My body reacts before my mind does and I'm running out the door, across the lawns of the Victor's Village, into the dark beyond. Moisture from the sodden ground soaks my socks and I'm aware of the sharp bite of the wind, but I don't stop. Where? Where to go? The woods, of course. I'm at the fence before the hum makes me remember how very trapped I am. I back away, panting, turn on my heel, and take off again.
The next thing I know I'm on my hands and knees in the cellar of one of the empty houses in the Victor's Village. Faint shafts of moonlight come in through the window wells above my head. I'm cold and wet and winded, but my escape attempt has done nothing to subdue the hysteria rising up inside me. It will drown me unless it's released. I ball up the front of my shirt, stuff it into my mouth, and begin to scream. How long this continues, I don't know. But when I stop, my voice is almost gone.
I curl up on my side and stare at the patches of moonlight on the cement floor. Back in the arena. Back in the place of nightmares. That's where I am going. I have to admit I didn't see it coming. I saw a multitude of other things. Being publicly humiliated, tortured, and executed.
Fleeing through the wilderness, pursued by Peacekeepers and hovercraft. Marriage to Peeta with our children forced into the arena. But never that I myself would have to be a player in the Games again. Why? Because there's no precedent for it. Victors are out of the reaping for life. That's the deal if you win. Until now.
There's some kind of sheeting, the kind they put down when they paint. I pull it over me like a blanket. In the distance, someone is calling my name. But at the moment, I excuse myself from thinking about even those I love most. I think only of me. And what lies ahead.
The sheeting's stiff but holds warmth. My muscles relax, my heart rate slows. I see the wooden box in the little boy's hands, President Snow drawing out the yellowed envelope. Is it possible that this was really the Quarter Quell written down seventy-five years ago? It seems unlikely. It's just too perfect an answer for the troubles that face the Capitol today. Getting rid of me and subduing the districts all in one neat little package.
I hear President Snow's voice in my head. "On the seventy-fifth anniversary, as a reminder to the rebels that even the strongest among them cannot overcome the power of the Capitol, the male and female tributes will be reaped from their existing pool of victors."
Yes, victors are our strongest. They're the ones who survived the arena and slipped the noose of poverty that strangles the rest of us. They, or should I say we, are the very embodiment of hope where there is no hope. And now twenty-three of us will be killed to show how even that hope was an illusion.
I'm glad I won only last year. Otherwise I'd know all the other victors, not just because I see them on television but because they're guests at every Games. Even if they're not mentoring like Haymitch always has to, most return to the Capitol each year for the event. I think a lot of them are friends. Whereas the only friend I'll have to worry about killing will be either Peeta or Haymitch. Peeta or Haymitch!
I sit straight up, throwing off the sheeting. What just went through my mind? There's no situation in which I would ever kill Peeta or Haymitch. But one of them will be in the arena with me, and that's a fact. They may have even decided between them who it will be. Whoever is picked first, the other will have the option of volunteering to take his place. I already know what will happen. Peeta will ask Haymitch to let him go into the arena with me no matter what. For my sake. To protect me.
I stumble around the cellar, looking for an exit. How did I even get into this place? I feel my way up the steps to the kitchen and see the glass window in the door has been shattered. Must be why my hand seems to be bleeding. I hurry back into the night and head straight to Haymitch's house. He's sitting alone at the kitchen table, a half-emptied bottle of white liquor in one fist, his knife in the other. Drunk as a skunk.
"Ah, there she is. All tuckered out. Finally did the math, did you, sweetheart? Worked out you won't be going in alone? And now you're here to ask me ... what?" he says.
I don't answer. The window's wide open and the wind cuts through me just as if I were outside.
"I'll admit, it was easier for the boy. He was here before I could snap the seal on a bottle. Begging me for another chance to go in. But what can you say?" He mimics my voice. '"Take his place, Haymitch, because all things being equal, I'd rather Peeta had a crack at the rest of his life than you?
I bite my lip because once he's said it, I'm afraid that's what I do want. For Peeta to live, even if it means Haymitch's death. No, I don't. He's dreadful, of course, but Haymitch is my family now. What did I come for? I think. What could I possibly want here?
"I came for a drink," I say.
Haymitch bursts out laughing and slams the bottle on the table before me. I run my sleeve across the top and take a couple gulps before I come up choking. It takes a few minutes to compose myself, and even then my eyes and nose are still streaming. But inside me, the liquor feels like fire and I like it.
"Maybe it should be you," I say matter-of-factly as I pull up a chair. "You hate life, anyway."
"Very true," says Haymitch. "And since last time I tried to keep you alive... seems like I'm obligated to save the boy this time."
"That's another good point," I say, wiping my nose and tipping up the bottle again.
"Peeta's argument is that since I chose you, I now owe him. Anything he wants. And what he wants is the chance to go in again to protect you," says Haymitch.
I knew it. In this way, Peeta's not hard to predict. While I was wallowing around on the floor of that cellar, thinking only of myself, he was here, thinking only of me. Shame isn't a strong enough word for what I feel.
"You could live a hundred lifetimes and not deserve him, you know," Haymitch says.
"Yeah, yeah," I say brusquely. "No question, he's the superior one in this trio. So, what are you going to do?"
"I don't know." Haymitch sighs. "Go back in with you maybe, if I can. If my name's drawn at the reaping, it won't matter. He'll just volunteer to take my place."
We sit for a while in silence. "It'd be bad for you in the arena, wouldn't it? Knowing all the others?" I ask.
"Oh, I think we can count on it being unbearable wherever I am." He nods at the bottle. "Can I have that back now?"
"No," I say, wrapping my arms around it. Haymitch pulls another bottle out from under the table and gives the top a twist. But I realize I am not just here for a drink. There's something else I want from Haymitch. "Okay, I figured out what I'm asking," I say. "If it is Peeta and me in the Games, this time we try to keep him alive."
Something flickers across his bloodshot eyes. Pain.
"Like you said, it's going to be bad no matter how you slice it. And whatever Peeta wants, it's his turn to be saved. We both owe him that." My voice takes on a pleading tone.
"Besides, the Capitol hates me so much, I'm as good as dead now. He still might have a chance. Please, Haymitch. Say you'll help me."
He frowns at his bottle, weighing my words. "All right," he says finally.
"Thanks," I say. I should go see Peeta now, but I don't want to. My head's spinning from the drink, and I'm so wiped out, who knows what he could get me to agree to? No, now I have to go home to face my mother and Prim.
As I stagger up the steps to my house, the front door opens and Gale pulls me into his arms. "I was wrong. We should have gone when you said," he whispers.
"No," I say. I'm having trouble focusing, and liquor keeps sloshing out of my bottle and down the back of Gale's jacket, but he doesn't seem to care.
"It's not too late," he says.
Over his shoulder, I see my mother and Prim clutching each other in the doorway. We run. They die. And now I've got Peeta to protect. End of discussion. "Yeah, it is." My knees give way and he's holding me up. As the alcohol overcomes my mind, I hear the glass bottle shatter on the floor. This seems appropriate since I have obviously lost my grip on everything.
When I wake up, I barely get to the toilet before the white liquor makes its reappearance. It burns just as much coming up as it did going down, and tastes twice as bad. I'm trembling and sweaty when I finish vomiting, but at least most of the stuff is out of my system. Enough made it into my bloodstream, though, to result in a pounding headache, parched mouth, and boiling stomach.
I turn on the shower and stand under the warm rain for a minute before I realize I'm still in my underclothes. My mother must have just stripped off my filthy outer ones and tucked me in bed. I throw the wet undergarments into the sink and pour shampoo on my head. My hands sting, and that's when I notice the stitches, small and even, across one palm and up the side of the other hand. Vaguely I remember breaking that glass window last night. I scrub myself from head to toe, only stopping to throw up again right in the shower. It's mostly just bile and goes down the drain with the sweet-smelling bubbles.
Finally clean, I pull on my robe and head back to bed, ignoring my dripping hair. I climb under the blankets, sure this is what it must feel like to be poisoned. The footsteps on the stairs renew my panic from last night. I'm not ready to see my mother and Prim. I have to pull myself together to be calm and reassuring, the way I was when we said our good-byes the day of the last reaping. I have to be strong. I struggle into an upright position, push my wet hair off my throbbing temples, and brace myself for this meeting. They appear in the doorway, holding tea and toast, their faces filled with concern. I open my mouth, planning to start off with some kind of joke, and burst into tears.
So much for being strong.
My mother sits on the side of the bed and Prim crawls right up next to me and they hold me, making quiet soothing sounds, until I am mostly cried out. Then Prim gets a towel and dries my hair, combing out the knots, while my mother coaxes tea and toast into me. They dress me in warm pajamas and layer more blankets on me and I drift off again.
I can tell by the light it's late afternoon when I come round again. There's a glass of water on my bedside table and I gulp it down thirstily. My stomach and head still feel rocky, but much better than they did earlier. I rise, dress, and braid back my hair. Before I go down, I pause at the top of the stairs, feeling slightly embarrassed about the way I've handled the news of the Quarter Quell. My erratic flight, drinking with Haymitch, weeping. Given the circumstances, I guess I deserve one day of indulgence. I'm glad the cameras weren't here for it, though.
Downstairs, my mother and Prim embrace me again, but they're not overly emotional. I know they're holding things in to make it easier on me. Looking at Prim's face, it's hard to imagine she's the same frail little girl I left behind on reaping day nine months ago. The combination of that ordeal and all that has followed - the cruelty in the district, the parade of sick and wounded that she often treats by herself now if my mother's hands are too full - these things have aged her years. She's grown quite a bit, too; we're practically the same height now, but that isn't what makes her seem so much older.
My mother ladles out a mug of broth for me, and I ask for a second mug to take to Haymitch. Then I walk across the lawn to his house. He's only just waking up and accepts the mug without comment. We sit there, almost peacefully, sipping our broth and watching the sun set through his living room window. I hear someone walking around upstairs and I assume it's Hazelle, but a few minutes later Peeta comes down and tosses a cardboard box of empty liquor bottles on the table with finality. "There, it's done," he says.
It's taking all of Haymitch's resources to focus his eyes on the bottles, so I speak up. "What's done?"
"I've poured all the liquor down the drain," says Peeta.
This seems to jolt Haymitch out of his stupor, and he paws through the box in disbelief. "You what?"
"I tossed the lot," says Peeta.
"He'll just buy more," I say.
"No, he won't," says Peeta. "I tracked down Ripper this morning and told her I'd turn her in the second she sold to either of you. I paid her off, too, just for good measure, but I don't think she's eager to be back in the Peacekeepers' custody."
Haymitch takes a swipe with his knife but Peeta deflects it so easily it's pathetic. Anger rises up in me. "What business is it of yours what he does?"
"It's completely my business. However it falls out, two of us are going to be in the arena again with the other as mentor. We can't afford any drunkards on this team. Especially not you, Katniss," says Peeta to me.
"What?" I sputter indignantly. It would be more convincing if I weren't still so hungover. "Last night's the only time I've ever even been drunk."
"Yeah, and look at the shape you're in," says Peeta.
I don't know what I expected from my first meeting with Peeta after the announcement. A few hugs and kisses. A little comfort maybe. Not this. I turn to Haymitch. "Don't worry, I'll get you more liquor."
"Then I'll turn you both in. Let you sober up in the stocks," says Peeta.
"What's the point to this?" asks Haymitch.
"The point is that two of us are coming home from the Capitol. One mentor and one victor," says Peeta. "Effie's sending me recordings of all the living victors. We're going to watch their Games and learn everything we can about how they fight. We're going to put on weight and get strong. We're going to start acting like Careers. And one of us is going to be victor again whether you two like it or not!" He sweeps out of the room, slamming the front door.
Haymitch and I wince at the bang.
"I don't like self-righteous people," I say.
"What's to like?" says Haymitch, who begins sucking the dregs out of the empty bottles.
"You and me. That's who he plans on coming home," I say.
"Well, then the joke's on him," says Haymitch.
But after a few days, we agree to act like Careers, because this is the best way to get Peeta ready as well. Every night we watch the old recaps of the Games that the remaining victors won. I realize we never met any of them on the Victory Tour, which seems odd in retrospect. When I bring it up, Haymitch says the last thing President Snow would've wanted was to show Peeta and me - especially me - bonding with other victors in potentially rebellious districts. Victors have a special status, and if they appeared to be supporting my defiance of the Capitol, it would've been dangerous politically. Adjusting for age, I realize some of our opponents may be elderly, which is both sad and reassuring. Peeta takes copious notes, Haymitch volunteers information about the victors' personalities, and slowly we begin to know our competition.
Every morning we do exercises to strengthen our bodies. We run and lift things and stretch our muscles. Every afternoon we work on combat skills, throwing knives, fighting hand to hand; I even teach them to climb trees. Officially, tributes aren't supposed to train, but no one tries to stop us. Even in regular years, the tributes from Districts 1, 2, and 4 show up able to wield spears and swords. This is nothing by comparison.
After all the years of abuse, Haymitch's body resists improvement. He's still remarkably strong, but the shortest run winds him. And you'd think a guy who sleeps every night with a knife might actually be able to hit the side of a house with one, but his hands shake so badly it takes weeks for him to achieve even that.
Peeta and I excel under the new regimen, though. It gives me something to do. It gives us all something to do besides accept defeat. My mother puts us on a special diet to gain weight. Prim treats our sore muscles. Madge sneaks us her father's Capitol newspapers. Predictions on who will be victor of the victors show us among the favorites. Even Gale steps into the picture on Sundays, although he's got no love for Peeta or Haymitch, and teaches us all he knows about snares. It's weird for me, being in conversations with both Peeta and Gale, but they seem to have set aside whatever issues they have about me.
One night, as I'm walking Gale back into town, he even admits, "It'd be better if he were easier to hate."
"Tell me about it," I say. "If I could've just hated him in the arena, we all wouldn't be in this mess now. He'd be dead, and I'd be a happy little victor all by myself."
"And where would we be, Katniss?" asks Gale.
I pause, not knowing what to say. Where would I be with my pretend cousin who wouldn't be my cousin if it weren't for Peeta? Would he have still kissed me and would I have kissed him back had I been free to do so? Would I have let myself open up to him, lulled by the security of money and food and the illusion of safety being a victor could bring under different circumstances? But there would still always be the reaping looming over us, over our children. No matter what I wanted ...
"Hunting. Like every Sunday," I say. I know he didn't mean the question literally, but this is as much as I can honestly give. Gale knows I chose him over Peeta when I didn't make a run for it. To me, there's no point in talking about things that might have been. Even if I had killed Peeta in the arena, I still wouldn't have wanted to marry anyone. I only got engaged to save people's lives, and that completely backfired.
I'm afraid, anyway, that any kind of emotional scene with Gale might cause him to do something drastic. Like start that uprising in the mines. And as Haymitch says, District 12 isn't ready for that. If anything, they're less ready than before the Quarter Quell announcement, because the following morning another hundred Peacekeepers arrived on the train.
Since I don't plan on making it back alive a second time, the sooner Gale lets me go, the better. I do plan on saying one or two things to him after the reaping, when we're allowed an hour for good-byes. To let Gale know how essential he's been to me all these years. How much better my life has been for knowing him. For loving him, even if it's only in the limited way that I can manage.
But I never get the chance.
The day of the reaping's hot and sultry. The population of District 12 waits, sweating and silent, in the square with machine guns trained on them. I stand alone in a small roped-off area with Peeta and Haymitch in a similar pen to the right of me. The reaping takes only a minute. Effie, shining in a wig of metallic gold, lacks her usual verve. She has to claw around the girls' reaping ball for quite a while to snag the one piece of paper that everyone already knows has my name on it. Then she catches Haymitch's name. He barely has time to shoot me an unhappy look before Peeta has volunteered to take his place.
We are immediately marched into the Justice Building to find Head Peacekeeper Thread waiting for us. "New procedure," he says with a smile. We're ushered out the back door, into a car, and taken to the train station. There are no cameras on the platform, no crowd to send us on our way. Haymitch and Effie appear, escorted by guards. Peacekeepers hurry us all onto the train and slam the door. The wheels begin to turn.
And I'm left staring out the window, watching District 12 disappear, with all my good-byes still hanging on my lips.
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