This is part of the 52 stories in 52 challenge created by ourwritintherapy on tumblr. The prompt for week 6 is : A story about finding something that has been lost.

This one is soooo long guys… It totally got away from me. Katniss' pov is often a challenge for me so I hope you will like this hayffie story through her eyes. It's a slight deviation from canon at the end of MJ that should become obvious once you're a few paragraphs in and I'm going from there… So, it does look sad at first glance but do keep the prompt in mind? Trust me haha. Papa!Haymitch and Mama!Effie feels a plenty with some everlark on top for good measure. Enjoy and please leave some feedback if you read this monster!


The Case Of The Missing Escort


It was on a trip back from the bathroom that Katniss realized.

They had been back in Twelve for what she thought to be five days by that point and she had spent most of them lying on the couch, unwilling to face the empty house. She didn't care enough to try and obey Sae's gentle hints about taking a bath or getting fresh air. The only time she got up was to use the bathroom and even those trips were far and few in between.

She hadn't been surprised not to see Haymitch since he had brought her home, too certain he would have drown himself into a bottle as soon as he had slammed his front door shut. It was alright. She didn't need a minder and it was her fault if he had been sent back here. Well… It was a little bit his too but mostly, it was hers, and she had never denied him his derivatives. Some things were too painful to be faced.

Like losing a sister you loved more than anything.

Or, in his case, a brother and a mother.

Her own mother's absence wasn't a surprise either, on the contrary it was almost a relief. If she had been there, Katniss would have had to take care of her and without that burden… Without that burden she was free to be as miserable as she pleased. She could remain on that couch, die on it, and nobody would be the wiser.

Well… Except Sae. The old woman came and went without Katniss really acknowledging her. She liked her but she was an intruder to her grief and her grief was too big and too heavy for her to include other people in it.

She had grown used to that routine though. To Sae's on and off presence, to the woman forcing food into her, and to ignoring her prompting about showering and changing clothes. Which was why she was briefly dazed to find Haymitch sitting on the armchair by the window, his eyes watching something outside but his mind obviously far away. He was turning the battered golden bangle around his left wrist.

And that was when she realized.

She hadn't seen or heard from Effie Trinket since the night of the interviews before the Quell, since Plutarch had told her, all those months ago after the victors' rescue in Thirteen, that her whereabouts were unknown.

"Where's Effie?" she asked.

It was the first question she had worded since they had been back and she wasn't even particularly interested in the answer. She wasn't particularly interested in anything. She just wanted to lie down on the couch and let her mind drift to nothingness, to forget.

Haymitch's gaze slowly turned to her, almost hollow. His eyes were bloodshot and a little glassy and she wondered how much of the stash he had brought back with them he had already drunk.

"Gone." he answered after a minute and his voice was rough.

She sat back on her couch, dragged the blanket over herself so she could recreate the nest she wouldn't leave for hours.

"Gone gone or gone dead?" she insisted because the two were possible. That was what people always did, wasn't it? Either leave or die? In her experience, nobody ever stayed.

Well… Haymitch did, she supposed. There was always that.

"We never found her." He closed his eyes and then fished the familiar silver flask from his pocket to take a swing of whatever was inside. "They must have killed her when we were still in Thirteen. That's what Plutarch thinks anyway. Seems like the most probable. I looked everywhere else."

She could hear it in his voice, the kind of hollow exhaustion she felt down to her bones.

"You should stay here with me." she heard herself say. "Your house's too big."

"Your house's the same size, genius." he snorted without any humor.

"It's too big too." she retorted and then she rolled over, facing the back of the couch, tugging the blanket higher on her shoulder and stopped paying attention.

Paying attention was exhausting.

She was vaguely aware Haymitch took her to her word and more or less permanently moved into that armchair to Sae's growing despair and annoyance. Neither of them really made an effort to be sociable. Sometimes they ate what the woman cooked for them, more often than not, they let it grow cold and she put it in the fridge with instructions about how long to warm it up.

The phone often rang. At first, Haymitch always bolted to answer it, always sounding hopeful although she wasn't sure about what. Eventually, he stopped bothering and they let it ring and ring.

Haymitch had terrible nightmares.

Two days out of three, she lied awake on the couch and listened to his whimpering, his helpless pleading for something or someone that always ended with him screaming himself awake and consuming a whole bottle of liquor.

Her nightmares weren't any better but she usually woke up from them safe in his arms, to his off-key humming.

Katniss wasn't sure how long that went on for.

"Spring's in the air." Sae commented one day, her hands on her hips. "You should go hunting."

Her eyes drifted to the clear blue sky she could glimpse through the window and, for a second, she felt tempted. After all those months spent in solitary confinement, withdrawing from the morphling, the idea of an open space was almost overwhelming.

"I don't have a bow." she opposed.

"I put everything in the study." Haymitch mumbled, his own mood not uplifted by the end of winter.

Everything, it turned out, meant every object she had ever cared about. The pearl Peeta had given her, her father's picture, the family plants book, her bows… And her father's leather jacket.

Everything seemed to go quickly after that.

Peeta came back and, with him, life.

It wasn't easy to learn how to function again, to get up in the morning, to force herself to do things, to live… There were a lot of bad days in the midst of progress.

At some point, Peeta moved in and Haymitch moved back to his own house.

She and Peeta found a new balance.

Haymitch didn't.

Alcohol wasn't easy to find in the rebuilding district and so he was limited to one or two binges a month if he didn't want to hit withdrawals before the next shipment. He came close a few times anyway. It seemed the only way he could exist nowadays was either drunk or, at the very least, buzzed.

Peeta hated it. Katniss tolerated it.

Making a book about fallen friends was her idea but it was one Peeta was only too happy to help with. Haymitch contributed sometimes. An anecdote here, a story there… He laughed sometimes, if he was drunk enough and if it was a good memory, he laughed a broken laugh that always ended into a small bitter sigh.

"We should do a page for Effie." Peeta suggested one morning, as they all sat around the kitchen table. He had been reviewing the entry they had added for Finnick the previous night, a picture of Annie's baby.

Haymitch sucked in a breath as if he had been punched. Katniss didn't think he had drunk yet that day. Dawn wasn't that far away and the only thing he had swallowed since he had showed up in their kitchen was some coffee and half a muffin. He never touched the blueberry ones anymore, she had noticed, even though they used to be his favorites.

"Yeah." he said slowly, rising his mug as if to bring it to his lips only to place it back down on the table. "Yeah, we should."

Katniss grabbed the jam she had gone to fetch in the pantry and slowly sat back down, her grey eyes riveted to him. Peeta wasn't oblivious either, it would have been hard to miss the sadness on their mentor's face, the sudden tightness of his mouth. The way he automatically reached for the bangle he was still wearing…

She wasn't sure where that came from, really, that open grief about their escort. She was pretty sure they had hated each other's guts. She would have sworn they had hated each other's guts. But the way Haymitch was acting… Even when they had discussed Chaff, he had been quicker to hide his sorrow.

Every time Effie was mentioned, it looked like someone stabbed him in the chest.

"I will draw her." Peeta decided with more cheer than strictly necessary. He selected a spot in the leather-bound book with a couple of blank pages and ran his palm on one of them. "In that pink dress. Remember the pink dress?"

Peeta's tone was tentative, almost cautious, and he directed his question toward her rather than to Haymitch. Good memories. That was what the book was for. Remembering dead friends, make it about everything they loved instead of the sad fact that they had died…

"She liked that dress." she nodded with a worried glance of her own for Haymitch.

"And I will make her wig gold." her boyfriend promised.

"No." Haymitch snapped, his hand bundling into a fist. "She was… She was more than just an escort. We should… We're not gonna remember her like that. That was just her mask. That wasn't who she was. No wig. No… Red. Red was her best color." His face crumpled and, before Katniss and Peeta could have done more than exchange a look, he scoffed and rubbed his eyes. "Never mind. She would have hated that. You're right. Gold wig, pink dress. That's fine."

"Alright." Peeta offered after clearing his throat. "Do you want to write it yourself or…"

He shook his head. "What I've got to say about her can't fit on two pages, boy."

He took his flask out and left.

Neither of them were surprised when they went looking for him around dinner time that night to find him passed out in a puddle of his own sick. Peeta helped him clean himself up and tucked him into bed. Katniss, meanwhile, looked through the various yellowish magazine clips and pictures scattered on the coffee table. They went back decades earlier, some were of a very young Haymitch with other victors… Most of them were more recent and were of him and Effie. Some of the pictures…

"I think they were together." she whispered when Peeta came back downstairs.

"That's his personal stuff. You shouldn't be looking." he chided her – yet he still took a look himself, and was just as shocked to see a blond woman that could only be Effie without wig or make-up. "Let's go home."

She clung to him that night. It was too easy to imagine losing Peeta, too easy to remember a time when she had lost him. She didn't sleep a lot and Peeta didn't either, he spent half the night petting her hair. Around four, they both gave up and got up. She went hunting and he headed to the cellar with a fresh pot of coffee. She supposed he wanted to paint.

When she came back home well after lunch, the remembrance book was open in the middle of the table and Effie Trinket's face was staring back at her, all in pastel and gold, caught in the middle of a laugh. She looked fabulous, just like she ought to be.

Katniss felt a tinge of guilt for having forgotten about her for so long.

She ventured down the stairs to the cellar Peeta had converted into a painting studio. There were a lot of canvas propped against the walls, waiting for the paint to dry. Some of them were nightmarish and didn't make a lot of sense, like his mind when he lost control she supposed. She recognized the landscapes on others – the arenas, the Capitol under the bombs, some places in Twelve that didn't exist anymore, some that still did. A couple were portraits of herself, one was particularly daring and made her raise her eyebrows because he had painted her naked back, her neck strained so she was looking toward the painter, her braided hair falling on one shoulder and she was pretty sure that look didn't belong on her face. Or maybe it did on certain occasions but she hadn't been aware she could look like that. She looked… She didn't know if she liked that one or if it made her want to blush. There were a few sketches too…

And on the easel, a medium size oil portrait of Effie Trinket was staring back at her, her red dress a splash of color against the grayish-blue background. She had no wig on, blond hair curled freely around her head, even a little wildly, she was not wearing any make-up either and Katniss found her features a little different from what she remembered without it. Softer, maybe.

Peeta was washing his hands at the small sink in the corner of the room.

"Do you think he will like it?" he asked.

"How did you know what she looked like?" she frowned. He hadn't looked at the pictures long enough the previous night to commit her face to memory like that. And the make-up… The make-up changed everything. Haymitch hadn't been wrong when he had talked about masks.

"I remember." he shrugged, wiping his hands on a stained towel he kept next to the sink. "She was with us at first. I think."

There was a crease between his eyebrows, like there always was when he was trying to figure out something from his time in the cells. It was usually best to distract him before it could lead to an episode. It happened now and then. "It's beautiful."

"I just hope it helps him." he shrugged.

"Me too." she whispered, but she wasn't optimistic.

And she was right not to be.

Haymitch accepted the portrait but neither she nor Peeta could figure out where he put it because they never saw it exposed anywhere. They never asked either, aware that their mentor wouldn't like their acknowledging of his pain.

So life went on, stuck in that routine.

Katniss and Peeta learned how to live together, learned how to navigate the difficulties of being an actual couple. They fought sometimes but they could never remain mad at each other for too long. Once, she stormed out in anger and couldn't go further than the yard's gate before turning back and running into his arms.

They had been separated enough.

She couldn't bear the thought of losing him again.

They learned.

Sometimes, she even forgot to be sad about Prim. Of course, it only made her twice as desperate afterwards, when she realized.

Haymitch reverted back to who he had been before the war, before the seventy-fourth Hunger Games. He hardly ever left his house, he spent most of his time drinking and he didn't eat if she, Peeta or Sae didn't remind him to. He had lost a lot of weight in Thirteen, it was almost scary how skinny he now was for a man of his built. Katniss could count his ribs under the thin shirts he wore in summer.

"I'm worried." she whispered to Peeta one night, after they had finished dinner and Haymitch had stepped on the back porch. They had brought food to his house like they always did on the nights it became obvious he wouldn't come over by himself. They usually left some in his fridge just in case he got hungry later but the leftovers often remained there for days. "Try to talk to him."

Peeta didn't exactly look happy with the task but he nodded all the same, pecking her lips before joining him outside.

She didn't mean to pry but she wanted to do the dishes in hopes it would make the smell more bearable in that house – more and more she was thinking of finding him a new housekeeper because he had gone back to treating his home like a dumpster and that was no way to live – and the backdoor and the window were both open wide because of the warm weather. Voices floated to her as she quickly washed the plates and glasses.

"Since when do you smoke?" Peeta sighed.

She chanced a glance through the window, indeed spotting the red glow of a cigarette in Haymitch's hand.

"I don't. It's just occasional." Haymitch snorted as if it was a private joke. And it sounded terribly sad.

"What's the occasion, then?" her boyfriend insisted, more gently.

Katniss put the plates and glasses to dry and moved on to gathering the empty bottles that seemed to accumulate on every flat surface. For the longest time, Haymitch didn't answer and the only sound in the summer night was the clicking of glass when she accidentally bumped bottles together.

"It's her birthday." their mentor eventually whispered, so low she almost didn't catch it. "That's her favorite brand."

Peeta sighed again. "Don't smoke the whole thing, alright? You will make yourself sick."

"So what?" Haymitch chuckled bitterly.

Peeta probably had a few good answers to that but Katniss stepped out before he could say anything, quietly declaring it was time to go home. She understood Haymitch better than she liked sometimes. He pushed it to the limits because it hurt so much inside he wanted a physical pain to hold on to.

"We need to do something." Peeta said, later, when they were cuddling in their bed. "It can't go on like this."

"Short of bringing her back to life, I don't think there's anything we can do." she retorted, perhaps too harshly.

He didn't suggest anything else and she was too angry to apologize. At him for saying stupid things because nothing made that sort of pain better, at herself for being mean and at Haymitch for being so broken.

On they went.

Summer turned into fall.

Peeta started working on rebuilding his family's bakery.

She started selling most of her daily game to Sae's new restaurant.

Haymitch started giving thoughtful looks to his old hunting knife.

Fall slowly died into winter.

One day, she detoured by Haymitch's house on her way back from a hunt, burying into her father's leather jacket because the wind was icy. It would snow soon, she mused, she gave it two weeks before winter truly reached them.

She found him on his back porch, in nothing but a dirty thin white long sleeved-shirt and checkered sweatpants, bare feet despite the weather. An almost empty bottle was precariously dangling between his fingers. He was staring at the three geese she had seen wandering around his backyard for a few days now.

"Who are your friends?" she asked, propping her bow on the side of his house and dropping her messenger bag in the dust before coming to sit on the steps next to him.

He smelled bad. Unwashed skin, sweat, dirty clothes, moonshine and a faint hint of puke.

Peeta forced him into the bathtub sometimes, when he was too far gone to realize, but he always sulked for days afterwards. He hated his body being handled while he was too out of it to do it himself. Still, it always came to a point when there was no other choice and they were nearing it again.

"They won't leave." he grumbled. "Think they're nesting. Stupid things."

"You could keep them." she suggested.

"No." he spat. "Don't want them."

"How about a dog?" she insisted because that was Peeta's latest idea to get him a little more invested in everyday life. "Thom's Samoyed just got a litter of puppies and…"

"Pets die!" he roared and she flinched because she hadn't thought he was that drunk. He bolted to his feet without much coordination and rushed at the birds, gesticulating frantically until they fled in a chorus of outraged honking. He tossed his bottle after them. His wild aim didn't even come close to the fleeing geese but the glass shattered when it hit the ground. "Everyone die! Pets! Kids! Family! Everyone fucking die!" He kicked the dust with his bare toes and then he started laughing, turning back to face her, opening his arms wide only to let them fall. He sounded deranged and broken. "Except me. I never die." His speech was slurred, the words melting together on his fuzzy tongue. "Drop me in an arena, I'm gonna come back. Drop me in a backstabbing city, I'm gonna come back. Drop me in a war, I'm gonna come back." The fight seemed to have left him and he trudged back to the steps. He flopped back down next to her and leaned his head against the banister, wrapping both hands around a wobbly wooden bar as if to better anchor himself. "I always come back and they're always dead and I'm always alone."

And I just want to die.

That part was left unsaid but she heard it anyway. She had thought it herself more than once in the past.

Her eyes were burning with tears she refused to shed when she looped her own arms around his biceps and rested her whole weight against his side. "You're not alone. I'm here."

The tension seemed to leave his body and his face softened. "Yeah. You are. Best daughter I've never had."

She laughed but it was more sad than amused. "We won't leave you. Peeta and I. We all stick together, alright? It's gonna get better, Haymitch."

"Don't think it's gonna get better this time, sweetheart." he sighed but he still dropped his head on top of hers. They stayed like that for a while and it was nice, even if he smelt atrocious. She was about to make a joke about that when he took a deep breath. His tone was complicated – conflicted maybe. "I loved her."

"I know." she confessed. Because she had figured that much out.

"I really, really did." he insisted, slouching a little with the pain those words inflicted. "She died thinking I didn't care and, that, I can't ever… I can't ever take it back. I can't ever make it right. She died thinking I fucking didn't care and I don't even know how…" He stopped talking and rubbed his face. "I don't know if it was quick or… I don't know if she was alone or scared or… I don't know."

"Would it help?" she asked cautiously. "If we could find out?"

"I've spent months trying to find her." he admitted. "It's hopeless."

"Why wasn't she in Thirteen with us?" she asked. She had been wondering since the whole 'it turns out Haymitch and Effie didn't hate each other after all' thing had turned up.

"She was supposed to. Something went wrong." he spat. "She was captured. I tried to find her. We know she was with the victors at some point because Jo said so but… Then, she vanished. They killed Portia and the prep team and I thought… But there was no footage, no body, no fucking taunts… So I figured she was still alive. I figured… The not-knowing… The hoping… That's what gets to you, you know?" He scoffed and sat a bit straighter but he was swaying a little. "Yeah. You know. You've been there."

She had been there. Hand in hand with Finnick. And all that time she had been unaware her mentor had been going through the very same thing.

"Why didn't you tell me?" she whispered.

He shook his head, resting it against the banister again. "I know you've got a shitty understanding of how this thing works but I'm the mentor. I'm supposed to take care of you. Not the other way around."

Would she even had listened? Thirteen had been… She had been angry at him because of Peeta. Lost and scared and confused.

She tightened her grip on his arm, alarmed at how cold he was. How long had he been sitting outside without proper winter gear?

"I'm the best daughter you've never had." she argued. "Daughters take care of their dad too, you know. Two ways street." She stood up and dragged him to his feet. "Come on. We need to get you inside before you freeze to death."

He let himself be hauled to his feet and followed after her. If his grey eyes were a little misty, she pretended not to notice.

"You're the only thing I've got left." he muttered, once she had settled him in his kitchen and she had made him a hot mug of strong tea. "You and the boy. I want to do better for you. But…"

"You loved her." she finished. And it was an explanation in itself.

Without Peeta… After everything she had been through, they had been through, she didn't think she would have made it without Peeta. She would have survived, maybe. But she would never have learned to live again.

Like Haymitch had turned to his liquor, she might have gone back to morphling. Or something equivalent. Anything to stop the pain, both physical and emotional. She struggled still sometimes. Her body yearning for the drugs they had pumped her with after the explosion. There were moments she could almost feel the light weight of the tablets melting on her tongue.

"She died 'cause of that." he scowled, staring at the brown liquid in the mug. "'Cause I was too fucking selfish." He pushed the tea away and closed his eyes, burying his face in his hands. "It's killing me, sweetheart. I don't even know when it happened. I've lost her and I don't even know when. I keep thinking… Was she still alive when I did this or… Was it because I did that… Did she hurt? Did she hate me? It's… It's killing me."

She couldn't bear the silent tears that caught in the out of control beard. She came to stand behind him and wrapped her arms tight around his shoulders and she just held him until he had let it out. He kept repeating he was sorry the whole time, as if letting her see him cry was the worst thing that had ever happened to her.

He was drunk and embarrassed and it was very awkward when he eventually moved away from her and mumbled something about needing a nap when she could guess what he really wanted was to be alone so he could have a proper meltdown.

She grabbed the bow and the bag she had left outside and went home in slow tired steps.

Peeta was in their living-room, trying to make a new framed painting hang straight on their mantelpiece. He turned back when he heard her come in and frowned at the determined expression on her face. "What's going on?"

"We're going to find out what happened to Effie." she declared and hearing it aloud only cemented that decision. They owed it to their escort. And it might bring Haymitch some well-needed closure.

Peeta stared at her for a moment and then nodded. "Where do we start?"

They started with Plutarch because it seemed like the most logical person to go to.

"I understand, Katniss." the former Head Gamemaker sighed in the phone once the small talk was out of the way and she had explained what she wanted. "But I have been trying to find out for more than a year, as Haymitch is well aware."

"He said she was supposed to be brought to Thirteen with my prep team." she countered. "What happened?"

She was sitting at the kitchen table, a notebook open in front of her, ready to write down everything the Capitol man could tell her. Peeta was sitting across from her, listening to every word, ready to offer emotional support.

"There were a few people who needed to be evacuated from the Capitol at the same time we would rescue you from the arena." Plutarch patiently explained, regret in his voice. "Effie was one of them. To be very honest with you, I wasn't entirely in favor of her coming to Thirteen. Given her position as an escort… I misjudged, I will admit. I did not think she had given the Capitol any reason to doubt her loyalty and I thought Haymitch's insistence was rooted in more personal worries so I did not take all the precautions I usually would have. I thought she would be safer in the city but he refused to back down on her being brought into the rebellion. He wanted to keep her with him during the rescue mission and I insisted she would be safer on the second hovercraft. It proved to be a mistake. She was supposed to go back to her apartment where my team would have grabbed her but she was arrested before she reached it. It was out of the rebels' hands from that point forward."

Katniss scribbled down the few key information. "So she wasn't in on the rebellion at all?"

Not that it would have made much of a difference to Snow, she figured. If the President had known Effie and Haymitch were involved… Emotional blackmail had been Snow's weapon of choice. Effie would have been used like Annie had been, a guarantee that Haymitch would behave.

"She didn't know anything." Peeta confirmed, chewing on his nail. "They used her to… They hurt her to make me talk."

Plutarch must have heard because he cleared his throat. "I tried to locate her as early as our first few days in Thirteen. None of my agents could confirm with a hundred percent certainty where she was. We suspected she was detained in the Center with the victors but even so…"

"She wasn't on the list." she realized suddenly. And it was like a bucket of icy water had been poured over her head. She hadn't even spared one thought for her escort at that point. When she had made the list with Prim… Her only concern had been for Peeta – and by extension, Annie and Johanna – Effie had been so far from her mind… Hell, she had thought their escort was safe and sound having parties and cocktails. She hadn't suspected for one second that…

"No, she was not." the Capitol gently confirmed. "Not that it would have made a difference, Katniss. The rescue team did not see her. There were other prisoners down there, we know that for sure, but they did not see her. Johanna claimed she was kept with her for a long time and that they moved her a little before the rescue. I do not think Snow wanted to give her back just yet, between you and me."

"Alright." she said, still reeling from that realization. Peeta had grabbed her hand and was studying her with rapt attention but she kept her eyes on her notebook. "Then what?"

"Then, Portia Rose and Peeta's prep team were executed." the Head Gamemaker reminded her.

She slipped her fingers out of Peeta's grip to note that down. Peeta read what she had written and shook his head. "I never saw Portia and the boys down there. I'm sure."

She repeated the information to Plutarch who seemed to hesitate a second. "I am not surprised. On the execution footage… Portia and the prep team did not look too…" He stopped and audibly winced. "Katniss, I do not wish to upset you. Are you certain you…"

"Tell me." she snapped, as always irritated by people who thought it would be better for her not to know upsetting things. It wasn't better. It wasn't better for her and it wasn't better for Haymitch who was suffering because of it.

"By all accounts, unlike the stylist and the prep team, Effie Trinket was tortured during her time in captivity." Plutarch finally admitted, after a few more seconds of deliberation. "I am not surprised she would have been kept with the victors. I am sorry."

It was terrifying to imagine. Effie Trinket being beaten into submission.

Her mind flashed back to finding the prep team chained in Thirteen's cells and how horrible it had been because those three had been so sheltered until then, so innocent… And that hadn't even been that bad compared to… "Okay. But she wasn't executed with Portia, right?"

"Well, that's the big mystery." Plutarch answered. "Some of my sources insisted she was transferred to the Darkhill prison but that's when she disappeared. Prisoners of her status… Political prisoners, if you will, or prisoners whose identities Snow would rather keep secret… There were no real records. It was the most likely place for her to be but we didn't find her there or in any other Capitol prison, dead or alive, after our victory."

Katniss frowned. "If you didn't find her body…"

"Katniss." Plutarch said, almost cautious. "We did find a few corpses in those cells but they were recent deaths. There were months between our rescue of the victors and the surrender of the Capitol. If she died in that period…"

"They would have gotten rid of the body." she surmised.

Peeta's face grew somber and Katniss' grip tightened on her pen. The thought of her body being tossed in a mass grave or something even worse… She wouldn't have been the first without a proper grave. Almost everyone they had lost during the war didn't have a grave. But it was different for Effie. She liked propriety so much that it simply didn't feel… right.

"Yes." Plutarch said sadly. "I know Haymitch is not very happy with me right now and I can understand why he…" The former Head Gamemaker stopped and sighed. "I did try my best."

She reached out for Peeta's hand and remained silent for a long moment. Plutarch didn't seem to mind.

"There must be survivors." Peeta frowned. "Maybe we can ask them if they remember something or…"

"I tried that." Plutarch lamented when she had relayed the observation. "Prisoners had little contact between themselves. The level she would have been kept in… It was cruelty at its finest. Complete isolation. I also interrogated the surviving Peacekeepers but those responsible for that particular level… They have all been executed or had already committed suicide before I got to them. None of them could tell me anything useful aside for the fact she had been there at some point."

"And there weren't any cameras or anything we could use?" she despaired.

"Not at that particular level, no." Plutarch denied. "Snow didn't want any proof."

"But there must be something else we can do!" she snapped. "Maybe the cameras on the other floors got something. Maybe if we could look at the prison's security logs…"

"Katniss…" the Capitol sounded sorry, which really wasn't what she was after.

"No." She refused to accept that. She had promised herself she would give Haymitch closure and she would. "I need to find out what happened to her. It's important. I want to check the security logs."

"It won't tell you anything useful." the Secretary of Communication warned. "I looked everywhere for Effie Trinket, I swear. But if you must… All the activities regarding Snow's administration have been classified but I can get Beetee access. Would that be suitable?"

Beetee wasn't her favorite person in the whole world. She blamed Gale for what had happened to Prim but Beetee was right behind him on her list.

Still, she could work with him. For Haymitch.

"Alright." she agreed. "Tell him to call me as soon as he finds something. Thanks, Plutarch."

"No thanks needed." he promised. "I take it Haymitch is not… recovering from her loss?"

That was Haymitch's personal business and not something she would discuss with someone who wasn't a part of their team. "We need to find out what happened to her."

She left it at that.

"I hope you do." Plutarch offered. "She was an amazing woman."

"This isn't going to be easy." Peeta remarked, once she had hung up the phone. "But we really need to find out. Not just for Haymitch. She was… In those cells, she… She helped. I don't remember everything but…" The crease was back between his eyebrows and she reached out to run the pad of her thumb on the crumpled skin, soothing it. He relaxed under her touch, wrapping an arm around her waist and pulling her on his lap. They hugged each other for a long time, his face buried in her neck. When he whispered, it was hollow, unsure. "She protected me, Katniss. Every time she could, she… She was so brave… I didn't know anyone could be that brave."

"We will find out." she promised. "And when we do… Maybe we should give her a grave."

She didn't care much about that sort of things.

Her father had been swallowed by the earth and there had been no body to bury. Prim… It hadn't even been discussed. She didn't think there had been enough left to…

She didn't care about that sort of things but maybe it would help Haymitch to have somewhere to go to remember her, to talk to her.

Peeta had carved his brothers', his father's and his mother's name on a brick in the new bakery and he always touched it when he walked past it. It seemed to bring him some comfort.

And Effie would have liked that. Something big and ridiculously expensive.

"That would be nice." Peeta nodded.

"We don't tell Haymitch." she warned him. "Not until we know for sure we can find out something."

"Agreed." Peeta breathed out against her skin, his lips moving in a caress that was also a question.

She granted her permission with a kiss.

And then she let him help her forget for a little while. She hoped she helped him forget too.

They didn't hear from Three's victors for days but they weren't bad days. Since his breakdown, Haymitch seemed to be doing a little better, as if confessing out loud had lessened the pain a little.

Katniss let herself hope that it would stop the festering.

He still drank a lot but he made an effort to be mostly sober for dinners and he made an attempt at taking better care of himself. He still showered only every three days but it was better than the alternative. He didn't have a great appetite either but he forced himself. One memorable morning, he even started cleaning around his house.

And then something went wrong.

Everything had been fine when she had left for her daily hunt. Peeta had been helping Haymitch by mopping the floors while their mentor gathered the various rubbish that had accumulated on every flat surface and tossed everything out. They had been chatting, laughing even… When she came back Haymitch's house was deadly silent and Peeta was sitting on the old bench next to the front door, an odd look on his face.

"What happened?" she scowled. Because something obviously had.

"I shouldn't have painted that portrait." he sighed. "He put it in the study. We were cleaning, everything was fine, then he saw it and… We were joking. He saw it when we were joking. I think he felt guilty." Because he had forgotten to feel sad for a couple of minutes. Katniss understood. It was worse after that moment of awareness. "He got angry." Peeta explained. "Like… Really angry. He kicked me out and then I heard him destroy everything inside. I waited until he was done. It didn't seem… He had his knife, so…"

"You were right." she approved. If he wanted to destroy his house, that was his problem, after all.

"I checked when the noises stopped." he shrugged. "He didn't even notice me. He was curled up in front of that stupid portrait… It was…"

Pathetic was the word they both thought and didn't say because it wasn't a nice word. It wasn't meant with disdain though, with compassion rather.

"Do you think he's okay now?" she frowned.

Peeta's jaw clenched and he looked past her and into the street. "I don't think so, Katniss. I don't think he will be either. It's… He lost a lot in his life. I think she might be the last straw."

"He will bounce back." she snapped because the alternative was too terrifying.

She wasn't ready to lose Haymitch. Her father was dead, her sister was dead, her mother had run away because she couldn't bear the thought of taking care of her… Haymitch was her constant. Haymitch stood by her no matter what. Haymitch was always there for her to crash to when she burned. Haymitch… Peeta was probably the love of her life and she needed him to move on, to grow old with her, to build her life with, to give her the will to get out of bed every morning. But Haymitch was the closest thing to a parent she had left and she wasn't ready to let go of that just yet.

"He's shattered, Katniss." he said softly. "And he's patching himself up with alcohol and cigarettes. It can't end well."

She refused to listen. She was so angry with him for even saying that out loud that she stormed away, stomping her feet and glaring at everyone who crossed her path. She ended up hiding in the pantry, curled up in one corner, watching Buttercup flick his bushy tail on one of the shelves. The cat was in a state of perpetual fury, just like she was.

Haymitch never showed up that night for dinner.

He never showed up in the next few days either. They carried food over, tried to cheer him up, but he had locked himself into an odd sort of mutism.

Katniss remembered only too well the thoughts that had haunted her when they had kept her in isolation for all those months after Coin's death and she was watching him like a hawk, ready to intervene at the smallest hint he was going to hurt himself. The look he gave her sometimes was far too knowing and he often squeezed her shoulder as if to promise her he wouldn't do what she was fearing. All of that was left unsaid and went on behind Peeta's back. She didn't tell him. She hadn't told him about how much she had wanted to die either. Yet. She wasn't sure she ever would though.

It took six more days for Beetee to finally call them.

"Did you find something?" she asked once they had exchanged awkward hellos. Straight to the point was best. Straight to the point was avoiding confronting him about creating the weapon that had killed her sister.

"Not on the prison footage or on the logs no." Beetee's quiet patient voice answered. There was an odd ticking in the background behind him. She pictured him in a workshop not unlike the one in Thirteen. Maybe he had one at home. That wouldn't surprise her."Plutarch was right. It really seems like Effie vanished sometime between the victors' rescue and the surrender."

"So you think they got rid of her body too." she lamented, meeting Peeta's eyes across the kitchen. He was baking, distractedly kneading some dough for the brioche he had promised her. "There's no way to find out what happened to her, how she died."

They had been right not to tell Haymitch, she thought. He would have been crushed again.

"We knew it was a long shot." Peeta tried to comfort her, reaching out a hand covered in flour.

She grabbed it and held fast to it.

"There is something weird…" Beetee hesitated. "But I don't want to get your hopes up, Katniss. It's a little crazy."

She frowned. "What is it?"

"When I didn't find anything on the footage or the logs… I checked the prisoners list again." he explained. "I'm not sure how much you know about how the taking of that prison went but… It was a bit chaotic. They evacuated all the wounded to a clinic on the edge of the city because all the hospitals were overwhelmed and it was the closest medical facility. A lot of prisoners didn't make it and died before they could give their names but one of the medics had the idea of taking a picture of them so their friends and family could find them once everything calmed down."

Katniss' throat closed, her heart started beating. "Did you find her picture?"

"No." Beetee refuted. "I suppose Plutarch and Haymitch already checked that."

Then why was he telling her this?, she raged, her face darkening. The thought of Haymitch looking at those pictures, sick with the dread of finding her, torn between hope that she was still alive and terror that her remains would never be found if her face wasn't in there… Peeta wiped his hands and wrapped his arms around her waist. She leaned against him willingly, resting her forehead against his, shifting the phone so they could both hear what Three's victor had to say.

"Something simply doesn't add up." Beetee insisted. "She's not on any dead prisoners list. She's not in the still unidentified pictures folder. And if she did die between the rescue and the surrender like seems the most likely… I just don't understand why Snow didn't use it on Haymitch." He paused for a second and then audibly winced. "I assume you know about…"

"Yes." Katniss confirmed.

"Oh, good. Haymitch was always very private about that." Beetee sighed. "He always denied but… It was very obvious they were having some sort of affair. I know Chaff warned him more than a few times about…"

"Maybe Snow didn't tell him to let him wonder." Peeta mused. "Because he knew it would end like this, with Haymitch fixating on it."

"Psychological war at its finest." Beetee agreed. "But the thing is… If we do agree Effie died before we attacked the Capitol… They weren't bothering to get rid of the bodies by the time we closed in on the city and before that… Before that, Snow would probably have liked to upset Haymitch because it was common knowledge he was amongst our chief tacticians. Either she died while the war was still in full swing and there is no good explanation for why he hasn't used her death against Haymitch or she died closer to the taking of the Capitol and there's no reason why we haven't found her body."

"You're not saying anything new." Katniss complained. "She's still missing."

"Yes." Beetee commented, almost with glee. "Exactly. She's missing. So I stopped looking at the lists of dead prisoners and I started looking at the lists of survivors."

"You're not serious." she scoffed. "If she had survived…"

"Haymitch had given very strict instructions that if her name popped up anywhere, he was to be told at once and she was to be transferred to the Mansion." Beetee confirmed. "And it never did so Plutarch and him had no reason to really take a good look at those lists."

"Are you saying…" Peeta frowned.

"I'm saying I found a Gail Abernathy on the survivors list from Darkhill." Three's victor offered.

They exchanged a look, both confused and uncertain.

"Abernathy is a common name though, right?" she asked.

"Yes." Beetee approved. "I checked. There are a lot of families with that name in Panem. Thing is though… There are no records of a Gail Abernathy being born before the war. And there is no mention of a Gail Abernathy in the prison's logs. I checked deeper. Gail was Effie's middle name."

Katniss' breath remained stuck in her lungs. "You think she's alive?"

"I said it was a little crazy so don't get your hopes up and don't tell Haymitch until we're sure." Beetee warned. "But… It's the only place we haven't looked yet."

"But why would she… Why would she do that?" Katniss snarled. "Haymitch's barely hanging on and…"

"She spent months being tortured." Peeta cut her off, gentle but firm. "We don't know what they did to her. Maybe she's like me. Maybe they took her memories or…"

"It's a possibility." Beetee admitted. "It's also possible she thought she was still in danger. By the time they took the prison… The Purge…"

Katniss hadn't been awake for that. She had been floating in a tank while her burned flesh regenerated enough that the doctors could do grafts. She had missed the bloodbath that had followed the taking of the city, the murders of Capitol citizens for the smallest offence, the trials and executions of Gamemakers, stylists, prep teams, hosts and, of course, escorts…

"Haymitch would have protected her." she insisted.

"But would she have known that?" Peeta countered.

"She should have." she retorted, protective of their mentor. Haymitch was literally dying of having lost their escort and if it turned out Effie had been alive all this time after all…

"You don't know what it's like." he whispered, closing his eyes. "You've been through a lot of bad stuff, Katniss, but you don't know what that's like. You lose track of time after a while. The only thing that makes sense is your pain. The cell… It becomes your world. It's… It's impossible to understand if you haven't been there. She kept saying…" The crease between his eyebrows and a flash of anger on his face. Katniss tensed, ready to bolt away if he had an episode, but she was wrong to worry. He was becoming better and better at controlling himself. "She kept saying Haymitch would come and they kept mocking her for it. Abernathy's bitch. They called her…" He took a deep breath. "They told her Haymitch didn't care and… And we were rescued and she wasn't. What if she thinks he really didn't?"

She died thinking I didn't care. That was what Haymitch had said, wasn't it?

Was it possible? That she hadn't known they would stick up for her, that the Mockingjay would stick up for her? Did she really think she would have let her be executed? But she had never been really nice with Effie, had she? They had never been close.

"It's entirely possible she was confused and scared." Beetee agreed.

"But that was almost a year ago!" Katniss argued, for the sake of it. The more she thought about it, the more it made sense that Effie wouldn't have trusted them to protect her.

"And they are still searching for the few former Games staff members who managed to escape before we took the Capitol." Beetee pointed out. "It's on TV all the time. We're talking about people who weren't even currently involved in the Games anymore during the Quell, old people. What do you think she thinks they would do with an actual active escort? She has no way of knowing Haymitch got her immunity."

"We need to find her." Peeta decided. "We need to tell her she's safe. I can't… The idea that she's still hiding because she's scared…"

"We'll find her." Katniss promised, grabbing his arm. "If it's her… We'll find her."

"According to the files I have, she was discharged against medical advice." Three's victor said. There was a clicking sound that Katniss supposed to be his fingers on a keyboard. "It took me a while, but I found a Gail Abernathy in Eight. She's working at one of the clothes factories. There are no picture though. I can't confirm it's her. And…" He sighed. "I didn't tell Plutarch. I don't think it would go over well if we send someone she doesn't trust. She could get spooked and disappear again, change names… There would be no way of tracking her then. Ideally, I would say Haymitch's the best choice but…"

"But we can't do that to him if it's not her." Peeta finished.

"I really don't think you should tell him until you're sure either way." Beetee confirmed. "It might be a huge coincidence. I would go myself but… We were never close."

"Thank you for your help." Katniss offered.

"No problem. Keep me informed, alright?" the other victor requested.

"We will." Peeta promised.

Once they had hung up, the silence stretched long between them.

It was a lot to take in.

Katniss had been hoping for information on how she had died and where they might have put her body not… If she was alive…

"She took his name." she heard himself whisper. "If she doesn't think he would help her why would she…"

"Because she loves him." Peeta shrugged. "Knowing that someone doesn't love you back doesn't change your own feelings."

There was an old pain lingering in his words and it hurt her.

"I love you." she almost chided.

"I know." he smiled. "But she might not." He shook his head, looked at the dough abandoned on the kitchen table and licked his lips. "Alright. I will leave tonight."

"No." Katniss countered. "I'm the one who started this. I want to go."

"You can't." he frowned. "You're not allowed to leave the District."

But she was already thinking about how to work around that.

"I will take the first train in the morning. Nobody will see me." she decided. "You will distract Haymitch. And if someone asks, I'm hunting in the woods. I will find her and, if it's her, I will bring her back. Either way, I will be back by the night train. We can get away with it."

"It's a bad idea." he insisted. "I know you want to do this for Haymitch but I can go without breaking the law and Effie would probably listen more to me anyway so…"

"I don't want to do this only for Haymitch." she cut him off. "I let her down too. I want to make it right. I'm going, Peeta. You stay here and make sure Haymitch doesn't drink himself to death before I can get her back to him."

Peeta kept arguing all night long but Katniss was nothing but stubborn and, the next morning, when dawn was barely peeking in the horizon, she boarded a train for Eight, the hood of her sweater low on her forehead.

She felt a little antsy leaving the District, not only because it was forbidden to her but because Twelve, for all the memories and the ruins, was her safe place. It was a four hours ride and she spent half of them pacing the length of the train's corridors, trying to avoid looking directly at anyone in case they recognized her and alerted the authorities.

Eight was a lot different than she remembered. It wasn't bombed into destruction for one. Like Twelve, it was still being rebuilt and construction crews were everywhere. She ate the sandwich she had brought along as she tried to find her way to the factory district, wondering how she was going to locate Effie in what looked like a anthill.

People strode in and out of different buildings with purpose.

She lurked around for what felt like hours. She was almost ready to give up and just ask whatever passed for a receptionist in those places if a Gail Abernathy worked there when she finally spotted her. Her gaze almost passed on her like it had glided over the dozens of people she had watched come in and out.

The woman was almost terrifying thin, bony in a way that couldn't be healthy. She was wearing drab grey shapeless pants and a faded blue woolen sweater under an open black coat that looked frayed and too big for her. She was leaning against the outer wall of the factory, a cigarette wedged between shaky fingers, her blue eyes lost somewhere in the cloudy sky. Her hair was a dark brown that made her features sharper.

The hair was why Katniss almost missed her.

She looked terrible. Just as terrible as Haymitch did.

And, just like that, Katniss stopped being angry about her letting them think they were dead. Whatever her reasons were, she clearly wasn't happy in her new life.

Katniss strode closer with such purpose in her steps that the woman startled. "Effie."

The cigarette fell from her fingers and a flash of panic dashed across her face before she got it under control. Polite disinterest. She ducked her head and tried to stepped around her. "You're mistaken."

The Capitol accent had been clipped and tamed into something resembling Two's.

It seemed she was very good at pretending to be someone else.

"I don't think so." Katniss opposed, sidestepping in her way to block her retreat. She pushed her hood back and stared back when Effie gasped, relief and worry flashing in her eyes in quick succession.

Her former escort reached for the hood and quickly pulled it back over head, glancing around in frightened suspicion. Once she was sure nobody had seen Katniss's face, Effie pulled her in a tight hug that left the girl confused. Still, Katniss hugged back.

It wasn't so often friends came back from the dead, after all.

"You should not be here." Effie murmured, slipping back to her Capitol accent in her franticness. "Are you even allowed to leave Twelve? I thought… On TV they said… Oh, you should not be here, my dear. How did you even find me? Are there others? Are they looking for me? Is that why you came? To warn me?"

"Calm down." Katniss ordered, tightening her embrace like she always did with Peeta when he started to get worked up. She waited until Effie's breathing had gone back to normal to draw back. Now that she was closer, she could see the ravages the last year and a half had had on her. There were lines at the corners of her eyes, a tightness around her mouth, and she could see the tail-end of a scar curling over her shoulder. "Effie…"

"Gail." the woman corrected with another frightened look around.

"It's alright." she said softly, like she would have with a wounded animal. "Nobody's after you."

Effie blinked and, just like that, Katniss could see her guard getting back up. "How did you find me?"

"Is there any place we can talk?" she deflected, glancing up at the sky. It looked like it would start to pour at any moment. "Maybe we can get something warm to drink."

"My break is almost over." Effie shook her head. "Katniss, I am very glad to see you, particularly when you look so well, I am happy you are so well, but…"

"Effie, we really need to talk." she insisted.

Her escort studied her for a long time, closed her eyes and then sighed. "I suppose if you found me, others will follow anyway. I can't stay here now. I need…" She shook her head again. "Wait here." Katniss was a little worried to let her go back inside the big factory building in case she slipped away through the back door or something like that. But after a few minutes, she walked back out. "I told them I was sick and needed to go home. There's a coffee shop around the corner."

The changes in Effie Trinket were so obvious Katniss didn't know where to start. The worst, by far, was when they settled at a small table inside the coffee shop and Effie discretely counted the money in her pocket before ordering the cheapest thing on the menu. Katniss resolutely ignored her irritated look when she corrected that order by requesting the waitress brought two hot chocolate and two pastries.

The waitress stared at her for a while but Katniss simply stared back, almost challenging the woman to ask her if she really was who she thought she was.

"How did you find me?" Effie repeated once they were alone again.

"It's Beetee who figured it out." she shrugged.

"I see." the woman sighed, combing her fingers through her now dark hair in a nervous gesture. "Should I expect the new version of Peacekeepers to show up on my doorstep then?"

The fear was so obvious under the casual sarcastic attitude that Katniss reached across the table to cover her trembling fingers. She couldn't tell if the escort was shaking because she was cold, afraid or if it came from something else.

"Nobody's going to hurt you." she promised, surprising even herself by the fierceness in her tone. "Is that why you faked your death? Because you thought the rebels were going to arrest you?"

Effie frowned but stayed silent, probably because the waitress had come back with their order. Again, the woman lingered, watching Katniss, the question clearly burning her lips but the joined glares they both tossed her were enough to convince her to leave.

The escort took a few sips of her chocolate before placing the cup back down on the saucer. Her hands were so unsteady that the porcelain clicked long and loud before she finally managed to put it down.

"I woke up in a clinic." Effie explained. "It was… There were wounded people everywhere. People were dying everywhere." Katniss remembered the war hospital in Eight and could only nod, imagining only too well how it had been. The Capitol couldn't have been in a better shape after the surrender. "I didn't know where I was at first. I was… It took me a while to understand the questions, what had happened, to… Come back to myself, I suppose. But by that time… I saw the executions on TV. I saw… I knew they would want to arrest me too and… I couldn't go back to prison, Katniss. I truly couldn't. The thought was unbearable. When they asked me my name again, I simply gave the first one that popped through my head."

"Haymitch's name?" she challenged a little. Effie blushed and avoided her eyes, focusing on the blueberry muffin she had ordered for her. Katniss watched her cut little pieces that she tried to eat delicately when it was so obvious she was starving… How much did workers make at that factory? "Haymitch can't eat them anymore." she said without really knowing why. And when Effie tossed her a confused look, she gestured at the pastry. "The blueberry muffins. He never eats them anymore."

"They're his favorites." Effie argued.

"Yours too, right?" she retorted.

Blue eyes bore into hers for a second and then fled to the pastry again. "I doubt that would matter much to him."

"You'd be very wrong then." she scoffed. "You know he's been smoking? Your favorite brand or something. The drinking… I can't even describe the drinking. He's been torturing himself over your death for more than a year."

"No." Effie refuted. "He did not care. He ran away and left me behind. He knew what was going on and he…"

"It wasn't supposed to be like that." she cut her off sadly. "You were supposed to join us in Thirteen."

"Then, why didn't they take me with them when they rescued the victors?" she hissed. "I heard them pass by my door, you know. I called out. I…"

"They didn't know you were there." she interrupted again. "And… That was my fault. I didn't know you had been captured. I didn't think to put you on the list. Haymitch has been looking for you since… I think he's been looking for you since he realized you weren't in Thirteen. He loves you."

That wasn't her place to say it and it ended out sounding like a ridiculous argument, like something a child would have said, but she needed Effie to understand.

Effie's jaw was clenched, she was breathing loud through her nose and her eyes were teary. "No."

"You don't have to live under a false name." she continued. "He made sure you had immunity long before Coin started her Purge. He meant to protect you from the very start."

"No." Effie repeated, shaking her head.

"Yes." Katniss argued. "You're safe. You've been safe all along." The escort stood up abruptly, her thighs bumping into the table. It knocked over what was left of her chocolate. She was going to run away, Katniss could see it. But short of tying her up and dragging her back to Twelve against her will… "He's still wearing your token."

Effie's breath was very labored, she was shaking all over now. "If this is true… Why didn't he come himself?"

"I didn't tell him you were alive." she explained. "We weren't sure it was you and if it hadn't been… I think it would have killed him this time. He's really not okay. Losing you… It broke him." She stood up too, reached for the woman's wrist. "Effie, please… Come home with me."

The escort stared at her. Everyone in that coffee shop was staring at them. And for a brief moment, Katniss thought she had gotten through to her.

Then Effie bolted.

She had ran out the door before Katniss could do anything, far much faster than she would have given her credit for. She contemplated giving chase but… She couldn't force her to do anything.

She stepped outside under the heavy rain that was now slamming down on the paved streets and wasn't entirely surprised not to spot any trace of her escort. She should have left Peeta do this, after all. He would have done it better. He would have explained better, convinced her, reassured her…

Katniss had never been good at coddling.

She wasted the whole afternoon walking around, getting lost only to find her bearings again, half hoping she would accidentally stumble on her escort… What she stumbled upon instead was a statue of herself. Bigger than life, a defiant tilt of the chin, bow strained, arrow notched… She knew it was her, or the Mockingjay rather, the war heroin they had all wanted, but she couldn't recognize herself. The woman on that imposing base had little to do with her. There were no burn scars, no marked flesh, no singed hair…

She read the plate out of curiosity and felt sick when she realized where she was standing, what the statue was commemorating. If we burn, you burn with us. This was where the hospital used to be, where she had truly, for the first time, embraced what being the Mockingjay meant.

The rain ran down the Mockingjay's marble face but the statue wasn't the only one crying.

She stood there for a long time, staring at the version of herself that would probably go down in history. Not quite a lie but an illusion. An appearance of unlimited strength and bravery, a nice invented love story that would turn into a legend, a martyr of a cause she had been forced into.

Eventually, when night started to fall, she made her way back to the train station. It was busier than Twelve's was and she made sure her hood hid her face.

At least until she spotted the figure huddling against the station's outer wall on the platform, trying to get shelter from the rain.

She hurried to Effie's side, taking in the large travel bag at her feet. "Effie."

Effie startled but relaxed when she saw it was only her. She even flashed her a smile. "Hello, dear. I apologize for earlier. My behavior was… quite rude."

"It's alright." Katniss dismissed. "But you're coming home, right?"

"I had an inkling you would take this train. It's the perfect one when one wants to travel discreetly." Effie evaded. "I thought I would catch you."

"You have a bag. You're coming." she insisted. "I know you are."

"You keep saying home but… Twelve isn't my home." the escort opposed quietly.

"Sure, it is." Katniss shrugged. "That's where we are."

Effie studied her for a long time and then her lips stretched into a slow smile. "Does Peeta know?"

"Yeah." she nodded, pressing against the wall in hope the small gutter on the roof would provide some shelter. Not unlike Effie, she was soaked to the bones. "He wanted to come, you know, but… I wanted to do it myself. He missed you. We all missed you."

"That's… nice to hear if a little difficult to believe." Effie chuckled, not quite amused.

"We made you a page. In our book." she offered because she was starting to feel awkward. "I suppose we will have to tear it up now."

"Your book?" Effie frowned.

By the time she was done explaining about the remembrance book – and Effie was done pretending not to be as moved as she actually was that she had been included in that – the train had arrived. Neither of them made a move to board it though.

"I never meant to hurt anyone." Effie whispered. "I honestly did not think he would care, that anyone would care. I went to check on my family after I left the hospital but…" The escort shook her head. "I had no one left. I did not know what else to do. I did not want to risk getting arrested again. I did not think he…"

"He will understand." she promised and she hoped she wasn't lying. "We'll just explain it to him. I'm not sure he will even mind, you know. You're here now, that's all he will care about."

"You are awfully confident about Haymitch's feelings." Effie snorted. "I am not convinced he will be so forgiving."

"He loves you." she repeated and, again, it sounded like a weak argument, something feeble. Maybe because it didn't mean much coming from her. "We all do. You can stay with us and be yourself again."

"Being Gail was not so bad." she sighed, bending down to pick up her bag. "Lonely, yes, but… I wouldn't know how to be Effie Trinket again, I am afraid. Those butchers were a little too good at taking people apart."

The escort flashed her a guilty look as if she hadn't meant to say that much. Katniss didn't even flinch though. She just offered her hand and waited for her to take it.

"We all changed." she shrugged. "It's alright. You'll figure it out. We'll help."

Effie was still clinging to her fingers when they finally climbed on board. They found two seats in a mostly empty car near the back of the train and commandeered another two to leave their coats to dry. Effie was nervous and Katniss didn't trust that she wouldn't run again. She only relaxed once the train started rocking its slow way through the District.

They talked along the way. Effie asked about Annie and Johanna, smiled when she told her about the baby, confessed to having heard about Finnick's death from the news… Katniss wasn't much of a talker but there was something to that half empty car and its dimmed lights, to the darkness outside the windows and the miraculous presence of her escort, so she found herself talking. A lot. She told Effie about everything she had missed. The months in Thirteen, the Star Squad's attack on the Capitol… Prim.

She had grown used to that new reality where her sister was dead but it never got any easier to say it. And she usually resented people trying to relate, to tell her they understood, but when Effie wrapped her arms around her because she was choking on her own tears and told her in a quiet unsteady voice about her own dead sister, her own dead nephews and her own dead parents, she relaxed in her embrace like she relaxed in Peeta's or Haymitch's. Effie wasn't a stranger. She was part of the team. She was family.

And the fact that she had thought necessary to hide from them was painful because they should have taken better care of her in the first place.

Katniss told her about burning alive, about Coin and the months that had followed. She didn't tell her she still craved morphling from time to time but, somehow, she didn't think she needed to.

The train was rushing through Ten when she told her about the life she and Peeta were building, about the slow work raising the bakery from its ashes and her daily hunts, about the house they had made theirs touch by touch, about the bedroom she wanted to paint green…

They had just left Eleven behind when Effie took a deep breath and asked about Haymitch.

Loyalty made the victor reluctant to confess everything because she was always fiercely protective of him. But she supposed Effie had seen him at his worst already so she ended up describing it like it was. She hadn't meant to hurt the other woman's feelings but by the time she was done, Effie was biting down on her bottom lip and silent tears were rolling down her cheeks.

"Stupid man." she whispered.

"He believes you died thinking he didn't care." Katniss winced – because she knew he would probably have liked to tell her that himself. "He can't live with that."

"That's the last thing he told me." Effie explained, swiftly wiping her cheeks as if Katniss hadn't seen. "Don't go flatter yourself, sweetheart. It's not like I care what happens to you. I knew he was posturing. He always said that sort of things but then he would do something else that made me think he… I thought I knew. After a while… I started believing them instead. It seemed like they were right at the time. I did not know he was looking for me." She sighed again. "Stupid man."

"Love is weird." she commented, thinking that Johanna had the truth of it.

"I suppose." her escort laughed and, for the first time, it sounded genuine.

They were the only ones taking off in Twelve and it was completely dark by the time they started the long trip from the station to the Village. Katniss was used to walking around the District at night but Effie struggled on the uneven path. They both shivered in the freezing nocturnal wind, their coats not quite as dry as they would have liked.

"How do you want to do this?" she asked, as they were nearing the tall iron gates of the Village. "It's late but I'm not sure he's asleep yet. We can wait until morning… At least, there are more chances he will be sober."

"I would like to get changed first." Effie answered through chattering teeth.

Katniss wouldn't have minded a hot shower herself.

It became clear that wouldn't be happening in the immediate future as soon as they neared her house, though. All the lights were on, which wasn't surprising given that Peeta was probably waiting for her, but she could hear raised voices from the gate. Or, rather, one raised voice. Haymitch's.

"Where the fuck has she gone, boy? Don't make me ask again!"

Haymitch was screaming so loud he didn't even hear the front door being unlocked and the two of them walking in. The voice was coming from the kitchen so Katniss headed straight there, annoyance bubbling in her stomach.

"I told you." Peeta answered, far more calmly. "She just went on a hunting trip."

"Do you think I'm stupid?" Haymitch spat. "Someone saw her at the station. And lucky they told me instead of the Peacekeepers! She's not allowed to leave! You two fucking know that! You know what's gonna happen if she gets caught out there? They're gonna take her away. They're gonna say I'm not fit to be her guardian and they're gonna take her away. Best case scenario they're gonna stick her in an asylum somewhere. Worse case, she's looking at life in prison."

Their mentor, his back to the door, slammed his fist on the table just as Katniss rounded the corner. Peeta's eyes immediately snapped up to hers – and quickly darted to the woman standing behind her – but Haymitch was oblivious, too lost to his helpless worried rage.

"Did she go after that mother of hers? Is that it?" he growled. "'Cause if that's what she's gone to do, she should just have told me. I'd have hunted Aster down for her, forced her back."

Katniss had opened her mouth to alert him to her presence but she closed it again at that. Her mother? What would she have gone to fetch her mother for?

"What are you getting all teary about?" Haymitch snarled, clearly making an effort to calm down, apparently mistaking the tears in Peeta's eyes for fear that Katniss would actually be taken away. "Don't… I'm sorry I shouted. We'll make this right, yeah? Just tell me where she's gone and I'm gonna go get her. Nobody the wiser. Where's she gone, Peeta?"

"She came to find me." Effie said behind Katniss, her voice echoing loud and clear in the otherwise silent kitchen.

Haymitch's breath caught. The muscles of his back visibly tensed under his shirt.

But he didn't turn around and he didn't give any indication he had heard.

"Boy, I need you to tell me where Katniss is." he repeated.

Peeta's eyes traveled from Effie to him twice and he swallowed hard, his voice a little rougher than usual. "She just told you."

"What?" Haymitch frowned.

Slowly, Effie dropped her bag and stepped past Katniss. She reached for his back with hesitant fingers. He flinched, his hands bundling into fists on the table, bowing a little as if to protect himself from an upcoming attack…

"Don't have time for ghosts…" he muttered, almost too low to be heard – but the kitchen was so silent they would have heard a pin drop.

"I am real." Effie whispered and, when he did nothing except shut his eyes tight, she forced his arm up. "I am real, Haymitch. Touch me. See for yourself. Your hallucination are never solid. They fade away. I won't. Touch me."

She guided his hand to her face and it was heartbreaking to watch him try to resist, to watch him refuse to look at her…

Katniss' eyes were burning when he finally realized that he could feel Effie's skin under his palm, that she was warm and alive and… Real. Slowly, she walked around them, giving them their space, to join Peeta who immediately opened his arms to her.

"You did it." he whispered against her damp hair with some awe. "You really did it…"

"Peeta…" Haymitch called with audible distress, his eyes snapping to where the boy stood. When he spotted Katniss in his arms, he fell short. He looked at Effie and then back at them…

"She's real, Haymitch." Peeta offered with a laugh that was only pure joy. "She's alive."

Effie flashed him a fond smile and, for a second, it looked like she would let go of Haymitch to hug him but she turned her attention back to their mentor instead, jutting her chin in the air almost in defiance. Her fingers were digging so hard in his wrist, Katniss was sure he would have bruises.

"It's not…" Haymitch stuttered, his whole attention on Effie now. His face was crumpling, torn between hope and despair. "You're dead. I'm… I'm going crazy. You're dead."

Effie shook her head and, without any warning, she burst into tears and tossed her arms around his neck. "I am so sorry! I thought… I didn't know… I thought if they caught me… I should never have doubted you… I… I was so unhappy without you… I missed you so much… I almost called you a thousand times… I thought it would be worth it just to… But I was too scared… I… I couldn't risk being imprisoned again… I…"

As if on instinct, Haymitch immediately embraced her back, his hand coming up to cradle the back of her head. "Sweetheart…"

Effie was clinging to him, sobbing so hard Katniss was afraid she would never be able to breathe properly again. She clung harder to Peeta herself, knowing they should probably give their mentor and their escort their privacy but unable to move.

"You're real." Haymitch whispered softly, his nose bumping against Effie's cheek. "You're alive."

The hand that was on the small of her back came up to frame her face. Katniss was sure what he wanted to do – and she was pretty sure she didn't want to watch – but before he could initiate it, Effie was kissing him. Hard. And he responded to it with the same eagerness, the same despair…

They kissed each other as if they had run out of time although, to be fair, Katniss supposed they had just cheated fate so…

Peeta laughed again. And while Katniss was glad to hear him sound so happy, she would have preferred not being forced to see… that.

It lasted for entire minutes, tongues were clearly involved, and it was starting to become really awkward when they finally separated, out of breath. They were both shaking, probably for different reasons. Haymitch tangled his fingers in Effie's hair, guided her head until their foreheads were pressed together.

"I don't understand." he mumbled. "I've looked for you under every fucking rock in the city. I've…"

"I didn't know." Effie whispered again, her voice raw. "I didn't know I was safe. I thought…"

"You went into hiding." he deduced, drawing back long enough to comb her dark hair thoughtfully, finally registering the color for the first time maybe.

"I am so sorry." she repeated, her eyes pleading. "I will understand if you hate me but…"

"Hate you?" he scoffed. "I'd get it if you hated me… The whole mess was my own fucking fault. You got hurt."

He brushed a finger against the scar that was poking out of her sweater and the caress, while innocent, looked so intimate that Katniss had to look away.

"Katniss explained." Effie denied. "I… I am sorry. I should have trusted you…"

"You had no reason to." he snorted bitterly and pulled her back into his arms. "Doesn't matter. You're fucking alive. That's… Fuck, sweetheart… I thought…"

"I know." she offered, gripping his shirt so hard she bundled it, exposing a part of his stomach and the big swollen scar on his side.

"You're wet." he mumbled.

"Haymitch!" she exclaimed in shock, drawing back, her face crimson, her gaze drifting from him to where Katniss and Peeta were still hugging.

Katniss wished for simpler times when the double meaning would have been lost on her.

"No…" Haymitch chuckled – and how long had it been since they had heard him express genuine uncomplicated mirth? "Your coat."

Effie blinked, grew even redder and tugged on his shirt so her coat wouldn't be pressing against his bare skin anymore.

"Well. You are as insufferable as ever." she huffed with fondness and finally turned toward them. "Peeta…"

Katniss wasn't sure how it happened but before she could really figure it out, Peeta had let go of her and was hugging Effie hard. Haymitch hovered right behind their escort, clearly reluctant to be parted from her.

"I need a shower." Katniss declared out loud. Not that anyone cared. Haymitch grabbed her arm when she walked past him and tugged her into a brief hug that conveyed more than words would have said. Still, she left them to their reunion, a bit exhausted by the eventful day.

The hot shower did her wonders but she didn't feel the courage to go back downstairs so she put on her warmest pajamas and dropped on the bed. She was trying to find the will to wriggle under the quilt when Peeta walked in, carrying a tray with a mug of steaming tea and a few cookies on a plate. Her stomach rumbled.

"They've gone to Haymitch's." he told her, smiling when she immediately snatched a cookie. "Effie wanted dry clothes."

"The way they were looking at each other, I'm not sure whatever's happening involves a lot of clothes." she muttered under her breath, making a face when images she really didn't want in her head invaded her imagination.

"I guess they've got a lot of talking to do. Amongst other things." Peeta joked, tugging on the loose braid she had tied her hair in. "She looks… She looks alright. Not really good but…"

"She's alive." she shrugged. It was already a miracle. They couldn't expect much more than that. "I don't think she ever realized she was free. In her head… I mean… From what she said, the way she said it, the war might as well have ended yesterday."

"Haymitch will help." Peeta said wisely. "And she will help Haymitch. And we can stop worrying."

"And you can start repainting the bedroom." she grinned, taking a sip of the tea he had prepared to perfection.

"But plain green is boring…" he sighed. "I can paint you a forest. That's still green but less boring. How about that?"

"Green or nothing." she refused with amusement.

His hand wandered on her stomach and his mouth grew dangerously close to her ear. "Can I convince you?"

"You can try." she offered, placing the mug on the bedside table before it got knocked over. Afterwards, once the tea had grown cold and they were spooning, skin against skin, his fingers tracing random patterns on her arm, she told him about the statue. "That's who they all see but it was never me."

Peeta said nothing for the longest time.

"I know you." he murmured in the quiet of the night. "Real or not real?"

She thought back to the portraits secreted away in the cellar, to the one painting of her and her naked back nobody would ever see and she thought that, yes, he knew her.

"Real." she promised.

"I love you." he immediately offered with the certainty she could never put in her own love declarations. It wasn't her love for him she doubted, it was the finality of it all, the trust that because she loved him everything would be fine. In her experience, it didn't work like that.

They didn't see Haymitch or Effie during a few days and they wisely didn't go looking.

She heard shouting at some point, on her way back from a hunt. She wasn't sure what it was about and she didn't dare investigate. Let them work it out.

They called Beetee to tell him the news and then they called Plutarch – who was apparently already aware because Haymitch had called to make sure there would be no problem if Effie suddenly publicly came back from the dead.

"So Gail Abernathy has now been put to rest." Effie concluded her explanation of how that conversation went, a few days later at dinner, after the two of them had finally exited Haymitch's house. A house that had been scrubbed from floors to ceilings or so they were told – Katniss decided that explained the argument she had overheard.

They were both beaming so hard, it was hard not to exchange amused smiles with Peeta. Haymitch was grinning and didn't even seem aware, he kept reaching out for Effie's hand as if it was perfectly natural to do so… His eyes were a little bloodshot and the tremors in his fingers were telling though. Katniss didn't believe he had cut off liquor completely but he had definitely cut his consumption down.

"It was a pretty name." Peeta commented, passing the salad around.

"Yes… It was." Effie sighed before cheerfully complimenting him on one of the artworks on the wall.

It was nice to have the whole team around the table for dinner, Katniss decided. Effie was much more subdued than she used to be. She was still ridiculous at times but less… over the top.

They moved on to the living-room for dessert and Effie offered to bring it since they had done all the cooking. Haymitch stayed behind with her in the kitchen to help – or so he claimed. Katniss didn't mean to intrude, she had just gone back to the kitchen to fetch her glass of water.

Haymitch had his arms around Effie's waist, her back to his chest, and he was nuzzling her neck. She was telling him to stop because she was trying to cut in equal pieces the cake Peeta had baked but she was also giggling a lot so it wasn't that convincing.

"You like my name so much, Princess… Why don't you keep it?" he muttered casually, against the curve of her nape.

Katniss went rigid and slowly stepped back before she could be noticed.

"What?" she heard Effie ask anyway, her voice now free of any form of amusement.

Katniss hurried away before she could overhear any more of that proposal.

"Everything's okay?" Peeta asked when he saw her return without the water she had gone to fetch.

She muttered something that left him frowning.

It was really nice to be all together again though. It felt like a real family. Instead of disturbing their routine, Effie fitted right in. She made everything… Strangely complete.

Katniss had gone looking for their lost escort and she had unknowingly found the missing piece to their bizarre team.

Or maybe it was just her getting even more crazy, Katniss mused later, once Peeta and Effie had claimed the kitchen to do the dishes and she was trudging to the shed in the small coat of snow to get more logs for the fire.

She wasn't entirely surprised to feel another presence behind her in the night.

"You don't have to lurk like a creep, you know." she snorted.

Haymitch rolled his eyes, grabbed an armful of chopped wood and shrugged, straining under the weight. "Never really said thanks, yeah?"

"It's fine." she dismissed.

"No, it ain't fine." he scoffed. "If you hadn't gone snooping… I'd never have known. She'd never have known. Look…"

"Haymitch." she cut him off. "We're family, we're all together and nobody's letting themselves die. That's all the thanks I need." He studied her for a long moment and then finally nodded, more understanding than she liked. She swallowed the lump in her throat and attempted a mocking tone. "So? Do you need bread?"

It took a few seconds for him to connect the dots. He groaned. "Eavesdropping again, yeah? Nasty habit that, sweetheart."

She scowled at him as they made their way back to the house. "It's not my fault if you were all over your girlfriend in my kitchen."

"Ain't my girlfriend, don't be stupid. We ain't sixteen." He made a face as if the term physically pained him. "Don't go calling her my fiancée either."

"But is she?" Katniss insisted.

"She's…" he hesitated and then snorted. "She's everything. Don't need to toast bread to know that. But… Yeah. Yeah."

Katniss smiled so wide it almost hurt. She bumped her shoulder against his but she didn't try to offer congratulations that would embarrass them both.

She didn't need to say anything though.

Haymitch always got it.


I hope you enjoyed it! What was your favorite part? Please let me know your thoughts!