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“Shall we watch the recap of the reapings?” says Effie, dabbing at the corners of her mouth with a white linen napkin.

Peeta goes off to retrieve his notebook on the remaining living victors, and we gather in the compartment with the television to see who our competition will be in the arena. We are all in place as the anthem begins to play and the annual recap of the reaping ceremonies in the twelve districts begins.

In the history of the Games, there have been seventy-five victors. Fifty-nine are still alive. I recognize many of their faces, either from seeing them as tributes or mentors at previous Games or from our recent viewing of the victors’ tapes. Some are so old or wasted by illness, drugs, or drink that I can’t place them. As one would expect, the pools of Career tributes from Districts 1, 2, and 4 are the largest. But every district has managed to scrape up at least one female and one male victor.

The reapings go by quickly. Peeta studiously puts stars by the names of the chosen tributes in his notebook. Haymitch watches, his face devoid of emotion, as friends of his step up to take the stage. Effie makes hushed, distressed comments like “Oh, not Cecelia” or “Well, Chaff never could stay out of a fight,” and sighs frequently.

For my part, I try to make some mental record of the other tributes, but like last year, only a few really stick in my head. There’s the classically beautiful brother and sister from District 1 who were victors in consecutive years when I was little. Brutus, a volunteer from District 2, who must be at least forty and apparently can’t wait to get back in the arena. Finnick, the handsome bronze-haired guy from District 4 who was crowned ten years ago at the age of fourteen. A hysterical young woman with flowing brown hair is also called from 4, but she’s quickly replaced by a volunteer, an eighty-year-old woman who needs a cane to walk to the stage. Then there’s Johanna Mason, the only living female victor from 7, who won a few years back by pretending she was a weakling. The woman from 8 who Effie calls Cecelia, who looks about thirty, has to detach herself from the three kids who run up to cling to her. Chaff, a man from 11 who I know to be one of Haymitch’s particular friends, is also in.

I’m called. Then Haymitch. And Peeta volunteers. One of the announcers actually gets teary because it seems the odds will never be in our favor, we star-crossed lovers of District 12. Then she pulls herself together to say she bets that “these will be the best Games ever!”

Haymitch leaves the compartment without a word, and Effie, after making a few unconnected comments about this tribute or that, bids us good night. I just sit there watching Peeta rip out the pages of the victors who were not picked.

“Why don’t you get some sleep?” he says.

Because I can’t handle the nightmares. Not without you, I think. They are sure to be dreadful tonight. But I can hardly ask Peeta to come sleep with me. We’ve barely touched since that night Gale was whipped. “What are you going to do?” I ask.

“Just review my notes awhile. Get a clear picture of what we’re up against. But I’ll go over it with you in the morning. Go to bed, Katniss,” he says.

So I go to bed and, sure enough, within a few hours I awake from a nightmare where that old woman from District 4 transforms into a large rodent and gnaws on my face. I know I was screaming, but no one comes. Not Peeta, not even one of the Capitol attendants. I pull on a robe to try to calm the gooseflesh crawling over my body. Staying in my compartment is impossible, so I decide to go find someone to make me tea or hot chocolate or anything. Maybe Haymitch is still up. Surely he isn’t asleep.

I order warm milk, the most calming thing I can think of, from an attendant. Hearing voices from the television room, I go in and find Peeta. Beside him on the couch is the box Effie sent of tapes of the old Hunger Games. I recognize the episode in which Brutus became victor.

Peeta rises and flips off the tape when he sees me. “Couldn’t sleep?”

“Not for long,” I say. I pull the robe more securely around me as I remember the old woman transforming into the rodent.

“Want to talk about it?” he asks. Sometimes that can help, but I just shake my head, feeling weak that people I haven’t even fought yet already haunt me.

When Peeta holds out his arms, I walk straight into them. It’s the first time since they announced the Quarter Quell that he’s offered me any sort of affection. He’s been more like a very demanding trainer, always pushing, always insisting Haymitch and I run faster, eat more, know our enemy better. Lover? Forget about that. He abandoned any pretense of even being my friend. I wrap my arms tightly around his neck before he can order me to do push-ups or something. Instead he pulls me in close and buries his face in my hair. Warmth radiates from the spot where his lips just touch my neck, slowly spreading through the rest of me. It feels so good, so impossibly good, that I know I will not be the first to let go.

And why should I? I have said good-bye to Gale. I’ll never see him again, that’s for certain. Nothing I do now can hurt him. He won’t see it or he’ll think I am acting for the cameras. That, at least, is one weight off my shoulders.

The arrival of the Capitol attendant with the warm milk is what breaks us apart. He sets a tray with a steaming ceramic jug and two mugs on a table. “I brought an extra cup,” he says.

“Thanks,” I say.

“And I added a touch of honey to the milk. For sweetness. And just a pinch of spice,” he adds. He looks at us like he wants to say more, then gives his head a slight shake and backs out of the room.

“What’s with him?” I say.

“I think he feels bad for us,” says Peeta.

“Right,” I say, pouring the milk.

“I mean it. I don’t think the people in the Capitol are going to be all that happy about our going back in,” says Peeta. “Or the other victors. They get attached to their champions.”

“I’m guessing they’ll get over it once the blood starts flowing,” I say flatly. Really, if there’s one thing I don’t have time for, it’s worrying about how the Quarter Quell will affect the mood in the Capitol. “So, you’re watching all the tapes again?”

“Not really. Just sort of skipping around to see people’s different fighting techniques,” says Peeta. “Who’s next?” I ask.

“You pick,” says Peeta, holding out the box.

The tapes are marked with the year of the Games and the name of the victor. I dig around and suddenly find one in my hand that we have not watched. The year of the Games is fifty. That would make it the second Quarter Quell. And the name of the victor is Haymitch Abernathy.

“We never watched this one,” I say.

Peeta shakes his head. “No. I knew Haymitch didn’t want to. The same way we didn’t want to relive our own Games. And since we’re all on the same team, I didn’t think it mattered much.”

“Is the person who won in twenty-five in here?” I ask.

“I don’t think so. Whoever it was must be dead by now, and Effie only sent me victors we might have to face.” Peeta weighs Haymitch’s tape in his hand. “Why? You think we ought to watch it?”

“It’s the only Quell we have. We might pick up something valuable about how they work,” I say. But I feel weird. It seems like some major invasion of Haymitch’s privacy. I don’t know why it should, since the whole thing was public. But it does. I have to admit I’m also extremely curious. “We don’t have to tell Haymitch we saw it.”

“Okay,” Peeta agrees. He puts in the tape and I curl up next to him on the couch with my milk, which is really delicious with the honey and spices, and lose myself in the Fiftieth Hunger Games. After the anthem, they show President Snow drawing the envelope for the second Quarter Quell. He looks younger but just as repellent. He reads from the square of paper in the same onerous voice he used for ours, informing Panem that in honor of the Quarter Quell, there will be twice the number of tributes. The editors smash cut right into the reapings, where name after name after name is called.

By the time we get to District 12, I’m completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of kids going to certain death. There’s a woman, not Effie, calling the names in 12, but she still begins with “Ladies first!” She calls out the name of a girl who’s from the Seam, you can tell by the look of her, and then I hear the name “Maysilee Donner.”

“Oh!” I say. “She was my mother’s friend.” The camera finds her in the crowd, clinging to two other girls. All blond. All definitely merchants’ kids.

“I think that’s your mother hugging her,” says Peeta quietly. And he’s right. As Maysilee Donner bravely disengages herself and heads for the stage, I catch a glimpse of my mother at my age, and no one has exaggerated her beauty. Holding her hand and weeping is another girl who looks just like Maysilee. But a lot like someone else I know, too.

“Madge,” I say.

“That’s her mother. She and Maysilee were twins or something,” Peeta says. “My dad mentioned it once.”

I think of Madge’s mother. Mayor Undersee’s wife. Who spends half her life in bed immobilized with terrible pain, shutting out the world. I think of how I never realized that she and my mother shared this connection. Of Madge showing up in that snowstorm to bring the painkiller for Gale. Of my mockingjay pin and how it means something completely different now that I know that its former owner was Madge’s aunt, Maysilee Donner, a tribute who was murdered in the arena.

Haymitch’s name is called last of all. It’s more of a shock to see him than my mother. Young. Strong. Hard to admit, but he was something of a looker. His hair dark and curly, those gray Seam eyes bright and, even then, dangerous.

“Oh. Peeta, you don’t think he killed Maysilee, do you?” I burst out. I don’t know why, but I can’t stand the thought.

“With forty-eight players? I’d say the odds are against it,” says Peeta.

The chariot rides — in which the District 12 kids are dressed in awful coal miners’ outfits — and the interviews flash by. There’s little time to focus on anyone. But since Haymitch is going to be the victor, we get to see one full exchange between him and Caesar Flickerman, who looks exactly as he always does in his twinkling midnight blue suit. Only his dark green hair, eyelids, and lips are different.

“So, Haymitch, what do you think of the Games having one hundred percent more competitors than usual?” asks Caesar.

Haymitch shrugs. “I don’t see that it makes much difference. They’ll still be one hundred percent as stupid as usual, so I figure my odds will be roughly the same.”

The audience bursts out laughing and Haymitch gives them a half smile. Snarky. Arrogant. Indifferent.

“He didn’t have to reach far for that, did he?” I say.

Now it’s the morning the Games begin. We watch from the point of view of one of the tributes as she rises up through the tube from the Launch Room and into the arena. I can’t help but give a slight gasp. Disbelief is reflected on the faces of the players. Even Haymitch’s eyebrows lift in pleasure, although they almost immediately knit themselves back into a scowl.

It’s the most breathtaking place imaginable. The golden Cornucopia sits in the middle of a green meadow with patches of gorgeous flowers. The sky is azure blue with puffy white clouds. Bright songbirds flutter overhead. By the way some of the tributes are sniffing, it must smell fantastic. An aerial shot shows that the meadow stretches for miles. Far in the distance, in one direction, there seems to be a woods, in the other, a snowcapped mountain.

The beauty disorients many of the players, because when the gong sounds, most of them seem like they’re trying to wake from a dream. Not Haymitch, though. He’s at the Cornucopia, armed with weapons and a backpack of choice supplies. He heads for the woods before most of the others have stepped off their plates.

Eighteen tributes are killed in the bloodbath that first day. Others begin to die off and it becomes clear that almost everything in this pretty place—the luscious fruit dangling from the bushes, the water in the crystalline streams, even the scent of the flowers when inhaled too directly—is deadly poisonous. Only the rainwater and the food provided at the Cornucopia are safe to consume. There’s also a large, well-stocked Career pack of ten tributes scouring the mountain area for victims.

Haymitch has his own troubles over in the woods, where the fluffy golden squirrels turn out to be carnivorous and attack in packs, and the butterfly stings bring agony if not death. But he persists in moving forward, always keeping the distant mountain at his back.

Maysilee Donner turns out to be pretty resourceful herself, for a girl who leaves the Cornucopia with only a small backpack. Inside she finds a bowl, some dried beef, and a blowgun with two dozen darts. Making use of the readily available poisons, she soon turns the blowgun into a deadly weapon by dipping the darts in lethal substances and directing them into her opponents’ flesh.

Four days in, the picturesque mountain erupts in a volcano that wipes out another dozen players, including all but five of the Career pack. With the mountain spewing liquid fire, and the meadow offering no means of concealment, the remaining thirteen tributes — including Haymitch and Maysilee — have no choice but to confine themselves to the woods.

Haymitch seems bent on continuing in the same direction, away from the now volcanic mountain, but a maze of tightly woven hedges forces him to circle back into the center of the woods, where he encounters three of the Careers and pulls his knife. They may be much bigger and stronger, but Haymitch has remarkable speed and has killed two when the third disarms him. That Career is about to slit his throat when a dart drops him to the ground.

Maysilee Donner steps out of the woods. “We’d live longer with two of us.”

“Guess you just proved that,” says Haymitch, rubbing his neck. “Allies?” Maysilee nods. And there they are, instantly drawn into one of those pacts you’d be hard-pressed to break if you ever expect to go home and face your district.

Just like Peeta and me, they do better together. Get more rest, work out a system to salvage more rainwater, fight as a team, and share the food from the dead tributes’ packs. But Haymitch is still determined to keep moving on.

“Why?” Maysilee keeps asking, and he ignores her until she refuses to move any farther without an answer.

“Because it has to end somewhere, right?” says Haymitch. “The arena can’t go on forever.”

“What do you expect to find?” Maysilee asks.

“I don’t know. But maybe there’s something we can use,” he says.

When they finally do make it through that impossible hedge, using a blowtorch from one of the dead Careers’ packs, they find themselves on flat, dry earth that leads to a cliff. Far below, you can see jagged rocks.

“That’s all there is, Haymitch. Let’s go back,” says Maysilee.

“No, I’m staying here,” he says.

“All right. There’s only five of us left. May as well say good-bye now, anyway,” she says. “I don’t want it to come down to you and me.”

“Okay,” he agrees. That’s all. He doesn’t offer to shake her hand or even look at her. And she walks away.

Haymitch skirts along the edge of the cliff as if trying to figure something out. His foot dislodges a pebble and it falls into the abyss, apparently gone forever. But a minute later, as he sits to rest, the pebble shoots back up beside him. Haymitch stares at it, puzzled, and then his face takes on a strange intensity. He lobs a rock the size of his fist over the cliff and waits. When it flies back out and right into his hand, he starts laughing.

That’s when we hear Maysilee begin to scream. The alliance is over and she broke it off, so no one could blame him for ignoring her. But Haymitch runs for her, anyway. He arrives only in time to watch the last of a flock of candy pink birds, equipped with long, thin beaks, skewer her through the neck. He holds her hand while she dies, and all I can think of is Rue and how I was too late to save her, too.

Later that day, another tribute is killed in combat and a third gets eaten by a pack of those fluffy squirrels, leaving Haymitch and a girl from District 1 to vie for the crown. She’s bigger than he is and just as fast, and when the inevitable fight comes, it’s bloody and awful and both have received what could well be fatal wounds, when Haymitch is finally disarmed. He staggers through the beautiful woods, holding his intestines in, while she stumbles after him, carrying the ax that should deliver his deathblow. Haymitch makes a beeline for his cliff and has just reached the edge when she throws the ax. He collapses on the ground and it flies into the abyss. Now weaponless as well, the girl just stands there, trying to staunch the flow of blood pouring from her empty eye socket. She’s thinking perhaps that she can outlast Haymitch, who’s starting to convulse on the ground. But what she doesn’t know, and what he does, is that the ax will return. And when it flies back over the ledge, it buries itself in her head. The cannon sounds, her body is removed, and the trumpets blow to announce Haymitch’s victory.

Peeta clicks off the tape and we sit there in silence for a while.

Finally Peeta says, “That force field at the bottom of the cliff, it was like the one on the roof of the Training Center. The one that throws you back if you try to jump off and commit suicide. Haymitch found a way to turn it into a weapon.”

“Not just against the other tributes, but the Capitol, too,” I say. “You know they didn’t expect that to happen. It wasn’t meant to be part of the arena. They never planned on anyone using it as a weapon. It made them look stupid that he figured it out. I bet they had a good time trying to spin that one. Bet that’s why I don’t remember seeing it on television. It’s almost as bad as us and the berries!”

I can’t help laughing, really laughing, for the first time in months. Peeta just shakes his head like I’ve lost my mind—and maybe I have, a little.

“Almost, but not quite,” says Haymitch from behind us. I whip around, afraid he’s going to be angry over us watching his tape, but he just smirks and takes a swig from a bottle of wine. So much for sobriety. I guess I should be upset he’s drinking again, but I’m preoccupied with another feeling.

I’ve spent all these weeks getting to know who my competitors are, without even thinking about who my teammates are. Now a new kind of confidence is lighting up inside of me, because I think I finally know who Haymitch is. And I’m beginning to know who I am. And surely, two people who have caused the Capitol so much trouble can think of a way to get Peeta home alive.

Having been through prep with Flavius, Venia, and Octavia numerous times, it should just be an old routine to survive. But I haven’t anticipated the emotional ordeal that awaits me. At some point during the prep, each of them bursts into tears at least twice, and Octavia pretty much keeps up a running whimper throughout the morning. It turns out they really have become attached to me, and the idea of my returning to the arena has undone them. Combine that with the fact that by losing me they’ll be losing their ticket to all kinds of big social events, particularly my wedding, and the whole thing becomes unbearable. The idea of being strong for someone else having never entered their heads, I find myself in the position of having to console them. Since I’m the person going in to be slaughtered, this is somewhat annoying.

It’s interesting, though, when I think of what Peeta said about the attendant on the train being unhappy about the victors having to fight again. About people in the Capitol not liking it. I still think all of that will be forgotten once the gong sounds, but it’s something of a revelation that those in the Capitol feel anything at all about us. They certainly don’t have a problem watching children murdered every year. But maybe they know too much about the victors, especially the ones who’ve been celebrities for ages, to forget we’re human beings. It’s more like watching your own friends die. More like the Games are for those of us in the districts.

By the time Cinna shows up, I am irritable and exhausted from comforting the prep team, especially because their constant tears are reminding me of the ones undoubtedly being shed at home. Standing there in my thin robe with my stinging skin and heart, I know I can’t bear even one more look of regret. So the moment he walks in the door I snap, “I swear if you cry, I’ll kill you here and now.”

Cinna just smiles. “Had a damp morning?”

“You could wring me out,” I reply.

Cinna puts his arm around my shoulder and leads me into lunch. “Don’t worry. I always channel my emotions into my work. That way I don’t hurt anyone but myself.”

“I can’t go through that again,” I warn him.

“I know. I’ll talk to them,” says Cinna.

Lunch makes me feel a bit better. Pheasant with a selection of jewel-colored jellies, and tiny versions of real vegetables swimming in butter, and potatoes mashed with parsley. For dessert we dip chunks of fruit in a pot of melted chocolate, and Cinna has to order a second pot because I start just eating the stuff with a spoon.

“So, what are we wearing for the opening ceremonies?” I finally ask as I scrape the second pot clean. “Headlamps or fire?” I know the chariot ride will require Peeta and me to be dressed in something coal related.

“Something along that line,” he says.

When it’s time to get in costume for the opening ceremonies, my prep team shows up but Cinna sends them away, saying they’ve done such a spectacular job in the morning, there’s nothing left to do. They go off to recover, thankfully leaving me in Cinna’s hands. He puts up my hair first, in the braided style my mother introduced him to, then proceeds with my makeup. Last year he used little so that the audience would recognize me when I landed in the arena. But now my face is almost obscured by the dramatic highlights and dark shadows. High arching eyebrows, sharp cheekbones, smoldering eyes, deep purple lips. The costume looks deceptively simple at first, just a fitted black jumpsuit that covers me from the neck down. He places a half crown like the one I received as victor on my head, but it’s made of a heavy black metal, not gold. Then he adjusts the light in the room to mimic twilight and presses a button just inside the fabric on my wrist. I look down, fascinated, as my ensemble slowly comes to life, first with a soft golden light but gradually transforming to the orange-red of burning coal. I look as if I have been coated in glowing embers — no, that I am a glowing ember straight from our fireplace. The colors rise and fall, shift and blend, in exactly the way the coals do.

“How did you do this?” I say in wonder.

“Portia and I spent a lot of hours watching fires,” says Cinna. “Now look at yourself.”

He turns me toward a mirror so that I can take in the entire effect. I do not see a girl, or even a woman, but some unearthly being who looks like she might make her home in the volcano that destroyed so many in Haymitch’s Quell. The black crown, which now appears red-hot, casts strange shadows on my dramatically made-up face. Katniss, the girl on fire, has left behind her flickering flames and bejeweled gowns and soft candlelight frocks. She is as deadly as fire itself.

“I think … this is just what I needed to face the others,” I say.

“Yes, I think your days of pink lipstick and ribbons are behind you,” says Cinna. He touches the button on my wrist again, extinguishing my light. “Let’s not run down your power pack. When you’re on the chariot this time, no waving, no smiling. I just want you to look straight ahead, as if the entire audience is beneath your notice.”

“Finally something I’ll be good at,” I say.

Cinna has a few more things to attend to, so I decide to head down to the ground floor of the Remake Center, which houses the huge gathering place for the tributes and their chariots before the opening ceremonies. I’m hoping to find Peeta and Haymitch, but they haven’t arrived yet. Unlike last year, when all the tributes were practically glued to their chariots, the scene is very social.

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