I'm still smoldering a little, so it's with a tentative hand that Caesar reaches out to touch my headpiece. The white has burned away, leaving a smooth, fitted veil of black that drapes into the neckline of the dress in the back. "Feathers," says Caesar. "You're like a bird."
"A mockingjay, I think," I say, giving my wings a small flap. "It's the bird on the pin I wear as a token."
A shadow of recognition flickers across Caesar's face, and I can tell he knows that the mockingjay isn't just my token. That it's come to symbolize so much more. That what will be seen as a flashy costume change in the Capitol is resonating in an entirely different way throughout the districts. But he makes the best of it.
"Well, hats off to your stylist. I don't think anyone can argue that that's not the most spectacular thing we've ever seen in an interview. Cinna, I think you better take a bow!" Caesar gestures for Cinna to rise. He does, and makes a small, gracious bow. And suddenly I am so afraid for him. What has he done? Something terribly dangerous. An act of rebellion in itself. And he's done it for me. I remember his words ...
"Don't worry. I always channel my emotions into my work. That way I don't hurt anyone but myself."
... and I'm afraid he has hurt himself beyond repair. The significance of my fiery transformation will not be lost on President Snow.
The audience, who's been stunned into silence, breaks into wild applause. I can barely hear the buzzer that indicates that my three minutes are up. Caesar thanks me and I go back to my seat, my dress now feeling lighter than air.
As I pass Peeta, who's headed for his interview, he doesn't meet my eyes. I take my seat carefully, but aside from the puffs of smoke here and there, I seem unharmed, so I turn my attention to him.
Caesar and Peeta have been a natural team since they first appeared together a year ago. Their easy give-and-take, comic timing, and ability to segue into heart-wrenching moments, like Peeta's confession of love for me, have made them a huge success with the audience. They effortlessly open with a few jokes about fires and feathers and overcooking poultry. But anyone can see that Peeta is preoccupied, so Caesar directs the conversation right into the subject that's on everyone's minds.
"So, Peeta, what was it like when, after all you've been through, you found out about the Quell?" asks Caesar.
"I was in shock. I mean, one minute I'm seeing Katniss looking so beautiful in all these wedding gowns, and the next ..." Peeta trails off.
"You realized there was never going to be a wedding?" asks Caesar gently.
Peeta pauses for a long moment, as if deciding something. He looks out at the spellbound audience, then at tin floor, then finally up at Caesar. "Caesar, do you think all our friends here can keep a secret?"
An uncomfortable laugh emanates from the audience. What can he mean? Keep a secret from who? Our whole world is watching.
"I feel quite certain of it," says Caesar.
"We're already married," says Peeta quietly. The crowd reacts in astonishment, and I have to bury my face in the folds of my skirt so they can't see my confusion. Where on earth is he going with this?
"But ... how can that be?" asks Caesar.
"Oh, it's not an official marriage. We didn't go to the Justice Building or anything. But we have this marriage ritual in District Twelve. I don't know what it's like in the other districts. But there's this thing we do," says Peeta, and he briefly describes the toasting.
"Were your families there?" asks Caesar.
"No, we didn't tell anyone. Not even Haymitch. And Katniss's mother would never have approved. But you see, we knew if we were married in the Capitol, there wouldn't be a toasting. And neither of us really wanted to wait any longer. So one day, we just did it," Peeta says. "And to us, we're more married than any piece of paper or big party could make us."
"So this was before the Quell?" says Caesar.
"Of course before the Quell. I'm sure we'd never have done it after we knew," says Peeta, starting to get upset. "But who could've seen it coming? No one. We went through the Games, we were victors, everyone seemed so thrilled to see us together, and then out of nowhere - I mean, how could we anticipate a thing like that?"
"You couldn't, Peeta." Caesar puts an arm around his shoulders. "As you say, no one could've. But I have to confess, I'm glad you two had at least a few months of happiness together."
Enormous applause. As if encouraged, I look up from my feathers and let the audience see my tragic smile of thanks. The residual smoke from the feathers has made my eyes teary, which adds a very nice touch.
"I'm not glad," says Peeta. "I wish we had waited until the whole thing was done officially."
This takes even Caesar aback. "Surely even a brief time is better than no time?"
"Maybe I'd think that, too, Caesar," says Peeta bitterly, "if it weren't for the baby."
There. He's done it again. Dropped a bomb that wipes out the efforts of every tribute who came before him. Well, maybe not. Maybe this year he has only lit the fuse on a bomb that the victors themselves have been building. Hoping someone would be able to detonate it. Perhaps thinking it would be me in my bridal gown. Not knowing how much I rely on Cinna's talents, whereas Peeta needs nothing more than his wits.
As the bomb explodes, it sends accusations of injustice and barbarism and cruelty flying out in every direction. Even the most Capitol-loving, Games-hungry, bloodthirsty person out there can't ignore, at least for a moment, how horrific the whole thing is.
I am pregnant.
The audience can't absorb the news right away. It has to strike them and sink in and be confirmed by other voices before they begin to sound like a herd of wounded animals, moaning, shrieking, calling for help. And me? I know my face is projected in a tight close-up on the screen, but I don't make any effort to hide it. Because for a moment, even I am working through what Peeta has said. Isn't it the thing I dreaded most about the wedding, about the future - the loss of my children to the Games? And it could be true now, couldn't it? If I hadn't spent my life building up layers of defenses until I recoil at even the suggestion of marriage or a family?
Caesar can't rein in the crowd again, not even when the buzzer sounds. Peeta nods his good-bye and comes back to his seat without any more conversation. I can see Caesar's lips moving, but the place is in total chaos and I can't hear a word. Only the blast of the anthem, cranked up so loud I can feel it vibrating through my bones, lets us know where we stand in the program. I automatically rise and, as I do, I sense Peeta reaching out for me. Tears run down his face as I take his hand. How real are the tears? Is this an acknowledgment that he has been stalked by the same fears that I have? That every victor has? Every parent in every district in Panem?
I look back to the crowd, but the faces of Rue's mother and father swim before my eyes. Their sorrow. Their loss. I turn spontaneously to Chaff and offer my hand. I feel my fingers close around the stump that now completes his arm and hold fast.
And then it happens. Up and down the row, the victors begin to join hands. Some right away, like the morphlings, or Wiress and Beetee. Others unsure but caught up in the demands of those around them, like Brutus and Enobaria. By the time the anthem plays its final strains, all twenty-four of us stand in one unbroken line in what must be the first public show of unity among the districts since the Dark Days. You can see the realization of this as the screens begin to pop into blackness. It's too late, though. In the confusion they didn't cut us off in time. Everyone has seen.
There's disorder on the stage now, too, as the lights go out and we're left to stumble back into the Training Center. I've lost hold of Chaff, but Peeta guides me into an elevator. Finnick and Johanna try to join us, but a harried Peacekeeper blocks their way and we shoot upward alone.
The moment we step off the elevator, Peeta grips my shoulders. "There isn't much time, so tell me. Is there anything I have to apologize for?"
"Nothing," I say. It was a big leap to take without my okay, but I'm just as glad I didn't know, didn't have time to second-guess him, to let any guilt over Gale detract from how I really feel about what Peeta did. Which is empowered.
Somewhere, very far off, is a place called District 12, where my mother and sister and friends will have to deal with the fallout from this night. Just a brief hovercraft ride away is an arena where, tomorrow, Peeta and I and the other tributes will face our own form of punishment. But even if all of us meet terrible ends, something happened on that stage tonight that can't be undone. We victors staged our own uprising, and maybe, just maybe, the Capitol won't be able to contain this one.
We wait for the others to return, but when the elevator opens, only Haymitch appears. "It's madness out there. Everyone's been sent home and they've canceled the recap of the interviews on television."
Peeta and I hurry to the window and try to make sense of the commotion far below us on the streets. "What are they saying?" Peeta asks. "Are they asking the president to stop the Games?"
"I don't think they know themselves what to ask. The whole situation is unprecedented. Even the idea of opposing the Capitol's agenda is a source of confusion for the people here," says Haymitch. "But there's no way Snow would cancel the Games. You know that, right?"
I do. Of course, he could never back down now. The only option left to him is to strike back, and strike back hard. "The others went home?" I ask.
"They were ordered to. I don't know how much luck they're having getting through the mob," says Haymitch.
"Then we'll never see Effie again," says Peeta. We didn't see her on the morning of the Games last year. "You'll give her our thanks."
"More than that. Really make it special. It's Effie, after all," I say. "Tell her how appreciative we are and how she was the best escort ever and tell her ... tell her we send our love."
For a while we just stand there in silence, delaying the inevitable. Then Haymitch says it. "I guess this is where we say our good-byes as well."
"Any last words of advice?" Peeta asks.
"Stay alive," Haymitch says gruffly. That's almost an old joke with us now. He gives us each a quick embrace, and I can tell it's all he can stand. "Go to bed. You need your rest."
I know I should say a whole bunch of things to Haymitch, but I can't think of anything he doesn't already know, really, and my throat is so tight I doubt anything would come out, anyway. So, once again, I let Peeta speak for us both.
"You take care, Haymitch," he says.
We cross the room, but in the doorway, Haymitch's voice stops us. "Katniss, when you're in the arena," he begins. Then he pauses. He's scowling in a way that makes me sure I've already disappointed him.
"What?" I ask defensively.
"You just remember who the enemy is," Haymitch tells me. "That's all. Now go on. Get out of here."
We walk down the hallway. Peeta wants to stop by his room to shower off the makeup and meet me in a few minutes, but I won't let him. I'm certain that if a door shuts between us, it will lock and I'll have to spend the night without him. Besides, I have a shower in my room. I refuse to let go of his hand.
Do we sleep? I don't know. We spend the night holding each other, in some halfway land between dreams and waking. Not talking. Both afraid to disturb the other in the hope that we'll be able to store up a few precious minutes of rest.
Cinna and Portia arrive with the dawn, and I know Peeta will have to go. Tributes enter the arena alone. He gives me a light kiss. "See you soon," he says.
"See you soon," I answer.
Cinna, who will help dress me for the Games, accompanies me to the roof. I'm about to mount the ladder to the hovercraft when I remember. "I didn't say good-bye to Portia."
"I'll tell her," says Cinna.
The electric current freezes me in place on the ladder until the doctor injects the tracker into my left forearm. Now they will always be able to locate me in the arena. The hovercraft takes off, and I look out the windows until they black out. Cinna keeps pressing me to eat and, when that fails, to drink. I manage to keep sipping water, thinking of the days of dehydration that almost killed me last year. Thinking of how I will need my strength to keep Peeta alive.
When we reach the Launch Room at the arena, I shower. Cinna braids my hair down my back and helps me dress over simple undergarments. This year's tribute outfit is a fitted blue jumpsuit, made of very sheer material, that zippers up the front. A six-inch-wide padded belt covered in shiny purple plastic. A pair of nylon shoes with rubber soles.
"What do you think?" I ask, holding the fabric out for Cinna to examine.
He frowns as he rubs the thin stuff between his fingers. "I don't know. It will offer little in the way of protection from cold or water."
"Sun?" I ask, picturing a burning sun over a barren desert.
"Possibly. If it's been treated," he says. "Oh, I almost forgot this." He takes my gold mockingjay pin from his pocket and fixes it to the jumpsuit.
"My dress was fantastic last night," I say. Fantastic and reckless. But Cinna must know that.
"I thought you might like it," he says with a tight smile.
We sit, as we did last year, holding hands until the voice tells me to prepare for the launch. He walks me over to the circular metal plate and zips up the neck of my jumpsuit securely. "Remember, girl on fire," he says, "I'm still betting on you." He kisses my forehead and steps back as the glass cylinder slides down around me.
"Thank you," I say, although he probably can't hear me. I lift my chin, holding my head high the way he always tells me to, and wait for the plate to rise. But it doesn't. And it still doesn't.
I look at Cinna, raising my eyebrows for an explanation. He just gives his head a slight shake, as perplexed as I am. Why are they delaying this?
Suddenly the door behind him bursts open and three Peacekeepers spring into the room. Two pin Cinna's arms behind him and cuff him while the third hits him in the temple with such force he's knocked to his knees. But they keep hitting him with metal-studded gloves, opening gashes on his face and body. I'm screaming my head off, banging on the unyielding glass, trying to reach him. The Peacekeepers ignore me completely as they drag Cinna's limp body from the room. All that's left are the smears of blood on the floor.
Sickened and terrified, I feel the plate begin to rise. I'm still leaning against the glass when the breeze catches my hair and I force myself to straighten up. Just in time, too, because the glass is retreating and I'm standing free in the arena. Something seems to be wrong with my vision. The ground is too bright and shiny and keeps undulating. I squint down at my feet and see that my metal plate is surrounded by blue waves that lap up over my boots. Slowly I raise my eyes and take in the water spreading out in every direction.
I can only form one clear thought.
This is no place for a girl on fire.
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