The cannon sounds and I allow the knife to fall from my hand. He is dead, it's not as if he is going to use it against me. I look down at my hands, they are covered in his blood, and while my eyes fall on the gore stained grass I cannot not force myself to look at his body. He had killed my friend, he had killed so many, I suppose there are parts of me that should have been cheering along with the thousands of spectators in the Capitol, but there is nothing within me, nothing but silence. I turn away from Cato's body, away from the jagged red smile I had painted on his throat, and stand taller. I point my face to the sky as the trumpets sound, the fanfare begins, and the voice of Seneca Crane rang through the Arena.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, I am pleased to present the winner of the Seventy-Fourth Hunger Games; Katniss Everdeen, the Victor of District Twelve, The Girl on Fire!"
Four Years Later
"Katniss, dear, you look positively ravishing!" Caesar Flickerman says with a flourish as I walk onto the stage, waving candidly at his studio audience. It has been four years since I won the Hunger Games and the Capitol's reaction to me has hardly changed. Pure frenzy. I, on the other hand, have finally learned what it was that came so naturally to Peeta, the bravado that saved me in the arena. Capitol exclusives say that I have simply bloomed, that the Games helped me come into the charismatic young woman I am now, but they could not be farther from the truth.
I am no longer in the arena, but I have come to realize that the Games are all around me. Every move I make is watched, every smile, every wave, every word written down and categorized and filed to be looked at when necessary. Just as in the arena I have two choices; I play, or I die, and oh have I learned to play. "Thank you Caesar." I say with a smile as he stands and take my hand, his puffy lips pressing against my knuckles. "And I must say, you are as dashing as ever. You Ol' Devil!" I wink at the audience, and they laugh and clap. So different from the sullen girl I had been before the games, so… Capitol, and the more they love me the more I hate myself.
"Please, have a seat." Caesar says as he motions to a plush arm chair behind me, and I fold myself into it, doing my best not to ruffle the sleek red number Cinna has squeezed me into. The side of my face still stings from the dermal piercings Flavius demanded I get inserted on the top of my right cheekbones, three tiny crystals that glimmer and shine under the stage lights. It was done a week ago and it is already all the rage amongst Capitol men and women. "First," He says as he leans forward. "Let me see those gorgeous dermals!" He says and I laugh, craning my neck to give him, and the viewers, a good look at the diamonds glittering on my cheek. "Positively beautiful! Wouldn't you agree?" He asks the crowed, and they all erupt in applause.
"Oh stop it!" I giggle, but they continue, and I pretend to enjoy their praise. With a wave of his hand Caesar silences the crowed and turns to look at me, his eyes full of excitement.
"So, Katniss, tell us about the District Twelve tributes this year!" He asks in a hushed, excited voice, and I sit back in my chair, crossing my legs to give the Capitol a good peak of my long slender calf through the slit in the dress.
"Caesar, you know better than that." I smirk as I put the glass down. "You know I couldn't give anything away this early in the game!" I chide, and he sighs dramatically.
"Not even the tiniest detail?" I let out a defeated breathe and lean closer to him as if I'm about to whisper a secret.
"Well, I will tell you can expect the unexpected from this pair." I say with a wink, and the and the audience begs for more, but I sit back, shaking my head.
What was there to expect? Alice was hardly more than thirteen and so like Prim it hurt me to look at her. She was so frail, so fragile, she would be gone within the first ten minutes of the game. Darren, on the other hand, was a strapping eighteen-year-old, who had already begun working in the mines. His nineteenth birthday is in a week, he was so close. The boy was as strong as an ox, but just about as smart as one. He would make it to the final seven on sheer strength alone, but he didn't have the cunning to win. Maybe if the stars align and he gets lucky, and some rich sponsor buys him a pick axe, he can win. I have already chosen him. I can only get one of them out of there alive, if one. If I can bring Darren home safe that is better than nothing. I've failed to do so in the past 3 years.
He does have two things in his favor, however. He is handsome and he has a little one on the way back in the district. People will sympathize with him, so long as he does everything I say. He has so far, but he kind of seems incapable of doing anything other than what he is told to.
Caesar grins and touches his face. "Katniss, do you mind if we get a little personal?" He asks, and I place my hand over my heart.
"Caesar! I am surprised at you! We have all been friends for over four years now! Of course you can!" I state with a smile and a goodhearted roll of the eyes, allowing the Capitol to believe I count them amongst my friends.
"The biggest question on the street, Katniss, is when?" He asks, and I already know the answer before I ask.
"Oh don't talk in riddles!" I giggle. "When what?"
"When will you find a special someone, Katniss!" He says as if it is the most obvious question in the world, and I feel my heart constrict in my chest. I have been waiting for this question for years, and I'm ready for it.
"Oh Caesar." I say, folding my hands in my lap as I look at him. "Peeta…" I say softly, and suddenly the whole audience it pulling out handkerchiefs. If there was ever someone they loved more than me it was him.
"It's been years, Katniss." Caesar murmurs as he reachs over, his face full of concern. He takes my hand and gives it a firm squeeze. "Don't you think it's time to move on? Peeta would have wanted you to be happy, and Lord knows every man in the Capitol, in all of Panem, would love to be the one to do that. Myself included." He adds, and the audience laughs through their tears. He hands me a tissue and I dab my eyes, taking in a deep breath.
"I suppose you're right." I crumple the tissue in my hand and the audience lets out a soft sigh. "It's what Peeta would want." I say just as the buzzer goes off. The audience groans.
"Well, I suppose that's all the time we have for Katniss Everdeen." He says as he stands, motioning me up with him. I stand and give the audience the bravest smile I can muster, and they all clap and cry and wish me luck. "Please do convey my deepest wishes of good luck to your Tributes." He says, and I let out a short laugh.
"Luck? The last thing Alice and Darren needs is luck." They need a fucking Miracle.
"Katniss Everdeen, everybody." Caesar says as he presents me to the Capitol. "The girl still on fire." He says and leans forwards to kiss both my cheeks before I turn and walk off the stage and right into Cinna's arms. Hurriedly he pulls me into my dressing room and begins pulling at different parts of me, removing my hair pins, and false eyelashes, and the dress I can hardly breathe in. He hands me a robe that I wrap around myself, and I hardly have time to cover up before he engulfs me in his arms once more.
"That was wrong of him." Cinna whispers softly. "He should have steered the conversation away from your love life-"
"He's been doing that for years, Cinna." I cry into his shoulder. "He couldn't do it forever." Peeta's face flashes in my mind, and my heart constricts.
If I die, I want to still be me.
What would you think of me now, Peeta? I've become the Capitol puppet you died to avoid becoming. Cinna takes my face between his hands and wipes my tears away with his thumbs. Sometimes I feel like Cinna is my only friend in the world. "C'mon, let's get you back to the Training Center." He says as he walks over to the wall, pulling a long trench coat from a peg on the wall, and wraps it around me, buttoning it with quick deft fingers and tying it around my waist. He wraps his arm around my shoulders and I wrap mine around his waist as we leave the building into the flashing of the cameras outside the door. They all want to capture a piece of me, the Capitol sweetheart, the most eligible Bachelorette in all of Panem! The Girl On Fire! Cinna shields me as best as he can, but I'm sure a few of them catch photos of my tears.
As if it matters, it will only stoke the flame. The Fearless Mentor of District Twelve still heartbroken at the loss of beau, Peeta Mellark, fellow Tribute in the Seventy-Fourth Hunger Games. They will love that one. I should write it myself! Cinna tucks me into a long limo and slides in beside me. As soon as we are separated from the world by the thick black windows I wrap my arms around him one more and sob into his chest.