Chapter Fourteen

14.

I remain at the window long after the woods have swallowed up the last glimpse of my home. This time I don't have even the slightest hope of return. Before my first Games, I promised Prim I would do everything I could to win, and now I've sworn to myself to do all I can to keep Peeta alive. I will never reverse this journey again.

I'd actually figured out what I wanted my last words to my loved ones to be. How best to close and lock the doors and leave them sad but safely behind. And now the Capitol has stolen that as well.

"We'll write letters, Katniss," says Peeta from behind me. "It will be better, anyway. Give them a piece of us to hold on to. Haymitch will deliver them for us if ... they need to be delivered."

I nod and go straight to my room. I sit on the bed, knowing I will never write those letters. They will be like the speech I tried to write to honor Rue and Thresh in District 11. Things seemed clear in my head and even when I talked before the crowd, but the words never came out of the pen right. Besides, they were meant to go with embraces and kisses and a stroke of Prim's hair, a caress of Gale's face, a squeeze of Madge's hand. They cannot be delivered with a wooden box containing my cold, stiff body.

Too heartsick to cry, all I want is to curl up on the bed and sleep until we arrive in the Capitol tomorrow morning. But I have a mission. No, it's more than a mission. It's my dying wish. Keep Peeta alive. And as unlikely as it seems that I can achieve it in the face of the Capitol's anger, it's important that I be at the top of my game. This won't happen if I'm mourning for everyone I love back home. Let them go, I tell myself. Say good-bye and forget them. I do my best, thinking of them one by one, releasing them like birds from the protective cages inside me, locking the doors against their return.

By the time Effie knocks on my door to call me to dinner, I'm empty. But the lightness isn't entirely unwelcome.

The meal's subdued. So subdued, in fact, that there are long periods of silence relieved only by the removal of old dishes and presentation of new ones. A cold soup of pureed vegetables. Fish cakes with creamy lime paste. Those little birds filled with orange sauce, with wild rice and watercress. Chocolate custard dotted with cherries.

Peeta and Effie make occasional attempts at conversation that quickly die out.

"I love your new hair, Effie," Peeta says.

"Thank you. I had it especially done to match Katniss's pin. I was thinking we might get you a golden ankle band and maybe find Haymitch a gold bracelet or something so we could all look like a team," says Effie.

Evidently, Effie doesn't know that my mockingjay pin is now a symbol used by the rebels. At least in District 8. In the Capitol, the mockingjay is still a fun reminder of an especially exciting Hunger Games. What else could it be? Real rebels don't put a secret symbol on something as durable as jewelry. They put it on a wafer of bread that can be eaten in a second if necessary.

"I think that's a great idea," says Peeta. "How about it, Haymitch?"

"Yeah, whatever," says Haymitch. He's not drinking but I can tell he'd like to be. Effie had them take her own wine away when she saw the effort he was making, but he's in a miserable state. If he were the tribute, he would have owed Peeta nothing and could be as drunk as he liked. Now it's going to take all he's got to keep Peeta alive in an arena full of his old friends, and he'll probably fail.

"Maybe we could get you a wig, too," I say in an attempt at lightness. He just shoots me a look that says to leave him alone, and we all eat our custard in silence.

"Shall we watch the recap of the reapings?" says Effie, dabbing at the corners of her mouth with a white linen napkin.

Peeta goes off to retrieve his notebook on the remaining living victors, and we gather in the compartment with the television to see who our competition will be in the arena. We are all in place as the anthem begins to play and the annual recap of the reaping ceremonies in the twelve districts begins.

In the history of the Games, there have been seventy-five victors. Fifty-nine are still alive. I recognize many of their faces, either from seeing them as tributes or mentors at previous Games or from our recent viewing of the victors' tapes. Some are so old or wasted by illness, drugs, or drink that I can't place them. As one would expect, the pools of Career tributes from Districts 1, 2, and 4 are the largest. But every district has managed to scrape up at least one female and one male victor.

The reapings go by quickly. Peeta studiously puts stars by the names of the chosen tributes in his notebook. Haymitch watches, his face devoid of emotion, as friends of his step up to take the stage. Effie makes hushed, distressed comments like "Oh, not Cecelia" or "Well, Chaff never could stay out of a fight," and sighs frequently.

For my part, I try to make some mental record of the other tributes, but like last year, only a few really stick in my head. There's the classically beautiful brother and sister from District 1 who were victors in consecutive years when I was little. Brutus, a volunteer from District 2, who must be at least forty and apparently can't wait to get back in the arena. Finnick, the handsome bronze-haired guy from District 4 who was crowned ten years ago at the age of fourteen. A hysterical young woman with flowing brown hair is also called from 4, but she's quickly replaced by a volunteer, an eighty-year-old woman who needs a cane to walk to the stage. Then there's Johanna Mason, the only living female victor from 7, who won a few years back by pretending she was a weakling. The woman from 8 who Effie calls Cecelia, who looks about thirty, has to detach herself from the three kids who run up to cling to her. Chaff, a man from 11 who I know to be one of Haymitch's particular friends, is also in.

I'm called. Then Haymitch. And Peeta volunteers. One of the announcers actually gets teary because it seems the odds will never be in our favor, we star-crossed lovers of District 12. Then she pulls herself together to say she bets that "these will be the best Games ever!"

Haymitch leaves the compartment without a word, and Effie, after making a few unconnected comments about this tribute or that, bids us good night. I just sit there watching Peeta rip out the pages of the victors who were not picked.

"Why don't you get some sleep?" he says.

Because I can't handle the nightmares. Not without you, I think. They are sure to be dreadful tonight. But I can hardly ask Peeta to come sleep with me. We've barely touched since that night Gale was whipped. "What are you going to do?" I ask.

"Just review my notes awhile. Get a clear picture of what we're up against. But I'll go over it with you in the morning. Go to bed, Katniss," he says.

So I go to bed and, sure enough, within a few hours I awake from a nightmare where that old woman from District 4 transforms into a large rodent and gnaws on my face. I know I was screaming, but no one comes. Not Peeta, not even one of the Capitol attendants. I pull on a robe to try to calm the gooseflesh crawling over my body. Staying in my compartment is impossible, so I decide to go find someone to make me tea or hot chocolate or anything. Maybe Haymitch is still up. Surely he isn't asleep.

I order warm milk, the most calming thing I can think of, from an attendant. Hearing voices from the television room, I go in and find Peeta. Beside him on the couch is the box Effie sent of tapes of the old Hunger Games. I recognize the episode in which Brutus became victor.

Peeta rises and flips off the tape when he sees me. "Couldn't sleep?"

"Not for long," I say. I pull the robe more securely around me as I remember the old woman transforming into the rodent.

"Want to talk about it?" he asks. Sometimes that can help, but I just shake my head, feeling weak that people I haven't even fought yet already haunt me.

When Peeta holds out his arms, I walk straight into them. It's the first time since they announced the Quarter Quell that he's offered me any sort of affection. He's been more like a very demanding trainer, always pushing, always insisting Haymitch and I run faster, eat more, know our enemy better. Lover? Forget about that. He abandoned any pretense of even being my friend. I wrap my arms tightly around his neck before he can order me to do push-ups or something. Instead he pulls me in close and buries his face in my hair. Warmth radiates from the spot where his lips just touch my neck, slowly spreading through the rest of me. It feels so good, so impossibly good, that I know I will not be the first to let go.

And why should I? I have said good-bye to Gale. I'll never see him again, that's for certain. Nothing I do now can hurt him. He won't see it or he'll think I am acting for the cameras. That, at least, is one weight off my shoulders.

The arrival of the Capitol attendant with the warm milk is what breaks us apart. He sets a tray with a steaming ceramic jug and two mugs on a table. "I brought an extra cup," he says.

"Thanks," I say.

"And I added a touch of honey to the milk. For sweetness. And just a pinch of spice," he adds. He looks at us like he wants to say more, then gives his head a slight shake and backs out of the room.

"What's with him?" I say.

"I think he feels bad for us," says Peeta.

"Right," I say, pouring the milk.

"I mean it. I don't think the people in the Capitol are going to be all that happy about our going back in," says Peeta. "Or the other victors. They get attached to their champions."

"I'm guessing they'll get over it once the blood starts flowing," I say flatly. Really, if there's one thing I don't have time for, it's worrying about how the Quarter Quell will affect the mood in the Capitol. "So, you're watching all the tapes again?"

"Not really. Just sort of skipping around to see people's different fighting techniques," says Peeta. "Who's next?" I ask.

"You pick," says Peeta, holding out the box.

The tapes are marked with the year of the Games and the name of the victor. I dig around and suddenly find one in my hand that we have not watched. The year of the Games is fifty. That would make it the second Quarter Quell. And the name of the victor is Haymitch Abernathy.

"We never watched this one," I say.

Peeta shakes his head. "No. I knew Haymitch didn't want to. The same way we didn't want to relive our own Games. And since we're all on the same team, I didn't think it mattered much."

"Is the person who won in twenty-five in here?" I ask.

"I don't think so. Whoever it was must be dead by now, and Effie only sent me victors we might have to face." Peeta weighs Haymitch's tape in his hand. "Why? You think we ought to watch it?"

"It's the only Quell we have. We might pick up something valuable about how they work," I say. But I feel weird. It seems like some major invasion of Haymitch's privacy. I don't know why it should, since the whole thing was public. But it does. I have to admit I'm also extremely curious. "We don't have to tell Haymitch we saw it."

"Okay," Peeta agrees. He puts in the tape and I curl up next to him on the couch with my milk, which is really delicious with the honey and spices, and lose myself in the Fiftieth Hunger Games. After the anthem, they show President Snow drawing the envelope for the second Quarter Quell. He looks younger but just as repellent. He reads from the square of paper in the same onerous voice he used for ours, informing Panem that in honor of the Quarter Quell, there will be twice the number of tributes. The editors smash cut right into the reapings, where name after name after name is called.

By the time we get to District 12, I'm completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of kids going to certain death. There's a woman, not Effie, calling the names in 12, but she still begins with "Ladies first!" She calls out the name of a girl who's from the Seam, you can tell by the look of her, and then I hear the name "Maysilee Donner."

"Oh!" I say. "She was my mother's friend." The camera finds her in the crowd, clinging to two other girls. All blond. All definitely merchants' kids.

"I think that's your mother hugging her," says Peeta quietly. And he's right. As Maysilee Donner bravely disengages herself and heads for the stage, I catch a glimpse of my mother at my age, and no one has exaggerated her beauty. Holding her hand and weeping is another girl who looks just like Maysilee. But a lot like someone else I know, too.

"Madge," I say.

"That's her mother. She and Maysilee were twins or something," Peeta says. "My dad mentioned it once."

I think of Madge's mother. Mayor Undersee's wife. Who spends half her life in bed immobilized with terrible pain, shutting out the world. I think of how I never realized that she and my mother shared this connection. Of Madge showing up in that snowstorm to bring the painkiller for Gale. Of my mockingjay pin and how it means something completely different now that I know that its former owner was Madge's aunt, Maysilee Donner, a tribute who was murdered in the arena.

Haymitch's name is called last of all. It's more of a shock to see him than my mother. Young. Strong. Hard to admit, but he was something of a looker. His hair dark and curly, those gray Seam eyes bright and, even then, dangerous.

"Oh. Peeta, you don't think he killed Maysilee, do you?" I burst out. I don't know why, but I can't stand the thought.

"With forty-eight players? I'd say the odds are against it," says Peeta.

The chariot rides - in which the District 12 kids are dressed in awful coal miners' outfits - and the interviews flash by. There's little time to focus on anyone. But since Haymitch is going to be the victor, we get to see one full exchange between him and Caesar Flickerman, who looks exactly as he always does in his twinkling midnight blue suit. Only his dark green hair, eyelids, and lips are different.

"So, Haymitch, what do you think of the Games having one hundred percent more competitors than usual?" asks Caesar.

Haymitch shrugs. "I don't see that it makes much difference. They'll still be one hundred percent as stupid as usual, so I figure my odds will be roughly the same."

The audience bursts out laughing and Haymitch gives them a half smile. Snarky. Arrogant. Indifferent.

"He didn't have to reach far for that, did he?" I say.

Now it's the morning the Games begin. We watch from the point of view of one of the tributes as she rises up through the tube from the Launch Room and into the arena. I can't help but give a slight gasp. Disbelief is reflected on the faces of the players. Even Haymitch's eyebrows lift in pleasure, although they almost immediately knit themselves back into a scowl.

It's the most breathtaking place imaginable. The golden Cornucopia sits in the middle of a green meadow with patches of gorgeous flowers. The sky is azure blue with puffy white clouds. Bright songbirds flutter overhead. By the way some of the tributes are sniffing, it must smell fantastic. An aerial shot shows that the meadow stretches for miles. Far in the distance, in one direction, there seems to be a woods, in the other, a snowcapped mountain.

The beauty disorients many of the players, because when the gong sounds, most of them seem like they're trying to wake from a dream. Not Haymitch, though. He's at the Cornucopia, armed with weapons and a backpack of choice supplies. He heads for the woods before most of the others have stepped off their plates.

Eighteen tributes are killed in the bloodbath that first day. Others begin to die off and it becomes clear that almost everything in this pretty place - the luscious fruit dangling from the bushes, the water in the crystalline streams, even the scent of the flowers when inhaled too directly - is deadly poisonous. Only the rainwater and the food provided at the Cornucopia are safe to consume. There's also a large, well-stocked Career pack of ten tributes scouring the mountain area for victims.

Haymitch has his own troubles over in the woods, where the fluffy golden squirrels turn out to be carnivorous and attack in packs, and the butterfly stings bring agony if not death. But he persists in moving forward, always keeping the distant mountain at his back.

Maysilee Donner turns out to be pretty resourceful herself, for a girl who leaves the Cornucopia with only a small backpack. Inside she finds a bowl, some dried beef, and a blowgun with two dozen darts. Making use of the readily available poisons, she soon turns the blowgun into a deadly weapon by dipping the darts in lethal substances and directing them into her opponents' flesh.

Four days in, the picturesque mountain erupts in a volcano that wipes out another dozen players, including all but five of the Career pack. With the mountain spewing liquid fire, and the meadow offering no means of concealment, the remaining thirteen tributes - including Haymitch and Maysilee - have no choice but to confine themselves to the woods.

Haymitch seems bent on continuing in the same direction, away from the now volcanic mountain, but a maze of tightly woven hedges forces him to circle back into the center of the woods, where he encounters three of the Careers and pulls his knife. They may be much bigger and stronger, but Haymitch has remarkable speed and has killed two when the third disarms him. That Career is about to slit his throat when a dart drops him to the ground.

Maysilee Donner steps out of the woods. "We'd live longer with two of us."

"Guess you just proved that," says Haymitch, rubbing his neck. "Allies?" Maysilee nods. And there they are, instantly drawn into one of those pacts you'd be hard-pressed to break if you ever expect to go home and face your district.

Just like Peeta and me, they do better together. Get more rest, work out a system to salvage more rainwater, fight as a team, and share the food from the dead tributes' packs. But Haymitch is still determined to keep moving on.

"Why?" Maysilee keeps asking, and he ignores her until she refuses to move any farther without an answer.

"Because it has to end somewhere, right?" says Haymitch. "The arena can't go on forever."

"What do you expect to find?" Maysilee asks.

"I don't know. But maybe there's something we can use," he says.

When they finally do make it through that impossible hedge, using a blowtorch from one of the dead Careers' packs, they find themselves on flat, dry earth that leads to a cliff. Far below, you can see jagged rocks.

"That's all there is, Haymitch. Let's go back," says Maysilee.

"No, I'm staying here," he says.

"All right. There's only five of us left. May as well say good-bye now, anyway," she says. "I don't want it to come down to you and me."

"Okay," he agrees. That's all. He doesn't offer to shake her hand or even look at her. And she walks away.

Haymitch skirts along the edge of the cliff as if trying to figure something out. His foot dislodges a pebble and it falls into the abyss, apparently gone forever. But a minute later, as he sits to rest, the pebble shoots back up beside him. Haymitch stares at it, puzzled, and then his face takes on a strange intensity. He lobs a rock the size of his fist over the cliff and waits. When it flies back out and right into his hand, he starts laughing.

That's when we hear Maysilee begin to scream. The alliance is over and she broke it off, so no one could blame him for ignoring her. But Haymitch runs for her, anyway. He arrives only in time to watch the last of a flock of candy pink birds, equipped with long, thin beaks, skewer her through the neck. He holds her hand while she dies, and all I can think of is Rue and how I was too late to save her, too.

Later that day, another tribute is killed in combat and a third gets eaten by a pack of those fluffy squirrels, leaving Haymitch and a girl from District 1 to vie for the crown. She's bigger than he is and just as fast, and when the inevitable fight comes, it's bloody and awful and both have received what could well be fatal wounds, when Haymitch is finally disarmed. He staggers through the beautiful woods, holding his intestines in, while she stumbles after him, carrying the ax that should deliver his deathblow. Haymitch makes a beeline for his cliff and has just reached the edge when she throws the ax. He collapses on the ground and it flies into the abyss. Now weaponless as well, the girl just stands there, trying to staunch the flow of blood pouring from her empty eye socket. She's thinking perhaps that she can outlast Haymitch, who's starting to convulse on the ground. But what she doesn't know, and what he does, is that the ax will return. And when it flies back over the ledge, it buries itself in her head. The cannon sounds, her body is removed, and the trumpets blow to announce Haymitch's victory.

Peeta clicks off the tape and we sit there in silence for a while.

Finally Peeta says, "That force field at the bottom of the cliff, it was like the one on the roof of the Training Center. The one that throws you back if you try to jump off and commit suicide. Haymitch found a way to turn it into a weapon."

"Not just against the other tributes, but the Capitol, too," I say. "You know they didn't expect that to happen. It wasn't meant to be part of the arena. They never planned on anyone using it as a weapon. It made them look stupid that he figured it out. I bet they had a good time trying to spin that one. Bet that's why I don't remember seeing it on television. It's almost as bad as us and the berries!"

I can't help laughing, really laughing, for the first time in months. Peeta just shakes his head like I've lost my mind - and maybe I have, a little.

"Almost, but not quite," says Haymitch from behind us. I whip around, afraid he's going to be angry over us watching his tape, but he just smirks and takes a swig from a bottle of wine. So much for sobriety. I guess I should be upset he's drinking again, but I'm preoccupied with another feeling.

I've spent all these weeks getting to know who my competitors are, without even thinking about who my teammates are. Now a new kind of confidence is lighting up inside of me, because I think I finally know who Haymitch is. And I'm beginning to know who I am. And surely, two people who have caused the Capitol so much trouble can think of a way to get Peeta home alive.

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