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We gather around the television set and a red-eyed Effie rejoins us. The tributes’ faces come up, district by district, and their scores flash under their pictures. One through twelve. Predictably high scores for Cashmere, Gloss, Brutus, Enobaria, and Finnick. Low to medium for the rest.

“Have they ever given a zero?” I ask.

“No, but there’s a first time for everything,” Cinna answers.

And it turns out he’s right. Because when Peeta and I each pull a twelve, we make Hunger Games history. No one feels like celebrating, though.

“Why did they do that?” I ask.

“So that the others will have no choice but to target you,” says Haymitch flatly. “Go to bed. I can’t stand to look at either one of you.”

Peeta walks me down to my room in silence, but before he can say good night, I wrap my arms around him and rest my head against his chest. His hands slide up my back and his cheek leans against my hair. “I’m sorry if I made things worse,” I say.

“No worse than I did. Why did you do it, anyway?” he says.

“I don’t know. To show them that I’m more than just a piece in their Games?” I say.

He laughs a little, no doubt remembering the night before the Games last year. We were on the roof, neither of us able to sleep. Peeta had said something of the sort then, but I hadn’t understood what he meant. Now I do.

“Me, too,” he tells me. “And I’m not saying I’m not going to try. To get you home, I mean. But if I’m perfectly honest about it …”

“If you’re perfectly honest about it, you think President Snow has probably given them direct orders to make sure we die in the arena anyway,” I say.

“It’s crossed my mind,” says Peeta.

It’s crossed my mind, too. Repeatedly. But while I know I’ll never leave that arena alive, I’m still holding on to the hope that Peeta will. After all, he didn’t pull out those berries, I did. No one has ever doubted that Peeta’s defiance was motivated by love. So maybe President Snow will prefer keeping him alive, crushed and heartbroken, as a living warning to others.

“But even if that happens, everyone will know we’ve gone out fighting, right?” Peeta asks.

“Everyone will,” I reply. And for the first time, I distance myself from the personal tragedy that has consumed me since they announced the Quell. I remember the old man they shot in District 11, and Bonnie and Twill, and the rumored uprisings. Yes, everyone in the districts will be watching me to see how I handle this death sentence, this final act of President Snow’s dominance. They will be looking for some sign that their battles have not been in vain. If I can make it clear that I’m still defying the Capitol right up to the end, the Capitol will have killed me … but not my spirit. What better way to give hope to the rebels?

The beauty of this idea is that my decision to keep Peeta alive at the expense of my own life is itself an act of defiance. A refusal to play the Hunger Games by the Capitol’s rules. My private agenda dovetails completely with my public one. And if I really could save Peeta … in terms of a revolution, this would be ideal. Because I will be more valuable dead. They can turn me into some kind of martyr for the cause and paint my face on banners, and it will do more to rally people than anything I could do if I was living. But Peeta would be more valuable alive, and tragic, because he will be able to turn his pain into words that will transform people.

Peeta would lose it if he knew I was thinking any of this, so I only say, “So what should we do with our last few days?”

“I just want to spend every possible minute of the rest of my life with you,” Peeta replies.

“Come on, then,” I say, pulling him into my room.

It feels like such a luxury, sleeping with Peeta again. I didn’t realize until now how starved I’ve been for human closeness. For the feel of him beside me in the darkness. I wish I hadn’t wasted the last couple of nights shutting him out. I sink down into sleep, enveloped in his warmth, and when I open my eyes again, daylight’s streaming through the windows.

“No nightmares,” he says.

“No nightmares,” I confirm. “You?”

“None. I’d forgotten what a real night’s sleep feels like,” he says.

We lie there for a while, in no rush to begin the day. Tomorrow night will be the televised interview, so today Effie and Haymitch should be coaching us. More high heels and sarcastic comments, I think. But then the redheaded Avox girl comes in with a note from Effie saying that, given our recent tour, both she and Haymitch have agreed we can handle ourselves adequately in public. The coaching sessions have been canceled.

“Really?” says Peeta, taking the note from my hand and examining it. “Do you know what this means? We’ll have the whole day to ourselves.”

“It’s too bad we can’t go somewhere,” I say wistfully.

“Who says we can’t?” he asks.

The roof. We order a bunch of food, grab some blankets, and head up to the roof for a picnic. A daylong picnic in the flower garden that tinkles with wind chimes. We eat. We lie in the sun. I snap off hanging vines and use my newfound knowledge from training to practice knots and weave nets. Peeta sketches me. We make up a game with the force field that surrounds the roof—one of us throws an apple into it and the other person has to catch it.

No one bothers us. By late afternoon, I lie with my head on Peeta’s lap, making a crown of flowers while he fiddles with my hair, claiming he’s practicing his knots. After a while, his hands go still. “What?” I ask.

“I wish I could freeze this moment, right here, right now, and live in it forever,” he says.

Usually this sort of comment, the kind that hints of his undying love for me, makes me feel guilty and awful. But I feel so warm and relaxed and beyond worrying about a future I’ll never have, I just let the word slip out. “Okay.”

I can hear the smile in his voice. “Then you’ll allow it?”

“I’ll allow it,” I say.

His fingers go back to my hair and I doze off, but he rouses me to see the sunset. It’s a spectacular yellow and orange blaze behind the skyline of the Capitol. “I didn’t think you’d want to miss it,” he says.

“Thanks,” I say. Because I can count on my fingers the number of sunsets I have left, and I don’t want to miss any of them.

We don’t go and join the others for dinner, and no one summons us.

“I’m glad. I’m tired of making everyone around me so miserable,” says Peeta. “Everybody crying. Or Haymitch …” He doesn’t need to go on.

We stay on the roof until bedtime and then quietly slip down to my room without encountering anyone.

The next morning, we’re roused by my prep team. The sight of Peeta and me sleeping together is too much for Octavia, because she bursts into tears right away. “You remember what Cinna told us,” Venia says fiercely. Octavia nods and goes out sobbing.

Peeta has to return to his room for prep, and I’m left alone with Venia and Flavius. The usual chatter has been suspended. In fact, there’s little talk at all, other than to have me raise my chin or comment on a makeup technique. It’s nearly lunch when I feel something dripping on my shoulder and turn to find Flavius, who’s snipping away at my hair with silent tears running down his face. Venia gives him a look, and he gently sets the scissors on the table and leaves.

Then it’s just Venia, whose skin is so pale her tattoos appear to be leaping off it. Almost rigid with determination, she does my hair and nails and makeup, fingers flying swiftly to compensate for her absent teammates. The whole time, she avoids my gaze. It’s only when Cinna shows up to approve me and dismiss her that she takes my hands, looks me straight in the eye, and says, “We would all like you to know what a … privilege it has been to make you look your best.” Then she hastens from the room.

My prep team. My foolish, shallow, affectionate pets, with their obsessions with feathers and parties, nearly break my heart with their good-bye. It’s certain from Venia’s last words that we all know I won’t be returning. Does the whole world know it? I wonder. I look at Cinna. He knows, certainly. But as he promised, there’s no danger of tears from him.

“So, what am I wearing tonight?” I ask, eyeing the garment bag that holds my dress.

“President Snow put in the dress order himself,” says Cinna. He unzips the bag, revealing one of the wedding dresses I wore for the photo shoot. Heavy white silk with a low neckline and tight waist and sleeves that fall from my wrists to the floor. And pearls. Everywhere pearls. Stitched into the dress and in ropes at my throat and forming the crown for the veil. “Even though they announced the Quarter Quell the night of the photo shoot, people Still voted for their favorite dress, and this was the winner. The president says you’re to wear it tonight. Our objections were ignored.”

I rub a bit of the silk between my fingers, trying to figure out President Snow’s reasoning. I suppose since I was the greatest offender, my pain and loss and humiliation should be in the brightest spotlight. This, he thinks, will make that clear. It’s so barbaric, the president turning my bridal gown into my shroud, that the blow strikes home, leaving me with a dull ache inside. “Well, it’d be a shame to waste such a pretty dress” is all I say.

Cinna helps me carefully into the gown. As it settles on my shoulders, they can’t help giving a shrug of complaint. “Was it always this heavy?” I ask. I remember several of the dresses being dense, but this one feels like it weighs a ton.

“I had to make some slight alterations because of the lighting,” says Cinna. I nod, but I can’t see what that has to do with anything. He decks me out in the shoes and the pearl jewelry and the veil. Touches up my makeup. Has me walk.

“You’re ravishing,” he says. “Now, Katniss, because this bodice is so fitted, I don’t want you raising your arms above your head. Well, not until you twirl, anyway.”

“Will I be twirling again?” I ask, thinking of my dress last year.

“I’m sure Caesar will ask you. And if he doesn’t, you suggest it yourself. Only not right away. Save it for your big finale,” Cinna instructs me.

“You give me a signal so I know when,” I say.

“All right. Any plans for your interview? I know Haymitch left you two to your own devices,” he says.

“No, this year I’m just winging it. The funny thing is, I’m not nervous at all.” And I’m not. However much President Snow may hate me, this Capitol audience is mine.

We meet up with Effie, Haymitch, Portia, and Peeta at the elevator. Peeta’s in an elegant tuxedo and white gloves. The sort of thing grooms wear to get married in, here in the Capitol.

Back home everything is so much simpler. A woman usually rents a white dress that’s been worn hundreds of times. The man wears something clean that’s not mining clothes. They fill out some forms at the Justice Building and are assigned a house. Family and friends gather for a meal or bit of cake, if it can be afforded. Even if it can’t, there’s always a traditional song we sing as the new couple crosses the threshold of their home. And we have our own little ceremony, where they make their first fire, toast a bit of bread, and share it. Maybe it’s old-fashioned, but no one really feels married in District 12 until after the toasting.

The other tributes have already gathered offstage and are talking softly, but when Peeta and I arrive, they fall silent. I realize everyone’s staring daggers at my wedding dress. Are they jealous of its beauty? The power it might have to manipulate the crowd?

Finally Finnick says, “I can’t believe Cinna put you in that thing.”

“He didn’t have any choice. President Snow made him,” I say, somewhat defensively. I won’t let anyone criticize Cinna.

Cashmere tosses her flowing blond curls back and spits out, “Well, you look ridiculous!” She grabs her brother’s hand and pulls him into place to lead our procession onto the stage. The other tributes begin to line up as well. I’m confused because, while they all are angry, some are giving us sympathetic pats on the shoulder, and Johanna Mason actually stops to straighten my pearl necklace.

“Make him pay for it, okay?” she says.

I nod, but I don’t know what she means. Not until we’re all sitting out onstage and Caesar Flickerman, hair and face highlighted in lavender this year, has done his opening spiel and the tributes begin their interviews. This is the first time I realize the depth of betrayal felt among the victors and the rage that accompanies it. But they are so smart, so wonderfully smart about how they play it, because it all comes back to reflect on the government and President Snow in particular. Not everyone. There are the old throwbacks, like Brutus and Enobaria, who are just here for another Games, and those too baffled or drugged or lost to join in on the attack. But there are enough victors who still have the wits and the nerve to come out fighting.

Cashmere starts the ball rolling with a speech about how she just can’t stop crying when she thinks of how much the people in the Capitol must be suffering because they will lose us. Gloss recalls the kindness shown here to him and his sister. Beetee questions the legality of the Quell in his nervous, twitchy way, wondering if it’s been fully examined by experts of late. Finnick recites a poem he wrote to his one true love in the Capitol, and about a hundred people faint because they’re sure he means them. By the time Johanna Mason gets up, she’s asking if something can’t be done about the situation. Surely the creators of the Quarter Quell never anticipated such love forming between the victors and the Capitol. No one could be so cruel as to sever such a deep bond. Seeder quietly ruminates about how, back in District 11, everyone assumes President Snow is all-powerful. So if he’s all-powerful, why doesn’t he change the Quell? And Chaff, who comes right on her heels, insists the president could change the Quell if he wanted to, but he must not think it matters much to anyone.

By the time I’m introduced, the audience is an absolute wreck. People have been weeping and collapsing and even calling for change. The sight of me in my white silk bridal gown practically causes a riot. No more me, no more star-crossed lovers living happily ever after, no more wedding. I can see even Caesar’s professionalism showing some cracks as he tries to quiet them so I can speak, but my three minutes are ticking quickly away.

Finally there’s a lull and he gets out, “So, Katniss, obviously this is a very emotional night for everyone. Is there anything you’d like to say?”

My voice trembles as I speak. “Only that I’m so sorry you won’t get to be at my wedding … but I’m glad you at least get to see me in my dress. Isn’t it just … the most beautiful thing?” I don’t have to look at Cinna for a signal. I know this is the right time. I begin to twirl slowly, raising the sleeves of my heavy gown above my head.

When I hear the screams of the crowd, I think it’s because I must look stunning. Then I notice something is rising up around me. Smoke. From fire. Not the flickery stuff I wore last year in the chariot, but something much more real that devours my dress. I begin to panic as the smoke thickens. Charred bits of black silk swirl into the air, and pearls clatter to the stage. Somehow I’m afraid to stop because my flesh doesn’t seem to be burning and I know Cinna must be behind whatever is happening. So I keep spinning and spinning. For a split second I’m gasping, completely engulfed in the strange flames. Then all at once, the fire is gone. I slowly come to a stop, wondering if I’m naked and why Cinna has arranged to burn away my wedding dress.

But I’m not naked. I’m in a dress of the exact design of my wedding dress, only it’s the color of coal and made of tiny feathers. Wonderingly, I lift my long, flowing sleeves into the air, and that’s when I see myself on the television screen. Clothed in black except for the white patches on my sleeves. Or should I say my wings.

Because Cinna has turned me into a mockingjay.

I’m still smoldering a little, so it’s with a tentative hand that Caesar reaches out to touch my headpiece. The white has burned away, leaving a smooth, fitted veil of black that drapes into the neckline of the dress in the back. “Feathers,” says Caesar. “You’re like a bird.”

“A mockingjay, I think,” I say, giving my wings a small flap. “It’s the bird on the pin I wear as a token.”

A shadow of recognition flickers across Caesar’s face, and I can tell he knows that the mockingjay isn’t just my token. That it’s come to symbolize so much more. That what will be seen as a flashy costume change in the Capitol is resonating in an entirely different way throughout the districts. But he makes the best of it.

“Well, hats off to your stylist. I don’t think anyone can argue that that’s not the most spectacular thing we’ve ever seen in an interview. Cinna, I think you better take a bow!” Caesar gestures for Cinna to rise. He does, and makes a small, gracious bow. And suddenly I am so afraid for him. What has he done? Something terribly dangerous. An act of rebellion in itself. And he’s done it for me. I remember his words …

“Don’t worry. I always channel my emotions into my work. That way I don’t hurt anyone but myself.”

… and I’m afraid he has hurt himself beyond repair. The significance of my fiery transformation will not be lost on President Snow.

The audience, who’s been stunned into silence, breaks into wild applause. I can barely hear the buzzer that indicates that my three minutes are up. Caesar thanks me and I go back to my seat, my dress now feeling lighter than air.

As I pass Peeta, who’s headed for his interview, he doesn’t meet my eyes. I take my seat carefully, but aside from the puffs of smoke here and there, I seem unharmed, so I turn my attention to him.

Caesar and Peeta have been a natural team since they first appeared together a year ago. Their easy give-and-take, comic timing, and ability to segue into heart-wrenching moments, like Peeta’s confession of love for me, have made them a huge success with the audience. They effortlessly open with a few jokes about fires and feathers and overcooking poultry. But anyone can see that Peeta is preoccupied, so Caesar directs the conversation right into the subject that’s on everyone’s minds.

“So, Peeta, what was it like when, after all you’ve been through, you found out about the Quell?” asks Caesar.

“I was in shock. I mean, one minute I’m seeing Katniss looking so beautiful in all these wedding gowns, and the next …” Peeta trails off.

“You realized there was never going to be a wedding?” asks Caesar gently.

Peeta pauses for a long moment, as if deciding something. He looks out at the spellbound audience, then at tin floor, then finally up at Caesar. “Caesar, do you think all our friends here can keep a secret?”

An uncomfortable laugh emanates from the audience. What can he mean? Keep a secret from who? Our whole world is watching.

“I feel quite certain of it,” says Caesar.

“We’re already married,” says Peeta quietly. The crowd reacts in astonishment, and I have to bury my face in the folds of my skirt so they can’t see my confusion. Where on earth is he going with this?

“But … how can that be?” asks Caesar.

“Oh, it’s not an official marriage. We didn’t go to the Justice Building or anything. But we have this marriage ritual in District Twelve. I don’t know what it’s like in the other districts. But there’s this thing we do,” says Peeta, and he briefly describes the toasting.

“Were your families there?” asks Caesar.

“No, we didn’t tell anyone. Not even Haymitch. And Katniss’s mother would never have approved. But you see, we knew if we were married in the Capitol, there wouldn’t be a toasting. And neither of us really wanted to wait any longer. So one day, we just did it,” Peeta says. “And to us, we’re more married than any piece of paper or big party could make us.”

“So this was before the Quell?” says Caesar.

“Of course before the Quell. I’m sure we’d never have done it after we knew,” says Peeta, starting to get upset. “But who could’ve seen it coming? No one. We went through the Games, we were victors, everyone seemed so thrilled to see us together, and then out of nowhere—I mean, how could we anticipate a thing like that?”

“You couldn’t, Peeta.” Caesar puts an arm around his shoulders. “As you say, no one could’ve. But I have to confess, I’m glad you two had at least a few months of happiness together.”

Enormous applause. As if encouraged, I look up from my feathers and let the audience see my tragic smile of thanks. The residual smoke from the feathers has made my eyes teary, which adds a very nice touch.

“I’m not glad,” says Peeta. “I wish we had waited until the whole thing was done officially.”

This takes even Caesar aback. “Surely even a brief time is better than no time?”

“Maybe I’d think that, too, Caesar,” says Peeta bitterly, “if it weren’t for the baby.”

There. He’s done it again. Dropped a bomb that wipes out the efforts of every tribute who came before him. Well, maybe not. Maybe this year he has only lit the fuse on a bomb that the victors themselves have been building. Hoping someone would be able to detonate it. Perhaps thinking it would be me in my bridal gown. Not knowing how much I rely on Cinna’s talents, whereas Peeta needs nothing more than his wits.

As the bomb explodes, it sends accusations of injustice and barbarism and cruelty flying out in every direction. Even the most Capitol-loving, Games-hungry, bloodthirsty person out there can’t ignore, at least for a moment, how horrific the whole thing is.

I am pregnant.

The audience can’t absorb the news right away. It has to strike them and sink in and be confirmed by other voices before they begin to sound like a herd of wounded animals, moaning, shrieking, calling for help. And me? I know my face is projected in a tight close-up on the screen, but I don’t make any effort to hide it. Because for a moment, even I am working through what Peeta has said. Isn’t it the thing I dreaded most about the wedding, about the future—the loss of my children to the Games? And it could be true now, couldn’t it? If I hadn’t spent my life building up layers of defenses until I recoil at even the suggestion of marriage or a family?

Caesar can’t rein in the crowd again, not even when the buzzer sounds. Peeta nods his good-bye and comes back to his seat without any more conversation. I can see Caesar’s lips moving, but the place is in total chaos and I can’t hear a word. Only the blast of the anthem, cranked up so loud I can feel it vibrating through my bones, lets us know where we stand in the program. I automatically rise and, as I do, I sense Peeta reaching out for me. Tears run down his face as I take his hand. How real are the tears? Is this an acknowledgment that he has been stalked by the same fears that I have? That every victor has? Every parent in every district in Panem?

I look back to the crowd, but the faces of Rue’s mother and father swim before my eyes. Their sorrow. Their loss. I turn spontaneously to Chaff and offer my hand. I feel my fingers close around the stump that now completes his arm and hold fast.

And then it happens. Up and down the row, the victors begin to join hands.

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