FernWithy (fernwithy) wrote,
FernWithy
fernwithy

HG: The Hanging Tree, Chapter Twenty-Four

Wiress has won the Games, and the victors have gotten an odd ruling on the "favors" they "trade" for sponsorships.

Chapter Twenty-Four
Physically, Wiress isn't in bad shape when they fish her out of the arena. She's sick from something she ate there, most likely bugs, and she hasn't had enough water for almost two weeks, but she managed to get through the Hunger Games without any direct combat, so she has no injuries. Mentally, she's a mess. I am with Beetee at the Training Center hospital -- he is camped out in the waiting area -- when Caesar comes to assess her condition for post-Games events, and he determines that she will need at least a week to be verbal, and if Snow only gives her that short a time, then Beetee will have to be on stage with her.

"The President won't like that," Beetee points out. "He wants the victors to seem totally self-sufficient."

Caesar nods. "I'll remind Coriolanus that it will be better for her to be seen standing with her mentor than… well, doing that." He points through the window into her room, where she's rocking on her heels, her hands over her ears, having an extended conversation with herself about whether or not she actually killed Simon and Anicia, or if they could be considered to have killed themselves.

The same argument is going on in the streets of the Capitol, where people seem perplexed by the course of the Games and unsure how they feel about their new victor, who only got attention during the broadcast because of the actions of other people. If she hadn't had allies, she'd have probably wandered around aimlessly until the others all killed each other. Not very noble or brave, by Capitol standards. And there's the uncomfortable fact that she's not photogenic. A lot of fan coverage seems to be centered around how to make her over. Different sorts of plastic surgery are half-heartedly suggested, and one stylist keeps insisting, with nearly hysterical enthusiasm, that she should have a full-body tattoo. He has created mock-ups of how she'd look with different designs.

Victors, as always, are invited to stay in the Capitol for the time between the end of the arena and the official end of the Games. I am strongly encouraged to remain available for press, as last year's victor, to give the audience an idea of what it's like for her now -- though of course, this is to remain "positive." I'm happy enough to go along to help give Wiress a little space. Besides, as Chaff reminds me, it's a good time to meet with people who might be interested in sponsoring Twelve next year, though the Gamemakers send out a nasty notice about what methods we are allowed to use to get those sponsors.

"Yeah," Woof says in the park on the second afternoon of the interim. He's busy spectacularly losing a chess game while Seeder and Drake and I watch. "You have to be careful. There are a lot of us that actually are friends with people here."

"They're not worried about friends," Chaff mutters.

"Unless it's a good way to jam us up. And where is the line going to be? Mica Finni from Two's been coming here since the Fourteenth Games -- that's thirty-seven years now. Even if they were all short Games, that's still, say, two years solid that he's been here, and a lot of the Games haven't been short. Trajan Dale's been a District Two sponsor from the start, then they had an affair, then they were friends, and now, they mostly spend the Games sitting around Trajan's apartment drinking beer and arguing about who's going to walk the dog and whose turn it is to clean up after dinner. But they do share a bed, so who's to say that if Trajan tries to give his usual donation to Brutus, or whoever's mentoring from Two next year, they won't say that Mica's made a trade for it?"

"You plan to move something or not?" Chaff asks, staring at the board. "No one told me you were cynical."

Woof shrugs. "I guess it'll hit a lot of us older ones that way. I'll probably even end up being careful with my friends, and the Capitol knows I don't cheat on my wife. You young kids just decide from the start whether you want someone to be a friend or a sponsor, because if you try for both, they'll be all over you." He moves a bishop one square.

Chaff knocks it over. "Mate in two."

"Are they real friends?" I ask. "And real…?" I finish the last with a gesture. "It isn't just a deal?"

"I'm surprised you'd ask that," Seeder says. "It's already a standing joke that no one's ever going to mess with your sweet old ladies, unless they want a knife in the gut for their troubles."

"Aw, they're nice, but I'm not… you know…"

Drake laughs. "For a guy with the reputation you picked up on the victory tour, you're pretty squeamish about words."

"He was a perfect gentleman in Eight," Woof says, grinning. "Though he did leave half the girls in town heartbroken because of it. What happened after?"

"Glass let me start drinking."

"I like you better sober."

I shrug. "Even drunk, it wasn't as bad as all that. There was one girl in Four, and then there was that thing in One."

"There'd've been someone else in Two if I hadn't distracted you," Drake says.

"But there wasn't."

"More good luck than good management," Woof says. He moves a pawn, and Chaff crushes it immediately. "The point being, you're going to have to be more careful in the Capitol now. If you grope someone and then get sponsored, guess what the new rule says?"

"I see your point."

Chaff is apparently impatient with this, and as soon as Woof makes another move, he checkmates then clears the board and demands I play the next round. All four of them spend the next two hours teasing me unmercifully about my Victory Tour, and the girl in One, and the girl in Four, and the person in Two who Drake claims was an ugly guy named Rocco. I'm pretty sure he's making that up. I think I would have noticed that.

I end up losing the chess game, but I don't really care.

In the evening, we go our separate ways to cultivate our separate sponsors. Laurentia Hoops has invited me to a dessert party with some of her friends from something called the Daughters of the Founding, who apparently spend their days restoring old monuments. They seem delighted when I ask them to tell me stories about the monument they've been working on lately, which shows Marilla Dodd, the first Peacekeeper, keeping watch over the lake, with her trusty handgun held easily in one hand. She's a distant ancestor of Ulpia Jakes, a nice older lady with a blue wig and a new puppy that she named after me (she apparently calls it "Mitchie" most of the time, since my name is far too honorable to yell at him when he chews up her shoes).

For my part of the conversation, I end up talking about my parents a lot. I explain about Daddy dying of miners' cough and Mom heading the same way, and the ladies are absolutely incensed. Theodora Langdon decides that getting proper safety equipment to the mines in District Twelve will be her new project. I don't know if I can officially ask her to do this or not, but if she does it, it might just be the most helpful thing we've ever gotten out of the Games. I thank her kindly.

After dessert, the night is still pretty young, so I wander around the Capitol for a while. I stay in the recommended areas, not because I'm afraid of leaving (if I learned one thing from the Games, it's that I'm scarier than most of the people I might run into), but because I don't want to draw any attention. I look at some of the monuments, and I watch a street performer do magic, at least until I get recognized by a little boy in the crowd, which distracts everyone from the show. Even the magician wants my autograph. Many assure me that I'm much more interesting than the new victor. I tell them that Wiress seems like a nice girl. A girl asks for a story from District Twelve. I sit down on the steps of a market and tell them one of Daddy's scary ones about a monster that lives in the mines if you dig too deep.

I see the girl lurking at the back of the crowd, the one with a scarf around her head and sunglasses over her eyes despite the darkening evening, but I don't pay attention to her until the story is done. The crowd disperses a little -- they get bored quickly -- and she comes and sits down beside me. She lifts her sunglasses. It takes a minute to recognize her without her makeup, but those eyes are still pretty distinctive. I've been seeing them on my television screen for most of the year, after all, as well as seeing them over a quick cup of coffee at the training center, and a dance at the president's mansion.

"Emiliana?" I ask.

She smiles. "You're better than I am at dealing with them."

I shrug. "They're just kids, mostly."

"It's not always easy to deal with people crowding you. I know. And, just in case you want to know, my friends call me Mimi. It's less of a mouthful."

"Am I your friend?"

"I hope so." She puts her elbows on her knees. "I guess I get why you snapped at me on the phone. After the press… was the press. Idiots. I'm sorry they did that."

I try to remember snapping at her. It was something about Digger, which doesn't make sense, since Emiliana Meadowbrook has nothing to do with Digger. I guess it doesn't matter. "The press isn't your fault," I say.

"So," she says. "Since you have some time… have you had dinner yet? I'd love to take you to dinner. Make up for you taking me out for coffee."

"You asked me to take you out for coffee."

She laughs a little. "Most guys I talk to these days don't interpret a coffee invitation as having much to do with coffee. They think it means 'be quick about it.'"

"Oh. Um…"

"It was nice to have coffee. It was nice to have coffee with you."

"I liked it, too. Didn't mind the kiss, either." I smile at her. "But I might need you to sponsor us next year, and… well, you've seen the news."

She doesn’t pretend not to understand. "I'm sorry I was ever part of that. It all seemed so normal when they talked about it. We buy everything. Why not buy time with a cute boy?" She shudders. "I feel like I should apologize to Brutus. A lot."

"You can if you want to. I'll take you back to the Training Center."

"No. I think Brutus would just call me names and laugh at me."

I can't argue with this. "Anyway, I guess I have to decide if you're going to be my friend Mimi or my sponsor, Miss Meadowbrook. Do you have a preference?"

"Oh, I have a distinct preference, but then, I don't lose anything if I don't give your tributes money. What do you want?"

"To not have to decide."

She laughs. "Well, we don't have to decide right now. How about, for tonight, I'm your contact? Do you want to meet some higher rollers than the DoF and a bunch of little kids with candy money?"

"Are they nice?"

"I'll keep it to the nice ones." She stands up and offers me her hand.

I take it.

We go to her place first, where there's no danger at all about people misinterpreting anything, because it's so crowded with servants that I don't see how she ever gets any privacy. She puts on a party dress, and calls a designer friend to bring me a decent suit, then goes combing around her invitations for someplace to go. We head out -- designer in tow -- for a house in the foothills, where a lot of actors and other people from her show and others are gathered around a pool.

"Nice" may be an overstatement about this crowd. One man has what he calls a "treatment" about my Quell, which seems to mean a sparsely written half-script. He stands there avidly while I read it, and seems inclined to argue when I tell him that Maysilee and I weren't an item at home, and that we weren't stealing kisses when the camera was off of us. "But it's for the interest factor!" he keeps saying. Mimi gets me away from him and apologizes.

"I didn't know that was what he'd been up to," she says. "Come on. You have to meet Val. I promise, he's nowhere near as dramatic as he looks on screen."

As she speaks, I see Valerian Vale, who plays the hard-pressed, melodramatic Caius Lowell on Seagull Point do a belly flop into the pool, hooting and hollering as he goes.

I meet "Val," along with a producer named Egnatia, a financier whose name I can't seem to catch over dance music that's started to blare, a crowd of actors whose faces I've seen before, and a never-ending parade of stylists and designers.

Everybody is drinking, and a few seem to be indulging in other substances. I decide it can't do any harm to enjoy myself with them, once Mimi wanders off. Maybe they'll sponsor me next year if they like me. Besides, whatever they've got here is definitely the good stuff. It makes the whiskey Brutus got me going on in Two look like rotgut white liquor that someone made in the bathtub.

When Mimi comes back, she gives me an exasperated look, but doesn't chastise me. She's not Gia. She does take my drink away, though.

It's okay. I still have enough medicine in my system that it doesn't make me particularly crazy.

Sometime after midnight -- a long time after, I guess -- we take a car back to her place, so I can grab the clothes I started out in, and maybe eat something healthier than the pretzels at the party or the chocolate trifles I had with the Daughters of the founding.

The servants have all gone home.

Mimi goes to her kitchen and makes a couple of sandwiches, mostly green things and some kind of orange-ish sauce. I look at it doubtfully.

"It's fine, Haymitch. Sweet-and-sour sprouts. It should go down easily enough."

I take a bite. It's actually really good. "Thanks. For the introductions. And supper. And the clothes. They're nice."

"Well, they have to go back. Nero's just an assistant. He'd get in trouble if his loaners didn't make it back, especially since we managed to not have anyone take a picture of you."

"Still, they're nice. Better than some of the stuff Lepidus made me wear."

"Yeah, well… I'm sure he's a nice guy, but some of that was awful."

"Glass likes to make me look stupid."

She laughs. I don't know if she was drinking, too, or if she's just tired, but she laughs a little too hard. "He did a good job for a few districts!"

I stick my tongue out at her.

She sticks her own out and touches mine lightly with it, then pulls away, her face red. "Anyway, you're welcome. I hope they all sponsor your tributes next year."

"Me, too."

"Maybe if enough of them do, you wouldn't miss me sponsoring you."

"Then, you still want to be… not my sponsor?"

"I very much want to be not-your-sponsor."

"We barely know each other. I don't love you."

She smiles faintly. "What a very serious thing to say."

"Isn't it a little bit serious to -- "

"Welcome to the Capitol." She comes around the table and sits on my lap. She kisses me. "It's okay to do something just because it feels good."

We don't rush. We finish our sandwiches. I ask her for a drink. She denies me one.

She doesn't end up denying anything else.

When I wake up in the morning, I can't figure out where I am at first. It's a large room that smells faintly of lilacs. Aside from the bed, there's a whole seating area with puffy white couches and a glass table. I see my shirt on the table, and one of my shoes on the floor, rolled onto its side. Tiny white lights are suspended in mid-air, twinkling like stars in the grayish dawn light that's coming through the windows. I remember them in the blackness of night, reflecting in the mirrors that cover the ceiling and the top of the walls. They seemed to go on forever, like we were alone in some primeval wilderness, the stars receding to infinity around us.

I remember where I am, and who I'm with. Mimi is awake beside me, staring up at the ceiling.

"Hey," I say.

She rolls over and smiles at me. "Hey."

"Guess we settled the sponsor question."

"You didn't want to before you got drunk. I should have put you in a car and sent you home. I guess I have to work at this being a better person business."

I reach over and touch her. "I'm not drunk now," I say.

Two hours later, I head back to the Training Center. I feel good. Somehow, we managed to avoid gossip, at least that's made it to the airwaves (we both watched anxiously from her kitchen table, over some scrambled eggs and orange juice), and I let myself have a daydream about living with her here, in her pretty house, or maybe bringing her back to District Twelve. I can't imagine Mimi in Twelve, but I try. The Village would certainly be less lonely. In my imagination, I end the Games, overthrow Snow, and get decent safety equipment to the mines while I'm at it. I figure, if I'm going to have a daydream, it may as well be good.

When I get to the District Twelve apartment, I'm not doing much more than contemplating maybe adding a little daughter to the mix, and maybe even a pet, and somehow working in my friends from among the victors. I am certainly not expecting to step out of the elevator and find President Snow sitting comfortably in the lounge, sipping tea and watching television.

"Ah," he says when I step in. He turns off the television and looks up. "You're later than I anticipated. Miss Meadowbrook's obsession must have been most powerful indeed to keep you all night and into the morning."

I feel the blood rush to my cheeks. "What business is that of yours?"

"Oh, none at all, I suppose. You may dally with whoever amuses you, though unless her pattern has changed drastically, I'm sure she's halfway to her next lover already."

I try to pretend that this doesn't sting, that the whole thing didn't start with her saying it was nothing more than making each other feel good for a while. "If it's none of your business, then why do you know?"

"I make it my business to know where my victors are, and who might be influencing them."

"Your victors."

"Mine, Mr. Abernathy."

"Is this where you tell me that you want me to entertain Professor Redmond after all?"

"Oh, no. I believe dear Avita will find such entertainment highly unpleasant at the moment, and for the near and quite probably far future."

"Then who? Not that it matters, because I won't. I'm not for sale."

"How many people, exactly, do you think would pay for the dubious pleasure of your company?" He leans toward me. "You're a rube, Mr. Abernathy. You are, at best, a temporary, exotic diversion for a flighty actress -- not for anyone who matters in the grand scheme of things."

"She matters."

He sighs dramatically. "Oh, are we to have another tedious example of your deep and chivalrous nature?"

"I don't have one."

"Oh, you do, but you hide it admirably most of the time, particularly when you drink. Though I suppose that's redundant after I already said, 'most of the time.'" He picks up his teacup and raises it to me. "Would you like a cup?"

"No."

"Of course not. Why would you? It hardly has the kick you seem to so enjoy from your beverages. It's going to your waistline, by the way. By next year -- unless you manage to change your habits -- I doubt a junior designer will be able to find sample sizes for you on a moment's notice. And as to people offering money for you?" He snorts laughter. "You're not worth what I'd ask. And you're quite good at getting yourself into that sort of trouble with no help from me at all."

"So why are you here?"

"Oh, simply to reassure you," he says jovially.

"I'm not feeling real reassured."

"That's because I haven't told you the good news. You won! I will personally guarantee that tributes in the arena can no longer be used to extract anything from their mentors."

"I already caught that from the press conference last week."

"I thought you'd want to thank me."

"And exactly how did you think I'd be moved to do that?"

"Tell me where Gia Pepper is."

"Why do you still care? She's gone. She's not talking to anyone, she's not being a rebel, she's not spreading sedition. She's not even taking care of me."

"I suspect she knows something about certain seditionists here in the Capitol. I suspect she knew them quite well."

"And you don't?" I sit back. "Maybe you should stop wasting your time figuring out whose beds 'your' victors are in. Sounds like your superspies have more important things to do."

"Yes," he says, manufacturing a rueful smile. "Then again, you never know just who these tangents might lead to. I wonder if Miss Meadowbrook knows anything."

"She might be able to tell you what's happening on Seagull Point next season. She wouldn’t tell me, but I'm not the president."

"I think I should find out for myself. Though Miss Pepper would certainly be of more use, if only I had her location."

I feel a panic trying to start. He's trying to push me, and he's not really failing. I know where Gia is. I even know her initials -- "C.O." I know that Blight most likely knows a lot more than I do. And I know that Mimi Meadowbrook would last about five seconds in a fight with Snow.

I force a casual shrug. "You said it yourself. Mimi's a flighty actress who's halfway to her next lover by now. Why would I have told her anything? I may be a rube, but I'm not stupid."

Snow puts his teacup back down. "No. You're not at that."

"I don't know where Gia is. I couldn't give her to you even if I did want to."

"You've been talking to other Capitol rebels. Does my son really think I don't know he's plotting against me?"

"News to me if he is," I say, and in this case, it's true. Martius didn't make any secret about hating his father, but he also didn't say anything about overthrowing him.

"Who, then?"

"No. Idea."

Snow narrows his eyes at me, and I see one of his gloved hands twitching, like he wants to wring my neck. I pick up a butter knife.

He smiles. "Ah, well," he says lightly. "It was worth a try. We'll just have to see what happens next."

He leaves.

I spend the rest of the week happily enough. Days, I spend with the other victors, or meeting with organizations that sound reasonably non-threatening. I help out at a soup kitchen, where most of the people I feed are fed better than the merchants on a good day in District Twelve. I meet people who rescue animals. I sit with Beetee at the hospital. I go to the library with Plutarch. He brings me a stack of books about why my brain responds to liquor the way it does. He acts like he thinks I'll be mad, but it's kind of interesting. It's hereditary. It has to do with neurotransmitters that don't behave.

I drink, but not too much. Maybe the medicine has done its whole course. Maybe I can start drinking like a normal person now, and not just keep going until I'm on the floor. The books say no -- they say that, while chemical correction is possible, it's not permanent. But I'm pretty sure that if I can get used to drinking normally, then I can short-circuit things if they get out of control.

Nights, I mostly spend with Mimi, though I don't actually sleep at her place again (it seems like the best way to keep the press from noticing). She isn't halfway to her next lover, but says she can see why someone would think so. She shows me her press clippings. They're a little intimidating. She takes me to the set while she films some night scenes. We watch the dailies together, and she winces at what she thinks are all of her "tells" when she's not properly in character. She's especially annoyed at herself for twisting her hair around her finger repeatedly. I don't see why. I think it's cute. I twist her hair around my finger, and then neither of us is terribly worried about her tells.

A week after the Games end, Wiress is released from the hospital. She is nervous and jumps at loud sounds. Beetee guides her through the viewing and the last interview with Caesar.

The Games are over.

I don't get a chance to say goodbye to Mimi before they make me leave the Capitol, but it's all right. I have her private number, and I've promised to call.

I get on the train just before noon, eat lunch, then go to the cold car at the end of the train. Two long boxes sit in silence there.

I sit between them, one hand on each, all the way back to Twelve.
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