He’d been back to the Capitol before, on the Victory Tour that was enough of a nightmare. Though to be honest, he thought it was far worse in Nine, Eight, Four, Two, and One, trying to make remarks that somehow politely skirted the blunt obviousness of So your kid didn’t come back because I actually killed them. He hadn’t known their names then, because all those names in a field of forty-eight were just a blur, but he knew them now. Vetch, Lea, Esca, Remus, Aurelia, and Sapphire held pride of place in his nightmares along with Maysilee and Ash and Briar and his mother. He could practically feel the hatred boiling at him in One for the girl he’d killed with cleverness and her own axe, the girl they obviously thought should have won. In every district he found somewhere for just a little space before dinner because after the crowds and the speeches, he needed to be alone. The dusty dome of Eleven’s Justice Building. An empty pasture in Ten covered in clover. A clifftop in Four and he threw rocks just to watch them splash in the water below rather than flying back to his hand.
He survived the Victory Tour and the empty house in Victor’s Village. But standing at the reaping was worse yet because that made it all real and set in stone, that his year was done and every year now for the rest of his life he’d be going to the Capitol with two kids and at least one of them wouldn’t be coming on back. Wouldn’t take much to beat the current record of forty-six years between District Twelve victors. He stood there on the stage and wanted to be anywhere else. If Maribelle Donner in the seventeens or Briar’s little sister Hazelle in the group of fourteens got called, he thought he might actually throw up. But Larkspur Taylor was the same year in school he’d been in anyway, the tailor’s quiet daughter who did well at math, and he didn’t know her well but he recognized her so it was bad enough. Ash wasn’t in the twelves, of course, he was buried in the graveyard, though Haymitch would trade six years of anxiety at the possibility of having to mentor his little brother as a tribute just to have him back alive. The name was called and Dean Gordon was twelve and Seam and reminded him of Ash too much anyway.
He spent the train ride to the Capitol desperately racking his brains for anything to tell them, how to give them anything useful in the space of a week. He had the sense his frustrated agitation was just making them more nervous. He could teach them a few skills, sure. In that short a time he couldn’t teach them how to survive, how to have that instinct for it. How to look at the Cornucopia and the terrain and their speed and that of the other tributes and in the space of less than a minute, be able to judge the risks versus the necessity of its rewards. How to know when to hide and when and how to confront. If he had five years or more like Careers, he could definitely have made something of them. As was, he was grasping at straws.
President Snow called him in as he delivered Larkspur and Dean to the stylists for their prep before the chariot rides, out into the sun-drenched rose gardens surrounding his mansion. He walked the cobblestone paths and tried to not stare at the blossoms of white and red and pink and yellow, remembering the white rose left by the shed as his childhood house in the Seam burned, and the enormous condolence bouquet that arrived the day of the funerals. He tried to not breathe in the thick, heady scent of roses because in his head it would always mix with the thick iron smell of blood.
In a way he’d have preferred the way his last interview with the president went, in the office with its huge granite slab desk on a raised dais, no chairs, oppressive dark wood and half-drawn shades. There was no pretense in that place, meant solely to intimidate and impress. The weird informality of this little garden set him on alert already, and so did all those roses. “Welcome back to the Capitol, Mr. Abernathy,” Snow said with that lizard-eyed, thick-lipped smile, as Haymitch paused five feet away, seeing him clip blossoms from the bushes and put them in a basket slung over his arm. Out here like that, he looked like a middle-aged man with the charming hobby of gardening, not the evil incarnate who annually made child murderers and child-murderers, not the judgmental god who’d burned Haymitch’s family for making him look stupid. The harmlessness of all of this unsettled him, and it set his spine tingling with a shiver of awareness. “I imagine you’ll find your return here will be one of open arms and we’ll all be watching your first tributes with great interest.”
“Y’all really do love a victor around here,” Haymitch agreed neutrally, trying to not let his eyes flick to the pruning shears and wondering if he could wrench them away and kill the bastard. He decided it wasn’t going to happen, unfortunately, given that he could count at least four Peacekeepers with a good line of sight and twitchy trigger fingers. “Why, I might even pass muster around here, now that I’ve grown up a bit from your usual underfed Twelve trash.” He felt the hot satisfaction that despite whatever growth treatment they’d apparently pumped in him to put his height up to a pleasing Capitol standard while they stuffed his guts back in and scrubbed off his scars, he’d stopped at five ten and stubbornly refused to gain that last inch or two they wanted. It felt like a little victory.
The eyes narrowed and studied him like a mouse ready for devouring. “You seem to still labor under the impression that constant insolence passes for cleverness.”
“Smart enough to outwit your Gamemakers, wasn’t I?” He could afford to mouth off. Snow had killed everyone in his life already. There was a strange freedom in that, having nobody to protect. He didn’t see any point in bootlicking and fawning like they both didn’t know who had set that fire. Twelve might buy it was an unfortunate tragedy. Haymitch didn’t. The roses spoke loud enough.
“I would have hoped you’d have taken your lesson regarding the consequences of insubordination to heart. It appears not.” Snow at least did him the credit of assuming he had the brains to understand what had happened and why.
“From where I’m standing,seems like you’ve got nobody left to kill for me, so why not be honest with each other here?” For Ash and Briar and his mother and their dying like that being reduced to a simple dismissive lesson, he was raging inside, filled with the need to prod and goad and fight, to not just bend his neck and mumble what was Snow wanted to hear. Yes, Mr. President, sorry for the trouble, I’ll be a good boy now. “Capitol folks didn’t exactly like me for my politeness, after all.”
Now the smile spread like hot butter in the sun, oily and thick. “Dear boy. For all your pretense at nonchalance, you certainly formed an attachment to the Donner girl easily.” I see through you, his eyes said.
“She was cute, she was from home, and she spent close to two weeks helping me in the business of not getting killed. I call that plenty of incentive to like her.” The ever-present cameras had already stolen more than enough of whatever it was he and Maysilee had, and he wasn’t going to pull it out for Snow’s satisfaction. He could keep up the pretense at indifference all damn day here, determined that Snow had already made him bleed on camera for all of Panem, so he damn well wouldn’t see him sweat. His hands were clasped behind his back by this point and with his right thumb he was nervously rubbing the braided leather band Ash had given him as a district token last year. He didn’t like the look on Snow’s face. It spoke too much of satisfaction, of smug assurance of having something in the bag. “We were allies. It’s not like we were busy fucking each other for your little cameras.” He deliberately said fucking, being the crude uncivilized boy from barbaric District Twelve against this man and all his smooth veneer of civilization and sophistication.
It got the desired effect. He caught a faint look of distaste of Snow’s face. This was a man who sent kids to carve each other up on television and the word fucking made him looked like he just bit down on a sour green berry. “Anyway, I already had a girl back home, didn’t I...at least until she somehow forgot how to go out the front door of a burning house.” He wondered if the door had been barred shut or if somehow, mercifully, they’d already been dead or unconscious.
He waited for the acknowledgment, needing to hear him just say outright and open, Yes I did it, I had them killed. Nothing about lessons or a demonstration--simple admitting to murder. Instead, Snow snipped another rose and asked him, “Are you still a virgin, Mr. Abernathy?” Casual as asking if Haymitch liked mint tea or whether he thought it might rain today.
That pretty much ground Haymitch’s mind to full stop for a second. “What?” It took him a few seconds to recover and pop off the smart remark. “Gee, I don’t think you’re my type, sir.” Did the man even have sex? Snow apparently had a daughter, so apparently he had the juices to get it up in there somewhere, or at least he had at some point.
Another of those little dry as dust smiles. “Nor are you mine. I asked you a question. The courteous thing to do would be to answer.”
“No,” he spat, not sure why he lied but not willing to give him even that much information. Before he got reaped, he and Briar fooled around enough like a couple of randy teenagers would, but they hadn’t done it, not all the way. He was sure the Capitol had about a million ways to deal with it, but about the only thing in Twelve to prevent a baby was a tonic a girl had to take every day. The apothecary made it clear he didn’t hold with selling it to irresponsible horny Seam kids who shouldn’t be having sex anyway yet because they weren’t old enough for a job so they shouldn’t risk making more brats they couldn’t feed. So about the only thing to do was hold on till eighteen and a job because nobody wanted to risk having a kid while they were yet of reaping age. There had been a boy last year from Nine who already had a wife and a baby at home. Haymitch clearly remembered a few years ago another girl in the Games with a big belly. It was rare but it had happened. Typical Capitol response: five minutes of cooing in sympathy and then switching gears, looking at the young mother or father with the greedy glint of speculation, wondering just how much harder that baby would make them fight to live.
Snow nodded and neatly tucked the pink-edged yellow rose in his basket. “You are, I see.”
Feeling the heat flaring in his cheeks, Haymitch asked through gritted teeth, “Is there a point to this?”
He turned to another bush and examined its blossoms, touching it tenderly as a parent to a beloved child, not even looking at Haymitch while he spoke. It made Haymitch want to go yank the entire thing up by the roots. Maybe set it on fire, set the whole garden on fire. “Understandably, given there being no other living District Twelve victors, some of the life of a victor here in the Capitol during the Games will not have been made clear to you. Most Capitol citizens have never met a victor from Twelve. You’re a Quell victor. And your endgame tactics aside, the tragedy of Miss Donner has made you the subject of some interest. You also possess a certain, shall we say, rakish charm in your way. In short, you’re new and novel and thus may expect to be quite popular here in the Capitol.”
And this has to do with my sex life how? “Thanks for the concern. I think I can fend off the screaming fans with designs on my precious virtue.”
Snow ignored his comment. “While in the Capitol, in addition to your duties as a mentor to your tributes, you will be expected to serve as an ambassador for your district. People will express interest in having you as a guest for social events. You’re already committed for the public festivities the night before the Games open--all victors in the Capitol will be present. There will be other events like that. However, there will also be more private affairs from Capitol citizens that you will be invited to attend. My office will inform you when something is scheduled. You’ll go to those engagements, Mr. Abernathy, and do whatever your hosts expect of you. It usually demands social intercourse. It may well involve sexual intercourse. You’ll be a gracious guest in either case and satisfy them.”
Put plain as that, there was no misunderstanding it, and Haymitch’s eyes went wide. No, he hadn’t expected that. Ideally he would have had some smart and defiant remark ready to sling right back. But he’d been hit, full stop. He’d thought having his family murdered was as low as it could sink in terms of punishment, that having taken his licks he could just hide from Snow as much as possible for the rest of his life. Seeing what he had thought was safe ground crumble, watching another gulf open up right before his feet and being told he’d be expected to jump in threw him. So instead what came out was a panicked thin childish whine, “You can’t, I mean, you already killed them...” He hated himself even as it grated in his own ears, because there was that smirk again when Snow heard how he’d knocked him off balance.
“In retrospect perhaps I should have left your brother alive,” he shrugged. “However, be that as it may, there are others. You’ll learn obedience, Haymitch, at whatever cost you choose. If you refuse, I turn first to the sisters of your two ladies. Maribelle Donner and Hazelle Wainwright. I can have them killed. I can have them tortured. I can have them turned into Avoxes. I can have them reaped.” Anyone in Twelve hated a sense of owing. But to the Donners and the Wainwrights, there couldn’t ever be repayment for the two girls who died simply because they hitched their star to him and in the end he failed them. He would owe their families a debt for the rest of his life, and already owing them far too much like that, he could hardly cause them more sorrow. Snow saw that and he grabbed Haymitch right in the blood-guilt and gave it a twist, trusting it would bring him to his knees. He was right. Haymitch felt himself swaying already. But the old man went on, ruthless and cold and overwhelming as a blizzard, talking blandly about murder and torture while he gently handled those roses.
“If you remain stubborn after them, you have old friends. Burt Everdeen. Jonas and Lorna Hawthorne. Reema McPhee. Murray Gunnall.” His eyes bored into Haymitch like coals as he recited the names, telling him that he knew his weak points. “You also have some cousins on your mother's side. If you still persist, District Twelve's Head Peacekeeper may be replaced with someone who quite favors the lash and the noose. Tesserae rations may sometimes be unfortunately slow in delivery. Coal quotas may increase. The reaping bowl may have a bad habit of picking only twelves and thirteens who mysteriously will never find a sponsor. And you’ll look at all of it, Haymitch, with the knowledge that your people suffer for your choice. You and I are both aware your sense of obligation to those of your particularly clannish little district will overcome your pride long before I run out of those I may use as persuasion. So I suggest we skip your usual habit of bleating token defiance at me and you simply agree it’s inevitable.”
He looked and saw no forcefield, no chink to exploit to escape this. They might not be his family but all of Twelve was clannish, like Snow said, and their lives were hard enough already, and he couldn’t make them hurt more for his sake. Some in Twelve already knew about swallowing their pride like this and if they could do it simply to have food to eat, he had few excuses for not gritting his teeth.
He remembered being a little kid and his mother going out after dinner, coming home late in the night and quietly putting coins in the old lard can or food in the pantry. She cried a few times, when she thought he and Ash were both asleep and didn’t hear. He wondered if this was how she had felt that first night, looking at some Peacekeeper’s door, not wanting to knock but knowing she had to do it. He wondered if she’d felt this same thing, this despair and shame and resigned inevitability. He wished she were there, that he could talk to her because she’d understand. But she died, because he refused to die by their terms.
So they’d made him a killer last year, and now they’d make him a whore. Well, at least he got the far worse stain out of the way first. He simply nodded, tight muscles and clenched fists, not trusting himself to speak.
“Very good. Once the Games begin, you can expect no engagements while your duties as a mentor are required.” So in other words, training time was fair game but once the gong sounded, so long as his tributes were alive, he was off the market.
He turned to go, willing his feet and his knees to be steady. He looked back over his shoulder, unable to resist one last jab. What shreds of pride he had left demanded it. “You didn’t mention payment. If you’re making me a whore, I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to get paid.” He dared the man to deny the word, to try to substitute it with some pretty euphemism like companion or whatever. They already called a bunch of murderous walking dead victors.
He should have expected the man had a ready slapdown answer for anything he could say. ”What gifts your patrons may give are yours to keep. As to payment, it’s being given in advance. I think the continued security of the people of District Twelve is more than sufficient. You asked that we be honest with each other, Haymitch. So we have been. You’re no longer an ignorant child. Follow the rules or else the consequences will be harsh.” With that he stepped forward and tucked a white rose into the buttonhole of Haymitch’s lapel, marking him like a dog pissing on its territory, breathing that blood-rose breath on him.