"That's my sister!"
I look down. Once the tributes came out of the Remake Center, the big screens lining the route switched to only showing the feed of the parade -- wouldn't want a tribute suddenly breaking down at the sight of a loved one -- but on the small screens set into the chairs in the box, I can see the national broadcast. In District Twelve, Primrose Everdeen has jumped to her feet, and is looking up with a cross between elation and superstitious awe. The cameras there focus in on her, setting the image up in the upper left part of the screen. It's full dark in Twelve, of course, and the flickering flames coming from the giant screen in the square illuminate Prim, like she's actually basking in the fire around Katniss.
It's a brief moment, an instant in time, then the Gamemakers move on to crowd shots here, but it's golden, as far as Katniss Everdeen is concerned.
Unfortunately, as far as a lot of the audience can see, there is only one tribute in the chariot. I know Peeta wants it that way, and I know he'll hold his own once talking is involved, but the tone is set. Katniss is the District Twelve tribute. Peeta is her supporting cast.
I wonder how much Danny hates me right now, or if he's too busy realizing that Peeta means to go through with his plan to think about anything else.
I decide to think about it later. Right now, for the first time in my memory, District Twelve is the talk of the parade. They're upstaging everyone. Even my friends look a little bit put out, and the others? Up in the front row, Brutus is glaring at the chariot as it goes by. If they were in the arena, I think he'd be attacking them. I'm not entirely sure that it's out of the question here until they're well past us, leaving only a trail of sparks as they pull up in front of President Snow.
To my unending delight, they also upstage Snow. The cameras linger on them, even while he's giving his usual empty welcome. Oh, there are always cutaways to the tributes. But this year, shots of Snow and the other chariots all seem to be cutaways from the spectacle of Cinna's auto-da-fé.
After a while, as Snow drones on, I start to see through the flames. It's not just Cinna. They are holding hands, leaning on each other. It's not just the visual unification that Cinna and I talked about. They're working together.
When the speech ends, the chariots go back to the Remake Center. I can see the other tributes shifting uncomfortably, and throwing irritated glances over their shoulders. Katniss is throwing kisses again, and Peeta is smiling just behind her. Their hands are still locked. I wonder what they make of it back in Twelve.
The coverage goes back to the stables, and I see them dismount, and let go of each other's hands. The camera focuses on an affectionate (but unheard) conversation, and then Katniss kisses Peeta's cheek, right over the bruise I left. There's an audible "Aw" from the crowd.
"Did you tell them to do that?" Chaff asks me.
"Yeah," I say. "That's me. District matchmaker."
"You know what I mean."
I shake my head. "That's them. I've barely had a chance to talk to them."
I'm just getting up to leave and head back to the apartment when a little girl from Capitol Dreams -- one of the runners, like Effie used to be -- comes up and says, "Mr. Abernathy? There's a car waiting to take you to the studio for the parade panel."
I raise my eyebrows. In twenty-three years, I've never been asked to be on the parade panel -- a group of mentors who give their reactions to the tribute parade. I honestly forgot it existed. It's not even mandatory viewing.
"I need to check in on my tributes…"
"Sir, the car's waiting," the runner says.
"Effie'll get them set up and fed," Chaff tells me. "Run along. I hear the ladies love the parade panel. Johanna will be jealous. You get to talk about the clothes."
I follow the little girl down the stairs and to a large Games production car. I'm apparently the last mentor collected. Cecelia, Enobaria, and Cashmere are already there, and they look at me with some measure of amusement. Cecelia straightens my tie as the car starts to move, then winces and says, "The preps will take care of you when we get there."
"I thought I was looking spiffy."
"Effie didn't go over you, did she?"
I shake my head. Effie "goes over" me when she knows I have an appearance, but she wasn't expecting anything more than crowd shots today, which means I'm on my own. I'm wearing a decent suit and sober. I'm not sure what the others think the problem is.
I find out rather quickly when we get to the studio. There's no full prep session, of course -- that's for the kids -- but hair stylists flock over to shampoo and trim me, and I'm moisturized and given a fresh suit from Cinna. There's a note in the pocket -- Portia and I are helping Effie look after our fiery charges… see you at dinner. By the time I'm done, I look…
Well, I look like a pudgy middle-aged man in a nice suit, with his hair freshly done, which I guess is an improvement. There's only so much they can do with the raw materials these days. At least they've covered up the blotches on my skin.
There's a knock at the door. I check the time -- the call isn't for another ten minutes, since the ladies are all getting fancier hairstyles, so I assume it's another prep, but instead, it's a junior Gamemaker who I don't know. He presents me with a gilt-edged "invitation," then turns sharply and leaves.
I am to report to the office of Plutarch Heavensbee, Executive Gamemaker, immediately following the parade panel. There is to be no stop in between. Another car will be waiting.
I grind my teeth. I know Plutarch can't very well just announce that he's calling me in to talk rebellion, but he doesn't need to bark orders, either. I've been invited in much more cordially by other Gamemakers, and everyone knows that Plutarch and I go back to my Victory Tour. He was a little pompous back then, before they dragged him in for re-education after he expressed the wrong opinion to the wrong person. Then either he beat it, or Fulvia talked him back to himself -- he credits her, she credits him, so I suspect the truth is somewhere between them -- and now, he's insufferable. But he's on my side.
I tuck the invitation into my suit pocket.
A few minutes later, I'm out on the stage, talking to one of the junior interviewers, Vitalis Zoll. Cecelia is to my right, and Cashmere is to my left. Enobaria, her pointed teeth polished to glow in the spotlight, is sitting at the far end of our little arc.
I don't feel like I can talk with any authority on this subject. I know men's clothes reasonably well, but there's a big difference between that and the theater of the absurd that's the Hunger Games tribute parade. Still, Vitalis isn't bad as a host. He asks each of us about different things, so we aren't just nodding and calling the costumes "pretty."
Cecelia knows fabrics very well, which is undoubtedly why she's on the panel. She's fond of District One, and thinks the textures in District Nine are very "evocative" of tilled soil. She's also a stickler for stitching, and praises the fitting for several districts.
Cashmere is the expert on "pretty," apparently, and does her best to convince local designers to base the year's fashion trends on the sheer fabrics from District One. She also likes the "simplicity beneath the show" of District Twelve.
Enobaria, for some reason, has made it her business to know the history of the parade. She's able to recall costumes from past years, and make comparisons… at least until she gets to Cinna's costumes for this year. "I must admit," she says, "that was unique. A gimmick, of course, but a very convincing one. I don't ever recall seeing anything like it."
"Oh," Vitalis says, "We'll get to Twelve. But first, Haymitch -- what do you think the Districts are saying about themselves this year? Especially your own, of course, but you're always so astute about strategy. What are the others trying to say?"
I stumble through a little bit, because it's polite, but honestly, most haven't been given much more thought than a quick gloss on the district industry.
It doesn't matter. It's us they want to talk about for once.
"Did you know," Vitalis asks, leaning forward chummily, "that Katniss Everdeen is being called 'the Girl on Fire'?"
"I've been here since the end of the parade. They've already got a name for her?"
"Oh, yes. Look!" He points to a screen, where I see Katniss traveling along the parade route, blowing kisses. Peeta is barely visible behind her at this angle. It cuts to people on the street.
"She's amazing!" a girl Prim's age exclaims. "She's so beautiful!"
"She's a star," a middle-aged man says.
A woman with a little dog dyed to match her purple wig gushes, "Oh, it's so clever! And she looked so brilliant and strong, with the boy holding her hand."
Well, at least someone noticed that Peeta was there, I guess.
There's more of this, and a rush on the street for yellow, orange, and red feathers, which people are pinning into their hair.
"So, what was District Twelve trying to say?" Vitalis asks. "What is the meaning of the Girl on Fire?"
"If you don't mind?" Cecelia cuts in.
"Not at all," I say.
She smiles. "It means," she says, "that no one's going to ignore them this year."
Everyone laughs politely, but of course, that's exactly what it means, at least in terms of the Games. What it means for the rebellion is yet to be seen… if it means anything at all.
A small car is waiting for me while the big one takes the others back to the Training Center. Mine goes straight to the Viewing Center, and I'm escorted inside to the elevator, which takes me up to the Gamemakers' quarters. There aren't any clues here -- the main view screens are off, and the Gamemakers are working quietly at tables.
I'm led to a closed office door on the second level, a few doors down from Seneca Crane's office. Inside, Plutarch is sitting behind a huge desk, working on a ledger of some kind. He raises his hand without looking up, and I come in.
"Shut the door," he tells me.
I shut it.
He continues not looking up. "As far as anyone else is concerned, I'm giving you a lecture about your behavior at the Reaping. There's a camera here in the ceiling -- can't read lips on it -- but no audio bugs. Look contrite."
I arrange my features appropriately.
He finally looks up, frowning impressively. "That was a disgusting display, by the way, and thumbing your nose at the camera wasn't good for anyone."
I look down and fidget, like I'm being forced to apologize. "Tell them I was talking to the audience."
"Oh, I already did." He stands up threateningly and adopts a menacing pose. "But I didn't call you here about that. You have to watch out for your tribute."
"I know. It would be a lot easier if I'd been allowed to go back to the apartment."
"I'm delaying supper there."
"Yeah, that's what I'm concerned about."
"They've assigned an Avox to your apartment. She'll be with the serving team, and then she'll stay for housekeeping."
I frown. "They've been doing that for a few years."
"Yes, well, this year, they switched them out after the girl volunteered. I don't know all the details, but I do know this one, Lavinia, was captured outside District Twelve, trying to run away with her boyfriend. There was footage at the scene from the hover craft. Two indistinct figures were in the woods. They disappeared into the shadows before any accurate image could be gathered, but the girl matches your tribute's description."
"So do about ninety percent of the girls in Twelve."
"So maybe it's nothing." He sits down. "But they made the assignment deliberately, and after she caught everyone's attention. People are supposed to volunteer to get the glory, not to protect their little sisters. And they aren't supposed to capture the heart of the Capitol in the process. Most of us don't even know our siblings. Snow doesn't like it. I thought you should know. Intervene if they seem to recognize each other. Lavinia is one of ours, for all the good it does."
I nod and try to look humbly apologetic.
"You'll know her right away. Beautiful long red hair. She reminds me of Gia."
I breathe in sharply. Great. A ghost.
Plutarch waves me out.
The plaza has cleared out somewhat, and I turn down the car. I walk across to the Training Center and take the elevator upstairs. Appetizers are being served as I come in. None of the Avoxes have red hair, but I keep my eyes open. Katniss can't very well start out her time by admitting that she knows a traitor (if she does)… and, just as important, can't say that she's been outside the fence to meet anyone. I'm sure the Capitol has a pretty good list of our illegal hunters, but they ignore it when it's not rubbed in their faces. Here, they won't ignore it. They may not do anything to Katniss, but if she confirms anything, they'll likely try to find whoever she was out there with.
They'll also put a stop to the positive coverage.
"Haymitch!" Cinna says. "What kept you?"
I sit down. "Well, someone decided to get us a little attention. Set my tributes on fire. For some reason, people want to talk about that."
"It was brilliant!" Effie declares. "Oh, the two of you are going to be the talk of the town!"
The servers start to bring out the meals. I spot the redheaded girl for the first time carving a roast, and she definitely recognizes Katniss. She's nearly dancing to stay out of her sightline. Katniss doesn't see her. She's busy sampling everything on the table, including the wine, though at least she doesn't seem to like it. Peeta skips the wine. If he's had to clean up Danny the way he cleaned me up, I don't blame him.
I abstain myself for now.
I participate a little bit in the conversation, which is mainly Effie, Cinna, and Portia talking about the mood in the Capitol. Mostly, I watch my tributes.
Peeta doesn't know much about the subject, but he knows small talk, and he asks questions that at least seem to convey real interest. Effie clearly adores him. Cinna and Portia talk to him about the shops in the fashion district, and ask him about the bakery. They talk about the difficulties of keeping a business running, and joke about getting up early to work. Peeta talks about drawing, and how he doesn’t have much time for it, but really enjoys it, and Cinna offers to show him some techniques.
Katniss -- the Girl on Fire, apparently -- tunes out and concentrates on the food.
I'm going to have to work with her on her presentation, if she can't even talk to Cinna, Effie, and Portia. After tonight, the cameras are going to eat her alive, and the Capitol will lose interest in her quickly if all she has (by their standards) is a pretty face and a good stylist.
The main courses end, and they serve a small palate cleansing gelatin dish, then the redheaded Avox, Lavinia, brings out a dark chocolate cake. I can smell the alcohol from here, and I want a drink. Badly.
Lavinia lights a match and sets the cake ablaze.
Katniss looks up sleepily. She may have had more of the wine than I noticed. "What makes it burn?" she asks. "Is it the alcohol? That's the last thing I wa-- " Her eyes widen, and before I can think of a strategy to stop her, she says the worst thing she could possibly say: "Hey, I know you!"
Lavinia shakes her head rapidly and looks to me.
"Don't be ridiculous, Katniss," Effie says, and some awful part of me is grateful that she sounds completely sincere. "How could you possibly know an Avox? The very thought!"
Katniss frowns. "What's an Avox?"
I look at her steadily, willing her to understand the importance of not pushing this. "Someone who committed a crime," I say. "They cut her tongue so she can't speak. She's probably a traitor of some sort. Not likely you'd know her."
She looks back. She understands.
"And even if you did," Effie says, "you're not to speak to one of them unless it's to give an order." She looks around the table, and I realize that she's at least a little bit awake tonight. Maybe she's off the damned pills for the length of the Games. "Of course, you don't really know her."
Katniss may well understand, but she has no idea how to cover for what's already happened. She starts stammering something that makes no sense at all.
Then, out of nowhere, Peeta snaps his fingers and smiles brightly, as if he's just made the most obvious connection in the world. "Delly Cartwright!"
Katniss looks at him oddly. I probably do as well.
"That's who it is," he says. "I kept thinking she looked familiar as well. Then I realized she's a dead ringer for Delly."
I don't know Delly Cartwright, but I'm pretty sure she's Eli's daughter. He and his wife are both short, round-faced blonds. If their daughter is a tall, willowy redhead, I'm a jabberjay.
"Of course," Katniss says. "That's who I was thinking of. It must be the hair."
"Something about the eyes, too," Peeta embellishes, but stops there, before it gets any deeper.
"Oh, well," Cinna says. "If that's all it is. And yes, the cake has spirits, but all of the alcohol has burned off. I ordered it specially in honor of your fiery debut."
I decide not to have any of the cake anyway. It still smells like spirits, and I want a drink quite badly.
After we finish eating, we watch the replay of the parade. It's really the third time it's been shown, I think, but this is the special version just for the tribute quarters -- the version with no commentary, no cut-in shots from home, nothing but the angles from City Center.
It still makes it obvious that they were the stars of the show… and there is definitely something subversive about it. The way the camera keeps leaving the president to focus on them… it's something of a bullseye, and I realize that I have no idea how they feel about that.
"Whose idea was the hand-holding?" I ask.
"Cinna's," Portia tells me.
"Just the perfect touch of rebellion," I say, and watch them carefully. "Very nice."
Katniss looks slightly alarmed, but not displeased. I can't get a read on Peeta, but he's definitely picking up on the word "rebellion." I wonder how much he knows.
It's time to get back to reality. "Tomorrow morning is the first training session. Meet me for breakfast and I'll tell you exactly how I want you to play it." They look at each other. I roll my eyes at them. "Now go get some sleep while the grown-ups talk."
They head off for the hallway where the tributes' rooms are, and I see their shadows cast on the rug for a long time before both of them disappear. I guess they're going off to talk about their good friend, Delly Cartwright.
The Avoxes start cleaning up.
We can't speak freely here; that's a given. Instead, I thank Portia and Cinna again for all their work, and let Cinna crow about having told me exactly what he meant to do, while I didn't believe him. I tell him that I'll provisionally trust him for the rest.
They leave around ten-thirty.
"Are you staying here this year?" I ask Effie.
"I'm going to go home tonight, to get the item we talked about, but I'll be back in the morning, and I'll stay." She sighs. "I think I'd better. I watched some of the public broadcast while they were changing. The people really like Katniss. We're going to have to --"
"-- work on her presentation?"
"Yes. And she's not the only one."
"I wasn't talking about Peeta, and you know it. Peeta is delightful."
I nod. "I got the Daughters back. As long as they don't see me drunk."
"Well, the easiest way to accomplish that is to not get drunk."
"You're going to help me with that, right?"
"That's why I'm getting your token. But I don't want you to yell at me if I have to put a stop to you drinking."
"I'll try, Effie."
She nods and heads for the elevator, but turns around before she gets there. "Haymitch, I really do wish you'd stop drinking. Not just during the Games."
She leaves without saying anything else. It's the most serious thing she's said to me in several years. Mostly, she's just given up on me.
I stare at the bar for a long time. If I drink tonight, no one will know any better.
Except me. And it will be much easier to start drinking tomorrow.
I take the elevator back downstairs and go out to the courtyard. The fresh air, tinged with the smell of the lake, wakes me up. Beetee and Wiress are sitting by the fountain. I join them.
"That was some show," Beetee says.
Wiress giggles oddly. "We don't know how the fire worked. We were trying to figure it out."
I shrug. "No idea."
"So, how is the 'Girl on Fire'?" Beetee asks. "How's she going to handle all this?"
"Well, her appetite seems fine," I say. "I think she ate her own body weight at dinner."
"But what's she like?" Beetee leans forward, his face serious. "A lot of people are watching her."
"I know. But I don't know her very well yet. She's strong. She's been supporting her family. I don't know how she'll be on camera." I look at them. "The boy -- who, just for the record, was also on fire -- is going to be good in the interviews. He'll be good with an ally to talk to. What do you think?"
"I'll talk to Onnisey," Beetee says. "I know he wants allies, but I think he's been trying to think of a way to impress the Careers. He thinks they'll keep him fed."
"More likely, they'll put a knife in his back."
"I thought you were going to keep yours paired, anyway."
"I am. I'm going to tell them to stay together in training. But I have a feeling Katniss is going to want to go it alone in the arena."
"Why?" Beetee asks. "People with allies get more screen time. It's more interesting to film them when they have other people to talk to."
"Yeah. But then the other people tend to die." I look at Wiress. "How about Nonni? Is she as smart as you?"
"Mmm." Wiress bobs her head back and forth, her gesture for so-so. "She likes the boy, though," she says, and giggles. "Your boy. She says he's cute."
At least he's got one fan.
I stay up late with Beetee and Wiress. About twenty minutes after I come down, Finnick arrives home from one of his "appointments" and joins us, and a few minutes after that, like clockwork, Johanna does.
We sit by the fountain as the night moves on. All of our tributes are still alive, and not fighting yet. It's easy to set aside the fact that they'll be mortal enemies in a few days' time. For now, it's just us, our strange little family, talking in the starlight about nothing more scandalous than the boat Finnick plans to buy.
Upstairs, the Girl on Fire sleeps on, with no idea how much she may have already changed the world.