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The victors, both this year’s tributes and their mentors, are standing around in small groups, talking. Of course, they all know one another and I don’t know anyone, and I’m not really the sort of person to go around introducing myself. So I just stroke the neck of one of my horses and try not to be noticed. It doesn’t work.

The crunching hits my ear before I even know he’s beside me, and when I turn my head, Finnick Odair’s famous sea green eyes are only inches from mine. He pops a sugar cube in his mouth and leans against my horse.

“Hello, Katniss,” he says, as if we’ve known each other for years, when in fact we’ve never met.

“Hello, Finnick,” I say, just as casually, although I’m feeling uncomfortable at his closeness, especially since he’s got so much bare skin exposed.

“Want a sugar cube?” he says, offering his hand, which is piled high. “They’re supposed to be for the horses, but who cares? They’ve got years to eat sugar, whereas you and I … well, if we see something sweet, we better grab it quick.”

Finnick Odair is something of a living legend in Panem. Since he won the Sixty-fifth Hunger Games when he was only fourteen, he’s still one of the youngest victors. Being from District 4, he was a Career, so the odds were already in his favor, but what no trainer could claim to have given him was his extraordinary beauty. Tall, athletic, with golden skin and bronze-colored hair and those incredible eyes. While other tributes that year were hard-pressed to get a handful of grain or some matches for a gift, Finnick never wanted for anything, not food or medicine or weapons. It took about a week for his competitors to realize that he was the one to kill, but it was too late. He was already a good fighter with the spears and knives he had found in the Cornucopia. When he received a silver parachute with a trident—which may be the most expensive gift I’ve ever seen given in the arena—it was all over. District 4’s industry is fishing. He’d been on boats his whole life. The trident was a natural, deadly extension of his arm. He wove a net out of some kind of vine he found, used it to entangle his opponents so he could spear them with the trident, and within a matter of days the crown was his.

The citizens of the Capitol have been drooling over him ever since.

Because of his youth, they couldn’t really touch him for the first year or two. But ever since he turned sixteen, he’s spent his time at the Games being dogged by those desperately in love with him. No one retains his favor for long. He can go through four or five in his annual visit. Old or young, lovely or plain, rich or very rich, he’ll keep them company and take their extravagant gifts, but he never stays, and once he’s gone he never comes back.

I can’t argue that Finnick isn’t one of the most stunning, sensuous people on the planet. But I can honestly say he’s never been attractive to me. Maybe he’s too pretty, or maybe he’s too easy to get, or maybe it’s really that he’d just be too easy to lose.

“No, thanks,” I say to the sugar. “I’d love to borrow your outfit sometime, though.”

He’s draped in a golden net that’s strategically knotted at his groin so that he can’t technically be called naked, but he’s about as close as you can get. I’m sure his stylist thinks the more of Finnick the audience sees, the better.

“You’re absolutely terrifying me in that getup. What happened to the pretty little-girl dresses?” he asks. He wets his lips just ever so slightly with his tongue. Probably this drives most people crazy. But for some reason all I can think of is old Cray, salivating over some poor, starving young woman.

“I outgrew them,” I say.

Finnick takes the collar of my outfit and runs it between his fingers. “It’s too bad about this Quell thing. You could have made out like a bandit in the Capitol. Jewels, money, anything you wanted.”

“I don’t like jewels, and I have more money than I need. What do you spend all yours on, anyway, Finnick?” I say.

“Oh, I haven’t dealt in anything as common as money for years,” says Finnick.

“Then how do they pay you for the pleasure of your company?” I ask.

“With secrets,” he says softly. He tips his head in so his lips are almost in contact with mine. “What about you, girl on fire? Do you have any secrets worth my time?”

For some stupid reason, I blush, but I force myself to hold my ground. “No, I’m an open book,” I whisper back. “Everybody seems to know my secrets before I know them myself.”

He smiles. “Unfortunately, I think that’s true.” His eyes flicker off to the side. “Peeta is coming. Sorry you have to cancel your wedding. I know how devastating that must be for you.” He tosses another sugar cube in his mouth and saunters off.

Peeta’s beside me, dressed in an outfit identical to mine. “What did Finnick Odair want?” he asks.

I turn and put my lips close to Peeta’s and drop my eyelids in imitation of Finnick. “He offered me sugar and wanted to know all my secrets,” I say in my best seductive voice.

Peeta laughs. “Ugh. Not really.”

“Really,” I say. “I’ll tell you more when my skin stops crawling.”

“Do you think we’d have ended up like this if only one of us had won?” he asks, glancing around at the other victors. “Just another part of the freak show?”

“Sure. Especially you,” I say.

“Oh. And why especially me?” he says with a smile.

“Because you have a weakness for beautiful things and I don’t,” I say with an air of superiority. “They would lure you into their Capitol ways and you’d be lost entirely.”

“Having an eye for beauty isn’t the same thing as a weakness,” Peeta points out. “Except possibly when it comes to you.” The music is beginning and I see the wide doors opening for the first chariot, hear the roar of the crowd. “Shall we?” He holds out a hand to help me into the chariot.

I climb up and pull him up after me. “Hold still,” I say, and straighten his crown. “Have you seen your suit turned on? We’re going to be fabulous again.”

“Absolutely. But Portia says we’re to be very above it all. No waving or anything,” he says. “Where are they, anyway?”

“I don’t know.” I eye the procession of chariots. “Maybe we better go ahead and switch ourselves on.” We do, and as we begin to glow, I can see people pointing at us and chattering, and I know that, once again, we’ll be the talk of the opening ceremonies. We’re almost at the door. I crane my head around, but neither Portia nor Cinna, who were with us right up to the final second last year, are anywhere in sight. “Are we supposed to hold hands this year?” I ask.

“I guess they’ve left it up to us,” says Peeta.

I look up into those blue eyes that no amount of dramatic makeup can make truly deadly and remember how, just a year ago, I was prepared to kill him. Convinced he was trying to kill me. Now everything is reversed. I’m determined to keep him alive, knowing the cost will be my own life, but the part of me that is not so brave as I could wish is glad that it’s Peeta, not Haymitch, beside me. Our hands find each other without further discussion. Of course we will go into this as one.

The voice of the crowd rises into one universal scream as we roll into the fading evening light, but neither one of us reacts. I simply fix my eyes on a point far in the distance and pretend there is no audience, no hysteria. I can’t help catching glimpses of us on the huge screens along the route, and we are not just beautiful, we are dark and powerful. No, more. We star-crossed lovers from District 12, who suffered so much and enjoyed so little the rewards of our victory, do not seek the fans’ favor, grace them with our smiles, or catch their kisses. We are unforgiving.

And I love it. Getting to be myself at last.

As we curve around into the loop of the City Circle, I can see that a couple of the other stylists have tried to steal Cinna and Portia’s idea of illuminating their tributes. The electric-light-studded outfits from District 3, where they make electronics, at least make sense. But what are the livestock keepers from District 10, who are dressed as cows, doing with flaming belts? Broiling themselves? Pathetic.

Peeta and I, on the other hand, are so mesmerizing with our ever-changing coal costumes that most of the other tributes are staring at us. We seem particularly riveting to the pair from District 6, who are known morphling addicts. Both bone thin, with sagging yellowish skin. They can’t tear their overlarge eyes away, even when President Snow begins to speak from his balcony, welcoming us all to the Quell. The anthem plays, and as we make our final trip around the circle, am I wrong? Or do I see the president fixated on me as well?

Peeta and I wait until the doors of the Training Center have closed behind us to relax. Cinna and Portia are there, pleased with our performance, and Haymitch has made an appearance this year as well, only he’s not at our chariot, he’s over with the tributes of District 11. I see him nod in our direction and then they follow him over to greet us.

I know Chaff by sight because I’ve spent years watching him pass a bottle back and forth with Haymitch on television. He’s dark skinned, about six feet tall, and one of his arms ends in a stump because he lost his hand in the Games he won thirty years ago. I’m sure they offered him some artificial replacement, like they did Peeta when they had to amputate his lower leg, but I guess he didn’t take it.

The woman, Seeder, looks almost like she could be from the Seam, with her olive skin and straight black hair streaked with silver. Only her golden brown eyes mark her as from another district. She must be around sixty, but she still looks strong, and there’s no sign she’s turned to liquor or morphling or any other chemical form of escape over the years. Before either of us says a word, she embraces me. I know somehow it must be because of Rue and Thresh. Before I can stop myself, I whisper, “The families?”

“They’re alive,” she says back softly before letting me go.

Chaff throws his good arm around me and gives me a big kiss right on the mouth. I jerk back, startled, while he and Haymitch guffaw.

That’s about all the time we get before the Capitol attendants are firmly directing us toward the elevators. I get the distinct feeling they’re not comfortable with the camaraderie among the victors, who couldn’t seem to care less. As I walk toward the elevators, my hand still linked with Peeta’s, someone else rustles up to my side. The girl pulls off a headdress of leafy branches and tosses it behind her without bothering to look where it falls.

Johanna Mason. From District 7 Lumber and paper, thus the tree. She won by very convincingly portraying herself as weak and helpless so that she would be ignored. Then she demonstrated a wicked ability to murder. She ruffles up her spiky hair and rolls her wide-set brown eyes. “Isn’t my costume awful? My stylist’s the biggest idiot in the Capitol. Our tributes have been trees for forty years under her. Wish I’d gotten Cinna. You look fantastic.”

Girl talk. That thing I’ve always been so bad at. Opinions on clothes, hair, makeup. So I lie. “Yeah, he’s been helping me design my own clothing line. You should see what he can do with velvet.” Velvet. The only fabric. I could think of off the top of my head.

“I have. On your tour. That strapless number you wore in District Two? The deep blue one with the diamonds? So gorgeous I wanted to reach through the screen and tear it right off your back,” says Johanna.

I bet you did, I think. With a few inches of my flesh.

While we wait for the elevators, Johanna unzips the rest of her tree, letting it drop to the floor, and then kicks it away in disgust. Except for her forest green slippers, she doesn’t have on a stitch of clothing. “That’s better.”

We end up on the same elevator with her, and she spends the whole ride to the seventh floor chatting to Peeta about his paintings while the light of his still-glowing costume reflects off her bare breasts. When she leaves, I ignore him, but I just know he’s grinning. I toss aside his hand as the doors close behind Chaff and Seeder, leaving us alone, and he breaks out laughing.

“What?” I say, turning on him as we step out on our floor.

“It’s you, Katniss. Can’t you see?” he says. “What’s me?” I say.

“Why they’re all acting like this. Finnick with his sugar cubes and Chaff kissing you and that whole thing with Johanna stripping down.” He tries to take on a more serious tone, unsuccessfully. “They’re playing with you because you’re so … you know.”

“No, I don’t know,” I say. And I really have no idea what he’s talking about.

“It’s like when you wouldn’t look at me naked in the arena even though I was half dead. You’re so … pure,” he says finally.

“I am not!” I say. “I’ve been practically ripping your clothes off every time there’s been a camera for the last year!”

“Yeah, but … I mean, for the Capitol, you’re pure,” he says, clearly trying to mollify me. “For me, you’re perfect. They’re just teasing you.”

“No, they’re laughing at me, and so are you!” I say.

“No.” Peeta shakes his head, but he’s still suppressing a smile. I’m seriously rethinking the question of who should get out of these Games alive when the other elevator opens.

Haymitch and Effie join us, looking pleased about something. Then Haymitch’s face grows hard.

What did I do now? I almost say, but I see he’s staring behind me at the entrance to the dining room.

Effie blinks in the same direction, then says brightly, “Looks like they’ve got you a matched set this year.”

I turn around and find the redheaded Avox girl who tended to me last year until the Games began. I think how nice it is to have a friend here. I notice that the young man beside her, another Avox, also has red hair. That must be what Effie meant by a matched set.

Then a chill runs through me. Because I know him, too. Not from the Capitol but from years of having easy conversations in the Hob, joking over Greasy Sae’s soup, and that last day watching him lie unconscious in the square while the life bled out of Gale.

Our new Avox is Darius.

Haymitch grips my wrist as if anticipating my next move, but I am as speechless as the Capitol’s torturers have rendered Darius. Haymitch once told me they did something to Avoxes’ tongues so they could never talk again. In my head I hear Darius’s voice, playful and bright, ringing across the Hob to tease me. Not as my fellow victors make fun of me now, but because we genuinely liked each other. If Gale could see him …

I know any move I would make toward Darius, any act of recognition, would only result in punishment for him. So we just stare into each other’s eyes. Darius, now a mute slave; me, now headed to death. What would we say, anyway? That we’re sorry for the other’s lot? That we ache for the other’s pain? That we’re glad we had the chance to know each other?

No, Darius shouldn’t be glad he knew me. If I had been there to stop Thread, he wouldn’t have stepped forward to save Gale. Wouldn’t be an Avox. And more specifically, wouldn’t be my Avox, because President Snow has so obviously had him placed here for my benefit.

I twist my wrist from Haymitch’s grasp and head down to my old bedroom, locking the door behind me. I sit on the side of my bed, elbows on my knees, forehead on my fists, and watch my glowing suit in the darkness, imagining I am in my old home in District 12, huddled beside the fire. It slowly fades back to black as the power pack dies out.

When Effie eventually knocks on the door to summon me to dinner, I get up and take off my suit, fold it neatly, and set it on the table with my crown. In the bathroom, I wash the dark streaks of makeup from my face. I dress in a simple shirt and pants and go down the hall to the dining room.

I’m not aware of much at dinner except that Darius and the redheaded Avox girl are our servers. Effie, Haymitch, Cinna, Portia, and Peeta are all there, talking about the opening ceremonies, I suppose. But the only time I really feel present is when I purposely knock a dish of peas to the floor and, before anyone can stop me, crouch down to clean them up. Darius is right by me when I send the dish over, and we two are briefly side by side, obscured from view, as we scoop up the peas. For just one moment our hands meet. I can feel his skin, rough under the buttery sauce from the dish. In the tight, desperate clench of our fingers are all the words we will never be able to say. Then Effie’s clucking at me from behind about how “That isn’t your job, Katniss!” and he lets go.

When we go in to watch the recap of the opening ceremonies, I wedge myself in between Cinna and Haymitch on the couch because I don’t want to be next to Peeta. This awfulness with Darius belongs to me and Gale and maybe even Haymitch, but not to Peeta. He might’ve known Darius to nod hello, but Peeta wasn’t Hob the way the rest of us were. Besides, I’m still angry with him for laughing at me along with the other victors, and the last thing I want is his sympathy and comfort. I haven’t changed my mind about saving him in the arena, but I don’t owe him more than that.

As I watch the procession to the City Circle, I think how it’s bad enough that they dress us all up in costumes and parade us through the streets in chariots on a regular year. Kids in costumes are silly, but aging victors, it turns out, are pitiful. A few who are on the younger side, like Johanna and Finnick, or whose bodies haven’t fallen into disrepair, like Seeder and Brutus, can still manage to maintain a little dignity. But the majority, who are in the clutches of drink or morphling or illness, look grotesque in their costumes, depicting cows and trees and loaves of bread. Last year we chattered away about each contestant, but tonight there’s only the occasional comment. Small wonder the crowd goes wild when Peeta and I appear, looking so young and strong and beautiful in our brilliant costumes. The very image of what tributes should be.

As soon as it’s over, I stand up and thank Cinna and Portia for their amazing work and head off to bed. Effie calls a reminder to meet early for breakfast to work out our training strategy, but even her voice sounds hollow. Poor Effie. She finally had a decent year in the Games with Peeta and me, and now it’s all broken down into a mess that even she can’t put a positive spin on. In Capitol terms, I’m guessing this counts as a true tragedy.

Soon after I go to bed, there’s a quiet knock on my door, but I ignore it. I don’t want Peeta tonight. Especially not with Darius around. It’s almost as bad as if Gale were here. Gale. How am I supposed to let him go with Darius haunting the hallways?

Tongues figure prominently in my nightmares. First I watch frozen and helpless while gloved hands carry out the bloody dissection in Darius’s mouth. Then I’m at a party where everyone wears masks and someone with a flicking, wet tongue, who I suppose is Finnick, stalks me, but when he catches me and pulls off his mask, it’s President Snow, and his puffy lips are dripping in bloody saliva. Finally I’m back in the arena, my own tongue as dry as sandpaper, while I try to reach a pool of water that recedes every time I’m about to touch it.

When I wake, I stumble to the bathroom and gulp water from the faucet until I can hold no more. I strip off my sweaty clothes and fall back into bed, naked, and somehow find sleep again.

I delay going down to breakfast as long as possible the next morning because I really don’t want to discuss our training strategy. What’s to discuss? Every victor already knows what everybody else can do. Or used to be able to do, anyway. So Peeta and I will continue to act in love and that’s that. Somehow I’m just not up to talking about it, especially with Darius standing mutely by. I take a long shower, dress slowly in the outfit Cinna has left for training, and order food from the menu in my room by speaking into a mouthpiece. In a minute, sausage, eggs, potatoes, bread, juice, and hot chocolate appear. I eat my fill, trying to drag out the minutes until ten o’clock, when we have to go down to the Training Center. By nine-thirty, Haymitch is pounding on my door, obviously fed up with me, ordering me to the dining room NOW! Still, I brush my teeth before meandering down the hall, effectively killing another five minutes.

The dining room’s empty except for Peeta and Haymitch, whose face is flushed with drink and anger. On his wrist he wears a solid-gold bangle with a pattern of flames — this must be his concession to Effie’s matching-token plan — that he twists unhappily. It’s a very handsome bangle, really, but the movement makes it seem like something confining, a shackle, rather than a piece of jewelry. “You’re late,” he snarls at me.

“Sorry. I slept in after the mutilated-tongue nightmares kept me up half the night.” I mean to sound hostile, but my voice catches at the end of the sentence.

Haymitch gives me a scowl, then relents. “All right, never mind. Today, in training, you’ve got two jobs. One, stay in love.”

“Obviously,” I say.

“And two, make some friends,” says Haymitch. “No,” I say. “I don’t trust any of them, I can’t stand most of them, and I’d rather operate with just the two of us.” “That’s what I said at first, but—” Peeta begins.

“But it won’t be enough,” Haymitch insists. “You’re going to need more allies this time around.”

“Why?” I ask.

“Because you’re at a distinct disadvantage. Your competitors have known each other for years. So who do you think they’re going to target first?” he says.

“Us. And nothing we’re going to do is going to override any old friendship,” I say. “So why bother?”

“Because you can fight. You’re popular with the crowd. That could still make you desirable allies. But only if you let the others know you’re willing to team up with them,” says Haymitch.

“You mean you want us in the Career pack this year?” I ask, unable to hide my distaste. Traditionally the tributes from Districts 1, 2, and 4 join forces, possibly taking in a few other exceptional fighters, and hunt down the weaker competitors.

“That’s been our strategy, hasn’t it? To train like Careers?” counters Haymitch. “And who makes up the Career pack is generally agreed upon before the Games begin. Peeta barely got in with them last year.”

I think of the loathing I felt when I discovered Peeta was with the Careers during the last Games. “So we’re to try to get in with Finnick and Brutus — is that what you’re saying?”

“Not necessarily. Everyone’s a victor. Make your own pack if you’d rather. Choose who you like. I’d suggest Chaff and Seeder. Although Finnick’s not to be ignored,” says Haymitch. “Find someone to team up with who might be of some use to you. Remember, you’re not in a ring full of trembling children anymore. These people are all experienced killers, no matter what shape they appear to be in.”

Maybe he’s right. Only who could I trust? Seeder maybe. But do I really want to make a pact with her, only to possibly have to kill her later? No. Still, I made a pact with Rue under the same circumstances. I tell Haymitch I’ll try, even though I think I’ll be pretty bad at the whole thing.

Effie shows up a bit early to take us down because last year, even though we were on time, we were the last two tributes to show up. But Haymitch tells her he doesn’t want her taking us down to the gym. None of the other victors will be showing up with a babysitter, and being the youngest, it’s even more important we look self-reliant. So she has to satisfy herself with taking us to the elevator, fussing over our hair, and pushing the button for us.

It’s such a short ride that there’s no real time for conversation, but when Peeta takes my hand, I don’t pull it away. I may have ignored him last night in private, but in training we must appear as an inseparable team.

Effie needn’t have worried about us being the last to arrive. Only Brutus and the woman from District 2, Enobaria, are present. Enobaria looks to be about thirty and all I can remember about her is that, in hand-to-hand combat, she killed one tribute by ripping open his throat with her teeth. She became so famous for this act that, after she was a victor, she had her teeth cosmetically altered so each one ends in a sharp point like a fang and is inlaid with gold.

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