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HG: House of Cards, Chapter Three - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
HG: House of Cards, Chapter Three
Peeta and Caesar go off to do the interview that Katniss will see a couple of months later in District Thirteen.

Warning: This is where things start to get way worse. And by worse, I mean the violence is starting.

Chapter 3
I do as I'm told, for the most part. I ask people to think before they start fighting a war. I establish that Katniss is under the control of a hostile force. I even embellish a little bit with what Caesar told me about the population crash during the Dark Days and the Catastrophes. This isn't exactly hard to sell -- I don't really disbelieve it, any more than I disbelieve that Katniss is in most senses a captive of the rebellion as much as I am of the Capitol. My only problem with it is having been instructed to say it.

I want to tell Katniss that I now understand exactly what she was feeling about me for the last year. Even real things can feel disgustingly false when they're being forced out of you.

Caesar gives me an in to talk about the Games. I say I don't remember what happened, which is a flat lie, but I can't talk about all of it. Not yet. But he lets me talk about what the arena is really like. It's a small victory.

The only place where I'm not entirely obedient is that I make a point of telling the Capitol soldiers that they also should think before they start reprisals. If pressed, I'll say that this is part of the grand plan to make it all look real instead of scripted.

What I doubt Snow will notice, but I hope Haymitch and Katniss will, is that I try to make parts of it sound scripted. Well-scripted. But scripted. So they'll pick up that I'm not just turning on the districts.

I stab Haymitch in the back. I know he's safe from reprisals for this. And I am angry at him. He promised to tell me everything. A planned break-out from the arena was a pretty important omission, and it would have changed everything if Katniss and I had known.

I almost forget to call for a cease-fire, but Caesar prods me for it. I do it, and ask to go back to my room to make more card houses. See how benign my imprisonment is?

Caesar drives me personally, though we have an armed escort.

"You did the right thing," Caesar says as we go slowly through the Capitol streets.

"Then why do I feel like I just burned my district all over again?"

Caesar doesn't answer. I look out the windows. Capitol citizens are wandering around in shock. I see some still in their natural hair styles. An old woman is sitting on a park bench with a fluffy dog, crying into the fur on its neck. A boy is staring up a blank giant screen, as if waiting for it to give him the meaning of life.

"What's going on here?" I ask. "Were we live?"

"Just in the Capitol. Snow hasn't decided when to broadcast to the districts."

"What's wrong with them?"

"They're confused." He sighs as we turn the last corner toward the training center. "You have to understand what they saw. As far as they can see, they've given you and Katniss more love than they've ever given to any other tributes. They've supported you. They've named their children and their pets after you. They've read books, seen plays... the last year in the Capitol has been all about you. Some of them have even made changes in their lives and the things they believe because of you."

"I wanted them to."

"And you were wildly successful." He pulls into the garage under the building, behind the first row of our guard, and he parks. Before he releases the restraints on our seats, he says, "The point, Peeta, is that they feel like they've been slapped. Like they've offered their hands in friendship only to have their fingers bitten, at least by Katniss. They feel... well, rejected by someone they love."

"They don't even know us."

"No. But they know themselves. And they know that your story changed them. They don't want it all to turn out to be as poisonous as the berries that started it. They're not all Snow or the Gamemakers."

There are a million logical arguments for this. That it shouldn't matter what Katniss and I actually do to judge whether or not the ideas they've attributed to us are good. That they ought to follow those ideas to their logical conclusion and realize that escaping from the arena was the natural endgame, and they should be using their power to take down Snow.

But human beings aren't logical. I remember being bored and frustrated in an ancient history class once, until Dad told me that it was all about the stories. Ignore the text and the analysis. Think about what it felt like to be alive then. What was it like to watch a man put a flag on the moon? What did people talk about at the dinner table while the genetic engineering age was flourishing? Could I imagine watching the oceans slowly creeping up to swallow the greatest cities in the land, forcing their populations up to the hills further inland?

We always associate what happens with the people who are part of it. And when those people turn out to have clay feet, as Katniss does here and I undoubtedly will in the districts at some point in the near future, then everything around them starts to seem rotten. Stupid, but true. As a species, we aren't nearly as clever as we like to pretend.

There's a tap on the window, and Caesar makes an impatient gesture at the Peacekeeper on the other side, then lets me out.

I'm escorted back to my room and left there to build card houses while they play a new, expanded video, combining the deaths of my family with moments in both arenas. My brother burns to death, Katniss drops tracker jackers on me. My niece is buried under a pile of flaming rubble, Katniss runs toward the Cornucopia without looking back. (I didn't notice it at the time, but she told me, during one of the long nights on the train, that this had been eating at her.) The bakery falls to ruin. I kill Brutus. My mother is flash burned out of existence. Johanna screams at the sky about a whole country in rebellion. They've turned up the volume, and it's harder to tune out.

I keep building. Two cards, leaning on each other. Another set. Cross them on top. Another set after that. Tiny diamond catacombs, staring at me mutely.

Katniss drugs me in the cave. She almost forgets to kiss me before she leaves the next morning.

Another level. Card on card. Concentrate.

My father says, Oh, Peeta.

My hand shakes, and the whole structure comes down. I cover my ears, wait until I stop shaking, then start again.

By the time the sky outside turns pink with sunset, I've started to adjust to the new volume. I am crying sometimes, I think, but it's just me and whoever is watching the feed, and I don't care. My family is dead. My district is gone. I think that's a place where it's okay to cry. I manage to get a five level card house built, and I step back from it without disturbing it.

A blast of air comes from the filtration system and knocks it down.

I will not cry over a card house. I'm sure they want me to.

Instead, I go to the shower and stand under the water for a long time. It's not the obsessive need to be clean that I had yesterday. I'm not sure what to make of it, but somewhere in the last twenty-four hours, I've stopped feeling the blood on my hands. No -- now, I just want the water running, making its white noise, blocking out the sounds of the video.

I stay again until they turn off the supply, then go back to Katniss's bed and try to sleep. They don't turn down the volume, and every time I've almost dropped off, they make something explode or whistle or beep. Finally, it doesn't matter what they do. I put the pillow over my head, the way I used to when my parents fought, and sleep ambushes me.

Unsurprisingly, I dream of my parents screaming at each other. At first, Mom is on her usual rant about where Dad has been and who he's been with (as far as I know, Dad was never actually unfaithful to her). Dad is shouting at her to stop shouting. This is the sort of thing they argued about. I wish I could pretend there had been some great substance to it. But it was always, You smell like perfume/Stop shouting. Or You threw away good money/I make the money, anyway.. That one was always good. There was also the ever-popular Sentimental idiot/Stop screaming at the boys, of course, but that was family business and rarely shouted. And the dreaded, quiet, If I ever see a bruise on any of them again, you can find another roof to live under.

And then the roof falls down in flames around them, and Mom is shrieking about the whole country in rebellion, and Dad is screaming crazily after he's killed someone.

Next door, Delly Cartwright's brother is trying to play the flute. He hits a high note, and I wish the Cartwrights would make him stop. I'm trying to sleep in the fire and --

I open my eyes. It's still night. There is a high pitched, extended whistle in the room. As soon as I roll over and look up, it stops.

I lie in the dark, watching the flickering shadows from the video screens dance around the ceiling. I wonder if I can change the channel, but when I try, I just get ear-splitting feedback whines. Turning it off isn't possible, either. I think about Katniss's deafness after the explosion, and wonder if I could rupture my eardrums just to get some sleep, but I guess they'd find some other way, and I'd just end up being permanently deaf for my troubles.

"I did what you want," I tell the empty room. "Can I just sleep for a few hours?"

There's no noticeable response.

I go back to the living room and build card houses. I can't get past the second level, and after a while, I can't get past the first.

I sit on the couch, wrap myself in a blanket, and close my eyes.

I drift. It’s not exactly sleeping, but it's better than nothing. I hear the battles on the screens around me, but I can't do anything about that. My mind just floats on top of it. I remember Katniss trying to teach me to swim. She said it didn't really count when I had the floatation device on. It pulled me up in the middle of my body. I wanted to take it off, because I thought I wasn't balanced, but I was a little afraid. I'd never really been in the water, other than when Finnick pulled me to land. I feel like that now, like there's something pulling me up, keeping my head above the water, but also pulling me in its own directions -- back to Twelve, to petty fights with my brothers. To the arena with Katniss, the beach, the pearl I gave her. To my studio in the Victors' Village, the smell of my paints, the sun coming through the windows.

Somewhere in the fog, I hear voices.

"You've got to stop this. What else do you want from him?"

"I don't see where that's your concern, Caesar."

"He's my concern. They're all my concern. You know that. What you're doing -- you're only going make things worse."

"Might I suggest you stick to grinning at the monkeys in your audience and leave the war to me?"

"This isn't the war. This is a seventeen year old kid who you're torturing for no reason at all. He's cooperating."

"Only under duress."

"You're not going to change that!"

"We'll see." There is the scraping sound of a chair being pulled out. "I am trying to keep a nation together."

"And I'm trying to help you do it right! Do you think I want to see the Capitol fall?"

"There are times I wonder what you do want, Caesar."

"I don't want to see anyone else die for this. There's been enough death."

After a long pause, Snow says, "There were survivors in Twelve. We lose their trail into the woods, and Alma Coin is harassing our hovercrafts. I would prefer we take them than they do."

"I somehow doubt that would be the majority opinion there after you burned their town to the ground."

"I want to know where they'll go." I am suddenly poked with the tip of something, and I fight to open my eyes. "And someone is listening to the question. Are you awake, Peeta?"

I try to say yes. It comes out as a kind of sigh.

Warm hands end up on my shoulders, and I'm pushed into a sitting position. I'm aware that my eyes are open. Caesar is staring at me. "Peeta?" he says. "Peeta, are you all right?"

"...can't sleep..." I manage.

"Dammit, Coriolanus, turn this off!" Caesar makes a gesture at the screens.

Snow shrugs and waves his hand, and the apartment is suddenly, amazingly silent. I bat at my ears to see if I can still hear. The sound of the disturbed air is strangely loud.

"Did you hear what I need to know?" Snow asks.



"And how would I know that? I wasn't there. I don't know where they'd go."

"The fence was knocked down near the part of town you call the Seam."

"Most people live there."

"We have a surveillance photo. Tell me -- does this man look as familiar to you as he does to me?" He pulls out a photo and puts it down. It's from above and everyone is distorted, but it's enough to recognize the boy looking up as he shoos people down a hole in the fence.

"Gale Hawthorne," I say. "But I guess you already know that."

"He is... oh, what are we calling him lately? Your fiancée's cousin. Where would he take the people?"

"Gale and I aren't friends. I have no idea where he'd go."

"Where would Katniss go?"

I'm ripped back suddenly to the mad days we spent training for the Quell, pretending it would make a difference. My anger at Haymitch flares -- he could have told us at any time -- but I force myself away from it. I see the three of us at the end of a run, Haymitch wheezing on a park bench. Katniss sits on the ground and stretches, looking around for bugs. Then she says, "Haymitch, Peeta needs to know about District Eight."

I think at first that she just means the uprising she already mentioned, but instead, she tells me about two women she met in the woods.

In the woods, at a cabin at a lake that she went to in order to clear her mind.

"You have an answer for that, I see," Snow says.

"No. I've never been outside the fence, except on the train. I don't know the woods."

"You're not as good a liar as you think you are. I think it's time for a more serious conversation." He hits a button, and the elevator doors open. Two Peacekeepers come in. I wait to see who they've brought.

One of them takes out a pair of handcuffs.

Caesar gets in front of me. "Don't do this, Snow."

"They both carry handcuffs, Caesar. Don't overestimate my tolerance."

Caesar turns to the guards. "Do you gentlemen understand where the President is taking this boy, and what will happen there?"

"Take him in," Snow orders.

There is a thud as Caesar is hit in the face with a gun. He crumples in front of me, and one of the Peacekeepers handcuffs him and drags him off.

"We're not going to have any trouble, are we?" the other asks me.

"You won't have any trouble," Snow says. "Will he, Peeta?"

Behind those words, I hear the names: Caesar. Effie. Portia. Johanna. Annie. My preps. Darius. Lavinia.

I shake my head.

The Peacekeeper handcuffs me.

I am taken down to a car, which I share with President Snow. As we head to wherever we are going, he tells me about various Capitol landmarks we pass along the way. Here is the memorial to the Green Tower, which was bombed during the Dark Days, costing the lives of more Capitol children in a matter of seconds than would be lost in the Games for at least twenty years. There is the Fountain of Peace, a sculpture made from the identifying tags and equipment of soldiers lost in the war. And of course, the Hall of Tribute, where every tribute is remembered, along with scenes of his or her death. The more spectacular deaths rate dioramas.

Finally, we reach a stone building surrounded by a high fence. Unsmiling Peacekeepers surround me.

They march me inside, down sterile corridors lined with lights trapped in unbreakable cages. Snow goes in front of us. I can see prisoners through some of the doors, which are made of steel but set with one small window. The window is covered on some of them. We stop in front of one, and Snow thumbs a key beside it. The covering raises and I hear a war whoop. Johanna's face appears in the window. Snow waves at her, and the guards shove me forward.

"Peeta!" she yells. "Tell them to shove it, they're going to hurt you anyway, so don't give anything up!"

Snow closes the window. I can still hear her shouting behind it. "I thought you might appreciate a friendly face," he says.

The Peacekeepers open the next door and push me inside. The cell is actually fairly large. A metal table is bolted to the floor. There is a bunk in the back, and a toilet in full view of the cameras. There are a lot of mechanical looking things in the ceiling. I can't identify them, but I don't like them. And of course, a screen on the wall. Snow activates it, and it starts to show my personal videos again, though thankfully without sound for now.

I am handcuffed to the table.

Snow sits down across from me. "Now, where did we leave off?"

"With me telling you I never went outside the fence in District Twelve. Which I never did. I think my dad was outside it once, but... not many people went there."

"Gale Hawthorne and Katniss Everdeen did."

"I don't know if you've guessed this, but he's not actually her cousin, and they didn't invite me on their dates. And she didn't exactly tell me long stories about them, either."

Snow smirks unpleasantly. "I had reports on their activities near the fence. Would you like to hear them?"

I wonder what Snow will tell me if I say yes. Katniss already told me about the kiss, which confused her too much to do anything else.

Unless that was a lie.

I blink, not considering that too closely. I don't think she'd lie to me about that. She wouldn't have any reason to. I told her I was all right with it. I told her she didn't have to be loyal to me when it was just us.

She wouldn't have lied.

I shrug, as if nothing in the world could matter less.

Suddenly, the chains on the handcuffs jerk my arms down toward the table, pressing against the bones in my wrist, cutting the skin.

I am too surprised to scream.

"I can keep tightening," Snow says calmly. "Easiest thing in the world from my side. It will break your bones. Eventually, it will damage the nerves in those talented hands."

"You're going to kill me, anyway," I manage to say, though my muscles are so tense trying to fight against the pull of the chains that it comes out as a gasp.

He sniffs. The pressure stabilizes, lets up a little. "Because Johanna Mason said so? My dear boy, of the two of us, which has lied to you with every word?"

"If you break my hands, they'll notice on camera," I try.

"A good point," Snow says. He releases the handcuffs, then gestures to a Peacekeeper. "Break a rib." He smiles at me. "We'll cover it up with a nice shirt."

I have no defense. The Peacekeeper takes his baton from his belt and slams it into my ribcage from the side. I hear the bone crack, and my chest is on fire. I can't keep from screaming this time, and the motion of the scream makes it hurt even more.

From the other side of the wall, I hear Johanna shout, "You leave him alone! Leave him alone! I'll kill you!"

Snow sighs. "Miss Mason is becoming tedious. Please bring her in, if she'd like to join the conversation in a more productive capacity."

"Don't do anything to Johanna," I say.

"Or what?"

"Just please don't."

A moment later, Johanna is shoved through the door. She trips over the chains that bind her legs and falls to the floor. Peacekeepers drag her to her feet, then push her to her knees. She glares out defiantly. "Whatever they do, Peeta, you don't give them anything."


"Now," Snow says, "about the matter of a refuge for survivors of the bombing."

"I don't know!" I insist, but the image of Katniss at a cabin at a lake comes back again.

One of the guards grabs Johanna's hand and pushes back one of her fingers, either breaking it or pulling it out of joint. She screams.

"Stop it!"

"Don't pay attention!" Johanna gasps. "Just ignore me."

Snow looks at her, bored, then says, "I have a special treat for you, Johanna. Inspired by Beetee's plan in the arena. There's plenty of usable wire left on the spool. I had it brought back just for you."

She spits at him.

"You don't have to do this!" I tell him.

A hook comes down from the ceiling, and Johanna's guards string the chain of her handcuffs over it. One of them draws a knife.

"Please don't!" I yell.

The guard buries his hand in Johanna's spiky hair, pulls her head back.

And cuts off a fistful of hair.

A cut opens in her scalp and she starts to bleed.

"It gets very smelly," Snow explains. "If the hair starts burning."

The bloody clump of hair falls to the ground, and another falls beside it. Johanna flails, but she's caught tightly in the chains.

I try to get up, but the chains on my own cuffs start to pull again.

"Stop it! Please, just stop it!"

The knife cuts across Johanna's skull again, taking a chunk of skin from her forehead along with the hair. The other Peacekeeper gets his knife as well, starting in on the side of her head. He's even clumsier with it, opening up a gash above her ear.

Blood patters to the floor of the cell. It is dripping down her face, shockingly red, leaving streaks like she's tried to finger paint herself. When I woke up in the cave and found Katniss with a head wound, much of the blood had congealed to a rusty shade of brown, but this is so fresh and bright that it almost looks fake against Johanna's pale skin. Like paint dripping down a fresh canvas. I think crazily of my studio again. And then about the park. About Katniss and the lake.

She bites at a hand that comes too close to her mouth, and is backhanded for her trouble. Her feet don't quite touch the floor, and she swings viciously, her arms twisting until they catch her and start shaving again.

"Almost done," Snow says. "Now, I think I may have to watch the tape again, to remember exactly how Beetee wrapped that tree." He smiles at Johanna. "One more time as a tree, my dear. Then it'll all be over."

She fights uselessly against the Peacekeepers.

"Please, stop," I say.

"Peeta, ignore it!" she yells.

"I can't! Please, President Snow... please... I'll tell you everything."
10 comments or Leave a comment
From: (Anonymous) Date: February 28th, 2013 08:53 pm (UTC) (Link)

This is a...

Very Stupid Question, but why wouldn't Snow's surveillance people have thought of the lake before?

I don't mean as a reason for not torturing Peeta, because that is probably an End Unto Itself, but they must have aerial footage of the area and what would 900 refugees (particularly of a fire-bombing) need more than water?

I'm starting to wonder how I'm going to manage to read the rest of this...

By the way, this is kind of a round-about way of saying, really powerful writing!

Sara Libby
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 28th, 2013 10:39 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: This is a...

Well, Katniss describes it as quite a long walk, and it took Thirteen three days to find them. So, whether it makes sense or not, apparently, they just don't have adequate surveillance of the area, or think the lake is out of reasonable range. (And in Appalachia, water's not generally that hard to find. It's probably not the only source.)
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 2nd, 2013 06:36 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: This is a...

Additionally, the Capitol has access only to recording equipment and sweeps from low-flying hovercraft. If Plutarch laments the loss of high-altitude aircraft, it's a virtual certainty the Capitol cannot launch surveillance satellites into Earth orbit.
shortysc22 From: shortysc22 Date: March 1st, 2013 02:38 am (UTC) (Link)
Ah this story is definitely going to be an interesting interlude. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about reading Peeta and Johanna's torture. It was actually a good thing Collins put a good bit of that out of the way.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 1st, 2013 03:59 am (UTC) (Link)
I don't know how I feel about writing it, to be honest.

I think that now that I've established that holds aren't being pulled, I may not have to be so graphic. It's not the whole of the story (mostly because it's not a story, per se, just horrible things happening to someone).
maidenjedi From: maidenjedi Date: March 1st, 2013 05:51 am (UTC) (Link)
This can't be easy to write, but you really are doing an incredible job with it. What has worked so well with your HG stories (and your stuff in general) is that you get to the heart of whatever was happening off-page, and you build a much fuller world. This is what was happening to Peeta in the Capitol. If the story is to be told, well, it should be told in full. Great, great stuff Fern.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 1st, 2013 06:46 am (UTC) (Link)
Thanks... it is hard. I adore Peeta, and hurting him in my head is not on my fun list. But I wanted to know about the Capitol, and what led to him finally breaking (as well as exploring Caesar a little bit).
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 1st, 2013 01:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
This had me wincing in sympathy. I actually mean that as a compliment though. I think it's definitely accurate that Snow would know the best way to get Peeta to talk is to hurt someone else. I'm both excited and nervous to read more.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 1st, 2013 02:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
Snow's not stupid. He knows Peeta is the sort to put up with loads of pain himself (he buried himself in the mud after taking on Cato to protect Katniss only a year before). But it's one thing to resolve to let yourself be hurt. It's something else to say, "I'll put up with however much you want to hurt someone else."
rosaxx50 From: rosaxx50 Date: March 7th, 2013 09:45 am (UTC) (Link)
Oh, wow. This is hard to read, which makes it perfect.

Johanna :(
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