Peeta shuts the door like his mama raised him well. Haymitch almost says so, but hell, he’s known Cassie Mellark since she was Cassie Hiken and as far as Haymitch is concerned the only thing Cassie Mellark’s ever raised well was a certain something between her husband’s legs, and that’s not the kind of thing you say to the product of that very union.
“So,” Haymitch says instead. “You’ve finally got a secret to keep from her.”
“Not for long,” Peeta says. And he clasps his hands behind his back like Haymitch is the goddamn grade school principal. “I mean, if I have anything to say about it.”
“Fine.” Haymitch sits himself down on the nearest couch and gestures across to the armchair for Peeta to take it. “Say what you’ve got to.”
Peeta nods, but doesn’t talk, not yet. He sits where he’s told, probably how he’s told, hands in his lap but not wringing even a notch.
“I’ve got a strategy,” he says.
Haymitch grins. “You don’t need my permission to knife her in the back.”
Well, that was an honest-to-god outburst, exclamation point and all. Loud enough to give Haymitch a start. Then again, he should’ve seen that coming since the train, and if not the train the fire, and if not the fire the gossip from the mentors in 1 and 2.
“No,” Haymitch repeats, draws it out. “Fine. You gonna lay down your life for her? All that does is lose your folks next year’s round of tessera grain. Well, not that yours care.”
“I said I have a strategy, not a deathwish.” Peeta glowers, all blue-eyed and bright, and Haymitch remembers back when he was nine and Nicke Mellark beat him up for putting a turd of gooseshit in his lunchbox. Good times, back then. Good times.
“Well then don’t let me stop you from telling it, General.”
Peeta rolls his eyes, and then there goes the rest of his interview-posture, elbows-to-knees now, head hanging low. “Katniss is good,” he says. “Really good. She can take care of herself out there, but she’s not going to trust anyone, and since everyone’s going to be on her case anyway she’s got no chance of getting a valuable ally. Except maybe Rue from Eleven. But I think between the two of us we can keep her alive, right?”
Haymitch laughs. “I thought you said you didn’t have a deathwish.”
“I don’t. I just want her to live. And I don’t think I can live without her.”
Now, if Peeta didn’t sound as serious as a gas leak, Haymitch would laugh hard enough to break the bugs in the walls. As it stands, there’s no hope of wiping the grin off his jaw, not even with that kid looking daggers and pitchforks at him. But love, love’s serious business when you’re sixteen. Haymitch knows, and a fair sight better than Peeta thinks he does.
“You can’t live without her.”
“That’s what I said, Haymitch.”
“Well then you’re the luckiest man I’ve met this week. I’ve seen your odds, they aren’t that good.”
“I’m in love with her,” Peeta says, like it’s the moon and the stars and a gun to his jaw and a lined fur coat just in time for winter. “I’ve been in love with her since we were kids.”
“You’re still kids.”
“Doesn’t matter. It’s true. And I’m not playing to win. I’m playing to keep her alive. And that’s my strategy.”
“That’s not a strategy. That’s what we call an objective.”
“Fine,” Peeta says, throws up his hands, sinks into the armchair. “Fine. It’s an objective. But I think if I let everyone know that, they’ll—”
Peeta smiles. It isn’t his mother’s smile, but it sure as hell isn’t his father’s either. “Yeah. Everyone.”
“Well.” Haymitch runs it in his head: in twenty-three years of mentoring, fifteen years of watching, and one year of winning, he’s never heard anything of the kind. The tributes have loved their mentors—and it worked for Finnick and the piece he keeps an open secret in Four, that’s for sure—and they’ve had their Arena flings, their Penelopes back home, their pipe dreams, their beloved sponsors. But no—no one’s ever called that kind of dibs on someone else going in, not in the last forty years. And the Capitol loves its teenage romance, its doomed stupid kids, its pulp. “Well, that’s a strategy,” he says. “Does she know?”
Peeta shakes his head. “And I’m pretty sure she doesn’t love me either. Owes me, maybe. It’s complicated.”
“Well, we’ve got a few more hours, and you’ll only have three minutes up there, a minute or less on this. Lay it on me, kid.”
When Peeta takes the kind of breath that makes it look like he’s got to run through a room on fire, Haymitch gets up from the couch and offers him a drink. Peeta declines. Fine, his funeral.
“So how does she owe you?”
“For two loaves of bread and the shiner I got for giving them to her,” Peeta says, and from the look on his face he didn’t mind the shiner so much. “We were twelve and she was starving. So I gave her some bread. And she’s been avoiding me ever since. I mean, she comes to my house to sell her squirrels—”
Haymitch can’t help snickering.
“—and to buy bread sometimes when she can afford it. But she doesn’t talk to me in school or anything. Well, she doesn’t talk much in school at all. The most she’s ever said to me was on the train after the Reaping. And more, since then. We talked in training, like you told us to do.”
“So what, she’s got a boyfriend?”
“Yeah. Gale Hawthorne, far as I can tell. They come to our door together. I think they hunt together.”
“So she’s a hunter.”
“Like I said, I’ve eaten her squirrels.” Peeta pauses. “That came out wrong.”
“You and I are the only ones here who know she can hunt, right?”
“Well, you, the Gamemakers and I, I guess,” Peeta says, shrugs into the armchair. “I don’t know how else she pulled an eleven. But no, she didn’t do any shooting when we were down there.”
“Well, that’s the first secret you keep,” Haymitch tells him. “If you think dropping this little bomb’s gonna make things easier for her, you’ve got to pick and choose how much you share. Tell them you’ve been in love since you were knee-high, sure, but don’t give specifics. Let them want to keep you alive so you can tell more of the story. First rule of trying to keep someone else alive in the Arena: don’t get yourself killed. You can’t do her any more good dead than alive. Got it?”
“Good. Now tell me another story. Save the bread. How’d you know you were in love?”
“When we were six and I head her sing.”
“You merchant kids move fast.”
“The Capitol’s gonna love that. Save it for when you’re in there. She sings?”
“She sings like an angel, Haymitch.” That Peeta can say that with a straight face means either it’s true, or it’s as true as however many years of teenage hormones can make him believe. “The birds stop to listen.”
Haymitch has heard that before. Or, well, he’s heard the silence before, the emptiness that thrills the air and scours it down to make room for one voice, one clear and easy voice with nothing but breath and hope behind it. Haymitch remembers it, and however many years its been since he heard Garrett Everdeen sing, he’s hearing it now, it and nothing else.
All he says is, “Well, she must’ve picked that up from her father.”
And “I guess,” is all Peeta says in return, so Haymitch shelves the memory and thinks, just maybe, he’ll ask the girl about it if the moment comes along.
Haymitch shakes his head, gets back to work. “Save that, too. See if you can get her to sing.”
Peeta smiles, same as before, that head-in-his-hands smile that’s as much in spite of itself as because of anything else. “If I manage that, I won’t have to do anything else to keep her alive.”
“This is all real romantic, kid, but I don’t think you know what you’re dealing with—”
“I do know. And you’d know too, if you’d listen to me.”
While that little outburst was definitely less surprising than the first one, Haymitch still can’t help watching Peeta all through it. There’s that spark that told Haymitch this year might be the year, there’s the challenge, the stubbornness, everything he needs to get his fool self killed if the odds aren’t in his favor.
“This is my objective,” Peeta says. “And this is my strategy. I’m not going in there to win. I’m going in there to keep the woman I love alive. And I’m going to market myself like that, for as long as the audience lets me, whether you have any advice for me or not. I’m going to tell them I’m in love, and that it’s more than just a crush, and I’m going to make them love her too, and that’s how she’s going to win. And you can finally bring a tribute home, because for once you’ve got someone working with you, not against you.”
The cameras are gonna love this boy, whether the girl does or not.
“Your mama raised you better than I thought,” Haymitch says. He needs a drink. He’s not gonna get one. “All right. Let’s talk you through the interview.”