The man has only just crumpled to the ground when a wall of white Peacekeeper uniforms blocks our view. Several of the soldiers have automatic weapons held lengthwise as they push us back toward the door.
“We’re going!” says Peeta, shoving the Peacekeeper who’s pressing on me. “We get it, all right? Come on, Katniss.” His arm encircles me and guides me back into the Justice Building. The Peacekeepers follow a pace or two behind us. The moment we’re inside, the doors slam shut and we hear the Peacekeepers’ boots moving back toward the crowd.
Haymitch, Effie, Portia, and Cinna wait under a static-filled screen that’s mounted on the wall, their faces tight with anxiety.
“What happened?” Effie hurries over. “We lost the feed just after Katniss’s beautiful speech, and then Haymitch said he thought he heard a gun fire, and I said it was ridiculous, but who knows? There are lunatics everywhere!”
“Nothing happened, Effie. An old truck backfired,” says Peeta evenly.
Two more shots. The door doesn’t muffle their sound much. Who was that? Thresh’s grandmother? One of Rue’s little sisters?
“Both of you. With me,” says Haymitch. Peeta and I follow him, leaving the others behind. The Peacekeepers who are stationed around the Justice Building take little interest in our movements now that we are safely inside. We ascend a magnificent curved marble staircase. At the top, there’s a long hall with worn carpet on the floor. Double doors stand open, welcoming us into the first room we encounter. The ceiling must be twenty feet high. Designs of fruit and flowers are carved into the molding and small, fat children with wings look down at us from every angle. Vases of blossoms give off a cloying scent that makes my eyes itch. Our evening clothes hang on racks against the wall. This room has been prepared for our use, but we’re barely there long enough to drop off our gifts. Then Haymitch yanks the microphones from our chests, stuffs them beneath a couch cushion, and waves us on.
As far as I know, Haymitch has only been here once, when he was on his Victory Tour decades ago. But he must have a remarkable memory or reliable instincts, because he leads us up through a maze of twisting staircases and increasingly narrow halls. At times he has to stop and force a door. By the protesting squeak of the hinges you can tell it’s been a long time since it was opened. Eventually we climb a ladder to a trapdoor. When Haymitch pushes it aside, we find ourselves in the dome of the Justice Building. It’s a huge place filled with broken furniture, piles of books and ledgers, and rusty weapons. The coat of dust blanketing everything is so thick it’s clear it hasn’t been disturbed for years. Light struggles to filter in through four grimy square windows set in the sides of the dome. Haymitch kicks the trapdoor shut and turns on us. “What happened?” he asks.
Peeta relates all that occurred in the square. The whistle, the salute, our hesitation on the verandah, the murder of the old man. “What’s going on, Haymitch?”
“It will be better coming from you,” Haymitch says to me.
I don’t agree. I think it will be a hundred times worse coming from me. But I tell Peeta everything as calmly as I can. About President Snow, the unrest in the districts. I don’t even omit the kiss with Gale. I lay out how we are all in jeopardy, how the whole country is in jeopardy because of my trick with the berries. “I was supposed to fix things on this tour. Make everyone who had doubted believe I acted out of love. Calm things down. But obviously, all I’ve done today is. get three people killed, and now everyone in the square will be punished.” I feel so sick that I have to sit down on a couch, despite the exposed springs and stuffing.
“Then I made things worse, too. By giving the money,” says Peeta. Suddenly he strikes out at a lamp that sits precariously on a crate and knocks it across the room, where it shatters against the floor. “This has to stop. Right now. This — this—game you two play, where you tell each other secrets but keep them from me like I’m too inconsequential or stupid or weak to handle them.”
“It’s not like that, Peeta—” I begin.
“It’s exactly like that!” he yells at me. “I have people I care about, too, Katniss! Family and friends back in District Twelve who will be just as dead as yours if we don’t pull this thing off. So, after all we went through in the arena, don’t I even rate the truth from you?”
“You’re always so reliably good, Peeta,” says Haymitch. “So smart about how you present yourself before the cameras. I didn’t want to disrupt that.”
“Well, you overestimated me. Because I really screwed up today. What do you think is going to happen to Rue’s and Thresh’s families? Do you think they’ll get their share of our winnings? Do you think I gave them a bright future? Because I think they’ll be lucky if they survive the day!” Peeta sends something else flying, a statue. I’ve never seen him like this.
“He’s right, Haymitch,” I say. “We were wrong not to tell him. Even back in the Capitol.”
“Even in the arena, you two had some sort of system worked out, didn’t you?” asks Peeta. His voice is quieter now. “Something I wasn’t part of.”
“No. Not officially. I just could tell what Haymitch wanted me to do by what he sent, or didn’t send,” I say.
“Well, I never had that opportunity. Because he never sent me anything until you showed up,” says Peeta.
I haven’t thought much about this. How it must have looked from Peeta’s perspective when I appeared in the arena having received burn medicine and bread when he, who was at death’s door, had gotten nothing. Like Haymitch was keeping me alive at his expense.
“Look, boy—” Haymitch begins.
“Don’t bother, Haymitch. I know you had to choose one of us. And I’d have wanted it to be her. But this is something different. People are dead out there. More will follow unless we’re very good. We all know I’m better than Katniss in front of the cameras. No one needs to coach me on what to say. But I have to know what I’m walking into,” says Peeta.
“From now on, you’ll be fully informed,” Haymitch promises.
“I better be,” says Peeta. He doesn’t even bother to look at me before he leaves.
The dust he disrupted billows up and looks for new places to land. My hair, my eyes, my shiny gold pin.
“Did you choose me, Haymitch?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he says.
“Why? You like him better,” I say.
“That’s true. But remember, until they changed the rules, I could only hope to get one of you out of there alive,” he says. “I thought since he was determined to protect you, well, between the three of us, we might be able to bring you home.”
“Oh” is all I can think to say.
“You’ll see, the choices you’ll have to make. If we survive this,” says Haymitch. “You’ll learn.”
Well, I’ve learned one thing today. This place is not a larger version of District 12. Our fence is unguarded and rarely charged. Our Peacekeepers are unwelcome but less brutal. Our hardships evoke more fatigue than fury. Here in 11, they suffer more acutely and feel more desperation. President Snow is right. A spark could be enough to set them ablaze.
Everything is happening too fast for me to process it. The warning, the shootings, the recognition that I may have set something of great consequence in motion. The whole thing is so improbable. And it would be one thing if I had planned to stir things up, but given the circumstances … how on earth did I cause so much trouble?
“Come on. We’ve got a dinner to attend,” says Haymitch.
I stand in the shower as long as they let me before I have to come out to be readied. The prep team seems oblivious to the events of the day. They’re all excited about the dinner. In the districts they’re important enough to attend, whereas back in the Capitol they almost never score invitations to prestigious parties. While they try to predict what dishes will be served, I keep seeing the old man’s head being blown off. I don’t even pay attention to what anyone is doing to me until I’m about to leave and I see myself in the mirror. A pale pink strapless dress brushes my shoes. My hair is pinned back from my face and falling down my back in a shower of ringlets.
Cinna comes up behind me and arranges a shimmering silver wrap around my shoulders. He catches my eye in the mirror. “Like it?”
“It’s beautiful. As always,” I say.
“Let’s see how it looks with a smile,” he says gently. It’s his reminder that in a minute, there will be cameras again. I manage to raise the corners of my lips. “There we go.”
When we all assemble to go down to the dinner, I can see Effie is out of sorts. Surely, Haymitch hasn’t told her about what happened in the square. I wouldn’t be surprised if Cinna and Portia know, but there seems to be an unspoken agreement to leave Effie out of the bad-news loop. It doesn’t take long to hear about the problem, though.
Effie runs through the evening’s schedule, then tosses it aside. “And then, thank goodness, we can all get on that train and get out of here,” she says.
“Is something wrong, Effie?” asks Cinna.
“I don’t like the way we’ve been treated. Being stuffed into trucks and barred from the platform. And then, about an hour ago, I decided to look around the Justice Building. I’m something of an expert in architectural design, you know,” she says.
“Oh, yes, I’ve heard that,” says Portia before the pause gets too long.
“So, I was just having a peek around because district ruins are going to be all the rage this year, when two Peacemakers showed up and ordered me back to our quarters. One of them actually poked me with her gun!” says Effie.
I can’t help thinking this is the direct result of Haymitch, Peeta, and me disappearing earlier in the day. It’s a little reassuring, actually, to think that Haymitch might have been right. That no one would have been monitoring the dusty dome where we talked. Although I bet they are now.
Effie looks so distressed that I spontaneously give her a hug. “That’s awful, Effie. Maybe we shouldn’t go to the dinner at all. At least until they’ve apologized.” I know she’ll never agree to this, but she brightens considerably at the suggestion, at the validation of her complaint.
“No, I’ll manage. It’s part of my job to weather the ups and downs. And we can’t let you two miss your dinner,” she says. “But thank you for the offer, Katniss.”
Effie arranges us in formation for our entrance. First the prep teams, then her, the stylists, Haymitch. Peeta and I, of course, bring up the rear.
Somewhere below, musicians begin to play. As the first wave of our little procession begins down the steps, Peeta and I join hands.
“Haymitch says I was wrong to yell at you. You were only operating under his instructions,” says Peeta. “And it isn’t as if I haven’t kept things from you in the past.”
I remember the shock of hearing Peeta confess his love for me in front of all of Panem. Haymitch had known about that and not told me. “I think I broke a few things myself after that interview.”
“Just an urn,” he says.
“And your hands. There’s no point to it anymore, though, is there? Not being straight with each other?” I say.
“No point,” says Peeta. We stand at the top of the stairs, giving Haymitch a fifteen-step lead as Effie directed. “Was that really the only time you kissed Gale?”
I’m so startled I answer. “Yes.” With all that has happened today, has that question actually been preying on him?
“That’s fifteen. Let’s do it,” he says.
A light hits us, and I put on the most dazzling smile I can.
We descend the steps and are sucked into what becomes an indistinguishable round of dinners, ceremonies, and train rides. Each day it’s the same. Wake up. Get dressed. Ride through cheering crowds. Listen to a speech in our honor. Give a thank-you speech in return, but only the one the Capitol gave us, never any personal additions now. Sometimes a brief tour: a glimpse of the sea in one district, towering forests in another, ugly factories, fields of wheat, stinking refineries. Dress in evening clothes. Attend dinner. Train.
During ceremonies, we are solemn and respectful but always linked together, by our hands, our arms. At dinners, we are borderline delirious in our love for each other. We kiss, we dance, we get caught trying to sneak away to be alone. On the train, we are quietly miserable as we try to assess what effect we might be having.
Even without our personal speeches to trigger dissent— needless to say the ones we gave in District 11 were edited out before the event was broadcast—you can feel something in the air, the rolling boil of a pot about to run over. Not everywhere. Some crowds have the weary-cattle feel that I know District 12 usually projects at the victors’ ceremonies. But in others — particularly 8, 4, and 3 — there is genuine elation in the faces of the people at the sight of us, and under the elation, fury. When they chant my name, it is more of a cry for vengeance than a cheer. When the Peacekeepers move in to quiet an unruly crowd, it presses back instead of retreating. And I know that there’s nothing I could ever do to change this. No show of love, however believable, will turn this tide. If my holding out those berries was an act of temporary insanity, then these people will embrace insanity, too.
Cinna begins to take in my clothes around the waist. The prep team frets over the circles under my eyes. Effie starts giving me pills to sleep, but they don’t work. Not well enough. I drift off only to be roused by nightmares that have increased in number and intensity. Peeta, who spends much of the night roaming the train, hears me screaming as I struggle to break out of the haze of drugs that merely prolong the horrible dreams. He manages to wake me and calm me down. Then he climbs into bed to hold me until I fall back to sleep. After that, I refuse the pills. But every night I let him into my bed. We manage the darkness as we did in the arena, wrapped in each other’s arms, guarding against dangers that can descend at any moment. Nothing else happens, but our arrangement quickly becomes a subject of gossip on the train.
When Effie brings it up to me, I think, Good. Maybe it will get back to President Snow . I tell her we’ll make an effort to be more discreet, but we don’t.
The back-to-back appearances in 2 and 1 are their own special kind of awful. Cato and Clove, the tributes from District 2, might have both made it home if Peeta and I hadn’t. I personally killed the girl, Glimmer, and the boy from District 1. As I try to avoid looking at his family, I learn that his name was Marvel. How did I never know that? I suppose that before the Games I didn’t pay attention, and afterward I didn’t want to know.
By the time we reach the Capitol, we are desperate. We make endless appearances to adoring crowds. There is no danger of an uprising here among the privileged, among those whose names are never placed in the reaping balls, whose children never die for the supposed crimes committed generations ago. We don’t need to convince anybody in the Capitol of our love but hold to the slim hope that we can still reach some of those we failed to convince in the districts. Whatever we do seems too little, too late.
Back in our old quarters in the Training Center, I’m the one who suggests the public marriage proposal. Peeta agrees to do it but then disappears to his room for a long time. Haymitch tells me to leave him alone.
“I thought he wanted it, anyway,” I say.
“Not like this,” Haymitch says. “He wanted it to be real.”
I go back to my room and lie under the covers, trying not to think of Gale and thinking of nothing else.
That night, on the stage before the Training Center, we bubble our way through a list of questions. Caesar Flickerman, in his twinkling midnight blue suit, his hair, eyelids, and lips still dyed powder blue, flawlessly guides us through the interview. When he asks us about the future, Peeta gets down on one knee, pours out his heart, and begs me to marry him. I, of course, accept. Caesar is beside himself, the Capitol audience is hysterical, shots of crowds around Panem show a country besotted with happiness.
President Snow himself makes a surprise visit to congratulate us. He clasps Peeta’s hand and gives him an approving slap on the shoulder. He embraces me, enfolding me in the smell of blood and roses, and plants a puffy kiss on my cheek. When he pulls back, his fingers digging into my arms, his face smiling into mine, I dare to raise my eyebrows. They ask what my lips can’t. Did I do it? Was it enough? Was giving everything over to you, keeping up the game, promising to marry Peeta enough?
In answer, he gives an almost imperceptible shake of his head.