15.

Having been through prep with Flavius, Venia, and Octavia numerous times, it should just be an old routine to survive. But I haven’t anticipated the emotional ordeal that awaits me. At some point during the prep, each of them bursts into tears at least twice, and Octavia pretty much keeps up a running whimper throughout the morning. It turns out they really have become attached to me, and the idea of my returning to the arena has undone them. Combine that with the fact that by losing me they’ll be losing their ticket to all kinds of big social events, particularly my wedding, and the whole thing becomes unbearable. The idea of being strong for someone else having never entered their heads, I find myself in the position of having to console them. Since I’m the person going in to be slaughtered, this is somewhat annoying.

It’s interesting, though, when I think of what Peeta said about the attendant on the train being unhappy about the victors having to fight again. About people in the Capitol not liking it. I still think all of that will be forgotten once the gong sounds, but it’s something of a revelation that those in the Capitol feel anything at all about us. They certainly don’t have a problem watching children murdered every year. But maybe they know too much about the victors, especially the ones who’ve been celebrities for ages, to forget we’re human beings. It’s more like watching your own friends die. More like the Games are for those of us in the districts.

By the time Cinna shows up, I am irritable and exhausted from comforting the prep team, especially because their constant tears are reminding me of the ones undoubtedly being shed at home. Standing there in my thin robe with my stinging skin and heart, I know I can’t bear even one more look of regret. So the moment he walks in the door I snap, “I swear if you cry, I’ll kill you here and now.”

Cinna just smiles. “Had a damp morning?”

“You could wring me out,” I reply.

Cinna puts his arm around my shoulder and leads me into lunch. “Don’t worry. I always channel my emotions into my work. That way I don’t hurt anyone but myself.”

“I can’t go through that again,” I warn him.

“I know. I’ll talk to them,” says Cinna.

Lunch makes me feel a bit better. Pheasant with a selection of jewel-colored jellies, and tiny versions of real vegetables swimming in butter, and potatoes mashed with parsley. For dessert we dip chunks of fruit in a pot of melted chocolate, and Cinna has to order a second pot because I start just eating the stuff with a spoon.

“So, what are we wearing for the opening ceremonies?” I finally ask as I scrape the second pot clean. “Headlamps or fire?” I know the chariot ride will require Peeta and me to be dressed in something coal related.

“Something along that line,” he says.

When it’s time to get in costume for the opening ceremonies, my prep team shows up but Cinna sends them away, saying they’ve done such a spectacular job in the morning, there’s nothing left to do. They go off to recover, thankfully leaving me in Cinna’s hands. He puts up my hair first, in the braided style my mother introduced him to, then proceeds with my makeup. Last year he used little so that the audience would recognize me when I landed in the arena. But now my face is almost obscured by the dramatic highlights and dark shadows. High arching eyebrows, sharp cheekbones, smoldering eyes, deep purple lips. The costume looks deceptively simple at first, just a fitted black jumpsuit that covers me from the neck down. He places a half crown like the one I received as victor on my head, but it’s made of a heavy black metal, not gold. Then he adjusts the light in the room to mimic twilight and presses a button just inside the fabric on my wrist. I look down, fascinated, as my ensemble slowly comes to life, first with a soft golden light but gradually transforming to the orange-red of burning coal. I look as if I have been coated in glowing embers — no, that I am a glowing ember straight from our fireplace. The colors rise and fall, shift and blend, in exactly the way the coals do.

“How did you do this?” I say in wonder.

“Portia and I spent a lot of hours watching fires,” says Cinna. “Now look at yourself.”

He turns me toward a mirror so that I can take in the entire effect. I do not see a girl, or even a woman, but some unearthly being who looks like she might make her home in the volcano that destroyed so many in Haymitch’s Quell. The black crown, which now appears red-hot, casts strange shadows on my dramatically made-up face. Katniss, the girl on fire, has left behind her flickering flames and bejeweled gowns and soft candlelight frocks. She is as deadly as fire itself.

“I think … this is just what I needed to face the others,” I say.

“Yes, I think your days of pink lipstick and ribbons are behind you,” says Cinna. He touches the button on my wrist again, extinguishing my light. “Let’s not run down your power pack. When you’re on the chariot this time, no waving, no smiling. I just want you to look straight ahead, as if the entire audience is beneath your notice.”

“Finally something I’ll be good at,” I say.

Cinna has a few more things to attend to, so I decide to head down to the ground floor of the Remake Center, which houses the huge gathering place for the tributes and their chariots before the opening ceremonies. I’m hoping to find Peeta and Haymitch, but they haven’t arrived yet. Unlike last year, when all the tributes were practically glued to their chariots, the scene is very social. The victors, both this year’s tributes and their mentors, are standing around in small groups, talking. Of course, they all know one another and I don’t know anyone, and I’m not really the sort of person to go around introducing myself. So I just stroke the neck of one of my horses and try not to be noticed. It doesn’t work.

The crunching hits my ear before I even know he’s beside me, and when I turn my head, Finnick Odair’s famous sea green eyes are only inches from mine. He pops a sugar cube in his mouth and leans against my horse.

“Hello, Katniss,” he says, as if we’ve known each other for years, when in fact we’ve never met.

“Hello, Finnick,” I say, just as casually, although I’m feeling uncomfortable at his closeness, especially since he’s got so much bare skin exposed.

“Want a sugar cube?” he says, offering his hand, which is piled high. “They’re supposed to be for the horses, but who cares? They’ve got years to eat sugar, whereas you and I … well, if we see something sweet, we better grab it quick.”

Finnick Odair is something of a living legend in Panem. Since he won the Sixty-fifth Hunger Games when he was only fourteen, he’s still one of the youngest victors. Being from District 4, he was a Career, so the odds were already in his favor, but what no trainer could claim to have given him was his extraordinary beauty. Tall, athletic, with golden skin and bronze-colored hair and those incredible eyes. While other tributes that year were hard-pressed to get a handful of grain or some matches for a gift, Finnick never wanted for anything, not food or medicine or weapons. It took about a week for his competitors to realize that he was the one to kill, but it was too late. He was already a good fighter with the spears and knives he had found in the Cornucopia. When he received a silver parachute with a trident—which may be the most expensive gift I’ve ever seen given in the arena—it was all over. District 4’s industry is fishing. He’d been on boats his whole life. The trident was a natural, deadly extension of his arm. He wove a net out of some kind of vine he found, used it to entangle his opponents so he could spear them with the trident, and within a matter of days the crown was his.

The citizens of the Capitol have been drooling over him ever since.

Because of his youth, they couldn’t really touch him for the first year or two. But ever since he turned sixteen, he’s spent his time at the Games being dogged by those desperately in love with him. No one retains his favor for long. He can go through four or five in his annual visit. Old or young, lovely or plain, rich or very rich, he’ll keep them company and take their extravagant gifts, but he never stays, and once he’s gone he never comes back.

I can’t argue that Finnick isn’t one of the most stunning, sensuous people on the planet. But I can honestly say he’s never been attractive to me. Maybe he’s too pretty, or maybe he’s too easy to get, or maybe it’s really that he’d just be too easy to lose.

“No, thanks,” I say to the sugar. “I’d love to borrow your outfit sometime, though.”

He’s draped in a golden net that’s strategically knotted at his groin so that he can’t technically be called naked, but he’s about as close as you can get. I’m sure his stylist thinks the more of Finnick the audience sees, the better.

“You’re absolutely terrifying me in that getup. What happened to the pretty little-girl dresses?” he asks. He wets his lips just ever so slightly with his tongue. Probably this drives most people crazy. But for some reason all I can think of is old Cray, salivating over some poor, starving young woman.

“I outgrew them,” I say.

Finnick takes the collar of my outfit and runs it between his fingers. “It’s too bad about this Quell thing. You could have made out like a bandit in the Capitol. Jewels, money, anything you wanted.”

“I don’t like jewels, and I have more money than I need. What do you spend all yours on, anyway, Finnick?” I say.

“Oh, I haven’t dealt in anything as common as money for years,” says Finnick.

“Then how do they pay you for the pleasure of your company?” I ask.

“With secrets,” he says softly. He tips his head in so his lips are almost in contact with mine. “What about you, girl on fire? Do you have any secrets worth my time?”

For some stupid reason, I blush, but I force myself to hold my ground. “No, I’m an open book,” I whisper back. “Everybody seems to know my secrets before I know them myself.”

He smiles. “Unfortunately, I think that’s true.” His eyes flicker off to the side. “Peeta is coming. Sorry you have to cancel your wedding. I know how devastating that must be for you.” He tosses another sugar cube in his mouth and saunters off.

Peeta’s beside me, dressed in an outfit identical to mine. “What did Finnick Odair want?” he asks.

I turn and put my lips close to Peeta’s and drop my eyelids in imitation of Finnick. “He offered me sugar and wanted to know all my secrets,” I say in my best seductive voice.

Peeta laughs. “Ugh. Not really.”

“Really,” I say. “I’ll tell you more when my skin stops crawling.”

“Do you think we’d have ended up like this if only one of us had won?” he asks, glancing around at the other victors. “Just another part of the freak show?”

“Sure. Especially you,” I say.

“Oh. And why especially me?” he says with a smile.

“Because you have a weakness for beautiful things and I don’t,” I say with an air of superiority. “They would lure you into their Capitol ways and you’d be lost entirely.”

“Having an eye for beauty isn’t the same thing as a weakness,” Peeta points out. “Except possibly when it comes to you.” The music is beginning and I see the wide doors opening for the first chariot, hear the roar of the crowd. “Shall we?” He holds out a hand to help me into the chariot.

I climb up and pull him up after me. “Hold still,” I say, and straighten his crown. “Have you seen your suit turned on? We’re going to be fabulous again.”

“Absolutely. But Portia says we’re to be very above it all. No waving or anything,” he says. “Where are they, anyway?”

“I don’t know.” I eye the procession of chariots. “Maybe we better go ahead and switch ourselves on.” We do, and as we begin to glow, I can see people pointing at us and chattering, and I know that, once again, we’ll be the talk of the opening ceremonies. We’re almost at the door. I crane my head around, but neither Portia nor Cinna, who were with us right up to the final second last year, are anywhere in sight. “Are we supposed to hold hands this year?” I ask.

“I guess they’ve left it up to us,” says Peeta.

I look up into those blue eyes that no amount of dramatic makeup can make truly deadly and remember how, just a year ago, I was prepared to kill him. Convinced he was trying to kill me. Now everything is reversed. I’m determined to keep him alive, knowing the cost will be my own life, but the part of me that is not so brave as I could wish is glad that it’s Peeta, not Haymitch, beside me. Our hands find each other without further discussion. Of course we will go into this as one.

The voice of the crowd rises into one universal scream as we roll into the fading evening light, but neither one of us reacts. I simply fix my eyes on a point far in the distance and pretend there is no audience, no hysteria. I can’t help catching glimpses of us on the huge screens along the route, and we are not just beautiful, we are dark and powerful. No, more. We star-crossed lovers from District 12, who suffered so much and enjoyed so little the rewards of our victory, do not seek the fans’ favor, grace them with our smiles, or catch their kisses. We are unforgiving.

And I love it. Getting to be myself at last.

As we curve around into the loop of the City Circle, I can see that a couple of the other stylists have tried to steal Cinna and Portia’s idea of illuminating their tributes. The electric-light-studded outfits from District 3, where they make electronics, at least make sense. But what are the livestock keepers from District 10, who are dressed as cows, doing with flaming belts? Broiling themselves? Pathetic.

Peeta and I, on the other hand, are so mesmerizing with our ever-changing coal costumes that most of the other tributes are staring at us. We seem particularly riveting to the pair from District 6, who are known morphling addicts. Both bone thin, with sagging yellowish skin. They can’t tear their overlarge eyes away, even when President Snow begins to speak from his balcony, welcoming us all to the Quell. The anthem plays, and as we make our final trip around the circle, am I wrong? Or do I see the president fixated on me as well?

Peeta and I wait until the doors of the Training Center have closed behind us to relax. Cinna and Portia are there, pleased with our performance, and Haymitch has made an appearance this year as well, only he’s not at our chariot, he’s over with the tributes of District 11. I see him nod in our direction and then they follow him over to greet us.

I know Chaff by sight because I’ve spent years watching him pass a bottle back and forth with Haymitch on television. He’s dark skinned, about six feet tall, and one of his arms ends in a stump because he lost his hand in the Games he won thirty years ago. I’m sure they offered him some artificial replacement, like they did Peeta when they had to amputate his lower leg, but I guess he didn’t take it.

The woman, Seeder, looks almost like she could be from the Seam, with her olive skin and straight black hair streaked with silver. Only her golden brown eyes mark her as from another district. She must be around sixty, but she still looks strong, and there’s no sign she’s turned to liquor or morphling or any other chemical form of escape over the years. Before either of us says a word, she embraces me. I know somehow it must be because of Rue and Thresh. Before I can stop myself, I whisper, “The families?”

“They’re alive,” she says back softly before letting me go.

Chaff throws his good arm around me and gives me a big kiss right on the mouth. I jerk back, startled, while he and Haymitch guffaw.

That’s about all the time we get before the Capitol attendants are firmly directing us toward the elevators. I get the distinct feeling they’re not comfortable with the camaraderie among the victors, who couldn’t seem to care less. As I walk toward the elevators, my hand still linked with Peeta’s, someone else rustles up to my side. The girl pulls off a headdress of leafy branches and tosses it behind her without bothering to look where it falls.

Johanna Mason. From District 7 Lumber and paper, thus the tree. She won by very convincingly portraying herself as weak and helpless so that she would be ignored. Then she demonstrated a wicked ability to murder. She ruffles up her spiky hair and rolls her wide-set brown eyes. “Isn’t my costume awful? My stylist’s the biggest idiot in the Capitol. Our tributes have been trees for forty years under her. Wish I’d gotten Cinna. You look fantastic.”

Girl talk. That thing I’ve always been so bad at. Opinions on clothes, hair, makeup. So I lie. “Yeah, he’s been helping me design my own clothing line. You should see what he can do with velvet.” Velvet. The only fabric. I could think of off the top of my head.

“I have. On your tour. That strapless number you wore in District Two? The deep blue one with the diamonds? So gorgeous I wanted to reach through the screen and tear it right off your back,” says Johanna.

I bet you did , I think. With a few inches of my flesh .

While we wait for the elevators, Johanna unzips the rest of her tree, letting it drop to the floor, and then kicks it away in disgust. Except for her forest green slippers, she doesn’t have on a stitch of clothing. “That’s better.”

We end up on the same elevator with her, and she spends the whole ride to the seventh floor chatting to Peeta about his paintings while the light of his still-glowing costume reflects off her bare breasts. When she leaves, I ignore him, but I just know he’s grinning. I toss aside his hand as the doors close behind Chaff and Seeder, leaving us alone, and he breaks out laughing.

“What?” I say, turning on him as we step out on our floor.

“It’s you, Katniss. Can’t you see?” he says. “What’s me?” I say.

“Why they’re all acting like this. Finnick with his sugar cubes and Chaff kissing you and that whole thing with Johanna stripping down.” He tries to take on a more serious tone, unsuccessfully. “They’re playing with you because you’re so … you know.”

“No, I don’t know,” I say. And I really have no idea what he’s talking about.

“It’s like when you wouldn’t look at me naked in the arena even though I was half dead. You’re so … pure,” he says finally.

“I am not!” I say. “I’ve been practically ripping your clothes off every time there’s been a camera for the last year!”

“Yeah, but … I mean, for the Capitol, you’re pure,” he says, clearly trying to mollify me. “For me, you’re perfect. They’re just teasing you.”

“No, they’re laughing at me, and so are you!” I say.

“No.” Peeta shakes his head, but he’s still suppressing a smile. I’m seriously rethinking the question of who should get out of these Games alive when the other elevator opens.

Haymitch and Effie join us, looking pleased about something. Then Haymitch’s face grows hard.

What did I do now ? I almost say, but I see he’s staring behind me at the entrance to the dining room.

Effie blinks in the same direction, then says brightly, “Looks like they’ve got you a matched set this year.”

I turn around and find the redheaded Avox girl who tended to me last year until the Games began. I think how nice it is to have a friend here. I notice that the young man beside her, another Avox, also has red hair. That must be what Effie meant by a matched set.

Then a chill runs through me. Because I know him, too. Not from the Capitol but from years of having easy conversations in the Hob, joking over Greasy Sae’s soup, and that last day watching him lie unconscious in the square while the life bled out of Gale.

Our new Avox is Darius.

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