In my mind, President Snow should be viewed in front of marble pillars hung with oversized flags. It's jarring to see him surrounded by the ordinary objects in the room. Like taking the lid off a pot and finding a fanged viper instead of stew.
What could he be doing here? My mind rushes back to the opening days of other Victory Tours. I remember seeing the winning tributes with their mentors and stylists. Even some high government officials have made appearances occasionally. But I have never seen President Snow. He attends celebrations in the Capitol. Period.
If he's made the journey all the way from his city, it can only mean one thing. I'm in serious trouble. And if I am, so is my family. A shiver goes through me when I think of the proximity of my mother and sister to this man who despises me. Will always despise me. Because I outsmarted his sadistic Hunger Games, made the Capitol look foolish, and consequently undermined his control.
All I was doing was trying to keep Peeta and myself alive. Any act of rebellion was purely coincidental. But when the Capitol decrees that only one tribute can live and you have the audacity to challenge it, I guess that's a rebellion in itself. My only defense was pretending that I was driven insane by a passionate love for Peeta. So we were both allowed to live. To be crowned victors. To go home and celebrate and wave good-bye to the cameras and be left alone. Until now.
Perhaps it is the newness of the house or the shock of seeing him or the mutual understanding that he could have me killed in a second that makes me feel like the intruder. As if this is his home and I'm the uninvited party. So I don't welcome him or offer him a chair. I don't say anything. In fact, I treat him as if he's a real snake, the venomous kind. I stand motionless, my eyes locked on him, considering plans of retreat.
"I think we'll make this whole situation a lot simpler by agreeing not to lie to each other," he says. "What do you think?"
I think my tongue has frozen and speech will be impossible, so I surprise myself by answering back in a steady voice, "Yes, I think that would save time."
President Snow smiles and I notice his lips for the first time. I'm expecting snake lips, which is to say none. But his are overly full, the skin stretched too tight. I have to wonder if his mouth has been altered to make him more appealing. If so, it was a waste of time and money, because he's not appealing at all. "My advisors were concerned you would be difficult, but you're not planning on being difficult, are you?" he asks.
"No," I answer.
"That's what I told them. I said any girl who goes to such lengths to preserve her life isn't going to be interested in throwing it away with both hands. And then there's her family to think of. Her mother, her sister, and all those ... cousins." By the way he lingers on the word "cousins," I can tell he knows that Gale and I don't share a family tree.
Well, it's all on the table now. Maybe that's better. I don't do well with ambiguous threats. I'd much rather know the score.
"Let's sit." President Snow takes a seat at the large desk of polished wood where Prim does her homework and my mother her budgets. Like our home, this is a place that he has no right, but ultimately every right, to occupy. I sit in front of the desk on one of the carved, straight-backed chairs. It's made for someone taller than I am, so only my toes rest on the ground.
"I have a problem, Miss Everdeen," says President Snow. "A problem that began the moment you pulled out those poisonous berries in the arena."
That was the moment when I guessed that if the Gamemakers had to choose between watching Peeta and me commit suicide - which would mean having no victor - and letting us both live, they would take the latter.
"If the Head Gamemaker, Seneca Crane, had had any brains, he'd have blown you to dust right then. But he had an unfortunate sentimental streak. So here you are. Can you guess where he is?" he asks.
I nod because, by the way he says it, it's clear that Seneca Crane has been executed. The smell of roses and blood has grown stronger now that only a desk separates us. There's a rose in President Snow's lapel, which at least suggests a source of the flower perfume, but it must be genetically enhanced, because no real rose reeks like that. As for the blood ... I don't know.
"After that, there was nothing to do but let you play out your little scenario. And you were pretty good, too, with the love-crazed schoolgirl bit. The people in the Capitol were quite convinced. Unfortunately, not everyone in the districts fell for your act," he says.
My face must register at least a flicker of bewilderment, because he addresses it.
"This, of course, you don't know. You have no access to information about the mood in other districts. In several of them, however, people viewed your little trick with the berries as an act of defiance, not an act of love. And if a girl from District Twelve of all places can defy the Capitol and walk away unharmed, what is to stop them from doing the same?" he says. "What is to prevent, say, an uprising?"
It takes a moment for his last sentence to sink in. Then the full weight of it hits me. "There have been uprisings?" I ask, both chilled and somewhat elated by the possibility.
"Not yet. But they'll follow if the course of things doesn't change. And uprisings have been known to lead to revolution." President Snow rubs a spot over his left eyebrow, the very spot where I myself get headaches. "Do you have any idea what that would mean? How many people would die? What conditions those left would have to face? Whatever problems anyone may have with the Capitol, believe me when I say that if it released its grip on the districts for even a short time, the entire system would collapse."
I'm taken aback by the directness and even the sincerity of this speech. As if his primary concern is the welfare of the citizens of Panem, when nothing could be further from the truth. I don't know how I dare to say the next words, but I do. "It must be very fragile, if a handful of berries can bring it down."
There's a long pause while he examines me. Then he simply says, "It is fragile, but not in the way that you suppose."
There's a knock at the door, and the Capitol man sticks his head in. "Her mother wants to know if you want tea."
"I would. I would like tea," says the president. The door opens wider, and there stands my mother, holding a tray with a china tea set she brought to the Seam when she married. "Set it here, please." He places his book on the corner of the desk and pats the center.
My mother sets the tray on the desk. It holds a china teapot and cups, cream and sugar, and a plate of cookies. They are beautifully iced with softly colored flowers. The frosting work can only be Peeta's.
"What a welcome sight. You know, it's funny how often people forget that presidents need to eat, too," President Snow says charmingly. Well, it seems to relax my mother a bit, anyway.
"Can I get you anything else? I can cook something more substantial if you're hungry," she offers.
"No, this could not be more perfect. Thank you," he says, clearly dismissing her. My mother nods, shoots me a glance, and goes. President Snow pours tea for both of us and fills his with cream and sugar, then takes a long time stirring. I sense he has had his say and is waiting for me to respond.
"I didn't mean to start any uprisings," I tell him.
"I believe you. It doesn't matter. Your stylist turned out to be prophetic in his wardrobe choice. Katniss Everdeen, the girl who was on fire, you have provided a spark that, left unattended, may grow to an inferno that destroys Panem," he says.
"Why don't you just kill me now?" I blurt out. "Publicly?" he asks. "That would only add fuel to the flames."
"Arrange an accident, then," I say.
"Who would buy it?" he asks. "Not you, if you were watching."
"Then just tell me what you want me to do. I'll do it," I say.
"If only it were that simple." He picks up one of the flowered cookies and examines it. "Lovely. Your mother made these?"
"Peeta." And for the first time, I find I can't hold his gaze. I reach for my tea but set it back down when I hear the cup rattling against the saucer. To cover I quickly take a cookie.
"Peeta. How is the love of your life?" he asks. "Good," I say.
"At what point did he realize the exact degree of your indifference?" he asks, dipping his cookie in his tea. "I'm not indifferent," I say.
"But perhaps not as taken with the young man as you would have the country believe," he says. "Who says I'm not?" I say.
"I do," says the president. "And I wouldn't be here if I were the only person who had doubts. How's the handsome cousin?"
"I don't know ... I don't ..." My revulsion at this conversation, at discussing my feelings for two of the people I care most about with President Snow, chokes me off.
"Speak, Miss Everdeen. Him I can easily kill off if we don't come to a happy resolution," he says. "You aren't doing him a favor by disappearing into the woods with him each Sunday."
If he knows this, what else does he know? And how does he know it? Many people could tell him that Gale and I spend our Sundays hunting. Don't we show up at the end of each one loaded down with game? Haven't we for years? The real question is what he thinks goes on in the woods beyond District 12. Surely they haven't been tracking us in there. Or have they? Could we have been followed? That seems impossible. At least by a person. Cameras? That never crossed my mind until this moment. The woods have always been our place of safety, our place beyond the reach of the Capitol, where we're free to say what we feel, be who we are. At least before the Games. If we've been watched since, what have they seen? Two people hunting, saying treasonous things against the Capitol, yes. But not two people in love, which seems to be President Snow's implication. We are safe on that charge. Unless ... unless ...
It only happened once. It was fast and unexpected, but it did happen.
After Peeta and I got home from the Games, it was several weeks before I saw Gale alone. First there were the obligatory celebrations. A banquet for the victors that only the most high-ranking people were invited to. A holiday for the whole district with free food and entertainers brought in from the Capitol. Parcel Day, the first of twelve, in which food packages were delivered to every person in the district. That was my favorite. To see all those hungry kids in the Seam running around, waving cans of applesauce, tins of meat, even candy. Back home, too big to carry, would be bags of grain, cans of oil. To know that once a month for a year they would all receive another parcel. That was one of the few times I actually felt good about winning the Games.
So between the ceremonies and events and the reporters documenting my every move as I presided and thanked and kissed Peeta for the audience, I had no privacy at all. After a few weeks, things finally died down. The camera crews and reporters packed up and went home. Peeta and I assumed the cool relationship we've had ever since. My family settled into our house in the Victor's Village. The everyday life of District 12 - workers to the mines, kids to school - resumed its usual pace. I waited until I thought the coast was really clear, and then one Sunday, without telling anyone, I got up hours before dawn and took off for the woods.
The weather was still warm enough that I didn't need a jacket. I packed along a bag filled with special foods, cold chicken and cheese and bakery bread and oranges. Down at my old house, I put on my hunting boots. As usual, the fence was not charged and it was simple to slip into the woods and retrieve my bow and arrows. I went to our place, Gale's and mine, where we had shared breakfast the morning of the reaping that sent me into the Games.
I waited at least two hours. I'd begun to think that he'd given up on me in the weeks that had passed. Or that he no longer cared about me. Hated me even. And the idea of losing him forever, my best friend, the only person I'd ever trusted with my secrets, was so painful I couldn't stand it. Not on top of everything else that had happened. I could feel my eyes tearing up and my throat starting to close the way it does when I get upset.
Then I looked up and there he was, ten feet away, just watching me. Without even thinking, I jumped up and threw my arms around him, making some weird sound that combined laughing, choking, and crying. He was holding me so tightly that I couldn't see his face, but it was a really long time before he let me go and then he didn't have much choice, because I'd gotten this unbelievably loud case of the hiccups and had to get a drink.
We did what we always did that day. Ate breakfast. Hunted and fished and gathered. Talked about people in town. But not about us, his new life in the mines, my time in the arena. Just about other things. By the time we were at the hole in the fence that's nearest the Hob, I think I really believed that things could be the same. That we could go on as we always had. I'd given all the game to Gale to trade since we had so much food now. I told him I'd skip the Hob, even though I was looking forward to going there, because my mother and sister didn't even know I'd gone hunting and they'd be wondering where I was. Then suddenly, as I was suggesting I take over the daily snare run, he took my face in his hands and kissed me.
I was completely unprepared. You would think that after all the hours I'd spent with Gale - watching him talk and laugh and frown - that I would know all there was to know about his lips. But I hadn't imagined how warm they would feel pressed against my own. Or how those hands, which could set the most intricate of snares, could as easily entrap me. I think I made some sort of noise in the back of my throat, and I vaguely remember my fingers, curled tightly closed, resting on his chest. Then he let go and said, "I had to do that. At least once." And he was gone.
Despite the fact that the sun was setting and my family would be worried, I sat by a tree next to the fence. I tried to decide how I felt about the kiss, if I had liked it or resented it, but all I really remembered was the pressure of Gale's lips and the scent of the oranges that still lingered on his skin. It was pointless comparing it with the many kisses I'd exchanged with Peeta. I still hadn't figured out if any of those counted. Finally I went home.
That week I managed the snares and dropped off the meat with Hazelle. But I didn't see Gale until Sunday. I had this whole speech worked out, about how I didn't want a boyfriend and never planned on marrying, but I didn't end up using it. Gale acted as if the kiss had never happened.
Maybe he was waiting for me to say something. Or kiss him back. Instead I just pretended it had never happened, either. But it had. Gale had shattered some invisible barrier between us and, with it, any hope I had of resuming our old, uncomplicated friendship. Whatever I pretended, I could never look at his lips in quite the same way.
This all flashes through my head in an instant as President Snow's eyes bore into me on the heels of his threat to kill Gale. How stupid I've been to think the Capitol would just ignore me once I'd returned home! Maybe I didn't know about the potential uprisings. But I knew they were angry with me. Instead of acting with the extreme caution the situation called for, what have I done? From the president's point of view, I've ignored Peeta and flaunted my preference for Gale's company before the whole district. And by doing so made it clear I was, in fact, mocking the Capitol. Now I've endangered Gale and his family and my family and Peeta, too, by my carelessness.
"Please don't hurt Gale," I whisper. "He's just my friend. He's been my friend for years. That's all that's between us. Besides, everyone thinks we're cousins now."
"I'm only interested in how it affects your dynamic with Peeta, thereby affecting the mood in the districts," he says.
"It will be the same on the tour. I'll be in love with him just as I was," I say.
"Just as you are," corrects President Snow.
"Just as I am," I confirm.
"Only you'll have to do even better if the uprisings are to be averted," he says. "This tour will be your only chance to turn things around."
"I know. I will. I'll convince everyone in the districts that I wasn't defying the Capitol, that I was crazy with love," I say.
President Snow rises and dabs his puffy lips with a napkin. "Aim higher in case you fall short."
"What do you mean? How can I aim higher?" I ask.
"Convince me" he says. He drops the napkin and retrieves his book. I don't watch him as he heads for the door, so I flinch when he whispers in my ear. "By the way, I know about the kiss." Then the door clicks shut behind him.
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