Peeta stares at a spot behind my head and I turn to see what his eyes are fixed on. There's nothing there. I turn back and he is waiting. "I love you." I say. His eyes light up. Perhaps it is for the camera. Perhaps I mean it. I can't tell where the lines between reality and acting are anymore. At least one of us should die happy.
I spread out my fingers, and the dark berries glisten in the sun. I give Peeta's hand one last squeeze as a signal, as a good-bye, and we begin counting. "One." Maybe I'm wrong. "Two." Maybe they don't care if we both die. "Three!" It's too late to change my mind. I lift my hand to my mouth, taking one last look at the world. I swallow hard, not bothering to chew. And I wait.
Perhaps they take a little while to work. Maybe to poison isn't so fast acting as I thought. I feel Peeta's hand slip from mine and hear a soft thud. I Force open my eyes in confusion. His blue eyes stare up at me from the ground beneath blood-soaked hair. Cold, dead eyes I have seen on so many others in the districts. He has tricked me. I have one berry left I did not eat. I roll it between my fingers and it leaves a trail of colour on my skin. It is bright red beneath the dye. Mine are not nightlock. He must have switched them somehow in case I tried to use them on myself without him. My choice was even better than he could have hoped for. I fell right into the trap. He never intended to let me die.
"No!" I cry out. This isn't right. This isn't fair. It was I who was meant to die, not Peeta. I can't think straight. "Come on Peeta! Peeta, wake up! You have to wake up!" I can't control my breathing anymore. I struggle to pull in air over my sobs.
I know I need to move away from the body but I can't pull myself away from him, my fists full of his shirt. They grow bored of waiting quickly. The voice of Claudius Templesmith booms above my sobs. "Ladies and Gentlemen, I am pleased to present the victor of the seventy-fourth Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen!"
The hovercraft materialises overhead and a ladder drops; only there's no way I'm letting go of Peeta. "Leave me alone! Let me die!" I scream at them. I see the dart flying at me but I don't have the energy to move out of the way. I feel thick arms lift me and I'm frozen with them to the ladder before my world fades to black.
The effects do not last long. I wake slumped in a large velvet chair. I'm still in the hovercraft. A capitol attendant hands me a tall, delicate glass of pink liquid. The bubbles rise in uniform lines, it all looks too perfect against my dirty nails and hands streaked with Peeta's blood. There's a silly little tune playing in the background like the kind replayed over and over again in the capitol elevators and it all seems ridiculous to me. I look around the perfect, clean room. Satin pillows, embroidered silks and a plush carpet. They do not help me to forget what happened just moments ago. Peeta is dead.
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. I stare blankly forward and try to keep my sobs in. I don't want them to have the satisfaction of seeing what they have done to me.
Before I know it the hovercraft has landed on the roof of the training centre. There's a mass of candy pink hair and that screechy voice. She finally has her victor from twelve. I catch a glimpse of Haymitch's stony face and he nods in my direction. I lose all sense of maintaining my dignity and collapse into his arms. For the first time he does not smell of alcohol but I'm sure that will change in the days to follow. I barely notice the needle enter my arm once more.
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 are 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. I try to speak but my voice does not come. My mouth opens and shuts but still no sound leaves it. She gives me a sad smile and mouths something which resembles "I'm sorry."
As the Avox leaves, the door closes noiselessly, disapearing seamlessly into the wall after her. I turn to the tray. A bowl of clear broth, a small serving of applesauce, and a glass of water. I'm not hungry, my throat feel tight and constricted. I can't stand the thought of eating. It feels like when my father was killed. Everything is empty.
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 will be creating my wardrobe for the public appearances. Haymitch and Effie will be arranging the banquet for my 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 me, given that the last one was close to thirty years ago. Peeta's family will be forced to celebrate me although they know I let their son and brother die. Peeta's mother was right.
I think about my mother and Prim for the first time. I will get to see them again. District twelve will get their food parcels, not so many will die of starvation this year. The difference will be small but significant enough to matter. I can't wait to see Prim, to show her that I kept her promise after all even though I did not intend to. My lovely, sweet Prim. And Gale. Even though my love with Peeta was for the cameras, in a way I did love him. I loved him like a brother, at least. Perhaps more. I wonder what will happen between Gale and me. I can't bear to think of him yet. Peeta's death is still too fresh in my mind. I almost feel like I would be betraying Peeta.
I wake many times, eventually they give up trying to make me eat and insert a new tube into my throat. They're force-feeding me but at least I don't have to taste it. I don't even try to get up. I don't care what they do to me. I just want to get better so I can go home and pretend none of this ever happened. I understand why Haymitch drinks now. If I had the energy I would pull out all the tubes and hope I die quickly. But I hold on for Prim. For mother and for Gale. Every now and again somebody comes to change my bandages, apply creams and adjust tubes. Mostly it's peaceful. Perhaps I really am dead.
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 muster all my energy and start to sit up but am arrested by the sight of my hands. The skin is perfect, 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.
It takes me a moment to notice Haymitch sitting in the chair across the room. He almost looks childish with his large frame squeezed into the dainty seat. Neither of us speaks. We do not need to. No words can express my feelings. He knows. He has been here before. 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. He pats me on the back gently and leaves to allow me to dress.
I throw on the clothes quickly and follow the white corridor until I come to a big chamber at the end. Haymitch, Effie, Cinna. My feet take off and I throw myself at Cinna. He stumbles a little but recovers gracefully, tightening his arms around me. I let him hold me and he does not let go. "You've been such a brave girl. I'm sorry about Peeta. You just have to hold on for a little while longer. The appearances will be torture but I know you can do it. You're the strongest girl I've ever met." Cinna whispers. I nestle my head into him until eventually I'm forced to let go.
Effie is somewhat teary and keeps patting my hair and talking about how she told everyone we were pearls. I cringe as she says 'we'. She means both Peeta and I but Peeta is gone. Portia is no longer needed.
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 Centre. 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.
Peeta's room, his favourite spot on the sofa, and the chair he sat in at the table. They're all here and I imagine him in all at once. 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 wish I could be happy to see them, too. 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.
We go to the dining room and I find my appetite is back. I take a small portion of pasta in a creamy sauce and allow an avox to pour me a small cup of coffee. I stick to blander flavours. I am not celebrating. I stare at the empty chair where Peeta once sat and blank out the half-hearted attempt at a conversation from the others. By the time they rise to leave a grey film has formed over the untouched coffee and my pasta is barely touched. Perhaps my appetite is not back after all. I wait for the preparations to begin.
My team are waiting for me in my room when I arrive and they begin to get 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. I clench my jaw to stop it from shaking with anger. They do not mention Peeta but I know they are dying to say what they were doing when he sacrificed himself. 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 carrying a beautiful black gown. It glimmers gently, the tiny stones catching the light like dying embers. The hemline falls just above the knee, the high neckline hides my hollow collar bones. It's simple, fitting to the situation. It's not bright or unnecessarily decorative. It's a mourning dress. It's perfect. Cinna helps me to slide the dress over my body and my image is instantly changed. 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 shiny black sandals and I turn to the mirror.
My hair falls in a simple sweep across my shoulders. Much of it was burn off in the arena, but like it this way. Huge red lips, dark famed eyes. The gathered fabric gives the illusion of curves. I look dignified this time, no frills or fancy illusions.
"No more flames." I say.
"You're all finished now. All that is left is the beautiful embers. A fitting finish, I think." Cinna says sadly. I agree. By comparison, the chariot costume seems garish, the interview dress too contrived.
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. I stand beside my plate beneath the stage in the dimly-lit area. 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, it's just me. Let's have a look at you," Haymitch says.
"I can't do this alone. Peeta was the best at this stuff. I need him, Haymitch." I say and feel my eyes moisten again.
"Shh, it's okay. Don't ruin your makeup. Just focus on Caesar. He'll help you. They already love you; you don't need to win anyone over. They'll ask questions you don't want to answer, but just try your best. You'll be okay now." He says defiantly, as if trying to convince himself of the truth of his own words. I pull him into a hug once more. Now we're both victors I feel like I'm connected to him somehow. We've been through the same thing; he is the only person here who understands. We are the same. He is not the same person who I met on the train.
"Better take our places." He leads me to the metal circle. "This is your night, sweetheart. Force a smile and bear 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, mouldy 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.
The anthem booms in my ears, and then I hear Caesar Flickerman greeting the audience. The crowd breaks into applause as the prep teams are presented. I imagine Flavius, Venia, and Octavia bouncing around and taking ridiculous, bobbing bows. Then Effie's introduced. How long she's waited for this moment. I hope she's able to enjoy it for all of us. Cinna receives a huge cheer, of course, he's been brilliant, had a dazzling debut. Haymitch's appearance brings a round of stomping that goes on at least five minutes. Well, he's accomplished a first. Keeping his first tribute alive to the end. Keeping both tributes in the final two. I draw in one more deep breath and imagine Peeta by my side, the steadiness of those baker's hands. I hope just the thought of him is enough because I can feel the plate lifting me up to the stage.