FernWithy (fernwithy) wrote,

The Last Tribute: Chapter Twenty-Six

After they recover, Katniss and Peeta rejoin their teams. Katniss comes straight to Haymitch and hugs him, and he says, "Nice job, sweetheart."

Chapter Twenty-Six
Katniss stays in my arms for a minute or so. She's probably pretending I'm Glen. I can't imagine she'd be holding onto me this tightly. I don't mind. I let her. She needs someone, and I'm here. Effie pats her hair and keeps saying something about pearls from coal. I think she said something like that during training. It sounds ridiculous, but Katniss doesn't call her on it, and neither do I. Her heart's in the right place, and the Capitol doesn't know any better anyway.

She finally lets go of me and hugs Cinna and Effie, then panics momentarily when she realizes that Portia and Peeta aren't here.

"He's fine," I tell her. "Only they want to do your reunion live on the air at the ceremony."

"Oh, that's all." She relaxes immediately. "I guess I'd want to see that myself."

I send her off with Cinna. I doubt she'll have trouble selling the story, not if she gets panicked this easily at the thought of Peeta not being with her.

Effie and I move over to Peeta's side of the wall, where Portia is waiting nervously. "He was up all night," she says. "The amount of makeup on his eyes… I hope they don't go for a close up shot."

I don't mention it, but I doubt they'll put this reunion on the reel at all. First of all, the Capitol is mainly seeing Katniss as the star, with Peeta as a supporting player. More importantly, there's absolutely no way that even a Capitol audience will believe that the boy they saw dragged up from the arena was able to cheerfully greet his mentor, escort, and stylist at the hospital as soon as they wheeled him in (I'm assuming they'll have him in a wheelchair, anyway, since they won't want him lurching around the stage). It would break the suspension of disbelief. My guess is that they'll show Peeta being taken to surgery, then cut in Katniss falling into my arms, then move on to the closing segment, if they bother with these shots at all. The whole thing started in Jo's year. She was in isolation for three weeks and came back from it perfectly healthy and energetic. Someone caught Jack hugging her on the roof of the Training Center and swinging her around, glimmering in the Capitol sunset.

The shot was a great favorite of the audience, and it was hastily inserted into the highlight reel. The next year, they caught Finnick wrapping Annie in a blanket and carrying her inside, and it was also a popular shot. They tried to catch the same kind of shot with Otho Magro the year after, but Brutus was already yelling at him about something, so they couldn't make use of the real footage. Instead, they started staging reunions to be cut in. Otho's edited-in greeting looked fake and wasn't well-loved. Ravish's embrace of Gloss the next year went better, but last year's winner, Livius Frango, was even worse with Brutus than Otho. If this year's doesn't fit, they'll probably call a stop to the fad.

It doesn't matter. They go through the motions, in case there's anything good.

By their standards, there isn't.

By my standards, what happens next is nothing short of a miracle. The door to Peeta's room opens. We see him come out on a small screen, caught by a hidden camera. He stumbles briefly, then plants his cane solidly on the floor. He's carefully made up, and wearing what looks more like an artfully rendered ragged uniform than the actual rags he wore out of the arena. He looks like a movie star playing the part of a wounded tribute… and forgetting to have any real trouble.

I realize that he must have spent the night up in his room learning to walk again. Having seen him struggle in physical therapy, with all the assistive equipment, I can only imagine him struggling around his hospital room, fighting with the cane -- getting up from his spills and making himself move forward, stand straighter, and look ahead instead of down.

"Peeta!" I call. "We're down here."

He smiles, but doesn't hurry up. He keeps a steady, even pace, his cane clicking on the floor in counterpoint to the heavy thud of his mechanical foot. Effie starts to go to him, but I hold her back.

Peeta emerges at the end of the hall. He raises an eyebrow, as if challenging me to mention something about the fact that he can walk. I don't.

When he gets near me, I can see the stress lines in his jaw, the sweat starting to pool in his temples.

I ruffle his carefully arranged curls. "You," I tell him, "are crazy."

He smiles. "I tried to lose the cane, too. I ran out of time."

"I think I just lost the title for most stubborn cuss in District Twelve."

I hold out my hand and he shakes it.

Out of nowhere, I laugh. I have no idea why. It just comes up from somewhere inside me, and I let it come. Peeta's not up to laughing, but he grins back at me and playfully knocks a few of my curls out of place.

"Honestly, both of you," Effie says, exasperated, and throws her arms around Peeta.

He hugs her back solidly and gives her a kiss on the cheek, then looks at me over her head. "I guess I see Katniss on the stage, right?"

"Caesar gave you as much time as he could. And she has no idea about…" I point vaguely at his leg.

He nods. "Well, at least maybe she won't be too worried about it now. I think I have a handle on it."

Effie finally relinquishes him to Portia, who leads him away to get him ready for the interviews. Once the cameramen call "cut," he lets himself favor the leg a little bit.

"We should get you ready," Effie says when he's gone and the production team is packing up. "Everyone will want to see you."

"I doubt that."

"Okay, probably not," she agrees. "But they'll be glad to see you, and you owe it to yourself to go out there looking good. At the moment, you look like you haven't slept well in ages, and your hair is a wreck and you smell like it's been a while since you had a shower and --"

"All right, Effie. I'll take care of my many failings."

"I didn't mean it that way." She purses her lips and draws in her eyebrows. "Really, Haymitch. You've just done something that ought to be impossible. You did it. You brought them both through."

"They got themselves through. I just got them money and tried to work the angles. They still wouldn't have gotten through if Katniss hadn't done what she did."

Effie sighs and shakes her head. "You really have no idea who you are, do you? What you've done?" She takes my hands. "I'm so proud of you, Haymitch! I want you to go out there looking like a hero. You deserve it!"

"You sound like my mother."

She rolls her eyes hugely. "That's either the best or worst thing you've ever said to me. I'll decide which later." She comes up on her toes and kisses my cheek, then lets go of my hands starts to pace. "Now go upstairs and clean up. I'll send someone over in two hours to see to your hair. Cinna has a suit set aside for you, I think. I'll call his studio to send it up. You should be ready by" -- she checks her watch -- "three-thirty, I think. After the highlight reel, there's the victory banquet --"

"I remember that."

"-- at which you will stay far from the bar."

"I'll be okay. I can't afford to drink yet."

"Haymitch, you should stop entirely. You've made it this far. You don't need to add 'yet.' I should have Merle clear out your supplies at home --"

"Effie, come on. I made it. I can do it. I can control it."

She looks unconvinced, which is fair. I'm not sure I have any intention of staying sober back in Twelve, whether I technically can or not. The idea of finishing all of this up and just getting back to normal is appealing.

Effie grimaces and goes on. "After the banquet, it will be late. We'll need to get back to the apartment and get them to sleep before the final interviews. They'll be on the air at two for that, so we'll want them up for prep by nine-thirty. Your fan club wants an interview before you go -- you know Erastus, he's very excited -- so I'll set that up while they're in prep. You won't have to be on camera during the interview, though of course, Caesar will want to meet with you as well, before he talks to them. And then, after the interview --"

"Effie, stop scheduling."

"It's a very tight schedule, Haymitch. I'm not even sure when I'll get a chance to say goodbye to you before the train leaves. Well, other than the public goodbye, of course, which will be focused on them. I suppose we can skip that, I'll see you for the Victory Tour in January anyway. Please be sober. That's going to be a major event, and --"

"Effie!" I grab her shoulder. "I can deal with the next two days, but don't schedule me for January yet."

"I have to! It's not just what you did for them. It's also going to be a Quell year, and you're the outgoing Quell victor. There are going to be events."

I doubt this -- I doubt very sincerely that Snow will want the audience paying any more attention to me than can possibly be avoided -- but I don't say so. "Calm down," I tell her. "It'll all come together."

"Of course it will -- if I make sure of it." She smiles and pats my arm. "Go on upstairs and take care of yourself. I need to go find something fiery to wear. Cinna offered me a dress but it was so… I didn't feel comfortable in it."

"Effie?" I call as she starts to go.


"Think 'hearth' more than 'wildfire.'"

She nods and runs off to the elevator, leaving me alone to catch my breath. I look into a mirror on the wall. She's right, as usual. I look like death warmed over. My clothes are hanging on me. I guess I haven't been eating all that much for the past few weeks.

I take the elevator up to the apartment alone. Through the window, I can see that the crowds are even bigger than they were before. There are people already camping out for good seats in City Center, and the Peacekeepers are holding them behind the barricades.

I take a shower. When I get out, I see that our Avoxes have set up a light lunch for me, and laid out a suit from Cinna. It's not overtly fire-related, but the shirt is a shimmery grayish white that brings smoke to mind, and the tie is bright red. Like the shirt, it's made of a light-catching material, and it seems to flicker when I hold it up in the sunlight.

Lavinia comes in with a tray of shrimp. It's round, and, to my confusion, openly displays the sign of the mockingjay.

"Really?" I say.

She bites her lip, obviously thinking about how to express something, then pulls me to the window. She waves her arm at the crowd, then makes a fluttering motion with her fingers.

"They're wearing the mockingjay?"

She nods and makes an expansive gesture.

"Everyone's wearing it."

Another nod.

"So it doesn't mean anything."

A rocking motion of her hand. Maybe, maybe not.

She points at the shrimp and holds up four fingers.

"Gift from Four?"

She switches to three fingers and thrusts her arm forward like a spear.

"From Finnick," I guess.

She snaps her fingers, nods, and leaves.

From Finnick, the mockingjay is not a meaningless symbol. There are daily airlifts of fresh seafood from Four to the Capitol (apparently, they don't care for frozen fish), so it's always made a good smuggling medium. I dump the shrimp into a bowl and carefully examine the tray. There's nothing as obvious as a lining paper. It takes a bit, but I finally feel the way the plastic seems to bubble in the middle. The edge of the tray is thick, and feels a little bumpy.

Two trays welded together.

I use a knife to cut off the edge, and inside, I find a white envelope. It's thin enough to avoid security. I open it. He hasn't bothered with code, though he's careful not to mention anything especially rebellious. They could scold him for unapproved communication if they'd found it, but not treason.

Sorry I missed the chance to say goodbye this year. It's been quite the year, hasn't it?

Johanna and I talked a few times, and we think that your star-crossed lovers may need a break from the cameras before the tour, so we're going to do our best to keep the gossip pages busy. Sorry if that's stealing their thunder, but I remember that first year. I don't wish that nonsense on anyone, and they're going to be hounded to death if we don't do something about it. Imagine us as white knights charging to the rescue, so they get some breathing room, though I guess we'll probably look more like clowns coming out of a little tiny car.

Chaff and Seeder said they'd clean up the mess -- you know the one! -- and Beetee said that he and Wiress have to try and get the power up in Three, anyway. Mags said to tell you that she can still manage her slingshot, if you need her help. Cinna's got Cecelia looking for new fabrics so we'll all be looking our best. Berenice and Paulin from Six… well. You know. They send their best. Jo says that Jack's excited about the win, and is looking for places in Seven to show off.

Take care of yourself. My mother says to stop climbing trees. (Your guess is as good as mine on that.)

Looking forward to seeing you in Four for the Victory Tour. We'll have to go swimming.

I destroy the note, but I'm glad he sent it. Chaff and Seeder are trying to hold things back in Eleven until we have everything in place. Beetee and Wiress are trying to stir up the stolid District Three. Cecelia will be passing information through Cinna. Jack's looking around Seven for something, hopefully escape routes if the Capitol comes down on them. I have no idea why Finnick's mother is talking about trees, and if Finnick means something by the swimming comment, it's lost on me, but at least he and Jo will be trying to help Katniss and Peeta as well as they can. I'm a little worried about just how they're going to grab the gossip pages, but I guess they know what they're doing.

About half an hour after I finish the note, the young man Effie sends to do my hair arrives. He's a good little Capitol Dreamer, all about the glory of the Games. He's wearing a mockingjay pin and, while he's washing me up and brushing me out, he tells me all about how he's going to learn to do his hair like Peeta's, and he's already spending most of his days in the shop doing extensions on Capitol girls so they can wear a braid like Katniss's.

"I think the grown men ought to want your hair," he says as he shines up the curls. "Though maybe you should cover up a couple of the whites. You want me to do that?"

"I have whites?"

"Only a few. Easy to see against the black, though." He holds up a pair of mirrors, one reflecting the top of my head into the other. Sure enough, I can see about five white hairs weaving their way through the rest. It's a strange thing. I never noticed them before. "But they'd only take a few minutes to clear up."

"It's okay. I've earned some gray hair."

He looks puzzled. "I could just get some dye and --"

There is suddenly a persistent, soft beeping from my room.

"Do you want to get your telephone?"

I frown. With the Games over, and everyone getting ready for interviews, I can't think who'd be calling. I take the towel off from around my neck and go back to answer, sending the boy away with a tip, even though he isn't quite finished.

It's Merle Undersee. He smiles. It doesn't resemble his usual good cheer. "Haymitch! Hello. I wanted to wish the kids luck with their events this afternoon, but I imagined they'd be in prep. I guess you are, too. Sorry."

"It's okay."

"You wouldn't believe how busy it is here. The bakery's practically overrun -- mostly the new Peacekeepers they've sent out."

I sit down. "To… control the crowds."

"Yeah. You know. Because everyone's excited. Madge was telling me that she can't wait to hear about how Katniss Everdeen fell in love, since she never seemed like the type."

"Well, I'm sure everyone saw it."

"It would still be great to hear it in her own words. That's what everyone from the Capitol is saying they want to hear about, too." His smile widens and becomes more brittle, and I realize: Snow is waiting for Katniss to make a mistake. He has Peacekeepers ready to respond to any agitation.

And while I have no doubt that Katniss loves Peeta -- she's not very subtle about it -- I'm not sure Katniss knows it, or knows exactly how much she irritated the Capitol when she defied the Gamemakers. She doesn't know that Seneca Crane is dead. She hasn't been dealing with Snow for two and a half decades, and for all her affected cynicism, she doesn't have the slightest idea how bad things can get, any more than I did before Snow killed my mother and my brother.

My assumption that she'd do well just by loving him was premature. She's going to have to tell the story. And as far as I know, she doesn't know the story.

"Well," I say, "I'll make sure Caesar gets her to talk about it. You take care of Twelve, Merle. I'll get their victors back in one piece."

"You do that."

We pass a few more innocuous pleasantries, then hang up.

I sit down heavily on my bed. Great. The rebellion needs the berries to be the center of attention, and Snow needs the romance. Katniss and Peeta will need a break from each other.

I have no idea how to prioritize it, and I can't even begin to explain it to the kids.

I guess I can let other people worry about the rebellion. I doubt there's any holding it back now, not really. They saw her defy the Capitol. They're not going to unsee it.

I take it out of my calculations. I can think of some rebels who won't love me for that.

The other two problems are the Capitol and the kids. If I told them to stay together forever, right now, I think they'd do it. I also think that everything they've gone through is going to turn this twisted fairy tale they spun into poison. Neither of them has any idea what the truth is. They need to be separated long enough to understand whatever is there between them. But if they're separated, then the Capitol will accuse them of treason.

I have to find a way to give them some distance and still tell them to keep the image up in public, and I can be pretty sure that we're going to be watched too closely to explain it. I can't even let them speculate on it with each other in any place likely to be bugged. I don't think Snow will arrest them today, not with the mob outside, but when it all dies down, he'll use anything they say as evidence. He might even use it to turn the audience against them, if they say something that makes the strategy clear enough.

I try to reach Caesar, to get him to drive the public appearance this afternoon, but he's already in the studio, and they won't put me through.

I have to talk to Katniss. Peeta's committed to the idea, and I'm reasonably sure he knows she's fallen in love with him, so he'll play it right anyway. I'm suddenly terrified that she won't.

I get dressed quickly and put my hair in some kind of order, then go downstairs, hoping I can beat them there. I don't. They've put up another false wall under Caesar's outdoor stage. Portia is finishing Peeta's prep in the usual area -- the area where everything is sure to be stable -- and he's working on ways to make himself stay upright when the platform puts him out on the stage. On the other side of it, I see Katniss standing beside her own plate. Cinna makes a few final adjustments, then he and the preps make a run for their dressing rooms.

The crowd noise is a constant undertone, like a running fountain. I can hope here that it might cover anything I say, as long as I don't say it loudly. It will have to look natural, too.

I go to her and touch her shoulder.

She jumps.

"Easy," I tell her. "Just me. Let's have a look at you." She steps back and turns once. Cinna has rolled back her age several years. She looks about thirteen in a sweet yellow dress, with a matching ribbon in her hair. He even has her in flat shoes. I wonder if he had a long and meaningful conversation with Finnick at some point. "Good enough," I say.

She doesn't miss the fact that I'm keyed up. "But what?"

I look around the room. There's no place for a spy to hide. There are two cameras hidden high up in the rafters, but I don't see evidence of anything else. "But nothing," I say. "How about a hug for luck?"

She frowns, obviously confused by this, but steps into my arms willingly enough. I turn her face away from the cameras I've spotted. I lock my hands at the small of her back so she can't move away and whisper in her ear, "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."

She stiffens up in my embrace for a moment, but catches on quickly. She forces a laugh for the cameras and says, "So, what?"

"Your only defense can be you were so madly in love you weren't responsible for your actions." It's as plain as it can be. There's more to it, of course, but there's no way to tell her now. She'll get it from here. I pull away and straighten her hairband, as if I've just been giving her tips on how to appear on Caesar's stage. "Got it, sweetheart?"

"Got it," she says. "Did you tell Peeta?"

I shake my head. "Don't have to. He's already there."

She straightens my bow-tie. I resist a completely alien urge to hug her again. "But you think I'm not?" she asks.

I'm not sure I could answer that even if we had all the time and freedom in the world, so I just say, "Since when does it matter what I think? Better take our places." I move her over to the tube. I'd forgotten how much this resembled the tubes going up into the arena. She doesn't seem to be thinking about it, and it's better not to remind her. "This is your night, sweetheart," I tell her. "Enjoy it."

The last is impossible. I know it is. But she'd best seem like it.

I kiss her forehead. I don't know why. She visibly relaxes when I do.

I head for the dressing rooms, where the rest of the team is waiting. We go up one at a time. The preps get as big a round of applause as some victors I've seen over the years. Effie gets huge cheers, which she has earned for every single year she's put up with me. I'm guessing she knows something is off-kilter, because when I see her on the screen, she's playing the audience beautifully, throwing kisses like Katniss did during the parade and putting her hands over her heart.

Portia and Cinna go up next, and they also get well-deserved applause.

By the time I go up, I assume that the audience is so impatient to see Katniss that all they'll give me is a cursory welcome, but as soon as I appear, the whole crowd explodes in cheers. They stomp their feet and holler and call my name. I don't remember them being this loud when I was the victor.

I see President Snow's face on the giant screen. He's smiling coldly, but when he catches me looking, he looks back at me through the cameras. It's one thing for them to cheer besotted kids. It's another for them to cheer me, and I know it. I hold up my hands and gesture toward the tubes that will bring the kids up, and raise my hand to ask them to cheer for Katniss and Peeta instead.

They do.

As the volume rises, the lights on the tubes go on, and a moment later, there is a deafening roar as the kids appear on stage.

Katniss nearly runs across to Peeta. He loses his balance and lurches backward, but it looks natural enough, given the circumstances. They catch each other and he kisses her. On the screen (which I assume is not showing on the national broadcast), Snow looks on with distaste. It doesn't matter. The audience is going wild and paying no attention whatsoever to Coriolanus Snow.

I have no idea how long Caesar lets this go before he taps Peeta's shoulder. Peeta playfully shoves him away, getting a huge laugh from the audience (and from Caesar himself). Caesar finally comes to me and asks me to do the honors.

I put a hand on each of their heads and lead them to the little love seat they've installed in place of the Victor's Throne. I think it's from Caesar's little studio. I'm glad. That ivory-inlaid black chair is uncomfortable, and it's depressing. Katniss sits beside Peeta, close enough to touch, but it still looks a little forced. I raise an eyebrow at her. She kicks her shoes off, puts her head on Peeta's shoulder, and slips her arms around him. He puts an arm over her shoulders.

Caesar smiles. "Well," he says, "I guess she noticed him."

The audience laughs and calls out to the kids, expressing their adoration.

Caesar makes a few more fond jokes, but the real item on the agenda today is the highlight reel. Three hours of reliving the Games. Three hours of horror. I envy the kids, no matter how much trouble they're in. They can hold onto each other. I was alone in that hellish chair.

Now, I watch it all again, with their careful framing of the story. As always, they skip the filler material, and stay in the arena. They're playing Katniss as a brave hero (though a Capitol-loyal one of course; her stunt with Rue and the flowers is not shown), and Peeta as her clever, loving assistant, right up until she finds out he can live. The moment she calls his name, the narrative shifts and makes them equal, playing the love story as hard as they can. When the moment of the berries comes, it seems like a natural outgrowth of it, with no other possible connotations.

They don't show the staged greetings at all. They end with the best shot they could choose -- Katniss flinging herself wildly at the window of the operating room, screaming for Peeta. They show nothing of the recovery.

In fact, they don't show me at all. As far as history will record it, Katniss and Peeta have no mentor.
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