FernWithy (fernwithy) wrote,
FernWithy
fernwithy

HG: The Hanging Tree, Chapter Eleven

Haymitch managed a moment's clarity, and used it to go into town and burn out the Peacekeepers' office, where Beckett has been keeping files on all of the troublemakers.

Chapter Eleven
The Peacekeepers and the new Emergency Response Team show up at the same time. I see the ERT rush into the office with fire extinguishers (Danny's occasional girlfriend, Mir, is among them, and she gives me a look of pure fury), then two Peacekeepers grab me by the arms and drag me, none too gently, through the building. I see another of them pick up Cray from the floor beside me. I don't remember bringing him out, but I guess I must have.

The fire must be contained enough, because no one suggests removing me from the premises. Instead, they yank me down the stairs toward where I know the bank is. Beyond that, I have no idea what's in here. I yell as my ankle smashes hard against the stairs, but they don't stop.

We pass the bank. A few early morning customers (all shopkeepers in the payment lines) stare after me, gape-mouthed, and then I'm dragged around the corner into the dark. A line of narrow windows high up in a row of doors shows pale, early morning light. The Peacekeepers pull open one of these doors and throw me inside. The door slams behind them.

So, we have a jail here. I always figured the Peacekeepers liked their punishments too immediate for such a thing. I figured I'd be whipped, stuck in the stocks, or hanged. Maybe all three. Or maybe Beckett would just shoot me. Dropping me in a locked room, possibly until the Games, hadn't occurred to me.

Not that I was trying to get them to shoot me. I promised Gia, and -- unlike some halves of that promise -- I don't lie. I just had to make sure that Beckett couldn't blame it on anyone else.

The cell, which has two windows high on the wall, is lighter than the hall outside. I picture the Justice Building in my head. There's a hill that slopes down behind it. I must be on that side of the building.

There's enough sunlight to limp around until I find a light switch. I turn it on, and ugly white light fills the room. There's a cot and a toilet. The walls are pretty banged up, and I can see pictures and initials carved into it. I don't have time to read them. I drag myself to the cot and examine my ankle, which feels like someone has driven an ice pick through it. Manipulating the bones doesn't cause any special discomfort, though, and it's not especially swollen. I guess it's just bruised. Could be worse.

I sit back against the wall.

Unless Beckett has a backup of her files, they're gone. I doubt she can tell one of us from another without her cheat sheet, and if anyone tries to visit me, I'll pretend not to know them.

Of course, all it really means is that the reaping will be as random as usual, and not based on local politics. I may have saved Danny or Kay (maybe… as the sister of a tribute, she may rise up, anyway), but in the end, that means that someone else who might not have been reaped will be.

I can't think about that. Until there are no more Games, then someone is going to be reaped. Every year. And they will mostly die, and their parents will blame it on me.

I can't think about that, either.

I lie down. So far, I'm still pretty well at ease with myself, though I can feel the need for a drink sneaking in. I'm imagining the taste and smell. But I'm not crawling around the cell looking for a spare bottle left behind with a few drops in it. I'm okay. And maybe a little downtime won't kill me.

Tell me a story, Maysilee says in my head. Once upon a time, at the very edge of the deepest forest, there lived a boy, the son of miners who loved him very much. They were very poor, but very smart.

"Then they died," I say out loud. "They got rich, then died, and the brother -- who was also smart -- died, and the boy turned into a joke."

But that's not the story. That's not the one in my head. I think back on the dream. On the cartoons I was watching when my mind started ticking again.

Tell me a story.

I close my eyes and tell it.

Once upon a time, at the very edge of the deepest forest, there lived a boy, the son of miners who loved him very much. They were very poor, but very smart. In their kingdom, there lived a wicked king who feared a vicious dragon, and the dragon was called Uprising. Every year, he sent children to battle the dragon, and all of them died, even the ones who came home.

One year, the boy was called to fight the dragon. He did not fight bravely, but he wasn't stupid. He saw the dragon, and it was terrifying… but beautiful. He wanted to loose the dragon on the king if he got away. Then the king bade him promise to…


I wince. The king made him promise not to tell stories, is what the king made him promise, and the idiot actually made the promise. It was the one thing he was arguably pretty useful for, too. He didn't even argue about it.

Of course that was why Snow asked for that. He tells all the stories -- to us out here in the districts, and to his people in the Capitol. The only way to beat his story is by telling a different one, and that's never going to be allowed.

I could break my promise. I know that. But there's still Glass. I doubt he'll ever be doing fine work with his hands again, but by this summer, I'm sure they'll be healed enough to slap around my tributes if I don't go along. Whatever else is happening in the world, I'm still going to be responsible for them. I'm not going to let the last few days before they die turn into a nightmare even before the real nightmare starts.

If there's another story to be told, it can't seem to come from me.

Seem to, Maysilee muses. That's a pretty key distinction there, genius.

Maybe.

And why did you come straight there this morning?

So Beckett doesn't set it up for rebel kids to get reaped.

Why does that matter?

I frown up at the ceiling. Why? It seemed very logical, and of course, most of the rebel kids are my friends (as much as I can say I have them). But…

I sit up and put my head in my hands, blocking out the light, and the distracting idea of a drink that keeps trying to intrude.

What are the Games?

"A story," I whisper. This isn't news -- Mom and Lacklen reminded me of it before I went into the arena -- but there's more to it. They're Snow's story. He was the first Gamemaker before he was president. They're his story for the Capitol (and possibly the less-than-bright people from the districts): The Capitol is merciful in not destroying the districts, the victors are proof of his generosity, we all live together (once twenty-three kids die every year, of course). The blood of the tributes buys peace for everyone.

And then there's the other story, for the districts: We will take everything. We have all the power, and you have none. We will make you treat the death of your children as entertainment. And whatever mischief you or they cause will be visited on them.

He won't be telling that last part, anyway. Not if Beckett didn't make copies of her records. The Capitol won't know who's causing mischief, and can't punish for it. It's not much, but it's something.

The rest, I need to figure out. It's one thing Chaff didn't talk about during that long night in Danny's shed. We talked about rebels. We talked about our resources, and lines of communication. Weapons came up briefly, though we're nowhere near a point where we could use them. We talked about pie-in-the-sky battle tactics against the Capitol and agreed to start getting a lay of the land there during the summers. We even talked about getting "the message" out. But he never mentioned the story. I'm not even sure he recognizes it as anything important.

But it's the story we need to break, in the districts and -- though the thought is kind of dizzying -- in the Capitol. If we can't break the story, we'll never stand a chance.

Only we can't just leave it there. People will choose any story over no story. We have to have a better one, a truer one, a--

The cell door opens with a crash.

I open my eyes and look up.

Beckett is standing just inside the cell, shaking with fury. "Accidents happen," she hisses, raising her gun. "They happen all the time."

I stare at the bore of the gun barrel. The way she's aiming, it will probably hit me in the gut, and not kill me. I doubt I'd get the finest medical care for the gut wound this time, though. Maybe a slow death from sepsis.

Unless her hand keeps twitching and she ends up shooting the wall. If she misses, I'll have time to tackle her and knock the weapon out of her hand. Maybe I could even turn it on her.

I decide not to risk it. I have no idea how good a shot she is. "Gun accidents don't happen to victors in districts where only Peacekeepers are allowed to carry guns. About twenty people saw me getting pulled down here. I bet the same number saw you come down here, too."

For a minute, I think it won't matter. Her nostrils flare and she bares her teeth at me. But finally, she lowers the gun. "You think you can do anything, don't you?" Her eyes flicker over me. "You've been holding the Gamemakers up as a defense, you and your… escort. Let's see what they really think of all of this."

"You're… calling the Gamemakers?"

She smiles unpleasantly, like she's contemplating a particularly vile new toy. " Yes. And until they send word, you're confined to this cell." She straightens her uniform and turns to leave, but looks over her shoulder with a wicked smile. "And by the way," she says, "it's dry."

She slams the door behind her. A minute later, the electricity is cut, leaving me with only the dim morning light coming through the high windows.

I lie down on the cot and don't think.

I don't know how long I've been here when I start to feel queasy. It gets worse, and I dive across the cell to the toilet and vomit up quite a lot, though I don't remember eating much. I stay there on the floor. The light from the windows is glassy and weirdly warped, and my pulse seems to be much quicker than usual.

I barely hear the tap on the window, and it might have been going on for a while by the time I notice it. I squint. There's a shadow up there.

I force myself to my feet and go closer. The shadow resolves itself into the face of Sae, who used to run the Community Home. I guess they're not too concerned about people escaping through windows barely six inches high, because when I pull the cot over and stand on it, it’s not really hard to pull the pane over to one side and open it.

"Here," Sae says, shoving a bottle into my hand. "Beer, from Murphy's pub. You'll owe them when you get out, but it keeps off the shakes."

I take it. I can't imagine that beer, which is barely more than water, will do anything, but I start drinking. It helps a little, I guess.

"He knows what you did this morning -- old man Murphy, I mean. Everyone knows."

I finish the beer and tip the bottle up as high as I can to get the last drop.

Sae takes it without comment, then shoves a little bowl through. "Soup."

"Not hungry."

"Didn't ask. Some of my Home kids are grown now, and they're bringing me things. I can share with you, for Indigo. But this is all I can spare."

I stare down at the soup and think of Digger. I drink it. I have no idea what's in it, and it's probably better not to ask. What the hell, though… I've eaten vermin before. I hand her back the bowl. "Thanks. You come up and visit when I'm out, Miss Sae, and you can eat whatever I can spare. Anything you like. It'll be a fair deal." Of course, she knows perfectly well that what I can spare is enough to keep her fed for weeks, but she doesn't argue.

"I'd be obliged." She looks around nervously, then reaches down for the little bowl. "I best get out, or I'll end up in the next cell."

She disappears. The light outside looks like it might already be early evening. I feel a little better, though not much. Beer is not what I need or want, and while my heart slows down a little, the maddening images in my head get clearer.

I try to think my way out of the cell. I imagine Lacklen trying to get me to escape one of his traps. But every few minutes I'm interrupted by the thought that I really want a drink. It's annoying. I could think better if I just took care of that.

The cell door is a plain mechanical lock, but I don't have any hair pins or wires to try and fiddle it with.

Besides, Beckett isn't Lacklen. She'd find a way to blame someone else if I escaped.

I stay.

I can't sleep at night, and my head is pounding again. At one point, I think I hear someone else in the cell with me, breathing softly. Another time, I smell Digger, cooking on the fence. I bolt for the toilet again and throw up nothing at all, though I retch miserably for a long time. I feel warm hands all over me. Like the hands at the party in District Two, I don't know who they belong to, and I scream for someone to get them off me.

No one comes.

By dawn, I'm thinking about nothing other than how long it will be until Sae brings me something. I try to knock myself out, so at least I'll get some sleep until then, but my sense of self-preservation keeps me from hitting my head that hard. I hold my breath, thinking I might pass out, but that doesn’t work, either.

Someone brings me food -- local tessera bread and a glass of water to soften it with. I don't eat it.

Sae finally comes in the afternoon. I drink the beer in two long swallows. Eat the soup. Nibble at the bread that's been sitting on my cot for hours.

The next two days are the same, except for not hearing any more voices. They seem to go on forever, but I look at the bread. Two pieces. Two days. No one has brought anything else.

I beg Sae for something stronger. She tells me to deal with it. The beer puts off the shakes and seizures, and she's not interested in getting me drunk. I offer her large amounts of money for something stronger. She tells me to get some sleep. I go back to my cot and just lie there, sweating heavily against the thin sheets. The nausea finally passes, but I don't feel like eating.

I finally do sleep on my third night in jail. My body just can't stay awake anymore. I dream of the golden squirrels in the arena. They eat all the flesh off my body, and I can see my innards down through my ribcage. My heart is beating so fast that I know it's going to explode. There's a pool of filth in my gut where the axe went in. I find I can turn my eyes around and look at my brain, which is on fire somewhere inside, sending out noxious volcanic gas from fissures in the surface.

When I wake up, I'm not alone in my cell.

At first, I think it's a hallucination, some fevered dream spit out from my brain. The woman is tall, and too thin to be real. Her hair is silver -- not as another word for gray, but actually silver, sparking and metallic. She's wearing something skin tight and green, and around her waist, there's something that matches her hair. As I stare at her, I realize that it's a girdle, that it's laced to pull her stomach in. She must be missing ribs, because it goes on far too long.

For all of that, she doesn't look frightening, just odd. Maybe I'm just getting used to seeing Capitol people. I don't know. She looks vaguely amused, like Dad used to if I happened to get something past him. I shake this off. I doubt my father would appreciate being compared to a Capitol woman.

"Awake?" she asks. Her voice is low and oddly pleasant. It doesn't seem to disturb the air.

I am honestly not sure if I'm awake, or if this woman is standing here, but I nod and sit up.

"I am Hadriana Livingston, Head Gamemaker," she says, and smiles fondly. "You've been causing trouble, haven't you, Mr. Abernathy?"

"Yeah," I say. I haven't talked much in the last day, and it feels strange for sound to be coming out of my throat. It hurts a little, too, so I must be awake. "Guess so."

"Do you have an explanation? Or were you just seeing how far you're allowed to go?" She sighs. The expression on her face is genuinely sorrowful. "Because I'm afraid you've crossed that line, if it was just a stunt to test us."

My head is muddled from three days without drinking and not enough sleep, but it's not muddled enough not to realize that I'm in real trouble. The Gamemakers didn't just send a memo. They didn't send permission for Beckett to whip me. They sent the head Gamemaker.

I weigh my options. I could tell her I was drunk and confused, but I don't think I could make that stick. Why would I wander down here? I could tell the truth, but I promised Gia that I wouldn't kill myself, and I can't pretend that would be anything else. Everyone tells me I think like a Gamemaker. I'm going to have to now.

"Well?" Livingston prods. "Do you have something to say for yourself?"

Sure, I think. I was afraid that they were going to try and reap kids based on who's been vandalizing the gallows. Most of them are my friends and --

Tell me a story, Haymitch.

My brain sends up a flare. It's weak, but I feel it. It's the story. The story they have to tell. Everyone wants to "win" the reaping. It's a big chance to get out.

I smile. "She was trying to corrupt the reaping," I say.

Livingston barely contains a grin. "Oh, really? What do you mean by that?"

"Well, you know that sometimes, people have the crazy idea that they use the reaping as a punishment. We both know the truth about that, right?"

She sits down on a plain stool and gives me a "go ahead" motion with her hand. "Of course."

"Well, I think Officer Beckett had been collecting names in there, and she meant to corrupt the reaping, and make people believe that crazy story. I couldn't let her do that."

Livingston laughs. "You're good, Abernathy. We, um, both know exactly how true that is, but I can't even argue with it."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Mm-hmm." She shakes her head. "Do you know we had Plutarch Heavensbee put you through our testing tool?"

"What?"

"The game you were playing with him in the Capitol. We use it to test apprentices. He's an accepted apprentice with eight months experience under his belt. You wiped the floor with him."

"Why would you do that? I'm not going to be a Gamemaker."

"No. That's a job reserved for Capitol-born citizens. But we were curious. We've been studying you in the arena, you know. I've watched so much of your game that I feel like I know you well. It'll be required for all apprentices from now on. You're making us step up our game."

The nausea comes back in a wave. "And what do you think you learned?"

"We're hiding the muttation delivery systems better, for one thing."

"Great."

"You know the president is exceedingly angry at you, don't you?"

"Is there anyone he's not angry at?"

"You do have a good grasp of things, don't you?"

I shrug.

She sighs. "Haymitch, I can get you out of this one, and I will… but you can't do it again."

"Or what? You'll have some crazy girl put an axe in me?"

"We can't afford to lose a victor in this district. I reminded the president of that."

"Oh, thanks."

"So he agreed to let it go this time. Next time, you'll be brought in for re-education. As far as the country will know, you'll be living out your dream of attending university. In a way, it will be true. And like so many university students, you'll just come home with a lot of new ideas in your head. The sort of ideas the president would rather you came to naturally."

"Why not just pack me up this time?"

"You're not old enough for the university story to hold. But believe me, your interest in attending will be a major theme of your publicity for a while." She stands up. "For myself, I'd rather prefer to keep you somewhat more challenging. It keeps us on our toes."

"Always glad to be useful."

She smiles again. It's not a predatory smile like Beckett's, or a warm one like Gia's. It's actual fondness. I don't get it. "I'll go arrange for you release, then. Do not test me any further. I don't have any more leeway to give you."

"Miss Livingston?" I call as she turns to leave.

"Yes?"

I can't push for anything that matters from her. I can't ask her to save any friends who get dragged into the arena. I can't beg her to stop the Games. I ask, "Can you keep an eye on it and make sure it's a clean reaping, anyway?"

"Believe me," she says, "we are keeping an eye on the situation."

"Why is she here?"

The smile doesn't change its shape, but it suddenly seems less real, like it's a plastic mold of a smile. "She's your head Peacekeeper," Livingston says. "There are always reasons for something like that. Just like there are reasons for your escort."

She leaves.

I listen to her footsteps as she goes up the stairs, then lean back against the wall. A reason. Like Glass. Because Snow keeps the nutty ones around, even when they cross boundaries, so that someone can swoop in and rescue us from them.

Or warn us what will happen if we cross them.

The head Gamemaker is better at playing the game than most of the others, but she's still playing it, whether she's fond of me or not. Her deal is about as subtle as Snow's… and I have about as much choice about it.

Half an hour later, the Peacekeepers come and let me out. They make me work on cleaning up the office for two hours, scrubbing char off the walls, but they can't hold me long. Beckett sits at her desk and glares at me the whole time, then waves me off at lunchtime and sends me home.

I collect Sae on the way, and we have a nice, big meal together in my kitchen. I send her home with leftovers.

After she leaves, I start drinking.
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