The audience is wild to hear more from Katniss, and Caesar takes the opportunity to tease them with the possibility, then rescinds it by reminding them of the rules: Katniss has already had her three minutes.
I couldn't have picked a better introduction to the whole thing. That's what it's going to be for all of them, from beginning to end. Peeta's created an impossible narrative. They know that they're supposed to hear from her now, but they can't. They'll know that he's supposed to win her, but he won't. They'll know there's supposed to be a happily ever after ending, but it's out of the question.
I briefly imagine the cognitive dissonance causing the Capitol to rise up as one and demand a stop to this, but I know better. It may happen in the future -- that was the plan -- but this year is just a beginning. I doubt they even recognize that there's such an easy solution to the problem yet.
As Caesar continues his chat with Peeta, the camera cuts back to Katniss. She doesn't look back at it. She's blushing wildly. She finally looks up during the anthem, and I'm quite sure she notices that the cameras are focused on them, at opposite ends of the screen. She looks to me like she's all but shaking with rage.
Apparently, it doesn't read this way to the audience.
As we push through the crowd to get to the elevators, lights and microphones are shoved at me, reporters demanding in the public's name to know how they can help the "star-crossed lovers from District Twelve." I tell them to sponsor, and sponsor generously.
I have a feeling I'll be pretty sick of the "star-crossed lovers" phrase soon, but I recognize it for what it is. Like "The girl who was on fire," it's a tag, a handle I can use to keep hold of things. I've seen it once or twice over the years. Cecelia Burns (now Stane) was "the little avenger" after she took one of the spiked maces and wiped out a crew of hunters who killed her district partner. Cashmere was "the fairy princess." Otho Magro was "the devil's due" for some reason.
Finnick grabs me by the shoulder to free me from the crowd of press. He grins and jokes with them for a minute to get them to let up, then leads me to the elevators, where Effie, Cinna, and Portia are waiting with a crowd of other victors.
Finnick never needed a tag, of course. Finnick was a tag.
"You looked about ready to snap at them," he says quietly as soon as the door closes. "Sorry if I was out of line."
"No, it's fine. I probably was, which wouldn't have been good for them." I look around. "Where's Annie?"
"I sent her back up to the apartment after our tributes were on. She was a little shaky." The car opens and lets off a District One contingent, which includes Cashmere. She gives Finnick a significant look, and he nods.
"What's that about?"
"Be careful. That's just a little helpful hint from me. And Cashmere. And Eno. And Jack. You know who it's from and what it's about."
I nod. I know that selling her to sponsors has its drawbacks. But I have an inkling that Peeta's plan may help with that, as well, though he wouldn't know it. If I can sell this as the sappiest love story in the history of sappy Capitol love stories, then the audience won't put up with her playing around right away… maybe until someone else gets the interest.
Or until we take Snow down.
Either way, I can play it to keep her safe for a few years.
The door opens again, and Finnick gets out. Chaff, who was stuck at the back of the elevator, comes forward and hands me a flask of wine. I've been abstaining all day, so I take it. It's not my usual poison, and it just tastes like rotten grapes to me, but my brain accepts it perfectly well, and demands more.
I give the flask back to Chaff. I can't lose it now.
We talk the rest of the way up about the other interviews. Seeder seems more inclined to trust Katniss than she did before. Chaff is pleased with Thresh, who's taken some sponsors from the usual Career pool. Effie adored Rue's interview dress (their stylist took another elevator). Cinna and Portia spend most of the ride being wooed by other districts.
By the time we let Chaff and Seeder off at Eleven, the elevator seems very spacious. The four of us are quiet for the last leg of the trip.
As the doors open, I hear Katniss scream, "You had no right! No right to go saying those things about me!"
Cinna and I look at each other, then go out into the hallway.
Katniss is in a high fury. Her breath is whistling in and out between her clenched teeth, and the red starbursts reflecting from her gown throw a savage glow over her face.
Peeta is getting up from the floor, where a decorative vase lies smashed behind him. His hands are bright red and bristling with pottery shards.
"What's going on?" Effie asks. "Did you fall?"
Peeta, not in a remotely romantic frame of mind, says, "After she shoved me."
I look at his hands, then at Katniss. "Shoved him?"
She turns on me. "This was your idea, wasn't it? Turning me into some kind of fool in front of the entire country?"
I realize that she really has no idea what's happened. She's responding like an injured animal… biting at the people most likely to help her.
"It was my idea," Peeta says petulantly, pulling bits of the vase out of his bleeding hands. "Haymitch just helped me with it."
"Yes, Haymitch is very helpful. To you!"
"You are a fool," I tell her. "Do you think he hurt you? That boy just gave you something you could never achieve on your own."
She looks back at me, completely uncomprehending. "He made me look weak."
For the second time, I think of Drake. I think of him forbidding me to mention my girl, because "real men" apparently aren't supposed to be in love with anyone. I always thought that was just a Career district conceit.
I sigh. "He made you look desirable!" I say. "And let's face it, you can use all the help you can get in that department. You were about as romantic as dirt until he said he wanted you. Now they all do. You're all they're talking about. The star-crossed lovers from District Twelve!"
She gives me a frustrated frown. "But we're not star-crossed lovers!"
"Who cares?" I pull her over to the wall and make her look at me. "It's all a big show. It's about how you're perceived. The most I could say about you after your interview was that you were nice enough, although that in itself was a small miracle. Now, I can say you're a heartbreaker. Oh, oh, oh, how the boys at home fall longingly at your feet. Which do you think will get you more sponsors?"
"He's right, Katniss," Cinna says.
This gets through. I guess all it takes is Cinna repeating what I say to make her hear it. "I should have been told," she pouts. "So I didn't look stupid."
I keep looking at her, though she's ignoring me. Portia says it would have spoiled her reaction, Peeta snaps that she's worried about offending a boyfriend she claims not to have, and says that he can spot a bluff.
She goes quiet. I think I believe her that she doesn’t have a boyfriend. I think it's the last thing on her mind. She blushes furiously, but I think of her saying, He made me look weak.
She's not blushing over someone calling her out on a crush. She's blushing that anyone would think of her as the sort of person who would have a boyfriend. I have to think about this.
"You're golden, sweetheart," I tell her to get her mind off of it. "You're going to have sponsors lined up around the block."
She finally looks at me again, her eyes searching mine for any sign of ridicule. I make sure not to show any. Finally, it seems to dawn on her that no one was trying to undermine her, and with that, a sort of deep embarrassment.
I let her go, and she turns to Peeta. "I'm sorry I shoved you," she says.
Peeta looks momentarily inclined to break away from her, then just shrugs wearily. "Doesn't matter. Though technically, it's illegal."
"Are your hands okay?"
"They'll be all right."
I wait for a few minutes, while the whole business settles down, then suggest that we go in to eat.
There's a lavish dinner laid out, but we've barely started the rose petal and cream soup when Effie looks at Peeta and gasps, "Oh, no! You're bleeding on the tablecloth!"
If Katniss weren't so worried about her own faux pas, I guess she'd probably be offended by that. For myself, I'm used to it at this point. Effie clearly took her pills earlier so she'd be perky and happy for the cameras, and they seem to have a strange effect on how she chooses to express things. I know she means that Peeta is bleeding too heavily to eat, and she's right. The cuts from the vase have ripped open furrows in his palm.
I send him off with Portia to get some ointment. The Capitol won't want him hobbled in the arena if it can be helped, and they have things that speed healing. I have no idea how. I should read some science books.
He's back, his hands bandaged up, before the main course is served. I see Katniss looking at his hands guiltily. And there's something else. There's something strange between them from her perspective. I don't know what it is.
We have a perfectly pleasant meal, or as pleasant as it can be the night before the arena. None of us mentions it. I want them to sleep.
After we eat, we watch the recaps of the interviews. Peeta stole the show, though the edit is careful to make Katniss look worthy of his declaration. Caesar pushes the story as hard as he can, selling it like upcoming episodes of a soap opera.
When it's over, Effie says she's going back to her place to get ready for tomorrow. There's always an escort's meeting early in the morning. Probably a mentor's meeting as well. She hugs the kids, and makes a joke about getting a promotion. (I have a feeling that they don't understand it. Her timing isn't good when she's had a pill, either.) She kisses their cheeks and heads for the elevator.
I follow her, ostensibly to press the button behind her and shut the door. "Don't come in high tomorrow," I say. "I'm sober. I need you sober."
She rolls her eyes at me. "They're prescribed.."
"All right." She straightens my tie up, then disappears.
I go back to the living room. Katniss and Peeta, still in their formal wear, look up at me. I cross my arms and take them in. Now that she's not screaming, Katniss seems calm and collected and ready. Peeta is a little subdued.
This is the last time I'll see at least one of them.
Probably either of them.
Usually, the night before the arena, I'm sure of losing both of my tributes. I've accepted it, though I fight as well as I can from the Viewing Center.
"Any final words of advice?" Peeta asks.
I don't accept it this year. I can't. I want them both, just as much as I want the audience to want them both. No one is going to get what they want, but I'm going to have it as long as I can. Katniss isn't going to be the problem there -- she survives by instinct. Peeta plans to die. I have to make sure he's not in a rush to get there.
"When the gong sounds, get the hell out of there," I tell him, then turn my head a little to look at them both. "You're neither of you up to the bloodbath at the Cornucopia. Just clear out, put as much distance as you can between yourselves and others, and find a source of water. Got it?"
Katniss nods soberly. "And after that?"
I say again what got me in trouble with them in the first place, the only piece of advice that will ever matter in the arena: "Stay alive."
This time, they seem to realize that I'm not being flip. They look back at me for a long time, and I guess we all understand that it's as much as I can do to prepare them.
Katniss excuses herself to go to bed.
Peeta remains, and looks at Portia. "How long do the bandages stay on?" he asks.
"We'll leave them until you're ready to launch," Portia says. "Don't pick at them or try to look under them."
"The ointment kills the germs?"
"Kind of," Portia says. "It's growing a false skin to seal the wound, now that it's cleaned out. The cuts aren't deep, so the healing shouldn't interfere with you too much, and the seal will keep more infectors out. They should heal up in about three days."
"Yeah," Peeta says.
"And you're going to be there when they heal," I tell him. "You do what you need to do, and you survive as long as you can."
"I -- "
"You can't help her if you're dead."
"I guess it depends what I die for." He looks at his bandaged hands. "I guess I know what she'd have said if I'd ever asked her out, huh?"
"Not necessarily," Cinna says. "She's under a little stress. So are you."
He starts to head for bed. I catch him before he disappears down the hall. "You don't have to do this, Peeta," I tell him, one last time.
"I'm kind of committed now."
"You have options."
"I know. This is the one I'm choosing." He looks out the window at the Capitol. "Make it hurt them, Haymitch."
I can't think of anything to say to this.
"I don't think she'll make an alliance with me," he says. "So if I need allies… well, I might look for Char and see if they'll take me. Can you handle that if I do?"
"I'll ask, but she'll be with One and Two, and I'm not sure how that will go."
"I understand." He smiles at me, and it's Danny's smile, and then he disappears.
I stay up for another hour with Portia and Cinna. There's nothing left to talk about, but they stay with me anyway.
After they leave, I go to my room. I'm not surprised to hear the lock click on the mentor's wing of the apartment. The Capitol has occasionally indulged its desire to lock me up before. They've locked Chaff and Seeder in their rooms as well, and Jo has gotten this treatment at least one night every year since she won. I don't know what they think I'm going to do at this point. They could leave the whole compound unlocked, and I still wouldn't be able to do anything to stop tomorrow from coming.
I can't sleep. I turn on the small television in my bedroom. As usual the night before the Games, it's about the parties on the street. They look the same as ever, until they get to the District Twelve fans. It's a bigger group than usual. People are talking about how romantic it all is. The girls love Peeta, and are showing it by dressing up as Katniss. The first wave of experts comes on to talk about Katniss's stunned reaction at the interviews. What does it mean? The pre-Games crew -- the junior-ranked site producers who can't pull better duty -- are still out in Twelve, and a shaky-voiced young man says that he's been investigating, but hasn't found evidence that they know each other. They'll most likely be leaving tomorrow. Until the final eight, there's no reason to have more than a local cameraman or two on site to film reactions in the square.
I start going through my sponsor list.
They cut back to the studio, where Claudius Templesmith is covering the festivities. He has his finger pressed to his earpiece, which seems to be feeding him news of vast importance.
"We may have some information about what happened after Peeta Mellark's revelation tonight!" he announces breathlessly, as if it's a jury verdict on a major crime. "Cameras near the training center have spotted Mellark and Everdeen on the roof… and they appear to be having a very serious conversation!" He listens more. "We can't pick up sound, unfortunately. But perhaps our experts can help us suss out the body language!"
They cut to a grainy shot that must come from a building across the central courtyard. It shows all of the balconies, and the edge of the roof. Peeta is sitting on the low parapet, and Katniss is standing behind him. The angle doesn't even allow for lip reading. All it ends up showing is Peeta's head moving around a little bit, and Katniss storming back inside. Peeta stills and starts watching the city. I assume that's what he was doing in the first place. If I had the option, I'd go gather them and put them back to bed, but the Capitol removed that choice.
The analysts try to make sense of it. Their favored explanation appears to be that Katniss is overwhelmed by her emotions, and Peeta is giving her "room to think." No one mentions the fact that she's "thinking" about something impossible.
They go back to coverage of the parties.
I go to the door at the end of the hallway -- the one that leads from the mentor's wing to the rest of the apartment -- and I wiggle the doorknob, even though I know it's locked. I can't hear anything from the other side.
I go into Effie's room, which looks out on the same side of the building that was filmed, and try to open the window to call to Peeta to get inside, but of course, the windows don't open. I never had cause to find that out before.
I try to sleep. I'm going to need to be alert in the morning. I manage a kind of thin, useless drowsing. I hear the stylists come for the kids, but I can't quite wake up. Then they're gone.
There's a click, and the door unlocks, right about the time my alarm goes off.
I don't bother with breakfast. They'll have it at the Viewing Center. I find something decent and comfortable to wear, grab a bag with extra clothes in case I can't leave, and head out.
I walk over silently with Chaff and Seeder. The other mentoring victors are moving around us, some of them talking softly, most of them looking down at the pavement and trying to face what we're all about to deal with. By the time we get inside, most of us are putting on our Games faces. We pass the escort meeting, and I see Effie with a few of the others. She looks disturbed. Great.
I go to the District Twelve table. They replace it every year, I think. It certainly doesn't show the scars I seem to remember inflicting on it. It always looks the same when we start: Blameless white metal, with the two tribute screens set into the back of it, the controls set into the side, and a fresh, unopened supply list book in the center. I sit down and open the book, hoping to get an idea of the arena from what they're letting us buy. This year, I'll have money.
Which isn't going to go far.
I stare at the list with growing horror. Every item on it, even a bottle of water, is starting out in the stratosphere. With all the money pledged, I'm still going to be scrambling for supplies.
Effie comes in five minutes later, and I can tell that she's seen it already. She gets out the sponsor list.
"What's going on?" I ask her.
"New rule. They looked at the pre-Games pledges this year, and adjusted the district costs to make it a sliding scale, so it's 'equitable' at the start."
I let this settle in my brain. "In other words, it's to eat up our money."
"I'm sure it's meant to make things more fair. But they should have warned us. We could have waited to get pledges until later."
I shake my head. "I guess we'll be working the story as much as we can."
"Well, you know -- with Peeta and Katniss."
She gives me a puzzled look, and I realize that she's following the story, too, which means that to her, it's not a story. It's just what's happening.
I look back at the book. With the prices, either they're trying to force a quick Games, or the arena has what the tributes will need. Since the merchants of the Capitol love the Games, I guess it's the latter. I see water and purifiers, various kinds of medicine, and camping supplies on the list. There are also blankets, priced high at the start, so I expect a cold night or two. A few utility knives, but no outright weapons. They'll be dependent on whatever is at the Cornucopia, or whatever they can make.
The Games music comes on at ten sharp, with a montage of images from previous Hunger Games. I see Finnick going by in his chariot, Johanna raising her axe, Chaff throwing a tribute from a mountain ledge. I see myself laughing wildly on the cliff, and Beetee sending out a bright volt of electricity. I'm sure everyone else is in there as well, but it goes by too quickly to even recognize most of my friends.
The tributes rise up from the launch tubes (the point of view shot comes from little Rue this year). The camera pans the tributes as the countdown begins.
Katniss is directly across from the mouth of the Cornucopia and I can see her eyes on it. There is a silver bow and a sheath of arrows just waiting for her.
"Don't do it," I whisper.
She looks to one side, and I see Peeta about four down from her. He narrows his eyes.
She's looking at him when the gong sounds, and the race to the Cornucopia begins.
Peeta gets down from his platform and runs, skirting the circle at his top speed. He tosses the big boy from Seven out of his way, but seems to be otherwise unmolested.
Whether it was the last moment's hesitation or something else that brought her to her senses, she doesn't try for it. She grabs a piece of plastic and only runs a few yards in -- which is a few more yards than I'd like, but it's not all the way. She dives at an orange backpack and gets to it at the same time as the boy from District Nine. Neither of them sees the girl from Two. I yell, as if it can do any good at all.
The girl from Two -- identified as Clove on the screen -- throws the knife at full force, and the boy goes down. She's drawn another one to throw at Katniss before Katniss even realizes what's happening.
She rallies quickly and runs, raising the backpack behind her. Clove throws the knife, but it buries itself deep in the supplies, both missing and arming Katniss at the same time.
Her district partner, Cato, yells to her, and she runs back to the Cornucopia.
Katniss disappears into the woods.
I look at Peeta's screen to see where he's ended up, and if they're close enough for me to move them together.
Peeta hasn't run into the woods.
He's running, full tilt, toward the bloodbath at the Cornucopia.