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Effie looks so distressed that I spontaneously give her a hug. “That’s awful, Effie. Maybe we shouldn’t go to the dinner at all. At least until they’ve apologized.” I know she’ll never agree to this, but she brightens considerably at the suggestion, at the validation of her complaint.

“No, I’ll manage. It’s part of my job to weather the ups and downs. And we can’t let you two miss your dinner,” she says. “But thank you for the offer, Katniss.”

Effie arranges us in formation for our entrance. First the prep teams, then her, the stylists, Haymitch. Peeta and I, of course, bring up the rear.

Somewhere below, musicians begin to play. As the first wave of our little procession begins down the steps, Peeta and I join hands.

“Haymitch says I was wrong to yell at you. You were only operating under his instructions,” says Peeta. “And it isn’t as if I haven’t kept things from you in the past.”

I remember the shock of hearing Peeta confess his love for me in front of all of Panem. Haymitch had known about that and not told me. “I think I broke a few things myself after that interview.”

“Just an urn,” he says.

“And your hands. There’s no point to it anymore, though, is there? Not being straight with each other?” I say.

“No point,” says Peeta. We stand at the top of the stairs, giving Haymitch a fifteen-step lead as Effie directed. “Was that really the only time you kissed Gale?”

I’m so startled I answer. “Yes.” With all that has happened today, has that question actually been preying on him?

“That’s fifteen. Let’s do it,” he says.

A light hits us, and I put on the most dazzling smile I can.

We descend the steps and are sucked into what becomes an indistinguishable round of dinners, ceremonies, and train rides. Each day it’s the same. Wake up. Get dressed. Ride through cheering crowds. Listen to a speech in our honor. Give a thank-you speech in return, but only the one the Capitol gave us, never any personal additions now. Sometimes a brief tour: a glimpse of the sea in one district, towering forests in another, ugly factories, fields of wheat, stinking refineries. Dress in evening clothes. Attend dinner. Train.

During ceremonies, we are solemn and respectful but always linked together, by our hands, our arms. At dinners, we are borderline delirious in our love for each other. We kiss, we dance, we get caught trying to sneak away to be alone. On the train, we are quietly miserable as we try to assess what effect we might be having.

Even without our personal speeches to trigger dissent— needless to say the ones we gave in District 11 were edited out before the event was broadcast—you can feel something in the air, the rolling boil of a pot about to run over. Not everywhere. Some crowds have the weary-cattle feel that I know District 12 usually projects at the victors’ ceremonies. But in others — particularly 8, 4, and 3 — there is genuine elation in the faces of the people at the sight of us, and under the elation, fury. When they chant my name, it is more of a cry for vengeance than a cheer. When the Peacekeepers move in to quiet an unruly crowd, it presses back instead of retreating. And I know that there’s nothing I could ever do to change this. No show of love, however believable, will turn this tide. If my holding out those berries was an act of temporary insanity, then these people will embrace insanity, too.

Cinna begins to take in my clothes around the waist. The prep team frets over the circles under my eyes. Effie starts giving me pills to sleep, but they don’t work. Not well enough. I drift off only to be roused by nightmares that have increased in number and intensity. Peeta, who spends much of the night roaming the train, hears me screaming as I struggle to break out of the haze of drugs that merely prolong the horrible dreams. He manages to wake me and calm me down. Then he climbs into bed to hold me until I fall back to sleep. After that, I refuse the pills. But every night I let him into my bed. We manage the darkness as we did in the arena, wrapped in each other’s arms, guarding against dangers that can descend at any moment. Nothing else happens, but our arrangement quickly becomes a subject of gossip on the train.

When Effie brings it up to me, I think, Good. Maybe it will get back to President Snow. I tell her we’ll make an effort to be more discreet, but we don’t.

The back-to-back appearances in 2 and 1 are their own special kind of awful. Cato and Clove, the tributes from District 2, might have both made it home if Peeta and I hadn’t. I personally killed the girl, Glimmer, and the boy from District 1. As I try to avoid looking at his family, I learn that his name was Marvel. How did I never know that? I suppose that before the Games I didn’t pay attention, and afterward I didn’t want to know.

By the time we reach the Capitol, we are desperate. We make endless appearances to adoring crowds. There is no danger of an uprising here among the privileged, among those whose names are never placed in the reaping balls, whose children never die for the supposed crimes committed generations ago. We don’t need to convince anybody in the Capitol of our love but hold to the slim hope that we can still reach some of those we failed to convince in the districts. Whatever we do seems too little, too late.

Back in our old quarters in the Training Center, I’m the one who suggests the public marriage proposal. Peeta agrees to do it but then disappears to his room for a long time. Haymitch tells me to leave him alone.

“I thought he wanted it, anyway,” I say.

“Not like this,” Haymitch says. “He wanted it to be real.”

I go back to my room and lie under the covers, trying not to think of Gale and thinking of nothing else.

That night, on the stage before the Training Center, we bubble our way through a list of questions. Caesar Flickerman, in his twinkling midnight blue suit, his hair, eyelids, and lips still dyed powder blue, flawlessly guides us through the interview. When he asks us about the future, Peeta gets down on one knee, pours out his heart, and begs me to marry him. I, of course, accept. Caesar is beside himself, the Capitol audience is hysterical, shots of crowds around Panem show a country besotted with happiness.

President Snow himself makes a surprise visit to congratulate us. He clasps Peeta’s hand and gives him an approving slap on the shoulder. He embraces me, enfolding me in the smell of blood and roses, and plants a puffy kiss on my cheek. When he pulls back, his fingers digging into my arms, his face smiling into mine, I dare to raise my eyebrows. They ask what my lips can’t. Did I do it? Was it enough? Was giving everything over to you, keeping up the game, promising to marry Peeta enough?

In answer, he gives an almost imperceptible shake of his head.

In that one slight motion, I see the end of hope, the beginning of the destruction of everything I hold dear in the world. I can’t guess what form my punishment will take, how wide the net will be cast, but when it is finished, there will most likely be nothing left. So you would think that at this moment, I would be in utter despair. Here’s what’s strange. The main thing I feel is a sense of relief. That I can give up this game. That the question of whether I can succeed in this venture has been answered, even if that answer is a resounding no. That if desperate times call for desperate measures, then I am free to act as desperately as I wish.

Only not here, not quite yet. It’s essential to get back to District 12, because the main part of any plan will include my mother and sister, Gale and his family. And Peeta, if I can get him to come with us. I add Haymitch to the list. These are the people I must take with me when I escape into the wild. How I will convince them, where we will go in the dead of winter, what it will take to evade capture are unanswered questions. But at least now I know what I must do.

So instead of crumpling to the ground and weeping, I find myself standing up straighter and with more confidence than I have in weeks. My smile, while somewhat insane, is not forced. And when President Snow silences the audience and says, “What do you think about us throwing them a wedding right here in the Capitol?” I pull off girl-almost-catatonic-with-joy without a hitch.

Caesar Flickerman asks if the president has a date in mind.

“Oh, before we set a date, we better clear it with Katniss’s mother,” says the president. The audience gives a big laugh and the president puts his arm around me. “Maybe if the whole country puts its mind to it, we can get you married before you’re thirty.”

“You’ll probably have to pass a new law,” I say with a giggle.

“If that’s what it takes,” says the president with conspiratorial good humor.

Oh, the fun we two have together.

The party, held in the banquet room of President Snow’s mansion, has no equal. The forty-foot ceiling has been transformed into the night sky, and the stars look exactly as they do at home. I suppose they look the same from the Capitol, but who would know? There’s always too much light from the city to see the stars here. About halfway between the floor and the ceiling, musicians float on what look like fluffy white clouds, but I can’t see what holds them aloft. Traditional dining tables have been replaced by innumerable stuffed sofas and chairs, some surrounding fireplaces, others beside fragrant flower gardens or ponds filled with exotic fish, so that people can eat and drink and do whatever they please in the utmost comfort. There’s a large tiled area in the center of the room that serves as everything from a dance floor, to a stage for the performers who come and go, to another spot to mingle with the flamboyantly dressed guests.

But the real star of the evening is the food. Tables laden with delicacies line the walls. Everything you can think of, and things you have never dreamed of, lie in wait. Whole roasted cows and pigs and goats still turning on spits. Huge platters of fowl stuffed with savory fruits and nuts. Ocean creatures drizzled in sauces or begging to be dipped in spicy concoctions. Countless cheeses, breads, vegetables, sweets, waterfalls of wine, and streams of spirits that flicker with flames.

My appetite has returned with my’ desire to fight back. After weeks of feeling too worried to eat, I’m famished.

“I want to taste everything in the room,” I tell Peeta.

I can see him trying to read my expression, to figure out my transformation. Since he doesn’t know that President Snow thinks I have failed, he can only assume that I think we have succeeded. Perhaps even that I have some genuine happiness at our engagement. His eyes reflect his puzzlement but only briefly, because we’re on camera. “Then you’d better pace yourself,” he says.

“Okay, no more than one bite of each dish,” I say. My resolve is almost immediately broken at the first table, which has twenty or so soups, when I encounter a creamy pumpkin brew sprinkled with slivered nuts and tiny black seeds. “I could just eat this all night!” I exclaim. But I don’t. I weaken again at a clear green broth that I can only describe as tasting like springtime, and again when I try a frothy pink soup dotted with raspberries.

Faces appear, names are exchanged, pictures taken, kisses brushed on cheeks. Apparently my mockingjay pin has spawned a new fashion sensation, because several people come up to show me their accessories. My bird has been replicated on belt buckles, embroidered into silk lapels, even tattooed in intimate places. Everyone wants to wear the winner’s token. I can only imagine how nuts that makes President Snow. But what can he do? The Games were such a hit here, where the berries were only a symbol of a desperate girl trying to save her lover.

Peeta and I make no effort to find company but are constantly sought out. We are what no one wants to miss at the party. I act delighted, but I have zero interest in these Capitol people. They are only distractions from the food.

Every table presents new temptations, and even on my restricted one-taste-per-dish regimen, I begin filling up quickly. I pick up a small roasted bird, bite into it, and my tongue floods with orange sauce. Delicious. But I make Peeta eat the remainder because I want to keep tasting things, and the idea of throwing away food, as I see so many people doing so casually, is abhorrent to me. After about ten tables I’m stuffed, and we’ve only sampled a small number of the dishes available.

Just then my prep team descends on us. They’re nearly incoherent between the alcohol they’ve consumed and their ecstasy at being at such a grand affair.

“Why aren’t you eating?” asks Octavia.

“I have been, but I can’t hold another bite,” I say. They all laugh as if that’s the silliest thing they’ve ever heard.

“No one lets that stop them!” says Flavius. They lead us over to a table that holds tiny stemmed wineglasses filled with clear liquid. “Drink this!”

Peeta picks one up to take a sip and they lose it.

“Not here!” shrieks Octavia.

“You have to do it in there,” says Venia, pointing to doors that lead to the toilets. “Or you’ll get it all over the floor!”

Peeta looks at the glass again and puts it together. “You mean this will make me puke?”

My prep team laughs hysterically. “Of course, so you can keep eating,” says Octavia. “I’ve been in there twice already. Everyone does it, or else how would you have any fun at a feast?”

I’m speechless, staring at the pretty little glasses and all they imply. Peeta sets his back on the table with such precision you’d think it might detonate. “Come on, Katniss, let’s dance.”

Music filters down from the clouds as he leads me away from the team, the table, and out onto the floor. We know only a few dances at home, the kind that go with fiddle and flute music and require a good deal of space. But Effie has shown us some that are popular in the Capitol. The music’s slow and dreamlike, so Peeta pulls me into his arms and we move in a circle with practically no steps at all. You could do this dance on a pie plate. We’re quiet for a while. Then Peeta speaks in a strained voice.

“You go along, thinking you can deal with it, thinking maybe they’re not so bad, and then you—” He cuts himself off.

All I can think of is the emaciated bodies of the children on our kitchen table as my mother prescribes what the parents can’t give. More food. Now that we’re rich, she’ll send some home with them. But often in the old days, there was nothing to give and the child was past saving, anyway. And here in the Capitol they’re vomiting for the pleasure of filling their bellies again and again. Not from some illness of body or mind, not from spoiled food. It’s what everyone does at a party. Expected. Part of the fun.

One day when I dropped by to give Hazelle the game, Vick was home sick with a bad cough. Being part of Gale’s family, the kid has to eat better than ninety percent of the rest of District 12. But he still spent about fifteen minutes talking about how they’d opened a can of corn syrup from Parcel Day and each had a spoonful on bread and were going to maybe have more later in the week. How Hazelle had said he could have a bit in a cup of tea to soothe his cough, but he wouldn’t feel right unless the others had some, too. If it’s like that at Gale’s, what’s it like in the other houses?

“Peeta, they bring us here to fight to the death for their entertainment,” I say. “Really, this is nothing by comparison.”

“I know. I know that. It’s just sometimes I can’t stand it anymore. To the point where … I’m not sure what I’ll do.” He pauses, then whispers, “Maybe we were wrong, Katniss.”

“About what?” I ask.

“About trying to subdue things in the districts,” he says.

My head turns swiftly from side to side, but no one seems to have heard. The camera crew got sidetracked at a table of shellfish, and the couples dancing around us are either too drunk or too self-involved to notice.

“Sorry,” he says. He should be. This is no place to be voicing such thoughts.

“Save it for home,” I tell him.

Just then Portia appears with a large man who looks vaguely familiar. She introduces him as Plutarch Heavensbee, the new Head Gamemaker. Plutarch asks Peeta if he can steal me for a dance. Peeta’s recovered his camera face and good-naturedly passes me over, warning the man not to get too attached.

I don’t want to dance with Plutarch Heavensbee. I don’t want to feel his hands, one resting against mine, one on my hip. I’m not used to being touched, except by Peeta or my family, and I rank Gamemakers somewhere below maggots in terms of creatures I want in contact with my skin. But he seems to sense this and holds me almost at arm’s length as we turn on the floor.

We chitchat about the party, about the entertainment, about the food, and then he makes a joke about avoiding punch since training. I don’t get it, and then I realize he’s the man who tripped backward into the punch bowl when I shot an arrow at the Gamemakers during the training session. Well, not really. I was shooting an apple out of their roast pig’s mouth. But I made them jump.

“Oh, you’re one who—” I laugh, remembering him splashing back into the punch bowl.

“Yes. And you’ll be pleased to know I’ve never recovered,” says Plutarch.

I want to point out that twenty-two dead tributes will never recover from the Games he helped create, either. But I only say, “Good. So, you’re the Head Gamemaker this year? That must be a big honor.”

“Between you and me, there weren’t many takers for the job,” he says. “So much responsibility as to how the Games turn out.”

Yeah, the last guy’s dead, I think. He must know about Seneca Crane, but he doesn’t look the least bit concerned. “Are you planning the Quarter Quell Games already?” I say.

“Oh, yes. Well, they’ve been in the works for years, of course. Arenas aren’t built in a day. But the, shall we say, flavor of the Games is being determined now. Believe it or not, I’ve got a strategy meeting tonight,” he says.

Plutarch steps back and pulls out a gold watch on a chain from a vest pocket. He flips open the lid, sees the time, and frowns. “I’ll have to be going soon.” He turns the watch so I can see the face. “It starts at midnight.”

“That seems late for—” I say, but then something distracts me. Plutarch has run his thumb across the crystal face of the watch and for just a moment an image appears, glowing as if lit by candlelight. It’s another mockingjay. Exactly like the pin on my dress. Only this one disappears. He snaps the watch closed.

“That’s very pretty,” I say.

“Oh, it’s more than pretty. It’s one of a kind,” he says. “If anyone asks about me, say I’ve gone home to bed. The meetings are supposed to be kept secret. But I thought it’d be safe to tell you.”

“Yes. Your secret’s safe with me,” I say.

As we shake hands, he gives a small bow, a common gesture here in the Capitol. “Well, I’ll see you next summer at the Games, Katniss. Best wishes on your engagement, and good luck with your mother.”

“I’ll need it,” I say.

Plutarch disappears and I wander through the crowd, looking for Peeta, as strangers congratulate me. On my engagement, on my victory at the Games, on my choice of lipstick. I respond, but really I’m thinking about Plutarch showing off his pretty, one-of-a-kind watch to me. There was something strange about it. Almost clandestine. But why? Maybe he thinks someone else will steal his idea of putting a disappearing mockingjay on a watch face. Yes, he probably paid a fortune for it and now he can’t show it to anyone because he’s afraid someone will make a cheap, knockoff version. Only in the Capitol.

I find Peeta admiring a table of elaborately decorated cakes. Bakers have come in from the kitchen especially to talk frosting with him, and you can see them tripping over one another to answer his questions. At his request, they assemble an assortment of little cakes for him to take back to District 12, where he can examine their work in quiet.

“Effie said we have to be on the train at one. I wonder what time it is,” he says, glancing around.

“Almost midnight,” I reply. I pluck a chocolate flower from a cake with my fingers and nibble on it, so beyond worrying about manners.

“Time to say thank you and farewell!” trills Effie at my elbow. It’s one of those moments when I just love her compulsive punctuality. We collect Cinna and Portia, and she escorts us around to say good-bye to important people, then herds us to the door.

“Shouldn’t we thank President Snow?” asks Peeta. “It’s his house.”

“Oh, he’s not a big one for parties. Too busy,” says Effie. “I’ve already arranged for the necessary notes and gifts to be sent to him tomorrow. There you are!” Effie gives a little wave to two Capitol attendants who have an inebriated Haymitch propped up between them.

We travel through the streets of the Capitol in a car with darkened windows. Behind us, another car brings the prep teams. The throngs of people celebrating are so thick it’s slow going. But Effie has this all down to a science, and at exactly one o’clock we are back on the train and it’s pulling out of the station.

Haymitch is deposited in his room. Cinna orders tea and we all take seats around the table while Effie rattles her schedule papers and reminds us we’re still on tour. “There’s the Harvest Festival in District Twelve to think about. So I suggest we drink our tea and head straight to bed.” No one argues.

When I open my eyes, it’s early afternoon. My head rests on Peeta’s arm. I don’t remember him coming in last night. I turn, being careful not to disturb him, but he’s already awake.

“No nightmares,” he says.

“What?” I ask.

“You didn’t have any nightmares last night,” he says.

He’s right. For the first time in ages I’ve slept through the night. “I had a dream, though,” I say, thinking back. “I was following a mockingjay through the woods. For a long time. It was Rue, really. I mean, when it sang, it had her voice.”

“Where did she take you?” he says, brushing my hair off my forehead.

“I don’t know. We never arrived,” I say. “But I felt happy.”

“Well, you slept like you were happy,” he says.

“Peeta, how come I never know when you’re having a nightmare?” I say.

“I don’t know. I don’t think I cry out or thrash around or anything. I just come to, paralyzed with terror,” he says.

“You should wake me,” I say, thinking about how I can interrupt his sleep two or three times on a bad night. About how long it can take to calm me down.

“It’s not necessary. My nightmares are usually about losing you,” he says. “I’m okay once I realize you’re here.”

Ugh. Peeta makes comments like this in such an offhand way, and it’s like being hit in the gut. He’s only answering my question honestly. He’s not pressing me to reply in kind, to make any declaration of love. But I still feel awful, as if I’ve been using him in some terrible way. Have I? I don’t know. I only know that for the first time, I feel immoral about him being here in my bed. Which is ironic since we’re officially engaged now.

“Be worse when we’re home and I’m sleeping alone again,” he says.

That’s right, we’re almost home.

The agenda for District 12 includes a dinner at Mayor Undersee’s house tonight and a victory rally in the square during the Harvest Festival tomorrow. We always celebrate the Harvest Festival on the final day of the Victory Tour, but usually it means a meal at home or with a few friends if you can afford it.

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