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Repost: The Golden Mean, Chapter 11 - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
fernwithy
fernwithy
Repost: The Golden Mean, Chapter 11
Okay, some substantial increases in the Hazelle-related stuff, fixing around the first Quell victor bit (since Haymitch knows he disappeared), and general polish.

Chapter Eleven
I see Peeta go over to Katniss's place every day, and decide to leave them alone. There may not be snowball fights in the offing, but she's in no shape to do anything other than have perfectly normal conversations, and that can only help both of them.

I spend a lot of time during the day talking to Hazelle while she putters around the house. She wants to tackle the basement and the attic. I don't know where she's got the energy for it.

"I want to earn what you're paying me, Haymitch. Preferably without you turning the first floor into a pigsty every night."

I take her to both places. The basement is a finished recreation room, complete with a pool table that I've never used (I only play chess and the Hunger Games, really), but it's piled up with old sponsor files and Games rule books. Hazelle asks if I need all of it, because it could attract rats. I tell her that I'll go through it. I think we both know I'm lying, but she doesn't push.

In the attic, she takes notice of Mimi's statue, and I think she might even be able to read the word that's written on it. She touches it, then reaches over and touches my hand lightly. I don't know why she does that. It feels a little better than it should, especially up here, surrounded by the detritus of other women I've felt good with.

We go downstairs and talk for a little bit longer. I let her talk me into helping out in town. I can't increase my food orders without raising suspicions, but I can cut down on how much of it I eat, and she's a genius at stretching food further than it has any right to go.

Ruth also contributes, at Katniss's insistence. Katniss has been delivering food around town for weeks and now can't do it herself. Peeta makes plain, sturdy breads that will last. There is no danger that he's cutting into his family's business by doing this -- the people who get these breads have never been able to go through the bakery door. I put all of this into rucksacks, and Hazelle and I take it into town together after she finishes up at my house.

I meet her younger kids at her house, where we divvy things up into manageable bundles. Rory, who's in the reaping now, wants to know about the Games, but Hazelle shushes him.

"No offense," she says, "but I'd like to keep the Hunger Games out of my house."

"I can get behind that proposition," I tell her.

Posey is proudly counting out dried beans from my pantry (I have no idea how long they've been there), bragging that she can make it all the way to fifty beans for each family. I try a few little math problems with her. It's not my strong suit, but I can handle it on a six-year-old's level. The middle one, Vick, wants to know about my house, which also gets a shush for some reason. Gale comes out of the boys' bedroom for a little while. He's still hobbling like an old man, but he says the cuts are mostly healed. He asks after Katniss and tells me that he's going back to the mines in two days, so they won't be dependent on me anymore. I tell him I've gotten a little dependent on Hazelle. He frowns and goes back to bed.

I haven't spent much time with kids too young for the reaping, but Posey takes a shine to me for some reason. I find myself telling her old stories while we fill up rucksacks. She wants to know if I've ever met a real princess. I tell her that I've met a good few, but none quite so pretty as her. She is happy for the rest of the afternoon, which makes me feel absurdly proud of myself.

Hazelle and I take the food out and go from door to door to see who's in need. At first, people deny it, which I expect, but Hazelle keeps at them until they admit that, just maybe, they could do with a bite, which they'll pay for, or trade for, just as soon as they get on their feet. Hazelle suggests that the dandelions will be coming up soon, and it would be a help if everyone would pick them for each other. She can make some kind of soup.

I don't say much of anything. The longer I stay on the Seam, the more I start to feel like a skinny little kid in broken shoes, despised by nearly everyone.

I've stayed away so long that I've forgotten just how hard times can be here, at least in any real sense. I remember being hungry and I remember being cold, but I remember them the way I remember tunes I heard at parties decades ago. I'd forgotten the stench of closed-up houses and sickness, the sunken-eyed death that lurks in the corners where children and the elderly go when they're too tired to keep on living.

These are things I never wanted to remember. The ravenous hunger is past for these people. They often just look longingly at the food we've brought. Their movements are slow and their thoughts murky. The cold is easier to feel than the hunger after a while. I wish I didn't know this firsthand.

The first few days of this routine, I end up giving Hazelle my rucksack and running back to the Village, where I light my fireplace and drink. Peeta comes by the third evening and insists on coming along the next day. He's been hungry in the arena and knows some of it, but there are no parachutes to be had here. Still, this boy who never had to go without a meal outside the arena sits down with the starving, talks to them. They respond. Their families don't. They put up with me -- barely -- because I was once one of them, but Peeta never was. Those who aren't already dying resent the merchants and their supposed good fortune. Hazelle tells Peeta that it's better if he doesn't come next time, and promises that I will sit and talk to the starving.

I have no idea what I'm supposed to say. Peeta tells me I mostly need to let them talk. I do. I stay the whole day the next time, going from house to house, listening to sick old men, giving away the last bit of bread in my sack to a little girl with huge gray eyes. She nibbles it solemnly and stares at me until her mother brings her inside.

There are people beyond her looking out hopefully, but there's no more. They go back in, looking defeated.

Hazelle doesn't come to work the next day, and doesn't send anyone with notice. It's not like her and I worry, so I go into town. I find her in the stocks for six hours for the crime of illegally distributing food.

"Apparently, food needs to be inspected by the Peacekeepers," she says bitterly. "You never know. It might not meet health standards."

My rucksack is confiscated, and the food deemed unfit for human consumption. It's burned in the square. People watch the flames with deadened eyes.

So much for philanthropy.

I collect Hazelle's younger kids at school, so I can tell them where she is. Rory starts bellowing about what he's going to do to the Peacekeepers, and I get him quieted down before he ends up in the stocks beside her, or worse, at the whipping post. If he's old enough for tesserae, which he's started to take, he's old enough to be whipped. Vick is angry at me, since as far as he's concerned, she wouldn't be in trouble if I hadn't had food for her to give away. Posey is just scared and crying. I take them to her, and we sit out her sentence with her. Posey is on my lap for a good bit of it, asking for more stories. Gale will be in the mines until after it's over. I hope he doesn't do anything stupid when he finds out.

She sends me home. I clean my kitchen floor so she won't have to bend tomorrow, then I go looking for something to drink.

The first death comes the next day. It's not a shocking one. A little boy from the Seam, seven years old. I gave him a piece of cheese two days ago, and it fell limply out of his hand. They call it convulsions. Everyone knows what it really is. He is buried with no fanfare, the first of seven such deaths.

The Seam takes the worst of it, of course, but the merchants aren't thriving either. The bakery is hit particularly hard, and I'm quite sure Thread thinks of it as a punishment for Peeta, which it would be if I told him about it, which Danny asks me not to do. They are subject to constant inspections, and Danny says he loses about half his best inventory every day to Peacekeepers who take it away, claiming it is "unfit." Their pigs have been taken on the pretense that they are not licensed livestock keepers. They brighten when I ask about their granddaughter. Apparently, Thread has taken a liking to the restaurant at the inn, and they are doing well.

Mirrem sniffs, "Well, as long as my son uses his wife's name, anyway. As far as I know, Thread hasn't made the connection yet. It's probably just as well Peeta stays away." I raise my eyebrows, and she pales. "I didn't say anything to him," she says defensively.

"She didn't," Danny confirms. "But Peeta's not stupid."

There's no arguing with that. Peeta is a very long way from stupid.

So far, no one has been hanged, though Delly Cartwright tells me that Madge Undersee made a valiant attempt at it, throwing a rock directly at Thread and accusing him of murder. Being the mayor's daughter may have stopped the ultimate punishment, but even so, she spent twelve hours in the stocks and took a lash against the back of her legs.

Ed's store is under direct surveillance. Peacekeepers sit at the checkerboard out front and glare at customers. His taxes will be due at the end of the year, and if they don't back off, he won't be able to make enough to pay them, and he'll lose the place. He still manages to sneak in a message from Beetee, which was secreted in a laser cutter. Three and Four have cut off deliveries to the Capitol, Eleven has taken its train station, and Seven burned its own lumber at the depot before deposing the mayor and throwing him in jail. I slip the message back into the laser cutter, and it is burned when I try it out.

"You picking up a talent for construction?" one of the Peacekeepers asks.

I shrug. "Well, I've been a victor for twenty-five years. Figured it was about time I tried to pick up some talent or other."

He glares at me. "You might want to take your business elsewhere. You're not doing your young... friend... any favors." He sneers unpleasantly, and I fantasize about my knife. Better yet, I imagine Maysilee sneaking through the trees across the street with her blowgun and darts.

I drop by the Everdeens' and give a non-specific report on what's going on in town. I tell Ruth not to let Katniss go in. She'll recognize right away that the Peacekeepers are nothing but a pack of Careers who got beat to volunteering for the arena. It won't be comforting. She nods, and gives me some ointment for Madge's legs.

Hazelle is still working when I get home. Since the stocks, she's been a little stiff. I tell her she should see Ruth for something. She tells me she's not going to waste Ruth's time and supplies on a little cramp in her legs. I offer to massage it out. She rolls her eyes at me.

The next morning, I wake up and find her on the kitchen floor, grabbing her leg and crying as quietly as she can. I don't take any arguments. I give her a glass of white liquor and massage her muscle until the spasm passes.

She looks down, ashamed. "I'm usually not so weak," she says. "I tried to walk through it."

"It's not your fault."

"Don't tell my kids how bad it is. Or yours." She nods in the direction of Katniss's house.

"I won't."

"Gale almost went off the deep end as it was. I don't think he'll survive another whipping. Or worse."

"He's not crazy," I tell her. "He knows you and the kids need him."

"He's so angry. I'm more scared for him than me."

There's no proper answer for this. If we had a district full of Gale Hawthornes, we'd be in good shape for a rebellion, but with just one, he's going to get himself killed. I turn her around and give her a hug. She sits with me like this on the kitchen floor for a long time. I'm not in love with her -- that's one thing I'm completely certain of -- but it feels so good to hold someone like this, to feel the heat of her body, the softness of her breast under my hand.

I know if I started something right now, she'd let it happen. I know that she's thinking about starting something if I don't; I can feel it in the tentative flutter of her fingers in my hair. But in the end, we just hold on to each other.

She finally decides to get up, giving me a quick kiss on the cheek. I help her to her feet, and she gets back to work on the kitchen cupboards. I go for a walk.

She is waiting for me when I get back. We drink together, and she stays a while.

One of us starts something. It might be me. I'm not sure. I call her Digger at one point (and possibly Effie at another), and she calls me Clay. It's just a physical thing, and I guess that's all right sometimes, though I feel a little guilty about it. We just give each other an awkward goodbye after, and from then on, she makes an effort to do her work while I am either asleep or out and about. We don't talk about it.

As January inches into February, I am called to Thread's office. I take a handful of detox pills along, just in case, but I'm not offered anything to eat or drink. I am sent into the office and two Peacekeepers guard the door.

"The girl hasn't been out lately," Thread says, coming in. "Where is she?"

"She slipped on the ice and broke her heel," I say. "Which I'm sure the bugs in her house have picked up. Her mother is nursing her back to health. I'd be happy to share your concern for her well-being."

Thread glares at me across his desk, then takes out a surveillance photo shot through the Everdeens' front window. Katniss and Peeta are sitting across the table from each other, smiling and talking. Peeta appears to be painting something in a thick book. "What is the meaning of the phrase 'carpenter's grass'? Or 'old man's pepper'? They were discussing these things at length."

"They're plants," I say. I have no idea why Katniss and Peeta are talking about plants, but whatever keeps them happy and out of trouble is fine with me. "Actually, they're names for the same plant. I've heard it called both. Also bloodwort, green arrow, and nosebleed."

"Plants," Thread says doubtfully. "I've had these phrases analyzed by experts in cryptology."

"That was a waste of money. I could have told you what they were. Anyone in District Twelve could tell you what they are. They use it to make you sweat things out. And women use it for something, I'm not sure what."

"And why would your young victors be discussing this?"

"Her mom's an herbalist," I say. "Maybe they're sorting her supplies out."

Thread grimaces, displeased at such an easy answer. "And the boy? What is he painting?"

"He hasn't discussed it with me."

"Mr. Abernathy, I don't care if you're a victor. I don't care if they are. I find it distasteful how people fawn over the victors. They are promoted beyond all reason, and they contribute nothing in return. Some have even fostered sedition in outlying districts. I don't suppose you know anything about that?"

"Can't say I do."

"Even in my own District Two, some of our victors have, shall we say, too much time on their hands."

I perk up at this. The idea that we might have allies in Two, of all places, is intriguing. "Must be real troubling to you," I say.

"It is, Mr. Abernathy. The Capitol rescued the human race from its own self-destruction. It gathered in peoples from around the world, and it gave them a home and purpose for four hundred years. This generosity was answered with violent rebellion, which nearly destroyed humanity again. We have staved off the chaos for nearly seventy-five years since then, but they're agitating again. Perhaps you don't care about the future of humanity -- you seem not to care for your fellow men -- but I do."

"And you think that locking a teenage girl up in the stocks for wearing fancy shoes is going to save humanity? Or whipping a teenage boy over a turkey?"

"Laws will save humanity. I enforce them."

"Oh, sure," I say. "First it's fancy shoes, then full bellies, then the next thing you know, we'll all have personal nukes."

"You despise the law, don't you?" Thread leans over his desk, his teeth actually bared in dislike. "But do remember, Mr. Abernathy, that it is only the law that keeps me from killing you right now. It is only the law that keeps me from punishing your young friends without evidence. Only the law that you so despise prevents true tyranny."

"What if it's a bad law?"

Thread sits back down. "That," he says, "is not yours or mine to decide. You may leave now."

I want to push further and find out which victors in Two are seditious -- I know damned well that it's neither Enobaria nor Brutus -- but it's clear that the interview is over. I have met a few true believers, but they always manage to surprise me. I tend to think of Capitol loyalists as political animals taking the path of least resistance, or as outright corrupt on their own. Every now and then, though, the real crazies come out. Thread is clearly one of them.

There's been another whipping in the square while I was inside, a girl named Olive Hickman, who got ten lashes for trying to sell a quilt she made from scraps of her childhood clothes. The quilt is torn and trodden in the mud. I help her friends get her down from the post, and carry her to Ruth's for treatment.

To my surprise, Katniss and Peeta are watching television. Katniss seems to be waiting for something. I sit and watch with them for a while, and can't figure out what her game is. There's a show on about the glorious history of the Capitol. I'm guessing it's a favorite of Thread's. This particular episode deals with the founding of the first districts, when the Capitol got too crowded. Districts One, Two, and Three branched off into old, ruined cities in an arc around the Capitol, then an expedition was sent to find a city by the sea to bring in more seafood than could be provided by the Capitol's lake. We are reminded that these districts only existed by the will of the Capitol, and only survived due to its largess in their early years.

I somehow doubt that when they get to the outer districts, the directors will choose to show the forced integration of populations that had survived the Catastrophes on their own -- Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen, the so-called Outer Districts. Most of the historical record has long been lost, but Plutarch suspects (and I agree, for once) that we'd developed a competing federation. It wasn't subjugation, at least at first, but "cooperation," to the Capitol, meant obedience. I expect a documentary like this to present the wide-eyed citizens of Twelve as grateful for the largesse of their distant benefactors.

There's a newsbreak in the middle of it, in which absolutely nothing of interest is reported. Katniss makes an annoyed hissing sound and turns off the television. Peeta shrugs.

I walk him home. "What's so fascinating on Capitol view?" I ask when we're clear of the house.

"No idea. I think she's just bored, not being able to go outside. We've been watching a little bit every day. There's actually a really good pastry show. I didn't catch the whole thing."

"Well, you can arrange to meet whoever runs it when we go to the Capitol this summer," I say. "It's one of the few perks."

"Maybe." He slows down. "Haymitch, this summer... are you mentoring the boy, or am I?"

"I am," I say. "You're not ready. Katniss isn't, either, but I'll cover for her."

"How do you deal with it when they...?"

"Die?"

"Yeah."

"Personally, I drink a lot."

"Is there anything that's not your answer for?"

"It's surprisingly versatile."

We reach the walkway to his house and he stops. "What if it's one of my friends? Or Katniss's friends? What if they grab Delly, or Madge? My brothers and Gale are too old, but nothing keeps Prim out of the reaping again." He shakes his head. "They'd love that, wouldn't they? Making Katniss mentor her own sister in the Quell?"

I shudder. This is all too plausible. "Keep that outside the house and away from bugs," I say. "Never give them an idea."

He nods and goes inside.

I head back to my place. Hazelle has left me dinner, and a note that she's finished up with the curtains upstairs. She has also managed to scrounge up five bottles of white liquor from people in town who needed money, and names the price. I will leave it for her before I go to sleep. She recommends that I split it into some of the empty bottles she has saved aside, and water it in degrees. I promise myself that I'll take that advice later. I check the back of the note -- for what, I have no idea; it's not like Hazelle passes messages for anyone -- but there's nothing there.

There's no fresh snow for a few weeks, and the coal dust starts to settle in, turning District Twelve a uniform, depressing gray. A bout of flu goes through town, claiming a few older people (two from the Seam, one from town), and the gallows are used for the first time on a skinny man caught trying to steal morphling from the Peacekeepers' supply. I see Kay Undersee standing on the steps of the Justice Building. Her hands are shaking badly, and Madge leads her inside.

When I get home, there's a note that the phone rang. Hazelle didn't pick it up, as she didn't think it was her business, and wasn't sure if she needed to push any of the buttons on it anyway.

I start eating dinner, but I'm not surprised to be interrupted by that annoying ring. I pick it up.

"Haymitch! Where have you been?"

I rub my head. "Effie. Out."

"Well, never mind. They've moved up the wedding dress shoot for Katniss to the middle of next month. I told her mother, but she seems not to be excited about it, and I'm worried that Katniss won't know."

"Okay."

"Now, we need to talk about your schedule."

"Mine?"

"Yes. Once they announce the Quell, people are going to want to interview you. I think Caesar will want you."

"They should go find the first Quell victor," I say. "I saw a little footage of him once. He's better than me on camera. I mean, if they can figure out where he disappeared to."

Effie's quiet, and I imagine her standing there, confused. "Disappeared" people do not come back. "Disappeared" is a euphemism for dead, and everyone knows it, but in the Capitol -- unless a person has been vanished entirely -- they act like the missing might just stroll in at any moment. Effie might have processed my sarcasm once. Now, she just fumbles for a minute, then says, "But you're the one people remember! They've been seeing you for twenty-five years now."

"Right."

She pauses. "Haymitch, are you feeling all right? You sound... I don't know."

"I'm okay, Effie, just not looking forward to the circus."

"Well, I'll be there to get you through all the rings," she says cheerfully. "Don't you worry."

"Thanks."

"So, Caesar, of course," she says, then it all fades into a mind-numbing list of shows she wants me on, possibly including the pastry show Peeta enjoys. She promises to make sure they know what not to ask me (though she warns me that she won't be able to get them not to mention Maysilee, and asks me to prepare for it), and to get me my own prep team rather than making me share Peeta's ("After all, he'll only be there as a guest victor -- you'll be the star this year").

"Effie," I say after a while, "you go ahead and set up whatever you want."

Another pause. "Haymitch, are you sure you're all right?"

"I'm fine."

She waits for elaboration, which I don't give her, then sighs and says, "Is there anything you'd especially like them to ask about? A new hobby? Is there anyone special in your life?"

I glance at the impersonal note from Hazelle, then say, "Nothing and no one."

"Hmmph," she says. "You really should take up some hobby, Haymitch. Have you thought about wood-carving?"

"What?"

"Well, you always sleep with that knife. You may as well use it for something other than scaring the shoes off me when I wake you up."

"Wood-carving," I repeat.

"It's a perfectly legitimate hobby." I laugh. I am not sure what I'm laughing at. "What is it?" she asks.

"You're one of a kind, Effie."

"I love you, too, Haymitch," she says sarcastically. "Think about it."

"Think about wood-carving," I repeat. "And Caesar Flickerman. And not hitting people who ask about Maysilee."

"That'll do for a start," she says. "And try to stay out of trouble."

My dinner is getting cold, but I stay on the phone a little longer, asking after Cinna and Portia (both doing well, had a fashion show that no one understood), listening to her go on about a play she saw about Katniss and Peeta (a musical, of all things). Her birthday is coming up, and she's planning to have a delightful party. It's the kind of conversation with Effie that usually annoys me to no end, but after months of death and starvation and stocks and whippings, not to mention today's hanging, it's actually kind of nice to have a break. Not that I'd ever tell her that.

I finally hang up after hearing about her neighbor's dreadful new "natural" style ("The things Katniss has wrought!" she chirps), then finish my supper. I examine my bottles of white liquor, decide to get through tonight with some detox pills and plain water, and go to sleep.

I dream I am in the Capitol, in Effie's fluffy pink apartment overlooking the lake. Thread is on the television, thundering away about the law. He is holding up a picture of Katniss, explaining how she has undermined everything. Effie is gone. Everyone seems to be gone. The streets are empty. The phone is dead. The world is the arena, and I am the victor again, the last man standing after the final Quell.
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Comments
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 27th, 2015 02:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
Enjoying the re-read of this.

Caught one typo..."Posy is just scared and crying..." should be Posey.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 28th, 2015 03:50 am (UTC) (Link)
Heh, that survived a few edits!
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 31st, 2015 08:26 am (UTC) (Link)
Were you dropping hints about Charlie in the original, or was this added in as a nice bit of foreshadowing? (i.e., when did you decide about Charlie?)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 31st, 2015 07:38 pm (UTC) (Link)
I decided about the chapter before I wrote this one. To date, it's the longest I've ever managed to keep a story secret. ;p
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