FernWithy (fernwithy) wrote,
FernWithy
fernwithy

HG: The Hanging Tree, Chapter Four

The train got caught in a snowstorm in District Eight, and Haymitch helped clear it out.


Chapter Four
We get underway just before sunset.

It's still snowing, but the winds have died down, and it's calm enough that a sweeper car can now go ahead of us an keep the track clear. I say goodbye to the kids from Eight (I notice that they're all bright enough to keep their own scarves up, to avoid retaliation later), then get on the train. Gia just rolls her eyes at me. She doesn't show any sign of the woman nervously tearing her wardrobe apart earlier.

"We're behind a day," she says. "We were going to have a tour of the forest in Seven, so they cancelled that, and it should be enough to get us back on schedule."

"Oh… sorry. I guess you wouldn't want the trip to Seven shorter."

'It's probably just as well that we're not spending the night."

I'm not entirely sure what I'm supposed to say about that, so I ignore it and ask, "Is it a long trip out there?"

"Longest leg of the trip, actually. It would have been two days in ideal circumstances. It's almost at the western ocean."

"Will we see the ocean?"

"No, there's no sea access. But it's almost there. You could probably smell it, if the paper mill didn't stink the whole place up." She smiles. "Do you want to see the ocean? You'll probably get a glimpse in Four. I could send word ahead to ask if we can have some time at the beach."

I do want to see the ocean, but I don't want to ask for it. Gia already looks like she wants to pinch my cheeks over going out in the snow. I shrug.

She mimics it sarcastically, then we go to the dining car for supper. Everyone else ate earlier.

"So," I say. "Will you need me to cover for you during the banquet?"

She smiles. "Much as I appreciate the offer, I better not accept it. You're expected to be fooling around. I'm expected to be looking after you."

"Let me know if you change your mind. I owe you one for Eleven."

"Deal." She picks at her food.

I think about asking her if she's nervous, but it feels like a question that would cross the line.

While we eat, the Capitol runs today's Victory Tour programming. Since they aren't showing anything here -- the news just reported that we were delayed by a snowstorm -- they have decided to do a feature on District Twelve. Apparently, before the Capitol lovingly took us in, we were under the thumb of District Thirteen (always a handy villain, since they can't talk back), and they'd let us deteriorate into sheer barbarism. Ancient history about blood feuds in Appalachia, before the Catastrophes, is re-hashed. This, apparently, contributes to our ongoing "tribal" streak, which now (under the exquisite care of the Capitol) has just become part of our charming "local color." The bitter division between town and Seam is treated as an innocent rivalry, like the competing bands of fans that different victors have in the Capitol.

I'm guessing that this innocent rivalry must be in a hell of a flare-up -- either that, or Beckett's doing another crackdown -- because the reporters never leave Victors' Village, even though they claim to be in the square, and have hired a few local people (I definitely see Mir Murphy) to populate the background. They dig up a few of my friends. Danny dutifully thanks people for the recipes. He is covered in what looks like plaster dust, and they say he and my "many other friends" -- whoever they might be -- are working on a surprise in my house for when I get back. I'm guessing Danny played on Glen Everdeen's guilty conscience to get him to help. I can't think of anyone else who would bother.

We stay up a while longer, watching pointless things on television and talking about books. Lepidus joins us for a little bit, and they switch over to a conversation about fashion. I know nothing about it, so I just listen. Lepidus asks me what I mean to make my "personal style," and I admit that I don't even know how to shop for clothes outside of District Twelve.

I end up spending most of the next day en route to District Seven working with Lepidus and Plutarch, learning the ins and outs of measuring myself to order clothes at a distance. We also go over how to tell whether or not a color is good on me. Plutarch claims to be envious of my skin, since nothing precisely clashes with it. I never knew things could clash with skin. It's maybe the most practical thing I've learned from the Capitol. I have a feeling that it's also something they've cooked up to keep me occupied, since Gia is getting more and more nervous by the hour.

I stay awake late at night, reading a history book that Plutarch has lent me, and I see her pacing the length of the train several times.

In the morning, I'm dragged out of bed for prep. We'll be in Seven in time for lunch. Gia rushes in during my prep (thank heaven, it's not one of the less clothed parts of it) and begs Igerna to do something with her nails. She sits there with her hands under a drying lamp while Medusa fusses with my hair. I reach over and take her hand, which means we'll both need to be re-manicured, but she squeezes back and smiles anyway.

We cross District Seven's fence a little bit after lunch, and I find myself surrounded by woods. It's not like the woods at home, though I can't put my finger on why, since I don't spend much time out there. Digger could probably point out every different plant. The loggers travel up and down the length of the forest, setting up traveling camps each year and replanting after each clear-cut. It's no longer snowing, but a steady, heavy rain falls most of the way to the central town.

When we get out, I have to hold my breath to not gag. The whole place has a strange, rotten egg smell to it that I guess must be the paper mill Gia mentioned. She gives me a stern look, but I don't need it. My mother would never let me look disgusted at someone else's home… given the state of our home, it would have been kind of hypocritical.

She hands me my cards, and the kill list from the district. Two died at the Cornucopia, but she's starred one of them -- Declan Denny. He tangled with Maysilee. The others died in combat during the Games.

The atmosphere in the Justice Building is much more comfortable than it's been elsewhere. Gia greets the Peacekeepers by name, and the mayor gives her a hug and says, "Blight's in the kitchen now, helping out with the feast."

I look at Gia.

She smiles. "It's his talent. Cooking. He's very good."

There's no time for a discussion of this, because I have to go out and give my speech, which is starting to sound very stale. I'm tempted to change it a little bit here and there, but I doubt that the Peacekeepers would hesitate to hurt my team, first name basis with my escort or not.

The crowd stands sullenly around. I see a few big log trucks, and kids sitting on their flatbeds who look like they're not used to the smell -- lumberjack kids, I guess, who only have to come into town twice a year, for the reaping and the tour. The others just look bored. I can't see any particular visible difference, like there is in Twelve, but the expressions are a dead giveaway. Somewhere, not far from the square, I can hear a river raging through the district.

The mayor presents me with another useless plaque, apologizes that we won't be able to have a tour through the woods, then invites me to supper. I follow her in. Because of the tight schedule, there's not an extra prep session, and my speech clothes will have to serve for the meal as well.

The festival hall is hung with fragrant evergreen wreaths that partially succeed in covering up the mill smell. The smell of food wafting through the air helps as well.

Before we're seated the door to the kitchen opens, and a tall, pleasant looking man comes out. He grins. "Welcome to District Seven," he says. "And welcome back to our more familiar visitor."

Gia smiles beautifully.

We all sit down to eat. Blight is apparently kicked out of the kitchen for the part of the meal that isn't his talent -- serving and cleaning -- and he joins us, dropping down casually into the seat beside Gia's. "I don't usually volunteer my talent for these things," he says, "but my invitation got lost."

"Well, I'm glad you rectified that," Gia says. "Ollie, this is Haymitch Abernathy. Haymitch, Ollie Hedge."

"Everyone other than Gia calls me Blight," he says, holding out his hand.

I shake it. "Nice to meet you."

"At this point in the tour, if I recall, it's not nice to meet anyone, and you just want to get home."

I smile. "True. But it's still nice to meet you. Cooking is your talent?"

"You'll see when they bring the food out. I hear you're friends with the baker out in Twelve. Take that up as a new talent, and we can swap recipes." He pulls a card out of pocket and hands it to me. There is a cheerful looking, smiling feather on one side. "This is my own twist on our bread. If he wants it more authentic, he can take out the dill. I just like it with a little flavor. We usually make it with tessera grain, but for special occasions, we use chestnut flour. Do you have chestnut trees?"

"I'm not sure."

"The forest is outside the fence in District Twelve," Gia explains. "So of course Haymitch has never been in it."

"Yeah. I can see how that would be." He smiles. "Anyway, the local food around here used to come out of the river, so the local dishes are all seafood… which we have to order from Four. You don't want to eat fish out of our river -- the paper mill makes them bad -- and of course, the other rivers are all on Capitol land, so we never fish from them."

I laugh. "Right. I can see that, too."

"So, for this shindig, I ordered everything express shipped from Four. I had to haggle that crook Odair down to a reasonable price."

"Isn't the government picking these things up?" I ask.

"Well, yes, but it's the principle."

A bell rings, and the food comes out. Blight is not lying -- he really does have a talent for cooking, if he actually cooked this. I haven't had much in the way of seafood, so I taste it all carefully before digging in, but it all seems good.

Gia's nervousness has entirely disappeared. So has any attention she would generally be paying to me. She and Blight catch up on news of the district, speak in the accidental code of an old friendship, refer to events I have no concept of, and seem extremely comfortable together. Though Gia is careful enough to make sure no one gives me any wine, she has a few glasses herself, and so does Blight. They spend a lot of time talking about nothing more important than haggling for seafood, but I guess it doesn't matter what two people are talking about, when they're looking at each other like that.

The tables are cleared away for dancing, and I am not surprised to see them dancing close together. I decide to cover for her whether she asks me to or not.

The best way to do that, as far as I can tell, is to keep the minders busy. I dance with everyone who asks, and make a big point of talking to the mayor for a long time. A woman who works in the kitchen nearly gets in trouble for bringing her three year old son with her (I hear her say that she couldn't afford to have anyone watch him), but I pretend that kids are my favorite thing in the world and offer to keep an eye on him while she works. His name is Jack, and he turns out to be great at diverting attention from everyone in the vicinity. By the time his mother finishes her shift and collects him, no cameras are pointing at my team, and I'm not surprised that Gia and Blight are nowhere in sight.

The party goes on for a long time, mostly because the train needs some maintenance. My team, and a few other workers from the tour, seem to be enjoying themselves. Plutarch is having what looks like an intense philosophical conversation with the mayor. I have danced with a lot of girls, but they're leaving me alone at the moment. My preps are chatting up local men. It more than crosses my mind that there's no reason I shouldn't be doing the same with the girls. I'm about as single as it's possible to get, and the government doesn't have a problem with it, and Gia doesn't have much of a leg to stand on at the moment. The threat about closely related tributes showing up from other districts at some distant point doesn't exactly seem imminent, and I seem to recall Digger and I finding a lot of things to do that wouldn't go there, anyway.

And it's not like I have a reputation to protect anymore.

The only thing really stopping me is that I know Mom would be appalled.

I decide that I'd probably argue with her about it, anyway. She was appalled by Digger and me, too, and it didn't stop me.

I get up and go toward a pretty girl with blond braids. There's nothing special about her, except that she's standing by herself by the bar. I sit down on one of the stools. "Nice feast."

She turns, and sips something through a straw. "Like it?'

"Yeah."

"I liked the fish."

"It was good."

I don't know how long this fascinating conversation might continue on its own, but, to my disappointment, she gets called away by her friends. I think about trying someone else, but a smell distracts me -- a high, juniper smell. Someone has left a bottle of gin open. No one is guarding it.

I take it. The party's for me, anyway.

I figure that someone will spot me and stop me; Gia has everyone on sober-Haymitch duty. But we've been here for a long time, and people are bored with the visiting celebrity. I look around and find a shadowy alcove. Better yet, when I get there, I find a door that leads outside.

I hold the bottle close to my nose to drive away the smell of the paper mills, and look for someplace to drink. We're at the riverside here, and the rushing water fills the night with a kind of soft white noise. It will cover the sound of my footsteps. There's a little dock running along the bank. I run for it, and hide under it. Maybe I could even run away from here… just slip into the river and let it carry me to wherever it goes.

I hold up the bottle, and I'm about to drink when I hear something above me. I look up. I can't see much through the slats of the dock, but can tell that there are two people. They sit down on a little bench right over my head, then I hear Gia say, "Okay, we're here. The river should cover it. How bad is it?"

I lower the bottle. I feel like I should say something to let her know I'm here, so she doesn't say anything personal… but I suddenly don't want her to see me here, hiding with a stolen bottle of gin. I'm kind of stuck.

"It's bad," the other voice says. I don't know for sure, but I think I can reasonably assume it's Blight. "I've been in the Capitol. Talked to a few of my… friends."

Gia hisses. "I don't like your friends there."

"Neither do I. But they're full of information. That's the only use I have for them."

"I know."

He sighs loudly enough that I can hear it over the water. "What's going on with the kid's real talent, Gia? Snow's convinced you're hiding something."

"He's been a little busy mourning, Ollie. He didn't have time to embroider potholders."

"You know that's not what Snow thinks."

"I know! I've been getting daily calls from the Gamemakers."

"Is that why you're so uptight?"

"Yes. As far as anyone on the train knows, it's just seeing you again --"

"Why would you be nervous about seeing me? You've seen quite a lot of me."

"Not since we split."

"Oh. Right."

Neither of them says anything for a while, then Gia says, "What have you been hearing? The whole story, Ollie. I know you're holding back. I recognize the look on your face."

"You always could read me." The bench creaks as he moves. "Snow's paranoid about the kid."

"Because he made threats in the arena? He's not the first one to do that."

"No. But he is the first one who didn't even bother to pretend to play against the other tributes. From the second he came up at the Cornucopia, he was playing against Snow and the Gamemakers, and they know it. Snow's convinced that he did something rebellious as a talent, and you're aiding and abetting him."

"Why is he so convinced of it? The recipes?"

Blight snorts. "No. Snow isn't suspicious of recipes that are going to a kid who folded after one whipping."

I grimace. I hate that Danny took this reputation on himself.

"I don't know. Whatever's going on, obviously, people are being careful. But Gia… you picked a translation project as a cover. Where in the hell is a kid from the mines in District Twelve supposed to have picked up Ancient Greek? And the rumor is that the notes were in Caesar's handwriting, which Snow knows perfectly well."

"Haymitch is a smart kid. He could have picked up some dictionaries. There were dictionaries in the house; I made sure of it before I picked that. And the notes aren't in Caesar's handwriting. Someone else did them." Her voice is tight, with an edge of real anger.

Blight waits for her to calm down and then says, "It doesn't matter, Gia. You could have personally taught him Ancient Greek while you were there, and it could really be his talent. For all I know, he's a damned genius. The point is, he's a genius that Snow has in his sights, and as far as he's concerned, you blocked his shot."

"Yeah? Good."

"This is serious! You remember Manius Cadwell, from security? He thought I believed those idiotic rumors about you and the kid. So he told me not to worry -- you were going to get your comeuppance for it."

"What did he say they were going to do?"

"He didn't, exactly, but I think we can count on re-education. Debt collection and debtors' prison, maybe. Best case scenario, you get fired and your name gets dragged through the mud."

"But he has no proof of anything!"

Blight stands up and takes several heavy paces. "Since when does he need proof?" He kneels in front of her, casting a dark shadow over my hiding place. "Gia, listen to me. You're not going to skate by. He got you in deep when he wouldn't let me pay for your college, and they have their claws in you in the Capitol. You know that."

"So what am I supposed to do?"

"Don't go back to the Capitol. I wasn't just haggling for seafood, you know. I was haggling for passage for you. Though the people monitoring the bugs may well think you're a particularly fine fillet of catfish." There's a break, and I imagine her smiling at the little joke. "I'm not going to let them… erase you."

"You want me to just dump Haymitch in the middle of his tour, and leave him to whatever Snow cooks up next?"

"Yes!" He pauses, and when he speaks again, his voice is muffled. "Gia, I love you. I know you like the boy, and I'm glad, but I love you. I can erase all the ephemera about you. Pull your genetic scans out of their records. Get your fingerprints off the file. I have friends -- real ones -- who know how to do that. They won't find you if you run."

"Neither will you."

"It's better for me not to see you than for you to stop being you."

"I need to be there."

"But you won't be. If they take you away, if they re-educate you, you're not going to be any help to him."

I hear Gia choke back a sob. "I can't, Ollie. It's my whole life!"

He makes a lot of soothing sounds, then says, "There's a re-fueling stop about two hours out of Four. It'll be the middle of the night. You can get out. Look for the fairy slippers."

"I can't…"

He holds her. I hold the bottle tight and try not to scream.

They hold onto each other for a long time, talking softly about years past. I put my hands over my ears so I don't hear, at least until the thunder of footsteps interrupts everything. I look up through the slats. Peacekeepers are surrounding them.

Blight stands up. "What do you want?"

"The boy's missing. Where is he?"

"What?" Gia stands as well, and I'm glad she doesn't know where I actually am, because I doubt she could fake being that startled. "What do you mean, missing?"

"He disappeared from the banquet."

"He's probably off with some girl," Blight says dismissively. "You know how they throw themselves at the victors."

"They're all accounted for."

"We need to find him!" Gia says. "Now!"

Dirt sifts down onto me as they all run off the dock. Gia calls to me frantically.

I stay there, sitting on the cold ground, staring at the bottle of gin, trying to process everything. If they're going to take Gia away, then she has to run. But what am I supposed to do without her?

It doesn’t matter. I'm going to be without her either way. Like Mom. Like Digger. Like Maysilee. The question is whether I want them to take her from me that brutally, or whether I want to help her escape.

Which isn't much of a question.

If they find me here, in the same place she was, they'll take her right away. She won't have time to use whatever Blight set up for her.

I crawl out carefully, looking around for Peacekeepers. There are none in sight. I need to be somewhere sensible, and with a good excuse for disappearing.

I look at the bottle of gin.

Gia will be angry at me, but I guess that's okay. I run for the nearest shadow by the Justice Building, and follow it along to the far side, by the square where I talked earlier. There are Peacekeepers looking around, so I'll have to be somewhere a little bit out of the way.

I head for a huge tree with a picnic table under it, curl up in the roots, and douse myself with most of the contents of the bottle. The rest, I drink gratefully. It will be on my breath.

I hide carefully in the shadows of the tree.

It takes them fifteen minutes to find me, and reports of my drunken adventure in District Seven will undoubtedly lead the news for days, but the Peacekeepers laugh, and let Gia go about the business of picking me up and cleaning me off.

After all, even she can't possibly be expected to control that.
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