I want to get out of this bed. To see Peeta and Cinna, to find out more about what’s been going on. And why shouldn’t I? I feel fine. But as I start to work my way out of the band, I feel a cold liquid seeping into my vein from one of the tubes and almost immediately lose consciousness. This happens on and off for an indeterminate amount of time. My waking, eating, and, even though I resist the impulse to try and escape the bed, being knocked out again. I seem to be in a strange, continual twilight. Only a few things register. The redheaded Avox girl has not returned since the feeding, my scars are disappearing, and do I imagine it? Or do I hear a man’s voice yelling? Not in the Capitol accent, but in the rougher cadences of home. And I can’t help having a vague, comforting feeling that someone is looking out for me. Then finally, the time arrives when I come to and there’s nothing plugged into my right arm. The restraint around my middle has been removed and I am free to move about. I start to sit up but am arrested by the sight of my hands. The skin’s perfection, smooth and glowing. Not only are the scars from the arena gone, but those accumulated over years of hunting have vanished without a trace. My forehead feels like satin, and when I try to find the burn on my calf, there’s nothing. I slip my legs out of bed, nervous about how they will bear my weight and find them strong and steady. Lying at the foot of the bed is an outfit that makes me flinch. It’s what all of us tributes wore in the arena. I stare at it as if it had teeth until I remember that, of course, this is what I will wear to greet my team.
I’m dressed in less than a minute and fidgeting in front of the wall where I know there’s a door even if I can’t see it when suddenly it slides open. I step into a wide, deserted hall that appears to have no other doors on it. But it must. And behind one of them must be Peeta. Now that I’m conscious and moving, I’m growing more and more anxious about him. He must be all right or the Avox girl wouldn’t have said so. But I need to see him for myself.
“Peeta!” I call out, since there’s no one to ask. I hear my name in response, but it’s not his voice. It’s a voice that provokes first irritation and then eagerness. Effie. I turn and see them all waiting in a big chamber at the end of the hall—Effie, Haymitch, and Cinna. My feet take off without hesitation. Maybe a victor should show more restraint, more superiority, especially when she knows this will be on tape, but I don’t care. I run for them and surprise even myself when I launch into Haymitch’s arms first. When he whispers in my ear, “Nice job, sweetheart,” it doesn’t sound sarcastic. Effie’s somewhat teary and keeps patting my hair and talking about how she told everyone we were pearls. Cinna just hugs me tight and doesn’t say anything. Then I notice Portia is absent and get a bad feeling.
“Where’s Portia? Is she with Peeta? He is all right, isn’t he? I mean, he’s alive?” I blurt out.
“He’s fine. Only they want to do your reunion live on air at the ceremony,” says Haymitch.
“Oh. That’s all,” I say. The awful moment of thinking Peeta’s dead again passes. “I guess I’d want to see that myself.”
“Go on with Cinna. He has to get you ready,” says Haymitch. It’s a relief to be alone with Cinna, to feel his protective arm around my shoulders as he guides me away from the cameras, down a few passages and to an elevator that leads to the lobby of the Training Center. The hospital then is far underground, even beneath the gym where the tributes practiced tying knots and throwing spears. The windows of the lobby are darkened, and a handful of guards stand on duty. No one else is there to see us cross to the tribute elevator. Our footsteps echo in the emptiness. And when we ride up to the twelfth floor, the faces of all the tributes who will never return flash across my mind and there’s a heavy, tight place in my chest. When the elevator doors open, Venia, Flavius, and Octavia engulf me, talking so quickly and ecstatically I can’t make out their words. The sentiment is clear though. They are truly thrilled to see me and I’m happy to see them, too, although not like I was to see Cinna. It’s more in the way one might be glad to see an affectionate trio of pets at the end of a particularly difficult day.
They sweep me into the dining room and I get a real meal
—roast beef and peas and soft rolls—although my portions are still being strictly controlled. Because when I ask for seconds, I’m refused.
“No, no, no. They don’t want it all coming back up on the stage,” says Octavia, but she secretly slips me an extra roll under the table to let me know she’s on my side. We go back to my room and Cinna disappears for a while as the prep team gets me ready.
“Oh, they did a full body polish on you,” says Flavius enviously. “Not a flaw left on your skin.”
But when I look at my naked body in the mirror, all I can see is how skinny I am. I mean, I’m sure I was worse when I came out of the arena, but I can easily count my ribs. They take care of the shower settings for me, and they go to work on my hair, nails, and makeup when I’m done. They chatter so continuously that I barely have to reply, which is good, since I don’t feel very talkative. It’s funny, because even though they’re rattling on about the Games, it’s all about where they were or what they were doing or how they felt when a specific event occurred. “I was still in bed!” “I had just had my eyebrows dyed!” “I swear I nearly fainted!” Everything is about them, not the dying boys and girls in the arena. We don’t wallow around in the Games this way in District 12. We grit our teeth and watch because we must and try to get back to business as soon as possible when they’re over. To keep from hating the prep team, I effectively tune out most of what they’re saying.
Cinna comes in with what appears to be an unassuming yellow dress across his arms.
“Have you given up the whole ‘girl on fire’ thing?” I ask.
“You tell me,” he says, and slips it over my head. I immediately notice the padding over my breasts, adding curves that hunger has stolen from my body. My hands go to my chest and I frown.
“I know,” says Cinna before I can object. “But the Gamemakers wanted to alter you surgically. Haymitch had a huge fight with them over it. This was the compromise.” He stops me before I can look at my reflection. “Wait, don’t forget the shoes.” Venia helps me into a pair of flat leather sandals and I turn to the mirror.
I am still the “girl on fire.” The sheer fabric softly glows. Even the slight movement in the air sends a ripple up my body. By comparison, the chariot costume seems garish, the interview dress too contrived. In this dress, I give the illusion of wearing candlelight.
“What do you think?” asks Cinna.
“I think it’s the best yet,” I say. When I manage to pull my eyes away from the flickering fabric, I’m in for something of a shock. My hair’s loose, held back by a simple hairband. The makeup rounds and fills out the sharp angles of my face. A clear polish coats my nails. The sleeveless dress is gathered at my ribs, not my waist, largely eliminating any help the padding would have given my figure. The hem falls just to my knees. Without heels, you can see my true stature. I look, very simply, like a girl. A young one. Fourteen at the most. Innocent. Harmless. Yes, it is shocking that Cinna has pulled this off when you remember I’ve just won the Games.
This is a very calculated look. Nothing Cinna designs is arbitrary. I bite my lip trying to figure out his motivation.
“I thought it’d be something more… sophisticatedlooking,” I say.
“I thought Peeta would like this better,” he answers carefully. Peeta? No, it’s not about Peeta. It’s about the Capitol and the Gamemakers and the audience. Although I do not yet understand Cinna’s design, it’s a reminder the Games are not quite finished. And beneath his benign reply, I sense a warning. Of something he can’t even mention in front of his own team.
We take the elevator to the level where we trained. It’s customary for the victor and his or her support team to rise from beneath the stage. First the prep team, followed by the escort, the stylist, the mentor, and finally the victor. Only this year, with two victors who share both an escort and a mentor, the whole thing has had to be rethought. I find myself in a poorly lit area under the stage. A brand-new metal plate has been installed to transport me upward. You can still see small piles of sawdust, smell fresh paint. Cinna and the prep team peel off to change into their own costumes and take their positions, leaving me alone. In the gloom, I see a makeshift wall about ten yards away and assume Peeta’s behind it.
The rumbling of the crowd is loud, so I don’t notice Haymitch until he touches my shoulder. I spring away, startled, still half in the arena, I guess.
“Easy, just me. Let’s have a look at you,” Haymitch says. I hold out my arms and turn once. “Good enough.”
It’s not much of a compliment. “But what?” I say. Haymitch’s eyes shift around my musty holding space, and he seems to make a decision. “But nothing. How about a hug for luck?”
Okay, that’s an odd request from Haymitch but, after all, we are victors. Maybe a hug for luck is in order. Only, when I put my arms around his neck, I find myself trapped in his embrace. He begins talking, very fast, very quietly in my ear, my hair concealing his lips.
“Listen up. You’re in trouble. Word is the Capitol’s furious about you showing them up in the arena. The one thing they can’t stand is being laughed at and they’re the joke of Panem,” says Haymitch.
I feel dread coursing through me now, but I laugh as though Haymitch is saying something completely delightful because nothing is covering my mouth. “So, what?”
“Your only defense can be you were so madly in love you weren’t responsible for your actions.” Haymitch pulls back and adjusts my hairband. “Got it, sweetheart?” He could be talking about anything now.
“Got it,” I say. “Did you tell Peeta this?”
“Don’t have to,” says Haymitch. “He’s already there.”
“But you think I’m not?” I say, taking the opportunity to straighten a bright red bow tie Cinna must have wrestled him into.
“Since when does it matter what I think?” says Haymitch.
“Better take our places.” He leads me to the metal circle. “This is your night, sweetheart. Enjoy it.” He kisses me on the forehead and disappears into the gloom. I tug on my skirt, willing it to be longer, wanting it to cover the knocking in my knees. Then I realize it’s pointless. My whole body’s shaking like a leaf. Hopefully, it will be put down to excitement. After all, it’s my night.
The damp, moldy smell beneath the stage threatens to choke me. A cold, clammy sweat breaks out on my skin and I can’t rid myself of the feeling that the boards above my head are about to collapse, to bury me alive under the rubble. When I left the arena, when the trumpets played, I was supposed to be safe. From then on. For the rest of my life. But if what Haymitch says is true, and he’s got no reason to lie, I’ve never been in such a dangerous place in my life.
It’s so much worse than being hunted in the arena. There, I could only die. End of story. But out here Prim, my mother, Gale, the people of District 12, everyone I care about back home could be punished if I can’t pull off the girl-drivencrazy-by-love scenario Haymitch has suggested. So I still have a chance, though. Funny, in the arena, when I poured out those berries, I was only thinking of outsmarting the Gamemakers, not how my actions would reflect on the Capitol. But the Hunger Games are their weapon and you are not supposed to be able to defeat it. So now the Capitol will act as if they’ve been in control the whole time. As if they orchestrated the whole event, right down to the double suicide. But that will only work if I play along with them. And Peeta… Peeta will suffer, too, if this goes wrong. But what was it Haymitch said when I asked if he had told Peeta the situation? That he had to pretend to be desperately in love?
“Don’t have to. He’s already there.”
Already thinking ahead of me in the Games again and well aware of the danger we’re in? Or… already desperately in love? I don’t know. I haven’t even begun to separate out my feelings about Peeta. It’s too complicated. What I did as part of the Games. As opposed to what I did out of anger at the Capitol. Or because of how it would be viewed back in District 12. Or simply because it was the only decent thing to do. Or what I did because I cared about him.
These are questions to be unraveled back home, in the peace and quiet of the woods, when no one is watching. Not here with every eye upon me. But I won’t have that luxury for who knows how long. And right now, the most dangerous part of the Hunger Games is about to begin.
The anthem booms in my ears, and then I hear Caesar Flickerman greeting the audience. Does he know how crucial it is to get every word right from now on? He must. He will want to help us. The crowd breaks into applause as the prep teams are presented. I imagine Flavius, Venia, and Octavia bouncing around and taking ridiculous, bobbing bows. It’s a safe bet they’re clueless. Then Effie’s introduced. How long she’s waited for this moment. I hope she’s able to enjoy it because as misguided as Effie can be, she has a very keen instinct about certain things and must at least suspect we’re in trouble. Portia and Cinna receive huge cheers, of course, they’ve been brilliant, had a dazzling debut. I now understand Cinna’s choice of dress for me for tonight. I’ll need to look as girlish and innocent as possible. Haymitch’s appearance brings a round of stomping that goes on at least five minutes. Well, he’s accomplished a first. Keeping not only one but two tributes alive. What if he hadn’t warned me in time? Would I have acted differently? Flaunted the moment with the berries in the Capitol’s face? No, I don’t think so. But I could easily have been a lot less convincing than I need to be now. Right now. Because I can feel the plate lifting me up to the stage. Blinding lights. The deafening roar rattles the metal under my feet. Then there’s Peeta just a few yards away. He looks so clean and healthy and beautiful, I can hardly recognize him. But his smile is the same whether in mud or in the Capitol and when I see it, I take about three steps and fling myself into his arms. He staggers back, almost losing his balance, and that’s when I realize the slim, metal contraption in his hand is some kind of cane. He rights himself and we just cling to each other while the audience goes insane. He’s kissing me and all the time I’m thinking, Do you know? Do you know how much dan- ger we’re in? After about ten minutes of this, Caesar Flickerman taps on his shoulder to continue the show, and Peeta just pushes him aside without even glancing at him. The audience goes berserk. Whether he knows or not, Peeta is, as usual, playing the crowd exactly right.
Finally, Haymitch interrupts us and gives us a good-natured shove toward the victor’s chair. Usually, this is a single, ornate chair from which the winning tribute watches a film of the highlights of the Games, but since there are two of us, the Gamemakers have provided a plush red velvet couch. A small one, my mother would call it a love seat, I think. I sit so close to Peeta that I’m practically on his lap, but one look from Haymitch tells me it isn’t enough. Kicking off my sandals, I tuck my feet to the side and lean my head against Peeta’s shoulder. His arm goes around me automatically, and I feel like I’m back in the cave, curled up against him, trying to keep warm. His shirt is made of the same yellow material as my dress, but Portia’s put him in long black pants. No sandals, either, but a pair of sturdy black boots he keeps solidly planted on the stage. I wish Cinna had given me a similar outfit, I feel so vulnerable in this flimsy dress. But I guess that was the point.
Caesar Flickerman makes a few more jokes, and then it’s time for the show. This will last exactly three hours and is required viewing for all of Panem. As the lights dim and the seal appears on the screen, I realize I’m unprepared for this. I do not want to watch my twenty-two fellow tributes die. I saw enough of them die the first time. My heart starts pounding and I have a strong impulse to run. How have the other victors faced this alone? During the highlights, they periodically show the winner’s reaction up on a box in the corner of the screen. I think back to earlier years… some are triumphant, pumping their fists in the air, beating their chests. Most just seem stunned. All I know is that the only thing keeping me on this love seat is Peeta—his arm around my shoulder, his other hand claimed by both of mine. Of course, the previous victors didn’t have the Capitol looking for a way to destroy them. Condensing several weeks into three hours is quite a feat, especially when you consider how many cameras were going at once. Whoever puts together the highlights has to choose what sort of story to tell. This year