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Haymitch has hated himself for so long now that when he figures out the extent of his feelings for Katniss Everdeen, it’s just sort of another day.

He’s not a child. His heart doesn’t skip a beat. One of the geese attacks him when he goes out to feed them around midday, and the rasp of her laughter skates over the back of his neck. It’s four or five years since the debacle that was her Games and she’s laughed before, but it’s rare enough to have him jerk his head over to her in surprise.

She’s dressed the same as always, now that she bothers to get up and dressed at all. Like she’s going hunting. Like she’s ready to kill.

“You deserved that,” she calls to him. “They’re hungry.”

The echo of her laughter hangs in the air. It’s not fondness on her face as she regards him, but something like it.

“You’re more than welcome to take care of them if you’re that worried,” he calls back, snorting as she gives him a rude gesture in return.

Fuck, he thinks idly, and goes back to bed.

*

District Twelve hasn’t had a victor in the six years since the Girl on Fire. The lack of any effort on the part of either of its mentors probably has something to do with that, but not as much as the ghosts of the dead would have him believe.

It’s all politics, in the end. Favours are traded, deals are made, arenas are altered, children are murdered. There are years where the outcome is all but decided before the Tributes are even chosen, although the random element is always there in some way. Snow does like to keep his people on their toes, after all.

Haymitch watches Katniss take all of this in with the dull acceptance of a girl from the Seam who had already known the Capitol for what it was - until one day, she doesn’t.

It’s the Reaping. He sucks on a flask, offers it to her just to get a rise, because sometimes picking at a wound is better than numbing it, because if she’s irritated at him she’s not thinking about how Prim is eighteen and has her name in that bowl six more times.

Wouldn’t that be a tragedy? Wouldn’t that be a story for the ages? Saved by her sister only to be Reaped again when she’s nearly old enough to be safe. What are the chances?

Low. Katniss performs grief adequately enough that her aborted attempt at defiance reads as girlish folly, and Peeta Mellark dies a lover, not a martyr. It’s all politics in the end, and if Katniss only lays down her hand for extremely particular stakes, it doesn’t make her any less of a player.

But the random element is always there in some way. So the Reaping comes and Haymitch distracts and never mentions that somewhere in the District is a family that won’t starve to death this year because he’s made a deal with their oldest girl about what to do if Effie Trinket’s stiletto nails pull out Primrose Everdeen’s name.

*

He’s not a complete monster. He pays up every year, even when her name is never called, when his nightmarish back-up plan never has to come into play.

But there’s definitely something eaten up inside him. Really, the startling thing had been discovering that there was anything left to be consumed.

*

A girl is called. Sixteen, non-descript, cannon fodder. Katniss slumps in relief next to him, and that's when the first twelve year old since her sister gets called up.

He's fine-boned and gentle-featured and stumbles up to the stage on the wings of a low groan from someone in the crowd - a father, a brother, someone who has realised that twelve years of love is about to slip through their fingers. And Haymitch must not be drunk enough yet, because the urge to shout why’d you even bother rises up in his throat like bile.

He finishes his flask, and doesn’t miss the way Katniss sits up. Doesn’t miss the set of her jaw or the hard light in her eyes and he's definitely not drunk enough because that's a tickle of insight at the back of his mind whispering you missed this you missed this all hell is going to break loose because you missed this.

*

She drags him into one of the side rooms used for tearful goodbyes. Her head only comes up to his throat and he can feel the harsh pant of her breathing against his skin, her hand fisted in his shirt.

She could kill him, he muses, in the same casual way he has thought about brutal and violent deaths since he was fifteen years old. It’s the sort of thing that pops into his head on a daily basis - the weather is terrible, my head fucking hurts, I could slit that person’s throat if I needed to.

He doesn’t think he’d stop her.

But she doesn’t want to kill him, at least not literally.

“He lives,” she rasps. “Haymitch? We’re going to make sure he lives.”

A thousand thoughts crowd his head - what about the girl, he’s twelve, what do you think happens to beautiful boys in the Capitol when they’re not twelve anymore? He keeps them all to himself, closing his fingers over her hand and carefully untangling it from the fabric of his shirt.

“All right,” he says. “I better go top up my flask.”

“Ugh.”

“Old habits, yadda yadda.”

Her hands are calloused and scarred. He lets them go exactly when he should, and very carefully doesn’t think about them as they board the train.

*

The Girl on Fire had transitioned to Lady Mourning after 74 with barely a ripple, so it’s fair to say that the Capitol isn’t prepared for the wave that’s about to crash over them. Honestly, Haymitch himself is almost taken aback at the ferocity with which she sinks her teeth into the task at hand and refuses to let go.

Extremely particular stakes, his ass. He wonders if Snow saw this coming, the shedding of sloth that would come with Prim’s safety, the reignition of embers that most had thought gone out. Haymitch has had his reasons to avoid looking too closely at Katniss Everdeen, but he doubts very much that their illustrious leader ever stopped watching.

She’s not charming. She’s bad at making deals, at exchanging one thing for another, at looking someone in the eye and smiling while she hints and lies and threatens. But she’s never needed to be any of those things to be captivating, and he watches the full force of that intensity ripple through the Capitol with a mix of pride and terror.

She becomes a woman aflame, and everyone wants to warm themselves with a piece of her.

Haymitch drinks, trailing in her wake, sanding down rough edges and soothing burnt egos. His preferred form of self-destruction is a little less dramatic.

*

“It has been some time since you were able to spare the time for me, Mr Abernathy.”

The sickly sweet scent of roses covers an iron tend in the air as they walk through one of Snow’s many greenhouses. Haymitch remembers Katniss saying something about blood and poison years ago, back when she was still half catatonic, and finds he can take no pleasure in the rumours being true.

He's still here, isn't he?

But so is Haymitch, so he raises his flask at the President of Panem and drinks deeply as he rummages around for the words he wants to use.

“Haven't wanted anything,” he says, cutting to the chase.

Snow’s mouth twitches. “And now you do.”

“And now I do.”

“I've always appreciated your candour,” and Haymitch remembers being fifteen and screaming. “I'm listening.”

The thing about Snow is that he's not a complete sadist. He's a control freak of the highest degree, which is why what Haymitch is about to do is definitely dangerous, but not stupid. Giving the man something to control him with is like giving him a gift, and Snow only smashes his toys if he thinks it’ll get him a better one to replace it.

Haymitch is just going to have to make sure the gift is a good one.

“Katniss Everdeen.” It feels like the world should stop spinning, but Snow’s expression is as blank as his soul, so Haymitch presses on. “She’s been running around, making more noise than you’re typically used to. And you - well, I’d hate to imply that I knew what you were thinking, but if I were in your position, I’d be starting to remember how neatly she played you last time and getting a little worried.”

“If I remember correctly, last time failed.”

“Did it?” He spreads his hands. “The kid’s goal was always to die for Katniss, and hers was always to live and get back to her sister. Looks like everyone involved got what they wanted, and at no cost to you.”

Snow hums thoughtfully. There’s no indication that he’s actually mulling anything anything over, but Haymitch waits anyway. Thirty years has taught him patience, if nothing else.

“Six years is a long time for a young woman to wait for her younger sister to be out of the reaches of the Hunger Games, but not so long for those consider themselves oppressed by the Capitol’s guidance.”

The twist to the man’s mouth is obscene. Not a smile - too reptilian for that. Haymitch half expects his tongue to flicker out and test the air, and there’s a thought grim enough to make him take another pull from his flask.

“I would wager that those same people have not forgotten the girl who openly defied the Capitol, nor the boy who martyred himself to save her for it.”

“Right. So you keep her contained. If Everdeen’s focus is on saving the next kid from Twelve, she’s not focussed on the inj - sorry, perceived injustices of what goes on in this country. If she doesn’t feel backed into a corner, she doesn’t have the impetus to lash out with the same creativity she had in Seventy Four.”

“There are simpler ways to solve the issue of a problem Victor.”

His flask is about half empty, so he finishes it off. “Then you have two martyrs.”

The wait is almost unbearable, but Snow knows all about people’s limits. When to bend them, when to break. He reaches out to one of the dozens of rose bushes, plucks a flower. It’s imperfect, brown around the edges, but he considers it anyway.

“There are still some who have you on their list, you know,” he remarks idly. “Not nearly as many as Miss Everdeen, who would be considered quite a catch should she appear anything less than consumed by mourning, but a desire long unsatisfied can fetch quite the price in the fulfillment.”

He regrets finishing off his drink, a little. “Sorry, I should’ve been more clear, probably. That’s on me. What I’m saying, Mr President, is that I’ll play ball. I’ll keep her in check, I’ll tick your lists, whatever. So long as she doesn’t become your next Finnick Odair, she goes back to her family, she lives out that promised Victor dream - you’ve got me. I’m on your side.”

A gift. Not of himself, but of the knowledge that after three decades, this is what it takes to beat old Haymitch Abernathy. Which is what it’s really all about, in the end. The Victor beats the Games, and then Snow beats the Victor. Haymitch has found his escape in the bottom of a bottle all these years, but—

A desire long unsatisfied can fetch quite the price in the fulfillment.

Snow drops the rose. “Sober up, Mr Abernathy. I expect to see you cleaned up, come winter.”

*

He trashes what’s left of his liver over the next three days, because like hell he’s going to win this thing if he’s dealing with…all of that. Odair probably got more silver parachutes than this kid does in the last legs of the Games, but they’re both hard pressed to think of anyone else who got more.

Katniss watches the footage with a hard, inscrutable look on her face. She barely flinches when their girl dies in the bloodbath at the Cornucopia, and Haymitch hasn’t known her for so long without being able to tell why it’s the boy who gets the benefit of her compassion. Sure, she’s a defender of the defenseless and all that shit, but their girl this year just had the misfortune of reminding the Girl on Fire a little too much of herself.

It doesn’t bother Haymitch, not after all this time. It’s all politics, in the end. Only one person can win a race, no matter what bullshit he spun at Snow.

(He thinks about Mellark probably less than he should. The kid’s memory feels too much like a manifestation of conscience.)

The point is, the boy finishes out the week alive, sobbing in horror over his single kill, a girl he’d managed to trap in a snare fashioned from bits and pieces parachuted to him. Most of the sponsors hadn’t had a clue what they were sending, but Katniss had been insistent.

*

“Did you meet the kid hunting, or something?” Haymitch asks later. The kid has cried himself to sleep and Trinket’s off at some after-party or another, so it’s him and Katniss and the bar.

She snorts, nursing a glass of clear amber liquid between her hands. The difference between now and five years ago is that it’s a glass, not a bottle.

The difference is that he’s on water.

“Not every poor kid from the Seam knows each other, Haymitch.”

“So why him?”

He thinks he knows the answer, the blatant self-loathing that lurks under the surface of both of them. And maybe some of that is there in the way she sips at her drink, but the glass hits wood with a thunk and she says, “He’s twelve.”

Haymitch blinks, and remembers the thing that draws him to Katniss again and again. That has him doing shit like protecting her sister as best he can, and making deals with the devil. That has water in his glass now, when he can feel the tremors starting in his fingers already.

The thing that is the ultimate difference between them, when they’re so similar in so many other ways.

“You’re a good person, Katniss Everdeen,” he mutters, pushing himself away from the bar. It’s too much temptation, being here. Just a slower way of killing himself.

“Hey.” She catches his wrist, and if his reflexes aren’t what they used to be, hers are still lightning fast. There’s no chance of escape. “Don’t.”

“Don’t what?”

Give me that shit, he expects.

“Leave,” she says, and she’s looking at him in a way that says she sees right through him.

So he stays. It should make him run, but he’s not any more immune to her than the rest of the world is.

“I need,” he starts, and fuck if there aren’t a thousand ways to finish that. He laughs, a short, bitter bark, shoving the water away from him. She’s still holding his wrist, tight enough that he can feel the pulse under her grip.

“Need what?” she says, echoing him, and that same inscrutable look is back on her face, except she’s watching him and not the Games.

“Your help.” It’s not what he wants to say, but he doesn’t know what he wants anymore. Except maybe that she gets to choose, where he never did. Seems as good a wish as any, so he gestures at the glass. “It’s water.”

Some kind of math takes place behind that look, some too-fast calculation adding thirty years of drinking and six years of acquaintance and the feeling of constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, only it never comes. She grabs the glass and gives it a sniff which - yeah, that’s fair, and the only thing that keeps him in his seat is her hand on his wrist and her soft don’t leave seared into his brain.

“Okay,” she says, setting the glass down. “Okay,” and when she leans over to kiss him, it’s almost not a surprise.

Almost.