I'm startled for a moment, but not really surprised. What Katniss did in the arena was more rebellious than anything I've managed, and she did it on live television, and Plutarch's note did say that Snow was less than thrilled.
I sit down across from him. "I guess I should be glad it took you so long," I say.
"Now, now. I'm not entirely heartless." He puts down the heavy sheaf of papers, and takes off his reading glasses. The cover is marked with an official seal and the word, CONFIDENTIAL in bright red letters. "You needed to look after our pair of victors, after all. And I needed to have a meaningful conversation with Seneca Crane."
My stomach rolls over lazily. "Why do I think this conversation ended with an opening for a new Head Gamemaker?"
"You've never been stupid. I've never been enough of a fool to imagine that you are." He shakes his head. "It's a pity. Seneca wasn't stupid, either. But I can't allow a high-ranking official in my government to bow to a defiant little girl."
"She wouldn't have had to do that if you'd let it go."
"And I won't bow to the second-rate theatrics of her mentor." He shakes his head. "Don't tell me you didn't plan this from the start. You were clearly preparing long before the reaping to pair your tributes and create a farce like this."
I decide not to argue. I shrug. "It was a Games strategy."
"It was an attempt to use my own people against me."
"The thought never crossed my mind. Ask anyone on the street. I never said one seditious word."
"Oh, I'm quite sure of that. You know exactly where the line is, and exactly how to walk on the edge of it. But this whole thing stinks of you, Abernathy. I recognize the stench from your Games. You never did play the other tributes. You were always playing the Gamemakers, and so was your protégé." He puts a hand on the papers he was reading. "Do you know what this is?"
"Judging by the cover, I'd say it's one of the many things you don't want me reading."
"Reports of hooliganism in the districts. Nothing that wasn't dealt with swiftly and effectively, mind you, but troubling nonetheless. It seems they were inspired by Miss Everdeen's little stunt to defy the authorities. Petty crimes. Vandalism. Insubordination. I understand that in District Five, the Head Peacekeeper was actually pelted with nightlock berries."
"What's your point?"
He leans forward. "My point -- as I'm quite sure you know -- is that what the girl did was sedition. She defied me, and has agitated malcontents all over the country."
"She was saving Peeta's life, and she wouldn't have had to do it if you hadn't forced her hand."
"The Hunger Games are not about tributes saving one another's lives."
"She loves the boy."
He snorts. "Please. I do have people in Twelve, you know, and I've had them investigating. She barely knows the boy. And another boy there has been… oh, shall we say, somewhat displeased with this display."
"You have your spies checking on high school gossip? Are you really that bored?"
"No one ever saw them so much as speak to one another."
"Which is exactly what Peeta said on Caesar's stage. They got to know each other in the arena. You saw it. So did the rest of the country." I stand up and go to the window. The crowds around the training center are getting bigger. In the darkening evening, I can see the faint ghost reflection of the room -- and the president -- superimposed on them. "She did what she had to."
"She was told to kill him, or let him die. He was told the same."
"That was never going to happen. She wouldn't have done that to a stranger, let alone Peeta."
"And therein lies the problem." Snow closes his report again. "I cannot and will not tolerate insubordination."
I don't answer.
Snow stands up. "I could charge her with treason," he says.
I point at the crowd. "They'd rip you to shreds."
"Which is why I'm going to give her a chance. Whatever happens, she is not to encourage defiance. She is not to be triumphal. It will be about the boy only. And she will be grateful for the mercy shown to them."
"Mercy," I repeat. "You need to look that word up."
He goes to the elevator and waits for the door to open. When he gets in, he says, "You're her mentor, Abernathy. See to it."
The doors close, and the elevator goes down.
It's nothing I didn't know. Plutarch warned me. But there's a difference between a note in an old code and a visit from the president of Panem.
I look at the bar. Just one drink, to calm my nerves. Who wouldn't want one after a visit from Snow? No need to get melodramatic about it.
I think of Peeta on the train, cleaning me up after I fell in my own filth. I think of him waking up, realizing that they've taken his leg. He's not going to need me lurching around his room and puking on the medical equipment.
I grab a book for the waiting room and leave.
When I get back to the hospital, they've finished the surgery on Katniss's ear. It's a painful few hours as it heals, so they're planning to keep her sedated until tomorrow. Peeta is still sleeping. Our Avox, Lavinia, is carrying a tray of sandwiches around. For all of Plutarch's worry when we arrived, her presence doesn't seem to have thrown Katniss much at all, at least not for long.
We're gathered in the waiting area. It's not something that happens every year, but when it's one of "ours," we always wait here, watching in shifts. Cecelia is watching Peeta. Beetee is watching Katniss. Seeder and Effie are having a long conversation over manicures (with Katniss's prep, Octavia, and Peeta's prep, Sergius), and Chaff is reading a book by the window. Wiress is back from her Capitol business, and tinkering with a music box. Finnick and Jo are lounged on couches, watching a television show about competitive cat shows. A middle-aged woman in a cat-eared red wig is discussing "Mr. Pettifur"'s special diet. She's also acquired a new kitten, which she shows off proudly. It has long black hair. Its name is Cat-niss. Of course.
"What kept you?" Jo asks.
"A congratulatory visit from the president."
Finnick rolls his eyes. "I'll bet."
"Weren't you two going to go and deflect attention?"
"There's no deflecting it," Finnick says. "If they get any more popular, I may have to make room in the spotlight."
I go over and sit with Effie and Seeder. "Any news other than Katniss's surgery?"
"Nothing. I've been expecting a visit from the Head Gamemaker. It's generally considered polite."
"Snow suggested that Crane is… otherwise occupied."
Effie makes an irritated little sound, not catching the idea at all, though Seeder's eyes go wide.
I get a call from Caesar in the middle of the afternoon, wanting me to come in for an interview. He seems delighted with the entire situation, and wants full reports on the kids. He's especially happy that Peeta made it through, and jokes that Peeta can take over his job next year if he wants to.
He doesn't ask me what this means to all of Panem. I'm guessing Snow had a conversation with him as well. He does ask me what I'll do with neighbors ("Shun them") and how I really feel about the kids. I tell him that they're good kids, smart kids. I like them. "But if they get mushy around me, I'll have to throw them in ice water."
"They're certainly popular here," he says. "I haven't seen anything like this since Finnick Odair. I'm sleeping in the studio!"
"You always sleep in the studio."
"True. But now I'm doing it because I couldn't get through the crowd if I tried!" Caesar gives his on-camera laugh. "How do you think they'll feel about all of this when they've recovered?"
He smiles, and I'm grateful for the question. It gives me a chance to build a little breathing space for them, which I'm sure is Caesar's intention. "Well, I think they're both going to be a little overwhelmed by all the support they've gotten here in the Capitol. I can tell you from experience, it's very strange, and I only got a fraction of what it's going to be like for them. Katniss is a very private person anyway, so she might take some time to come out of her shell, but I promise, she'll be grateful for all the help. Peeta… he's been through a lot over the last few weeks. I wouldn't expect him to be joking about the showers again quite yet."
"That's true. Is he aware yet of the extent of his injuries?"
"Is the audience?"
Caesar nods. "The amputation is public knowledge."
"I don't think Peeta's really absorbed it yet. He's an athletic kid. It's not going to be easy."
"Well, he certainly has the love of the Capitol to help him through it. Doesn't he?" He gestures to the fifty or so people who've been allowed in for the live taping, and they cheer wildly. "And the love of Katniss Everdeen, which undoubtedly will mean more to him."
I know that we have to go through this farce if I'm going to keep Snow from charging Katniss with treason. I even know that Katniss does love Peeta. But it's still uncomfortable. I don't feel like it's my story to tell. "Aw, come on, Caesar. Do you really think I'm the best guy to talk about love stories? I have to watch the gossip shows to find out what my love life is."
This gets a laugh, and Caesar uses it to segue into a lighter tone. He talks about what he's looking forward to in getting to know Katniss and Peeta over the years. "I want her to sing for me!" he says. "I don't even care if it's on camera."
When the interview is over, he walks back to the training center hospital with me. He's uncharacteristically quiet most of the way. Just before we reach the earshot of the guards at the front of the building, he stops and says, "Haymitch, I think you know a great deal about love."
"Right, that's me. A real romantic lead. Great with the sappy greeting card poetry. Always -- "
"I remember Indigo."
I stop talking. I like Caesar, but I don't like hearing my girl's name come from the mouth of anyone in the Capitol. Even Effie only uses it when I've really gone off the rails.
"I remember her, and I remember Maysilee. I remember your mother and your brother. I talked to them quite a lot during your Games."
I start walking again.
Caesar catches my arm. "Haymitch, I've seen the way you've been working for these kids. I saw the way they talked to you from the arena, and I saw you work every connection in the Capitol making a miracle for them. You should have seen yourself this year. I know Snow thinks it was about your politics, but I don't believe that for a second. I don't know if you were joking about shunning them or not, but you shouldn't. You should let them in. You should let yourself love them. You're at your best when you love people."
"Right. Because that worked out great for the people you just mentioned."
"You're alone too much."
I shake my head. "Who's alone? I've got an escort and half a dozen victors upstairs waiting for me. I'm fine."
I walk away from him, leaving him alone in the twilight, and head back up to the hospital level.
Only Effie and Cinna are there.
I frown. "Where is everyone?"
They look at each other guardedly, then Cinna says, "While you were in the studio, Snow sent out an order that only victors involved in the closing ceremony could stay in the Capitol."
"What? They've always -- "
"They all had to go pack up. They'll be on the next train out to District Six."
I sit down. "Well, Finnick's probably relieved, anyway."
"Actually, he said to tell you that he's sorry," Effie says. "And Johanna said so as well."
"Well, in her own way."
"She yelled at the Gamemakers for about ten minutes," Cinna says, grinning. "Then she said to remind you that you're an old fart, since she wouldn't have another chance this year."
"And the rest?" I ask. "Any other messages?"
"Chaff grumbled a lot and said to be careful. Beetee said he'd try to argue the case, but I suspect he lost the argument. Wiress… well, you know Wiress. She was too confused to say much."
Effie comes over. "And Cecelia and Seeder both said to give you this."
She hugs me and kisses my cheek.
I hug her back, but my heart's not exactly in it.
We stay together in the waiting area. Portia joins us after a while. She's been directing Peeta's preps to work around his tubes and get him cleaned up. It seems macabre to me, but I guess they did the same with me. And maybe it's better to wake up not feeling filthy. I don't know. Katniss's preps are in and out with her as well. They've taken care of her nails and finished untangling her hair.
The doctors finally come to shoo us all out, assuring us that Peeta and Katniss are both sleeping, and we should sleep as well. Effie and I go back to the apartment. The others fight the crowds to go home.
Morning brings more media appearances. I return to the children's puppet show, where a pink and silver girl puppet named Tibi takes my hand and asks me if I'm as happy as everyone else. I tell her that I certainly am. She tells me that she wants to be just like Katniss when she grows up. I tell her it's a fine goal, but there's only one Katniss, and that she should be the very best Tibi she can be instead. The puppeteer looks surprised behind her wall. I guess that wasn't the line I was supposed to give. Maybe they should have given me a script.
After the puppet show, I meet Effie for a press conference, where we thank our sponsors. She also has invitations to the Daughters' headquarters for lunch. I check in with the hospital. The kids are still asleep.
When we get to the Daughters', I'm surprised to find quite a lot of activity. There are Capitol trunks out front, and furniture is being moved out.
Aquila and a few of the other ladies wave to me from the porch, where there's a nice lunch set out. It's a conspicuously alcohol-free meal. Laurentia Hoops complains about the lack of wine, only to get a very stern look from Aquila.
"I was glad to get an invite," I say. "Hope I held up my end of the deal for you."
Aquila smiles. "You certainly did."
"Not offended anymore?"
"Oh, quite offended by how I have no doubt you'll spend the rest of the year. But I suppose I'll forgive you."
"Good. The last thing I'd want is to lose the Daughters."
Severina Bottler gasps back a sob.
"What is it?" I ask. "Did something happen? What's going on here?"
Ulpia Jakes sniffs into her handkerchief. "Oh, it's nothing."
I look at Aquila. "Do I have to kill someone for you?"
She smiles. "Hardly." She takes a deep breath. "Our charter has been revoked. That's all. It's not a tragedy, and it's entirely my fault. It seems I expressed things in my capacity as leader that were not entirely consistent with the charter's stated goals."
"What stated goals?"
"The glory of the Capitol," Ulpia says. "They didn't like that she compared us to a district. It's so ridiculous! Who wouldn't be proud to be like District Twelve right now? I'm still proud to be a District Twelve sponsor!"
"As are we all!" Firmina Sanders declares, standing up with her glass of orange juice raised to the sky. "To District Twelve!"
The others echo the toast, as fiercely as is possible for small older women who think it gauche to raise their voices -- which is much more fiercely than I would expect.
"Thank you," I say, and raise my glass in turn. "To the Daughters, the Founders, and my good friends."
We go back to our meal, and they go back to the tales of their ancestors. I mix it up a little by telling them about mine. They actually seem interested.
After it's over, I take a walk in the garden with Aquila. We go far enough to be out of earshot of the workers who are now moving out the portraits.
"Are you ladies in trouble?" I asked. "Do you need… help?"
She smiles. "Most of them aren't. I may be."
"Do you need to disappear?"
"I can disappear on my own. And I probably will, very soon." She looks out over the gardens. "This isn't the city we founded. This isn't what we were meant to be."
"You have nothing to be sorry for. There are other people I intend to make sorry."
"Will you be all right?"
"I will. You be safe. And don't be foolish."
"What do you mean?"
She sits down on a low wall. "There are a lot of roads to take to… to a place we'd rather be. To Panem as it should be. A lot of those roads look open. Easy. Some might even look fun, or at least just, after everything. But the map of history shows that most of the roads only lead to terror. Bloodshed. The destruction of everything that matters. So be careful, Mr. Abernathy. Be careful which road you choose. Make sure it leads to a better place than the one we're leaving."
"I wish I could see all the roads."
"Don't we all." She turns and smiles faintly. "You should go now. We may not see each other next year. But I'll be around. You can bet on it."
I nod and leave, my worry not remotely assuaged.
Effie and I go back to the hospital. Katniss has woken up long enough to have lunch, and Lavinia indicates that she asked about Peeta first. She tried to struggle out of bed after eating, but they sedated her again.
I spend a long time sitting by her that afternoon, hoping she'll wake up, but she doesn't. I read in the chair by her bed. It's just another mystery. I read a chapter of it out loud to her, but I doubt she hears it.
She's scheduled for another cosmetic procedure in the evening, and I go to sit with Peeta. The lights are off, and I'm anticipating another long spell with the book. It takes me a little bit to register that his eyes are open.
"Hey," I say.
"Hey." His voice is soft and harsh, and his eyes are red.
"How are you?"
"My leg is gone."
I look down and realize that the brace that was over his legs has been moved. He can clearly see that one leg is missing from the knee down. "Peeta…"
"Were you planning to tell me?"
"When you got stronger. I didn't know you were awake. When did you wake up?"
"I don't know. It was already dark. I went to reach for the button." He looks down the bed. "I didn't believe it. I thought I was having a nightmare. I can feel my toes, Haymitch. Where's my foot? What did they do with my leg?"
"I'm not sure, Peeta."
"Is it buried? Burned?"
"I don't know. Do you want me to find out?"
"I want them to put it back!"
"They couldn't. They tried. But some things, they just can't do."
He turns his face away. "What am I supposed to do?"
"There are good prosthetics. If you want one."
His shoulders hitch, but when he speaks, his voice is calm. "Leave me alone."
"Peeta -- "
"Please, Haymitch. I'm okay. I'll be okay. Just… let me be alone."
Against my better judgment, I leave.
By morning, he's come to some kind of peace with it. There's a young woman from the college talking to him about acceptance, anyway. He tells me that he wants a prosthetic, if he can't have his real leg. The doctors agree that the cell growth has taken hold and he's strong enough to handle the surgery. We spend an hour or so going through a medical supply catalog with a doctor to pick the one that's best for him. The one he chooses is robotic, and will respond to his nervous system's signals. It will be almost like having a natural leg, as long as he doesn't look at it, though the doctor says it will take time to get used to. It will feed off his body's electrical energy, the same as the rest of the nervous system. He starts to make a joke about becoming a robot superhero, one limb at a time, but he's not ready for it. His voice cracks, and he turns away again.
I ask if he wants me to have them bring Katniss up from her sedation before the surgery. He seems horrified at the thought of her seeing him like this. I let it go.
The next day, while he's in surgery, I find a group of junior Gamemakers in Katniss's room. They're measuring her, and taking photographs.
I grab the camera and shove the photographer out of the way. "What the hell are you doing?"
"We're thinking about closing events!" he says. "They've nearly finished repairing the arena damage, but she's still too… scrawny. She won't look like a victor on stage. We were just thinking she could use some enhancements." He gestures at his chest, making round shapes with his hands.
"She is a victor, and if you even think about doing that, you're going to remember that I'm a victor, too, and I still remember how to use a knife."
A young woman rolls her eyes. "Really, Mr. Abernathy, you're overreacting. It's the sort of surgery that half the girls in the Capitol beg their parents for. Just a little cosmetic tweaking to make her young man go wild for her."
"If she wakes up begging for you to inflate her chest, then maybe I'll let you near her. But right now, I'm her guardian, and you're not touching her. And as to her young man, he's fine with her as she is."
Another woman, a bit older than the others, says, "I don't see what your problem is. This is a matter of Games production value. It's part of her style!"
"It's not her style. It's your style. Get out of here! Now! She needs rest!"
"She's a star! She should look like one!"
"Did you hear me? I said get out of here, or I'm going to throw you out."
This finally catches the attention of hospital security, and they decide to throw all of us out. The junior Gamemakers assure me that we're not done with this conversation. They're right. The next day, while Peeta is in recovery, I'm called to a meeting with the full staff of Gamemakers. Cinna comes with me. No one has taken on the position of Head Gamemaker yet, but I notice Plutarch carefully positioning himself to be seen and heard. I don't know if it's about his rebellion or his ambition. He takes my side, at least, though, to my fury, he agrees that "something" must be done about her clearly inadequate physical condition.
Cinna is the one who finally comes up with a compromise. He promises that he'll cover the marks of her starvation (such as it was -- I can see skinnier girls on the Seam every day who are considered well-nourished) by padding her clothes for the cameras, and have the make-up team give her a healthy glow.
"They want to turn her into a tart," I say. "Don't help them."
"Oh, I have other plans. The Capitol loved the innocence. They're going to get so much innocence that they'll choke on it." He heads back to his studio to start putting quilted pads in his dresses.
Peeta is still nervous about seeing Katniss, and she's sedated for a last pass at the scar on her forehead. Caesar tells me that people want to see them together, but since Peeta is self-conscious about his leg, he'll give it time by promising them a big reunion show for the viewing of the highlight reel. I concentrate on working with Peeta to get him confident enough walking with a cane to show up on stage in a few days. He starts walking between parallel bars, holding himself up with his strong arms and shoulders. He trips and falls quite a lot at first, even though the prosthetic is working. He's just not used to it. They say it used to take a lot longer, but Capitol medicine will supposedly conquer even this.
"I can't do this," he mutters. "I need more time."
"I wish I could give you more. But I can't. Katniss has no idea that you lost your leg. Do you want me to tell her ahead of time?"
He shakes his head furiously and goes back to the bars. By the end of the day, he manages to let go and lurch a few steps with the cane. His face is red and he's sweating badly. I make him go back to bed.
The next day is the same. Katniss swims up to consciousness long enough to have a bowl of soup, then they knock her out again. I ask why. No one can tell me. They have orders to keep her sedated. Maybe they're worried that she'll go looking for Peeta and spoil the big reunion.
Finally, after a little over a week, they decide that Peeta can balance well enough to walk across Caesar's stage, and Katniss is as physically perfect as I'll allow them to make her. They set up the cameras in the waiting areas -- now separated by a false wall -- and put the laundered arena costumes in the hospital rooms. Peeta's is in shreds. Portia goes in to help him figure out how to wear it. Cinna will wait for Katniss with Effie and me, then take her for a fitting after they get the greetings on film. Then Effie and I will join Portia to greet Peeta.
It takes longer than they expected for Katniss to come up from their drug-induced stupor, and the production team hidden behind another false wall is getting impatient by the time she appears from her room, caught on a hidden camera in the hall.
"Peeta!" she calls, looking around.
Effie gets up, smiling broadly. "Katniss?"
Katniss turns, her eyes wide, and spots us.
She starts to run. I expect at first that she's running to Cinna, her rock through the pre-Games events.
But it's me she launches herself at. I barely have time to open my arms when she falls into them, burying her head against my chest.
I hold her tight and whisper, "Nice job, sweetheart."