it from the drawer, he almost dropped it in his eager haste. Wiping a layer of dust from where half the top of the desk remained intact and upright, he put the file down, and opened it.

From the years listed he saw Theodosius—Ash, his mind insisted, unable to accept that other name—been here for his first tour, between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three, before being sent next to District Seven. Seven, where Johanna had been, but of course she hadn't known, and Ash had been just one face among so many in a white uniform. He prayed like hell Ash hadn't done anything to her people, or...fuck, to her family. It sat inside him like a stone suddenly. Maybe he shouldn't mention it to her and he shied away, tried to think of other things. He couldn’t help but think of those years in his own life, some of the higher years of his popularity out on the whoring circuit. The money Snow must have made off of him, the way the weight of despair settled on him year after year, more inescapable, knowing that this was all his life would ever be until the day finally came nobody had any further use for him. Slowly losing more ground to the inevitable as he finally moved away from the last of the boy retaining foolish hopes and became a man—that had been the story of those years.

He’d been turned into a whore and a mentor. His brother had been obliged to turn Peacekeeper. So it seemed like both of them had been denied the privileges and joys of simply being a man, the life with a wife and children and the warm embrace of a community that they could have expected back in Twelve even with its hardships, and instead been forced to serve the Capitol in their own ways.

He looked at the photo of a newly-promoted Captain Law in that file, bound for Seven. Carefully overlaying the image of the eighteen-year-old graduate of Icewind Peak Camp with this man, tracing the five years of living and the changes it had wrought—some of the traces of youthful softness had continued to fade. Ash seemed to stand straighter, more confident, or at least Haymitch thought so. He’d distinguished himself for his abilities at investigating crimes, and at learning and applying the Code of Conduct as a legalist—he laughed at that, though the sound was a bit thick and choked. He remembered the law books he’d been reading last autumn too, late into the evening until his eyes ached from the strain and he got a headache from it. Although in his case he’d been interested in what the letter of the law could do to protect the people he didn’t want to see unjustly hurt. Ash, he’d always been the sort that would have loved it purely for the sake of knowing. He could see the boy he’d known growing up to investigate things. Seemed like Why? had always been Ashford Abernathy’s favorite question to ask, and young and stupid as he was, Haymitch’s answer was usually a roll of his eyes and an impatient, Because that’s how it is. He’d always thought it was better to think about what a person could actually do about those things.

The man in that picture was twenty-three, and the file talked about him to that age. Having traced Ash this far, he had so much more to work with now than the memories of eleven-year-old boy he’d thought dead for so many years, but it wasn’t enough. That was still near to fifteen years ago now, and he felt the frustrated disappointment of not having the answers, of not knowing more. Why? Because that’s how it is.

Perching on the other half of the desk, he flipped through the rest of the file. Facts, that was all. Lieutenant Law's progress on his first duty tour is exceptional. He is conscientious, intelligent, and dutiful. He got so little sense of the man from it, loves, hates, or anything like that. There was really nothing human in there, just performance evaluations. That had been their only concern, and Snow’s only concern too—that he performed well, and loyally. Ash hadn't done anything to Johanna's kin. He had to believe that. Whoever Ash had become, he wouldn't have shot people down in cold blood like that.

Closing the folder, he hesitated a moment, and then decided he might as well take it with him. It wasn’t like anyone else would need it, not with the Peacekeepers more or less disbanded as an organization.

Heading back towards the Field, he saw the Anden kids playing near the pond. His eyes rested on Ami. He’d seen it first thing off, just as he knew Johanna had—the eyes were what gave it away. He’d spent too long now looking into a pair of brown Seven eyes with that faint bit of green every day to not see it.

Blight had never said anything. Whether it was reticence or fear or both that held his tongue, the man had done just like Clover and kept it secret. He’d known the two of them got hitched, at least as much as the Capitol would permit two people from different districts. It had been obvious to anyone who knew them as long as he had that somewhere, it had evolved from the casual, friendly arrangement like he had with Chantilly into something far more, something deep and abiding. He’d seen it—the two of them lit up around each other. He’d envied them even as he pitied them, because it wasn’t like what they were allowed to claim with each other was anything but a shadow of what it ought to be by rights. It was better he had never been at risk of falling for Chantilly, because with her being from another district as she was it would have landed him in the same situation.

But then, unlike Clover and Blight, unlike him, unlike Johanna, Tilly had been from One, with the advantages of Career training and the perspective of so many victors before her to give her words of wisdom. She’d set the ground rules down damn solid early on. Don’t do anything stupid like fall in love with me, she’d insisted the first time they slept together. She’d be his friend and his solace, but not his lover in the fullest sense. Wise move on her part, he could admit that freely. If she hadn’t made it clear what it was that they had, he knew he could have fallen for her, lost and lonely boy that he had been, eager to respond to any show of kindness or affection, still naïve enough to believe that sex and friendship would have implied love. He could have ended up heartbroken as Johanna had been by Finnick, or had she fallen for him in return, caught up in the wrenching frustration of a marriage half-lived as Clover and Blight had.

The harsh irony that for all his years of solitude now he’d married a woman from another district, that he was living the life Blight and Clover ought to have had, hit him with a curious pang. Not everything they had, he thought, looking over at Ami. Blight had never met her, true. Never would. But at least before he died, he’d known he was a father, sent toys to his girl, had pictures and stories from Clover. It wasn’t everything, but it was at least the comfort of knowing some part of him was in the world and would last, no matter what.

Some days he thought he must have dreamed it, that it was just another venom delusion. Things were in his head sometimes that he realized later couldn’t be real, nightmares and horrors left over from the arena and the torture chamber. Why should this be any different? It could be just one more torment his deluded, drug-addled mind unleashed on him as a lingering effect of that. Hell, he’d been on plenty of painkillers and other drugs at the time Johanna told him. Maybe one of those drugs had played tricks on his mind too, interacted with that confused, fucked-up part of his consciousness that had been made into the plaything of tracker jacker venom and warped reality once again.

He had no proof of it, no experience of it in his own body to tell him down to his very bones it had been real, just the memory of that moment on the rooftop of the Training Center that Johanna told him two things: Coin’s secret use of fertility drugs on women in Thirteen meant there had been a baby, and that she’d lost it thanks to the drugs treating her burns. He knew asking her to marry him had been real because yeah, they had gotten married. The way she was around him, the way other people openly spoke about it, the way he woke up next to her every morning, and the gold band on his left hand were all solid proof of that. But if the miscarriage had been real, shouldn’t there be more than a single moment as proof of it? Shouldn’t Johanna be showing some sign of it, given it had been her body that had been left bleeding and in pain by it? But there was nothing, compared to all the other ordeals in their lives he could clearly point to as still having left their marks, and that caused him that odd thread of doubt that it had actually happened.

Maybe it was just his imagination. Maybe he’d finally lost it like Blight had when it came to the idea of kids being hurt or killed. Maybe that meant he’d dreamed the whole thing as some kind of messed-up justification to himself of why he shouldn’t have kids because this had been one more kid he couldn’t protect and keep alive. Some part of him was afraid if he went to her and asked bluntly, “Last fall, did we have a baby that you miscarried?” that she’d look at him with alarm and tell him he actually was going crazy. More than that, there was a good chance the actual form of that hallucination would freak her out. If she’d wanted kids he figured she would have said something by now. He saw she seemed to like them, had interacted well with the likes of the Hawthornes and now the Andens, but she’d never said anything about hungering for a child of her own.

He knew too that the next stop on this grand tour was etching himself into his mind like acid—District Four. Where there was now apparently a little newborn girl, the darling of her parents. Black-haired too, like his own daughter might have been, and that would make it all the harder. Somewhere in those quiet months since December, the child had become a girl in his mind and his heart because it was easier to grasp hold of the loss of something concrete and real, my daughter, than imagining the loss of a formless it. Delusion or not, his image of the girl that might have been and her suddenly vanished potential was all too real now.

How he’d get through meeting Maggie Odair and not thinking of that unnamed—but not unmourned—child, and the weight of Mags besides, he had no clue. But he’d managed to hear the news that Brutus and Enobaria were expecting a kid, and to deal with little black-haired Posy, and now he’d met Ami, and it hadn’t driven him to his knees. He’d managed to deal with watching other people around him marry and have happy lives when he had been so certain that would never be his fate. He’d pull through this. If there was one thing he knew how to do after all these years, it was how to endure the hurt alone and not speak it. I have Johanna, he thought. I have her, and that’s far more than I thought I’d have. It’s enough. In time the hurt would lessen. It wouldn’t go away but it would at least grow over some.

Meeting again with Acarica Watling, walking through the fields of the first sprouts of corn on the farm closest to the district center, he listened as she explained brusquely, “Harvest last year was pretty much a disaster. Everyone away at war to begin, and beyond that, some fields burned, some harvested grain got destroyed.”

“President Paylor mentioned the grain rations were running a bit low,” Johanna agreed casually. “I mean, it’s a lot more evenly distributed without the Capitol confiscating it all and doling out just tesserae, but…”

Acarica grunted irritably. “Yeah, and I’ve got Mayor Dravid from Ten calling me desperate for more grain for fodder. If it wasn’t for the big population losses in the war, we’d be genuinely fucked and facing a famine this year, I’ll be honest.” She scowled, shaking her head. “Don’t take me to mean I’m pleased for it.”

“I’m not,” he answered her. “That was last year. You’re thinking this year shouldn’t be a problem, though? I mean, ain’t like we’ll be at war come harvest this autumn.”

The mayor shook her head again, sending her elaborate grey-streaked blond braid flying. “You don’t get it…”

“Enlighten us, then,” he said coolly as he could. Clear enough to see from having done this in several districts that there were things he and Johanna didn’t know that natives of those districts just took for granted because they only knew people who had that knowledge by birth and upbringing, close as instinct. The two of them even ran into that issue themselves sometimes, the differences between Seven and Twelve.

“Trouble begins with trying to…” Another sound of frustration. “Understand this first, all right? It’s not like just reaching for seed corn, because our entire harvest was always confiscated. Besides, everything we grow, it’s a Capitol mutt. Every single seed strain we’ve got is modified to grow better, grow faster, grow for higher yield, grow in conditions where it shouldn’t normally be, whatever. Because the Capitol says you plant only soybeans here, you damn well do it, never mind if any damn fool knows rotating the damn crops would…anyway. That’s all done in Three in whatever labs they do for their mutt-splicing, or maybe it’s just ordinary cross-breeding, I don’t even know. Capitol never let us in on that, that was for the scientists, not the farmers. Every year, seed comes from Three ready to go, treated with whatever chemicals they put on it. So every year, our planting depends on two things before you even get to local issues: we need Three getting their act together to have the seed ready to go, and Six having their people transport the stuff to us.”

“All previously controlled by the Capitol, of course,” he said, starting to see some of the issue. Deprived of that central control, left to try to figure out the system of production and transportation and make it happen all on their own, it would be a giant fucking headache. The phone calls, the logistics, the paperwork and accounting of it trying to make two other districts accountable for it—the notion was giving him a headache.

“So we got a bad start there, several weeks behind,” she said with a grumble. “I’m already trying to talk their ears off to get the wheat here on time for planting in midsummer, and the late beans too. Then, of course, we’re so shorthanded to begin, and to boot, the frigging mechanics for most of our motorized equipment were always flown in from Six because that’s what it was built…”

“Not enough people and equipment failures,” Johanna summarized neatly. “Got it.”

“We’ve had enough breakdowns that we’re pretty much back to the olden days here,” she said with a wry chuckle. “Down to using horse-drawn plows and planters and the like, where we were using those mostly for the tougher ground that you couldn’t do easily with bigger equipment. Ten was more than happy to offload quite a few extra horses and mules on us.”

“Not much use for the mules elsewhere this year, I imagine, being as the mines of Twelve ain’t running,” he said wryly.

“Lumber crews probably aren’t using them back in Seven either,” Johanna added.

“Dravid was happy to make them my problem,” Acarica confirmed. “We’ve worked hard as we can, but we still have some fields that still need planting, and we’re coming up on the Grower’s Moon Festival—we should be done by then and we won’t be. And come harvest time, it’s going to be a nightmare if we don’t have the equipment and the people to handle it. We can’t be harvesting into November and December with the crop buried under two feet of snow.”

The tension in her voice brought back that ugly word, and he decided he’d just be blunt. “Famine a possibility?”

She hesitated only a moment, looking up and down the rows of small green leaves. “As it stands, yes. If one thing goes wrong, if we don’t get every field planted or replanted if the first crop fails, if we don’t get the harvest in quickly…there’s a lot that could fail this year too. I can’t even speak to how good a job they did on the seed back in Three to begin. We might have run on lean bellies with the Capitol but at least we knew the greedy bastards had grain stored away. They’d keep us hungry and desperate, but chances were we wouldn’t starve.”

He thought about that a bit and asked, “Any particular skills needed?”

A low, rueful chuckle was his answer. “We’ve got enough people to run what equipment we’ve got. As for the rest? Nothing that couldn’t likely be learned in a day. Mostly to get through harvest, you just need a strong back and the ability to keep working through the pain.”

Johanna glanced over at him, ended up giving him a long, hard look, and said with a snicker, “Well, Mayor, I know that look. That means he’s scheming something.”

“Purely benign. Evil plans are far too much work,” he said equally dryly. “Nah, I was just thinking I’ll be seeing all the mayors in less than a month anyway. Easy enough to ask if any of them have enough people to spare some willing to pitch in for harvest to make sure the whole country gets to eat.” Districts like One and Two certainly had their share of idle people out of work, to say nothing of the Capitol—question was whether the formerly privileged would be willing to labor for their bread, quite literally. Two’s prickly pride in particular might balk at it. He figured that was something better talked about quietly with Brocade and the mayors involved rather than to try to make promises now he maybe couldn’t keep.

“Appreciate it,” Acarica acknowledged, with a nod and a look of something like surprise. “You’re not as…”

“Useless?” Johanna cut in ruthlessly.

He managed to keep down the tired sigh. Always a joy to see that people were shocked he wasn’t a worthless drunk or just conducting some good propo opportunities for his image. But twenty-odd years of bad reputation broadcast to the entire nation couldn’t exactly fix itself overnight.

“You’ve both been a lot more concerned than I figured you’d be about a district that isn’t your own,” the mayor said bluntly. He gave her points for not resorting to polite bullshit. “So thank you.”

“Laborers needed,” Johanna said, with a nod of acknowledgement, simply moving past it, which seemed to be the best way to proceed. “By when?”

“We can probably handle the summer harvests for the barley, alfalfa, oats, and winter wheat and the like—those are a few smaller collectives. The main harvest starts a couple weeks earlier in the south than the north, but in general, we’ll be in a rush to harvest the corn, sorghum, spring wheat, rye, and soybeans from August onward. We try to be all done by early November if possible so we’re not losing crops to snow up on the north farms. It’s a pretty busy couple of months.”

She lost him on the details somewhere in ticking that list off of all those unfamiliar crops—he wouldn’t know winter wheat from spring to save his ass, or even what “sorghum” was, for that matter. He was already planning to look it up when he had the leisure. But at least he got the gist: August to November was the furious rush here and the period she was most concerned about.

“Anything else?” he asked. “I mean, we can lean on Six regarding getting mechanics out here…”

“We really need the equipment for harvest, so yeah. Ask if they’ve got someone that can fix a vibrator hopper, because those things are always breaking and I’m sick of it. Seed bridging is always a problem with those idiots in Three, they must not let it dry properly…”

“Sorry, you lost me.” Right around the point of vibrator hopper. He’d spent too many years in the Capitol, apparently—he had the feeling out here in Nine, a sex toy with a motor wasn’t something they’d have heard of readily either. Then again, something about Acarica’s face, almost too serene as she watched them, told another story. Perhaps this was native Nine humor. Clover had always had a terrifically bawdy mind that she managed to hide behind seeming innocence. “You wanna back up a few steps?” he asked, as he heard Johanna strangling back a laugh, though when he looked over she was perfectly calm.

“The seed we get from Three is usually stuck together into huge clumps, sometimes big as the whole bag it was in,” Acarica explained patiently. “We have to spend time getting all that apart so we can use it in our planters. The vibrator hopper,” another soft sound of mirth from Johanna, “helps shake those bricks apart quickly. And when we’re bagging harvested grain in the fall, it helps keep things from sticking together there too.”

“Thank you, make sense now,” he said coolly as he could, reaching over surreptitiously and giving Johanna a nudge of, C’mon, stop it, we’re official government representatives and we can’t laugh at it like a pair of sixteen-year-olds.

Walking the fields the rest of the afternoon, listening to Acarica talk about the land and her enthusiasm shining obvious for the work that she did, he figured he’d never look quite the same at the food he ate. He’d be remembering these black-soil fields now and the people that worked them, and not in the trite way Capitol films showed it.

“If things are changing,” she finally ventured hesitantly, as if finally warmed up enough to them to share dreams beyond immediate practicalities and yet a bit afraid to ask, “having our own mechanics would be good. And…and medics. Real ones, trained. The equipment, it’s dangerous. Heavy machinery like that injures plenty of people. We’re actually doing well this year because most of the machines are down. But we always have people that lose fingers and hands and arms and legs each season yanked into the machinery. Always seems to be some fool girl who doesn’t cut or cover her hair properly either.” Staring at Acarica’s thick waist-length braid, he tried to not shudder, imagining it. “A lot of the injured died because they just have an apothecary, one per collective to handle all the workers across so many different fields. Some survive and they’re stuck working the factories and grain mills if they’re able, but the pay’s so lousy.”

He was put in mind of workers crippled in the mines, people like Ripper with her one arm and Mol McCrory with her one leg. Miners crushed by falling rock, injured by explosions—too many ways to be hurt down there in the deep and merciless black. The regular accidents got so bad when he was probably about thirteen there were enough permanently disabled miners unable to work the face that the Capitol hired them on at half-wages as shale-pickers and kicked out all the kids they’d been forcing to do it for free. Half-wages weren’t much, though, so eventually Ripper made her still and Mol had begun to dip candles for the Hob instead.

“We’ll work on getting proper medics,” he said, clearing his throat awkwardly and feeling how tight it was, remembering the way things had been back home. “But seems to me you’d be well served by things being safer to begin. Ain’t a good way to make it totally safe, but we can make it better, at least.” All it took was valuing lives more than production and taking the steps to make that happen. He intended to see it so in the mines, and from Johanna’s remarks on lumbering, that could use attention too. It seemed like the farmers here also needed that reform.

The look of surprise and even gratitude on her face, as if they’d said something she’d never imagined could occur in her lifetime, was a sight. “Well.” She cleared her own throat. “Thank you for that. Much appreciated.” As if hurriedly skittering away from the awkwardness of her emotion, Acarica mentioned hastily, “I know you’re off to tour some of the other collectives, but you might as well come back here and enjoy the Grower’s Moon Festival three nights from now. We figured we’d hold it anyway. Everyone needs an evening off. There’ll be food, and corn beer, and singing and music and dancing.” Well, he perked up a little that—he was Twelve enough to appreciate a good festival with music, and the prospect of adding to his growing collection of fiddle music from around the districts. “We’ve got the cornstalk there in the square…the green pole, that is. The dance we do, it’s for fertility of the land, helping the crops growing tall.”

Remembering the odd green-painted pole towering against the sky and freshly hung with what looked like ribbons in cream and ivory and gold and tan and brown, presumably all the shades of the grain, he nodded in acknowledgment. “Sounds like a plan,” he agreed cheerfully. “We’ll be there.”

“Good. If you’ve got questions while you’re out around the district, just call from the farm boss’ house—they all have phones.” Waving them goodbye at the turnoff for the path to the Field, Acarica headed back towards her own house.

They actually managed to wait until she was out of earshot. Johanna started it with a half-mumbled, “Vibrator hopper.” He couldn’t help it, finally letting out the laugh, relieved that if he was totally corrupted by having been exposed to influences from the Capitol and the richer districts, at least she was right there with him to share the humor. “You think the local women like sitting on it?” she asked, cocking her head aside and giving him a devilish smirk.

“I have to wonder if they named it deliberately and they just love it when outsiders like us do a double-take.”

She chuckled lowly and pointed towards the “cornstalk”, with its ribbons drifting and snapping lightly in the breeze. “Considering this is a district that basically stuck a giant cock up in the center of the square, and apparently they dance around it?”

“But it’s a special cock, with ribbons,” he corrected her with a grin that he felt growing wider by the moment. Leaning in, he kissed her lightly and said, “What, you thinking that night you want to tie a bow on mine? In the spirit of honoring our hosts’ traditions?” Although apparently it’s supposed to be a fertility dance, he thought wryly. For crops, anyway. They’d be OK, he reminded himself. He had her, he’d always have her, and the joy of that.

She let out a whoop of laughter at that, giving him a playful shove on the shoulder. “We’ll have a nice dance,” she promised with a laugh, slipping an arm around him as they walked back to the Field.

The phone rang that evening just as they were sitting down to dinner. “Bet you that’s Katniss. Got the worst damn timing,” he groused. Though to be fair, given they were an hour earlier here than in Twelve, maybe she’d just forgotten that fact.

It was Brocade, though, much to his surprise. “Our trip being diverted again?” he guessed, though he couldn’t see cause to break things off right in the middle of assessing one district. It had been another thing to mix things up a bit and go deal with the tensions in Thirteen.

“No,” Brocade said tiredly. “Just telling you, you may be hearing Mayor Watling being frustrated over the rest of your stay in Nine, and it won’t improve when you move on to Four. Things are a mess. The entire nationwide identity and registry system just crashed today.”

“Oh, shit,” Johanna said. “That’s…ah…kind of a problem.” Considering a confirmed identity was necessary for everything from employment to marriage to being issued the monthly ration coupons for everything from flour to sewing thread to chocolate that had been necessary after the war until everything was on more even keel, it was indeed a problem.

Remembering the sudden omissions of some Capitol citizens and the wiping out of Peacekeeper records, the suspicion blossomed in his mind rapidly. “Sabotage?” he asked bluntly.

“Likely,” Brocade was equally straightforward. “The entire computer server here didn’t just fail, it was apparently attacked with some kind of program that wiped it clean. Which means someone on the inside with the technical know-how to do that.”

“Someone from Three,” Johanna piped up. He couldn’t disagree. They were the only people in Panem with enough training in computers to pull this off.

“I’ve got people investigating and Beetee is offering his expertise to this, of course. But…it looks like whoever did it last fall came back to complete the job when they realized their earlier meddling let us still identify people who came up as not existing in the database as likely being people with something to hide.”

The fact that they had someone in Three who apparently supported the cause of the old Capitol was disturbing enough, and that it had happened now, months later. It spoke to a methodical approach he really didn’t like. Obviously, no matter what, some people were going to be pissed off with the way things were after a big change. But disgruntled people waving signs were one thing—there were plenty of those on the television every day protesting one thing or another and making demands. They were being too merciful on the Capitol. They were punishing the Capitol too harshly. They ought to punish Districts One, Two, and Four as long-time Capitol collaborators. They ought to just punish Two for being the source of the Peacekeepers. Usually, this district or that wasn’t getting what they wanted.

That was normal enough, constant noise and racket. But imagining people who didn’t like the way things were and who apparently had the brains, organization, and ability to just sneak in and fuck it up made him very uneasy. “Maybe they’ll settle on down now that they think the rats can hide out safely without fear of being caught.” He hoped that would be the case, that they’d be satisfied with this much. At least whoever it was had done nothing violent.

Still, he looked over at Johanna and saw the flicker of worry on her face. He knew it too. They’d shown it clear as day last year with the propos broadcast safely from Thirteen out of the Capitol’s reach, freely pirating the Capitol broadcast to suit their needs. If these weren't just people seeking to cover their tracks and slip away into safe anonymity, if they were people with the will and the ability to attack and try and change things, and the ability to not get caught, it probably wouldn’t stop. The trouble was not knowing which it was. “People with some kind of message to send rarely keep silent forever once they’ve gotten your attention.”

“I suppose we have to wait for that message and see what the hell they want to say,” Brocade said grimly. "Meanwhile, if they're rats hiding in their holes, I'm damn well going to try to find them and flush them out before something else happens."

Chapter Text

The irony of them being locked up in the same cell they’d previously used themselves to hold prisoners wasn’t lost on Theo. Though this was just a holding cell—it wasn’t meant to serve for long-term imprisonment. Most of the crimes they dealt with were petty enough. A few days of lock-up, time in the stocks, flogging in some severe cases, making restitution, or the like, and it was followed by release back into society. Then there were the execution offenses, and that was a long list of everything from murder and rape to attacking a Peacekeeper to theft of things from the workplace. That last one, though, was probably the most overlooked capital crime in Panem except for a few specific things. He hadn’t actually seriously enforced that one at all until he got here to Eight where everything was enforced strictly after their little rebellion, though he knew some Peacekeepers did.

But things falling in between those two categories of short-term punishment and death were rare, a very few offenses calling for prolonged imprisonment. It was understood that HQ wasn’t equipped to deal with months or even years of incarceration, so those prisoners were sent to the Capitol to serve their sentence there in the Detention Center.

This cell wasn’t meant to be lived in more than a few days. It also wasn’t really meant for more than one person. But the four of them, the half-squad that had been with him that night, had been stuffed in here for several weeks now. Or at least that was his estimate, based on the admittedly erratic meals and the like. It wasn’t like they got to see daylight at all for him to confirm it. He wasn’t going to ask any of the rebels either. He already knew they wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. Most of what they directed towards their captives was the expected insults and abuses.

It was blazingly hot midsummer and the heat generated by three other bodies in this stuffy, windowless cell was depressing. All of them clung to their own particular corners, trying to move as little as possible. They rotated use of the one bunk and slept on the floor the rest of the time. The small toilet in the corner had broken a while back and their can-toilet, emptied only when they pretty much begged for it, meant the smell of piss and shit was constant in the heat.

That day their jailers marched them into the walled back yard and told them to wash up. “You stink like the Capitol pigs you are and I’m sick of smelling it,” one of the rebels had said bluntly. He’d passed the point of being able to smell it, but he knew from the sweat and the heat and the inability to bathe that they probably did reek. They’d ended up stripped down to their trousers and undershirts, and after weeks without a wash, those looked and felt disgusting. Left with a couple buckets of water and watched closely, it was clear they weren’t going to get any privacy to bathe. None of them had any particular modesty around each other at that point. The weeks in the cell had cured them of that already.

He’d heard a few pointed comments and laughs as they stripped and started washing. Justicia stirred next to him as one commented, “The tall one’s got nice tits.”

“Fuckers,” she said through clenched teeth, and he saw her hands shaking as she crouched and reached for a rag in the bucket, her shame and anger obvious.

“Ignore it, Jussy,” he said calmly, trying to tune it out and just enjoy the sunlight and the feel of being clean. He might not be able to shave, and the beard itched like hell in the heat, but at least this was a clear improvement. It would be a while before he had either luxury again, he was sure. He didn’t know what had happened to any of the others in the district or if maybe in other places around the district center there were other Peacekeepers held prisoner. He thought he heard the sound of distant rifle fire, as if the fighting was going on somewhere in the area. War’s still going on here, he noted, filing that away for reference. From the more intense heat compared to when they’d been captured, he was pretty sure they were indeed into August now.

He knew his orders would have been to try to quell any rebellion and keep order in the district. That obviously was sheer impossibility at this point. Any attempt to do it would end up with all four of them shot dead in a heartbeat. Clearly the rebels were armed and organized that the fighting was still going on here in Eight, and he would lay good odds they’d learned from the mistakes of the winter.

No orders covered this, because successful rebellion and being captured were pretty much unthinkable. He could see how it chafed all of their pride to sit in that cell, powerless and humiliated. Marcellus was probably worst of all. Justicia had been born to a Peacekeeper mother in Three, her golden-tan skin and dark eyes attesting to the fact her father had been a district native, and promptly surrendered to the Peacehome. Thalaea had been handed over as a Capitol treason-price. As for him, well, he had his own murky, unremembered district life. But Marcellus was Two born and bred, probably with constant thoughts of his family back near Burnt Tree Camp. He was usually the one whose temper flared easiest about the situation, understandably so. But as Theo was their senior officer and their leader, they looked to him for what to do.

Without orders, without reference of some logical framework in his training to handle this, it was like groping blind in the dark. He found more and more he was obeying that curious instinct that had made him surrender to the rebels that afternoon rather than die defiantly as orders would have said. You do what you have to do. But you do it and you stay alive. It meant captivity. It meant enduring the too-infrequent food and the can-toilet and the mocking laughter now. It meant watching, waiting, and mostly, trying to not piss their captors off too much.

Because he’d realized it was simple as the fact that so long as they were still alive they could hope to stay that way. Training, legal codes, and everything else gave him nothing right now where everything was chaos. Some nights—or what might have been nights out in the world beyond the cell, anyway—he wondered if that was something from that buried past growing up in Panem’s most hardscrabble district. The constant feeling of uncertainty in the future and of gnawing hunger already tugged at something within him, knowing with utter certainty that as a boy, he had felt that way too. So maybe it was a mentality that wasn’t dependent on conscious and clear memory, but something rooted in instincts, something in his blood.

He was left trying to grasp it, tease it out and work with it, try to think ahead if possible. He could follow the clues and make the leaps of logic and track down a thief, but he couldn’t fucking well predict if someday a rebel would come through the door with a rifle rather than food. Sometimes it left him wanting to scream in sheer frustration. There were probably people who enjoyed that situation in all its uncertainty, found an adrenaline rush in it. Not him; he just wanted to solve it, wanted it to make sense, wanted to know.

Doesn’t much matter why, runt, that’s just how it is and you’ve gotta learn to deal with it, the memory of a boyish voice piped up impatiently in his mind—Dougless. It had to be him, because he recognized the voice. The pressure of the situation bore down on him. Deal with it, he thought as they were escorted back to the cell.

Perhaps a week later that uncertain day finally came, a rebel coming in with fire in his eyes and a gun in his hand. “Get out here,” and his tone brooked no argument.

Well, he thought, here it is. Already, though, his mind was trying to analyze it, trying to force it into some frame of logic. The look of fury on their escort’s face, and how their captors had kept them alive this long only to suddenly want to kill them now—he almost figured something had to have happened to whip up the mob frenzy again. “What happened out there?” he asked calmly as he could as they were joined in the front receiving area by three more rebels. The younger woman wore a plain headscarf of unrelieved black tied in elaborate knots; she was mourning someone. Perhaps it was someone dead in the factory and buried in that ditch. Chances were she’d enjoy watching him die.

They had the handcuffs all ready, courtesy of raiding Peacekeeper supply. But they knew so little about restraining a prisoner that they were ready to restrain his hands in front of him. Chances were he could take down at least one of them before being shot, even with bound hands. But even if they took down all four, what then? It’d be him and three comrades against the entire district. That was just stupid, pointless odds. They wouldn’t ever make it to the edge of town before they were shot down. No, he judged, no point to a futile gesture like fighting back. If he had to die, he was damn well going to do it with whatever dignity and stoicism he could. But at the very least, it meant if he stumbled or was helpfully tripped, he wouldn’t fall flat on his face like he would with his hands cuffed behind him.

“As if you don’t know,” the younger man snarled, green-gold eyes alight with rage.

“Considering I’ve been locked up for the last month or so?” He raised his hands, calmly letting them lock the cuffs on. “Not really. If you’d be so kind as to enlighten me.”

“Don’t get snarky with me,” the younger woman warned.

“I’m not.” Calm. Controlled. In command of yourself. He was positive there wasn’t even a shred of sarcasm in his tone. “Just asking.”

“Oh, just today your air force decided to come here yesterday and bomb a hospital.” The cuffs dug in, suddenly cinched too tight. “With plenty of women and children inside too. No survivors. But you lot already showed that’s your little game with the uniform factory, didn’t you?”

The factory, it was always going to come back to that fucking factory. But hearing about another building here reduced to smoking rubble and no survivors, he felt that uneasy, sick feeling again. “Wasn’t enough you motherless fucks had to destroy all of District Twelve right after the Quell,” the older man said, his grey-laced mustache practically bristling. “You had to come try to destroy us all over again, huh?”

He was knocked out of focus by that, suddenly hit with a stab of pure terror. “Wait, they bombed District Twelve?”

You bombed District Twelve,” Black Scarf corrected him, enunciating the word very clearly.

“Fifteen minutes after the Games ended,” the older woman confirmed in a low, husky voice. “Bombed to rubble. We’ve all seen the pictures. Not many survivors. Though I hear tell you even wiped out plenty of your own in doing so.” She gave him a pleased smirk at that.

The Peacekeepers had died there too? Myrina. Actaeon. He felt like he couldn’t breathe, imagining them there as the bombs exploded, blown to pieces like the people in the factory. No. it would have been firebombs, of course, but still, the Capitol had sacrificed its own Peacekeepers there? He prayed they were lying but he suspected they weren’t.

Marcellus was the only one brave and stupid enough to voice it, though. “You’re lying,” he snapped, his face flushed with anger, though his voice was almost shrill. “The Capitol wouldn’t just bomb its own Peacekeepers.”

“You want to see the pictures of it, boy?” Husky said, sensing her advantage and pressing it. “Pictures of the dead the Capitol put all over the television these last weeks to try to frighten us? Burnt to a crisp, hard to tell a Peacekeeper pig from an innocent, but both just as dead. The survivors from Twelve said there was no warning.” But how were they hearing from those survivors? Somehow, they had. He wanted to believe they were just trying to mess with his head before they killed him but it seemed too elaborate a ruse for people that caught up in their own hatred. Mobs just wanted to see blood spilled; they didn’t bother with elaborate deceptive mindfucks. “Business as usual right until the bombs started dropping. You know what that means? All those Peacekeepers were there right to the last moment. They’re all dead.” The jubilation in her voice, and his anguished fear for Myrina and Actaeon both, made his stomach turn.

They hate us, and they’ll celebrate killing us. The hospital bombing had been the last straw. There would be no reasoning here, no convincing them to calm down.

“Colonel,” Justicia said softly, questioningly, and it said enough that she was relying on the formality of rank to steady her, and not giving the rebels the pleasure of seeing anything personal. He could feel the other three waiting to take their cue from him.

He shook his head slightly. He saw there was nothing to be done for it. “As good a day to die as any,” he told them, trying for a brave nonchalance, telling them by his words and tone that blubbering or resistance wouldn’t be tolerated. They’d die with courage, if nothing else. He risked rallying them with the slight insolence of, “At least we don’t have to go back to that fucking cell.”

At least if there was some kind of thereafter, and Myrina had died in Twelve, he’d be with her soon. Never to have to wait for each other, never to be parted again—that was a small comfort.

To his surprise, they didn’t direct them towards the back yard with its high stone walls to take care of the messy business of shooting them. Instead, they were shown the front door and marched through the streets towards the town square.

He must have had a questioning look on his face because Mustache informed him, “Seemed fitting to make it public, as your lot made such a spectacle of executing us.” He remembered the executions of captured rebels there in the square. There had been a couple of weeks where there had been executions conducted daily. The Capitol had broadcast it to the people of Eight as further proof of how serious they were about suppressing the rebellion. He wondered if the rebels were taping this.

In the distance to the east he could smell the ghastly scent of burned flesh, just like with the factory, and see a plume of smoke even now as the ruins of the hospital burned. The rebels hadn’t lied about that.

As they came to the edge of the square he could see a crowd there already, and he could sense the ugly mood as if it was a living thing. Up on the platform of the stage in front of the Justice Building, an Eight native was being pushed down on his knees, protesting the entire time. One more, a woman, waited nervously at the foot of the stairs.

“Collaborator,” Black Scarf said casually. “Been dealing with their lot all morning. About time those rats got what’s coming to them.” Apparently the four of them were the entertainment for after that, as they were clearly headed for the stage themselves.

“Corduroy Sakhalin,” the voice of the man apparently running the show quieted the crowd, “you’ve been denounced as a traitor by the people of District Eight. Multiple people reported you acting as a collaborator and informer, selling your own people out,” low murmurs of rage, “for preferential treatment from the enemy. Do you have anything to say?”

Theo didn’t watch, but he couldn’t close up his ears. Sakhalin was still blubbering his innocence, how he’d done it to save his own family, when the pistol shot rang out, clear as thunder.

They repeated the process with Mantilla Beckworth. Traitor. Collaborator. Informer. Pistol shot. He suppressed a nervous laugh as he wondered just how being confronted with a Peacekeeper for execution would trip up what sounded like a quite well-rehearsed script by this point. How many had they already shot this morning? “Which of you lot is first?” Mustache asked.

He shrugged, trying to not let the terrified desire to live seize hold and make him panic where there wasn’t any hope at all, and said, “I volunteer.” He was senior officer, it was only fitting he ought to go first, lead them in this one last thing, give the example.

The irony of saying those words at the foot of a stage used for decades of reapings only struck him as he was climbing the stairs, and he stuffed back another of those hysterical laughs. “Name?” the head of this merry little carnival asked as he crossed the stage, willing his knees to be steady.

Where he found the nerve for it he wasn’t quite sure, but he felt almost strangely calm as he told him, “No point. You really don’t give a fuck what my name is, just my uniform.” What were they going to do anyway, kill him for that little defiance? He looked up, feeling the warmth of the sun for a few last moments of life, hungrily drinking in the sight of blue sky. “You don’t much care if I have last words either. Let’s just get to it.”

“All right then, Peacekeeper. You’ve got some guts, at least.” Shoved roughly down to his knees, he debated whether he should close his eyes or not. No, keep them open, closed would make him look afraid.

He ended up staring down at the spray of blood on the well-worn boards of the stage, feeling it soak into the knees of his ragged uniform pants as he’d apparently knelt in a pool of it where someone had lain as they bled and died.

So afraid, too terrified to move at what had just happened to tear apart the quiet afternoon. Two women were down on their knees in front of him, black haired, one young and trying to not sob in terror, the other older and calmer, and they had two Peacekeepers behind them with pistols pointed at their heads. His ma, and…who was the other girl? He liked her, he knew that, liked her being around.

“I’m sorry, Nola,” came the low voice of a man, the man that was holding him tight, restraining him, a big, strong man in that frightening white uniform of a Peacekeeper. He thought the man sounded broken and lost. “At least I got the President to let the boy live.”

“You did that, at least. So now you do it quick and don’t you make him watch. He doesn’t need to see this.” Ma reached her hand out to the girl. “Honey, it’s OK, just hold my hand.” He saw their hands clutching each other tightly before his face was turned away. The silenced shots still made him cry out, the sound muffled into the white uniform, knowing it meant the end of his world.

As he was half-carried out, too paralyzed by shock and terror to walk, he was unable to resist looking back, wanting somehow for it to not be true. He was too far out the door to see the bodies, but he saw the spatters of blood against the old planks of the kitchen floor scoured almost white by his ma’s weekly Sunday scrubbing.

“Ma?” he said hoarsely to himself, utterly confused and suddenly terrified, as that boy had been. What the hell was that? His ma—his mother—and his brother had died in an accident, and there had been no mention of any girl there. But it was so real, it felt like one of those occasional bursts of memory that came to him at the most unexpected times. It felt like it belonged, but he could make no sense of it.

He heard a laugh above and behind him and felt the press of the pistol barrel against the base of his skull. “Maybe not so gutsy after all. Don’t piss yourself. Your mommy can’t help you now.”

“What the fuck is going on here?” came another shout, a woman with the rounded tones of Eight.

Oh, come on, Theo thought with a sort of mingled desperation and exasperation, can’t we just get on with it? Glancing up, he looked at the woman interrupting the proceedings here. Eight born and bred, of course—light caramel skin, golden brown eyes, and the little bit of hair showing beneath her blood red head-scarf was also brown. He’d been around the Corps long enough to recognize someone easily taking charge, who wore the mantle of authority like it fit comfortably. This woman had the power to command the crowd because they’d fallen respectfully silent at her approach.

“Commander,” the voice of the man who’d been leading the show was suddenly deferential and nervous, “we were…”

The Commander stepped forward and her voice went low enough that the crowd couldn’t hear it. Being literally a captive audience, though, Theo heard it well enough. “I authorized you to handle the execution of those collaborators and informers whose information was clearly confirmed had led to the execution of innocents,” the Commander snapped. “I thought those orders were pretty clear. Not publicly, Denim, and not rounding up some extras to put on a better show! We’re not the Capitol. We don’t make a spectacle out of this. So tell me, why the fuck is there a Peacekeeper here ready to get his brains blown out?”

Denim’s pal obviously stepped back as the gun barrel was taken from the back of his head. Denim cleared his throat. “People are angry after the hospital, Brocade. Commander,” he corrected himself. “I figured, so long as we’ve got most of the district back as our own, and we were already dealing with other trash…these fuckers bombed us again yesterday, they deserve…”

“Justice, Denny. Not this. Yeah, he’s a ghost,” wryly he understood that might be some kind of slang for a Peacekeeper, “but I’m pretty sure he was in lockup all day yesterday. Not in a bomber hovercraft.”

“What about the factory?” Denim demanded angrily.

The commander, still standing over him, addressed him in a quiet voice that still carried the expectation of being listened to and respected. “How about it, Peacekeeper? What was your involvement in the factory bombing?”

“If I say I wasn’t involved in the bombing, why are you inclined to believe me?” He’d dealt with plenty of guilty people in his life. At a certain point, truth was indistinguishable from a man simply saying what he wanted his captors to hear.

She crouched down, now on his level, and stared at him directly. He was surprised the fact that he had to smell like hell and likely looked like the worst kind of beggar, thin and ragged and unshaven and dirty, didn’t seem to bother her. “Try me.”

“Truth? I was in the district a few weeks after you captured the district center. I fought against your forces. I’ve killed some of your people in battle. I wasn’t on an execution squad but I probably arrested some people who did end up executed. But I didn’t bomb the factory.” In light of things that didn’t seem like much of a claim to moral superiority; the whole thing had just been one slippery slope, and where exactly enforcement had ended and terrorizing began, he didn’t know. He gave a weary shake of his head. “Even those that laid the charges and lit the fuse—that was just orders from higher up.” Some may have thought it was justified. Some may have just done it because obedience was the name of the game, because they realized it was their own neck if they didn’t. “But we did it. So I reckon there’s enough to kill me for something.”

“Well. I’ll give you points for sheer honesty.” She gave a low sigh, sitting there apparently mulling it over. “We’re not like the Capitol,” she said finally. “And the descriptions of the ones who took special joy in abusing us—oh, we remember them.” She said the words with a fierce edge, a threat and a promise. Theo had a sudden thought of Longinus, and figured that if the boy hadn’t gotten kicked over to Eleven, he would have gotten himself on that list eventually. “The few that haven’t been…dealt with…they don’t match you four. So you did your duty, or whatever. I won’t execute you for that.”

“Then what are your plans, ma’am?” He figured it wouldn’t hurt to give her the politeness of courtesy, even if acknowledging a rebel would probably be considered a pretty dirty kind of treason. Yeah, well, this whole situation wasn’t as clean-cut as anyone would like.

“The Capitol’s not going to give me a damn thing for four Peacekeepers when they hold lives, even their own soldiers, so cheap. They killed hundreds of your kind in District Twelve without a second thought.” His heart ached again to hear it, and he tried to steel himself against it. Now wasn’t the time for breakdowns. “So here you are, in our district, eating our food, breathing our air, and you’ll keep pissing people off too much being here to remind them what you ghosts did to us all. I don’t want to bother protecting you from the next mob, and the next. You’re a dangerous thing to keep around and you’re not worth the trouble because I have better things to focus on and as prisoners, you gain me nothing but unrest in my own people.”

Put that way, it was cool and even ruthless but utterly rational in a way he had to appreciate. “Then if you’re not executing us, but you’re not willing to keep imprisoning us…”

“I figure four Peacekeepers won’t affect the course of the war one way or another. So here’s the deal. We’ll turn you loose far outside of the mills. I suggest you leave the district. If we see your faces again back here in the district center, we will shoot you. What you do after that is up to you. Rejoin your troops if you want, I don’t care.”

Released, but left miles from anywhere—his mind rapidly calculated the odds of surviving that. Depending exactly where they kicked them out of the district, it would likely be something like two weeks on foot to go south and west to the closest potential refuge in Ten, given the need to find food along the way and being obliged to follow the shore of massive Lake Weaver. But that was still preferable to heading anywhere east—all that was there now were the ruins of Districts Thirteen and Twelve. “Kicking us out into the woods without food or weapons gives us a good chance of dying out there.” Not to mention Peacekeeper training wasn’t exactly geared towards foraging or hunting skills. There was the persistent tug of something in his mind, that dark morass of memory, but he didn’t have time to follow it just now. “You might be kinder to just shoot us.”

She looked at him. “No weapons, no food, no survival skills? It’s the same odds our tributes had year after year in the arena,” she told him. He winced, acknowledging the hit. Eight’s tributes, raised in this urban misery, usually performed especially poorly. It was a barbed kind of mercy she was offering, but it was understandable, and he had to admit it was utterly fair. “Except we won’t be trying to kill you in the bargain. I’ll also give you some food...and some clothes, we’ve certainly got plenty of those on hand on this district.”

“And why would you do that?”

Getting back to her feet, all she said was, “Because we’re not the Capitol.” With that she spoke quietly to Denim and gave whatever orders she intended for it, as he still knelt there, more than a little stunned. Then she walked away without looking back.

Whether it was there being no more Peacekeeper uniforms in the district after the factory bombing, or simple courtesy on the part of the commander in not dressing them in clothes that would probably have them shot on sight in war-torn Panem, they were issued civvies. He felt peculiar—he couldn’t remember the days he hadn’t worn the white, or the Peacehome uniform before that. He felt oddly more naked in the blue-and-white checked shirt and canvas trousers than he had in the yard of HQ while their captors watched him washing. Never mind, don’t think about that. Think about keeping alive.

Of course it was Marcellus that protested as, backpacks in hand with some meager supplies to get them started, they were ushered into the back of a truck the rebels had commandeered and painted with a crude symbol of a mockingjay over the previous Capitol property tag. It must have been one of the ones previously used to deliver goods from the factories to the train station. “This is…we can’t….you’re just surrendering again,” he said, face twisted with anguish.

Thalaea shook her head. There was nothing to look at in the stuffy, canvas-enclosed back except each other. “Leave off it,” she advised him. “We were this close to getting our brains blown out in public. We’re lucky to be alive right now.”

“Better that than this!”

“You’re alive,” Theo pointed out, a little irritated that his whining was distracting him from trying to figure out just how the hell they were going to last until Ten. He was alive and that was probably more than Myrina had gotten. He couldn’t let himself think about that, not now, not when this task would need all his wits and focus. “Have a chance of staying that way too, with any luck. Far preferable to the alternative.” He thought he’d never forget the press of the gun into his skull, the feel of kneeling in someone else’s blood, the jeers of the crowd. Mostly, he’d never forget that odd fragment of memory—delusion—whatever it was, that had been jolted loose by the sight of that blood on those boards.

“You don’t know what it’s like,” Marcellus insisted, panic giving way to something ugly in his tone. “You aren’t born from Two blood, you were just another district brat lucky enough to end up out of the coal heap that spawned you.” Apparently out of uniform and out of sorts, discipline that would have made the younger man horrified at the idea of casting a slur on a superior officer had broken down quickly enough. Fine, so be it. They weren’t much in the way of Peacekeepers any longer, were they?

“Marc!” Justicia said sharply, though the hurt was clear in her tone. “You want to try that on me? I’ve got district blood too and I’ve served with as much honor as you have. Don’t be an asshole.”

Looking over at his partner, Marcellus’ temper wilted. “I can’t…my family will never…we know it, you’ve gotta either come home with your rifle or shot dead by one. That’s just how it is.”

“And yet you surrendered,” Theo told him, trying to keep it matter-of-fact. “You didn’t insist they shoot you dead first back when they captured us. You didn’t try to escape because you knew you’d be gunned down. You didn’t tell them you’d sooner die than be forced to leave Eight on their terms. Apparently, Marc, you want to live.”

“Seems only sensible that a person would want that,” Thalaea spoke up, voice barely audible above the flap of canvas in the breeze. “And I know it, I want to live.”

They were silent for the rest of the ride after that, all of them lost in their own thoughts and speculations. There was a strange roaring noise that grew louder and louder.

Finally the truck stopped and the canvas was thrown back to the blinding daylight. “Out,” Mustache said bluntly, obviously in no mood for questions or arguments.

Clambering down from the truck, stretching his stiff legs, he saw what the roar was. They had been hearing a massive waterfall—he’d never worked in Eight, and this was one thing Actaeon had never mentioned. Maybe he’d never even seen it, being as it was likely he’d never even been to the border of his own district. Maybe he’d never see it now, being as he’d likely been burned to ashes in District Twelve. He knew he felt the probable loss of Myrina and Actaeon more than an entire district he couldn’t remember.

He stared at the roiling, foaming tumult of the water and had to wonder if the commander had lied, if she’d told her people to just throw them over and had spun that story to get them out here quietly. Stupid fear, though, she wouldn’t have wasted food and clothing on people she planned to kill.

“Fuck off now and don’t come back,” Husky told them, gesturing towards the long high bridge crossing the falls, towards what looked like the ruins of an old city on the far side. The railroad tracks on the bridge told him at least it was currently maintained and not a two-hundred-year-old relic of old North America that might crumble beneath their feet.

He shouldered his backpack and turned for the bridge. “Let’s go before they change their minds,” he muttered, thinking getting out of Mustache and Husky's rifle range as quickly as possible might be a very good idea. Given the lack of argument and how briskly they all started the march right behind him, obviously they were thinking the same.

Chapter Text

The only other times he’d been in District Four were on his own Victory Tour and accompanying Katniss and Peeta. In the bleakness of December, as far south as Four was, it had been above freezing. His own Tour date had been bright, sunny and warm. The one for the 74th had been chilly—a raw and windy wet cold not entirely dissipated by having a drink at Finnick’s house while the kids were getting the grand guided tour, and both of them carefully avoiding talking about important things. In both cases he’d just wanted to get the hell out of the district and have the ordeal over.

Both of those Decembers were better than this. Four in the heat of midsummer was blazing, humid, the sun inescapable; the air thick and steamy so it felt like a clammy hot blanket around him.

It felt far too much like the arena. Annie had been up in Mentor Central for it, but he had no idea how the hell Finnick could live here after that experience. The heat, the humidity, the riotous thick and dark cypress swamp backing onto Victor’s Bayou that he kept eyeing for some new horror, the distant line of the beach on the horizon miles away. The moment he stepped off the hovercraft, his skin crawled and he wanted to get right back on. The dry heat of Five had been uncomfortable, but it hadn’t been a nightmarish reminder like this. He realized, watching the cypresses again, that he wanted the security of a knife in his hand, waking and sleeping.

He wondered if Katniss would feel like that too when she and Peeta arrived in a week. Johanna showed him nothing, didn’t say anything either. “Still looking for that nice beach house, lad?” the mayor said to him with a chuckle of glee. Wrack Solange was a wizened, sun-bronzed, tough old nut of a man who’d been mayor even since Haymitch’s own Tour all those years ago. He remembered he’d been shocked that the district center, and apparently most of the fishing villages to boot, were located in sheltered waters several miles inland from the ocean. He could see now he’d had his notions of things influenced by Capitol movies and their romantic image of Four—good old “Splendor in the Sea” and its ilk. But sixteen and naïve as he’d been, he’d blurted to Wrack at dinner, I figured you’d be living on the beach and all.

Wrack had answered then, Ah, now, a lot of the best fishing is in the bays, so it makes more sense to have our homes and our boats there, see?

It was later, away from the dinner table, the man had explained kindly, but with a roguish glint in his eye, On beaches, we build only the tourist hotels for Capitol folks, lad. They don’t want to see our homes while they’re taking in the sights anyway. That way every time a hurricane comes along and fucks those up because they’re unprotected from the storm, our homes and our boats are safe as anything, away from it as we are.

Finnick and Annie were there too, Finnick’s scarred face healing nicely in the five months since Haymitch had seen him last. He would never be the gorgeous creature he had before, but the way he looked content even if he looked tired, that inner radiance, seemed to render the scarring and the slight crookedness of his face a moot point. “Good to see you, Finn,” Haymitch said, as Finnick gave him a fierce hug of greeting.

“You’re both looking well,” Finnick said, giving a lopsided smile.

Annie stepped forward next to greet them, looking a bit exhausted like Finnick did. He smiled at her too. He noticed Johanna’s greetings for Annie were more restrained than her fiercely warm welcome hug for Finnick. “Congratulations to you both,” he offered.

Annie’s smile grew a bit wider. “I can’t wait for you to meet her,” she said. “But Mayor Solange has you and Finn heading out with a crew on the bay for the afternoon, but me, I need some sleep.” She gave a low chuckle. “It’s late nights, I tell you, with a newborn.”

“Of course.” There was something a little odd in her tone when she spoke about the fishing boat, but he didn’t want to pry. “We’ll see you for dinner, then?”

Finnick walked them down to the docks, chattering all the way about Maggie, her looks, her habits, her favorite things, the nuisance of the photographers flocking around waiting to catch a good picture of the child of two victors. The excited litany of Maggie Maggie Maggie Maggie made him want to just cover his ears like Annie did when she was having one of her attacks. The effort of keeping his temper in check and not blowing up wasn’t easy, but he’d be damned if he’d scream at a friend of his like that for no good cause but his own issues he really didn’t want to explain anyway. He’d endured losing his entire family. He’d endured being sold and raped on a regular basis. He’d endured helplessly escorting children to their deaths. He’d endured being shunned by his own people. He could make it through two weeks of an innocent infant without biting Finnick’s head off. Yeah, but probably not without a drink, he thought, stuffing down a sardonic laugh, feeling the old black melancholy rising up, fit to swallow him like one of those waves crashing on the beach.

Escorted aboard the Tormadillo, a neat, red-and-black painted boat with nets hung off metal frames on each side like the spread wings of a bird, they met the captain, Juncus Dufours, a small, neat, dark-featured man, with near-black eyes. “We’re taking a little shrimping trip ‘round the bay, none of the offshore business,” he promised. “Just so’s you’ve got a better feel for things here. Can’t understand the business of fishing till you’ve spent a little time of deck.”

Being as it spared him the trouble of trying to put on a brave face about baby Odair for at least a few more hours, he was all in favor of that notion. Finnick shut up about the kid and was soon talking about the fishing business, and he listened to that far more eagerly than before. The breeze of the boat’s motion certainly helped dissipate some of the heat too, and he considered that a plus. Leaning against the rail of the boat, he had the feeling captain and his helper were watching the two of them with amusement waiting to see if they’d puke. His body slowly was adjusting to the vibration and the motion, though. “Easy there, Jo,” Finnick said with a laugh. “You’re looking a little green.”

“I’m fine, Finn,” she said, sitting down on a box on deck. But seeing how he fussed over her, it irritated him in a way he couldn’t quite name. True, he knew plenty about puking but didn’t know much about motion sickness, so it was better left to Finnick. He kept himself busy talking to Dufours about the process of fishing, how and where and when to set the nets.

Simple commands like Haul that line, hey? and Bring that bucket there yonder at least made him feel less useless. The catch was pathetic, to say the least, and he didn’t need to be born on a fishing boat to see that. The nets were dumped out onto the sorting table, and a few measly shrimp heroically tried to leap to freedom, mixed in with tiny fish and flotsam of all sorts. “Not bad,” Captain Dufours said with a bit of a grin. “Not the worst we’ve been catching these years past.” It was probably a good thing his ear was attuned to the thick Four accent after so many years of Mags, Finnick, Carrick, and others, because he was sure to most anyone else, it would have just been met with looks of total incomprehension.

When they finally turned back up the bay, he stared dubiously at the bucket of shrimp that represented several hours of the giant nets, being dragged through and through the waters of the bay, all the way out to where the bay opened up to the oceanic coast. “You actually make a living doing this?” Johanna said, wiping her brow with the back of her forearm, being as their hands were sticky with slime now. “Capitol quotas were that low?”

“No, means they got real fuckin’ pissed when we didn’t bring in the shrimp like they wanted,” Dufours’ apparent second-in-command said, a lithe young woman with bronze hair like Finnick’s.

“Part of why we all rebelled so easily compared to some other districts,” Finnick said, clearing the rest of the table of fish, water, and snot with the casual sweep of one hand towards the hatches for dumping things overboard. “Haymitch and I were talking about that some before the Quell last year. We weren’t meeting quotas and they cut out some food rations in response.” He remembered that talk in the training gym, comparing notes on the misery in their respective districts. It seemed like Four finally had stopped being favored and pampered by the Capitol and been kicked firmly out into the cold with the other low-tech districts.

“Fish ain’t there,” Dufours shrugged, one foot on the steps—the ladder--up to the wheelhouse. “And they ain’t been there for years. Capitol set the quotas too high. More time fishing the bay for what shrimp there are, going further and further offshore chasing the fish, going out in all weather…more sinking boats, more dead crews.” Easy enough to compare that to the frantic pace the Capitol had forced on Twelve down in the mines, the constant accidents and deaths in the harsh months before the Quell.

“How long’s that gonna take to recover so you can fish again like normal?” Johanna asked, wiping her hands on the rag Finnick handed her as Dufours turned the boat back for the dock.

Finnick shrugged. “Nobody knows how long it’ll take the fish to come back,” he admitted honestly, green eyes looking troubled.

“Sounds to me like you’re running too many boats after what little you’ve got,” Haymitch said bluntly.

“Probably right,” Johanna said. “One thing when the Capitol made you do it, but now? I mean, you cut down too many trees and you’re looking at years and years to recover from it. At least with trees, though, we could intervene, replant more every year so years down the road those would be ready to be cut down. Just throwing more lumberjacks at it over a wider area wouldn’t have solved the problem.”

“We can’t just plant more fish, Jo.”

“It’s probably like coal. Takes so long to turn into coal that it’s either there or it ain’t, and not much you can do when a mine’s stripped out but move to another one. But you can only do that so long before there’s no damn mines left at all.”

“People here have to eat, you know,” Finnick pointed out with a spark of temper. “Without the fishing or the tourism we used to have, we’re in big trouble here. You want to create an entire district of people out of work and starving?”

Remembering Clover and the problem with harvest, he gave a low murmur of acknowledgement to that. They might be particularly well suited to District Ten, being as they pretty much slaughtered and processed meat. “If they’re willing to work and don’t mind moving, at least for a time…”

“But this is their home,” Finnick protested with some anguish.

“If there’s no work to be had at home,” he said, “does survival or pride matter more?” It was a hard hit, he knew it the second he said it, but it was no less true. All three of them would have had to answer survival without hesitation, victors as they were.

“Don’t tell me you don’t miss Seven, though, Johanna,” and Finnick’s voice was almost pleading. He tried to not flinch, feeling like he’d just been hit. It didn’t strike him, as it usually would in a clearer frame of mind, that perhaps Finnick’s desperation was fear for the security of the future of his family. What hit him was the man was trying to get his wife to admit she wasn’t happy with having moved to Twelve to marry him, and doing it to his face. But moving to Four for you would have been OK, would it? he thought angrily. Right now he wasn’t sure he could bear to hear it. Twenty-five years of Capitol pressure took the sharpest confrontational edge out of him. His first instinct wasn’t to aggressively pick a fight; it was to stuff it down and try to analyze and deal with it later if possible. Suffering and slavery had taught him patience, if nothing else.

Leaving them together on the back deck, he went to go talk to Dufours and his crew. Might as well do something useful during the ride back in to the dock and get more perspective on the fishing issues. That was what he was here for anyway. Glancing occasionally at them, he saw her laughing, obviously enjoying Finnick’s company, the two of them talking like the old friends they were. How easily they’d just picked up the traces of that bothered him, and compared to how moody she’d been the last few days, it stung to see that Finnick was the one who sparked that change.

Once the boat was securely tied up, Finnick started to invite them for dinner. He wondered if he could make a good excuse to avoid it. Right now, irritated and off-balance as he was, he wasn’t sure he could face meeting Maggie. Johanna mumbled something about feeling sick and wanting to skip dinner and go to bed. “Seasickness,” Finnick said sympathetically, clapping a sympathetic hand on her shoulder. At least he didn’t ask if she was pregnant. “It happens, especially to landlubbers. I’ll have Annie bring some saltines and—”

“No,” Johanna said sharply, shaking her head. “I…really just want to sleep, Finn.”

“Well, then you’ll have to come meet Maggie in the morning. We’ll make you a nice big breakfast to make up for you missing the meal tonight.” Johanna looked about as thrilled as facing a Capitol execution squad at that. What—facing the woman Finnick had chosen to marry, and the child he’d had with that woman? Finnick smiled at her and said, “It’s good to see you again, Jo.” She brightened at that.

“I ought to get back,” Finnick told him, smiling a bit. “Maggie will….” Need feeding, or have shit her diapers, or whatever, Haymitch finished silently.

“Now c’mon,” he said, with a jovial laugh he really didn’t feel, grabbing Finnick by the shoulders and steering him towards what clearly was a raucous waterside bar from the lights and the noise, “you can spare twenty minutes for me to buy you a drink. To celebrate your little girl.” Oh, he’d been a master of finding plausible excuses to raise a glass, back before he just didn’t give a fuck and gave in to becoming a drunkard in truth. Drinking games, toasts, celebrating another day of a tribute’s survival, and now Finnick had just handed him the key here.

Finnick glanced at him, struggling with the words, something almost apologetic in his gaze and his tone as he finally gave in and asked, “Will you be…”

“I can put the bottle down, Finn,” he resisted the urge to lash out and ask, And if I got roaring drunk, tell me, whose wife would you hurry to tell first? Yours or mine? He focused on keeping his tone even and cheerful. “Got no reason to start chugging. This is a happy day.” One drink, maybe two. That would get him through tonight and the thought of tomorrow morning.

With a nod to their location, they called for the local spiced rum. Quick enough he realized his tolerance had gone down dramatically in the year and a half he’d been a one or two-drink wonder at worst, and actually most of the time completely sober. Two drinks and already he felt the edge coming off just enough to bear it, and to feel the worst of the thundercloud of black frustration and helplessness recede. He wouldn’t say he felt good. As ever, drinking just cast a gauzy curtain over the hurts that blurred and numbed them a bit and thus made him calmer.

He could easily have ordered a third, and a fourth. But conscious of Finnick by his side, he didn’t. Finnick, always so much better, didn’t need to give him more cause to shine even brighter next to his own dull, battered self. Finnick who was still young and even with his facial scars, still attractive—if anything, the imperfections of his face simply made him more human rather than too beautiful. Finnick who’d always managed to stay pretty positive and kind and never turned into a cynical, disgusting drunk. Finnick who was the man Johanna had loved right until the day he married another woman…

Oh, he realized with a sharp stab of pain, wanting to laugh. She’d kissed him that night right after the wedding. Two lonely people desperate to feel something, and by the time they were sleeping together regularly, he figured she’d gotten over her unattainable dream of Finnick. Maybe she hadn’t.

Begging off from dinner himself with the excuse that he ought to go make sure Johanna was all right, he stopped in the sweet-shop that was still open and bought some wintergreen candy. In years gone by, the years his drinking was private rather than public, he’d used them after he’d had a few steadying drinks to cover the smell on his breath. He didn’t know Johanna would fault him for having a few, she hadn’t before. But that was away from here. Right next to the shining example of Perfect Finnick, he figured it was better to just not deal with the risk of her having yet another thing to fault.

Chewing a few of the candies on the way back to Victor’s Bayou, he wondered if the infernal heat ever died down in this place. He didn’t look at the other houses, not wanting to know right now which ones had belonged to Mags or Carrick or others he’d known.

She was asleep already when he got home, hair pulled back, wearing only a t-shirt and underwear rather than actual pajamas, covers flung back and the window cracked open to allow for a breeze. Standing there watching her, he had the strange impulse to wake her and ask her, Tell me we’re OK. But that was stupid and childish. Sighing, stripping down to his own undershorts, he lay down beside her and quickly fell asleep.
Breakfast was as generous as promised, although he and Johanna were picking at it. Part of it was he knew neither he nor Johanna were all that keen on the taste of seafood, having not grown up eating fish or shrimp or the like as kids in Four did. So the likes of fish rolled in oatmeal didn’t appeal—he wished mightily for some bacon in that moment. A big part of it was seeing Finnick and Johanna eagerly latch onto each other to remember things, sharing old reminisces, old jokes, laughing and teasing as if the two of them were wrapped up in a private little world of their friendship that hadn’t changed at all to include spouses or a child. He glanced at Annie across the table and caught a slightly puzzled look on her face too. So it wasn’t just him.

“I’ll go get her,” Finnick said, beaming as they finished the meal. The coffee, Haymitch would admit, was some of the best he’d ever had—he didn’t know what they put in it here, but the earthy hint to it was damn good. “Just a minute.” He scampered upstairs as Johanna excused herself for the bathroom. Silently, he helped Annie clear the table. He wanted to say something, but he didn’t know exactly what. Say, congrats on the baby, are you worried as I am that your husband is still in love with my wife?

Maggie was a tiny thing at three weeks old, with the dark tan skin of both her parents and the wisps of black hair Finnick had spoken of on the phone. She opened her wide eyes, clear baby blue still, though of course with two green-eyed parents chances were she’d have those too. He looked at her and felt like the sheer love and loss and longing would kill him. She could have so easily been his, looking the way she did. The helpless wanting cut deep as any knife could.

Finnick handed her to Johanna first, and Jo looked down at her, gave a half-hearted smile and murmured something to the baby. “Here,” she said after a minute or so, handing the tiny bundle to him. She felt like she barely weighed anything in his arms. But the last baby he’d held before this was probably—who? Hazelle? Lorna? Ash? He’d been tiny himself, that was for sure.

He sat there and held another man’s daughter, unable to look away from her. She looked at him with her newborn yet strangely inquisitive eyes and he tried to not want to break down, tried to resist the impulse to not want to give her back. Real or not, the child he’d never have now hurt anyway. He knew he was too old, too broken down. He shouldn’t subject a kid to that anyway, but it didn’t stop the longing. Finally, she started to fuss and squirm, and Annie reached out to take her from him, murmuring about her needing to eat. His fingers instinctively tightened for a moment, not wanting to let her go, before he realized it and handed her over.

The rest of the day, meeting with the fishermen and touring some of the processing factories and the like, at least gave ample distraction. He tried to not think about her, but the painful specter of years ahead of hearing about her birthdays, her milestones and the like, stretched ahead of him. Johanna had barely wanted to hold Maggie, barely seemed to acknowledge him either since they had arrived. Already she was talking to Finnick again. Yeah, it would be like that, wouldn’t it? Faced with the child the man she loved had fathered on another woman, that woman herself, and the man she’d married as an apparent distant second, obviously she was having regrets. She’d want to focus only on the bright object of her affections and shut out the rest.

What the two of them had made together was real. He was confident of that. The love, the laughter, the way they’d slowly made their way back from a pretty dark place—that had been no lie. But seeing that he’d given himself to her entirely, she’d lied to him in her own way. For all she’d given to him, the best of her was apparently still reserved for the man she couldn’t have. She loved him, but not entirely. He would never, ever be enough to compare to the dream of Finnick. It seemed like all Finnick would have to do was snap his fingers and she’d cast him aside like a crumpled-up scrap of paper. It rendered that love they had together nearly meaningless, whereas before it had meant everything.

He has everything. He’s young, he’s still decent-looking, he’s a good man, he has a wife and a child, he thought angrily. Why the fuck does he need the one good thing I’ve been allowed to have in my life? It felt like the Capitol, rich and yet selfishly greedy, reaching out to claim what little the district poor had.

They could be happy together, had been deeply happy together. To his mind, once she had Finnick as her own she’d be unhappy anyway. It was one thing to comfort-fuck each other during the Games. But to make a life together was something else entirely. He could match her on her terms. Finnick’s open sweetness and quieter strength would be hurt by her ferocity and snark and how the best and softest of her was well hidden beneath that, and likewise, she’d be frustrated by how he never challenged her or how she was forced to be afraid of hurting him every time she opened her mouth.

That night as they settled down in bed, he reached for her. Nuzzling her neck gently, he thought with a sort of miserable desperation, Please, just give me something, tell me this is still worth something… She stiffened, sighed, and mumbled, “Not tonight, OK?”

It wasn’t like she hadn’t said not tonight before, and hell, he’d said it to her. But with it happening tonight, he figured that rejection was answer enough. Her preferences there were crystal clear. “Yeah,” he said, unable to resist kissing her lightly on one shoulder, taking his hands off her even as he wanted, if nothing else, to just hold her. But apparently she didn’t want even that, from her reaction. The stiffness in her body before she’d forced herself to relax had told him more than enough—she didn’t want him touching her at all. He wouldn’t shame them both by begging for what she obviously didn’t want to give.

The reality was that if she wanted children at all, she didn’t want his babies. She was moving away from him towards the dream of another man. What he had to give her couldn’t overcome that. What was there to do? Scream about it? Demand she love him? Insist that they have a kid in hopes it would bind her to him somehow? No, whatever wasn’t freely given was worthless. He’d rather be alone than suffer through love grudgingly given.

He waited until her breathing turned to the quiet, even rhythm of sleep, and carefully reached for his trousers and shirt. Maybe that bar was open late. Not to get really drunk, of course. Just one or two drinks to chase that blissful mercy of a little fog over the worst of the pain—he figured he was owed that much.

~~~~~~~~~~

She woke up in the night to find Haymitch gone and something in her ached at it. So apparently if she wouldn’t fuck him, he didn’t want to be around her. That was the way he was playing it? Did she really mean that little to him?

Maybe she should have just given in and had sex with him. But she couldn’t muster actual desire for it, and the momentary notion of Yeah, but I could just fake it was an idea that had made her go rigid with disgust. They’d never lied to each other like that, faking interest and desire and pleasure. They’d done it for so many people that she never wanted that to taint what they had. They’d agreed in the past they’d rather handle an honest brush-off for that night than faking it. Apparently he’d reconsidered that.

He’d been a bit distant for days before getting here, and it seemed like ever since they’d landed in Four he’d been walking around like a man with splinters beneath the skin. She saw it now clear enough. He wanted a baby. She could still readily see the way he’d stared longingly at Maggie, how tenderly he’d held her, how he’d hesitated for just that moment to give her back to Annie.

Apparently seeing so openly with what Finnick and Annie had, and he didn’t, had only made him moodier. As if it was just a matter of keeping score–well, he’s a dad so I need a kid too. Was it because he was older, or what? Or maybe it was because of Finnick and her. She’d caught the flashes of temper in his expression when he saw her and Finnick talking together, the hints of jealousy.

Was he thinking knocking her up with his baby would prove for well and good that she was his? She’d married him, she’d given him parts of her fears and her heart and her soul Finnick had never even touched. That wasn’t enough for him? It had to turn into some kind of competition now.

Did he even want a kid to actually be a father, for more than just proving some stupid point about his virility or whatever? He was good around kids, but he’d never spoken anything about actually wanting them to her. Over and over she circled back to the same thing: if he really wanted kids, he would have let himself show that he grieved the one they lost. He’d never mentioned the miscarriage, not once. He wouldn’t be acting like the kid he so obviously wanted would easily replace that one. He wouldn’t be looking at her now like Thirteen had, like she was just a fucking womb to be filled and all the rest of her didn’t matter.

She wasn’t his wife to him right now, she was just a means to an end to prove some kind of point. The way he was acting, he’d probably fuck any woman who could conceive a child for him. The way he looked at Annie, as if he was speculating something about her, stirred her anger. Haymitch always had a plan. What, was he calculating a plot to try and knock Annie up just to try to prove something to Johanna and Finnick both? At least Finnick still saw her as a person, as her friend. Coming here and talking to him had been a ray of light. He was open and friendly as ever, seemed to go out of his way to make her laugh and to remember the good times they’d had together. She was honestly relieved to remember a time before the miscarriage. She felt herself drawn to him like a moth to flame, unable to resist the brightness of being around him. He cared. He wanted her company. If her being comforted by a friend’s warmth made Haymitch jealous, fuck him.

Besides, it helped. Guiltily, she shied away from acknowledging it, but maybe it was better this time she faced it rather than let it catch her unaware. She could feel that darkness within rising, how the miscarriage and Maggie and Haymitch’s silent rage and his jealously reducing her to a thing, all formed into a giant mass that seemed to hover at the edge of her consciousness, threatening to come crashing down.

Three times in her life, she’d felt that presence before. The first time was when they called her name at the reaping. The second was when Snow informed her coolly that she hadn’t escaped being raped at all because it was going to happen on a regular basis. The third had been on the Block in Thirteen. All three times, the force of it came suddenly smashing down on her like a monster, flattening the entirety of Johanna and turning her into something lost, something smashed to pieces, all fear and anger and reaction. All three times, she’d entirely lost her mind. The first time she snapped out of it only because the animal instinct of wanting to get away at the realization that the boy on top of her meant to hurt her, meant to kill her, reached her. The second and third times she woke up only after being drugged into unconsciousness.

All three times she’d lost herself, it had cost her. The first time she’d almost died in the arena during her blind terror, and the nightmares of near-rape and killing had made her shrink away from almost everyone in the next year. It probably helped they kept a polite distance from her, because they knew she was either crazy or if they believed the Capitol, a cold-blooded psychotic bitch. The second time while shrieking hysterically at Snow that nobody was ever going to touch her again, she had been so caught up drowning in her own terror she hadn’t even heard the price to be paid for defiance. She didn’t even know her family was in danger until Snow summoned her to tell her they were dead. The third time had almost cost her what sanity and self-respect she had left after being broken in that torture cell. It was only Haymitch aggressively pushing for a second chance for her that kept her from being left behind while the rest of them went to gain closure in the Capitol. She’d needed to go—she couldn’t have withstood being left behind. That fear was what had shattered her on the Block in the first place.

But now she helplessly wondered what would have happened if she’d accepted her failure and stayed behind. Would she and Haymitch have still slept together? She could imagine he would have tried to comfort her, and even if initially she might have seen it as pity, eventually she would have wanted to accept it. Would they have made a kid? Probably, the clomiphen did its work anyway despite the two of them being stressed and physically ragged from the training. Maybe they wouldn’t have been as close as they became, or maybe not as easily, without those extra weeks of training together. Maybe they would have. But it seemed fairly likely the baby would have existed.

Suddenly faced with the prospect of that other Johanna who could have been, who even now would probably be looking forward to her own baby in just a few weeks, she felt the wrenching sob of it work its way out from her. Did that mean it was her selfishness in insisting on going to the Capitol that had killed her baby? Look at Annie. She’d stayed behind in Thirteen and her daughter was alive—alive and beautiful. Johanna had barely been able to stand holding Maggie because it hurt too much, a reminder of her own body’s failure to let that child thrive.

A daughter—she’d thought of the baby as a girl. Maybe it was thoughts of missing Heike, maybe it was just the dream of what might have been and how she figured a daughter would be hers, while a boy would always belong a little more to Haymitch. The child had been only hers anyway, a secret her own body hadn’t even revealed to her yet. She knew it was crazy, maybe just her attempts to somehow impose some kind of sense on the utterly senseless, but somehow she felt like if the baby had been a boy, she would have felt that strange faint sense of otherness within her more quickly. Maybe a girl had been welcomed as familiar flesh and stayed hidden longer. Of course if there had been signs, if the tiredness had been from pregnancy as well as training, she hadn’t understood. When she held Maggie, she kept thinking with misery that she should have been hers.

Chances were it was stupid too that she was grieving. It was so soon, too soon for her even to know, how was it even real enough to count? It wasn’t like she’d lost more than something that if she remembered her biology class right didn’t even remotely look human those short weeks into the pregnancy. A little blob of cells was all she’d lost. If it had been anyone else’s kid, fathered by one of her patrons, she would have wanted it gone. But the loss she felt belied that cold attempt to rationalize; the way she grieved her child, imagined the daughter she would have had, was all too real. The mingled longing and fear she felt at the thought of another baby were all too real. She wanted a kid, but the terror of maybe proving herself an unfit mother even in her instincts with her body rejecting another child rather than letting it be born—oh, that was all too real. She wasn’t sure she could bear it again, or Haymitch’s potential judgment if it did happen. Was it possible to be too much of a nasty bitch to nurture a living baby?

She couldn’t stand to be near Haymitch’s jealousy and his expectations. She couldn’t stand to be around Finnick when he was with Annie and Maggie, shoving her failures in her face with his happy family. She couldn’t stand to be around Annie because she too was proof of it—she’d given birth to a living child, she was a good mother. It was only when Finnick talked about the past, the times the two of them leaned on each other as friends, that it was all OK.

Fed again by her despair and her grief, she felt the monster stirring again, ready to destroy her one more time, and shoved it back only with effort. No, she wouldn’t lose her entire self again. She couldn’t. At least after being caught off guard three times, she could recognize it and fight it. Lying here dwelling on it wasn’t helping. Restlessly reaching for a pair of trousers, she got out of the too-lonely bed and headed out into the night, towards where the cypress trees lined the banks of the river that flowed into the bay.

Finnick and Annie obviously adored Four. But for Johanna, it was a fucking horrible place and already she wanted to leave. Everything from its beaches and water and its oppressive heat conspired to remind Johanna far too much of the arena. That on top of everything with Haymitch’s cold distance and the wound of meeting Maggie, felt like too much. At least the cypresses felt like they welcomed her, child of Seven as she was. Unfamiliar trees they might have been, with their branches hung with wispy moss like the fronds of willows and the strange knobby spikes they grew above the ground, but a forest was a forest. To simply touch the familiar comfort of bark, to be surrounded by the tall silent sentinels of trees, felt good.

Palm laid flat against the trunk, she choked down the tears. She wasn’t going to cry over Haymitch when he was acting like this. She wasn’t going to cry over the baby because she was afraid she’d never stop. Instead she just sat down at the base of the tree with her arms wrapped around her knees, the trunk solid and steady against her back, and tried to simply think of nothing.

She must have dozed off, but she felt calmer when she got up, heading back towards Victor’s Bayou. Haymitch wasn’t back yet. Off fucking someone else? she thought cynically, then shook her head in denial. No, she wasn’t going to believe that of him. Sex, at least in the past, had meant too much to him. She’d meant too much to him. But what Four had showed them about each other obviously was pretty ugly. However much he loved her, it was apparently being overpowered by other, more selfish concerns.

They didn’t say much over breakfast. He looked tired. Finnick came and knocked on their door. “Heard you had most of today free,” he said brightly. “Annie’s napping so I wondered if you wanted to go fishing for the afternoon? I could teach you to use a cast net.”

It struck her suddenly that for a man with a newborn at home he obviously adored, Finnick seemed to be out a lot, usually accompanying her and Haymitch on their tours of things. It was the most involved she could remember another victor being. Dazen, Brutus and Enobaria, and Clover had seemed content to take care of their own business, let the others of their district explain and show things to her and Haymitch, and simply chew the day’s impressions over at dinner and the like. They’d been more like advisors, while it seemed like Finnick was actively playing tour guide.

Still, some time away from things, just having fun with her friend and not thinking about the baby, sounded very tempting. She was about ready to speak up when Haymitch glanced up from the last of his coffee. “No thanks, Finn,” he told Finnick. “I’ll probably go for a walk instead, think some things over for the peace conference. You two go on, I’m sure you’ll both have more fun without me in the way.” He didn’t give it away with words or tone or even a faint smirk, but he looked right at her, grey eyes hard as steel, and she knew exactly what he’d meant.

Bastard, she thought, furious and humiliated. Why the fuck didn’t Haymitch openly call her a cheating slut in front of Finnick while he was at it? He’d pretty much done just that.

Fuming, fighting the urge to start screaming at him, she watched him push in his chair and head out the door. “Is he OK?” Finnick asked, shaking his head in bewilderment.

It was a relief and a surprise to recognize that Finnick didn’t see it, that he didn’t understand Haymitch and his carefully chosen words like she did. “He didn’t sleep much last night,” she said grimly. Whatever hour he’d finally dragged home at, she didn’t know. “I think it’s still bothering him.” Let Finnick think it was just a nightmare or the like. Those were familiar enough to victors. “Sorry to skip out on the cast netting.”

Longer legs as he had, Haymitch was already a good ways down the path towards the cypress woods. She almost wanted to laugh. Most people in Four would probably head for the bay or the beach, towards the water. She didn’t doubt she’d find a troubled or pissed-off Finnick retreating to the beach. But she and Haymitch, they were the same—they turned instead to the wildness of the woods for their strength. At least they still had one thing in common there. She tried to not think of the long winter each day out the Twelve woods, working together to make a home and to survive day by day. Apparently that had no place in things now.

Walking behind him, trying to keep pace, she resolved to not run after him and catch him, at least not yet. She’d wait until they were in the forest a ways. She wasn’t going to scream at him where the whole of Four could hear it. Even if Finnick hadn’t picked up on it, he’d already tried to embarrass her enough in public today. That was maybe what hurt the most: to see that his affection had dimmed enough that, fiercely private as they’d kept things about love, his indifference meant he didn’t care if he insulted her for the world to see.

Chapter Text

There the two of them went again, he thought angrily, shutting him out, the two of them wrapped up in that private, past world that had no place for him in it. The fact they were doing it so brazenly, as if they didn’t even give a fuck if he or Annie noticed, was perhaps the worst part.

There were plenty of words on his tongue, sharp and caustic and fierce. But something, maybe some last stupid impulse that wanted to shy away at the last moment from wounding her as she’d wounded him, held him back. He throttled back his temper enough to offer up words that would have sounded completely innocuous—to someone without a guilty conscience. Go on, you’ll both have more fun without me in the way. He waited only long enough to see Johanna’s face and the momentary flash of surprise and anger there. That was confirmation enough. He didn’t need to look at Finnick to see his expression—he knew Johanna and what tells she had far better. At that point all there was for him was to get out of there before he did something genuinely stupid.

On instinct he headed into the woods—it seemed to him that people in Four would probably be crowding at the beach or along the bay, and the open spaces of it unnerved him a bit, just as they had in Nine. Somewhere in his mind, places like that simply felt too wide open and they left him too exposed. In the arena, wandering around a place like that, with no place to hide, meant discovery and then death. Right now he wanted nothing more than that blessed ability to hide. So into the cypress trees he went. They had the added benefit of some shade from the oppressive summer sun.

He should have figured Johanna wouldn’t just let it go. She never could. He glanced back to see her following him quickly enough after he left Victor’s Bayou, but he didn’t stop. Let her run after him if she wanted to talk. As if there was much to say anyway.

It was probably a good ten or fifteen minute hike of following the river before he finally heard her footsteps behind him, running now to catch up, and instinctively he turned to face her, not wanting her to catch him unawares. “You fucking bastard,” she snarled without any preamble.

“That’s true,” he agreed with a smirk, seeing there was no way out, determined to not back down now if there was no escape. She was the one who’d provoked it by coming after him like this. “Bastard of a Peacekeeper and a whore, ain’t that right?” He pushed past that in a hurry, not giving her a chance to respond or to use it. It felt like a small victory to deny her that, even as it hurt to cast the slur on his ma like that, but that was how these things went—rush to make the insult first and rob it of the ability to be used against him as a weapon. “Oh, sweetheart,” he said, now giving freer rein to the words he’d wanted to fling at her back at the house, “really. You know I wasn’t into threesomes even when they got forced on me—I’m not going to volunteer for one now. Besides, you and dear sweet Finnick seem to be pretty ready to cut me and Annie both right out of the picture anyway. Sorry if I wanted to leave before you two started fucking each other on the table in front of me.”

This was how it was with the two of them, in the arena and in anger. Neither of them was the type to use a bow safely from a distance. Not even a trident with its longer reach and the ability to coolly test and jab and retreat. Both of them had killed seven people in their lives by their own hands—him with a knife, her with an axe. Both of them leapt right into the fight, immediate and up close and feverishly quick, heedless of the mess and the blood and the sheer risk by being close enough to make every strike count, but incapable of avoiding the return blows at all. It was a fighting style of sheer attrition, total commitment to just trying to deal out more damage first.

Pretty much as expected, she rallied right back. “Oh, fuck you, Haymitch. Call me a slut and have done with it, even if we both know it’s just your anxieties about how you measure up. Let’s get to what you’re really whining about. Bet you’re worried that any kids I might pop out just might be little redheads, hm? Is that it? Or…let’s see, we both saw how you didn’t want to let go of that baby. Maybe she gets that black hair from both Mommy and Daddy?”

Was she actually serious about him and Annie? If he wasn’t so pissed off he’d have just started laughing because it was absolutely ridiculous, some far-flung accusation. Hardly Johanna’s best by any means. When exactly would I have been fucking Annie, Jo? While I was in the hospital after being tortured? While I had no interest in sleeping with anyone at all and it had been years since I had, until you? While she was stupid in love with Finnick and anyone could see it?

It would have been a barbless attack, totally laughable except for one thing. She’d noticed how he’d clung to Maggie, and now she used that chink in his armor to cut deep. Of course she couldn’t even imagine it was about their own child…though if it never even crossed her mind as an explanation, was that even more reason to think it was all in his head? He didn’t know, all he knew was that between that and her taunting him with the image of how she wanted kids with anyone but him, he was furious and trembling, poised on the edge of sheer violence.

Why did you even marry me if you just wanted to rub it in my face that you’re going to run around on me? She was saying something else, standing there with that look of triumphant defiance on her face, brown eyes smoldering with rage, but he barely even heard it. He couldn’t stand to listen as she tried to cut him down further. He couldn’t say anything because if he did he would just start yelling in earnest and he’d be totally lost. For fuck’s sake, you’re my wife, not his, he had his chance with you for years and he didn’t take it, he picked someone else, he thought, shutting her up attack the best way he could think of at that moment, caught up in the panic and pain and anger and instinct. Grabbing her, he kissed her, rough and ruthless.

She laughed low in her throat, her hands coming up to grab him, nails of one hand digging into the nape of his neck as she kissed him back, as if daring him to keep up with her, taunting him with what she’d denied before. Think you can keep up, old man? he could almost hear her thinking it, and it was suddenly a challenge rather than sex.

Somewhere at the edge of his mind, the conscious rational part that was rapidly being blotted out, he knew this was different than it had been before. Sure, they’d slept together a few times when they were irritated or a little pissed off. The bickering stopped when they’d run out of words and one of them kissed the other. Then it turned into another competition, one of Bet I can make you come first, and he had to admit, it had been a good way to just let the little spark of temper blow over. By the time they were done, they were usually laughing, wrapped up in each other, the quarrel quickly forgotten.

This wasn’t like that. This was beyond aggravation and he didn’t want to laugh or tease her. At that moment either he wanted to fuck her senseless or throttle her or very possibly both, whatever it would take to get Finnick out of her mind. If she’d made one move, backed off or called for a stop or told him “No”, he’d have laid off immediately, but there was Johanna, pushing him on and on, taunting him with the way she acted, telling him with her kisses and her reactions that she was just fine. “C’mon, I can take this, is that all you’ve got?” she murmured, nipping him on the neck too hard for affection.

It didn’t take long before they were down on the ground, and it felt as much like a wrestling match as anything. Nothing like their fights in morning training that could easily range from earnest sparring to playful flirtation, this was something else entirely. Fuck no, dear, you’re not on top this time, he thought furiously. He wasn’t just giving her that advantage, not when she would take that and use it to shame him even more, flaunt how she’d had the upper hand and he’d just given it to her.

He was bigger and stronger and that advantage readily told, and he had her pinned down quickly enough. He realized her deliberately provoking him and egging him on had suddenly changed to a panicked struggle to get away, right about the time he caught her hand coming at his face out of the corner of his eye. Instinct took over—head ducked, pushing aside and getting an arm up just in time, she raked her nails into his forearm rather than clawing his face or his eyes. He let out a grunt at it, though it wasn’t so much the pain. He was pretty well conditioned against that. It was the sheer shock of realizing that in a split-second, the entire thing had shifted and she’d been ready to attack him in earnest.

Sprawled out on his ass in the dirt, staring at her and trying to catch his breath, he felt his stomach churning suddenly, a nauseated feeling rising. What the fuck just happened?

Wide-eyed, she stared right back at him, scrabbling to get away, untangling her legs from his own. He could see her panting with fear or exertion or both, though he wasn’t sure she actually saw him from the look on her face. He’d seen that terror there before, some nights in Thirteen when they were so slowly and carefully learning their way back from the nightmares of whoring.

She’d provoked and prodded and goaded him until he’d pinned her down and had been ready to take her, rough as anything. This was why, even if he hadn’t been in his fading years on the circuit when she started, they’d never have been booked as a double act. They both liked to be the one in charge too much and that was why they’d both been pushed into dominant roles. Put together as a double show and probably expected to fight it out for who was in charge of the encounter, the patrons probably would have figured they’d pretty much try to kill each other like they just had rather than submit. “Hanna?” he ventured, his voice an odd rasp to his own ears. That name was the one thing he had that might call her back. He knew by saying it, by stepping away from the fight, he’d pretty much offered her his throat. He didn’t much care.

She came back, licking her lips and clenched fists slowly easing, though her hands still trembled a bit. But when she looked at him again, she was there again rather than a thousand miles away. “You’re bleeding,” she said awkwardly, gesturing to his arm.

He glanced down to see the rivulets of blood running down his forearm. “Not bad,” he said, shaking his head. It would heal quickly enough; besides, they had some of the Capitol wound ointment back at the house that would probably have it healed up by morning. He noticed then his shirt was hanging open—she’d torn all the buttons off with one impatient yank. He saw one of them lying nearby, pale blue against the dark earth. Tearing at the tail of the shirt and pulling off a strip, he fumbled one-handed to try to wrap up the arm.

Suddenly she was there, having moved closer, and her hand was on his arm. He flinched instinctively, couldn’t help it, startled as he was. She’d tried to take out his damn eyes there, and he had the momentary thought that she was just coming back for more, to finish what she’d started and to kick him while he was down. But instead she grabbed the rough bandage and started to wind it around the bleeding scratches, even though he could see her own hands were unsteady too, they were gentle. “Sorry,” she murmured, eyes focused down on his arm so he couldn’t see them, hair falling in her eyes besides in loose brown waves where it had pulled loose from her ponytail.

Part of him wanted to yank the arm back, but instead, he tried to calm himself and let her do it. “I didn’t mean to…scare you into it,” he said hesitantly, words coming awkward as anything. With that it was like the dam had cracked and he felt the sick feeling of it coursing through him. Bastard that he was, to let his temper get the better of him like that to the point he’d terrified her enough to try to attack him. “I shouldn’t have…I’m sorry, I…this is my…”

“Shut up,” she said, softly but firmly, tying the fabric off and sitting back, brushing the hair back out of her eyes and looking up, her expression awkward. “Just…don’t. I can’t fucking well listen to you doing that right now, OK?”

What did she want from him then? She wouldn’t even let him apologize, and the fear in that was tightening down around him. The arm didn’t hurt too badly. It would heal. The concern was that this between them wouldn’t, and he felt like he could barely breathe. No, he realized almost immediately, forcing himself to calm. No, he needn’t fear that. After all she—they—had endured already in life, neither of them was so soft that this would break them. Unquestionably that explosion of what had been festering had dug deep right into the darkest parts of them; the anger, the violence, the suspicion.

But knowing she wouldn’t shatter because he’d lost his temper wasn’t the same as solving it. The problem still hung there between them. Casting his mind back he recalled she’d talked about children when she was flinging her own words at him, but he quickly thrust that to the side. It wasn’t actually babies that they’d been arguing about, not really. The miserable, painful crux of the matter was Finnick. “I don’t…fuck, I don’t want it to be like this, all right?” He wished it could go back to how it had been before they got to Four. They couldn’t go on like this.

She brushed down the front of her shirt where a streak of dirt showed dark against the soft yellow of it. It must have been mud because she only smeared it worse. Fingering the tear at the collar where he’d gotten hold of her, she glanced up at him, eyes a bit calmer now, and scooted aside to where one of the knees of the cypresses stuck out above the ground. Leaning back against it, drawing up her knees, she was the first one to speak up. “Me either. So say whatever it is you have to say.” The spark of defiance was there even now, but she sounded tired as he felt. The fight had beaten both of them, in a way, enough that at least they could agree that they didn’t want to do it again. She hadn’t walked away either. That was something. Maybe there was still something, except for the fucking problem of her obvious regard for Finnick.

Settling back against the trunk of the cypress himself, he noticed wryly that they were facing each other, close enough to reach out and touch, but he didn’t. Not just yet. Casting around in his mind for the words, for something that could come across without being another flung verbal dagger, he felt lost. Facts, yes, persuasiveness, yes, sarcasm, yes—all of those were tools he could wield well. But to simply say I feel or I want, he felt tongue-tied and awkward. Too many years of knowing that nobody gave a shit what he wanted and what he felt were a hard habit to break. But she was here, and listening.

He sighed, resisted the urge to toy with the neat knot she’d tied in the bandage. “I know I wasn’t your first choice.” He’d known it right after Finnick’s wedding when she kissed him that first time. The urge to say, But do you have to make it so obvious like you are? stuck in his throat. That was too self-pitying, too accusatory in a way. “But I thought that maybe…hell, I imagine even you thought that…” He had thought perhaps they’d moved beyond that, and she’d come to love him as more than the fallback option. Maybe she even thought she had. He shook his head, seeing that he was fumbling, stopping and trying again. “Just tell me. Be honest.” He kept his voice even as he could; not wanting to turn this into another accusation. “Now that you’re here with him again, is he always going to mean more to you than I do?” She loved who she loved. He couldn’t force it.

He had the uncomfortable thought that this was far different from the last time he’d fought a girl known for prowess with an axe. Sapphire just tried to rip out his guts. What Johanna could do, and not even maliciously, might cut out his heart.

~~~~~~~~~~

The whole thing happened too fast. She’d charged after him, thinking only that she couldn’t bear to let it go on like this. When he kissed her, the surge of anger at This is really all that matters to you, isn’t it? You aren’t there for me, Finnick is, and now you want to fucking prove something with this? The old traces of it were right there, not burned away yet. She knew how to prove to someone that they might have her body but they didn’t get anything that mattered, to be the one fucking them. Screw him, if he wanted the upper hand he’d have to keep up with her, and she’d readily prodded him on, wanting to just get the sheer force of her anger out, make him be the one to submit first. But she hadn’t planned on his equal anger and the force of his strength. She only realized now how much love led to willing restraint with how easily he wrestled control from her and sent her spiraling back into the terror of a teenaged girl rendered helpless. Before she knew it, there they were, staring at each other with something akin to shock, and he was bleeding.

It was only his own instincts that saved him from being raked right across the face, and she felt nauseous at the idea that she could have hurt him that badly, even blinded him. Was this really what it had come down to between them? Was this really what she was, underneath it all, that when pushed too far enough she’d even turn on someone she cared for and lash out?

He readily dismissed the wound. He was no stranger to pain, but from how he acted and his awkward apologies, that hurt almost more than whatever ridiculous accusations he’d been throwing about Finnick. Apparently even from her, he didn’t expect any better than to be hurt. The misery of that sat heavy in her chest and she thought it would have been easier if he’d been yelling at her rather than acting like he deserved nothing but pain. Shutting him up was the only thing she could do because she couldn’t stand to hear it. She’d provoked him too, furious as she’d been, and she knew it.

Sitting there among the cypresses, there was the air of being too tired and unsettled to keep fighting. Behind the anger she had just sadness and weariness. In a way, tinged with an awkward pain as the atmosphere was, it still had a strangely calm feeling. It was as if having weathered that furious burst of temper in all its sheer ugliness, now she could say anything because it could hardly be worse.

She still wanted to laugh when of course he brought up Finnick first, instead of what really mattered. But maybe it was better that they finally just get over that. “No,” she said, looking over at him, scratched and dirty and sweaty, his bandaged arm draped over one knee, the torn shirt hanging open in the unbearably stagnant heat. “Finnick and me…” I was talking to him because you wouldn’t, she wanted to yell. Forcing herself to not let anger color her words, it was a definite struggle. “Yeah, I was talking to him. Because you weren’t there. You left me alone here. Just like you did before.”

His eyes suddenly went intense with interest and she could practically sense him mulling that over in his brain, trying to figure it out. But apparently he wanted there to be no assumptions, no misunderstandings. “What do you mean ‘before’?” he asked carefully.

She wasn’t really sure herself. It felt like it was something that spontaneously came to her lips, a feeling of anger and abandonment that she’d never quite admitted to herself, let alone him. Prodding at it carefully, turning the feeling over and mentally eyeing it like it was a tree she was trying to characterize, it finally clicked, like the moment she could see just what that wood could become. “When I was seventeen,” she said softly, not quite meeting his eyes now. “You fucked me, and then you shut me out.” He slept with her once and then when she came back to him later, desperately needing comfort, he had refused. “So I turned to the one person who was there for me and who’d comfort me. That was Finnick.” To her mind, he’d lost some of the ability to judge her for falling in love with the one person she could totally depend on in those first couple of years.

He tensed at that as if ready to make some kind of protest. “Hanna,” he murmured, shaking his head. “Then…you were young. You were just a kid and you were overwhelmed. You needed someone your own age for sex. If I did it, if I let you depend on me like that? I’d be using you as much as any of the patrons, and I’d have only myself to blame for it.” He gave a faint, melancholy little smile. “Besides, you and I both know I had nothing left to give you, or anyone. Not then.”

She tried to see it, put herself in his place then. Being almost twenty-seven now, perhaps she could. If she had taken up with a scared sixteen or seventeen-year-old, the imbalance in the relationship would have been massive. It led to some nasty places mentally. She could imagine the other victors would have judged him for it. He must have seen the understanding in her expression, because he nodded. “I was luckier when I was young. I had the older victors like Seeder and Mags to look out for me, and people my own age too. You didn’t have that. Too many Careers won around your year and we never quite belonged to them.”

We never quite belonged to them. He was right. There was something in Finnick that she had never been able to touch, the certainty of having his district behind him, of other victors to catch him and tell him how it all worked. “That how it was with you and Chantilly?” she asked. “Why the two of you never worked out, her being Career?” Obviously whatever the two of them had together had ended years ago, and the One victor didn’t resent her for marrying Haymitch. If anything she seemed pleased.

“We never worked out because she wouldn’t let it get to the point of us being in love,” he told her. “She’d be my friend and we’d do the whole consolation bit when it came to sex, but no romance. No future in it. She told me that up front, first time we slept together. Apparently Finnick didn’t tell you the same.” She tried to imagine how it would have been different if he had. Maybe it would have hurt less if she’d known beforehand, if the boundaries had been clear. Another of those deep sighs from Haymitch. “I know I told you two to set some ground rules after Finnick pulled that stunt with Gloss, but I should have made it clearer…”

“It wasn’t all on you,” she cut him off, not willing to let him take the full weight of it. “I was there when Blight asked. He asked you to look after me on things related to us being on the circuit. I bet Mags asked the same for Finnick. Not your responsibility to look after us entirely. Finnick’s Career, Four knew how the game went. Mags could have told him, Carrick could have told him, any other Four victor could have told him, but they didn’t. Blight could have told me because he was fucking well living it with Clover. He didn’t.”

“I still could have done better by you both. If I’d been able—been willing—to take a bit more on. What I could do to help wasn’t much at all. Don’t act like I did you a huge favor by it.”

It was all he could have done, though, short of standing up and saying Leave her alone, this is wrong. That would have been pointless at the time, would have earned him only a bullet in the back of his skull. But he’d done what he could. She thought about that dungeon party her first year, the one he’d “escorted” her and Finnick to in the name of showing them the ropes. But once they were there, he’d told them to not eat or drink anything, and she wasn’t sure how but he’d managed to bait their hostess, turn her attention to him and away from her and Finnick.

You’re not a submissive, Haymitch. Everyone knows that.

My my, Lucretia, then y’all will just have to work all the harder to tame me down, won’t you?

Perhaps. Let’s hope you’re a better sport than the last time you were at my house.

Oh, but that was years ago. Seventeen-year-olds don’t make for much fun, sweetheart. They don’t know what they’re doing.

The worst she’d endured that night was some skinny bitch in a Capitol school uniform who wanted Johanna to whack her a few times on the ass with a tawse and tell her that she deserved to be punished. She’d been clumsy with it, confused as she was, though she knew now that was pretty mild stuff. She’d laughed about it in the bathroom, nervous giggles of relief. She didn’t know then what degrees there were to that kind of sex and what she’d avoided.

She thought about how he’d disappeared for hours and came back reeking like sex and blood. When she followed Haymitch up the path to the Training Center from the car, the back of his shirt was dark and wet. They’d erased those scars, but sometimes when she looked at the ones there now from the Detention Center, she remembered that night. She knew what a whipping felt like herself, from someone wielding a whip with full cruelty rather than a gentler leather flogger.

He laughed tiredly. “I slept with you and I trained you and I watched you go off and get raped over and over. Don’t act like I did you favors.”

“You did what you could.” She and Finnick ended up at Lucretia Hollowbrook’s the next year taking the full brunt of it. So Haymitch might say what he’d done was in vain because it happened anyway. All she knew was that he’d paid the price to spare it a little while longer and that was worth remembering. “Are you still feeling guilty about sleeping with me?” His tone pretty much said it all. “I’ve told you, it was the better option at the time.”

Something flashed in his eyes. “Then if it’s a done deal for you, why the fuck do you keep mentioning it?” he asked, and there was a hint of temper in his voice that he smoothed out before going on. “Any time you were pissed at me, that was the one thing you would bring up. Because you obviously knew it bothered me.”

He was right, she realized, not liking it. Maybe she hadn’t even done it viciously, but she knew it was the one thing that shut Haymitch up. “It wasn’t the sex I minded. It was how you left me on my own afterwards.” Probing again at the feelings of that confused, teenage Johanna, she said hesitantly, “I think…OK, I was pissed. You slept with me once and you made it clear you never wanted to do it again. I didn’t think it was just that you were into virgins,” he gave a soft grunt of something that might have been amusement and she remembered, flustered, how she’d tried to fling that ridiculous accusation at him after Finnick’s wedding. “Which meant it was me. I was lousy and you weren’t interested.”

“Hanna,” he told her vehemently, shaking his head, “it wasn’t you.”

“Sure, I can figure that out now. But you never said that,” she fired back, feeling stupidly upset about it. But the words were out there now, and having started talking now to each other was like they’d first been a trickle, then a stream, and now a torrent and she could hardly stop herself against the force of it. “You think I was smart enough then to figure that out for myself? I was seventeen. All I knew was boys didn’t like me, and the first man to kiss me, the first man to have sex with me, didn’t want me. What was I supposed to think?”

Something almost like pain and guilt flickered across his face. “I…fuck. You hadn’t even…” He was floundering like a teenager himself.

“No, Haymitch, I hadn’t,” she said, gritting her teeth and feeling almost ashamed, which was stupid. She’d fucked for pay-to-views and been caught in “compromising situations” for tabloids since then, but yes, once she’d been a seventeen-year-old girl that had never been kissed. “We weren’t all lucky enough to already have someone madly in love with us back home.” It was a shitty, low blow that she regretted as soon as she said it. Briar paid hard for loving him and Haymitch took on the burden of that. “Fuck. Forget I said that.”

“Sorry."

“Don’t apologize, dammit.”

“Don’t ask me to act like it means nothing,” he retorted, equally sharp. “I had figured that much had been yours, at least.”

“Yeah, well, it wasn’t. But a lot of things happened that shouldn’t have, Haymitch.” Seeing his awkwardness about it, she was moved to ask, “So if you were going to beat yourself up about it, why did you agree to sleep with me anyway?”

“Because of how you went into the arena, and what Dazen’s boy tried to do to you.”

“Clark,” she supplied, suddenly feeling her face grow hot, flustered. She’d known he might have seen that unedited footage, up in Mentor Central, but she suddenly realized that he’d known more than that. He’d always known it wasn’t an act on her part. Stupid that she hadn’t seen it, Haymitch was more than perceptive enough to figure it out, but she hadn’t wanted to believe anyone knew. She hadn’t wanted to be that weak, terrified little girl.

“Clark,” he echoed. “Blight told me Snow called you in and you ended up coming back unconscious and sedated. You’re the only one to ever try to refuse Snow’s little offer. But I know you’re not nearly selfish enough to sacrifice your own family. Didn’t make sense. So I figured…after the arena, and Clark…”

“You figured I went full crazy when he told me what was going to happen and they had to knock me out, and I didn’t even realize what was at stake until they were dead,” she said bluntly. Sometimes it might be a little more comfortable if he was a bit stupider. More boring, though, she’d admit that.

To her relief, he got off that subject rather than digging deeper. “I considered just trying to talk you and Finnick into it. First impulse, right? But with you, well, I ended up thinking, ‘At least I can go careful, I know I’ve got better control and I can read her better than a teenage boy will’. I couldn’t give you much, but it wasn’t like Finnick would be doing it out of love either, so…it seemed for the best, in the end.” It had been, she thought. He might have been emotionally disengaged, but he’d been patient, and confident, and gentle. With him, she’d felt safe. Clumsy fumbling around with Finnick, still so unfamiliar to her, probably would have freaked her out.

She sat there and looked at him, getting the sense he was waiting for something from her. Damnation or forgiveness, perhaps. He’d disappointed her with his rejection, child that she’d been, and hurt her already shaky self-respect. But he hadn’t done it deliberately, and he’d been there for her in countless other ways. Plus he’d had more than his own share of shit to deal with besides her. She could let it go. “Whatever you couldn’t give me then,” she said, hesitant at first, then feeling greater certainty in the words, “you’ve more than made up for it.”

He smiled, though it faltered and some of the openness faded from his expression as he asked carefully, “Finnick?”

She willed herself to not look away. “You’ve been…away. So I turned to him, like I did then, because he was there to listen. And I’ll always love him. As my best friend. But you give me more than he ever did. I give you more than I ever gave him. It’s you I...I want.” Funny how saying a few simple words like that seemed so difficult, with all that they meant. “Not him. So can we call the whole Finnick thing closed already?”

“Yeah.” He sounded relieved, if anything. But now she wondered why he’d been so damn distant in the first place. Removed now to a calmer place, away from the sheer drowning panic of worrying he didn’t give a shit and that she was replaceable to him, it didn’t make sense. “You might as well know,” he admitted, as she resisted the urge to start nervously plucking at some of the plants by her side. “I was…at the bar since we got here. Twice.” The way he said it, with that edge of shame, told her this was different from him casually having a single whiskey now and again after dinner and promptly putting the bottle away.

She had a momentary stab of fear, trying to not panic that her absorption with Finnick and his support had chased him right back to the liquor. “How bad?” she asked simply. Not stinking drunk, she’d have known that.

“A couple. Enough to take the edge off.” He let out a deep sigh, glancing up towards the branches waving gently overhead as a light breeze finally sprang up. “I know I wanted more.”

“Because I’ve been away.” Might as well admit it, she knew she’d been too wrapped up in her own problems and her anger.

“Yes. But I don’t…it’s a fight, always, I think it’ll always be a fight when it’s too much to stand, to not just grab a bottle…but at least I had you, and then suddenly I didn’t…” Broken and rambling as that was, it told her enough.

“You’ve wanted to drink before, though?” She hadn’t known that. At least he’d put the bottle down, though. What strength of will that had cost, she could well imagine.

He looked up at her, eyes pleading with her for something, she wasn’t quite sure what. “Do you,” he asked, voice low and soft, “still see things? Think things that later you know aren’t real? I know we both did back in those cells with that fucking venom, and we were still seeing 'em even last fall, but…does it still happen now?”

“Do you mean, do I ever worry I’m maybe imagining things or going crazy?” Yeah, she remembered admitting the venom did a number on her last fall after her failure on the Block, but it was different admitting it then, still so closely removed from the torture, under the stress of things in Thirteen. Admitting it again, months later when things were calmer and her life supposedly quiet and happy, was harder.

“Yeah.”

She laughed. Somehow it was a blessed relief to have it out in the open. He already knew she’d lost it before, no point in trying to hide it now. “I spent the last two days half-convinced you were going to leave me and maybe you really wanted to fuck Annie to boot because you were jealous of me and Finnick.”

“Sweetheart,” he said, shaking his head. “I may fail people, yeah, but generally, I don’t just quit on a lark. Tilly was the only woman for me before you. The only one it wasn’t…professional, anyway.” He didn’t need to explain that further. She’d been the only one he’d chosen. “As for love, well, you know about Briar.” She knew. Though she hadn’t known he quite was that loyal.

Saying it openly now, it sounded insane especially given the somewhat incredulous look on his face. But her fear had been intense and real. “I know. But I felt that anyway and it felt like I had to believe it. See, I don’t…I don’t really ever see things. But…I think things. I feel things.” He already knew she’d lost it twice, and he’d been the one to come see her in Thirteen’s hospital. “I think I’m gonna lose it sometimes,” she told him, looking down at her hands, seeing cuts and scratches on her skin where the two of them had apparently rolled into a thorn bush. “I’ve lost it before so bad they’ve had to knock me out. You know that. It happened again on the Block.”

“Well,” and he had an air of weary self-deprecation as he said it, “I ain’t judging for that. You know about me and my own little drug-induced breaks from reality.”

Wrapping her arms around her knees, she asked him, “What about you? Do you see stuff?”

“Sometimes,” he admitted. “When I’m off-kilter. Even now I’ll sometimes see…I think of ‘em as ghosts. Dead people. Or sometimes arena mutts. Or I’ll hear people saying things.” His mouth turned up into a wry sort of a smile. “The stuff that was just in my head or my nightmares all those years, now it was outside of it like it was real again, you know? On the Block I had every single damn one of my forty-six tributes lined up along the streets yelling at me because I was abandoning one of the squad to capture and probably death. It’s not so bad now. Last fall they wouldn’t leave. Now it’s like something I see or hear for a moment and it’s gone.”

She nodded, thinking about that. She’d seen hallucinations in that cell. But she hadn’t really seen them since, or heard things. But apparently he didn’t have his own venom-induced damage working on his emotions and sense of reality quite like she did. “Maybe I was seeing some things that weren’t there too. With Finnick,” he ventured. He gave a slight dip and shrug of his shoulders. “Tell me something,” he said, and there was a sudden note of something fierce in his voice. “I think sometimes I can’t be sure stuff from last fall is real. Not without something else to prove it. I know we were on plenty of drugs at that hospital anyway. I know you told me about the clomiphen because that whole business has serious legs under it now. I know I asked you to marry me because, well, we got married. But…”

He was edging around it, apparently still too afraid to just come out and say it. She could only think of one thing he would be asking about related to that night. “There was a kid. I lost it because of the drugs to treat the burns. Is that what you meant?” Speaking it out loud felt like it split what little armor she had left open, left her totally soft and vulnerable and undefended as this finally probed at the center of that loss, still raw and bleeding.

Suddenly his silence about it made sense. If he hadn’t even been sure it happened, how could he deal with it? Why didn’t you just ask me? she almost cried out. The answer was obvious, almost instantaneous. She could have asked him at any time herself, but she hadn’t. She’d been afraid. Probably he had been afraid also; particularly if he worried it was just his imagination playing tricks.

He shuddered as unable to contain some kind of emotion. “Yes.” He pushed off from the cypress, moved closer until he settled back down by her side. “Tell me.” His eyes were soft, but she could see he was afraid to ask, that this hurt. “Do you ever…think about her?”

“Her?” she asked, voice suddenly thick, realizing that with that one word, it told her almost everything about how he felt. He must have dwelled on the idea of a child he wasn’t even sure had existed to the point where he’d clearly imagined what he had lost, just as she had. The baby had mattered. No wonder he had been walking around Four like he had, distant and distracted. Maggie must have hurt for him too. How fucking stupid we’ve both been, she thought with a shake of her head.

He glanced down, awkward, almost shy. “I hate thinking of our kid as an it.”

“I know. I always…it was a girl for me too.” She felt like she might just burst into tears, though whether it was grief or relief, she wasn’t sure. Very possibly some of both; finally she could speak of that painful emptiness that had been there within her ever since the nurse told her, because now she wasn’t alone. “I lit a candle for her,” she confessed, as he looked back up at her, his expression now full of a mingled pain and hope. “In Five.”

“I did too.” She remembered the glow of the flame against the polished black stone. She’d been nameless and unborn, their child, known and then taken away in the same moment, but definitely not unmourned. The thought that Haymitch had been right alongside her, quietly grieving himself, gave her the courage to reach out and take his hand. His fingers grasped hers almost hard enough to hurt, and she was doing the same to him, but that was good, it meant neither of them wanted to let go. She needed him right now against all those months they’d both borne the burden in painful, lonely silence.

“Maggie’s beautiful,” he said, voice rough with emotion. “I didn’t want to let her go.”

“I couldn’t stand to hold her.” Somehow, she didn’t feel horrible for it now.

“She could have been ours,” and the wistfulness in his tone felt like it unlocked another gate within her, and her breath caught on a sob.

She swallowed that back down and asked, “What do you think she would have been like?” Finally after so much time and grief, actually openly talking and purging the misery of it felt too good to stop.

“I always thought,” he told her, his other hand coming up to cup her cheek, fingers gentle, “she’d have looked like you.”

“No, she’d have your hair,” she said, reaching out to touch it. “I’ve always liked it.”

“Oh, shit, not the curls,” he said, a tremor in his laugh. “I got teased so damn much for them…”

“Smart,” she ventured next. “She’d have been smart, that would get her further than being pretty.”

“Probably would be smart enough to give us both headaches. Get into a lot of trouble.”

“Maybe. Though maybe she’d be smart but she’d be the gentle type and not give anybody trouble at all.”

“Like Ash,” he said with a faint smile.

“Like Heike.” The dream of that little girl was so clear, something she’d clung to all these months. But she’d clung to her dream of Finnick for too many years also. Some things just could never be. She had to find a way to let go. “But we’ll never know, will we?”

“That’s true.” She could see the damp shine in his eyes, glistening bright in the sunlight. “We’ll never know who she would have been. But I know this. She would have been born free. She wouldn’t have to go through what we have. She’d have had chances we never did.”

He’d have wanted that child, she could tell. “The world just wasn’t ready for her,” she said quietly, moving closer, leaning into the solid warmth of him and letting him wrap his arms around her. It felt right, felt safe. This was what she’d needed all along—that trust of knowing that he was there for her, and that they were in this together. “I think we weren’t ready for her.” She could admit that honestly. They hadn’t been married then, hadn’t even admitted that what they had was more than comfort sex.

Even now, though at least she was sure he wanted kids too, she wasn’t sure they would be ready. They’d just tried to kill each other rather than feel like they could confide the burden of this, turned to irrational fears rather than say something. Maybe they’d do better now. She could speak her mind easy enough. Speaking her heart wasn’t something she was used to after so many years of having only herself to rely upon. That would take more time. But it was clear they couldn’t go on like they had been, trusting that if it mattered that much somehow they would understand each other and just figure it out. Today had proven thoroughly that speaking up was tough but the cost of silence was too high. Neither of them was as good as they might have wanted to be, but they’d truly seen the worst today and they had gotten through it.

“No. But we cared. We would have tried,” he said, the tremor in his voice finally breaking on the last word. Finally, secure that it was safe, that they might be in this tropical hell and they might have lost their baby but she hadn’t lost him so she wasn’t facing it alone, she gratefully let it all go. All the grief and the fear and the anger that had boiled over seemed to just come rushing out.

“Don’t let me go,” she said roughly. “Ever.”

“I won’t, I won’t,” he murmured in her ear. He drew her in tighter and her fingers gripped his much-abused shirt again just as she had when she pulled off all those buttons. But this time, it was only to hold him closer, putting her head on his shoulder.

She couldn’t remember the last time she’d cried, and it had been even longer yet since she’d cried in someone’s arms, so utterly undone that she didn’t care about the ugly sound of it, the harsh sobs and the keening noises as she was making a further mess of his shirt with her tears. But she needed this comfort more than anything, more than the sex she hadn’t wanted last night. All she could do was hold on to him, unable to offer more comfort than her very presence and that shared sorrow. He obviously needed it because he was grieving just the same, deep racking sobs that shook his own body beneath her hands, feeling the dampness of it against her neck.

She felt like she might well weep herself fully into exhaustion before she was done. But once that was done, they would be the only two people who had seen and heard this. Once they were strong enough again, they could get up and head back to Victor’s Bayou, and hope Finnick and Annie didn’t see what a mess they were. The secret of this moment would be theirs alone forever, and now they could begin again.

Chapter Text

In a perfect world, everything would now be a smooth course and it would be like the whole thing never even happened. Of course, Haymitch wasn’t six years old anymore to believe in that. The darkness was still there, but the unbearable pressure of all the anger and fear and grief had been released. They had gotten past it and even if it had hurt like hell, they came through it stronger and better.

Somehow they’d gone back to Victor’s Bayou, cleaned up, and managed to go listen to a council of tuna boat captains talk about the dire state of things that afternoon, and not give a flicker of what had happened that morning. All of that was theirs and it would be theirs alone until the day they died; still, listening to the fears of people of Four for their own future, he couldn’t help but be grateful that now at least he felt less like he was hopelessly drowning himself. When he felt Johanna’s fingers brush against his beneath the table, he answered it, lacing his fingers with hers, squeezing and then holding on for a few minutes until he had to reluctantly let go to take some notes.

Neither of them suggested sex that night because the whole matter needed some time to settle—but holding on to her, waking up with her still there, that was more than comfort enough. After breakfast, he found himself just standing there in the kitchen with her in the bright morning sun, feeling her hold onto him with that relaxed familiarity, caught up in an embrace without a need for words or the urgency of passion. It was then that he let himself think that yes, they had survived once again and would now find a way to move on together.

Now it was Sunday and they had the day off from scheduled talks and tours. He’d talked her into going for a walk—the heat was inescapable anywhere, but the house without air conditioning was too miserable to stay in during the day. They could turn both their minds to the issues at work here and kick some ideas and impressions back and forth. They’d long since learned that he might pick up on things she hadn’t, and vice versa.

Though the moment they stepped off the porch, Finnick was there, giving a wave. “Out for a walk?” he said, giving them another of his almost charmingly lopsided smiles. “Mind if I join?”

Johanna hesitated, glanced over at him. He gave a slight shrug. He’d probably prefer some time alone with her, but no, he wouldn’t kick up a fuss if Finnick came along. “Haymitch and I were going to…” she finally said hesitantly, shifting a little bit closer to him.

He stood there and watched, and without the irritation and the irrational fears, he noticed things he hadn’t. Like before, Finnick was trying to talk with her about the old days of their friendship. This time Johanna wasn’t playing along quite so well, and as if sensing he was losing his audience, Finnick seemed to get more and more animated, almost insistent.

Why the fuck does he want to talk about the bad old days so much? He was a married man now, with a wife he adored, and a beautiful baby girl. Adding a nonchalant comment here and there when Finnick tried to ask him about Mags or Carrick or the like, seeing Johanna try to turn the conversation and ask him about the fishing or something in the here and now, he caught the sudden wild flicker in Finnick’s eyes. He realized suddenly that Finnick seemed almost spooked.

“Where’s Annie?” he asked, cutting into Finnick’s recollections of a prank he and Johanna had played on Cashmere and Gloss, “not interested in a walk herself?”

“We haven’t seen her much since we got here,” Johanna added.

“She’s…tired a lot,” Finnick spoke up. Haymitch watched the nervous twitch of his fingers, oddly rhythmic. “The baby takes a lot out of her, of course. She’s napping again.” He smiled again but there was a peculiar desperate edge to it. “But we’d be happy to have you over for dinner, of course.”

“Sure, Finn,” Johanna said almost gently. He glanced up and met her eyes, seeing the concern there. She’d sensed something off about her friend too. The two of them had been too caught up in their own problems before to see it. Apparently all was not well with the Odairs—Annie sleeping constantly, Finnick avoiding the house? “Maybe,” she said, still looking at him, “I’ll leave you two boys to have that walk. I’m not feeling great. Too hot. I’ll go check on Annie and the baby, have a nap myself.”

Finnick’s eyebrows rose. Haymitch just hoped he wasn’t going to ask if she was pregnant. But then, blunt and even rude wasn’t Finnick’s style and never had been. He and Johanna had always been the prickly ones. The look and smile he gave Johanna was full of concern, though, and the warmth of that shone through, utterly genuine. “Then feel better, Jo, OK? You haven’t eaten much since you got here, and you look like you haven’t slept well.” Only a friend could get away with stating it that plainly, even with the gentleness of concern. Finnick’s eyes flicked over to him. “You either, Haymitch. I know the summer humidity here is rough on newcomers. Constantly wearing trousers and long sleeves isn’t helping you either.” He glanced at their rolled-up sleeves, showing off some of the scars from the torturers and from the napalm on their forearms. Doing that when they were alone, or just with Finnick or Annie, was the one concession the two of them made to practicality.

“I don’t want people gawking at me, Finn,” Johanna said with a fierce edge. “Taking pictures of it, leering and trying to imagine what’s hidden under my clothes.” She gave a guttural laugh. “And I don’t mean what they saw when they had me running around in that barely-there shit either.”

“I know,” Finnick told her gently. “They try to get pictures of me now too. The face, you know.” There was a glimmer of awkwardness and pain in his expression that he quickly smoothed out. But then, Finnick had more than his share of practice at putting on a mask and not letting it ever slip.

With a quick squeeze of Finnick’s shoulder and a nod to him, Johanna headed over for the neat sand-colored house with green trim where Finnick and Annie lived. Left alone with Finnick, Haymitch fell in step with him, following wherever Finnick’s instincts would lead.

He wasn’t surprised they ended up on the boardwalk towards the beach, walking through the sand dunes with their tufts of grass. The row of large, luxurious-looking hotels for Capitol tourists right on the beach looked neglected and a bit weathered. But they probably hadn’t been cared for in a year. Finnick nodded to one down near the end, with several of the windows broken and gaping dark like missing teeth. “The Crestas ran that one,” he said softly. “At least until the Capitol ordered them executed.”

From that Haymitch understood Annelle Cresta probably grew up making great fish chowder and trinkets for the tourists, but she hadn’t seen the utter slaughter from a fishing boat or processing plant. Finnick had. No wonder she’d reacted so badly to the sight of death and blood when her district partner got beheaded when the Career pack tore itself apart. It spoke even more to her sheer guts that she’d still managed to survive.

He was reminded then that Finnick’s people had been executed too after the Quell. An image of his ma and Briar being shot down in the house in the Seam flashed through his mind. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “For both your families.”

Finnick heaved a deep, shuddering breath. “Thanks. From you, especially.” He leaned back against the wood of the boardwalk. “It really is good to have you here, and Jo too.”

The trouble was, he thought wryly, the Capitol forcing all of them to communicate in things unsaid for fear of surveillance meant they weren’t much good now at saying things directly. “What’s the trouble, Finn?” he said bluntly, deciding to cut to the chase. If nothing else yesterday had taught him that getting to the heart of the matter was for the best. “You’ve been rehashing the past ever since we got here. You seem to be avoiding your house too.”

Finnick stood there, elbows braced on the rail of the boardwalk. But for the breeze ruffling his bronze hair and the faint rise and fall of his chest visible beneath his t-shirt, he might have been a statue. “I can’t,” he said finally, voice rough and barely more than a whisper. “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t…”

“Can’t?” he asked.

“All of it,” Finnick’s fingers clenched the wood. “Too much. A year ago I was just the cute little Capitol fucktoy. It all changed while we were away in Thirteen, there’s nothing left here. I’m going to screw it up, Haymitch. I’m going to let them both down. And they’re all I have now.”

Haymitch found himself trying to unbraid the strands of that ramble into its separate parts. It wasn’t an easy task: Annie and Maggie, the status of Four, Finnick’s past, and the loss of everyone else. It didn’t want to unravel neatly, a snarled mess. But then, that had been him too. It hadn’t just been the miscarriage. It had been the silence and the way she’d turned to Finnick and the baby and everything all the way back to sleeping with that young, scared Johanna to spare her some pain. They’d just had to deal with the whole damn knot of it.

He’s drowning, he realized with a sudden flash of insight. Everything had changed. Maybe he’d gained a wife and child, but moving from a whore to a husband and a father in the space of months, in the middle of war, left no pause for Finnick to try to shed that slave-skin he’d worn since he was a teenager and simply be himself. He’d lost his family, lost all his fellow mentors, all murdered by the Capitol. He’d come home after the war to find his district was desperate and barely surviving when he’d been so used to it being thriving and wealthy.

Maggie and Annie were all Finnick had left, and he was terrified of failing them. Left alone and with an uncertain future, Haymitch could hardly blame him. He had known that feeling, hadn’t he, of being totally alone and helpless, cast adrift on a wide and merciless sea? Fear of failing was still right there on his heels even now, and the hardship of trying to figure his life out after so long having it dictated by the Capitol. “Annie?” he queried.

“She worries. About Maggie.” Finnick’s eyes were lowered. “She has since before Maggie was born, since we came back here and found out how bad it’s gotten. We…didn’t tell you on the telephone.” He let out a sharp, harsh laugh, a strangely ugly sound from him. “Stupid. Like you wouldn’t figure it out when you got here, right? It’s gotten worse since she was born. Annie sleeps a lot. Cries sometimes. And…I try to bring her back, but…”

But it wasn’t a nightmare of cold water and mutts from the arena that could be escaped by coming back to reality. It was reality. The crushing depression, the feeling of helplessness—oh yes, he could relate. “I drank, more and more every year,” he said, leaning against the rail beside Finnick, “because that was the only way I could escape reality,” the only way short of killing himself, anyway. “I know what it’s like. To…not be able to bear it. To be so sure you’re going to fail. To have nobody left you can turn to because the Capitol took ‘em all. And…yeah, now I know what it is, not being able to turn to the one person you do have because you’re most afraid of failing her, right?”

He heard the shuddering gasp Finnick made, like a man taking a deep breath after too long. “Yes,” he said, voice cracked and low.

Well, that was getting somewhere at least. Trouble was trying to figure out what the hell to do about it. He cast around in his mind for what might help. Running up against one simple thing: they need to not be alone. The two of them might be there for each other, but some problems were bigger than that. He couldn’t even say how much having Katniss and Peeta there over the winter had been a help sometimes. They were young and he couldn’t necessarily lean on them, but sometimes in talking things through with them about their own problems, it eased his own mind too. “Come to Twelve,” he blurted suddenly.

“It’s home,” Finnick argued with an intense edge in his voice. “We can’t just leave.”

He tried to imagine leaving Twelve. Even as an outcast, the thought of living anywhere else would have terrified him. There was nowhere in Panem he would be safe for a new start anyway—the Capitol publicity damaging his name was nationwide. Twelve might not have been comfortable and welcoming as it had when he was a child, but it was familiar. It was still a place whose rhythms and people and ways he knew, familiar as the back of his hand. “Johanna did it,” he pointed out softly, remembering how Finnick had asked her desperately if she was happy having done so.

“I know,” Finnick told him. “I know, I know. But…that was different. She moved there because she had you.”

“She moved because there was nothing and nobody for her in Seven,” he pointed out, keeping his tone soft. “She moved because that was where she’d have people who would be there for her. And let’s face it, Finn, you and Annie need more people. We ain’t made to live alone. It does things to you.” He sighed and shook his head. “Believe me on that. Ha—Jo and me both, we found that out.” He shied away from calling her “Hanna” in front of Finnick. That was private. “Years of being the solitary designated assholes messes you up a lot.” Eventually, so deprived of people to turn to, forced to silently endure, he’d forgotten how to confide in someone. That had exploded badly yesterday. “I was there, and Katniss and Peeta, and it made more sense for her to come where three of us were than the three of us to move there.”

“Even to a destroyed district?” There was an almost incredulous air in Finnick’s tone. With anyone else, Haymitch might have thought it was verging on sarcasm.

“We had each other this winter, and we kept busy with the day-to-day. That helped a lot. Look, Finn, I don’t know what Twelve’s gonna be, and there’s a lot of work to be done. But it’s work that can be done. At least we’re not helpless to just sit and wait for the problem to fix itself.” The Four industries weren’t coming back for years to come. That much was pretty clear. The fish would need to increase in number and not be fished to help that happen, and he was pretty sure nobody would be taking big vacations to the Four seashore for several years while the nation was tenuously rebuilding from the brink of disaster.

Looking over at Finnick, seeing he was listening, he added, “Doesn’t have to be forever. Four will come back. I know it.” He had the confidence its people would somehow prove resilient. They were canny. They’d been smart enough to learn how to utilize the Capitol’s attention to their favor, with the tourism and the Career training. Right now being down at the bottom of the heap might be throwing them for a loop but they’d eventually figure it out. But he was concerned that Finnick and Annie, alone as they were, didn’t have several years to wait for that to happen. “But for now…”

Finnick laughed, and now it was a rueful sound, but a genuine one, rather than high and thin with panic like it had been before. “You just don’t know how to let a person go, do you?” One hand rose and traced the scars on the side of his neck from the forest cat, still a raw pink. “You step in to save a person and it seems you’re responsible for ‘em forever. Me. Johanna. Katniss. Peeta.”

The way he said it, almost admiringly rather than judgmental, eased Haymitch’s mind. He was right. Maybe it was so many years in solitude but he got attached. He couldn’t bear the thought of leaving any of them to suffer alone if he could intervene. “You’re family, Finn.”

Finnick smiled slightly at that. “I’ll talk to Annie, and we’ll think about it,” he said. That was enough. It was a decision better made with his wife anyway. Guiltily he realized he’d made the offer without talking to Johanna, but he couldn’t see a reason why she’d be upset to have a good friend so close by. “It’d be nice to have all of you there.”

“It helps. A lot.”

“You seemed pretty taken with Maggie,” Finnick mentioned, giving him a broader grin, though the hint of something cautious was now in his eyes. Apparently he’d noticed Haymitch being reluctant to give her up. He was relieved Finnick didn’t seem to have picked up on anything between him and Johanna in the last few days. But he’d had plenty of issues on his mind. “I don’t mean to pry, but…” That was Finnick all over, anxious that everyone would be happy and get along.

Looking it over, he decided it was just easier to bite the bullet. “The clomiphen worked on Johanna too. But…we lost the kid. We’ve been dealing with that.” No need for Finnick to know the details there of how recently they’d been dealing with it.

“Oh.” Finnick didn’t say anything beyond a quiet, “I’m sorry.” Haymitch nodded in acknowledgment of it. Better that way. He didn’t want to talk much about it. He’d done his talking and all the rest with Johanna and while the pain was still there, the knot of it had eased somewhat. Finnick had burdens enough already anyway. “Are you OK being around…?”

“We’ll be fine.” No cause to make Finnick feel awkward having his kid around, especially when he already had his own shit to deal with here. “I mean it.” He managed a smile of his own, telling himself to let Maggie be herself rather than an echo of that never-to-be vision of the little girl he’d imagined. It wouldn’t be fair to her to always look at her as a ghost. He tried instead to imagine her as she might be—black haired like Annie, dark tan skin like both her parents, and whether her eyes would be Annie’s lighter green or Finnick’s brighter shade, he didn’t know. But she’d be something to behold anyway, the first freeborn victor child of this new Panem. “She’ll be a pretty little thing, Maggie.”

“Well,” Finnick answered. “Looks aren’t everything, right?”

Haymitch raised an eyebrow wryly as if to say, And you would know that how? He was pretty sure Finnick’s looks had always gotten him the advantages and privileges of beautiful people and he probably hadn’t even been fully aware of it—at least until the payback came after his Games. Even now, though his looks certainly had come down from their former state, it wasn’t like he was ugly.

Deciding to let it go, because it would be a pointless argument, he just pointed out with a grin, “No, but you gotta admit, it sure as hell doesn’t hurt in life to not be ugly as shit,” and Finnick finally gave in and laughed.

It was hot and sticky a morning as ever, but at least standing there with his friend and just laughing like two crazy fools, he felt like a few more pieces of things had started to mend. Whether Finnick and Annie came to Twelve or not, maybe they’d at least be able to reach out if they needed some help.

~~~~~~~~~~

Going to see Annie and Maggie, and having all the reminders of things that might have been for her, wasn’t high on Johanna’s to-do list in life. But Haymitch was obviously handling Finnick and she hardly felt like she could just leave Annie alone. Besides, running away from all of it wasn’t going to help. It was time to just face it and deal with it. A woman and a baby could hardly hurt more than the things the Capitol had done to her over the years.

The door was open, only the screen door left shut to allow what breeze there was to flow through the house. Shrugging and opening the door, she thought that was pretty much an invitation for any gawker or photographer to come right in. Fortunately it seemed like neither were around right now. Calling Annie’s name, she checked all through the house. Seeing Finnick and Annie’s bedroom, the bed where they slept together and made love, didn’t hurt as much as she had thought. Maggie’s nursery with its pale coral-orange walls and the soft stuffed toys all ready for when she grew a little older, that hurt a bit more. But in both cases, the fact she saw nothing of herself in those places, no things or colors she would have chosen herself, helped. Green, she thought wistfully. For a nursery, she thought of a soft green that would recall the forest.

Where the hell was Annie anyway? The baby wasn’t there either. Finding the back door open too, she stepped out into the walled garden and startled to hear Annie’s soft drawl behind her, “Johanna? Is everything OK?”

She turned to see Annie lying there in a hammock on the back porch, Maggie asleep in her arms. “Oh, fine, the boys are having one of those manly chats,” she said flippantly, propping herself up against one of the support columns of the porch. “Figured I’d come see how you were doing.”

Annie gently lifted Maggie, who stirred restlessly. “Would you mind?” she asked, looking towards Johanna with those green eyes of hers.

She hardly felt like she could refuse without inviting a need to explain. Besides, with Finnick in her life still as her friend, she’d have to see Maggie over and over during the years. She’d have to learn to deal with it, and the first step was trying to accept Maggie for herself. She’d done her best yesterday to let go of her own child. Time to put that to the test, she thought.

Trying to not feel like she was handling a bomb rather than a baby, she reached out and gingerly picked Maggie up, tucking her into her arms. Maggie gave a soft yawp and then relaxed, eyes fluttering shut again. Annie sat up, bare feet against the planks of the porch, moving over to sit down in one of the rocking chairs there. She didn’t ask for Maggie back, so still clutching the kid, Johanna sat down beside her, looking out at the view over the wall towards the bay and the marshes, the sunlight shining brightly off the calm waters. One of the shrimp trawlers was barely visible in the distance, sluggishly pushing its nets through the water.

“You’ve got a good touch with her,” Annie said softly, nodding toward Maggie. Johanna glanced down to see Maggie had drifted off to sleep again. She stared at the tiny features, the wispy tufts of black hair. She tried to keep that ache in her heart that howled, Mine in all its grief to a dull roar. Maggie wasn’t hers. She never would be. It worked, at least somewhat. It hurt a little to hold a baby, but not nearly so much as before when she could barely stand to touch her.

“Thanks,” she answered, rocking lightly back and forth. “Must be hard,” she ventured finally, deciding to go for broke. “You, Finn, a new baby, your families and the other victors are all gone…” Just for a few moments last winter she’d thought of what her life would be like if she hadn’t lost the baby. If she’d gone back to Seven, because of course at that point she hadn’t been confident enough that Haymitch would want a place in her life. The thought of raising a baby alone had been overwhelming.

Annie curled up in the chair, arms draped across her knees. The slight residual bulge of her stomach peeked from where the hem of her tank top rode up. “It’s all changed so quickly,” she admitted quietly. “I miss…I wish my mama was here to see the baby. To see Finnick and I got married.”

Johanna thought of her own mom, and how she’d never know Haymitch, or meet any grandkids. She’d never helped Johanna do her hair for her wedding like most mothers did for Seven brides. She thought back with a lump in her throat to that last day at the reaping of the 67th Games, her mom braiding her hair, her callused but gentle fingers. She couldn’t even remember now what her last words to any of them had been. She’d been far too caught up in the reaping and her own misery.

At least the Crestas had met Finnick and they knew Annie loved him. That was something. But the massive hole ripped through Annie’s life was there anyway. Grief was heavy and dark all the same. The important moments that could never be shared were there now. “I know,” she told Annie wearily. “I thought the same, day Haymitch and I got married.” To find common ground with Annie Odair was more than she’d have easily expected given all those years of quiet resentment, this woman who had claimed Finnick’s love when she had so longed for it herself. But she’d come to realize now that Finnick had never been hers, and maybe she hadn’t wanted him so much as she’d been desperate for him as the one person to be there for her in every way. She’d loved him with a wild, naïve child’s love, with a need for comfort rather than with confidence and passion. She knew the difference now. She’d managed to let go of what resentments she’d had towards Haymitch. It might be time to do the same towards Annie.

The two of them sat there in awkward silence, and it was then that Johanna truly realized that Annie was more than perceptive enough to have seen how she used to act towards Finnick. It was an uncomfortable thought, and the notion of Annie sitting there judging her as some cheating slut irritated her. Some of the words of yesterday, although forgiven between the two of them, were still fresh enough to stoke new fires. Is that how Annie sees me? “I don’t love Finnick, OK?” she said defensively. “He’s the one that’s been coming over to our house the last few days, and I don’t know why, but I’m not fucking him and I don’t want to either. Let’s just get this shit over with and say what you mean to say.”

Annie sat there, hands clasped between her knees. As her shorts rode up, Johanna saw the edge of an ugly puckered scar above her right knee, the rest of it disappearing up under the hem of her shorts. “I know you loved him before, when you had nobody. But I trusted Finnick then because he proved I could trust him.” The way she said it with utter confidence told Johanna that apparently the two of them didn’t keep secrets. “I still trust him now. And seeing you two together, I see you love Haymitch and he loves you. So I trust you both.” Annie cocked her head a little aside and asked quietly but matter-of-factly, “These last few days, should I actually need to worry?”

“I don’t know exactly what’s wrong with Finn, but he’s not trying to fuck me.” That much she was certain of, down deep in her bones. It was on the tip of her tongue to suggest something that if she couldn’t keep him home, maybe the problem was hers, but she stifled the words—bitchy, unnecessary. It was clear Annie was worried. “He’s worried about you, though. And you seem to be sleeping a lot. Haven’t really seen you.”

Annie picked lightly at a thumbnail. “Half the time I feel like I don’t know what to do. There’s…there’s a little one now that needs me and for Maggie’s sake I can’t just lose it and go away, but Finnick’s so stressed that he’s not always there, you know what I mean? And I worry I won’t come back.”

How the hell did she just say stuff like that, the things that stuck in her own throat like brambles? “I know what you mean,” she said with a grim little laugh. Annie’s eyes rose to meet hers, questioning but not demanding. “You’re not the only one who flips out when it gets to be too much.” The only difference was in the past, unlike Annie, nobody had been there to rush in to save her, to anchor her and bring her back. Feeling the resentment stir again, she pushed it back only with an effort. All those people were gone now for Annie anyway, weren’t they? All the victors, the friends, the family…it hit her with a force like one of the giant redwoods in the far west of Seven hitting the ground. She’s alone. No wonder she was talking to the woman who she’d suspected in the past of wanting to fuck her boyfriend. She had nobody else to turn to now. The rush of sympathy was there, sudden but fierce. Maybe she’d been bitter about the relatively softer landing Career victors like Finnick and Annie had after the Games, but that didn’t mean she’d wish her own ordeal on them.

“You could leave,” she told Annie. “Go somewhere else. It’s not like you have people keeping you here.” Just ghosts, really. “With no place to work, and no guarantee the government’s continuing our victor pensions, that’s no place to raise a kid. Trust me, growing up hungry is shitty.”

“I know,” Annie muttered, looking over at Maggie in Johanna’s arms with a worried pucker of her brows.

“I did it. I left.”

“And how did you manage that? Leaving behind your home, all the memories, everything you used to love?”

She sighed, resisting the urge to start picking at her own nails in anxiety. “I miss it,” she admitted quietly. She wouldn’t have said it to Haymitch, especially not with how Finnick was insistently pressing her on it. She wouldn’t have wanted to wound him like that. The thought of the familiar cadences of voices, the trails of home, the little rituals and daily rhythms that had made up what it meant to be Seven—she missed those. “Sometimes. But I’m better off than I was all alone there. Besides, Haymitch tries to let me be Seven still where I can. He…” She found herself smiling a little in spite of herself, remembering him talking to the people in Thirteen. He’d been so alight with a sheer energetic idealism totally at odds with the defeat she’d seen in him for years, drawing all of them in with the idea of the new place they could build together. “Keeps saying Twelve’s gotta become something new now, so we might as well all bring what we have to the table. You miss it, but you find things that matter more."

“I know. I know.” Annie heaved a sigh and nodded out to the waters of the bay. “But how can Finn and I leave this? This is who we are.”

“You think it’s worth staying where you’ll be miserable and afraid just because it’s familiar? You’re a fucking victor, Annie. You and Finn both, and me and Haymitch. We’ve all had to change to survive before. We’ve had to give up things and accept reality. You’ll do it again, and maybe when Four’s come back, you’ll come home. But in the meantime, just come to Twelve for a while so you can get back on your feet, all right?”

A smile twitched on Annie’s lips, lighting up her tired, strained face. “So…was that an invitation or a demand, Johanna? I’m not really sure.”

Johanna stared at her, not sure whether to be insulted or not. Finally giving in and just giving a snort of amusement and disgust both, she said, “Take it however you want, Annie. But I say obviously you two really need somebody to kick your asses and tell you the truth.”

That smile turned wistful. “Yeah, you’ve got a point. Mags, she was very good at that.”

“But she’s gone.” She was suddenly thankful that tough as her own ordeal in the arena had been, with Blight’s death and dragging Beetee’s useless dead weight, she hadn’t had to watch Mags’ death live. Seeing it on recap tapes had been hard enough. She’d turned away before the bear-mutt found her. Maybe Mags hadn’t been her family, but she had loved Finnick and she’d sometimes looked after Johanna in an offhanded way as Finnick’s friend. That meant she grieved the loss of a formidable woman like that all the same. “They’re all gone. And they’re never coming back. You‘ve gotta find a way to keep going. Find new people. Haymitch and me, we’d be happy to have you…and Katniss and Peeta probably too…”

“You’ll really be happy to have me?” Johanna almost hated how in that quiet even voice, it sounded almost like a gentle question, rather than a sharp bitchy accusation like she’d make it into herself.

“I like Finnick. I want to see him and his kid happy. I don’t much know you,” she answered bluntly. “But you make him happy. So that’s points in your favor. If we can agree Finn and me fucking each other is something long gone and not gonna be repeated, and we’re all happier and better off with who we’ve married, don’t see there being a problem.”

Maggie stirred and snuffled and whimpered in her arms. Carefully, she held the baby out towards Annie. “Think she wants you.” Annie reached out to cradle her, drawing her daughter in. Johanna was surprised she didn’t feel the emptiness of it as much as she’d figured she might. She could look at the baby and see her friend’s daughter, not her own. The relief of it was almost too intense to bear.

“You may be right,” Annie said, fingers lightly caressing Maggie’s downy hair. “We can’t handle this. Not all by ourselves. Finnick’s going frantic trying and me, I’m just…” She cut herself off and shook her head. “We’ll talk. Let you know.”

She nodded in reply to that. This wasn’t going to be one of those deep conversations, not with someone she barely knew. That was fine. She could barely talk about some of these things even to Haymitch yet. Annie hesitated a moment and asked almost delicately, “You and Haymitch are OK? You seemed a bit wrung out yourselves since you got here.”

“Lots of troubles in Panem,” she said lightly. “It wears on you after a while, seeing what a mess the country is in.”

“I can imagine.”

“Tell me something,” and she felt like she couldn’t keep from asking. “If you’d known about her,” a nod to Maggie, “and Thirteen hadn’t totally barred you from training, would you have done it, gone with us to the Capitol?” Turning the idea over and over in her head that even if she’d known she couldn’t have done different, that she’d needed to be there, for her own sake as well as to defend those she cared about, had knotted her up in guilt. Shouldn’t her first instinct have been to protect the baby at all costs?

But still, the vision of it haunted her. If she hadn’t been there, would she have regretted it? Worse yet, would they maybe have not come home? Finnick might have died. Haymitch could have been killed too, without someone there to help restrain the worst of his damn self-sacrificing instincts.

“Yes,” Annie said, and there was something low and fierce in her voice, the ironclad nerve of a victor. Johanna was suddenly reminded of the slim, graceful girl in the 70th Games wielding her spear. “I’d have gone with you. I fought hard enough to have him and to keep him, do you think if it was my choice, I’d have just stood there and let him go?” Johanna was suddenly reminded of the two of them right after they got married, seemingly clinging to each other and cuddling every moment. At the time she’d felt bitter and lonely and yeah, pretty annoyed at the constant public display. But while a mildly exasperated Please get a room was still in her thoughts she could understand that mingled joy and desire and fear of loss far better now. She and Haymitch kept it fiercely private in comparison, but that urge to hold on and just not let go was there all the same. She remembered holding his hand yesterday under the table at that meeting, and how reluctant she’d been to let go.

“Even if it meant you might get killed and your baby would die with you? Even if you knew from the stress or if you got injured that you might lose the kid?” She realized only belatedly that her fingers were clenched, from the sheer need to know. Maybe she wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Maybe she wasn’t entirely selfish to feel like it wouldn’t have been enough to sit on a porch somewhere with a baby and a handful of memories of the man who’d been in her arms for such a short time. It hadn't been enough for Clover either in the end.

Even as she clutched Maggie close, her fingers cupping that delicate little head, Annie thought it over a long time before she answered. “It’s a lousy choice. But…if it were mine to make, I’d have trained and I’d have gone. Even knowing the risks of it. Because how do you choose between the risk to your husband’s life or your child’s? Watching him go and knowing the man you just finally got to call yours might die out there far away from you and saying ‘At least if he dies I’ll have his child’? That isn’t consolation enough. Not for me.” She took in a deep, racking breath. “I need Finnick. I need him. I had to let him go into the arena without me. That was more than enough that I wanted to go with you. I love Maggie, and I’d do anything for her. But she needs Finnick too.”

Seeing Annie’s body trembling with the force of it, she only hoped she hadn’t triggered her into a panic attack. But quickly she realized it was just the force of the emotion. “At least we brought him back to you.” If Finnick had died, she wouldn’t have been able to face Annie because of the guilt. Mostly she wouldn’t have been able to face herself.

“Yeah,” Annie’s voice took on a rough edge underneath that slow drawl. “And you and Haymitch and Katniss kept him safe in the arena before that, and Peeta helped get me out of Mentor Central. So I owe you four more than I can ever repay.”

Haymitch’s influence must be rubbing off on her because the talk of debt made her uncomfortable. “Never mind it,” she mumbled. “We all have to look out for each other.”

Another of those silences fell. Looking out over the water, losing herself to her own thoughts, she jumped at Annie’s hand touching her arm. Annie drew back, a guilty look on her face. “Sorry. Sorry. I already know how it is, I should have thought…”

She’d noticed already that people in Four, and Eleven for that matter, were more hands-on with people than Seven, or even Twelve. It was worse with the women than the men, but she’d seen it even a few times with Finnick when he was really young. They seemed to like to touch people to get their attention and maybe even put a hand on the shoulder or arm of someone they were talking to and the like. She’d endured it out of politeness by not screaming Just fucking well take your hands off me please, even as she hated it.

It crossed her mind that unlike most people around the district, Annie understood what was wrong and what it was like to be startled by an unanticipated touch—she must have gone through it with Finnick. Casual touching just wasn’t the same with those of them that had been through the circuit. It meant something now, being touched. She was much better with it from Haymitch by this point, though even he knew better than to grab her from behind without warning her by saying something and announcing he was there, and to not do it too suddenly. But Annie was still unknown. “It’s all right.” She’d rather they not get into an awkward apology cycle here.

“I’m…sorry about your baby, Johanna.” She couldn’t help a hiss of indrawn breath as Annie said it, not liking that she was apparently intuitive enough to have figured it out. “No wonder you didn’t take to Maggie at first. I thought at first it was about Finnick, but…that makes…”

“Just shut up!” The words were out before she could stop herself, but hearing Annie musing softly about it, striking the target with every word and leaving Johanna feeling utterly exposed, was too much. “It’s done,” she said roughly. “It’s done and I…Haymitch and I, we’ll be OK, but I just don’t want to talk about it now.” Talking it over with Haymitch had helped, and the memory of his arms holding her while she cried was there. But she’d lanced those wounds open only yesterday and she wasn’t ready to just spill everything to Annie Odair. It was between her and Haymitch at this point. “I’ll be OK,” she repeated herself with more confidence. It was more Annie’s insight that bothered her than anything.

“All right.” Annie shifted, pushing up off the chair with one arm and holding Maggie snug in the other. “You want some tea, maybe?”

“Tea?” She stared. “In this weather?” The words Are you fucking insane? crossed her mind.

“Cold tea, with sugar. I keep forgetting y’all up north don’t drink that kind of thing.”

“Sure.” She figured she might as well accept it.

“Pitcher’s in the fridge if you wouldn’t mind. I’ll go put Maggie up for her nap.”

Soon enough she’d kicked off her shoes and she and Annie were sitting drinking a cold glass of tea that felt like it was melting her teeth with every sip. She figured she’d be polite and not mention she’d have liked it better without so much sugar. Surprisingly, she noticed Annie seemed to brighten up, that while she wasn’t exactly noisy and sassy, some of the glum quietness rolled back and she seemed livelier. She was surprised to realize she hadn’t heard the woman laugh yet until she heard the sound of it for the first time. She’s needed people. That only cemented the idea in her head.

Finishing her tea, Annie gave a low sigh. “Best that we be getting in the house, or out and about. The reporters tend to come snooping around the place around lunch, if any new ones have arrived in town on the morning train. Trying to get pictures of Maggie, you know.” Johanna hadn’t seen much of that, but granted, most of the time around lunch she and Haymitch had been buried in yet another meeting. She could well imagine the media furor surrounding Maggie. The fact Katniss and Peeta would be arriving for their visit in a few days would only make it worse. She and Haymitch had already threatened their fair share of reporters in several districts looking to get some “happy newlywed couple” pictures of them. They’d agreed to Plutarch’s damn propos for the national reconstruction tour. Personal stuff was totally off limits. It was going to stay that way.

“Annie,” she said, giving the other woman a fierce grin, “you and Finn are too nice. You have any idea how many tabloid photos I’ve managed to wreck over the years with a well-placed middle finger or a well-thrown object? Leave it to me.”

That time Annie’s laugh was full-throated and whole-hearted. Johanna realized she genuinely liked the sound of it.

Chapter Text

The next morning, he nudged Johanna awake shortly after dawn. She stirred, face half-buried in the pillow, and murmured something. “I imagine we’re skipping training again this morning?” he said dryly. They had every morning so far, in part because of that awkwardness. He found he missed it.

“Too fucking hot,” she grumbled, turning over and settling back with her head on his shoulder. “Make up for it later, once we leave here.” Though she tossed and turned and kicked off the sheets and finally said with a scowl, “Too hot to go back to sleep.”

He had to agree. So getting up and rubbing his eyes, he padded over to the bathroom and turned on the shower. After ruing the lack of hot water in Twelve over the winter, the lukewarm shower felt like bliss, sloughing off the sweat that had dried on his skin during the uncomfortably humid night. Apparently it never really did ease up here in Four. He’d be glad to help them out but he wouldn’t be sorry to leave. The weather was just too much.

As usual the shower was pretty perfunctory. He and Johanna made the habit of showering together, but it wasn’t a place they ever fooled around, naked as they might be. It was more to just be there as a solid reminder yet again it was a shower, not torture. Besides, he figured they could scrub each other’s backs and that was always a help. Still, the shower was done without any lingering. Clean and toweling off, he was busy shaving while she was rooting around in a drawer, mumbling about her hairbrush getting buried. He moved aside a little to let her burrow a bit easier.

“Ah, Haymitch?” Eyes on the mirror, he finished the stroke of the razor before looking over at her. The last thing he needed to do was cut his throat accidentally. Still half-shaved, he turned his head. He saw her holding up the small black leather case that they both knew held the hypodermic syringes and the bottle of contraceptive. It was old news by now. Thirty seconds to fill a syringe, jab the needle into an arm or thigh and push the plunger, and it bought another month worry-free.

“That time of the month again, huh?” Actually, when he thought about it, he realized they probably should have taken the injection a few days ago to be right on cycle. But they’d been distracted. “Well.” The two of them stood there just staring at the case in her hand. Neither of them moved to take it and open it. But neither of them was moving to put the thing away either.

They’d mourned that child lost, and he was mostly certain she actually did want kids. Though not totally certain, and the question of now or later, that was absolutely up in the air. Apparently it was time to try to use words again and not make a total mess of it. “We should…talk,” Johanna’s voice was a little hesitant as she set the case down on the counter. He nodded in agreement.

“Let’s take a walk.” Get the hell out of the stuffy house and find some peace and quiet somewhere. That would help. This place, the echo of their own house, would have him thinking too much about those empty bedrooms upstairs and the child that might belong there.

Her lips twitched up in a smile. She gestured to the two of them, wrapped up in towels, her tousled messy hair falling in her eyes and his face still half-covered with shaving foam. “Now?” she quipped.

“Really give the reporters something to look at,” was his teasing reply.

Ten minutes later, they were walking down the trail on the way out of Victor’s Bayou. Seeing Finnick and Annie on their porch, getting out of the house themselves, he raised a hand in greeting. He had to admit he was little relieved neither of them hailed him or Johanna or tried to run and catch up. But seeing how they were there with Maggie, attention clearly focused on each other, it seemed like they were happy on their porch. Good, he thought. Maybe Finnick and Annie had done some talking of their own last night after a dinner that had been the happiest he could remember since they’d arrived. Whatever choice those two made regarding Twelve, at least the two of them knew they had people to rely on for some support.

Once again, they didn’t turn for the beach. Instead, back into the cypress woods they went, though this time he wasn’t trying to run away from her and run away from everything, furious and stricken and feeling like it was all unbearable. This time she was right by his side.

The soft lapping sounds of the river on the little beachhead, the knobs of cypress knees, the moss swaying like a delicate lace curtain to and fro in the soft breeze—a familiar spot. He almost laughed as he realized this was where they’d ended up before. Seemed almost fitting that they pick up where they left off, though. “Nice view, at least,” he said, nodding towards the scenery.

“You’re not so bad yourself,” she quipped back, though her arms were tightly and nervously folded over her chest. That earned a faint smile from him.

How the fuck did people do this anyway? He could say something to her when he felt like he was desperate and defenseless, but to consciously just put that aside wasn’t natural yet. “So.” She eyed him, nibbling her lower lip a little. In other circumstances he’d have wanted to kiss her senseless with the way it drew his attention. This wasn’t the time. “You want kids, or not?” Might as well start with confirming that much.

“Yeah.” He nodded in relief at that. “You?”

“Yeah.” Progress of a sort, though that when was still hanging over them. “All right, fuck it. Reality is I’m not getting any younger, I’m more the age most men in the outlying districts are lookin’ at having grandkids, not kids.”

She gave a soft chortle, her lips curving up into a grin. “Oh come on, don’t be so fucking sensitive about…”

“Will you just listen?” He regretted lashing out even as he said it, but how she’d made light of it told him she didn’t understand, and he was in no mood to listen to jokes. “I’m forty-two. I’m probably gonna be at least forty-three when any kid comes along and that’s assuming we start trying immediately. I’ll be dead before they get old. Be lucky if I live long enough to see them my age. Be lucky, period, if I live long enough to see ‘em all grown up and with kids of their own.”

“Is that a ‘Yes but no’, then?” she asked, propping herself up against the trunk of one of the trees.

“It is what it is, Hanna. It’s the reality. That’s all I’m saying. I ain’t young and face it, it hasn’t exactly been a nice peaceful healthy life. For all I know I’m already winding down and I’ll drop dead in five years and leave you with a little kid.” The thought of it haunted the idea for him. To have a kid growing up with no father, even with as strong a mother as Johanna would be, was something he was a little more hesitant to take on. If he was even thirty-two still…but he wasn’t. No point just wishing on moonbeams. “It’s one thing for you to marry me knowing that. It’s another to bring a kid into it.”

“You think I can’t handle it?” she asked, voice almost too calm. “Think I can’t raise a kid by myself?” At least she wasn’t protesting no, she didn’t want to hear it, that he’d live forever. But they’d both seen how short and fragile life could be sometimes.

“I know you can do it. You shouldn’t have to, that’s the point. And if I bring a kid into the world I damn well want at least decent chances they’ll be able to remember having a father, all right?” It had been one thing with Thirteen’s meddling, with the child they hadn’t planned. They would have tried to cope and done the best they could. But given the chance now to be deliberate, to plan, he wanted to take it. Seeing how unready Finnick and Annie had been for Maggie only steeled his resolve all the more.

“All right,” she muttered, fingers of her left hand tapping a rhythm on her forearm. The dappled sunlight through the leaves winked off the gold of her wedding ring. “All right, so….what, Haymitch? We can’t fucking well de-age you.”

“Even the Capitol hasn’t managed that feat,” he said dryly. Not that they hadn’t tried with their surgeries, the nip and tuck and tightening, the cosmetics, the fat suctions, the permanent hair coloring and replacement. They could fight the appearance of age, but they couldn’t turn back the clock.

“What’s gonna put that worry through the saw for you and chop it down to size? I mean, shit, like I told you when you were flailing about wanting to marry me—you could get hit by a train or I could get hit by a train. No guarding against that.”

“No, there ain’t. But that’s something we can’t avoid. It happens, no warning. But if it’s likely I’m on the short run to the end for some reason—the drinking, the torture, even some kind of disease that I don’t even know about? I could probably find that much out.”

“You really want to know that? If you’re likely to be dead in five, ten years you really want that hanging over you? Over us?”

He sighed, admitting to himself that was a well-reasoned issue there. “Not especially, but…”

“You also want some doctor probing and testing you that much?” She shook her head. “Some things I’d rather just not know, OK? I’ve lost enough. Just let me enjoy what time we’ve got without putting some fucking dark cloud over it.”

Mulling that over, he finally offered, “We’re headed for the Capitol next. If I find some doctor there I don’t want to stab in the first thirty seconds, let me get some thoughts. No turning me into some Three lab mutt to get dissected, all right? Just…if he thinks there’s issues or not. That much, I owe you and any kids.”

He could tell by the softening of her expression he’d carried the point. “You and your damn owing,” she told him, but it was a gentle kind of exasperation.

That was enough. He figured whatever hand he was dealt he couldn’t change, but he’d commit to doing his best to stick around by what he could control. Cutting out the drinking and getting in better shape for the Quell, forced as it had been, was something he would reluctantly admit now had probably been a lifesaver. No reason to backslide, not when he had something he wanted to live to see for as long as possible.

“So, what? That puts us at least a month down the road.”

“You really want to start trying for a kid when we’re in the middle of this?”

She grimaced lightly. “You’re not getting any younger. Neither am I. I mean, whatever, sometimes you get knocked up the first try. Other times it takes months or even years.” But there was a hesitation in her tone that he noticed.

“Put aside the time issue,” he coaxed her. “Just…seriously, say we put the injections away and by next month you’re pregnant. We’ve got something like four more months on the road before we even go home, and that’s four months we’ll be looking after everyone else’s problems. I mean, are we even fucking ready for this?”

“We can get a nursery painted in five months,” she quipped at him. “Even if I’m too damn fat to climb a ladder, I’ll just make you do it.”

“Be serious.” He loved her humor but sometimes, it had to be put aside.

She let out an impatient, frustrated huff, and glanced away. “I don’t know. I don’t, OK? There’s a thousand fucking questions. What if we try and nothing happens? What if I—we—lose another one? What if we do actually have a kid and we’re terrible at it? What if,” now she looked up at him, brown eyes sharp and steady, “I’m the one that dies, huh? Women sometimes die having kids.”

He knew that all too well. He’d seen the coffins being carried to the graveyard in Twelve often enough growing up, the remains of another Seam woman wrung out and old before her time, too strained and starved to survive another birth. “Chances are less, the way things will be now. It ain’t gonna be just the apothecary. We can make sure you’ve got a real doctor.”

“But we can’t know for sure. ”

“Just like we can’t know for sure with me.” He nodded, acknowledging a good point. “So that’s the trouble.” He thought of Perulla Everdeen and how alone she had been left in the Seam, never quite belonging, drowning in her grief and now guilty about how she had failed Katniss. He thought of Katniss and her wariness after being left to fend for herself. He thought about how all those dead tributes had crushed him. “You willing to swear if I die and leave you with a young kid—or more than one—that you’ll do what it takes? Get whatever help you need to carry on?”

She thought it over a good while which made him certain she was giving it the deliberation it deserved. He knew neither of them instinctively turned to others. They’d been left as alone as Katniss, with nobody to turn to in the hour of need. To ask for help in that case, especially with the weight of grief, wouldn’t be easy. Finally she nodded. “Yes. You?”

“Yes.” He didn’t like to imagine a possible future without her, but the two of them could be ruthlessly practical when need be. Life was uncertain and for him, trying to give her these certainties was how he tried to do his best by her, something more enduring than the ease of poetry or flower-strewn bedrooms. Never gonna be into the whole fucking rose petal thing anyway, he thought with a mental snort of disgust. He turned his mind back to that list she’d reeled off. “If we try and it doesn’t happen…or if we lose another one…at least we have each other for that.” The risk would always be there of failure or loss or pain. The only way to avoid it was to stick to the utter safety of never taking that chance. But they’d always been daring if nothing else. “Let’s just take the rest of this t—“ he stifled using the word “tour” because of the Victory Tour, “this trip to make sure it’s all good beforehand. That we ain’t having second thoughts and that we’re ready.”

~~~~~~~~~~

She nodded in acknowledgment at that. He was right, seeing the bigger picture as he so often did. A kid was something they couldn’t take back. “It’d probably be a bad idea right now,” she admitted quietly, watching his face as she said it. “We need some time. I mean, after…her.” Somehow she had the sense that a child they conceived now, still trying to settle from the loss they’d finally lanced open, would always feel like a replacement of sorts rather than one loved in its own right.

“You promise me something else,” she said, the thought taking hold and her voice going fierce, but she was utterly convinced of the rightness of it. “This kid—any kids we have—we name them for themselves. No naming for the dead. We’ve got too damn many people we’ve buried. I don’t want a kid of mine growing up taking on our losses. That’s ours. Not theirs.” Especially since seeing the attention paid to Maggie, and the frenzy of commemoration for Mags given her new namesake, it had been on her mind. She knew inevitably their child would grow up somewhat in the public eye, and so the Petra or Chaff or Magnolia or whoever they had been named for would be so well known. It wasn’t just naming a kid for a dead brother when the entire country knew exactly who that was and how they had died. It would be a heavy, ill-fitting coat of expectations, stifling in its weight. She wasn’t going to do that to a child.

She saw the flash of acknowledgment in his eyes, the look of something almost like relief. “Done,” he agreed without hesitation. “I’m gonna throw in there—no naming for symbols either. We saw with Katniss already making a kid into some kind of symbol rather than being themselves is no favor to them. So that means no Faith or Hope or Victor or Freedom or Liberty, or…I don’t even know what the hell else.”

“Mockingjay.”

“Mockingjay?” He made a face, shaking his head with exaggerated disdain. “Really?”

“Come on. You know there’s gonna be little girls named Katniss and little boys named Mockingjay—Jay for short, right?—or I’ll be a halfwit sweep-up girl,” she told him dryly. “It’s a fucking certainty.”

“I think I can readily agree to not saddle my son with a name like ‘Mockingjay’. Credit me with a little taste, Hanna.”

“Well, we’re not naming him ‘Whiskey’ either.”

“Fine,” was his answer with that faint smile touching his lips. “Cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Reassured by having at least figured that much out, she felt better. They’d have a few more months to get their heads on straight and make sure they were really prepared for all of it. “We’ll have a pretty damn great kid,” she told him, watching that amused smile turn into something warm and genuine.

“Yeah.” Neither of them would dwell now on the possible failures. If that happened they’d deal with it then. No point trying to anticipate every possible thing that could go wrong now and flip out over it. He reached out then and folded his arms around her, and she went willingly into the embrace, secure and comforted. “We’ll get by,” he murmured into her hair. “We managed to start a national rebellion, so I think we’ll find a way to do OK by a kid.”

She laughed at that. “Just gotta be smarter than the rugrat. And willing to get dirty.”

“We’re not from Three, they probably go nuts if a speck of dirt lands on their experiment,” he scoffed with a low chuckle. No, he’d grown up with the coal and she with the lumber, and both of them knew what things like blood and slaughter were like, up close and ugly. Baby shit paled in comparison.

“You think sex bugs ‘em in Three?” she asked as she pushed back a little and chuckled. “I mean, it’s pretty dirty and messy and…”

“Hell of a lot of fun,” he interjected, and she was pleased to see the stir of interest in his eyes. Good, the distance wasn’t there permanently. They’d been too careful these last few days, giving some space after that fight. It struck her that he’d been waiting for her to make the move. Her eyes fell to his arm. Three made good medicines and it had healed clean with no scar. That was a relief. She’d have known that scar, even among all the others he bore. The thought of looking at it for the rest of her life and feeling the guilt of having attacked him, even if she’d been doing it out of pure frightened instinct, would have been tough to endure. “And who knows how they are in bed? I never fucked someone from Three.”

No, he hadn’t. She remembered what he’d told her, that the only one he’d been with as a lover of his own choosing was Chantilly. She was silent because she couldn’t say the same. She couldn’t say much about what Spark Fortescue had been like in bed. She’d been half-drunk and pretty much all depressed, determined to prove to Finnick that he could go ahead and reject her for his precious Annie because he didn’t matter to her either. About all she remembered aside from the sick, dizzy feeling that might have been the alcohol or else the tears she was trying to keep pent up, was telling herself she wouldn’t cry and she wouldn’t call him Finnick. She’d never touched Spark again and barely spoke to him if she could help it. He’d been one of those executed in the training gym, one of the rebel mentors.

Haymitch noticed, and clever as he was, apparently his mind went to the same place. “Hanna…” The gentle understanding in his voice was almost harder to bear than him calling her a slut would have been. She wasn’t proud of those days, hadn’t been even when she was in the thick of them. Looking back on them now, knowing it had all been so public and it could never be totally forgotten, she wished she could undo it. She wished she could undo a lot of things.

But at the least she could move on. She wasn’t that same bitter, scared kid and she knew he didn’t hold it against her. She shook her head. “Bygones,” she told him quietly, moving back within reach. She stretched up on her toes to kiss him, feeling the rightness of doing it. He responded wholeheartedly and beneath the warm comfortable familiarity she could feel the current of desire running through it. She pushed that, kissing him harder, deeper, her tongue running along the seam of his lips. She felt the eagerness in him as his hands went into her hair, holding her there so he could kiss her back. Something in her was exulting at it as ever, at how she could make this man, her man, feel like that.

Suddenly he murmured something wordless and drew back, saying against her cheek, “You wanna take this back to…”

She felt the frustration and thwarted desire boiling up in her. Always steady with his control. She wanted him so fucking wild for her that there was no way he could wait until Victor’s Bayou. “No,” she said, forcing herself to not just yank at his shirt and start ripping off buttons—no, not that again. Talk. Say something. “I want you to fuck me here.”

After she said it, she felt the rightness of it in her bones. They’d fought here, seemed only logical they mend things here too. Besides, neither of them was the type for prim. They both felt more at home out in the woods than inside the house the Capitol had provided. Not that she didn’t enjoy the bed, the one her family had made—that was a part of both of them now, a part of her family and now part of his—but the bed back at Victor’s Bayou was just some generic Capitol-provided piece of furniture, made by the dozens at one of Seven’s mills. She’d even made a few of those beds herself, and compared to imagining her grandparents making their marriage bed, or herself and Haymitch carefully crafting that kitchen table and chairs through the long winter, that bed was soulless.

No, they belonged out here to make this new start. The thought of getting him naked out here in the forest felt good and natural. Here was a place the Capitol’s grasping fingers hadn’t reached. So there was no reason to be afraid or ashamed. “Later,” she said softly, kissing his neck, “whenever that later is, I want to make our kids at home, in our bed. But right now,” she slipped the first button loose on his shirt, “I want you. Here.” She undid another. He didn’t stop her.

“Always in such a hurry to get naked,” he told her lightly with a raise of his eyebrows and hints of that teasing smile on his face, “not that I don’t enjoy the hell out of that—though you’d think you’ve never had the kind of fun you just want to linger in for an hour or two beforehand.”

“Well you already know all about my history, don’t you?” she couldn’t help snapping it with defensive temper, hating herself right as she did it because that meant the illusion of this place was shattered suddenly. The Capitol was right here because now the Capitol-molded Johanna she wanted to leave behind, the one that was resentful and bitchy and angry, had come out to play. She knew she’d screwed up as she watched the humor fade from his face at the rebuke and wanted to call it back.

He gave a soft sound of acknowledgment at that but he was watching her with that earnest look of his, and whether that was better or worse than his roguish humor she didn’t know. “I suppose there’s no reason to act like you should have, not like you had incentive to…linger. It was patrons, some desperation sex with Finnick—and trust me, I know a scared teen boy fresh from an appointment ain’t exactly the most patient and considerate, I was one, people in clubs you wanted to fuck in a hurry….and, well, me,” and that last one was almost mumbled.

“We agreed that was done with,” she reminded him, not wanting to dwell again on a situation where they’d both been helpless pawns. She already regretted snapping at him. He’d let the Spark thing go and here she’d flung another piece of the past back in his face. The notion of grasping again on how he’d fucked her then was right there. She only hoped he wasn’t going to make it into a club to beat himself up with again.

“It is—yeah, I genuinely couldn’t give you everything you deserved then but fact is I didn’t, and you’ve gotta admit it’s another little piece of the trouble here. Now me, at least I had something before the Games, so I remember what it was like,” he said half to himself, and there was suddenly such wistfulness in his tone it ached to hear it.

“I,” she said, trying to not grit her teeth and trying to not panic, “don’t need you to treat me like I’m some delicate little flower. I’m not seventeen and scared anymore, Haymitch. You didn’t fucking break me either when we were fighting out here. You don’t have to easy on me.”

He stared at her, grey eyes suddenly thoughtful. “Hanna,” he finally said, her name little more than a soft exhalation. Then his shoulders stiffened a bit out of their slump and he told her, “It ain’t that I have to go easy. It’s…fuck, I want to, all right? It’s…” His hands flexed, grasped, as if trying to actually seize hold of the words. “ I want to not feel like every damn time we’re together you’re putting up with me touching you but you’re always in such a damn rush to get straight to the fucking.”

It was right there on the tip of her tongue to yell something, to lash out and hurt him, because it stung like an insult on first contact. As if somehow, what she did for him in bed wasn’t good enough and here he was, fucking well criticizing. Listen, shut your mouth, think it over for a minute. “And you’re not,” she finally said flatly.

“Hanna, seriously, sometimes yeah, but sometimes…”

“Maybe I like it,” she told him, voice barely above a whisper, feeling the nervous churn of her stomach as she tried to actually put it to words. “I like it when you aren’t always so much in fucking control of yourself.”

“You didn’t like it when I lost it the other day,” he pointed out softly to her.

“That was different. That was you being angry, not about you really wanting to fuck me. And it all happened so damn fast, but if I’d said ‘Stop’ I know you would have. It’s…” She struggled to try to frame that feeling and give voice to it. “When you…when I’ve got you so wound up you can’t wait another minute to fuck me, when I know you’re just feeling it, I love it. I love it, OK? I love it when you’re like that. Because then it’s nothing like it was when I was a kid. It’s nothing like it was in Thirteen when we were too scared to do anything but just try to get through it without falling apart. I sit there in those meetings and I look at you owning the damn room, and I think about how I’m the only one who’s ever seen you just let go like that.”

She watched him, seeing how his grey eyes darkened at those words, the color in his cheeks that might have been pleasure or being flustered or both. Finally he swallowed, and nodded. “Well.” Her heart sank a little. She’d pressed too far, chased him away.

But it seemed she’d underestimated him. “I like the idea that we don’t have to be fucking in a hurry, like it’s the Training Center all over again or like we’re at some club. I like it when I get to take my time. Because then it’s pushing aside all those years I had to do that to women and men I hated, and me playing the happy whore. I like it when I touch you, when I make you come over and over again. Then I can tell myself this is what it should be like, that yes, I’m with a woman I love, and I’ll never have to go back again. I give you more there than I do just shoving you into the nearest closet.”

Something in her responded to it, the heavy heat of it suddenly curling its way through her body. She tried to imagine it, the thought of lying back and letting him do what he would, those clever fingers and tongue all over her body. It wasn’t a natural instinct for her. It had always been about dominating, about holding control, aggressively and fiercely. “I’m not a little girl sighing over a fairy tale, you think I need some stupid little thing on a bed of rose petals? I grew up past that.” They’d forced her beyond those daydreams.

“Oh, fuck no on the roses,” he said, the look on his face caught between horror and laughter. “Fine. Maybe you’re not a kid. I ain’t sixteen anymore either. Doesn’t mean you can’t still want something finer than hurrying to the fucking. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have the best I can give you. You never got that from anyone. You’ve never just been able to play, have you?” His eyes were on her, bright and intense. “Nobody ever let you learn how. You were a girl who’d never been kissed and then suddenly you were a whore. So I want to…I want you to have that. What you’ve missed.”

“And you weren’t like that,” she said flatly, trying to not feel the embarrassment again at her awkward teenage self, desperately hoping some boy would somehow like her. “When you were sixteen you’d been kissed and probably then some.”

He looked at her and there was a flicker of something in his eyes, something both hurt and wistful, and obviously he was caught up in the memories. Just for a moment in those grey eyes she saw not the man who was her husband, but the ghost of that half-grown wiry coal miner’s son, a boy who’d loved a girl before his world was shattered. “It doesn’t matter,” he said almost gently, shaking his head. “That was then. I’m not that kid. What I have, I want it to be with you. Don’t worry I’m hung up on some memory of Briar.”

“I’m not.” She’d had more of Haymitch than poor Briar Wainwright ever had. Still, she thought of boy now. She’d never gone walking in the woods with a boy, never been asked. But she knew what kids did out there. Contraceptive herbs were pricey and it was tough enough for married couples to buy them consistently, let alone provide for randy teenagers. Risking a baby during the reaping years was madness. So kids did pretty much everything short of sex in the privacy of the glades and woods. That had been Seven. She didn’t know what it had been like in Twelve, with the woods so forbidden. “Where did you two meet up?” she asked. “For your trysts?”

He looked startled at the question. “Johanna, it was years ago. Does it really…”

“If it doesn’t matter, why can’t you just tell me? I mean, were you sneaking her into your mom’s house or what?”

Still looking puzzled and maybe a little irritated, he gave an exasperated sigh. “The woods. Days we slipped the fence, we’d meet up in the woods after we’d run the traps and the like, and…we’d take an hour or so.”

She imagined it then—two kids out in the woods, naked in the sunlight, olive-skinned, black-haired, grey-eyed. Young, innocent, living a hard life but not one spoiled yet by the Capitol. She imagined Briar’s hands on Haymitch, imagine the look of bliss on his face. There was a sudden hot spark of jealousy. But it wasn’t that she hadn’t been there first—she wasn’t going to blame him for having a life before her, she wasn’t going to resent a murdered girl. Given what a misery it had been for her, she was glad he’d had that before he got plunged into years of hell. But for finally recognizing what he’d held back from her, she couldn’t help but feel hurt. “You let her touch you. Briar.”

“I let you touch me,” he said, obviously even more confused now.

“A little.” It was coming together in her mind now. “But then you’re moving on and trying to take over, and it’s like you’re trying to distract me so I won’t do it again.” If he’d made some glib remark about how a man didn’t need foreplay like a woman did, she’d have lost her temper. But it seemed like they’d both gotten to the point of just listening rather than trying to nervously deflect things. “I meant to give you a damn blowjob on your birthday and somehow that ended up being you going down on me instead.” She wasn’t quite sure how. But she’d tried to not feel too disappointed afterwards. He was obviously happy; he’d curled up with her and murmured that he loved her. “You’ve never let me do that, and there’s not a man with a fucking pulse who would normally turn that down. When’s the last time you actually had one—and I’m not talking anything to do with training for the circuit. I’ll bet when you were sixteen, huh?” His glum silence was answer enough. She tried to not hate Briar Wainwright. Mostly she tried to not let in the concern that somehow, she wasn’t enough to break through that wall.

“I suppose I’m too used,” he finally told her, voice a little awkward, “to keeping the touching to a minimum.” Yeah, she was sure that was why he’d developed his role, why he’d been so damn good at that type of domination that was a velvet leash rather than the iron shackles of her own role. It meant he could control them, that he set the terms, that he was the only one doing the touching. “And I’d rather see to you anyway, I get more out of…”

“Bullshit. You haven’t let anyone in like that since you were just a kid with a girl you never even got to have sex with, how the hell do you know what it’s like with us?” Her fingers clenched into her palms, tight and almost painful. “I’m your wife.”

“And I’m your husband,” he returned neatly. The two of them stared at each other, and it seemed like there were enough layers of meaning in those two sentences that it was almost terrifying.

“You want to know why I’m in a rush? I learned how to make it hurt and how to get hurt and how to break someone down entirely, but no, I never got a chance to learn to relax and enjoy it. And hey, my husband apparently doesn’t want me touching him, so it’s not like I’ve had the chance to learn how to do that without pain or insults being involved. So why wouldn’t I hurry up and get to the part that I know works?” There she went again, words coming out in an almost unstoppable rush now that she'd begun talking.

Surprisingly, he didn’t yell or argue. “When you’re always so impatient it ain’t easy to just tell me to relax,” he told her finally. “So yeah, sometimes I end up trying to take over a bit so I have a little space to settle down, OK?” She wondered again about his first few years, how aggressive they might have been. If they’d been anything like hers, he’d probably been brutalized more than his share by people who wanted to show a smart and tough district kid just what their place really was. Her pride stung, but she tried to put it aside. “We made it this far, when you remember how bad things were last fall,” and hearing that from him helped. They really had come a long way from that.

“Guess it just isn’t quite far enough.” Of course he didn’t argue. At least they’d managed to say things this time rather than scream at each other. “We could at least…try?” Try and see if they could manage what he had been missing for so long, and what she had missed entirely. Trouble was that would mean one of them offering to start.

“Well,” he said, squaring his shoulders and giving her a rueful smile, “I apparently fucked up your birthday present. So…” She realized with a rush of gratitude he was volunteering to go first. She might have managed to lie back and let him take over somewhat once or twice, but she’d still felt the instinct to assert herself the entire way.

She gave a snort of what might have been humor or nerves. “I don’t bite. Promise.” Now that she had him, what the fuck was she supposed to do with him anyway? It wasn’t like she’d ever had experience with just touching a man for the hell of it. It had been desperation or training with Finnick, and with the patrons, the less remembered the better because she didn’t want that in bed with the two of them.

“You know plenty already, Hanna,” and it might have unnerved her that he seemed to instinctively understand. “Basics are the same. Just take your time with it.”

“You gonna be all right for that?” she asked him bluntly.

A slight shrug answered her. “If not, I know how to say ‘Stop’, don’t I?” She couldn’t help a smile at that, moving to kiss him. Her impulse was to reach for those shirt buttons she’d begun. Slow, she reminded herself. Slow. Take your time. See how it feels. Instead she looped her arms around his neck, fingers gripping lightly in the hair at the nape of his neck. His arms went around her in turn.

Every time she wanted to move on she tried to step back in her mind, ask if the kiss really wasn’t enough anymore, or if it was the fear talking. Deciding every time it was the fear, she went right back to kissing him. She marveled at discovering the nuances, the way he responded if she altered it just so, the way he’d kiss her a little deeper or a little sweeter and how the whole thing changed, it was more than enough. He’d kissed her at length that day at the victors’ apartment, all finesse and carefully calculated seduction but no meaning—that kiss had been just a means to an end. He was here now in every way. She’d never really considered the possibilities of kissing once sex entered the picture and she’d mentally labeled the idea of kissing for its own sake as childish. But this was its own reward. It felt like coming home.

Finally he was the one that stepped back, and she let out a faint sound of protest, breathless as she was. She didn’t know how long she’d kissed him. It might have been a minute or it might have been an hour. But already she missed the feel of him. “Better than the last nice long kiss you and I had in a forest,” he joked, and she could tell from his expression that he’d been as affected as her.

She rolled her eyes at that, remembering the act they’d put together in the arena, how they’d kissed in the thermal extreme zone while trying to keep warm. She’d felt nothing of this warmth and quiet joy then. All she’d felt was contempt for the cameras and a wicked glee that he was game enough. “No comparison,” she said. She looked him right in the eyes and told him, “After all, this is real.”

If their hands were