“No,” I answer.
“That's what I told them. I said any girl who goes to such lengths to preserve her life isn't going to be interested in throwing it away with both hands. And then there's her family to think of. Her mother, her sister, and all those ... cousins.” By the way he lingers on the word “cousins,” I can tell he knows that Gale and I don't share a family tree.
Well, it's all on the table now. Maybe that's better. I don't do well with ambiguous threats. I'd much rather know the score.
“Let's sit.” President Snow takes a seat at the large desk of polished wood where Prim does her homework and my mother her budgets. Like our home, this is a place that he has no right, but ultimately every right, to occupy. I sit in front of the desk on one of the carved, straight-backed chairs. It's made for someone taller than I am, so only my toes rest on the ground.
“I have a problem, Miss Everdeen,” says President Snow. “A problem that began the moment you pulled out those poisonous berries in the arena.”
That was the moment when I guessed that if the Gamemakers had to choose between watching Peeta and me commit suicide—which would mean having no victor— and letting us both live, they would take the latter.
“If the Head Gamemaker, Seneca Crane, had had any brains, he'd have blown you to dust right then. But he had an unfortunate sentimental streak. So here you are. Can you guess where he is?” he asks.
I nod because, by the way he says it, it's clear that Seneca Crane has been executed. The smell of roses and blood has grown stronger now that only a desk separates us. There's a rose in President Snow's lapel, which at least suggests a source of the flower perfume, but it must be genetically enhanced, because no real rose reeks like that. As for the blood ... I don't know.
“After that, there was nothing to do but let you play out your little scenario. And you were pretty good, too, with the love-crazed schoolgirl bit. The people in the Capitol were quite convinced. Unfortunately, not everyone in the districts fell for your act,” he says.
My face must register at least a flicker of bewilderment, because he addresses it.
“This, of course, you don't know. You have no access to information about the mood in other districts. In several of them, however, people viewed your little trick with the berries as an act of defiance, not an act of love. And if a girl from District Twelve of all places can defy the Capitol and walk away unharmed, what is to stop them from doing the same?” he says. “What is to prevent, say, an uprising?”
It takes a moment for his last sentence to sink in. Then the full weight of it hits me. “There have been uprisings?” I ask, both chilled and somewhat elated by the possibility.
“Not yet. But they'll follow if the course of things doesn't change. And uprisings have been known to lead to revolution.” President Snow rubs a spot over his left eyebrow, the very spot where I myself get headaches. “Do you have any idea what that would mean? How many people would die? What conditions those left would have to face? Whatever problems anyone may have with the Capitol, believe me when I say that if it released its grip on the districts for even a short time, the entire system would collapse.”
I'm taken aback by the directness and even the sincerity of this speech. As if his primary concern is the welfare of the citizens of Panem, when nothing could be further from the truth. I don't know how I dare to say the next words, but I do. “It must be very fragile, if a handful of berries can bring it down.”
There's a long pause while he examines me. Then he simply says, “It is fragile, but not in the way that you suppose.”
There's a knock at the door, and the Capitol man sticks his head in. “Her mother wants to know if you want tea.”
“I would. I would like tea,” says the president. The door opens wider, and there stands my mother, holding a tray with a china tea set she brought to the Seam when she married. “Set it here, please.” He places his book on the corner of the desk and pats the center.
My mother sets the tray on the desk. It holds a china teapot and cups, cream and sugar, and a plate of cookies. They are beautifully iced with softly colored flowers. The frosting work can only be Peeta's.
“What a welcome sight. You know, it's funny how often people forget that presidents need to eat, too,” President Snow says charmingly. Well, it seems to relax my mother a bit, anyway.
“Can I get you anything else? I can cook something more substantial if you're hungry,” she offers.
“No, this could not be more perfect. Thank you,” he says, clearly dismissing her. My mother nods, shoots me a glance, and goes. President Snow pours tea for both of us and fills his with cream and sugar, then takes a long time stirring. I sense he has had his say and is waiting for me to respond.
“I didn't mean to start any uprisings,” I tell him.
“I believe you. It doesn't matter. Your stylist turned out to be prophetic in his wardrobe choice. Katniss Everdeen, the girl who was on fire, you have provided a spark that, left unattended, may grow to an inferno that destroys Panem,” he says.
“Arrange an accident, then,” I say.
“Who would buy it?” he asks. “Not you, if you were watching.”
“Then just tell me what you want me to do. I'll do it,” I say.
“If only it were that simple.” He picks up one of the flowered cookies and examines it. “Lovely. Your mother made these?”
“Peeta.” And for the first time, I find I can't hold his gaze. I reach for my tea but set it back down when I hear the cup rattling against the saucer. To cover I quickly take a cookie.
“Peeta. How is the love of your life?” he asks. “Good,” I say.
“At what point did he realize the exact degree of your indifference?” he asks, dipping his cookie in his tea. “I'm not indifferent,” I say.
“But perhaps not as taken with the young man as you would have the country believe,” he says. “Who says I'm not?” I say.
“I do,” says the president. “And I wouldn't be here if I were the only person who had doubts. How's the handsome cousin?”
“I don't know ... I don't ...” My revulsion at this conversation, at discussing my feelings for two of the people I care most about with President Snow, chokes me off.
“Speak, Miss Everdeen. Him I can easily kill off if we don't come to a happy resolution,” he says. “You aren't doing him a favor by disappearing into the woods with him each Sunday.”
If he knows this, what else does he know? And how does he know it? Many people could tell him that Gale and I spend our Sundays hunting. Don't we show up at the end of each one loaded down with game? Haven't we for years? The real question is what he thinks goes on in the woods beyond District 12. Surely they haven't been tracking us in there. Or have they? Could we have been followed? That seems impossible. At least by a person. Cameras? That never crossed my mind until this moment. The woods have always been our place of safety, our place beyond the reach of the Capitol, where we're free to say what we feel, be who we are. At least before the Games. If we've been watched since, what have they seen? Two people hunting, saying treasonous things against the Capitol, yes. But not two people in love, which seems to be President Snow's implication. We are safe on that charge. Unless ... unless ...
It only happened once. It was fast and unexpected, but it did happen.
After Peeta and I got home from the Games, it was several weeks before I saw Gale alone. First there were the obligatory celebrations. A banquet for the victors that only the most high-ranking people were invited to. A holiday for the whole district with free food and entertainers brought in from the Capitol. Parcel Day, the first of twelve, in which food packages were delivered to every person in the district. That was my favorite. To see all those hungry kids in the Seam running around, waving cans of applesauce, tins of meat, even candy. Back home, too big to carry, would be bags of grain, ca
ns of oil. To know that once a month for a year they would all receive another parcel. That was one of the few times I actually felt good about winning the Games.
So between the ceremonies and events and the reporters documenting my every move as I presided and thanked and kissed Peeta for the audience, I had no privacy at all. After a few weeks, things finally died down. The camera crews and reporters packed up and went home. Peeta and I assumed the cool relationship we've had ever since. My family settled into our house in the Victor's Village. The everyday life of District 12—workers to the mines, kids to school — resumed its usual pace. I waited until I thought the coast was really clear, and then one Sunday, without telling anyone, I got up hours before dawn and took off for the woods.
The weather was still warm enough that I didn't need a jacket. I packed along a bag filled with special foods, cold chicken and cheese and bakery bread and oranges. Down at my old house, I put on my hunting boots. As usual, the fence was not charged and it was simple to slip into the woods and retrieve my bow and arrows. I went to our place, Gale's and mine, where we had shared breakfast the morning of the reaping that sent me into the Games.
I waited at least two hours. I'd begun to think that he'd given up on me in the weeks that had passed. Or that he no longer cared about me. Hated me even. And the idea of losing him forever, my best friend, the only person I'd ever trusted with my secrets, was so painful I couldn't stand it. Not on top of everything else that had happened. I could feel my eyes tearing up and my throat starting to close the way it does when I get upset.
Then I looked up and there he was, ten feet away, just watching me. Without even thinking, I jumped up and threw my arms around him, making some weird sound that combined laughing, choking, and crying. He was holding me so tightly that I couldn't see his face, but it was a really long time before he let me go and then he didn't have much choice, because I'd gotten this unbelievably loud case of the hiccups and had to get a drink.
We did what we always did that day. Ate breakfast. Hunted and fished and gathered. Talked about people in town. But not about us, his new life in the mines, my time in the arena. Just about other things. By the time we were at the hole in the fence that's nearest the Hob, I think I really believed that things could be the same. That we could go on as we always had. I'd given all the game to Gale to trade since we had so much food now. I told him I'd skip the Hob, even though I was looking forward to going there, because my mother and sister didn't even know I'd gone hunting and they'd be wondering where I was. Then suddenly, as I was suggesting I take over the daily snare run, he took my face in his hands and kissed me.
I was completely unprepared. You would think that after all the hours I'd spent with Gale—watching him talk and laugh and frown — that I would know all there was to know about his lips. But I hadn't imagined how warm they would feel pressed against my own. Or how those hands, which could set the most intricate of snares, could as easily entrap me. I think I made some sort of noise in the back of my throat, and I vaguely remember my fingers, curled tightly closed, resting on his chest. Then he let go and said, “I had to do that. At least once.” And he was gone.
Despite the fact that the sun was setting and my family would be worried, I sat by a tree next to the fence. I tried to decide how I felt about the kiss, if I had liked it or resented it, but all I really remembered was the pressure of Gale's lips and the scent of the oranges that still lingered on his skin. It was pointless comparing it with the many kisses I'd exchanged with Peeta. I still hadn't figured out if any of those counted. Finally I went home.
That week I managed the snares and dropped off the meat with Hazelle. But I didn't see Gale until Sunday. I had this whole speech worked out, about how I didn't want a boyfriend and never planned on marrying, but I didn't end up using it. Gale acted as if the kiss had never happened.
Maybe he was waiting for me to say something. Or kiss him back. Instead I just pretended it had never happened, either. But it had. Gale had shattered some invisible barrier between us and, with it, any hope I had of resuming our old, uncomplicated friendship. Whatever I pretended, I could never look at his lips in quite the same way.
This all flashes through my head in an instant as President Snow's eyes bore into me on the heels of his threat to kill Gale. How stupid I've been to think the Capitol would just ignore me once I'd returned home! Maybe I didn't know about the potential uprisings. But I knew they were angry with me. Instead of acting with the extreme caution the situation called for, what have I done? From the president's point of view, I've ignored Peeta and flaunted my preference for Gale's company before the whole district. And by doing so made it clear I was, in fact, mocking the Capitol. Now I've endangered Gale and his family and my family and Peeta, too, by my carelessness.
“Please don't hurt Gale,” I whisper. “He's just my friend. He's been my friend for years. That's all that's between us. Besides, everyone thinks we're cousins now.”
“I'm only interested in how it affects your dynamic with Peeta, thereby affecting the mood in the districts,” he says.
“It will be the same on the tour. I'll be in love with him just as I was,” I say.
“Just as you are,” corrects President Snow.
“Just as I am,” I confirm.
“Only you'll have to do even better if the uprisings are to be averted,” he says. “This tour will be your only chance to turn things around.”
“I know. I will. I'll convince everyone in the districts that I wasn't defying the Capitol, that I was crazy with love,” I say.
President Snow rises and dabs his puffy lips with a napkin. “Aim higher in case you fall short.”
“What do you mean? How can I aim higher?” I ask.
“Convince me” he says. He drops the napkin and retrieves his book. I don't watch him as he heads for the door, so I flinch when he whispers in my ear. “By the way, I know about the kiss.” Then the door clicks shut behind him.
The smell of blood ... it was on his breath.
What does he do? I think. Drink it? I imagine him sipping it from a teacup. Dipping a cookie into the stuff and pulling it out dripping red.
Outside the window, a car comes to life, soft and quiet like the purr of a cat, then fades away into the distance. It slips off as it arrived, unnoticed.
The room seems to be spinning in slow, lopsided circles, and I wonder if I might black out. I lean forward and clutch the desk with one hand. The other still holds Peeta's beautiful cookie. I think it had a tiger lily on it, but now it's been reduced to crumbs in my fist. I didn't even know I was crushing it, but I guess I had to hold on to something while my world veered out of control.
A visit from President Snow. Districts on the verge of uprisings. A direct death threat to Gale, with others to follow. Everyone I love doomed. And who knows who else will pay for my actions? Unless I turn things around on this tour. Quiet the discontent and put the president's mind at rest. And how? By proving to the country beyond any shadow of a doubt that I love Peeta Mellark.
I can't do it, I think. I'm not that good. Peeta's the good one, the likable one. He can make people believe anything. I'm the one who shuts up and sits back and lets him do as much of the talking as possible. But it isn't Peeta who has to prove his devotion. It's me.
I hear my mother's light, quick tread in the hall. She can't know, I think. Not about any of this. I reach my hands over the tray and quickly brush the bits of cookie from my palm and fingers. I take a shaky sip of my tea.
“Is everything all right, Katniss?” she asks.
“It's fine. We never see it on television, but the president always visits the victors before the tour to wish them luck,” I say brightly.
My mother's face floods with relief. “Oh. I thought there was some kind of trouble.”
“No, not at all,” I say. “The trouble will start when my prep team sees how I've let my eyebrows grow back in.” My mother laughs, and I think about how there was no going back after I took over car
“Why don't I start your bath?” she asks.
“Great,” I say, and I can see how pleased she is by my response.
Since I've been home I've been trying hard to mend my relationship with my mother. Asking her to do things for me instead of brushing aside any offer of help, as I did for years out of anger. Letting her handle all the money I won. Returning her hugs instead of tolerating them. My time in the arena made me realize how I needed to stop punishing her for something she couldn't help, specifically the crushing depression she fell into after my father's death. Because sometimes things happen to people and they're not equipped to deal with them.
Like me, for instance. Right now.
Besides, there's one wonderful thing she did when I arrived back in the district. After our families and friends had greeted Peeta and me at the train station, there were a few questions allowed from reporters. Someone asked my mother what she thought of my new boyfriend, and she replied that, while Peeta was the very model of what a young man should be, I wasn't old enough to have any boyfriend at all. She followed this with a pointed look at Peeta. There was a lot of laughter and comments like “Somebody's in trouble” from the press, and Peeta dropped my hand and sidestepped away from me. That didn't last long—there was too much pressure to act otherwise—but it gave us an excuse to be a little more reserved than we'd been in the Capitol. And maybe it can help account for how little I've been seen in Peeta's company since the cameras left.
I go upstairs to the bathroom, where a steaming tub awaits. My mother has added a small bag of dried flowers that perfumes the air. None of us are used to the luxury of turning on a tap and having a limitless supply of hot water at our fingertips. We had only cold at our home in the Seam, and a bath meant boiling the rest over the fire. I undress and lower myself into the silky water—my mother has poured in some kind of oil as well — and try to get a grip on things.
The first question is who to tell, if anyone. Not my mother or Prim, obviously; they'd only become sick with worry. Not Gale. Even if I could get word to him. What would he do with the information, anyway? If he were alone, I might try to persuade him to run away. Certainly he could survive in the woods. But he's not alone and he'd never leave his family. Or me. When I get home I'll have to tell him something about why our Sundays are a thing of the past, but I can't think about that now. Only about my next move. Besides, Gale's already so angry and frustrated with the Capitol that I sometimes think he's going to arrange his own uprising. The last thing he needs is an incentive. No, I can't tell anyone I'm leaving behind in District 12.
There are still three people I might confide in, starting with Cinna, my stylist. But my guess is Cinna might already be at risk, and I don't want to pull him into any more trouble by closer association with me. Then there's Peeta, who will be my partner in this deception, but how do I begin that conversation? Hey, Peeta, remember how I told you I was kind of faking being in love with you? Well, I really need you to forget about that now and act extra in love with me or the president might kill Gale. I can't do it. Besides, Peeta will perform well whether he knows what's at stake or not. That leaves Haymitch. Drunken, cranky, confrontational Haymitch, who I just poured a basin of ice water on. As my mentor in the Games it was his duty to keep me alive. I only hope he's still up for the job.
I slide down into the water, letting it block out the sounds around me. I wish the tub would expand so I could go swimming, like I used to on hot summer Sundays in the woods with my father. Those days were a special treat. We would leave early in the morning and hike farther into the woods than usual to a small lake he'd found while hunting. I don't even remember learning to swim, I was so young when he taught me. I just remember diving, turning somersaults, and paddling around. The muddy bottom of the lake beneath my toes. The smell of blossoms and greenery. Floating on my back, as I am now, staring at the blue sky while the chatter of the woods was muted by the water. He'd bag the waterfowl that nested around the shore, I'd hunt for eggs in the grasses, and we'd both dig for katniss roots, the plant for which he named me, in the shallows. At night, when we got home, my mother would pretend not to recognize me because I was so clean. Then she'd cook up an amazing dinner of roasted duck and baked katniss tubers with gravy.
I never took Gale to the lake. I could have. It's time-consuming to get there, but the waterfowl are such easy pickings you can make up for lost hunting time. It's a place I've never really wanted to share with anyone, though, a place that belonged only to my father and me. Since the Games, when I've had little to occupy my days, I've gone there a couple of times. The swimming was still nice, but mostly the visits depressed me. Over the course of the last five years, the lake's remarkably unchanged and I'm almost unrecognizable.
Even underwater I can hear the sounds of commotion. Honking car horns, shouts of greeting, doors banging shut. It can only mean my entourage has arrived. I just have time to towel off and slip into a robe before my prep team bursts into the bathroom. There's no question of privacy. When it comes to my body, we have no secrets, these three people and me.
“Katniss, your eyebrows!” Venia shrieks right off, and even with the black cloud hanging over me, I have to stifle a laugh. Her aqua hair has been styled so it sticks out in sharp points all over her head, and the gold tattoos that used to be confined above her brows have curled around under her eyes, all contributing to the impression that I've literally shocked her.
Octavia comes up and pats Venia's back soothingly, her curvy body looking plumper than usual next to Venia's thin, angular one. “There, there. You can fix those in no time. But what am I going to do with these nails?” She grabs my hand and pins it flat between her two pea green ones. No, her skin isn't exactly pea green now. It's more of a light evergreen. The shift in shade is no doubt an attempt to stay abreast of the capricious fashion trends of the Capitol. “Really, Katniss, you could have left me something to work with!” she wails.
It's true. I've bitten my nails to stubs in the past couple of months. I thought about trying to break the habit but couldn't think of a good reason I should. “Sorry,” I mutter. I hadn't really been spending much time worrying about how it might affect my prep team.
Flavius lifts a few strands of my wet, tangled hair. He gives his head a disapproving shake, causing his orange corkscrew curls to bounce around. “Has anyone touched this since you last saw us?” he asks sternly. “Remember, we specifically asked you to leave your hair alone.”
“Yes!” I say, grateful that I can show I haven't totally taken them for granted. “I mean, no, no one's cut it. I did remember that.” No, I didn't. It's more like the issue never came up. Since I've been home, all I've done is stick it in its usual old braid down my back.
This seems to mollify them, and they all kiss me, set me on a chair in my bedroom, and, as usual, start talking nonstop without bothering to notice if I'm listening. While Venia reinvents my eyebrows and Octavia gives me fake nails and Flavius massages goo into my hair, I hear all about the Capitol. What a hit the Games were, how dull things have been since, how no one can wait until Peeta and I visit again at the end of the Victory Tour. After that, it won't be long before the Capitol begins gearing up for the Quarter Quell.
“Isn't it thrilling?”
“Don't you feel so lucky?”
“In your very first year of being a victor, you get to be a mentor in a Quarter Quell!”
Their words overlap in a blur of excitement.
“Oh, yes,” I say neutrally. It's the best I can do. In a normal year, being a mentor to the tributes is the stuff of nightmares. I can't walk by the school now without wondering what kid I'll have to coach. But to make things even worse,