i was not naked (antistar_e) wrote in veritasrecords,
i was not naked
antistar_e
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Fic: Pistol for a Mouth (the Perpetual Survivor Remix) [The Book Thief/The Hunger Games][1/2]

Title: Pistol for a Mouth (the Perpetual Survivor Remix)
Fandom: The Book Thief/The Hunger Games
Characters/Pairings: Liesel, Rudy, Max, appearances by ensemble
Summary: ”Well? How do I look?” He stood in front of her and fisted his hands atop his hips, and Liesel immediately covered her mouth, pinning a giggle inside. Coal dust smeared him black head-to-toe, except for a bare patch that shaped the number “12” on his chest. She drew closer, whispering, “Rudy, it’s even in your ears!”
Word Count: 21,900
Notes: A remix of this 3-sentence ficbit that romanitas wrote me for a meme back in February. Originally, in one great fit of "how DARE you", I planned on writing her a 3-sentence ficbit as payback. Three sentences then became 21k, as happens.

Warnings: Character death on both a Hunger Games AND a Book Thief level. Nonexplicit depictions of violence. References to reproductive coercion and oppressive totalitarian tactics.






"Katniss?" Peeta says. I meet his eyes, knowing my face must be some shade of green. He mouths the words. "How about that kiss?"
- The Hunger Games, p. 257




*


On Sundays, when the mines were closed, Liesel’s papa would take his accordion and they would go for a walk along the perimeter. The fence, always kept to their right, hummed with electricity -- on hot days, it even seemed to vibrate at the air. By the time they reached the meadow, Rudy Steiner would have joined them, and Papa would pick a spot in the grass to sit. The rest of the afternoon was usually lost like that, Liesel and Rudy kicking a ball back and forth while Papa's music meandered between them.

It was during one of these outings, when Liesel was probably about ten years old, that Rudy asked a question.

“Herr Hubermann,” ventured out of him. His voice stepped through the grass.

Papa, trying to light his cigarette, which wasn’t sticking together well in the humidity, glanced over at him and returned in like, “Herr Steiner.” You have to love Liesel’s papa for that -- calling someone a “Herr” or a “Frau” was what Liesel’s mama called “merchant-class rubbish, what useless trash, why do they have to keep reminding us just how different they are from us,” like Liesel wasn’t sitting right there, with red cheeks and merchant-class hair.

When she asked Rudy, he scrunched his face up and shrugged, like it wasn’t something he’d ever thought of before. Liesel supposed it was like how sometimes in the Hunger Games there’d be tributes from District 5 who’d forget and end each other’s names with “-san” the way other people would start a person’s name with “Mr.” or “Mrs.”, or in Rudy’s case, “Herr” or “Frau.” The Hunger Games were the only time Liesel got to see anything in regards to the other Districts, and she thought it was fascinating. Where did these words come from?

Rudy dropped into the grass at Papa’s side. He asked, with great curiosity, “Did you fight in the Rebellion?”

The cigarette finally lit. The end glowed and the paper crackled. Papa dragged at it until it tasted better, watching both of them.

“I did,” he answered. “I wasn’t very good at it, though. Of course,” a chuckle scraped out of him. “I’m not very good at mining, either, but I don’t have much of a choice about that.”

They laughed with him, as children do, understanding without quite understanding at all.


*


The very first person to win the Hunger Games -- the inaugural one thrown together before the ink on the Treaty of Treason had completely dried -- was a girl from District 7. Her name was Victorie, and to this day, she’s the reason why winners are always called “Victors.” There was a rhyming scheme and all, some little ditty Capitol children put together that caught on.

Liesel was only two years old when the first Hunger Games happened. She didn’t remember it -- and to be honest, by the time she learned to be afraid of them, they’d already been going on for several years. Grow up with a misery like that, and you don’t really see it so much.

She remembered standing, cold and wet and holding on to her brother’s hand, there at her mother’s side in front of the town hall. Those were her first memories of the Hunger Games. There were too many legs in the way and she couldn’t see the screen, and she didn't complain, because there was some inkling in her that her mother was deliberately sparing her from something. She remember Werner coughing. Those memories are always linked for some reason: the Hunger Games and her brother’s cough.

The year Werner died was the year that girl from District 4, Magdova Merandes, won and came to 12 on her Victory Tour.

She told Mags about that, after. “The first time I saw you was the last time I saw my brother,” and Mags looked at her so somberly that Liesel felt the weight of it in her chest like rocks.


*


“You’re lucky he died,” Ludwig Schmiekl told her in the schoolyard. “At least now you won’t have to take out tesserae just to feed him.”

The sound in Liesel’s ears turned to static.

Next thing she knew, he was on his back and she had her knees in his armpits. She held him to the ground and beat at him until she felt his teeth give underneath her fists.

She might have kept going if the teachers didn’t arrive at that very moment to pull her off; Rudy already hovered nearby, spouting off in her defense. There was too much supervision, she thought fiercely, she couldn’t even defend her brother without somebody coming along and telling her she shouldn’t.


*


Two years after Liesel’s own Games, Ludwig Schmiekl’s name got called at the Reaping. Max took one look at the expression on her face and murmured, too low for the microphones, “Do you want me to take this one?”

She already knew the answer. “No, I’ll mentor him. You’re better with the younger ones anyway, so you’d best look after the girl.”

Liesel was seventeen. So was Ludwig. She could beat him in the schoolyard, but she couldn’t teach him how to be a killer. Liesel Meminger couldn’t teach anybody how to be a killer, that was the problem: it would be almost forty years before District 12 saw another Victor.

They didn’t tell you that before you won. They didn’t tell you that you’d have to deal with families like the Schmiekls, who watch you with eyes that say, You won. You survived. How come the child I entrusted to you didn’t? What are you doing wrong?

What are you doing wrong?

"It's really very clever," said Liesel brightly, at some point. The beetle-black eye of the camera watched her unblinkingly. She imagined the editors with their fingers poised, ready to cut away from her. She wouldn't give them any warning -- she never did. "It gets everybody to blame their Victors, instead of the people actually responsible for the deaths of their children -- which, of course, is you."



*


For all that Districts like 1, 2, and 4 got the credit later for being the Career Districts, the number of Victors per District was pretty evenly skewed there in the beginning. Districts 1 and 2 were hardest hit by the Rebellion, due to their proximity to the Capitol, and simply didn’t have the resources then to train the brutes they’d later be famous for.

Victorie Heavensbee of 7 won the 1st Hunger Games. She was very tall, had skin so black it looked almost blue in some lights, and she could lift her own body weight and settle it across her shoulders. She had eyes that stared out of her head in smears of midnight color. She appeared to be everything you could want in a Victor, and there were even some people in the Capitol who looked forward to the 2nd Hunger Games, not to satisfy some need to see the Districts punished, but just to see who'd win.

Then Max Vandenburg of 12 became Panem’s second Victor, and, looking back on it, that was probably when things started to go wrong.


*


In the wings before the recap, Liesel couldn’t keep her composure. She pressed her head against the wall and drew her shoulders up so tight she felt like a crow. Sobs shuddered out of her, no matter how she kept her hands sealed over her mouth.

Her face felt smeared and wet. Had they done her make-up? Surely they did, and now it was ruined.

They must have gotten somebody to fetch Max, because he arrived with a touch to her elbow, rearranging his footing automatically when she tensed.

He’d never dealt with a Victor this long before, since he was the only one District 12 had until now, but when she glanced at him sideways and said, between the helpless, shuddering contractions of her lungs, “They’re going to ask me about Rudy, how can I talk to them about Rudy, how can they be so cruel, how can they,” his eyes folded with such kindness.

He gripped her elbow, pulling until she turned away from the safety of the wall.

“I’m going to give you one more weapon,” he said, in that subterranean voice. Max Vandenburg always spoke like he was coming from underground, quiet and peculiar. “Are you listening?”

She nodded.

“When somebody tries to control you, when somebody tries to control every aspect of your life, then everything you do becomes an act of rebellion,” his voice painted across her. She pictured it coloring her in until she was a human shade again. “Tell me, Liesel, can you sing?”

Somehow, it didn’t seem like a strange question at all. “Not usually without my Papa’s accordion.”

“Do you think you could sing with me? At least until we get back to your father?” They held onto each other’s forearms, and she more watched Max's mouth form the words than heard him say them. Upstairs, she could hear them prepping the presenter, testing the mic over the settling sound of the live audience. They've played the recap in front of the Victor since the very first Games: Liesel couldn't get out of it, no matter what. She had to see them all die again.

"Why?"

Max smiled. "What do you think will make them angriest? They punch you here," he touched his own teeth. "They punch you here," his heart, this time. "So what can you do? You sing. Every time they try to make you hurt, you sing -- or, like Mr. Hubermann, make music wherever you can. They're scared of it, Liesel. They don't know what to do."

One of Liesel's gravediggers reappeared, a fresh palette of make-up balanced on his hand. He held up his brush to Liesel's cheek, contemplated it, then returned it to the palette to mix it into something beiger.

"They are not the Victors here," Max said, quieter still. "They will never be Victors. You are, and what do we do at the sight of victory? We sing."

She took a deep breath and held onto him tighter. "What do we both know?"


*


As a child, Liesel almost never saw him. Except for the Reapings (and, consequently, the funerals) every year, she never had any reason to pay attention to Max Vandenburg's existence, although she thought one of his cousins might have been in the midget class with her at school, before they got relocated.

After his victory, he lived with his family in the Seam until they completed construction on the Victor's Village -- rows of gorgeous, postwar housing that Liesel and Werner would sometimes go gawk at through the gates as they were being built, imagining what it would be like to live there, as rich as Capitol citizens. When they finished and Max gently refused to move in, the Capitol responded by moving his family to another District.

The first time Liesel ever remembered seeing him was actually on television, which seemed strange to her in hindsight, because District 12 wasn't that big.

She was on the rug with a piece of coal, tracing letters on a slate while her Papa tinkered with his accordion and the television blared the Capitol anthem above their heads. They had it on because the television always had to be on when the Hunger Games were happening. They were just filling airtime, anyway -- everyone in the arena must have been sleeping, or otherwise not being very entertaining -- but she remembered, because President Summers was on screen, talking to one of the Victors.

"You know," he said, with a quelling gesture at somebody laughing off-camera. President Summers talked with his hands: they were big hands, flat and square like shovels, ready to bury. "I quite like a good fistfight myself."

"Do you?" the Victor replied.

Liesel looked up, saw a young man with a nest of brambles and loose feathers for hair. Max Vandenburg won his crown with a lucky fistfight.

"Well," he said. With the canniness of a child, she understood something about the thin sickle that formed his smile, the way he leaned in. "Perhaps we should box sometime, then, Fuhrer."

The audience roared with delight, as audiences do. Even the president grinned, and behind her, Papa chuckled. The sound of it scraped out of him like coal dust.

Liesel gave him a curious look, but all he said was, "That's my boy."



*


Liesel Meminger was fourteen years old when they called her name at the Reaping. By the time she went into the arena, she would be fifteen.

On the stage, Dolphine Heinrich folded the slip of paper in two. She pronounced my name wrong, Liesel thought. She said it the way Capitol people do, so that it rhymed with "basil," not "lee-sill." Does that mean I can claim it's not me. It's not my name if she can't say it right.

The girls on either side of Liesel drew away in the same moment, their realization simultaneous -- as if her being a tribute could be contagious, like death sentences could be transmitted by touch. Liesel wished they wouldn't. Nothing drew the attention of a camera like the ripple of a crowd singling a person out, and she needed the moment to compose herself.

She touched her hair, just to be sure. She could already hear Mama complaining, "Years of wrestling that girl's miserable hair into shape, and the one day she lets it out is the day the whole country sees it!", but the pins were solidly in place. She touched the buttons of her uniform. She pulled at her skirt. The sun sat hot on her scalp with a physical weight, and when she looked up, she couldn't see Frau Heinrich on stage anymore. She blinked the burnt, black spots out of her eyes.

Her legs rattled underneath her when she separated them from the hot ground. Then, horribly --

Someone cried out.

It was a single dismayed, involuntary wail. A woman's voice, coming from the last place Liesel expected.

She stepped out of the paddock, trembling, now in clear view of everybody, and imagined Papa's long arm pinning Mama to his side, keeping her upright. They would not collapse for the cameras. They would not give the Capitol viewers that satisfaction. She didn't dare look. She didn't know Mama could sound like that.

By the time she reached the stage, someone else had started crying; soft, childish whimpers, clearly audible.

Liesel touched her cheeks, but no, it wasn't her. She looked left, then right, scanning until she spotted the culprit in the crowd, pressed against her mother's knees: Bettina Steiner, her curls sticking to her wet face.

She knew, in that moment, exactly what was going to happen next.

"No!" blurted out of her. The microphone caught it and it echoed, startling the birds out of the eaves of the Justice Building and clapping them against the sky.

Dolphine, her hand in the bowl of male tribute slips, stopped and looked over, as surprised as the birds. "Don't let him do it!" Liesel told her, balling her fists up.

She looked at the boys, finding Rudy easily by the color of his hair. He stared straight ahead, shoulders drawn up and chest extended like he'd gulped down a big breath and forgotten to let it go.

When Dolphine stepped back to the microphone and read, "Tomas Muller," Rudy didn't even hesitate.

He stepped straight forward, walking out of the paddock as stiff and straight as if it was a drill. Nobody tried to stop him, not even when Liesel cried out again, and then somehow he was on stage with her. His hair combed back, his shirt ironed and neat -- of course it was, his parents ran the tailor's shop on Merchant Street -- and when he caught her eye, he smiled at her, as naturally as if he was coming to fetch her for a game in the Meadow. Rudy Steiner, her best friend, the eternal stepper-inner.

"Tomas?" asked Frau Heinrich.

"No," said Rudy. The real Tommy Muller was still in the paddock, twitching, his face spasming. His little sister, Kristina, had worked her way forward from the back and gripped his arms in her hands very tightly, the way she did when he had a seizure in class. "I'm Rudolf Steiner. I'll be going as tribute in Tommy's place, thank you."

"Oh," burbled out of the Capitol woman.

Volunteers were allowed, of course -- they'd all just had the rules read to them, so it was still fresh in their minds. It's just that nobody had ever done it before, not in any District. Why would you? Why would anyone want to go get killed for the entertainment of the Capitol?

Because Rudy Steiner is a dummkompf and an idiot, Liesel thought, and glared at him. She wanted to push him off the stage. She wanted his parents to come up here and take him back.

But when the Capitol wants your children, you aren't supposed to say no.

Frau Heinrich recovered, making a show of accepting Rudy's honorable sacrifice before turning to the watching crowd of District 12 and announcing their newest tributes for the 13th Annual Hunger Games, Liesel Meminger and Rudolf Steiner! What a Games this will be!


*


When they let her say good-bye to her family in that small, stately room in the Justice Building, Mama came through the door first, bullying Liesel up into the hardest embrace she'd ever received, squeezing her so tightly Liesel couldn't even suck down air to speak, much less sob. Mama gave her two bruising pounds between the shoulder blades, swaying her and muttering, "We should never have let you take out that tessarae. What were we thinking, letting you do that?"

"I had to," Liesel said blankly.

Her first memories of coming to live with the Hubermanns largely consisted of Mama trying to scrub entire layers of her skin off in the same metal tub she used for the washing. She said she was trying to get the coal dust out, and she might have been right: the whole District was caked in the stuff, and Liesel'd never bothered much with bathing before. I don't know what that swine was thinking, volunteering to take you in, she frequently took the opportunity to mutter, beating at Liesel's head and shoulders. You're not making us any money, you filthy pig, and there's precious little to feed us with as it is.

When Liesel turned twelve, she went and put her name down for tessarae, the way she'd seen Rudy do a few months before.

There hadn't been any deliberation about it. She certainly hadn't asked for permission. You were Seam, you were starving, so you signed up for tessarae and upped your odds of going into the Games. The threat of having her name drawn at the Reaping wasn't nearly as immediate as the empty soup pot sitting on the stove at home.

Stupid.

A horrible thought occurred to her, and she clung to Mama's shirt. "Who's going to get you the grain and oil now?" she got out. "Once I'm dead, how are you --"

Rosa bruised her again, making the rest of her sentence pop into a squeak. She shushed her, and behind her, Papa's voice rumbled out, heavy as river rock, "Don't worry about us, Liesel."

So Liesel clutched at Rosa for as long as the woman's strength lasted, and then her mama pulled away, checking the pins in Liesel's hair and saying, "Now, then, you just remember --" before losing her ability to speak altogether, like she was the one who'd been bruised airless. Bafflingly, she just pulled Liesel into her and kissed the top of her head, and then she bustled out of the room.

It left her alone with Papa, and that, somehow, was even worse.

He held her by the shoulders, occasionally lifting his hands, blackened with coal around the cuticles and smelling like tobacco, to stroke her hair, effectively messing up Mama's hard work with the pins. His eyes, swollen with kindness, started to tarnish under the weight of tears. Liesel felt like her ribs were being pulled from her, one-by-one: a hopeless, tight stretching feeling in her chest.

He didn't say anything, because what was there to say? Liesel Meminger was fourteen years old. Her chest was still flat, she hadn't yet bled. She didn't have any advantages except she knew how to starve.

She wasn't coming home, and the people in this room who knew that numbered two.

She choked, still airless, and tried to think of something to say.

What would she say, she thought, if their roles were reversed? If it was Papa about to get on a train, to be taken to some training center and then thrown into an arena to die?

"Take care of Mama," stumbled out of her, and she gasped and hiccuped with the effort it took. "You know she isn't as strong as she looks. Keep playing the accordion in the Meadow, for Rudy's brothers and sisters." Another gasp, another horrible thought: she was never going to see her home again, not the soup or the washing basin or the accordion or -- "and -- and -- take care of my books. Don't sell them, please don't sell them, please --"

"Oh, Liesel."

Papa did hug her then, embracing her very hard and murmuring "my girl, my girl" into her hair, and she buried her face against his chest until the Peacekeepers came and it was time to go.


*


She buried her mother in the coldest month of winter.

It snowed all of the previous night and most of the morning, coating everything with a dry whiteness so light and powdery it could be swept away with a broom. As was traditional, Liesel took the shovel proffered to her and broke the ground over the new grave. Rosa Hubermann's plot was marked with tape, six feet of space next to her husband.

Pages from the gravedigger's handbook kept flickering across the surface of her eyelids whenever she closed them, and she found herself murmuring instructions under her breath, the words she so eagerly learned tucked up warmly under her quilt while Papa nodded off in the chair, Chapter Six, in the event of snow … Her throat ached like someone had hollowed it out.

Others joined her after a respectful amount of time, and when it was done, Liesel kissed the three middle fingers of her left hand and pressed it to the Hubermanns' gravestone.

The tears were frozen on her face. She was sixteen years old.


*


After, she sat in her house in the Victor's Village, uncertain what to do.

Max sat across from her, and Barbara Steiner moved about the kitchen, filling the hollow belly of a kettle with water, so they'd have hot water bottles for their hands and feet. In the northern-most parts of District 11, they would sew kernels of corn into scrap fabric and heat them over a fire. The kernels, which had been treated with something to keep them from popping, held the warmth for a long time. They tucked them into their coats and their gloves before heading out into a frostbitten morning. The people of District 11 spent a lot of time outdoors.

She kept rising, thinking that she should be doing something, offering them coffee or food, but nobody was letting her.

"Oh, no, stay there, Liesel, we'll get it," they said. It was as if they expected her hands to be too full of grief, her back broken with the weight of it.

She sat, putting her hands over her knees, which were bony and cold and jittering.

"I never asked," she said abruptly. Her voice landed at Max Vandenburg's feet. "Where did they send your family after your Games?"

Max, who'd lifted his head at the sound of her voice, glanced away. She studied the profile this presented to her -- he looked Seam, but in the same hodge-podge way she did, like bits and pieces of Seam identity had been patched inexpertly into them. Liesel's mixed-race hair gave her away, and for Max, it was his eyes; swampy green, like woodland. His father had been Capitol, she recalled, a defector who joined the rebel's side in the Uprising. His widow and son managed to escape to District 12 before the war was lost and the fences became electrified, to live with a sister here.

He swallowed and said, "I wasn't informed. The notice of their placement had apparently," his eyes darted helplessly. "Gotten lost."

"Oh," said Liesel. Her hands fisted on her kneecaps. "That's cruel. At least I'll always know where my parents are. And my brother. And Rudy."

His eyes landed on her with the weight of a bird, hopping as she added each name to the list. He sucked in air like it hurt, like he ached for her, and for a long moment, they just sat there, breathing with their Victor lungs.

"Yes," came out of him at last, dry and sandpapery. "Lucky you."


*


In those very first Games, the arena was exactly that: an arena, not unlike the Training Center in its build and execution.

The 1st Hunger Games had, after all, come together in little under three months, and they held it in a coliseum in the Capitol that had, on previous occasions, been used for sporting events or celebrity appearances. The tributes were pitted against each other in a series of qualifying rounds; quarterfinals, semifinals, and whoever managed to survive each round went on to the next, until there were only two tributes left for a final showdown. They were provided with weapons and water, but no food, and battles were often brutally short.

Victorie Heavensbee powered her way through and set the standard for every Victor that would come after her.

This meant that as a tribute, Max Vandenburg was unimpressive.

As a Victor, he was downright disappointing.

"Only if you're Capitol," the District 8 Victor told them loyally, after the commenters made some crack about Max and Liesel's tributes in the arena that year, who were young and underfed and Seam; uninspiring, like mentor, like tribute. She lowered her voice. "It was different for us in the Districts."

When Max went into the arena at age seventeen, spindly and seemingly made of matchsticks trying to be limbs, he wasn't strong or fast. He wasn't very masculine. He never would be.

And there was something humiliating about the way he talked. He begged. You weren't supposed to beg in the Hunger Games. You were there to perform, to provide revenue for the Capitol economy, to appease the Capitol merchants, artisans, and businessmen that they had nothing to fear from District competition, and you couldn't very well be entertaining if you didn't accept that script.

Max discomfited viewers by how easily he could shame them.

By the 10th Hunger Games, the arenas had become more terrain-based. The viewers liked that much better, watching tributes battle obstacles as well as each other, and the Capitol coffers had swelled enough post-Rebellion that it could afford to build arenas outside its mountains, so that every year there was a different arena with different terrain to face. These new Games provided more of an opportunity for an underdog to win, and oh, how the Capitol loved an underdog story. After all, how do you think they viewed themselves, the one little city-state that won against thirteen barbarian Districts?

When Liesel and Rudy's Games came, Max Vandenburg had already buried ten years of tributes. You could see them on his shoulders, the weight of them.

"So," said Rudy, during the train ride. He'd sequestered himself in a chair by the window, crunching through an apple, biting off chunks and dipping them into a tureen of some kind of off-gold sauce that Frau Heinrich had called "caramel." He still wore the ragged remains of his bravado hiked up around his shoulders.

Liesel, for the most part, had lost the desire to scream herself hoarse at him, at the unfairness of it. It was too late now, anyway.

Rudy continued, chipping out his words as crisply as he was biting them off the apple, "What's with sponsors? Frau Heinrich said something about it."

"I think you can just call her Dolphine," Max pointed out, picking up a few pinions of hair off his forehead and dumping them sideways. He studied them. "Nobody's going to know what 'Frau' means in the Capitol anyway."

Rudy shrugged.

"Anyway," said Max again. "Sponsors are Capitol corporations, or very rich individuals, who pay to interfere on your behalf in the Games."

Eventually, of course, sponsorship will be so common that it would be almost impossible to win the Hunger Games without it. But not yet.

"Why would anyone want to do that?"

"It makes the Games more interactive. Makes the viewers feel like they've got the ability to control who will be Victor." A pause. "That will be my job, if you want me. To get you sponsors, I mean."

For the first time since he entered the compartment, Liesel spoke up. "Would you do that?"

Max's eyes twitched to her. He considered the question for a long time. Someone in his arena had called him a rat, she recalled suddenly, and that was how it caught on: the filthy rats from District 12. It was in the compulsive, nervous movements of his hands.

He came to a conclusion eventually, and when he spoke, it was in that deep cellar of a voice. "I would punch Death in the face for coming near either of you."

And to her great surprise, Liesel felt the muscles in her back relax. She trusted that statement, she thought, more than anything else he could have said. He won without a weapon, after all, just his fists: he drove Enocha Wendella of 2's nose straight up into her brain. They mentioned it at every recap.

"Yeah?" That was Rudy, sounding interested. "Does that work?"

The corner of Max Vandenburg's mouth tore. "I think you'll find that Death has a habit of punching back."


*


For symbolism's sake, they hosted the first Quarter Quell in the same coliseum that hosted the very first Hunger Games, inside the Capitol.

It was a culturally significant spot even before the Uprising, and opening the arena to include the warren of tunnels underneath the coliseum, the backstage rooms, kitchens, and utility rooms made the Quarter Quell one of the most wildly popular Games to that point and for several years afterward: the sight of tributes hunting each other through racks of spare costumes and in stainless steel industrial kitchens, all familiar to the Capitol viewers, was simply too exciting.

That was also the year the Districts were required to choose which tributes they were going to sacrifice to the Games.

By popular vote, Liesel Meminger was selected to sing the national anthem at the opening ceremonies, after the presentation of the tributes.

She required no accompaniment and no alteration or auto-tuning embedded in the microphone pinned to the front of her dress: when she sang, everyone fell silent out of respect, even the babes in arms. She'd learned it in school, everyone did, but to Liesel, the anthem was more personal. She remembered her papa playing it on his accordion sometimes during the Games. To drown it out, she supposed.

As she sang, she studied the tributes assembled before her.

For some, like the tributes from 1, 2, and 4, it was obvious to see why they'd been chosen. They were lean, athletic, well-fed: their Districts sent them in because they genuinely stood a chance of winning. There was a rumor that kids like that had been trained (secretly, of course,) the same way they'd later be trained for a career in their District specialty. For children in the Districts, the Games might as well be their career. Better them going in on a volunteer basis than some twelve-year-old with no chance at all.

Others clearly had been picked as mercy kills. Two or three could barely stand up, they were so sick; the girl from District 6 muffled a shaking, hacking cough into the elbow of her costume, like she was afraid she might interrupt Liesel if she didn't. At the very least, in the Capitol they'd get a good meal and get a chance to wear something fun before they died.

In District 12, there hadn't been any voting. They did it by lottery, the way the Capitol did. Only they'd ignored how many tickets each child was supposed to have according to their age and the Tessarae Act: one slip of paper for every person. Just one. To make it fair, for once.

The unlucky tributes agreed to lie, though, if asked, which they most certainly were going to be. To say something about how some relative had been a rebel and the Districts had no use for those; something the Capitol would eat up without question.

At the banquet following the presentation, the mayor of Denver Heights (a smaller, suburban town on the Capitol outskirts) found her hiding behind a rose-colored crystal sculpture of a bumblebee.

"Liesel," was handed over to her, as warm as a struck match. "Darling girl, you were wonderful."

Liesel smiled and took the hands extended to her. "Thank you, Mrs. Hermann. I was honored that they chose a District singer this year."

"I think," she drew Liesel close to her, tucking their hands against her side. "With this year being a Quell year, you'll find that everything will be focused on the Districts in a way they've never been before."

Liesel shivered. None of the tributes this year remembered a time when there weren't Hunger Games.

Then again, neither did she, she supposed.

"I wonder what kind of stories we'll hear this year," was what she said instead.

Ilsa Hermann smiled. She was a slight, elderly lady in a midnight-colored velvet dress that trailed at her heels. Ropes of pearls cascaded down her front, and her long plait of silver hair was, as far as Liesel knew, its own natural color. Mayors, including the ones in the Districts, were voted in by some special cabinet in the Capitol, and nobody had yet seen a reason to vote Ilsa Hermann out.

She very rarely spoke, and when she did, it was to offer seemingly idle pieces of observation, as she did now.

"See that man there?" she said, gesturing across the ballroom with an elegant wave. Liesel stretched her neck and pinpointed a politician in an electric blue suit, laughing with the Gamemakers. He was a very attractive fellow about Liesel's age, and he wore in his lapel a strikingly perfect white rose. She nodded, and Ilsa Hermann said, "Coriolanus Snow. Don't trust him."

"Yes, Mrs. Hermann."

They walked until the crowd thinned out, somewhere on an outside veranda that overlooked a vast, sprawling hedge maze. (It would provide inspiration for next year's arena, a labyrinth with horrific Gamemaker traps waiting in the dead ends.) There were cameras out here, surely, but nobody cared about the movements of a tiny, toothless District 12 Victor and the mayor of some inconsequential town.

"Do you have any stories for me, my dear?" Ilsa Hermann asked.

Liesel did. Carefully, she worked her hand along the bottom of her corset, until she found a small tear along the seam. Easily, she widened it until she could slip her fingers inside and remove the pages of paper she'd hidden there, undetectable against the whalebone stiffness that shaped her bodice. She handed them over, explaining each page as Ilsa lifted it, "That one's from District 5, and there are two from 8." District 8 was District 12's closest neighbor, an industrial District that evolved out of a metropolis that sat on the shores of what was once a collection of five enormous lakes, and so was the easiest to get information from. Several of Liesel's neighbors in the Seam could trace their heritage back there, and every family had some story that resonated with them.

District 8 and District 9 were often considered sister-Districts, as they resembled each other and performed similar industries: taking raw product from Districts 1, 4, 10, 11, and 12 and processing them through endless factories, refineries, and plants so that a finished, packaged product could be delivered to Capitol shelves.

"And this?"

"From District 11. They tell it to children to help them remember the life stages of the cotton plant and its relatives."

Ilsa's mouth lifted, smile spreading as if it'd been given wings. She tucked the pages away like they were precious.

"What is it," she asked, "that your mentor calls you?"

Liesel smiled back. "Max calls me a lot of things, Frau Hermann," she said. And then, "Word-shaker. I -- he -- he calls me word-shaker."


*


During the 13th Hunger Games, exactly one person approached Max Vandenburg and offered to sponsor his tributes.

There was only enough for one gift and one gift only, but it was so perfectly planned, so perfectly timed, that Liesel had no doubt that it played as key a role in her survival as Rudy did.

They tore down her arena eventually, needing the space for newer, bigger, and more exciting Games, but some of the most relevant pieces from the 13th Hunger Games wound up in a museum. Liesel even visited it once, when she was in town for an especially drawn-out Games, long after her own tributes had been boxed away in pine, waiting to be shipped back to District 12. There was the rapier Franz Deutcher used to kill his way through most of the other tributes. Viktor Chemmel's teeth, carefully preserved. Esper's District token, a shoal map made of fishbone.

And, of course, the gas mask that Ilsa Hermann and Max Vandenburg sent her in a silver parachute. There was even a little placard behind the glass, pointing out the special feature that would sound off a cuckoo alarm in her ear if any bombs were detected nearby.

It looked so small, lying there. Child-sized.

Most sponsors, Liesel found out, parted with their money because they wanted some piece of you. They wanted to own you and your victory, so that it became more about them and what they did and less about your District.

And sometimes … sometimes they were Ilsa Hermann.

After the recap of her Games, they whisked her off to a celebratory dinner, held to honor her, the Gamemakers, and any particularly generous sponsors. She met the mayor there.

"My dear," the woman had said, dressed then in an exquisitely bright sundress, the fabric as pale as the cracked-open yolk of a summer sky. "Your stylist said you like to read?"


*


Liesel Meminger stole her first book when she was ten years old. Magdova Merandes of District 4 had just won the 8th Annual Hunger Games. Her brother had just died.

It was a gravedigger's handbook. And as long as Liesel lived, some part of her would always be grateful that she learned to read on that book. Every chapter was perfectly preserved in her memory. She certainly got a lot more use out of it than anything they tried to teach her in school.

She was, frankly, an expert in burying people.


*


The mine collapse that killed Hans Hubermann was ruled by the foreman to be an accident.

"It happens," was all he could say to her. "When we have to mine as deep in the earth as we do, when none of our equipment is up to standard, when we're forced to --" he cut himself off there, fortunately, before Liesel found herself in the bizarre situation of having to stop him. "And your papa was -- well, he was old. I'm sorry, child. I'm sorry."

Mama, when they told her, didn't believe them.

"Don't be stupid," she said, waving them off. "Quit wasting my time unless you have something useful to say."

You could see it on her face, though. A whiteness appearing in her eyes, rounding with fear. It was an expression familiar to anyone in District 12. Everybody -- or at least everybody who was Seam -- lived in dread of this exact moment. For three nights, after, she didn't move from their bed. She kept Papa's accordion strapped to her chest like she thought if she breathed for it, it would pump his lungs, too, and it would bring him back. Finally, when Liesel was forced to go in and rouse her for the funeral, she got up. She pulled her iron-grey hair back with elastic. She broke the ground over his grave. She put her hand on Liesel's back and then lifted it again, saying with only a scrim of her usual venom, "Jehosophat, you filthy creature, what is all this? When was the last time you bathed?"

Liesel didn't tell her that they had to knock her unconscious to clean her after they lifted her from the arena. She wouldn't let them go near her otherwise, because the grime and ashes on her body were all she had left. It was the only thing of Rudy's they let her keep, and then she didn't even have that.

When the Hubermanns moved from their home in the Seam into Liesel's new house in the Victor's Village, she informed them with great delight that they didn't have to work if they didn't want to. With her winnings, they had more money than they could ever spend.

Papa chuckled, scraping her hair back from her forehead to kiss it.

"And what would I do with myself then, child?" he asked. "Play the accordion all day?"

"Fat chance," snorted Rosa, moving in to fix Liesel's hair. She'd bruised her several more times upon her return, as if she thought if she didn't squeeze at her with all her force, she'd disappear again. Liesel was trying to adjust to all the affection. "I'd kill you myself if I had to deal with you on that abominable thing every hour of the day."

Hans rolled his eyes at her, as he always did, before turning his attention back to his fifteen-year-old daughter.

"I'm not going to leave my team a man short, Liesel. Perhaps in a few years I'll retire. But I'm afraid, after everything, mining's gotten its hold on me."

So off he went, six days out of seven, and Liesel indulged him, because she enjoyed programming the shower for him when he came home. He said she was the only one who knew the right combination of buttons that could get the coal dust off. She enjoyed the way Mama's sourness lifted at the sound of his boot on the step.

The joy in Papa leaving was really more the joy of him coming home. She saw no harm in it.

Rosa Hubermann had been a miner herself in those early days after the Uprising. She had to. The Capitol had taken her children as punishment for Hans' involvement in the rebel army: her son they relocated to District 2 to train as a Peacekeeper. Trudy Hubermann was sent to 9, to work in the factories that made the bullets that her brother would shoot into the heads of District lawbreakers. It was a common practice in those days, rearranging the population so that those best suited for a District specialty would be moved to that District.

At least, that's what they claimed. Really, Liesel supposed it was just a way to break up rebel groups, rebel families, rebel comrades, to divide them and conquer them. They did it to Max's family too, and although she didn't know it yet, in a few months Alex Steiner would be given his relocation orders to 8. His family would not be allowed to accompany him.

Divide and conquer.

The night before Hans Hubermann's funeral, a young miner named Reinhold Zucker came to the door in the dead of night.

He was reeling drunk, reeking of white liquor from the Hob, and he scratched at the door until Liesel dragged herself off the rug in front of the fire and opened it. He took one look at her and started shaking.

"It was me," he told her, and it struck her as hard as the boom of the cannon in the arena. She shattered at the impact. "It was my fault. I told him to switch places with me that day. If I hadn't, it would have been me caught in that -- if I hadn't -- it's my fault your father is dead."

And Liesel?

Liesel Meminger, who in just a single year had lost both her best friend and her father?

She launched herself off the front step and landed on Reinhold Zucker, toppling them, grabbing him by the face and digging her thumbs at his eyes. An unholy screech tore out of her like it had nails, ripping at her lungs on the way out. They howled like alley cats, Liesel scratching and clawing and beating at his head with her balled-up fists and Reinhold holding up his arms to fend her off, until the worst possible thing fell out of his mouth.

"They paid me!" he cried. "I had to! They paid me to do it!"

And after that, only the intervention of a Peacekeeper stopped her from killing for the first time in her life. His name was Walter; he was large and kind and serious and he wrapped his arms around her from behind, lifting her clean off of Reinhold and holding her up off the ground as she thrashed and kicked.

He took her to the Meadow, where he left her curled up and retching amongst the dry autumn grass. When he returned, he had Max with him.

They felt along the ground in the pitch dark until they found her, covered in the dirt and broken-down twigs she'd tried to pull over herself like a blanket. Max held her hand, finding her split knuckles and covering them with his thumb. They sat there until dawn.

As the shadows eased off their faces, Liesel ventured, feeling out the hard, pebbly sensation of truth on her lips, "They killed my papa because of what I said."

And Max Vandenburg, who'd never lied to a child, said, "Yes."


*


At the height of Liesel's popularity, she could be doing as many as twelve concerts a year, on top of her job, her duties as a mentor, and being a host for whatever shell-shocked creature came to 12 on their Victory Tour. There was a limit on how many times she could be brought to the Capitol, of course, so if there was an inexplicable off-season demand for her voice, sometimes they set her up in a recording studio and then displayed her image holographically in front of the crowd come concert-time.

One year, Liesel arrived in the Capitol incredibly sick.

Her breath rattled wheezily in her lungs, and any movement to get up off the cold tile floor of the bathroom triggered a nausea that whited out her vision. She remained where she was, trembling.

It was the half-way point between the 39th Hunger Games and the 40th. She'd been told to perform at the president's mansion this evening, in honor of the Victor from the 39th -- a tall, hungry-eyed girl named Seeder from District 11, who Liesel genuinely liked, although Seeder hadn't done anything to stop Liesel's own tributes from starving to death, and she could have.

The longer Liesel lived, the harder it got to resent the children who won.

The door whisked open, and she dragged her head up, expecting to see her gravediggers, fluttering and exclaiming about the state her make-up was in, her costume crumpled under her.

Instead, an Avox paused in the doorway. She took in the situation in one flick of her eyes.

As she approached, and Liesel got a clearer look at her face -- elderly, mid-seventies at least, with deep creases forming crow's feet around her eyes, which crinkled with a kindness she recognized as sure as if she'd been touched with a live wire -- her heart bumped, startled, and then leapt in her chest.

Linne Vandenburg knelt soundlessly on the tile beside her.

She reached out, touching the tips of her fingers to Liesel's chest and feeling each hard contraction her lungs made to suck down enough air. Her brow furrowed with concentration, and Liesel took the opportunity to devour the sight of her. How strange it is, she thought, to be so haunted by a person and then to see them in front of you, to see them move.

She'd only ever seen Max's mother in paint. Mostly, they'd been abstract portraits: a suggestion of a woman in a miner's helmet, a shadowy figure in a doorway carrying the humpy shape of an accordion, a silhouette caught in barbed wire with the rebel symbol emblazoned in red over her heart. Once, though, once he'd drawn his whole family in exquisite detail, buying expensive pencils with colored centers, shading them in strokes of charcoal. When she'd gone to him for stories from his original District, he'd come up with some children's fable about a boastful billy goat that kept leaping up higher and higher up a cliff face, and Liesel delivered it on a sheet of paper to Ilsa Hermann with the family portrait on the back.

Linne being here -- was this Ilsa's doing?

The Avox lifted her eyes questioningly, tapping her chest.

"It's the coal dust," Liesel explained. "From my District. It gets into everything eventually, especially your lungs. They've got a," she struggled to sit up, but her stomach rolled and her mouth slicked with saliva, and she sunk back to avoid vomiting. "A -- a patch here -- they give it to me when I need to sing. It goes over --" but Max's mother was already up, moving briskly out of the room to find the first-aid.

She came back with the patch, and with difficulty, they got the top of Liesel's costume peeled down enough to apply it. They waited as the medicine seeped in, cool and numbing and loosening the tightness in Liesel's chest.

Then, hesitantly, Linne's hand moved next to her belly, flattening out. The skin there was hard, like the inside of a nut.

She lifted her eyes, widening them.

Liesel smiled and nodded in confirmation. "They call it morning sickness, but really it's 'whatever time of day is most inconvenient for you' sickness. It was the same with my sons."

Carefully, slowly, and with great consideration for the pitching in Liesel's stomach, they got her upright again. It would take some doing to get her make-up and costume back in order, and really, she should call her gravediggers for this, but she let Linne move about her, redoing the stays (it crushed her pregnant belly into her, but she was sure the Capitol cared less about that than they did about making sure she appeared skinny to the viewers) and pulling at her beige-colored hair until it teased out around her head again.

There was something so lovely about the cool press of Linne's dry hand against the back of her neck. It reminded her of her mother, of Rosa Hubermann, of Mags. It reminded her how Max Vandenburg's hand was the first thing she grabbed coming out of the arena, how he lifted her into the hovercraft with wet streaks tearing his face in two, and let her bury her gas mask against his chest.

It gave her the courage to say, "Sometimes I wish they'd let me go back to District 2."

Max's mother stilled, but only for a moment.

Casually, Liesel continued, "I've only seen it once, of course, on my own Victory Tour … what, twenty-five years ago? It's a lot like my own District, of course, with the mountains, but different, too, in so many beautiful ways. The way the sun rose and threw light down into the valleys between tunnels …"

The hands on her back had stopped completely, fisted up against her spine.

Liesel wasn't imagining how they trembled.

Max's Capitol father had been stationed in District 2. He married a District girl and they had a son who grew up there. All of his friends, his neighbors -- everybody Max ever knew he left behind when they fled for District 12 in the Uprising. Except for one. One person waited, got his Peacekeeping uniform, and then shipped out to District 12 to find him.

Liesel knew more about Max's family than she ever had about her own blood relatives.

"My mentor even painted it a few times," she said quietly, as if to herself. "Once, he did the whole thing. It took up -- it took the entire wall. As much of the District he could fit in, he did. The mountains, the morning fog creeping over the green, the villages dotting the mountainside and the trains, always the trains, coming in and out." She chuckled. "Walter hated it," and the hands spasmed against her, flaying open. "He complained that they'd left it behind, and here Max was, trying to bring it all back again."

She paused, and after a shaky moment, Linne resumed her work. In the quiet, Liesel lifted her voice again, this time in song -- for practice, of course, to warm up her newly-medicated lungs -- and if what she sung was an old mountain air from District 2, well, she had just been talking about it. Linne's throat made a mutilated noise.

If they punished you, you sang. If they punched you, you kept singing. If they beat you, again and again, you kept singing.

Linne Vandenburg came around front, hands trailing down Liesel's arms to wrap clumsily around her own, and her eyes burned. They were glassy with tears, glittering and blazingly sunstruck.

Liesel gazed back at her, and then she swayed, as if dizzy.

Linne caught her, and Liesel used that to wrap her arms around her shoulders, hauling herself up to whisper flush against Max's mother's ear, "He's alive. I promise. Whatever they tell you, whatever they show you, whatever they say on the television, I promise you, Frau Vandenburg -- he's alive."


*


When Liesel Meminger became Panem's youngest-ever Victor, three weeks past her fifteenth birthday, she returned to District 12 with the assurance that she didn't have to go back to school, and she would never have to work in the mines. Those were her rewards.

"What do they expect me to do, then?" she asked Max, drawing her legs up to her on the kitchen counter. "With the rest of my life?"

Mama answered for her.

"Get down!" she snapped, smacking Liesel with her spoon hard enough to raise a mark. "I didn't take you in and raise you to act like an animal, go sit at the table and pretend you've got manners, I swear to -- Max. Your soup. Do you want a cup or a bowl?"

"Erm," answered the nonplussed Max Vandenburg. Liesel, sliding into the chair across from him, smirked, enjoying how Rosa Hubermann could disconcert everyone she ever talked to, including the experienced killer sitting at their table. "I'm okay, Frau Hubermann --"

"Cup, then," she answered briskly. "And you will tell me if you want more. Don't argue. And you --" she rounded on Liesel now, the cardboard of her mouth compacting. "You will assimilate. They will expect nothing less from you. The Capitol will make you their darling, and going to school, learning a specialty, going to work -- these are District things. Petty District trifles. They want you to be theirs, not District. And so, you will not work."

After Liesel's mistake at the 14th Hunger Games and the subsequent death of both her parents, Michael Holtzapfel came to her door.

He waited until she could bring herself to answer it, and tentatively asked if she would like to come teach at the school.

Liesel scraped her uncombed hair away from her face and studied him.

He fidgeted under her scrutiny, tugging unnecessarily at the bandages covering his mutilated hand -- courtesy of a mine accident. His younger brother had been Reaped the year before her. They'd all watched his legs get torn off at the knee by some gape-mawed lizard mutt in the pit he fell into in his arena, watched him moan and cry for his mother and bleed to death with gruesome slowness. You could see it even now, in the lines in Michael's face.

On clear nights, she still heard the howling that rose from the Holtzapfels' house in the Seam.

They'd gone over there, her and Papa and Mama, for every evening broadcast, so the Holtzapfels would have somebody there for support, to do the cooking or the washing, if needed. Michael and his mother returned the favor for the Hubermanns, she heard, when it was her own turn in the Games.

"Yes," she agreed, without even asking what they wanted her to teach.


*


When she came of age, Liesel would be expected to act upon her talent for the Capitol's benefit, but it was in the safety of District 12 that she got good at it.

She taught an after-school music class. It was, without a doubt, the most popular extracurricular activity in the District -- largely because Liesel brought food: doughy rolls baked with nuts and raisins; crackers sprinkled with sesame seeds; clusters of nuts held together with a sugary, nutrient-rich substance they made in District 5; and when times were hard, vegetables sliced into even pieces worked. She had to divide the week up by age groups; her classes were too large, otherwise.

It also meant that for the next forty-five years, Liesel Meminger almost always knew her tributes before they were Reaped.

In some ways, it helped. She knew their names, their families, their backgrounds. She knew how they'd work their interviews, how they'd present themselves to the Gamemakers in training. She knew what to say to sponsors. Her tributes almost always knew more about the other Districts than other Districts knew about them, because Liesel taught them District songs. You can learn a lot about people by the music they sing. Every year, she'd come back with two fresh corpses and something new to teach in the music room: sea shanties from District 4, folk ballads from 7, steady rhythmic chants from 1 and 11 that were catchy and easy to perform repetitive tasks to.

She even got Max to come in occasionally and accompany them on her papa's accordion, although in their hands the instrument never transformed the way it did in Hans Hubermann's. They could play it, but Hans had made it breathe.

"Better you than me," he said to her, when he first heard about her classes. Bettina Steiner had run on ahead through the gates of the Victor's Village so she could be the first to tell him. "Hanging around the school all the time, I mean. I'd rather be known as a hermit than … well, that."

"Don't be stupid," Liesel brushed that off, but he just cut her a knowing smile.


*


Most of the surviving Steiner children never married.

There were five of them; Kurt the oldest, Bettina the youngest. They rallied around their mother after Alex Steiner's deportation. They worked in the tailor's shop on Merchant Street and ran a booth at the market (the legal one.) They stuck together. They did not marry, bar one.

It wasn't uncommon. If your children were going to die in the Hunger Games, then the solution was to stop having children.

Sometime after the First Quarter Quell, when starvation, hard labor conditions, and casual executions coupled with the declining birth rate showed a negative population growth in several of the Districts, the Capitol intervened. It outlawed any access to birth control. In District 5 even, where they produced pharmaceuticals, a whole group of women "volunteers" were "accidentally" inseminated while undergoing experimentation. The message was clear: the Capitol would only allow you that choice so long as you chose what the Capitol wanted.

Bettina Steiner had been five years old when her brother Rudy died in Liesel's arms. She married the apothecary's son on an early summer day.

The afternoon sky was watery, fruit-colored with a wavering, sinking sun. Bettina and her husband signed a license at the Justice Building, and then she came to Liesel Meminger.

"Will you sing at the threshold ceremony?" was the request she brought with her, carried in both hands like a precious thing. She wore the same white dress the merchant girls usually rented, and her golden hair was brushed back into a criss-crossed crown atop her head. She was much older than most District 12 brides usually were, and she was lovely.

"Bettina --" Liesel started.

Reading the refusal on her face, Bettina stepped forward, crowding Liesel against the doorframe of her own home. "Please," she begged. "Please, Liesel. I -- I'm sorry about your son," blurted out of her. It splattered at their feet, and Bettina flinched away from the mess. "I -- I --"

"Bettina …"

"It was cruel. It was wrong," her eyes darted nervously, swaying, but she gulped back. "All of us, merchant and Seam, everything we had to spare, we gave to sponsor him, you know that. We know you know that, it was -- you're our Victor, ours, and I don't want to … I don't want to cross the threshold into married life without your voice, please, Liesel, it's the most powerful thing I know."







continue on to next part -->

Tags: character: liesel meminger, character: max vandenburg, character: rudy steiner, fandom: the book thief, fandom: the hunger games, pairing: no pairing, rating: pg-13
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