He's heard about the fashions they have in the Capitol, and has even witnessed some of them on television. But none of it compares to seeing them in person as he rides by in the chariot. There's hair in every color of the rainbow and makeup in layers thick enough to make pancakes out of. Designs are cut out of and sewn into skin like cookie cutters. There's even one face whose eyes appear to have drifted towards the side of their head which, combined with lips enlarged beyond anything even remotely natural, gives the impression of a fish. He can't tell if this person is a man or a woman, so he just thinks of them as an 'it'.
He wonders how similar this is to the way they think of him.
In the arena he sees the faces of other Tributes become sallow and emaciated, losing the healthy pink tinge they'd had just days ago. They take on the hues of blue-purple bruises, angry bright-red scars, and blood that pools and stains and becomes black. They paint themselves with the colors of war and of death. Unrecognizable compared to their former selves, but a sight better than those monstrosities walking the streets of the Capitol.
The night before he leaves the Capitol, he's washing up in the bathroom when he catches a vague glimpse of it in the mirror. He looks at himself from every angle, trying to find it, to pinpoint it, and can't. But it's there somewhere, he's sure of it. It's alarming, because watching the recap with Caesar he was able to recognize himself on the screen. He didn't really like what he saw, but he knew it was him up there. But the boy he sees in the mirror is a stranger.
Somehow they've managed to change his appearance just as dramatically as they change their own.
There are celebrations of all sorts waiting for him when he returns to Twelve, and the reporters can't help portraying him as a clever underdog. No one in Panem has ever heard of fairy tales, but if they had they'd have called his a Cinderella story: the plucky young hero who rose above his impoverished beginnings to win glory and fame, going from rags to riches. The lucky and beautiful orphan who tricks the hideous witch.
"What a smart lad," they gush before the cameras. "Improvising a weapon out of the very arena itself." They predict that Gamemakers will use more of these tricks in the future, that they'll be seeing more intricate and elaborate settings. "This is the beginning of a new trend we'll be seeing in the Games."
"I'm sure no one in the Capitol foresaw this boy's ingenuity!" one of them says.
Two weeks later, he's walking back to his house in the Victor's Village when he hears a boom coming from the direction of the Seam, and for a horrible moment he thinks there's been an explosion in the mines. He sees a plume of smoke go up and a faint glowing on the horizon, and even from this distance he can tell roughly where it's coming from, but he hopes he's wrong. He runs and hopes beyond all hope that's he so, so wrong.
But of course he, Haymitch Abernathy, who was so clever to outsmart the Tributes, the Gamemakers and even the Capitol, is not wrong when he comes upon the smoldering ruins of what used to be his family's house. The officials rule it as accidental. The gas line under the house accidentally burst a leak, they say, and when his parents lit a fire for the evening's supper the whole place went up like a tinderbox. They don't listen to him when he says, shouts even, that no one in the Seam could possibly afford to have a gas line in their home. He is a clever orphan now, really and truly.
By the time the Victory Tour rolls around he's already well acquainted with the feeling of a bottle in one hand and a knife in the other.
The people of Twelve are proud. Poor, but proud, and it is not the first but the last quality that will kill them.
With the money he receives for winning he tries to help those around him. Buying more bread than he needs helps the baker and he can give the extra to the children who play in the dirty creek by the school. The younger ones will eagerly accept his offerings, but those older would always refuse. It takes a while but eventually he gets used to the fact that no one wants anything more from him than what's fair. When he is out of earshot they comment on what a fine Capitol man he is.
Though he by no means needs the company, he begins spending some of his evenings with one of the women that make the streets their workplace. She's one of the prettier ones, and she knows when to talk and when to be quiet, and if circumstances were different he might actually like spending time with her beyond these activities.
As she's putting her clothes back on he can see one or two of her ribs showing through her skin, and he thinks how this woman – this young, fair woman, who would be beautiful if she weren't from Twelve, who is still beautiful no matter where she's from or where she's at – is starving to death in front of him while he has means above and beyond anything he will ever need. He tries to offer her more than her asking price, but she refuses.
A week later he hides the extra in the pockets of her trousers while she's looking away, and he thinks it's worked when she leaves the room without mentioning it. But the next morning he sees the wad of bills on a small table by the door, and as much as he wants them to just take it, just get it off his damn hands already, he understands the feeling behind the gesture.
Because they can't possibly hate that money more than he does.
It's not that he doesn't care about the lives of the Tributes he has to mentor each year. He's not far enough gone into his drink to stop caring, and he doubts he ever will be. It's just that no matter how good he is (or isn't, usually), no matter what skills and strategies he's able to drill into their heads, no matter how strong or quick or cunning or likeable or anything they are, one of them is going to die. And because he's the only mentor for Twelve, he can only really afford to coach one of them, to send the best gifts to one of them.
So every year he has to choose.
He thinks of his family and of how it probably would have been better for him, for all of them, if he'd just died in that arena. Though he won't voice his thoughts and hates himself for even thinking them, he thinks it's better if the Tributes die as well. If they win there are two options. The first is where they become a plaything, a construction of the Capitol to be manipulated at their whims. One year there's a particularly attractive girl whose appeal he thinks could have rivaled Finnick Odair's if he'd had the heart to really let her shine. Thoughts of lecherous old men bidding on her virginity stop him.
And the second? Well, he's been living the second option for years, the one where you become a dilapidated former shell of yourself. He won't see anyone follow him down that path, not if he can help it. And it's usually one or the other. There are so few stories of anything in between. No, he thinks, they're probably better off dead.
But he still watches every year. He owes them that much, to see them off, to see them die. He has to. He ceased having a choice long ago, if he ever had one at all.
The rebellion doesn't begin with the berries, not really. It's not that they're not important, because they are, exceedingly and indisputably so. But the spark didn't originate there any more than it did with the fiery costumes, or the Mockingjay pin; at least, not for him it didn't. He doesn't realize it for the longest time – a few years, maybe more – but he was the only one to witness those initial sparks.
The first morning after the Reaping, he's having the same breakfast as always, wearing the same outfit as always, and has the same feeling as always. He's gotten used to it somewhat now, this sense that he's the ferryman between these children and their ends, and he tries to make their last days as enjoyable as possible. Right now everyone is in the dining car except for the girl. He always lets the Tributes sleep in as long as they want. He figures he can do at least that much for them.
He contemplates the young man sitting before him, sizing him up, trying to fit his image in with that of the arena, and his mind, as it always does, recoils a little at the thought. He's young and strong, and it's likely he'll at least survive the first day, and may even be able to hold his own against one or two of the Careers. But is there a Victor inside this fresh-faced boy? Probably not. He could really be something in the Capitol, though, if he'd ever been given the chance, and he's considering the implications of his having already written him off as dead when the compartment door slides open.
Everyone looks up to see who's entering, but Haymitch continues looking at Peeta. Specifically, he's looking at Peeta looking at Katniss, at the expression that flickers across the boy's face, and when it's gone it's like his features are shrouded in darkness, not because they literally are but because that's how bright his smile was. The spark of the idea that ignites in his head then is small and he's not completely sure what it means yet, but he knows it's something. If he weren't so afraid of coming away from the experience covered in white makeup that he's not sure would ever wash off he'd kiss Effie right now, because she's finally, finally given him something he can work with.
And somewhere in the recesses of his mind, an idea begins to take shape.