Haymitch let the front door slam behind him and headed straight to the living-room where Prim was exactly where he had left her: digging a hole in the floor with her pacing.
“Did you find her?” the twelve years old asked before he could even open his mouth.
“Peeta hasn’t seen her and Gale said she left before he did.” he sighed, running a hand in his slightly too long hair. “She still hasn’t called?”
He didn’t really need to ask. If Katniss had called her sister, Prim wouldn’t have been so worried. It wasn’t like her to disappear like that. She had gone two towns over for an archery competition and she should have been back more than six hours ago. She wasn’t answering her phone and her friends didn’t know where she had disappeared to. It wasn’t like Katniss at all. Sure, she was independent and she didn’t tell them where she went every minute of the day but… Six hours were too long. They hadn’t started to worry immediately but the fact that she hadn’t called…
“She’s not answering her phone.” Prim confirmed, her face crumpling with anxiety. “Do you think she’s alright? Maybe we should call the police…”
Haymitch looked at the quickly darkening sky through the window. Katniss should have been there a little after noon. It was almost seven p.m. and he was really starting to get worried but to involve the police…
Katniss didn’t have the best track record and he wasn’t sure they would be willing to help. She had gotten arrested quite a few numbers of times before Aster had signed away her parental rights to him. Hell, it was the whole reason Aster had signed off her parental rights to him in the first place, to save both kids from being sent into the system because Katniss’ recurrent shoplifting stemmed from their mother’s inabilities to feed her daughters…
Aster was depressed and getting treatment. He was always careful not to blame her in front of the girls because he knew only too well how easy it was to fall in that dark pit – he had spent his share of months in that pit after he had come back from the army and his had usually been full of whiskey – even though Katniss wasn’t always that charitable. The death of Malo Everdeen had left his wife unable to function and his daughters with no other options than to fare for themselves.
“You checked she’s not at your mom’s?” he asked.
That too was an unnecessary question. Katniss drove Prim over there when the twelve years old requested it but in the last three years of them living with him, he hadn’t seen Katniss going there alone or of her own volition once.
“Mom was asleep.” Prim said. “She hasn’t seen her. She doesn’t even know what day it is.”
His grey eyes darted back to the kid, surprised by the unusual bitterness in her tone. Prim was very forgiving and understanding when it came to Aster. Katniss had always shielded her from the worst of it.
But, then again, the blond girl in her blue sweater and her long braid looked frantic with worry like she rarely was.
He rubbed his face, trying to think but it was almost impossible to get rid of the feeling something was very, very wrong.
Right. So. The police.
Maybe they should call the police and ignore that Katniss had a colorful past with the local sheriff because Thread was an ass. An ass who would tell him again that Katniss was a bad egg who had probably run away and get punched for his troubles which would lead to him getting arrested and Prim sent to a foster home.
“Shit.” he spat, fishing his phone from his pocket. How many times had he called her already? Fifteen? Sixteen? He tapped on the screen again and waited for the call to connect. It went straight to her answering machine.
“Maybe she doesn’t have a signal…” the girl suggested.
“Maybe.” he repeated, striding to the window. He pushed the curtains aside, hoping to see the familiar sight of Katniss’ beaten up pick-up coming up the street. The Village was quiet and deserted as it always was at this time of night.
The gated community was a great place to raise kids and for people who loved their peace – or at least that was what the realtor had claimed decades ago when he had purchased the house with his first special ops bonus. He had had other plans for the place at the time. But, then again, at the time he had still had a girlfriend, a mother and a brother he intended to share it with. They had gone up in flames and he had been left with a house too huge for him and emotional baggage the size of Texas.
He had that same bad feeling now he had felt years earlier when the base commander had summoned him into his office even though the plane that had brought back his team in the States had barely touched ground. The General had sat him down and told him there had been a gas explosion and, just like that, without his knowing, it had turned out he had been girlfriend-less, motherless and brother-less for days.
He chased those thoughts away.
He couldn’t lose one of his kids and he wasn’t going to.
“Do you think…” Prim hesitated, worrying her hands one way and then the other.
“She’s alright.” he promised quickly, hoping to hell that wouldn’t come back to bite him in the ass. He left the window and the deserted street alone to draw the kid in a hug. She immediately hugged back and he rubbed her arms, concerned when he realized she was trembling a little. “Sweetheart, listen to me. Your sister’s tough. She’s alright. There’s probably a good explanation. Maybe the car broke down and it’s like you said… She doesn’t have a signal so she can’t call us.”
That sounded like a logical explanation to his ears and it even managed to calm himself down a little. Until his treacherous mind whispered that, in that case, she had been stranded somewhere for hours and anything could have happened to her and…
But Katniss had her bow and she was deadly with that thing. He pitied anyone who would try to hurt her when she was armed.
“I’m stupid!” Prim suddenly exclaimed. The girl escaped his arms and rushed to the purple laptop that had been abandoned on the couch. “I can track her down. Remember that app she downloaded on my phone? The one I was so angry about?”
Technology wasn’t his best friend and he frowned, vaguely remembering a fight at dinner the other day about Katniss being her overprotective self and uploading a tracking app on her sister’s phone. He had wisely refused to get involved in the siblings’ quarrel. “Yeah?”
“Well, I downloaded it on her phone too when she wasn’t looking.” the girl huffed. “Fair is fair.”
“Sneaky.” he approved with a proud smirk.
Prim flashed him a delighted grin that made him momentarily soften. Katniss had always been a small adult even at eleven but Prim… Prim had been a regular kid and it was strangely satisfying to see her grow up. A little sad too because the little girl who used to cling to his pants’ leg would soon turn into a young woman and…
“I should have remembered before.” the girl replied, clearly angry at herself.
“It’s alright, sweetheart.” he promised. “You’re sure it’s gonna work if her phone’s off?”
“It should tell us where she was the last time the phone picked up signal.” Prim explained with a small wince. “I think.”
The computer pinged a location and they both breathed in relief.
“Okay.” he said, quickly entering the GPS coordinates in his phone. “I’m gonna drive there to check.”
“I’m coming with you.” the girl declared.
Haymitch was already shaking his head. “You’re staying here in case she comes back or she calls. You need anything you call Hazelle, yeah?”
“Haymitch…” she protested.
“I need you to hold the fort, sweetheart.” he cut her off. “Lock the door behind me. I’ll call when I find her.”
He pressed a quick kiss on the top of her head and rushed to his SUV. He drove too fast but the location Prim’s app had given them was at least a good hour away and he hated the thought of his kid alone on a road at night.
It was probably ironical that it was how they had met.
He had been very drunk that night, five years earlier, and he had had no business being behind a wheel. What he hadn’t expected on his way back from the bar at three a.m. had been the two little girls that had suddenly appeared in his headlights. It had been a miracle he had managed to swerve at the last moment and only a small mercy the only victim had been the streetlamp post. It certainly had sobered him up though. Adrenaline could do marvels.
Katniss had barely been eleven and she had stepped protectively in front of the seven years old who had been crying in fright.
What the fuck are you doing here at this time of night?, he had raged before he could keep his temper in check. He had been furious. With them for almost getting themselves killed. With himself for being so stupid as to get behind a wheel when he was that torched.
He hadn’t touched a drop since that night.
It had taken a while to convince Katniss he wasn’t about to murder them and for Prim to stop crying. It had taken longer to coax the story out of them. They had been looking for a runaway cat and had categorically refused to go home before they had found him. Hunting a cat had certainly not been how he had pictured his night going at the time…
Buttercup – who nowadays spent his days happily sprawled in front of his fireplace getting fatter and fatter – had been the most ugly cat he had ever seen in his life. Missing ear, broken tail, dirty as possible… And Prim had cried in joy when she had spotted him and had hugged him tight to her chest even though Haymitch had been pretty sure anyone else would have gotten hands and face clawed to death… And the ugly thing had started purring like a turbine.
He had driven the kids home after a lot of negotiating with Katniss who wisely hadn’t wanted to get into a strange man’s car, regardless of the time he had spent helping them locate the cat. It had been Prim who had slipped her tiny hand into his, looking up at him with so much trust and innocence his breath had caught.
The mother when he had finally brought them back had looked concerned by the fact her daughters had been out after dark but clearly out of her depth – if not her mind. The dazed look in her eyes, the state of the house, the way Katniss had ordered her sister to bed as if she had been the one in charge…
Haymitch had come back to check on them.
And that was how he had gotten involved really.
Katniss had been adamant about not accepting charity but she hadn’t been above stealing in the shops for the food they couldn’t afford. More often than not, Haymitch had been the one picking her up from the police station because Aster had begged him to, unable or unwilling to leave her house and face the world.
So he had regularly picked her up for two years, grateful that Sae – the local grocery shop’s owner – never pressed charges… Until Thread had come on the scene and had refused to close his eyes on what most officers were happy to ignore. It had all come to a head when social services had gotten involved and Haymitch had had to call in a few favors from friends from his time in the army to stop the girls from being taken away.
The transition hadn’t been smooth.
Katniss had been too used to being in charge and she had been resentful of what she saw as him stepping on her toes when it came to Prim. Prim had always been sweet and very attached to him but she had barely been nine at the time and hadn’t understood why they couldn’t live with their mother anymore. As for Haymitch… Haymitch had long abandoned any hope or dream or even thought of being a father and…
The transition hadn’t been smooth.
But they had built a home.
There had been ups and downs. Aster often relapsed and talks about the girl possibly going back to live with her had long been abandoned. Privately – and maybe unfairly – Haymitch thought the arrangement suited Aster just fine. She was their mother once a week but he was the one handling everything, particularly the difficult parts. Katniss had toyed the line with the law more than once and it was only the knowledge that they would be taken away from him if she got arrested again that kept her on the straight and narrow. She wasn’t a bad kid but she was too much of a survivor to adapt to a regular world of proms and high school drama. The archery club was the only thing that really kept her in school as it was. Her priority had never changed and that was Prim’s wellbeing, no matter what it cost.
She had done stuff before, even after the girls had moved in with him. Nicked things she thought Prim would like or want instead of asking him for money… Tried to get involved in not quite legal stuff to earn some when he had made it clear he wouldn’t tolerate stealing… But it had been a long time ago. It had been three years now and in the last year and a half, aside for the surprisingly normal boy drama the girl was practically oblivious about, to Peeta’s and Gale’s despair, she hadn’t gotten into any trouble.
And now she was missing.
And he couldn’t help but wonder…
He groaned half in relief and half in annoyance when his phone’s GPS brought him to the woods that separated The Seam from the next town. There was a perfectly nice road a few miles away but Katniss hated the interstate and she always insisted the woods were shorter. He had forbidden her from taking her car in there.
Then again, if he had had his way she wouldn’t have taken that car anywhere. No matter how many times he insisted, she refused to let him buy another one though. Not for Christmas, not for her birthday…
She had paid for that one herself – and barely allowed him to help her with it – but there was a reason it had been relatively cheap. It was old and battered and it looked like all that was keeping it together was glue and tape. Haymitch was forced to tinker with the engine practically every week to keep it running.
With a sigh and a curse for stubborn teenagers who couldn’t listen, he carefully guided his SUV on the narrow trail in the woods. It wasn’t long before he got completely lost. He followed the GPS rather than the main dusty path and ended up with no idea whatsoever of if he was going left or right. He usually had a very good sense of direction but right then…
Of course, it was the moment his phone chose to suddenly go dark. There was no warning, no beeping to alarm him that the battery was about to die – and how could it die when it had been at thirty-two percent the last time he had glanced at the screen? – it just went dark and dead in its holster.
“Shit, shit shit.” he grumbled under his breath as he forced the car onward at a snail pace, mindful of the trunks that were closer and closer together… He had been focused on the trees and he didn’t notice at once how cold it had became until he spotted the first traces of snow. “What the…”
It was spring. It was warm. He had barely bothered grabbing his jacket before leaving the house.
And yet there was snow on the forest ground. And the deeper he went, the worse it got.
A flash of red finally caught his attention, distracting him from the impossible sight – he supposed in the darkness of the deep woods some snow may have held from last winter but so much? He stopped the car behind Katniss’ red pick-up and bolted out of his car.
The pick-up was empty but locked.
Katniss’ bow was abandoned on the passenger side with her quiver and her phone but he didn’t immediately panicked. The snow had one advantage and that was that it was easy to track someone’s footsteps.
There was only one set of them, which made him relax even more.
She hadn’t been forced out of the car by anyone. It must have broken down and her phone must have run out of battery – she was worse at keeping it charged than he was – and she must have left the bow because she felt safe. So…
He followed the tracks of her footsteps down a narrow trail, burrowing into the thin leather of his jacket, wishing he had his sturdy grey coat or even the black beanie the girls always made fun of in winter because they claimed it made him look like a burglar. He could see his breath coming out in white puffs in front of his face, his skin prickled in the icy wind… He automatically hugged himself, placing his hands under his armpits to keep them warm.
He had been walking for ten minutes when he heard howling in the distance. Wolves, was his first guess but wolves had long disappeared from this state. Coyotes were more likely but he hadn’t heard of any pack in the area and… He shook his head, comforted by the familiar weight of his knife at the small of his back. Paranoia was harder to kick off than a drinking addiction and two decades in the Special Forces had left traces. He never went anywhere without his knife.
Darkness reigned supreme – which wasn’t so surprising given the time and how deep in the woods he was – and it was getting difficult for him to glimpse Katniss’ tracks so he was relieved when the creepy woods gave in on what seemed to be a clearing.
He wasn’t sure what he had been expecting but it wasn’t that.
The house appeared out of nowhere.
Well… House wasn’t a good word for it. It looked like one of those modern manors in the reality shows Katniss and Prim sometimes watched to make fun of the contestants. It was three-stories high, L-shaped, with a huge fountain in front of it, rose bushes all around, and it was completely dark. Not one single light. The moon was shining bright though and he could see most of the walls seemed to be made out of windows. Everything else was red bricks. On the left side – the shorter side of the L – the roof was flat and he could guess at weird shapes up there… Maybe a garden.
It was a very weird place to have a house in. Never mind something that huge.
Haymitch followed Katniss’ boot-shaped tracks to the few steps that led to the front floor, tossing a disturbed glance at the fountain. He wasn’t sure what it was supposed to be but it looked like something out of a Munch’s painting. The sculpted guy was twisted, his face one of agony.
Who lived in the middle of the woods in a glass house with a creepy fountain? For a second, he couldn’t shake off the thought that Katniss had walked straight into a serial killer’s house. Then he told himself it was ridiculous.
There was no doorbell, which was peculiar but probably less than a weird manor lost in the middle of woods mysteriously stuck in winter. He knocked. Twice, for good measure.
He took a couple of steps back to get another look at the house and, through the huge bay windows, he thought he saw something move inside. With a frown, he knocked again. When there was still no answer, he tossed caution to the wind and tried the doorknob. It turned easily under his palm.
“Hello?” he called out once he was inside. “Look, I mean no trouble. I’m just looking for my kid…”
As far as he could tell in the dark, the front door gave on a huge open space. He could guess at the shapes of couches, armchairs and a coffee table on the left, there seemed to be a dinner table and chairs right in front of him and he thought something moved behind a potted plant…
A clanging sound and muffled noises came from the right, Haymitch turned in the direction of what seemed to be a big kitchen with a central island… His nape was prickling. He took a few steps in that direction, squinting to see better… And when he finally saw, his blood ran cold.
Katniss was tied up to a chair in the kitchen, gagged and very obviously pissed off.
“What the fuck?” he spat, darting to her in a second. So much for the serial killer theory. He ripped the gag from her mouth. “Are you hurt, sweetheart?”
“You have to go! You have to go now! It’s going to come back!” the girl shouted, hysterical like he had never seen her.
He wedged his knife loose, intending to cut off the ropes. “We’re both going.”
“You don’t understand.” Katniss snapped. “It’s… It’s monstrous and…”
“I swear to god if someone touched you I’m gonna slit their throat.” he cut her off, angry like he had rarely been. Nobody hurt his girls and lived to tell the tale. It was as simple as that. The ropes were solid and he was having trouble slicing them off… “Let’s get you out of here and…”
“Leaving so soon?”
He startled, all the hairs on his body rising to attention. The voice was almost unnaturally shrill. He turned around, knife at the ready. His priority had been to get Katniss out but if he had to kill a creep along the way… Well, it wouldn’t have been the worst thing he had ever done.
“Your daughter is very rude.” the voice informed him with a hint of amusement. “Breaking and entering…”
He tried to locate the speaker but while he could guess at an impressive shape in the darkness – the guy must have been huge – he couldn’t exactly see him.
“I was cold!” Katniss protested, still sounding unusually panicked. “And I needed a phone. The pick-up died and… I should have brought my bow.”
“What about the theft?” the voice accused. “Who allowed you to pilfer my roses?”
“I took one.” the girl retorted defensively as if, really, kidnapping someone was an appropriate response to stealing a flower anyway. “I thought my sister might like it.”
“Doesn’t fucking matter.” Haymitch cut in, adjusting his grip on the knife’s handle. “You hurt my kid, I’m gonna hurt you.”
“Do not be preposterous.” the kidnapper huffed. “I did not hurt her.”
“Yeah. You just tied her up for fun, that’s it?” he scowled, his mind going straight to the kind of fun someone might tied up a girl for and… He saw red.
“She would not stay still.” the shape answered as if it was all a great inconvenience. “And as rude as she might be, I believe I am inclined to keeping her. At the very least until I manage to teach some manners into her. She is amusing.”
“Over my dead body.” he sneered. “Or, more likely, yours.”
He attacked before the kidnapper could, ignoring Katniss’ shout of “Haymitch, don’t!”. He might not look the part anymore but he had been a soldier for long enough. That didn’t go away. Ever. He could handle a creep who hid in the middle of the woods.
Except it quickly turned out, he couldn’t.
An arm rose and he was flung into the wall as if he hadn’t weighted one hundred and eighty pounds. The crash wasn’t pleasant and his shoulder throbbed when he hit the floor. The air was knocked out of his lungs and he struggled to get up.
He was obligingly helped by a hand wrapping around his throat and slamming him against the wall again.
Katniss was screaming but his ears were ringing so badly he could barely hear her.
His fingers wrapped around his opponent’s wrist… He had expected skin and all he found was… He looked up, startled.
The gulp was probably far from being manly but fuck if he cared. It might have been darkness in the house but the moonlight streamed directly on it through the huge bay windows and… It was a beast. A fucking monster. It looked a little like a cat but a human shaped one with fangs and claws and a tail switching behind it with obvious irritation… It was ugly, uglier than Buttercup and that was saying a lot.
It was also impossible.
Blue eyes stared into his grey ones and he swallowed hard, aware that the hand wrapped around his throat could have strangled him to death if it had wanted it to. He could feel the strength in its fingers, knew it was very careful not put too much pressure on his trachea…
“You are as rude as your daughter.” it remarked. “Attacking a lady with a knife? How unsavory.”
“Lady?” he croaked out despite the strong grip on his throat. “Sweetheart, you’re overdue for a wax job.”
She growled, he corrected himself.
“One would think someone in your position might not want to antagonize me further.” she hissed.
He was aware that Katniss was ranting behind the beast, trying to wriggle free of the damaged ropes, swearing she would kill the monster if she hurt him…
He couldn’t look away from the beast.
Was she wearing make-up? It was hard to say because of the fur. He couldn’t even try to guess at the color in the darkness.
“One hasn’t met me.” he snorted with more casualness than he felt.
She tilted her head to the side, studied him for a moment and then she let him go. He collapsed in a heap at the foot of the wall, coughing hard. He gulped air greedily, his lungs burning.
The beast moved back a few steps, her thoughtful eyes darting between him and the girl a few times.
“Now, your daughter stole from me and tried to attack me with one of my own chairs.” she declared. “I see now where she gets her charming manners. It so happens that I would welcome a new face around here so… I am keeping her.”
“Lady, you’re crazy.” he scoffed. “I’m really sorry you look like a circus freak but you can’t just kidnap people and expect…”
“Can’t I?” she hummed and in that shrill voice of hers it sounded terrifying. “Perhaps I wish to eat her. And if that pathetic attempt at stabbing me right now is any indication, I cannot think how you would stop me.” She looked down at him, flicking her tail hard, flashing her razor-shaped fangs. “And for your information, I am not a circus freak, I am a beast.”
“Sure.” he nodded, carefully standing up. He used the wall to get back on his shaky legs. His grey eyes darted around but the knife had disappeared in the looming darkness. “Of course, you are. What was I thinking.” He studied her for a second and then licked his lips. “I’ll take her place. You wanna keep someone tied up around, I’m more fun. You let her go, I’ll stay.”
He ignored the girl’s protests. It wasn’t ideal but it bought him time and it got Katniss out of the way. That woman was crazy and he liked crazy people well away from his kids.
The beast seemed to frown. “Why?”
“Cause she’s my kid.” he shrugged. “And there’s no way I’m leaving her here so…”
“You won’t try to leave?” she asked. “Because I should warn you right now, if you are simply planning on running away later, it will annoy me. I will chase you and I might just be hungry enough to eat you then.”
“You’re really into cannibalism, yeah?” he taunted, rubbing his throbbing shoulder. He squinted to see her better but she had retreated into the darkest part of the kitchen. “Can you turn on the lights? Cause I’m gonna tell you, the whole lurking in the dark thing… It’s getting old.”
She seemed to hesitate and then reached out to flick a switch. Light flooded in the room and he blinked, momentarily blinded by the bright neon lamps. She looked even more monstrous in the light and he almost regretting asking her to turn it on.
She was gracious despite everything. The way she moved… It was feline. Her fur was between cider and copper and she was wearing a pink silky dress that was torn in some places, long gashes as if it had torn on something… Her claws more likely than not. The dress was out of place on her. It looked expensive, extravagant, the kind of stuff you saw on fashion shows not…
There was nothing human about her.
He had thought it might be a freaky gene mutation or something but… There was nothing human about her except maybe her eyes.
He didn’t know what she was but…
Was it his imagination or did she look self-conscious?
“Let my kid go, sweetheart.” he demanded.
Katniss hadn’t stopped protesting and trying to get free but neither of them were listening, they were locked in a battle of wills.
“Do I have your word you will not try to run away?” the beast insisted.
“Yeah.” he promised. Anything to get Katniss out of there.
A swift swipe of her claws and the girl was free from her bindings. Katniss immediately ran to Haymitch.
“You can’t!” she shouted. “She’s going to kill you!”
He didn’t think so. If she had just been about to kill him, she would already have done it. And Katniss along with him.
“Think about Prim.” he replied before the girl could say anything else. And those were the magic words because Prim always came first. He could see her resolve caving to that logic, to the need to go back to Prim. “She’s alone at home and worried.” He fished his car keys from his pocket and pressed them into her palm. “You go home, sweetheart. You take care of your sister. And you never ever come back here, yeah?”
“I’ll call the police.” she growled, tossing the beast a hateful look over her shoulder.
“And you will tell them what?” the beast mocked. “That a cat holds your father hostage? Suit yourself. Nobody will ever find my manor anyway. Nobody ever does.”
“We did.” Haymitch grumbled. That was just their luck, wasn’t it?
“So you did…” the beast answered, her voice betraying both curiosity and anger. Anger seemed to win and, suddenly, in a graceful leap she was right there, her clawed paw wrapping around Katniss’ arm and easily tearing her off him. “Enough of these effusions. How unladylike. Off you pop, dear. Back home to that sister of yours. Tell your mother I am simply borrowing your father until I get bored with him.”
“He’s not my fucking dad, you ugly beast.” Katniss snarled, trying to struggle out of her grip.
The cat-lady seemed to falter, tossing him a curious look over her shoulder.
He rolled his eyes. “Long story.”
“I am sure it will be a riveting one.” she replied and then, just like that, she threw Katniss out the door and slammed it shut.
“Hey!” he protested, trying to rush to the girl’s rescue.
“Tigris.” she called out. “Be a dear and make sure the child gets to her car without any trouble. Venia, if you would take our guest… Haymitch, wasn’t it what she called you?” She barely waited for his nod to continue. “Take Haymitch to his room. Do make yourself at home, you are free to wander anywhere you like except for the west wing.”
Haymitch, who had strongly been expecting to get tied up just like Katniss had been or tossed in a cellar, frowned, wondering who she was talking to, if she was even crazier than he had thought…
And then he saw them.
They looked more human than she did. There were no fur or claws but their features were strangely feline, too much to be comfortable, and one of them had whiskers, cat ears and cat-like eyes. She went straight for the door on which Katniss was still pounding with only a disdainful look for him so he supposed she was Tigris. She was also the only one who didn’t look afraid. The three others were shaking where they stood.
“Do stop acting so ridiculous.” the beast huffed, glaring at them. “He won’t hurt you.”
“The girl kicked me.” one of them complained. A woman. There were two women and a man, he figured. At least he thought so. Those three didn’t have whiskers or cat ears but… They still looked weird.
He felt proud of Katniss for having defended herself.
“The girl is gone.” the beast retorted.
“But you wanted to keep her.” the man argued. “Even though she said she would kill us all.”
The beast’s patience seemed to have run thin.
“Show him his room.” she roared.
They all squeaked and squealed and before Haymitch could really wrap his head around it, he was steered down a corridor and up the stairs by the three…
“What are you?” he asked, resisting the urge to strain his neck to keep the beast in sight.
If she had wanted him dead, he would already be. He told himself that firmly.
He could have easily broken out of their cluster but then what? If he tried to run away now, the beast would go after him and Katniss… No, it was better to wait until he was sure Katniss was safe. Then he would try but… He would need a car or a sure way to get out of the woods. A map preferably.
“Oh, I am a nail artist.” the one closer to him answered. “My name is Octavia, by the way.”
“Venia.” the other woman said with a shy smile. “I am a beautician.”
“Flavius.” the man offered a little warily. “I do hair.”
Really not what he had been expecting.
“And the other one…” he frowned.
“Tigris?” Octavia asked, now completely relaxed. Apparently she had decided he wasn’t a threat. “She is a stylist. And our boss.”
“Not that we are not happy to be here!” Venia squealed.
“Oh, no!” Octavia confirmed. “It is an honor! An honor!”
“Sure.” he nodded as if it made any kind of sense. They were all crazy, he decided. All completely nuts. He focused on his surroundings with the feeling it could be very easy to get lost in this place. Corridors twisted. It wasn’t the only twisted things. The artworks on the walls, the sculptures… It all looked very expensive but it was all as disturbing as the fountain. Dark.
The place itself looked very modern, a little soulless. The only incongruous things were the mirrors. Every mirror he passed by was smashed.
He could relate.
He had punched his fair share of mirrors. It was hard to look at the monster on the glass.
“Here you are!” Octavia chirped. “This is the best room! Feel free to hunt one of us down if you need anything and if you want a manicure…”
“Or a hair trim.” Flavius cut in, looking at his hair with a small wince.
“Feel free to ask!” Venia finished. “You are much nicer than the girl. I am glad we are keeping you. You will see… This is a nice place and I am sure you will soon love it!”
She almost pushed him in the room and closed the door behind him.
He waited for the noise of the key that would lock him in but it never came.
After a whole minute glaring at the door, he tried the handle. It opened without problem.
This night was getting weirder and weirder.
Was the cat-beast truly trusting him to keep his word? Stupid.
And what was up with those three? Had the beast kidnapped them too? Was it Stockholm syndrome?
He closed the door and looked around the room, having no trouble believing it was the best one. Two of the walls were entirely made of glass and the view was… Well, he hated to admit it was breathtaking but it was. It overlooked the woods – and he wasn’t happy to realize they stretched as far as the eye could see because it would seriously complicate any attempt to escape. The bed was king-sized and looked brand new, there was a huge TV screen mounted on the wall, a bookshelf full of classics and a wardrobe that was mostly empty. The en-suited bathroom had the hugest bathtub he had ever seen, a shower that looked complicated to work and the whole thing was more luxurious than anything he had ever seen in his life.
He checked the cupboards for anything useful, found disposable razor blades that he taped to the brand new toothbrush. It wasn’t quite his knife and he doubted it would be much use but he felt better even if his new weapon was ridiculous.
He sat at the foot of the bed and let out a deep sigh, rubbing his face.
It all seemed so surreal…
Half of his mind was worrying about Katniss, the other one was screaming at him that this was all a nightmare.
He scratched his palm with the blade. The pain was really real. So was his throbbing shoulder.
He flopped down on his back and stared at the ceiling.
He had been taken prisoner once or twice before. It had never been as nice as this. Which begged the question what did that beast woman wanted?
Maybe he should just sleep it off.
Maybe he would wake up in his own bed, to Prim and Katniss bickering in the kitchen because Katniss had once again shoved Buttercup off the counter a little too abruptly for Prim’s tastes.
He pictured Katniss driving back to their house… Would she call the police or would she be smarter than that? Thread would never listen to her, never mind the odd tale of a beast in a manor lost in the woods. And social services might get involved again and with him gone…
No, she would do the smart thing and protect Prim. She would keep her mouth shut. He liked his peace and it wasn’t unusual for him not to leave the house for days, weeks sometimes if his past haunted him too much. She could get away with it for a while.
The bed, at least, was comfortable.
He turned on the TV, noted that the beast had more cable channels than he and the girls did and switched it off again.
Make yourself at home, the beast had said. Well, he had no intention of doing that but exploring a little wouldn’t hurt anyone. Knowing your enemy was the first step into defeating it.
He checked the corridor was empty, not keen on finding himself face to snout with her again, and eventually wandered off. He checked rooms as he went. Most of them were guest rooms, empty and slightly dusty. He found what seemed to be a recreational room on the first floor with a pool table, a couple of armchairs and shelves stocked with board games. He spent a few minutes distractedly toying with the pool balls, staring at the dark snowy woods through the window.
Why was everything so weird around there?
Antsy, he abandoned the idea of exploring to get back to the ground floor. The flat screen mounted on one wall of the living-room was the biggest one he had ever seen. There wasn’t a thing in that manor that didn’t spell money.
The chair and the ropes had disappeared. Everything looked so perfectly ordered in that house… Aside from the broken mirrors, nothing was out of place. It looked like one of those show houses realtors made you visit in some suburbs.
There was no hint a beast was living here.
It took some probing but he eventually found a door that seemed to lead to the other wing of the house.
You are free to wander anywhere you like except for the west wing.
He had never been very good at doing what he was told.
He was careful to be silent as he roamed around. That wing couldn’t have been more different than the main part of the house. It must have been very similar at some point because the furniture and the artworks were the same but in here… Everything was destroyed.
The artworks had been clawed, the furniture upturned, the potted plants were dead or on their way there…
He found a room that was even worse than the others after half an hour of poking around. There were bottles of liquor, some empty and some not quite full… He felt the pull like he always did faced with alcohol but he ignored it, rummaging around the bedside tables instead. Amongst the usual knick-knacks, he found sleeping pills and a crushed packet of cigarettes. The sheets were slashed and there seemed to be quite a lot of torn clothes.
One of the pieces of art on the wall soon caught his eyes. It was a framed picture of a very gorgeous woman. It was black and white but her hair was light, her figure gorgeous… She was wearing one of those long sparkly gowns and she was giving the photographer a smoldering look… He was pretty sure he had seen it before. Some famous model or something…
It was hard to identify her for sure because the protective glass on top had been clawed and smashed to the point it was really difficult to see the actual picture.
He lost interest and soon found something else to be fascinated with.
On a low table next to the bay window that seemed to be giving onto a balcony, there was a glass case and in it…
He stepped closer, almost forgetting everything in his haste to inspect it. There was a white rose inside that seemed to have lost most of its petals but the interesting thing about the rose was that it seemed to be… floating.
Added to the beast woman, the mysterious winter and the weird people inhabiting the house… It was starting to be a lot.
Roses simply didn’t float.
He lifted the protective glass case but the rose remained right there, hovering over the table as if it was perfectly normal. He checked under the wood but could find no magnet that would explain it, he passed his hand under the rose’s stem a few times… He picked up one of the fallen petals… It looked like a regular rose petal.
At a loss, he reached for the rose, intending to pluck it out of the air and put a stop to the craziness once and for all…
The roar startled him enough that he jumped. He barely had time to glance over his shoulder before he was pushed aside and the beast was there, slamming the glass case back in place and hugging it protectively to her chest. Her blue eyes were glaring at him and the low growl wasn’t encouraging.
“Okay.” he said, lifting his hands in front of him in a peace offering. “So, I shouldn’t have…”
“What have you done?” she snarled.
“Nothing.” he said defensively. “I just…”
“Get out!” she roared again and it was so powerful he almost had the wind knocked out of him. The fear that gripped his guts was primitive. It was the terror of the prey finding itself face to face with the predator that was going to devour it. “Out!”
He didn’t need to be told twice. He ran out of there as if the devil was chasing him – and let’s be honest here, it very well might be – and didn’t let himself think before rushing out of the house. Fuck planning, fuck doing the clever thing… Maybe he could get Katniss’ pick-up to work and if he couldn’t… He would just have to think of something else.
He ran like he hadn’t run in decades.
He dashed through the woods, ignoring the slippery patches of ice under his feet, ignoring the branches hitting him in the face or the thorns tearing off his clothes…
His heart was beating so hard, all he could hear was the rush of blood in his ears. It probably explained why he didn’t hear the howls until it was too late.
He saw the movements to his left and right, the ruffling bushes, the long shadows…
“Shit, shit, shit.” he muttered, out of breath.
Of course, that was the moment he tripped on a root and found himself rolling down a small slope. He didn’t have time to get his bearings back, the first wolf – because it was a wolf not a coyote but an actual wolf, complete with snarling snout and grey fur – leaped out of between the surrounding trees and stood in front of him, crouched low.
He tried to scramble back but he heard the answering growls behind him and he froze.
He didn’t bother trying to pull out his makeshift weapon, already knowing it would be no use against a pack of hungry wolves. Fuck, but he had never even seen a real one before at a zoo… Where did they come from?
Probably from the same place as winter, the she-monster and the cat-like weirdoes, a wise voice suggested at the back of his head.
Slowly, impossibly slowly, he outstretched his hand for a heavy looking stick on his left…
He barely had time to lift it before the first wolf, the one that must have been the pack leader, jumped. The animal’s jaws closed on the stick instead of Haymitch’s throat, which was already something, but it didn’t do him a lot of good when claws dug in his chest and…
A roar echoed around the woods, making his blood run cold once more. It promised death.
Before he could really understand what was happening, the cat-monster entered the fray, sending the wolf on his chest flying against a nearby trunk. The rest of the pack attacked and she soon was covered with enraged wolves who all tried to bring her down…
Haymitch got to his feet, adjusting his grip on the stick, not sure what to do…
Before he could decide, it was over, the pack leader had attacked again and she took a wild bite before sending it flying again… It ran away whining and the rest of them soon fled after him.
The beast turned toward him, their eyes met.
Haymitch had the certainty he would be next. Any second now she would advance on him and…
It took him a moment to actually come to terms with that. One second she was up and staring at him, looking terrifying feral, the next she was crumpled in a heap of snow that was quickly reddening with blood.
He would need to thank his lucky star later, he decided as he turned away, ignoring the gnawing feeling of guilt at leaving an injured… whatever in the woods. The injured whatever in question would probably have eaten him simply because he had been a little too curious.
He had perhaps taken five steps when the low whimper made him stop.
He closed his eyes, thought about Prim and Katniss, and fustigated himself for being so stupid.
With a sigh, he turned around and cautiously approached the injured beast. Her pink dress was definitely ruined now. It was torn and bloody. He couldn’t really guess at the bites and the scratches under her fur in the dark but he knew they were there.
“Alright.” he mumbled. “I’m gonna lift you up. Try not to claw my head off, yeah?”
Blue eyes looked at him in confusion and he wondered if she had really expected him to leave her there. Probably. After all, it was what anyone gifted with any kind of common sense would have done.
She was enormous and he debated about how to carry her exactly until he threw caution to the wind and simply flung her over his shoulder, ignoring her snarls of protest.
“Yeah, well… Ain’t how I pictured my night going either.” he grumbled. “Suck it up, princess.”
She was heavy and he only had a vague idea of where he was going but was it fate or luck, he stumbled upon the clearing after only a couple of minutes. It was enough for him to be sweating and shaking under her weight though.
The three weirdoes were huddling on the porch, the one who looked most like a cat was standing a little apart and she was the one who rushed to them.
“Oh, no!” Octavia exclaimed, clearly fearing the worst.
“She’s hurt.” Tigris hissed as if it was his fault.
“That’s what happens when cats play with wolves.” he retorted, pushing past her and into the house. “You’ve got a first aid kit?”
He wasn’t sure why he cared or what exactly he was going to do about her injuries. It wasn’t like he was a veterinarian and she had kidnapped his kid.
But she had also gotten hurt saving him so…
He carried her to the bedroom he had been chased off earlier and dropped her on the bed with less care than he probably should have shown for an injured… person. But she was heavy and his muscles were already sore from the strain. The three weirdoes had followed him and were now watching him with hopeful eyes. He wasn’t sure exactly what they were hoping for.
The beast rolled on her stomach with a small pathetic whimper just when Tigris came in, carrying a well-worn first aid kit. She handed it over with a worried glance at the monster and quickly stepped back, clearly expecting him to do the work. He checked inside the bag, noticed how low they were on antiseptic and raised curious eyebrows.
“She hurts herself a lot.” Venia offered.
“Not on purpose.” Flavius piped in. “The claws, you understand.”
“But not for long!” Octavia chimed. “Once you break the…”
“Enough.” Tigris snapped. “Let’s give them some privacy.”
The cat-eared lady ushered the three weirdoes out of the room and closed the door behind them. Soon he was alone with the beast who growled every ten seconds. He sighed, estimated he would need to get rid of the clotted blood on the fur first if he wanted to take a good look at the wounds underneath and, so, he fetched some towels and some water from the en-suited bathroom.
The mirror over the sink had clearly seen better days.
“I’m gonna take the dress off.” he warned, easily locating the zipper at the back of the ruined dress.
He wasn’t sure why he was feeling so awkward. Maybe because it had been a very long time since he had taken a woman’s clothes off. Never mind that she wasn’t really a woman. The beast’s face was buried into the pillow and he wondered if she was trying to suffocate herself.
It was weird to slip that dress off her shoulders, weird to feel the fur under his hands, weird to look at that unnatural feline spine…
But, then again, weird was the theme of the night.
He sat on the edge of the mattress and started cleaning the wounds, wondering why he had ignored his chance of running away. She flinched a lot and her whining was so pathetic he was torn between rolling his eyes and reminding her she had taken out a whole pack of wolves by herself earlier so she should cut the act. He didn’t think she was really acting though. And he soon figured out it wasn’t the towel she was protesting as much as his touch.
The impossible beast was actually flinching under his perfectly normal hands.
Maybe she was scared he would hurt her.
How he could hurt an impresive mountain of muscles, claws and teeth remained to be seen but…
“Stop fidgeting.” he snapped with annoyance once he was done cleaning and had started using the antiseptic spray.
“It hurts.” she complained.
Could cat-beasts pout? Because he was sure he could hear a pout in her high-pitched voice.
“Shouldn’t have tried to play with a pack of dogs, then, yeah?” he snorted.
“I wouldn’t have had to attack them if you hadn’t run away.” she retorted. “You are not a man of your word. I should have my prep team tie you up.”
“They’re welcomed to try.” he mocked. The thought of those four freaks trying to get the upper hand on him was ridiculous. And what on Earth was a prep team? “I wouldn’t have run away if you hadn’t roared at me.”
“I wouldn’t have roared at you if you had shown some manners and not gone poking at my personal belongings when I very clearly told you not to.” she shot back without missing a beat.
His lips twitched. Damn but she was good for a woman beast.
“You started it when you kidnapped my kid.” he accused.
She remained silent for a very long time, long enough that he finished tending to her wounds. He hesitantly combed the fur on her back to make sure he hadn’t forgotten some scratches or bites. He was surprised at how soft it was.
“I would never have hurt her.” she whispered.
“You tied her up to a chair.” he growled.
It certainly wasn’t a beast’s threatening snarl but it was as close as it could get.
“My prep team frightened her and when she saw me…” She stopped and sighed. “Truly, it was for her own good. She was hysterical. She would have run off into the woods and you see how dangerous they are. And… I was angry, I will admit. It has been a long time since someone new saw me and her reaction…”
“Doesn’t excuse anything.” he spat. “And doesn’t explain why you wanted to keep her or why I’m here.”
“I am lonely and she really could do with learning some manners.” she retorted. “As for you…”
Her sentence trailed off. He waited for her to finish it but she never did so he let out a long breath, realizing only a second to late that his inspection of her fur had somehow turned into a petting session. He blamed Buttercup. That stupid cat often made himself at home on his lap and it had become automatic to pet him. This was the same thing. He wasn’t moved at all by the genuine distress he could hear in her voice.
He was ready to believe living in a manor lost in the woods when you were a freak of nature wasn’t exactly the dreamed life but she still had tied up his adopted daughter to a chair.
“I am sorry I lost my temper.” she continued eventually. “Please, never touch the rose again.”
“What is it?” he asked, his grey eyes turning toward the glass case as if by reflex.
She shifted to her side, facing him, holding the dress to her chest in a very womanly way despite the fact he doubted there was anything under there he would have liked to see. “Do you believe in magic?”
“No.” he shrugged without any kind of hesitation.
Something weird was happening to her face and it took him a second to realize she was smiling. And that smile looked very bitter. “I did not use to either.”
“I don’t know how that rose works but it’s just a trick.” he dismissed. “Magnets or something. Magic doesn’t exist, sweetheart.”
“Euphemia.” she said.
He frowned. “What?”
“That’s my name. Euphemia.” she clarified.
“That’s as ugly as you.” he teased.
She flinched again and he felt like an ass.
“My friends call me Effie.” she offered before he could try to think of some sort of apology.
“Effie.” he repeated, studying her. “What’s the deal with the rose?”
She sighed or she huffed – it was difficult to say. “It is a reminder that my time is running out. Believe it or not, I was not born a beast. I was cursed.”
“Cursed.” he scoffed. “That doesn’t make sense, sweetheart.”
“Nothing makes sense since that night.” she replied. “I was young, famous and arrogant. I made fun of this so called witch at a friend’s party. I was cruel because I could be and my friends laughed with me because… Well, I reigned supreme. I was the queen of their little world. Next thing I knew, the witch cursed me. I kept laughing until I caught sight of myself in a mirror.”
She lifted her paw and inspected it.
He was startled to notice that what he had mistaken for clotted blood on her claws until then was, in fact, nail polish. She was actually putting nail polish on her claws.
Cursed or not cursed, she was crazy.
“Magic doesn’t exist.” he insisted.
“You are trapped in a manor in woods frozen in winter with a terrible beast and her equally cursed prep team and you still doubt magic exists?” she challenged.
When she worded it like that…
“Maybe you’re delusional.” he suggested.
She laughed. At least, he thought that it was what that sound was.
“Will you tell me the story?” she asked next.
“What story?” he frowned.
“The story of how you can have a daughter without being her father.” she smiled.
He hesitated a second and then shrugged, not seeing the wrong in telling her.
It was probably alarming how quickly he relaxed.
And it didn’t get any better in the following days.
She had a gift for getting under his skin. They kept arguing. All the time. About everything. And yet she kept seeking him out no matter where he hid in the house .
After only one day he understood completely why she was so lonely in that big house. It wasn’t that Venia, Flavius, Octavia and Tigris weren’t nice but they were… simpler. There was no use trying to have a serious conversation with them. They were silly, completely obsessed with hair, make-up and fashion and if he had been less charitable, he would have called them stupid.
Effie was anything but stupid.
She could keep up with his wits like nobody he had ever known.
She was bossy and annoying and insisted on table manners even though she couldn’t handle a fork properly and twice a day he swore loud and clear he was going to strangle her only to end up listening to her prattle about something or other. Sometimes he tuned her out, sometimes he actually gave his opinion.
Did he notice their exchanges were slowly but surely turning into flirting? Of course, he did. She was very much not human-shaped and he was very much not into animals though, so he wouldn’t really have been able to explain why he indulged her in that regard… She was just so… She was smart and witty and bossy and impossible and if she had been a woman…
He hadn’t renounced the idea of escaping the manor but it wasn’t a matter of life and death anymore.
Despite her size and the impressive claws and fangs, it was obvious to him Effie would never hurt a fly – except maybe hungry wolves who tried to eat her friends.
Truth be told, he really felt sorry for her.
She could talk for hours about the life she used to have in New York, the parties, the glamour, the dresses… It was the clothes she regretted most. Tigris was very good at making her a brand new wardrobe every time her claws – accidentally or not – destroyed the old one but… It wasn’t the same.
She was trapped in that manor and Haymitch desperately wanted to help.
He just wasn’t sure how.
He still wasn’t sure he believed her curse story.
He told her all about his kids. It eased the pain in his heart to talk about them. He missed them. So much it felt like being stabbed in the chest every time he uttered their names but he knew they were alright – he knew Katniss would make sure they were alright. It didn’t make it any easier.
Sometimes, he missed them so much he couldn’t breathe.
He found himself in such a mood one night. They were on the roof, lost in the impressive garden she kept up there. There was a nice relaxing area with lounging chairs, a small table and a radio that was playing in a soft hum. She was sitting on a chair that had protested under her weight to her clear embarrassment and he was lying on the cold ground, staring up at the stars.
She had been talking about… He hadn’t really been listening but he did notice when she suddenly stood up and cranked up the radio’s volume. The paw she outstretched was commanding, like everything else with her.
“Dance with me.” she ordered.
“Bossy.” he accused.
“Please.” she amended. Her eyelids opened and closed a few times and he figured if she had been a woman she would have been batting her eyelashes right now.
“I don’t dance.” he refused. Yet he sat up and carefully took the paw, letting her literally haul him to his feet.
“Make an exception for me.” she purred.
He rolled his eyes but placed a tentative hand on her waist, over the red fabric of the dress she was wearing that day. It was a slow song and it was awkward. He wasn’t sure where to hold her or what to do until she solved it by wrapping her arms around his neck and carefully leaning her weight against him.
He closed his eyes and relaxed, swaying to the soft music.
“Do you think…” she hesitated after a minute or two. “Do you think you could be happy here with me? In time?”
He took his time answering that question.
He wasn’t a liar by nature.
“You can’t be happy when you ain’t free, sweetheart.” he said gently.
“Oh.” she breathed out slowly. “Yes. I understand.”
Her arms dropped from around his neck and she moved away from him, to the edge of the roof. She sat on the low wall and looked out into the woods. He followed, feeling bad for having upset her. Because she was clearly upset.
“I miss my kids.” he confessed.
“I know.” she whispered and he could hear the sadness in her voice, the dull acceptance. “I just hoped… It was foolish.”
“If I hadn’t had them…” he winced, not quite sure where he was going with that. If he hadn’t had the girls and he had been alone… He might have been glad to stay. She was good company. She was a good person. He liked her. He…
“It is alright, Haymitch.” she promised. “I do understand. I am not exactly someone’s dream partner.”
“It’s not you, Effie.” he frowned, reaching for her paw.
He wasn’t sure when she had stopped flinching at his touch or when he had started reaching out for her so much it had become natural.
“Of course not. How could it be?” she laughed and he could hear the tears in there. “The garage is a mile away to the north, I will ask Flavius to give you the car keys. Do not pretend you haven’t been looking for it.”
“You’re letting me go?” he asked, just to clarify, his heart racing in his chest. It wasn’t all relief though. It may have been only a few days but… He had grown… attached.
“It was not right to keep you here in the first place.” she dismissed, keeping her eyes on the woods. “Go back to your daughters, Haymitch. I am sure they are frantic by now thanks to my selfishness.”
The thought of being reunited with Prim and Katniss was enough to make him bolt to his feet. He took a few steps away before he stopped and looked back at her. She was still keeping her eyes firmly averted.
He almost suggested she should come with him but… She didn’t belong in the real world. As unfair as it was, she belonged in those strange woods. At best people would make fun of her, at worst they would be terrified – and terrified people were dangerous.
“I’m gonna bring the car back in a couple of days.” he offered.
“Keep it.” she refused. “I have more money than I know what to do with. I will order another one. And… Perhaps, then you will think of me from time to time when you drive it.”
It wasn’t really a conscious decision to retrace his steps until he was standing right next to her. He felt her tense when he cupped her cheek and forced her to look at him. Her eyes were so blue, so bright… So sad, too.
“I’m gonna bring the car back.” he promised. She didn’t believe him, he could see. “I swear, princess.”
“I hope you do but I won’t hold it against you if you don’t.” she whispered. “Go, now. Please.”
His hand lingered on the side of her cat-shaped face but, eventually, he dropped it and turned around. It didn’t take very long to get the keys from Flavius and to find the car. It was a nice sport car. Very red, very flashy, very much not his style. It suited her though.
He drove through the woods carefully, his heart constricting in his chest. It wasn’t the daring escape he had first had in mind. He couldn’t help but look in the rearview mirror a few times, almost hoping he would see her feline silhouette slip between two of the trees…
He heard her roar just as winter gave way to spring.
Such pain, such despair…
He almost turned the car around.
But Prim and Katniss were waiting for him so he sped up, swearing to himself he would come back. He didn’t know to do what exactly but he would. The whole curse thing was crazy but maybe they could find a way to break it or…
He drove too fast.
He blamed the car. It was made for speed and it answered the smallest of his desires. He reached the Village in half the time it would have taken him in his SUV.
A SUV that wasn’t in the driveway where it was supposed to be…
It was odd to find himself in front of his own house… As if he had left years ago instead of days.
Banishing those thoughts away, he let himself in.
“Girls?” he called. The lights were on so someone was home.
He didn’t have to wait long.
“Haymitch?” Prim shouted from the kitchen. It a matter of seconds a blond cannon ball collided with his torso and he hugged the kid back with relief. “You’re here. You’re here!” Suddenly, she let go and looked behind him, worry all over her young face. “Where’s Katniss? Did she kill it? Did she save you?”
“What?” he frowned, dread making his stomach churn. “Where’s your sister?”
“She said there was a horrible beast.” Prim rushed the words out. “She said it had taken you prisoner and… She went to save you.”
By killing the beast…
“When did she leave?” he asked, grabbing the girl’s shoulders. “When?”
Prim looked confused but she shrugged. “She’s been going back every morning since you’ve been gone. She said she couldn’t find the place again but this afternoon she finally found her pick-up so…”
“Shit.” he cursed. He wasn’t sure who he was more worried for: Katniss or Effie? “Stay here, alright. I’m gonna go get your sister.”
“That’s what you said last time and you never came back!” Prim protested. “I’m coming with you this time.”
“No.” He shook his head. “Look, I’ll bring you another time, alright? She’d like to meet you, I think.”
“Who?” Prim frowned.
He didn’t answer that, he rushed to the car and soon he was right back on the road, way past the speed limit.
He was worried he wouldn’t be able to find the manor again but maybe magic did exist after all because, to the contrary of any logic, he found the wintery patch of woods within minutes. The side of the car hit quite a few trees but soon it skidded to a stop in the clearing. His eyes immediately found Effie’s. She was standing in front of the house, not far from the fountain, not moving at all faced with Katniss’ bow.
He almost fell out of the car in the precipitation.
“Katniss!” he called out, running to them before he could think about what he was doing.
“Haymitch!” The relief on the girl’s face was obvious but she didn’t lower her bow. The arrow was notched, ready to be let loose and…
And he found himself standing right in front of Effie, arms spread wide. “Katniss, don’t.”
“You did not send her?” Effie asked behind him, hope simmering in her voice.
“Of course not!” he scoffed, risking a glance over his shoulder. He shook his head and slowly placed his hands in front of him. “Look, sweetheart, I know this is confusing and she’s very sorry she tried to kidnap you… Tell Katniss how sorry you are, Effie.”
“I am.” Effie confirmed after a second. “It was not right and I do apologize.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Katniss frowned, puzzled. “Haymitch, she’s a monster. She…”
“She’s not a monster.” he snapped. “She’s my friend.”
“You’ve got Stockholm Syndrome.” the girl scowled.
That might be a distinct possibility but be that as it may…
“She ain’t a bad woman, sweetheart.” Haymitch promised. “If you’ve ever trusted me once in your life… Please, put that bow away.”
Katniss searched his eyes with an almost frightening intensity but eventually lowered the bow.
Haymitch relaxed with a sigh and reached behind him for Effie’s furry arm. He squeezed once in comfort and he was about to go hug his girl when Katniss’ eyes widened.
“Gale, no!” she shouted.
Haymitch barely had time to turn around, to spot the teenager hiding at the corner of the house…
He didn’t see the arrow.
Effie collapsed without a noise.
“No!” he heard himself shout. Before he realized, he was kneeling next to her and had dragged her upper body on his thighs, his hands put pressure on the wound around the arrow, knowing that pulling it out would only speed up the process… The arrow had hit her in the chest. “Hold on, sweetheart. I’m gonna get you to a hospital. Just…”
Her paw coiled around his wrist, her eyelids already fluttering shut.
“It’s better this way anyway.” she breathed out.
“No.” he growled, cupping her face with one of his hands. He petted the soft fur of her face. “You ain’t dying on me. Fuck that. I won’t let you.”
“You came back…” she whispered.
“Of course, I bloody came back.” he spat. “Shouldn’t have left you behind in the first place.”
“It’s more than…” she insisted.
“No.” he cut her off again, his voice breaking a little. “You ain’t dying on me.”
But her breathing was growing shallow and, soon enough, her paw grew slack around his wrist, her head rolled in his hand.
“No, no, no…” he insisted, shaking her a little. “Come back. Fucking come back. Come on. Come on, princess.” He was aware of Katniss and Gale standing a few feet away, staring at him as if he had gone crazy, but he didn’t care. He bowed until his forehead was pressed against hers and he could feel her fur against his face. “I was stupid. I can be happy here with you. We can be happy. We can make it work.” He wasn’t sure how yet but he knew they could. It had been too long since he had been fascinated by a woman like he was by her. It had been too long since he had felt… “I think you fucking made me love you. You don’t make people fall in love with you and then just die on them, Effie, that’s fucking rude. You hate rude. Come on…”
He pressed a kiss against her fur, unaware that in her bedroom the white rose was shedding its last petal.
The moment the petal touched the table, light exploded around them and Haymitch moved back, raising a hand to shield his face.
“What the…” he barely had time to mumble.
All around him, the snow was melting. The statue on the fountain stopped looking so in pain. The prep team and Tigris ran out of the house, crying out in joy and… They didn’t look like cats anymore. They looked perfectly normal.
Stunned, he drew his eyes back to the ball of light that seemed to be wrapped around Effie…
And, then, just like that, the light was gone, it was night again and all was left was the crumpled body of a woman clad in a red dress far too big for her slender frame.
“Effie?” he hesitated, reaching out for her shoulder. He couldn’t see her face. Dark blond hair with reddish hues was in the way. He gently brushed it back, holding his breath when he realized… The woman in the picture she had clawed off, it was her. Of course, it was her. “Effie.”
Her eyelids fluttered open on very familiar blue eyes.
“Haymitch. You broke the spell!” she beamed, pushing herself up. He helped her.
They didn’t seem to be able to look away from each other and it was frankly ridiculous so Haymitch rolled his eyes and did the only thing he could think of doing.
He kissed her.
With a little too much enthusiasm if Katniss’ disgusted groan was any indication.
He couldn’t quite care and, thus, it was a few minutes before he remembered they needed air to breathe. He helped Effie up but didn’t let go of her hand once they were on their feet.
The prep team was celebrating, embracing each other, hugging Tigris who still had something of a cat to her expression…
Katniss was gaping.
Gale looked stunned.
“What the hell just happened?” the boy asked.
“Language.” Effie clucked her tongue.
And Haymitch laughed. He couldn’t help it.
It took a little while to sort everything out but, soon enough, he and Effie were in the sport car and following the light of his SUV home. He wasn’t sure what Katniss and Gale were talking about in the truck but they were silent almost the whole way.
Effie was nervous, he could tell, and it was threatening to turn awkward.
He didn’t really think before reaching for her hand. She studied their entwined fingers, looked up at him and smiled, finally relaxing.
Saying that Prim was furious was a nice understatement.
She tore the front door open well before they even got out of the cars and seemed torn between screaming at them and hugging them in relief. She certainly got some ranting about leaving her behind to worry about them through between two hugs. Gale slipped away, muttering something about needing some sleep because he was clearly going mad.
“This is Effie.” Haymitch said, once Prim had stopped lecturing them. “She’s gonna stay for a while.”
Or maybe forever.
But, he guessed, that went without saying.
It was, after all, a tale as old as time.