I spew the berries from my mouth, wiping my tongue with the end of my shirt to make sure no juice remains. Peeta pulls me to the lake where we both flush our mouths with water and then collapse into each other's arms.
"You didn't swallow any?" I ask him.
He shakes his head. "You?"
"Guess I'd be dead by now if I did," I say. I can see his lips moving in reply, but I can't hear him over the roar of the crowd in the Capitol that they're playing live over the speakers.
The hovercraft materializes overhead and two ladders drop, only there's no way I'm letting go of Peeta. I keep one arm around him as I help him up, and we each place a foot on the first rung of the ladder. The electric current freezes us in place, and this time I'm glad because I'm not really sure Peeta can hang on for the whole ride. And since my eyes were looking down, I can see that while our muscles are immobile, nothing is preventing the blood from draining out of Peeta's leg. Sure enough, the minute the door closes behind us and the current stops, he slumps to the floor unconscious.
My fingers are still gripping the back of his jacket so tightly that when they take him away it tears leaving me with a fistful of black fabric. Doctors in sterile white, masked and gloved, already prepped to operate, go into action. Peeta's so pale and still on a silver table, tubes and wires springing out of him every which way, and for a moment I forget we're out of the Games and I see the doctors as just one more threat, one more pack of mutts designed to kill him. Petrified, I lunge for him, but I'm caught and thrust back into another room, and a glass door seals between us. I pound on the glass, screaming my head off. Everyone ignores me except for some Capitol attendant who appears behind me and offers me a beverage.
I slump down on the floor, my face against the door, staring uncomprehendingly at the crystal glass in my hand. Icy cold, filled with orange juice, a straw with a frilly white collar. How wrong it looks in my bloody, filthy hand with its dirt-caked nails and scars. My mouth waters at the smell, but I place it carefully on the floor, not trusting anything so clean and pretty.
Through the glass, I see the doctors working feverishly on Peeta, their brows creased in concentration. I see the flow of liquids, pumping through the tubes, watch a wall of dials and lights that mean nothing to me. I'm not sure, but I think his heart stops twice.
It's like being home again, when they bring in the hopelessly mangled person from the mine explosion, or the woman in her third day of labor, or the famished child struggling against pneumonia and my mother and Prim, they wear that same look on their faces. Now is the time to run away to the woods, to hide in the trees until the patient is long gone and in another part of the Seam the hammers make the coffin. But I'm held here both by the hovercraft walls and the same force that holds the loved ones of the dying. How often I've seen them, ringed around our kitchen table and I thought, Why don't they leave? Why do they stay to watch?
And now I know. It's because you have no choice.
I startle when I catch someone staring at me from only a few inches away and then realize it's my own face reflecting back in the glass. Wild eyes, hollow cheeks, my hair in a tangled mat. Rabid. Feral. Mad. No wonder everyone is keeping a safe distance from me.
The next thing I know we've landed back on the roof of the Training Center and they're taking Peeta but leaving me behind the door. I start hurling myself against the glass, shrieking and I think I just catch a glimpse of pink hair - it must be Effie, it has to be Effie coming to my rescue - when the needle jabs me from behind.
When I wake, I'm afraid to move at first. The entire ceiling glows with a soft yellow light allowing me to see that I'm in a room containing just my bed. No doors, no windows are visible. The air smells of something sharp and antiseptic. My right arm has several tubes that extend into the wall behind me. I'm naked, but the bedclothes arc soothing against my skin. I tentatively lift my left hand above the cover. Not only has it been scrubbed clean, the nails are filed in perfect ovals, the scars from the burns are less prominent. I touch my cheek, my lips, the puckered scar above my eyebrow, and am just running my fingers through my silken hair when I freeze. Apprehensively I ruffle the hair by my left ear. No, it wasn't an illusion. I can hear again.
I try and sit up, but some sort of wide restraining band around my waist keeps me from rising more than a few inches. The physical confinement makes me panic and I'm trying to pull myself up and wriggle my hips through the band when a portion of the wall slides open and in steps the redheaded Avox girl carrying a tray. The sight of her calms me and I stop trying to escape. I want to ask her a million questions, but I'm afraid any familiarity would cause her harm. Obviously I am being closely monitored. She sets the tray across my thighs and presses something that raises me to a sitting position. While she adjusts my pillows, I risk one question. I say it out loud, as clearly as my rusty voice will allow, so nothing will seem secretive. "Did Peeta make it?" She gives me a nod, and as she slips a spoon into my hand, I feel the pressure of friendship.
I guess she did not wish me dead after all. And Peeta has made it. Of course, he did. With all their expensive equipment here. Still, I hadn't been sure until now.
As the Avox leaves, the door closes noiselessly after her and I turn hungrily to the tray. A bowl of clear broth, a small serving of applesauce, and a glass of water. This is it? I think grouchily. Shouldn't my homecoming dinner be a little more spectacular? But I find it's an effort to finish the spare meal before me. My stomach seems to have shrunk to the size of a chestnut, and I have to wonder how long I've been out because I had no trouble eating a fairly sizable breakfast that last morning in the arena. There's usually a lag of a few days between the end of the competition and the presentation of the victor so that they can put the starving, wounded, mess of a person back together again. Somewhere, Cinna and Portia will be creating our wardrobes for the public appearances. Haymitch and Effie will be arranging the banquet for our sponsors, reviewing the questions for our final interviews. Back home, District 12 is probably in chaos as they try and organize the homecoming celebrations for Peeta and me, given that the last one was close to thirty years ago.
Home! Prim and my mother! Gale! Even the thought of Prim's scruffy old cat makes me smile. Soon I will be home!
I want to get out of this bed. To see Peeta and Cinna, to find out more about what's been going on. And why shouldn't I? I feel fine. But as I start to work my way out of the band, I feel a cold liquid seeping into my vein from one of the tubes and almost immediately lose consciousness.
This happens on and off for an indeterminate amount of time. My waking, eating, and, even though I resist the impulse to try and escape the bed, being knocked out again. I seem to be in a strange, continual twilight. Only a few things register. The redheaded Avox girl has not returned since the feeding, my scars are disappearing, and do I imagine it? Or do I hear a man's voice yelling? Not in the Capitol accent, but in the rougher cadences of home. And I can't help having a vague, comforting feeling that someone is looking out for me.
Then finally, the time arrives when I come to and there's nothing plugged into my right arm. The restraint around my middle has been removed and I am free to move about. I start to sit up but am arrested by the sight of my hands. The skin's perfection, smooth and glowing. Not only are the scars from the arena gone, but those accumulated over years of hunting have vanished without a trace. My forehead feels like satin, and when I try to find the burn on my calf, there's nothing.
I slip my legs out of bed, nervous about how they will bear my weight and find them strong and steady. Lying at the foot of the bed is an outfit that makes me flinch. It's what all of us tributes wore in the arena. I stare at it as if it had teeth until I remember that, of course, this is what I will wear to greet my team.
I'm dressed in less than a minute and fidgeting in front of the wall where I know there's a door even if I can't see it when suddenly it slides open. I step into a wide, deserted hall that appears to have no other doors on it. But it must. And behind one of them must be Peeta. Now that I'm conscious and moving, I'm growing more and more anxious about him. He must be all right or the Avox girl wouldn't have said so. But I need to see him for myself.
"Peeta!" I call out, since there's no one to ask. I hear my name in response, but it's not his voice. It's a voice that provokes first irritation and then eagerness. Effie.
I turn and see them all waiting in a big chamber at the end of the hall - Effie, Haymitch, and Cinna. My feet take off without hesitation. Maybe a victor should show more restraint, more superiority, especially when she knows this will be on tape, but I don't care. I run for them and surprise even myself when I launch into Haymitch's arms first. When he whispers in my ear, "Nice job, sweetheart," it doesn't sound sarcastic. Effie's somewhat teary and keeps patting my hair and talking about how she told everyone we were pearls. Cinna just hugs me tight and doesn't say anything. Then I notice Portia is absent and get a bad feeling.
"Where's Portia? Is she with Peeta? He is all right, isn't he? I mean, he's alive?" I blurt out.
"He's fine. Only they want to do your reunion live on air at the ceremony," says Haymitch.
"Oh. That's all," I say. The awful moment of thinking Peeta's dead again passes. "I guess I'd want to see that myself."
"Go on with Cinna. He has to get you ready," says Haymitch.
It's a relief to be alone with Cinna, to feel his protective arm around my shoulders as he guides me away from the cameras, down a few passages and to an elevator that leads to the lobby of the Training Center. The hospital then is far underground, even beneath the gym where the tributes practiced tying knots and throwing spears. The windows of the lobby are darkened, and a handful of guards stand on duty. No one else is there to see us cross to the tribute elevator. Our footsteps echo in the emptiness. And when we ride up to the twelfth floor, the faces of all the tributes who will never return flash across my mind and there's a heavy, tight place in my chest.
When the elevator doors open, Venia, Flavius, and Octavia engulf me, talking so quickly and ecstatically I can't make out their words. The sentiment is clear though. They are truly thrilled to see me and I'm happy to see them, too, although not like I was to see Cinna. It's more in the way one might be glad to see an affectionate trio of pets at the end of a particularly difficult day.
They sweep me into the dining room and I get a real meal - roast beef and peas and soft rolls - although my portions are still being strictly controlled. Because when I ask for seconds, I'm refused.
"No, no, no. They don't want it all coming back up on the stage," says Octavia, but she secretly slips me an extra roll under the table to let me know she's on my side.
We go back to my room and Cinna disappears for a while as the prep team gets me ready.
"Oh, they did a full body polish on you," says Flavius enviously. "Not a flaw left on your skin."
But when I look at my naked body in the mirror, all I can see is how skinny I am. I mean, I'm sure I was worse when I came out of the arena, but I can easily count my ribs.
They take care of the shower settings for me, and they go to work on my hair, nails, and makeup when I'm done. They chatter so continuously that I barely have to reply, which is good, since I don't feel very talkative. It's funny, because even though they're rattling on about the Games, it's all about where they were or what they were doing or how they felt when a specific event occurred. "I was still in bed!" "I had just had my eyebrows dyed!" "I swear I nearly fainted!" Everything is about them, not the dying boys and girls in the arena.
We don't wallow around in the Games this way in District 12. We grit our teeth and watch because we must and try to get back to business as soon as possible when they're over. To keep from hating the prep team, I effectively tune out most of what they're saying.
Cinna comes in with what appears to be an unassuming yellow dress across his arms.
"Have you given up the whole 'girl on fire' thing?" I ask.
"You tell me," he says, and slips it over my head. I immediately notice the padding over my breasts, adding curves that hunger has stolen from my body. My hands go to my chest and I frown.
"I know," says Cinna before I can object. "But the Gamemakers wanted to alter you surgically. Haymitch had a huge fight with them over it. This was the compromise." He stops me before I can look at my reflection. "Wait, don't forget the shoes." Venia helps me into a pair of flat leather sandals and I turn to the mirror.
I am still the "girl on fire." The sheer fabric softly glows. Even the slight movement in the air sends a ripple up my body. By comparison, the chariot costume seems garish, the interview dress too contrived. In this dress, I give the illusion of wearing candlelight.
"What do you think?" asks Cinna.
"I think it's the best yet," I say. When I manage to pull my eyes away from the flickering fabric, I'm in for something of a shock. My hair's loose, held back by a simple hairband. The makeup rounds and fills out the sharp angles of my face. A clear polish coats my nails. The sleeveless dress is gathered at my ribs, not my waist, largely eliminating any help the padding would have given my figure. The hem falls just to my knees. Without heels, you can see my true stature. I look, very simply, like a girl. A young one. Fourteen at the most. Innocent. Harmless. Yes, it is shocking that Cinna has pulled this off when you remember I've just won the Games.
This is a very calculated look. Nothing Cinna designs is arbitrary. I bite my lip trying to figure out his motivation.
"I thought it'd be something more. sophisticated-looking," I say.
"I thought Peeta would like this better," he answers carefully.
Peeta? No, it's not about Peeta. It's about the Capitol and the Gamemakers and the audience. Although I do not yet understand Cinna's design, it's a reminder the Games are not quite finished. And beneath his benign reply, I sense a warning. Of something he can't even mention in front of his own team.
We take the elevator to the level where we trained. It's customary for the victor and his or her support team to rise from beneath the stage. First the prep team, followed by the escort, the stylist, the mentor, and finally the victor. Only this year, with two victors who share both an escort and a mentor, the whole thing has had to be rethought. I find myself in a poorly lit area under the stage. A brand-new metal plate has been installed to transport me upward. You can still see small piles of sawdust, smell fresh paint. Cinna and the prep team peel off to change into their own costumes and take their positions, leaving me alone. In the gloom, I see a makeshift wall about ten yards away and assume Peeta's behind it.
The rumbling of the crowd is loud, so I don't notice Haymitch until he touches my shoulder. I spring away, startled, still half in the arena, I guess.
"Easy, just me. Let's have a look at you," Haymitch says. I hold out my arms and turn once. "Good enough."
It's not much of a compliment. "But what?" I say.
Haymitch's eyes shift around my musty holding space, and he seems to make a decision. "But nothing. How about a hug for luck?"
Okay, that's an odd request from Haymitch but, after all, we are victors. Maybe a hug for luck is in order. Only, when I put my arms around his neck, I find myself trapped in his embrace. He begins talking, very fast, very quietly in my ear, my hair concealing his lips.
"Listen up. You're in trouble. Word is the Capitol's furious about you showing them up in the arena. The one thing they can't stand is being laughed at and they're the joke of Panem," says Haymitch.
I feel dread coursing through me now, but I laugh as though Haymitch is saying something completely delightful because nothing is covering my mouth. "So, what?"
"Your only defense can be you were so madly in love you weren't responsible for your actions." Haymitch pulls back and adjusts my hairband. "Got it, sweetheart?" He could be talking about anything now.
"Got it," I say. "Did you tell Peeta this?"
"Don't have to," says Haymitch. "He's already there."
"But you think I'm not?" I say, taking the opportunity to straighten a bright red bow tie Cinna must have wrestled him into.
"Since when does it matter what I think?" says Haymitch. "Better take our places." He leads me to the metal circle. "This is your night, sweetheart. Enjoy it." He kisses me on the forehead and disappears into the gloom.
I tug on my skirt, willing it to be longer, wanting it to cover the knocking in my knees. Then I realize it's pointless. My whole body's shaking like a leaf. Hopefully, it will be put down to excitement. After all, it's my night.
The damp, moldy smell beneath the stage threatens to choke me. A cold, clammy sweat breaks out on my skin and I can't rid myself of the feeling that the boards above my head are about to collapse, to bury me alive under the rubble. When I left the arena, when the trumpets played, I was supposed to be safe. From then on. For the rest of my life. But if what Haymitch says is true, and he's got no reason to lie, I've never been in such a dangerous place in my life.
It's so much worse than being hunted in the arena. There, I could only die. End of story. But out here Prim, my mother, Gale, the people of District 12, everyone I care about back home could be punished if I can't pull off the girl-driven-crazy-by-love scenario Haymitch has suggested.
So I still have a chance, though. Funny, in the arena, when I poured out those berries, I was only thinking of outsmarting the Gamemakers, not how my actions would reflect on the Capitol. But the Hunger Games are their weapon and you are not supposed to be able to defeat it. So now the Capitol will act as if they've been in control the whole time. As if they orchestrated the whole event, right down to the double suicide. But that will only work if I play along with them.
And Peeta. Peeta will suffer, too, if this goes wrong. But what was it Haymitch said when I asked if he had told Peeta the situation? That he had to pretend to be desperately in love?
"Don't have to. He's already there."
Already thinking ahead of me in the Games again and well aware of the danger we're in? Or. already desperately in love? I don't know. I haven't even begun to separate out my feelings about Peeta. It's too complicated. What I did as part of the Games. As opposed to what I did out of anger at the Capitol. Or because of how it would be viewed back in District 12. Or simply because it was the only decent thing to do. Or what I did because I cared about him.
These are questions to be unraveled back home, in the peace and quiet of the woods, when no one is watching. Not here with every eye upon me. But I won't have that luxury for who knows how long. And right now, the most dangerous part of the Hunger Games is about to begin.
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