I feel like the first few chapters of this story run a little slow, so if any of my fellow writers have suggestions on spicing them up, I'd love to hear them!
The Heir to Panem
I dig my nails into the rich fabric of the red tufted chair and hope the cameras can't see my knuckles turn white. I don't want to watch Rue die again. I close my eyes when the spear pierces her side. I hear the audience around me gasp. I open my eyes at the sound of the hovercraft. They've edited out the flowers I blanketed over her.
I watch the rest of them fall. I see Tate drown in the river, too weak to pull his body up from the gentle stream. I see myself and Cato running from our hiding places in the woods, chased by mutts. Our final grapple on top of the Cornucopia and his slipping foot carrying him down over the side. I can hear his neck break now, probably digitally enhanced for effect. The viewers surrounding me cry out at the grotesque noise.
I'm watching myself sprawled on the Cornucopia, staring down at Cato's body. The trumpets sound again and they edit in stars to surround my face and declare me the winner of the 74th Hunger Games.
The lights come back up and Caesar Flickerman turns to me.
"And there we have it! Katniss Everdeen, our Victor!" He takes my hand and brings me to my feet. I wave to the audience, forcing a closed-lip smile. The cheer is deafening and my head pounds.
The lights go dark briefly. I hear the camera crew counting us out and then the work lights come up on the stage. The invited audience immediately stands and starts to move to the exits, bubbling with their own conversation.
"Well done, Miss Everdeen. Excellent interview!" Flickerman shakes my hand vigorously. "Make sure you save a dance for me tonight at your reception."
"Of course!" Effie has appeared of my shoulders, glowing with pride. "You have a Victor's party at the president's mansion tonight."
"Victor's party?" I mumble, trying to remember all the details of my last few days here that she went over. I drifted off halfway through her spiel at breakfast thinking of seeing Prim again. The smell of the woods in Twelve. My mother. Gale.
"Yes, food and music and dancing!" Effie giggles and Caesar grins.
"It's always a wonderful time," Caesar nods rabidly. "You'll meet so many people," he winks.
I frown a little, and then try to recover a blank slate. I'm not really interested in meeting anyone else in this awful place.
"Great," I say without inflection. I hate to lie, but damn if I'm going to pretend to be happy about this. Caesar kisses my hand farewell and Effie whisks me back off the stage into the transport to the Training Center.
I climb into the small, silent car and sit back in my seat. I stare at the hem of my candle-glow yellow dress. Cinna was right; it did make me appear more innocent. Less of a cold-blooded killer and more of a girl ready to go home and be a child again. But that will never happen. I will never be the same again.
Effie clears her throat awkwardly and I look over at her. I wish she'd stop making such a production over everything she tells me. Nothing she's said has ever been profound.
"Caesar was right. You will be meeting a lot of people tonight," she says in a low voice. She glances up at our driver and then slides forward to press a small silver switch on the console between the driver and passenger seats at the front of the long car. A partition slides up between the rows and we are granted privacy.
Effie turns to me.
"There are a lot of rich, rich people who live in this city, Katniss," she says quickly. "You could make quite a life for yourself here."
"Thank you," I say with a tight jaw. "I just want to go home."
"I'm sure you do," Effie smiles dismissively and nods. "But you may just…want to spend some time mingling at this party. Get some contact information. It never hurts to make new friends."
"I have friends waiting for me at home," I smile in protest. I suppose it's not too much of a lie. Gale and Madge. They're friends.
Effie sighs. "You could have many more. Powerful friends. Like Finnick Odair has."
My smile falters. I cough a polite little laugh. "I hardly think people will fall over me like him," I roll my eyes.
"You never know," Effie says. "You of course, are not as attractive or witty as he, and you're certainly not graceful like Cashmere, but someone may find you attractive."
I try not to be too insulted. I remember Cashmere from a few years back. I think she was wearing an entirely sheer dress at the interviews, because my mother covered my eyes when she stood up to shake Caesar's hand. The brief view I had of the tall blond girl was that of incredible beauty. From behind my mother's palm I could hear her muttering about the poor girl's mother. Then again, that "poor girl" did kill most of the other tributes that year.
"Someone," I repeat back to Effie. I suddenly miss Gale a great deal. He'd have a great laugh with me over this conversation.
The car pulls into the underground garage of the Training Center. We glide across the gleaming concrete floor to the guarded elevator that will take me back upstairs.
"Off you go!" Effie hops out and holds the door for me. "Cinna will be waiting for you to get you dressed."
"I'm not wearing this?" I've only been wearing this dress for an hour.
"Oh heavens, no!" Effie laughs in surprise. "Everyone's seen you in that dress. You need another." She waves as she climbs back into the car. I hear the partition lowering as she directs the driver to take her to her home to get ready.
The Peacekeepers at the elevator usher me in with their weapons at the ready. I wonder if they think I'll escape or try to kill them too.
The doors slide silently close and the elevator begins to rise.
I lean back against the cold metal wall behind me. I stare at my reflection in the closed door. Who is that person? Who is under that peach lipstick? I touch my softly curled hair. Venia has made it so soft it runs like melted dark chocolate over my fingers. My skin glows from the full body polish. My knees stare at me from under the hem of the simple dress. The scars from falling over tree trunks and chasing other children in the schoolyard are gone. The girl from District Twelve has been erased. The cold-blooded Victor Katniss Everdeen killed her in the Arena.
The elevator chimes and the doors open to my floor. Cinna is waiting for me with open arms. I fall into them, willing myself not to cry in front of the hidden cameras.
"Shh, there there," he says. "It's almost over. Just tonight and then an interview tomorrow and you're on a train home."
"I can't do this anymore," I pull back, shaking my head. "I'm so tired."
"Katniss," he laughs gently, leaning in close to hug me. He drops his mouth to my ear. "You have to go. It's for the President." He pulls back to smile for the cameras, but his eyes betray a great sadness. "I'll give you something to keep you up; it only lasts a few hours so you can sleep tonight. It'll make the time go by more quickly."
I nod unhappily. I let him lead me to my dressing area. Dresses are hung from every surface. They're beautiful, all of them. Violets and blues and greens and oranges. Tulle and lace and leather and taffeta. It's an explosion of color and art like only Cinna can create, but I can't find my excitement.
Cinna leaves me to call an Avox to bring me the wakefulness pills. I sit heavily on the large ottoman in the center of the room and avoid looking at myself in the mirror.
"Now then," Cinna returns, rubbing his hands together. "What are you going to wear?" He starts to move around the room, letting his eyes float between the dresses in his hands and my slouched form on the seat as he considers each one.
"I want to look like me," I blurt out. He raises an eyebrow at me.
"Effie says I'm going to meet a lot of people who want to be my friend," I explain carefully. "I want…them to know the real me," I add, hoping he understands. I'm not sure he does. "I mean, I'll never be as lovely as Cashmere or Finnick," I say, trying to pierce him with my eyes, "so I shouldn't be too glamorous." I manage a false giggle. "I'd be fooling people."
He nods. I think he understands I want to look as plain as possible to avoid attention.
Cinna moves immediately to a long pink dress obscured by a feathered black miniskirt with peacock train. As he pulls off the plastic sleeve it wears, I know it's perfect.
It's simple. No sequins, no stones. A shirred sweetheart shaped bodice is its only embellishment. A gauzy tulle overlays and soft draping fabric. The suggestion of sleeves are attached to the straps, a small bit of fabric that floats on the breeze as he moves to the dress to me and gestures me to stand. It's even tea length so I won't trip.
I stand up and move to the mirror. Cinna stands behind me and holds the dress in front of me. We stare.
"Thank you," I whisper.
I can hear the din of noise from the front hall. "Relax, sweetheart," Haymitch says to my ear. "Most of them are here for the free food and to shake your hand for the cameras. You won't have time for a conversation with anyone."
"Unless you want to," Effie smiles, pinching my upper arm as a reminder. "Remember, four bars on a military uniform means a higher ranking officer, so don't bother with three or less. If someone has gold coat buttons it means they're in the right society, but you'll want to stop for a chat with platinum buttons."
"What's platinum look like?"
"Highly polished white gold."
"Oh dear," Effie says worried. "Maybe I should stick by you. If you can't tell silver from platinum you could end up talking to a server."
Haymitch takes my elbow away from Effie. "She'll be fine, Trinket," he says harshly. "Doesn't need to talk to any of those stuffed shirts anyway." He looks down at me. He drops his voice. "Don't linger with anyone, Katniss." His tone is demanding. "Just say hello, politely answer three questions then excuse yourself and move on."
Before I can ask why he's saying this an attendant interrupts us.
"Ms. Trinket, Mr. Abernathy, you'll go first," he says, checking off a clipboard and shooing them towards an archway where guests are being announced as they enter. The attendant looks over my shoulder. "Ah! Mr. Crane! Just in time, you'll follow Mr. Abernathy."
I look over my shoulder to see Seneca Crane gliding in. His beard is trimmed into a cube that seems to sit on his chin like it was glued there. I'd laugh if I didn't hate him so. I can feel Rue's blood on my hands when I look at him.
He smiles proudly as he steps forward to me. "Miss Everdeen," he coos. My skin crawls. He takes my hand and kisses it. His beard scratches at my skin. He takes a step back to examine my dress. The flat silver ballet slippers. My jewelry-free neck and ears. A lone pink diamond on my right index finger. His smile lessens.
"I had expected more from Cinna," he says, raising his eyebrows. "I thought you'd surely arrive in flames."
"I chose this one," I defy him. "I wanted to look like myself."
"And you do," he says, pursing his lips in disappointment. He shakes his head. "No matter. Plenty of people are dying to meet you. I'm sure if they've seen you in the Arena they won't mind…this."
"Mr. Crane!" The attendant is at his side, urging him towards to door. I hear the caller announce Effie and Haymitch and a boom of applause as they enter the grand ballroom.
"See you on the inside," Crane laughs, as though we shared this joke, striding down the red carpet away from me towards his grand entrance.
"Miss Everdeen, you're next," the attendant is back for me.
I nod at the young man and watch him turn back to the door. I wonder how old he is. My age? Gale's? He wears a ridiculous uniform, puffed shorts striped with bizarre color combinations over pants so tight I can see his calf muscles. They're more like the stockings my mother would make me wear under my clothes in winter. His jacket has a million colorful panels to it, and a large feather is sewn into his hair. His life must be incredibly different than mine.
"All right, you can go ahead," he says, gesturing towards the door.
"Thank you, um…" I look at his name tag. "Quarry. Thank you, Quarry."
He looks at me, confused. "What?"
"Thank you, Quarry," I smile at him. He looks at his name tag and sees I've read it. He gives me a small, distracted smile of appreciation. I walk to the entrance archway.
"And now!" The caller yells out to get the crowd to hush. "Please welcome…the Victor of the seventy-fourth annual…..Hunger Games…..Miss. Katniss. Everdeen!"
A loud cheer rings out as I step onto the landing. Flashbulbs blind me as photographers swarm the pad. I try to smile and wave, but the light hurts my eyes and I bring a hand over them to shield my face.
"All right, all right."
The soft, insidious voice calling over the crowd chills me to the bone.
"I think we should let our Victor enter her own party, should we not?"
The blinding light ceases immediately and I can see him. President Snow. Standing at the musician's stage at the front of the room.
He smiles at me and my hands go ice cold. I nod an obligatory and fearful thank you and the crowd disperses to let me enter. A gentle hum begins to grow as the conversation comes back to life. Snow turns away to address an attendant at his side and I am able to breathe again.
"Katniss!" Venia squeals as she appears to hug me. "You look lovely. I wish we'd had time to re-do your hair. I had a lovely wooden sculpture to braid into it."
"Oh, well," I hedge. "You know how tight these schedules can run. And you did such an exquisite job with the curls this morning, I'm glad I can show them off again."
She grins. "I guess I can always try something for your Victory Tour!"
I nod and my heart sinks. I hadn't remembered the Tour until now.
"Katniss! Over here!"
I'm pulled right and left. The faces and names blur in my eyes and ears. I'm exhausted despite Cinna's remedy, but I expect it's more the fear and boredom eating away at me. I pick at the beautiful dishes, but it's all tasteless to me. I want to be home, eating my mother's duck stew. Sitting on the hearth with Prim, chewing on mint leaves and telling her the terrible jokes Gale shares with me.
The hour is very late when Effie appears at my side and pinches my arm. "Katniss…someone would like to meet you," she purrs. I look at her. She's smiling but something's not quite right.
"He's very well connected in the gem industry," she leans in to whisper. "He has four houses in this city alone." Her hand on my back turns me around. She pushes me a few steps forward nearly right onto a man in a pristine suit flanked by two equally unpleasant associates.
"Miss Everdeen," he bows. I take him in before replying. He's nearly a foot taller than me and probably four times as wide. Heavy braided sashes crisscross his suit jacket and he has decorations along the lapels, appearing to be from service to the Capital. His associates are similarly dressed, although less decorated. "I'm Lucite Carvelle. It's an absolute pleasure to make your acquaintance."
Bile rises in my stomach as I see his eyes drop to the dip in my sweetheart neckline.
"Sir," I curtsy. "I understand you are in gem mining."
"Well, I suppose you could say that," he guffaws. His laugh sprays the stale odor of liquor and spittle onto his bushy mustache and I stifle a gag. His friends laugh with him. The tall, muscular man with dark eyes and heavy eyebrows claps a hand on Carvelle's shoulder. His eyes are me.
"I own the emerald mine in One," Carvelle recovers. His self-importance is nauseating. "My family has for generations. We supply the Capital – the president – with all he needs."
"That must be very interesting," I offer lamely.
"I suppose," Carvelle smiles. He steps closer to me. "Although I find there are many, many more interesting things to occupy my time."
I try to laugh politely. "I imagine so. Well, I should-"
"Would you join us for a drink in the guest hall?" The stringy man with pale skin and nearly invisible lips steps forward eagerly, moving in front of Carvelle and nearly stepping on my toes as he advances.
"Seamus!" Carvelle's bark is terrifying. The thin man shrinks back, stepping behind his large superior. Carvelle turns back to me. His eyes are dark.
"My apologies. Seamus is not used to etiquette in entertaining Victors," he smiles without mirth. "You will join us?"
I can't tell if it's a question or a statement.
"All three of you?" Effie asks from over my shoulder. I look over at her. She looks uncharacteristically concerned.
"With Miss Everdeen here for only one night, we thought we might…maximize our use of her time," Carvelle again smiles darkly.
"Oh, of course," Effie breathes. "Well, she would have to powder her nose! Would you excuse us just one minute?"
Effie pulls me gently over to a doorway just inside the entrance archway. A sign has been placed in front reading "Ladies' Lounge." We step inside.
I've never seen most of what is happening inside. There are lines of pink and purple powders are lined up on the counter and women in garish and outstanding outfits are snorting it through clear glass straws. I can hear another woman vomiting in a stall with a brushed gold door and a woman is seated on the floor crying, a friend mopping make-up from her face while she sobs.
"Effie, what's happening?" I spin. "What do they want? I have nothing to talk about with them and I don't want to drink."
"They don't walk to talk," Effie says sharply, reaching in her purse and pulling out a green and orange vial. She opens the cork and lets a small blue pill fall into her hand. "Take this." She holds it out to me, pinched between her thumb and index finger.
"It'll keep you from getting pregnant."
I stare at her. I look at the pill.
"Why would I need that?"
She looks at me. Her look of concern at my confusion makes my heart miss a beat.
"No," I whisper. "No, no, no."
"Katniss, he's well connected and friends with the President. You need to go with him. He could make you a very rich woman."
"No!" I shout at her. A few women turn from the counter to look at me.
Effie laughs a polite laugh and waves them off. She pulls me into a stall around the corner, slamming the brushed gold door shut and turning the lock. The vomiting woman covers our conversation.
"Katniss. This is what Victors do."
"That's not true."
"Yes it is. How do you think Finnick stays so wealthy? How do you think Cashmere wears diamonds in her hair? The winnings may seem grand now, but you can have so much more. More than your wildest dreams."
I stare at her. It's as though she's speaking a different language. "I'm not having sex with that man."
"His friends aren't so unattractive. The dark one is very sharp."
My legs are shaking. I sit down on the toilet. "I can't."
"Yes, you can," Effie kneels down. "Most of the tributes I've coached do it even before the Games. How do you think Twelve gets any sponsors at all? You were very lucky this year that you were interesting. I have no idea who sent you those antibiotics when you fell ill, but I can tell you those gifts usually come from an agreement like this." She digs in her sequined and feathered bag and finds a vial of blue glass. "Here. If you drink this you'll barely feel anything. It lasts about an hour."
"I'm a virgin."
She stares at the vial in her hand. She opens her mouth and closes it again. She finally drags her eyes up to mine. She tries to find the words again. "I'm sorry," she says quietly. "I didn't know that."
"I can't do this."
She doesn't speak for a moment. "Maybe…maybe I can see if just one…"
The shaking is getting worse. "Effie-"
She puts her soft hand on my shoulder. "Katniss, it'll be okay. It won't be very long. He'll pay very handsomely for your first time. You could buy a herd of goats for your sister," she suggests cheerfully.
I think of Prim. She would ask where they all came from. I stand up. "No."
"Katniss, he's too well connected. You shouldn't – you can't say no. Refusing will hurt you worse than you think. You have a reputation to uphold now. You'll need to line up sponsors for next-"
She tries to grab my arm, to beg me not to risk my future for this, but I get the stall lock open and pull away. I run through the flock of women in the lounge and to the door.
It's only feet to the entrance archway. If I can get outside, I can get to a car. I can tell the driver I'm sick. I just have to get past the Peacekeepers at the front door. And at the Gate. And the Training Center. I probably won't make it. I wonder if dying is worth it. It seems to be right now. I make a dash for the entrance door.
"Oh, Miss Everdeen!" A familiar youthful voice calls me to from the party.
A Peacekeeper suddenly steps in front of me from nowhere. He must have been hidden behind the great ferns along the entranceway. He eyes me, his fingers tightening on his gun. He blocks my escape, eyebrow raised disdainfully.
I'm trapped. I feel something dying inside me.
I turn around. I can see Lucite Carvelle watching me from twenty feet away. He licks his lips.
"Miss Everdeen, I was looking for you," Quarry says breathlessly as he elbows his way through the crowd to me. "Someone wants to meet you."
"I've met Mr. Carvelle," I say blankly.
"No, no, not him. Someone important," Quarry says. "Oh, not that Mr. Carvelle is…wait, no. I mean that…oh."
"Quarry, you need to work on your adjectives," a new voice laughs over my shoulder.
"I'm so sorry, I didn't at all mean to imply anything," Quarry stammers to the young man who's joined us.
"No, no," the youth smiles, "it was funny. And Carvelle isn't nearly as important as he thinks," he adds conspiratorially to me. "That emerald mine is old news. I'm surprised it hasn't gone dry yet." He turns back to Quarry. "Have you had your break?"
"You should take it. I saw Sae was making those cream puffs for your team tonight."
"Thank you, sir. Very good," Quarry smiles with relief. He nods to me then offers a friendly wave as he exits the ballroom.
I watch him go. I can feel the young man's eyes on me. I turn back to him with anxiety squeezing my lungs.
His hair is blonder than Prim's. It must have been white as goose down when he was born. His eyes lashes are dark, though. They frame the bluest eyes I've ever seen. He's not too much taller than me, but I can see he's had a far easier life. Even without a polish his skin is flawless. There's something vaguely familiar about him all the same. I try to remember where I've seen him before.
"I'm Peeta," he smiles, extending his hand to me. I eye it before slowly taking it.
"Katniss! Oh!" Effie stumbles out of the lounge next to us. "Oh, I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt." She demurs quickly.
"Ms. Trinket, it's so good to see you again. I'm very glad you have a winning Tribute this year. You must be very proud."
Effie flushes with gratitude. "Yes, sir. Katniss did surprise us all, didn't she?"
"She did. All surprises," he agrees, glancing sideways at me. "And please call me Peeta," he beams at Effie.
Effie laughs graciously. "Oh, Peeta, you are a dove." She clears her throat. "Um, Katniss, I'll just go let Mr. Carvelle know you are far too occupied for a private conversation."
I could kiss her as she sweeps away. I peek around Peeta's arm to watch Carvelle's face. It turns red with anger. I glance up to see Peeta is watching me with curiosity. He turns around to see what I'm looking at. I gulp. He smiles and waves at Carvelle. Carvelle contains himself, bows slightly across the distance. Peeta waves him over.
My brief sanctuary from terror is over. I wonder if I've missed the opportunity to dismiss this man and move away.
"Carvelle," Peeta bows as the three objects of my loathing join us. "How is your wife? And children?"
"Very well, thank you," Carvelle says. His words are clipped but I can see he has to be polite.
"The mine business is tricky, isn't it?" Peeta teases. I think he's having fun with Carvelle. "I heard some terrible rumors that emerald exports were dwindling. I hope that's not true."
A vein along Carvelle's jaw twitches. "I should hope not, sir."
"Well, I won't keep you. I'm sure you have much to do this evening." He turns to me. "May I trouble you for a dance?"
I look at Carvelle. I can see Peeta has won.
"Yes, thank you," I say, but inside I want to scream.
I let him take my hand and lead me away through the cluster of cocktail tables littering the floor. His hand is warm. I glance over my shoulder to see Carvelle stomping out the door.
I let him spin me into his embrace and he's pleased at my surprise when I'm suddenly face to face with him.
"I don't really know how to dance," I squirm as I feel his hand on the small of my back.
"Don't worry, I'm a terrible dancer. I'm just going to move in a circle and hope no one notices."
He's lying, I can feel how smoothly he leads, but I am grateful he's not faulting my awkward feet.
"Stop looking at your feet," he whispers. I look up. "Just look at me."
I do. I look at him while I feel his hand on mine, his hand on my back, the feel of his suit jacket under my palm, and the pinch of my shoes. He smells like fresh rain. His face is handsome. I try to relax.
"So…" he laughs. "I don't really know what to say," he confesses. "I feel like I know you. All those televised days in the Arena and your family's interview. I don't know what to talk about."
"Oh," I say. "Well, we could talk about you."
"That's even more boring," he smiles. "Let's talk about something interesting. What do you find interesting?"
We slowly circle the floor while I think.
"Ummm. I'm interested in…" I try to find a way not to say illegal poaching. I think of Prim. "Plants."
"Caring for them? Studying them? Genetic modification?"
"I guess studying."
"Oh yes! Your mother uses plants as medicine. Do you help her?"
"Sort of. She's a better caregiver than I."
"Oh, I don't know about that." His eyes soften. "When the girl from Eleven was burned…you helped her."
My body stiffens. "I just had the medicine. She had the remedy for the venom. It was a simple trade."
He shrugs. "I suppose."
We move in silence for a bit.
"Those yellow flowers were beautiful," he says very quietly. "Yellow is my favorite color for flowers. Do you know what they're called?"
"No," I reply tensely. "I'm sorry."
"They're called euphorbia."
"Oh." It seems a strange name. As though it should be happy; should be euphoria, but couldn't quite make it. "Do you know plants?" I ask awkwardly.
"Not well. I paint them sometimes, but this time…I looked them up. I wanted to know." He's watching me carefully.
I don't know why this conversation feels dangerous, but it does. For both of us. I look for an exit.
"You're named after a flower," he says, changing the tone and spinning me around.
"Yes, the Katniss flower," I say, tripping as I regain my footing. His strong hands catch me.
"Flourishes near water and rich, green soil," he recites. "Latin Sagittaria, meaning belonging to an arrow."
Our feet still for a second as I'm caught off guard.
"I wanted to know that too," he says. A slight blush is on his cheeks. It feels more dangerous now. I'm less certain I can shake him off.
"Would you like to take a tour of the mansion?"
"Of this house?" I stammer out. "We shouldn't. It's the President's private home." In my panic my eyes search for Cinna or Haymitch. Even Effie.
"I'm sure he won't mind," he says, giving me a funny look. "In fact, I insist. There's a conservatory with rare plants. You'd love it."
He takes my hand again and leads me off the dance floor, slipping in and out of the guests. My pulse thuds against my chest. I thought I was safe. I wish I'd taken the pill Effie had offered me.
We reach the archway and the Peacekeeper guarding the entrance nods at Peeta without batting an eye. I realize he must be very important to not even need permission to drag a Victor from her own party. I glance over my shoulder and I see Effie watching me. I try to show her I need help, but she gives me a slight wave, a faint smile to let me know she'll be waiting for me when I return. I wish I knew where Haymitch was. I wish he was here to stop this.
My feet don't want to cooperate as Peeta drags me down the grand hall peppered with attendants. He knows most of their names and they smile at him as they eye me: the prize on his arm. The Capital is always the real Victor.
The lights of the grand hall were dimmed for the party, but when he pushes open the heavy double doors just inside the front door, the long hallway into which he leads me is dark. The solid doors close behind us with an echoing thud, isolating us. Blue moonlight spills across the polished floor from tall, narrow windows. The path stretches long before us, hundreds of feet. Dozens of heavy wooden doors.
"It's just this way," his voice drifts from beside my ear. I feel his hand find mine again and he pulls me along. He feels my resistance. "You're not afraid of the dark, are you?" His teasing is no longer endearing. I briefly debate kicking his knee and running. But what will be waiting for me outside the hallway doors if I do?
"No," I whisper.
I let him lead me numbly down the corridor, the light growing dimmer with each step.
"Are you all right?"
"Yes," I croak.
"You're so quiet."
I debate telling him he shouldn't do this to me. But I can't bring myself to show vulnerability. I'm too angry this is happening after I fought so hard to survive. I want to be defiant and strong. "I'm fine." I grit my teeth. I should have taken that numbing serum.
"Here it is."
The proximity of his echo tells me a door is in front of us. He releases my hand and fumbles with the knob. He pushes on the door.
I have to gasp. It's absolutely beautiful.
The starlight shines down on plants I never dreamed could exist. Petals larger than my hands that curl out like a dancer's arms. I let my mouth hang open when I see the vines with phosphorescent leaves. The whole garden seems to glow on its own, bathing itself in soften golden light. I'm so stunned and confused that I forget to be frightened.
He laughs quietly next to me. "I told you you'd like it," he whispers. He shoves his hands in his pockets and strolls down the molded iron steps into the thick of the flora. I stand at the top of the stairs, unwilling to blink lest I miss any detail. The air is ripe with perfumes. I let my head drop back and inhale deeply. I feel drunk at the mixture of aromas.
When I open my eyes the stars watch me. I take in the expansive glass ceiling that stretches over the conservatory. This room could be almost as large as the ballroom.
"Pollux? Pollux! Are you here?" Peeta's cries startle me. He looks over his shoulder at me. "I think the botanist will be here; he likes to visit the roses at night."
We're not alone, I realize. This could be a good or bad thing, I know, but I latch onto the information hopefully as though it's a sole life preserver in a black ocean.
I scan the room and then I see them. Rows of roses. Row upon row. Stretching from one end of the hothouse to the other. I think of the ever-present rose in President Snow's lapels. I retch at the smell.
A shuffling noise from my right turns me on my heel. A man not so much older than me or Peeta steps out from the shadows.
"Pollux!" Peeta stretches out and shakes the botanist's hand. "Have you met Katniss Everdeen? She's our Victor."
"How do you do?" I curtsy and nod to the botanist. He doesn't speak, but he nods and points at Peeta and then a row far back into the greenhouse.
"Are they ready?" Peeta asks eagerly. Pollux nods and swallows strangely. "Show me."
Avox, my brain says. Servant. I would not be shared with him.
Pollux leads us to the end of the row and turns left. As we follow, I realize Peeta must be here very often to know the staff so intimately. I wonder if he's the son of a cabinet member. He's dressed too well to be a housekeeper's child; commands too much respect from elders to belong to an inconsequential family. My mind conjures a memory of him on television once before with the Secretary of Agriculture. We climb a short set of stairs up to a platform resting against the glass wall. He clicks on a sunlamp over the manmade flower bed below.
Yellow explodes in front of my eyes. I have to blink a few times.
"Yeah!" Peeta answers excitedly. He kneels down and presses his nose to the blossoms. "They don't grow here anymore. Pollux was able to find some seeds to cultivate them again."
"But," I'm unable to hold my tongue. "They're weeds." Peeta looks confused. "I mean, they are wonderful," I stammer. "But they aren't really flowers. Not like…roses."
Peeta drops his gaze. His eyes find the flowers. I look over at Pollux. I can't read his expression.
"They're lovely," I try to back pedal, suddenly aware of how critical my words sound.
"It's okay," Peeta shakes me off. "I just…like them. It's weird, I know." He stands up. "My mother liked them. They make me think of her."
"I'm sorry," I whisper helplessly. I don't know what to do now. I wonder if I've misjudged this man entirely. I was terrified of him he wanted me ten minutes ago; now I'm terrified I've insulted him.
"No, don't be. Thank you, Pollux," Peeta gives the botanist another smile. "They're beautiful."
Pollux nods and bows, excusing himself with a gesture to a watering can and heading out to the rows of rosebushes. Peeta picks a single yellow blossom. He admires it lovingly, turning it between his fingers to look at the stem cupping the hundreds of little yellow tongues. He gently tucks it into his lapel buttonhole. He steps down from the dandelion bed platform and meanders over to a cluster of black and purple striped leaves that seem to hum slightly.
"I've eaten dandelions," I blurt out desperately. "They make great salad greens. And tea."
He turns and raises an eyebrow. "You ate a weed?" I nod. "Why would you eat them?"
I swallow hard. "I was hungry."
He looks as though he wants to smile, like I might be joking, but thinks better of it. "Hungry?" I nod. "You must have been very hungry."
I nod again.
He looks at the purple and black leaves. "You were starving?" he asks them.
I can't answer that. I look away. I wish the plants would hum louder.
"Dandelions grow in the meadow in my neighborhood in Twelve," I say, hoping he'll let me change the subject. "It's like a sea of yellow on the first day of spring. You want to swim through them."
He reaches out and strokes a leaf. It curls gently around his finger and holds it. "I wish I could see that."
"You've never been to Twelve?"
He looks over at me. His expression is forlorn. "I've never left the Capital."
"Oh." I don't know why, but his answer makes me pity him. I suppose it's not so strange, there's no draw to my home. But I always assumed Capital citizens were allowed to travel as they pleased. "This is my first time out of my District," I tell him.
"Do you like it here?"
"It's very different," I say, reciting my rehearsed speech. "It's so glamorous and everyone is so original."
"So no?" He catches me off guard.
"No! I mean, I…"
"It's not home, is it?" The leaf releases his finger.
I don't answer.
"I've always wanted to see Twelve."
"Why?" I ask before I can stop myself. "I mean, it's nothing special."
He sighs and leans against the bed of humming flowers. "Everything is special compared to here." He sees my expression and laughs dryly. "If you had to live here, you'd get tired of the feathers and emeralds and drinks and parties very quickly."
I consider it for a moment. "It could be…a little much," I venture.
"A lot much," he smiles. He pats the low wall next to him and I obediently step over to lean against it. "You don't have to be so cautious here. There aren't any cameras."
I jerk my eyes up to him. "What?"
He points to the ceiling. "You see those little spigots? They shorted out the cameras when we installed the automatic sprinklers and we never fixed them. The plastics factory in Eight making the protective covers was damaged in a fire." He looks back to me. "So you can say whatever you want. I promise I won't tell."
I don't believe him. He senses my trepidation.
"I hate everyone in that ballroom," he calls into the night air.
I tense up and look around sharply. I wait for Peacekeepers to burst through the door and discover us. Nothing happens.
"These receptions are a huge waste of time and money!" he yells at the glass sky.
I stand up and grip his arm. "Stop it! You'll get yourself killed!" I release him and look right and left, wondering where to run when the guards arrive.
He stops smirking and looks at me strangely again. "You really think that?"
"I've seen worse," I hiss. "You've never left here, you don't know what it's like outside."
"What is it like?" he leans in eagerly, his eyes narrowing on mine.
"No, I don't want to talk about this," I say, stepping backwards. I look back to the ceiling and walls, looking for a hidden camera to betray me.
"I'm sorry," he says, standing up. "I'm spoiling your evening."
"It's fine," I mutter. "I wasn't having much fun."
He eyes me for a moment, as though he wants to ask more but decides against it. He slips away and wanders over to the beginning of dozens of rows of thorny bushes. They stretch the length of the conservatory. He pulls at a leaf.
"They really are a waste, then."
"These parties," he says, jerking his head back to the door. "If no one has fun, what's the point?"
"It's just me," I sigh. "I don't really go to parties at home. Well, no one has them. It seems like plenty of people in there are having a good time."
He scoffs and snaps the leaf off the rosebush and throws it over his shoulder. "Plenty of those people are idiots."
I cover my involuntary smile. I mumble an embarrassed apology and try to wipe the smirk off my face.
"You know I've always hated roses?"
Me too, I think. "Why?"
"Ugh, they're just so…they have that cloying smell. I know they're all the rage here but they're awful." He pulls one off a rosebush and picks at the petals in his hand. He rests a few petals in his palm and blows it at me. I turn my head in surprise and they brush my cheek. I touch my face and try not to smile again. We're getting dangerously familiar with one another.
"You know what's better?" he asks.
"Dandelions?" I tease.
He bites his bottom lip as he pouts at me. He shakes the rest of the torn flower over my head and petals rain down over me. I dart away, yanking petals from my hair. He advances and I grab my own bud from the adjacent rosebush and hold it up as though it's a weapon.
We taunt one another with the petals and he tries to throw a handful at me. I duck and hit him on the chin with the whole blossom. He disappears for a moment in a cloud of petals. I fear I've gone too far, but when I see his face again, he's spitting a petal from his mouth and I can't stop my giggle at this young man in a fine suit coughing up flower petals.
"Oh is that funny?"
"Yes!" I laugh.
"They taste awful," he spits.
"I told you dandelions are better." He gives me a laugh and then grabs a fistful of blossoms off the bush. I take off running as he chases me down the row, tossing rosebuds at me and missing purposefully. He stops chasing me when I reach the end of the row and whip around, snatching up a half-filled watering can. He holds up his hands.
"I surrender!" he tells me.
"Put down the rosebuds and nobody gets hurt," I laugh. He drops the three in his palm and lowers his hands slowly. I put the watering can back down on the ground and stand facing him smiling. He laughs a little and we look at one another for a quiet moment. No one has come to bother us.
I feel brave and daring, drunk on the flowers and company. "I think…you're a bit of a surprise too," I tell him. He's not what I expected of a Capital dignitary, no matter how young. I'm glad.
The door through which we entered bangs open violently.
"Sir? Are you in here?"
Peeta sighs loudly, dropping his head with exasperation. "Yes, Quarry. We're both here."
Quarry runs down the rows, looking for us, but he misjudges by four rows and is quickly lost among the plants. Peeta stifles a laugh and sneaks back over to me. He presses his fingers to his lips and reaches out to catch my fingers. We tiptoe to the end of the row.
"Over here, Quarry!" Peeta calls, as he covers his mouth to laugh as we run to the next row and duck behind a topiary. "Can you see us?"
I motion for him to follow, spin and run three-quarters down another row as Quarry sputters and calls for us.
"Sir, I'm going to get into trouble!"
Peeta sighs and stands up. "All right, all right. Sorry. Just having a bit of fun. For once," he adds quietly. He turns to me. "Sorry to keep you from your celebration." Quarry is breathless when he catches up with us a moment later. "I'm sure you're needed for a toast or something," Peeta adds, turning to Quarry.
"No, actually…" Quarry hesitates. "Your absence was noted, young sir."
Peeta blinks slowly and tilts his head as he curses. "It was ten minutes, for crying out loud." He sighs again. "We're coming back."
"I'm to escort you back personally," Quarry responds nervously. I'm watching Peeta grow unhappier by the minute. He sets his eyes hard on Quarry.
"Fine. Let's go," he says to either of us. Maybe neither.
He storms down the row of plants to the door back into the mansion. He's moving so quickly he's nearly thirty paces in front of me before I can catch up. He bangs open the wooden door and steps inside. It swings closed before Quarry and I reach it.
"Sorry, miss," Quarry murmurs. "The following tends to bother him, but…what can you do?" He pulls open the door and the golden light from the glowing plants spills into the dark hallway inside. He steps to the side to let me in first.
I walk inside and stop. The painting faces the door to the conservatory and it's as though her kind blue eyes are watching those entering and leaving the garden. Her white gold hair falls in waves over her shoulders and the glamorous dress she wears is nearly obscured for the enormous bundle of dandelions she holds in her arms. She's laughing, her mouth slightly open and her expression is full of joy. I know her face.
I feel Peeta return to my side. Quarry holds the door to let in the light as he sees me examine the painting.
"Is this…is that First Lady Amaranth?" I ask, unable to tear my eyes away.
"Yeah," Peeta whispers as he looks up at her.
The late wife of President Snow. A rare beauty plucked from District Six when she was nineteen. I heard the tale as a bit of a horror story. I wasn't sure what was true, but I could imagine it was awful no matter what.
Her brother had been a Tribute, smart and brave and strong. He lasted until the final eight. When she was interviewed by the camera crews visiting her home, her face shone with love as she spoke of the little brother she helped raise. Those watching in Twelve still spoke of her radiance. When her brother died the very next day, the country grieved for Amaranth.
But one person took a stronger interest in her well-being. A hovercraft arrived for her that evening. She was in Snow's charge by nightfall.
The wedding was mandatory viewing, televised for all to see. Katniss' mother had wept for Amaranth as she saw the girl in her long white gown, the guards in the rows standing by her family from Six. Her hands were visibly shaking when Snow put the ring on her small finger. Her vows were broken with tears. When she died three years ago, it was rumored to be at her own hand.
"I painted that from memory," Peeta's murmur cuts in to my memory. "For her birthday this year."
"Young Master Snow, we really should get back," Quarry whispers. "Your father insisted."
I quell the scream that threatens to escape my throat. I now know from where I recognize his face. The cherubic child's face that would appear next to Snow during televised political announcements. In the background at each presentation of the Tributes. Photographed by Capital paparazzi leaving a party with Finnick Odair.
The only child of the late Lady Amaranth and Alistair Snow.
My knees buckle and I nearly fall.
"Are you all right?" Peeta darts forward and catches me, pulling me back up. "Watch out, they just polished this floor. Guests fall all the time."
"I'm okay," I whisper, shaking all over. "I'm okay."
"All right," he says. "We better go."
I follow him back down the dark hallway, Quarry at my heels like a puppy. I stand far enough away to make sure Peeta cannot take my hand again. I'm sweating and I can barely breathe. How long was I with him? What have I said? What have I done that could betray my family? My friends? I'm so terrified I can barely remember the last fifteen minutes of my life. I nearly run through the heavy double doors when we get back to the grand hall, bursting into the light from darkness like a cork.
I spot Haymitch immediately. He's yelling at an attendant, his face red with spots of perspiration standing out on his forehead. "What do you mean you don't know? It's her party, dammit, you should know where she is!"
"Haymitch!" I call out, hurrying over to him. "I'm right here."
He spins to me. "Where the hell have you been? You had me worried sick, this night is about you-" He stops, looking past me.
I know he's seen Peeta. "He took me for a walk," I say. "To see their gardens." His eyes dart back to me. "Just the gardens," I insist softly.
"It was entirely my fault, Mr. Abernathy," Peeta says, stepping forward. "I didn't give her a chance to excuse herself. Please lay the blame on me."
"It's fine, it's fine," Haymitch says gruffly. "Just…worried. She's young. And all."
Peeta nods in agreement. "I should have told you, you are her Mentor."
Haymitch shakes his head again, trying to deflect the awkwardness of this meeting.
"Well, I have to go check in with my father," Peeta said, turning back to me with a sad smile. "Thank you for letting me show you the conservatory. I wish I could see your dandelion meadow."
"Maybe you will someday," I say politely.
"Maybe," he smiles. "Um. Well. To the Victor go the spoils." He pulls the dandelion from his lapel and hands it to me. "Goodbye, Katniss."
I hold the stem in my hands as he walks away into the ballroom, Effie comes out, her face flushed.
"Katniss!" Her voice is a strained whisper. Her grin stretches across her face. "The president's son! You are quite a surprise, aren't you?"
Haymitch turns into me, shouldering her away from me. "He didn't….Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," I say. "He just wanted show me around. Nothing happened."
Effie looks genuinely disappointed. "Oh. Well, still," she recovers, "he did offer you a tour. I've not heard of that before."
"Come on, it's nearly three in the morning," Haymitch says. "You have an interview at ten and lunch with your prep team. Then you need to be ready to go home."
Home. I close my eyes and let the warmth of the thought radiate through me.
"Let's go," I tell my dandelion.
Caesar ticks off questions I'm tired of answering. How did I feel about winning? What did I most look forward to when going home? What would I like to say to Tate's family? They tried so hard to make it look like we were friends, but I'd barely said three words to him in my entire life in Twelve. Coming to the Capital was the first time we'd really spoken. And he wasn't interested in training with me or prepping for interviews together, so it's hard to say how I felt when he died. Relief it wasn't by my hand, I suppose.
Finally Caesar congratulates me and gives me a warm hug. The cameras click off and I'm done. I breathe a sigh of relief.
I run back to my room at the Training Center. I laugh out loud when I see Cinna has had my Avox set out plain black pants, a pale green henley pullover and black hunting books. I hurry to the sink in the bathroom and blast the hot water.
I scrub off the neutral makeup Octavia carefully applied this morning. My long black eyelashes disappear in the soap and water and my short brown eyelashes appear. My berry red lips fade to pale pink. I blot my face and wipe steam from the mirror. I recognize the face in the mirror.
I pull my hair out of the elegant twist Venia created and let it tumble down my back as I unzip the shift dress covered with little blue flowers. I let it fall to the floor and step out of it, abandoning my navy blue pumps along with it. I yank on the pants and shirt and shivers of joy thrill down my back. I pull the boots over the pants and zip them up eagerly. I stand up and look at myself in the mirror while I pull my hair into a braid, tying it with a ribbon from the dresser.
I look down at the dresser. I'll never see it again. I'll never see that bunk, that bathroom, those nightclothes. It feels wonderful.
A knock at my door tells me Effie has arrived. "Katniss! Lunch!"
She's taken aback when I open the door with zeal and hug her. "Let's eat!" She laughs at my energy as I run down the hall to the dining room. Haymitch raises his eyebrows as I burst in to the room, laughing wildly.
"I guess you handle late nights better when you're young," he grumbles, rubbing his temples.
"Katniss!" Cinna enters with his prep team dabbing their eyes. He hugs me and he pulls back to examine me, unmade up and in clothes I would choose on my own. "You look great."
"I can't believe you're leaving already," Flavius weeps. "It seems like we just met you."
"You'll see me again, I'm sure," I grit my teeth. "There's the Victory Tour in six months."
"And when you mentor next year," Venia chirps happily, seating herself at the table.
I'm staring at her when Haymitch coughs and pokes me in the ribs. I remember myself and sit down. I'd forgotten. I'll join Haymitch next year to watch children from Twelve die.
I try to put it out of my mind as we begin our feast. Effie had ordered tureens of lamb stew and plums and oranges litter the table. I spy a carafe of hot chocolate. I finish half of it before I start to feel like myself again.
"Katniss," Octavia drops her voice. "Is it true you spoke with Peeta Snow?"
"Oh," I cough out my mouthful of cocoa. "Um. Yes." I glance around the table. All eyes are on me. "He showed me their gardens. In the conservatory."
Even Cinna's eyebrows are raised.
"What did you talk about?" Venia drops her spoon to focus entirely on my words.
"Um. Nothing, really. Dandelions."
"What's a dandelion?" Venia asks.
"It's actually," I laugh, "a weed. It's a little yellow flower and in the fall they turn into these white puffballs. The seeds are carried away on the puffs on the breeze."
"Why did you talk about that?" Effie looks appalled.
"He likes them," I protest. "He said they remind him of his mother."
The room falls silent after that. Cinna graciously changes the subject. A soft knock at the door is nearly missed as we laugh at Venia's story of her first attempt to iron curly hair. She's telling us how much of the charred hair she had to cut away when the knock comes again.
"Who is it?" Effie sings out jovially.
The door cracks open and a sweet-faced woman with tight black corkscrews pokes her head in. "So sorry to interrupt. Sounds like you're having a wonderful time," she smiles, revealing a merry gap between her two front teeth.
"Not at all, Portia!" Effie calls. "Come on in."
I look at the table. Venia, Octavia and Flavius don't seem to know her, but Cinna and Haymitch are clearly playing at a being pleased to see her.
"Miss Everdeen," the woman says as she steps inside our dining car. "It's a pleasure to meet you. I'm Portia, Mr. Snow's personal assistant."
The fear grips me like a fist around my throat. "The president sent you?"
"Oh, no," she laughs. "I'm Peeta's assistant."
The strangling sensation abates only slightly. Portia takes no notice of my blood-drained face. "If your schedule allows, he'd like to see you off at the train station this afternoon."
I look over at Haymitch. He meets my eyes but cannot offer me any advice in present company. It doesn't matter. I can't refuse.
"That would be great," I say, my voice cracking.
"Okay. Great!" Portia grins. "I'll have him to the loading platform at 3pm. Bye Effie!" She wiggles her fingers at Effie and gently closes the door behind her.
"Katniss!" squeals Octavia. Venia stomps her feet on the ground and Flavius fans himself with his napkin. "Peeta Snow is coming to say goodbye to you. To you!"
"Yeah," I force a smile.
"Oh Katniss," Effie smiles. "Don't be nervous. You didn't make such a terrible impression after all! He clearly likes you if he's coming back after last night."
"Yes. Of course," I mumble, glancing over at Cinna and Haymitch, who seem to share my discomfort.
I try to maintain conversation but my mouth has gone dry. I let the others pick up my slack and chew my stew slowly. Haymitch notices my silence and leans over to my ear.
"It's just goodbye. It's probably nothing."
I nod, hoping he's right.
There's a crowd gathered to watch me leave, but they're cordoned off from coming too close to the track. I stand on the back car, leaning on the railing and waving. I glance at the clock on the train station wall. It's nearly three. I cross my fingers behind my back that he won't be able to make it, that the train will leave without my having to face him again. The minute hand moves another tick. My heart grows lighter.
The crowd jostles a bit and parts and I see him apologizing to shocked faces as he and Portia push through. I drop my hand.
"Katniss!" he calls as he runs to the platform just below where I stand. He tries to catch his breath. "I'm so sorry…had to…slip out." He grins. "Permission to come aboard?"
I'm at a loss for words, so I just nod. He and Portia walk to the door midway along the car and the porter opens it for them.
I glance back at the crowd and wave with a weak smile. I turn and walk back inside the car, closing the door behind me. I watch him hop up the last step into the train with dread.
"Hey," he says as he spies me.
"Hello," I say with as much cheer as I can muster.
He looks like he wants to speak, but he glances over at Portia first. "Um, Portia. Could I have a minute?"
She looks at him sadly and then me. "You know I can't do that, Peeta. Why do you always ask?"
"Fine, fine," he grumbles. "Can you…go over to the window at least? Pretend you're not listening?"
She smiles. "Okay. But don't keep her. She's trying to get home, you know."
"Yeah, yeah, go!" he shoos her away with an exasperated wave.
She rolls her eyes and goes to the window farthest away from us in the train car. It's less than twenty feet from us though, and Peeta is clearly annoyed. He motions for me to sit on the overstuffed loveseat on the back wall of the train car: as far as Portia as we can sit without being outside.
I sit down and he takes a spot next to me. Close enough so our knees touch.
"I'm sorry to keep you," he says in a low voice, glancing at Portia. "I wanted to see you again."
"Oh, um. That's very…thoughtful of you. I know you're very busy."
"Yeah," he scoffed. "With nothing nearly as interesting as you." My cheeks feel hot and I feel like I might start sweating. "I think," he murmurs as quietly as he can, "I crossed a line last night." He looks for my reaction, but I furrow my brow in confusion. "I shouldn't have pressed you about your home life. I know that's personal. I think it bothered you."
I stammer as I try to reply. "No, it's. Fine. I mean, you can ask whatever you want."
"Just because I can doesn't mean I should." He reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out a piece of folded tissue paper. "I wanted to apologize," he whispers, gently unwrapping the tissue. "Please accept this as not only an apology, but a token of my admiration."
I stare down at the brooch in his palm. The gold gleams in my eyes against the white paper. I inhale and exhale slowly. "It's beautiful."
He smiles. "It was my mother's."
I can't mask the horror in my eyes as I look back to him. "I can't accept this."
"It's too much. It's your memory of her."
He smiles. "I have lots of memories of her. I want a memory of you. Wearing this." He takes the pin and opens it. "May I?"
"I really can't."
I hesitate, but nod anyway. I can't refuse. I can't believe this is happening.
He gently pinches a fold of my shirt. I watch his face as he carefully slips the post through the fabric. He bites the tip of his tongue as he concentrates. His eyes are dark in the low light, like the night sky. He closes the clasp.
I stare down at the gold dandelion he's pinned on me.
"Peeta, it's…it's too much."
"It's perfect," he says.
I look up at him. "Thank you," I breathe. "I've never had anything so incredible."
He blushes slightly. "I'm glad to give it to you. I want it to be worn. By someone worthy of it."
It's my turn to flush. "I'm not worthy of this." I drop my eyes to my lap.
"You are," he says, catching my chin and lifting my face to his. "I know you are."
Portia coughs. We glance over and she looks away with raised eyebrows.
Peeta releases my chin and grits his teeth. "Sorry," he mutters.
"You really aren't allowed to be alone?" I whisper.
"No. Especially not with unmarried women," he sighs.
I wish I'd known last night he wasn't allowed to touch me. I might have had more fun.
"I should let you go," he says suddenly out loud. "Your family and friends must be very eager to see you again."
"Oh yes," I remember. I'm supposed to be leaving. Time seems to stop when he's near.
He stands and I follow. Portia turns and walks to the door. She opens the door and waits for Peeta.
"I hope our paths cross again," he says, turning to me.
"I'm sure they will," I say. He knows other Mentors, after all.
He nods and takes a step towards to the door. Portia walks out the door. He quickly slams the door behind her and whirls back to me. He leans in as fast as he can and kisses my lips. He pulls back as Portia yanks the door back open, her eyes blazing furiously.
"Sorry," he grins at me, ignoring her huffs. "Had to do that."
He turns and walks out the door, avoiding Portia's glares as he strolls down the steps to the train platform. She looks at me. I don't know if she saw what happened, but it doesn't look as though she'd be pleased either way.
"You can't tell anyone about you were alone. For even a second," she says. She's angry but she's pleading. I nod quickly, still dumbstruck. She gives me a curt bob of her head, as though we've made a pact and follows him onto the platform. I jump at the force at which she slams the door.
I stand unmoving for a number of minutes. I reach up and gingerly touch my lips. His mouth was soft and warm. There's a lingering sweet taste on my lips.
Effie crashes through the door to the adjacent cars moments later.
"Was that Peeta? Did you speak with him?" She's nearly mad with excitement.
"Yes, he came to say goodbye."
"And?" She could be jumping up and down.
"And that's it."
"What is that?" Effie peers at my pin as Haymitch saunters in to the car.
"Oh." I glance up at Haymitch. He's staring at the pin too. "He gave me this. As a goodbye gift."
"It's lovely!" she coos. "Are dandelions going to be the fashion this year?"
"I don't think so," I frown. "This was his mother's."
Haymitch's eyes nearly bug out as Effie gasps. "His mother's?" he asks quietly.
"I told him it was too much," I rush out. "But he insisted."
"You shouldn't have taken it," he says uselessly. We both know that's impossible.
"Nonsense! It was a gift," Effie dismisses. "And he wanted you to have it."
Haymitch and I look at one another at a loss. He shakes his head before turning and leaving for his own car. Effie continues babbling at how wonderful it is Peeta's taken an interest in me, but I can't listen anymore. I know Haymitch is right. I should have tried harder to change his mind. I shouldn't have taken it. I shouldn't have let him kiss me.
The train slowly starts the long trip home.