Chapter no 4

Catching Fire (The Hunger Games, #2)

‌We slog back to the train in silence. In the hallway outside my door, Haymitch gives my shoulder a pat and says, “You could do a lot worse, you know.” He heads off to his compartment, taking the smell of wine with him.

In my room, I remove my sodden slippers, my wet robe and pajamas. There are more in the drawers but I just crawl between the covers of my bed in my underclothes. I stare into the darkness, thinking about my conversation with Haymitch. Everything he said was true about the Capitol’s expectations, my future with Peeta, even his last comment. Of course, I could do a lot worse than Peeta. That isn’t really the point, though, is it? One of the few freedoms we have in District 12 is the right to marry who we want or not marry at all. And now even that has been taken away from me. I wonder if President Snow will insist we have children. If we do, they’ll have to face the reaping each year. And wouldn’t it be something to see the child of not one but two victors chosen for the arena? Victors’ children have been in the ring before. It always causes a lot of excitement and generates talk about how the odds are not in that family’s favor. But it happens too frequently to just be about odds. Gale’s convinced the Capitol does it on purpose, rigs the drawings to add extra drama. Given all the trouble I’ve caused, I’ve probably guaranteed any child of mine a spot in the Games.

I think of Haymitch, unmarried, no family, blotting out the world with drink. He could have had his choice of any woman in the district. And he chose solitude. Not solitude — that sounds too peaceful. More like solitary confinement. Was it because, having been in the arena, he knew it was better than risking the alternative? I had a taste of that alternative when they called Prim’s name on reaping day and I watched her walk to the stage to her death. But as her sister I could take her place, an option forbidden to our mother.

My mind searches frantically for a way out. I can’t let President Snow condemn me to this. Even if it means taking my own life. Before that, though, I’d try to run away. What would they do if I simply vanished? Disappeared into the woods and never came out? Could I even manage to take everyone I

love with me, start a new life deep in the wild? Highly unlikely but not impossible.

I shake my head to clear it. This is not the time to be making wild escape plans. I must focus on the Victory Tour. Too many people’s fates depend on my giving a good show.

Dawn comes before sleep does, and there’s Effie rapping on my door. I pull on whatever clothes are at the top of the drawer and drag myself down to the dining car. I don’t see what difference it makes when I get up, since this is a travel day, but then it turns out that yesterday’s makeover was just to get me to the train station. Today I’ll get the works from my prep team.

“Why? It’s too cold for anything to show,” I grumble. “Not in District Eleven,” says Effie.

District 11. Our first stop. I’d rather start in any other district, since this was Rue’s home. But that’s not how the Victory Tour works. Usually it kicks off in 12 and then goes in descending district order to 1, followed by the Capitol. The victor’s district is skipped and saved for very last. Since 12 puts on the least fabulous celebration — usually just a dinner for the tributes and a victory rally in the square, where nobody looks like they’re having any fun — it’s probably best to get us out of the way as soon as possible. This year, for the first time since Haymitch won, the final stop on the tour will be 12, and the Capitol will spring for the festivities.

I try to enjoy the food like Hazelle said. The kitchen staff clearly wants to please me. They’ve prepared my favorite, lamb stew with dried plums, among other delicacies. Orange juice and a pot of steaming hot chocolate wait at my place at the table. So I eat a lot, and the meal is beyond reproach, but I can’t say I’m enjoying it. I’m also annoyed that no one but Effie and I has shown up.

“Where’s everybody else?” I ask.

“Oh, who knows where Haymitch is,” says Effie. I didn’t really expect Haymitch, because he’s probably just getting to bed. “Cinna was up late working on organizing your garment car. He must have over a hundred outfits for you. Your evening clothes are exquisite. And Peeta’s team is probably still asleep.”

“Doesn’t he need prepping?” I ask. “Not the way you do,” Effie replies.

What does this mean? It means I get to spend the morning having the hair ripped off my body while Peeta sleeps in. I hadn’t thought about it much, but in the arena at least some of the boys got to keep their body hair whereas none of the girls did. I can remember Peeta’s now, as I bathed him by the stream. Very blond in the sunlight, once the mud and blood had been washed away. Only his face remained completely smooth. Not one of the boys grew a beard, and many were old enough to. I wonder what they did to them.

If I feel ragged, my prep team seems in worse condition, knocking back coffee and sharing brightly colored little pills. As far as I can tell, they never get up before noon unless there’s some sort of national emergency, like my leg hair. I was so happy when it grew back in, too. As if it were a sign that things might be returning to normal. I run my fingers along the soft, curly down on my legs and give myself over to the team. None of them are up to their usual chatter, so I can hear every strand being yanked from its follicle. I have to soak in a tub full of a thick, unpleasant-smelling solution, while my face and hair are plastered with creams. Two more baths follow in other, less offensive, concoctions. I’m plucked and scoured and massaged and anointed until I’m raw.

Flavius tilts up my chin and sighs. “It’s a shame Cinna said no alterations on you.”

“Yes, we could really make you something special,” says Octavia.

“When she’s older,” says Venia almost grimly. “Then he’ll have to let us.”

Do what? Blow my lips up like President Snow’s? Tattoo my breasts? Dye my skin magenta and implant gems in it? Cut decorative patterns in my face? Give me curved talons? Or cat’s whiskers? I saw all these things and more on the people in the Capitol. Do they really have no idea how freakish they look to the rest of us?

The thought of being left to my prep team’s fashion whims only adds to the miseries competing for my attention — my abused body, my lack of sleep, my mandatory marriage, and the terror of being unable to satisfy President Snow’s demands. By the time I reach lunch, where Effie, Cinna, Portia, Haymitch, and Peeta have started without me, I’m too weighed down to talk. They’re raving about the food and how well they sleep on trains. Everyone’s all full of excitement about the tour. Well, everyone but Haymitch. He’s nursing a hangover and picking at a muffin. I’m not really hungry, either, maybe because I loaded up on too much rich stuff this morning or maybe because I’m so unhappy. I play around with a bowl of broth, eating only a spoonful or two. I can’t even look at Peeta — my designated future husband

— although I know none of this is his fault.

People notice, try to bring me into the conversation, but I just brush them off. At some point, the train stops. Our server reports it will not just be for a fuel stop — some part has malfunctioned and must be replaced. It will require at least an hour. This sends Effie into a state. She pulls out her schedule and begins to work out how the delay will impact every event for the rest of our lives. Finally I just can’t stand to listen to her anymore.

“No one cares, Effie!” I snap. Everyone at the table stares at me, even Haymitch, who you’d think would be on my side in this matter since Effie drives him nuts. I’m immediately put on the defensive. “Well, no one does!” I say, and get up and leave the dining car.

The train suddenly seems stifling and I’m definitely queasy now. I find the exit door, force it open — triggering some sort of alarm, which I ignore — and jump to the ground, expecting to land in snow. But the air’s warm and balmy against my skin. The trees still wear green leaves. How far south have we come in a day? I walk along the track, squinting against the bright sunlight, already regretting my words to Effie. She’s hardly to blame for my current predicament. I should go back and apologize. My outburst was the height of bad manners, and manners matter deeply to her. But my feet continue on along the track, past the end of the train, leaving it behind. An hour’s delay. I can walk at least twenty minutes in one direction and make it back with plenty of time to spare. Instead, after a couple hundred yards, I sink to the ground and sit there, looking into the distance. If I had a bow and arrows, would I just keep going?

After a while I hear footsteps behind me. It’ll be Haymitch, coming to chew me out. It’s not like I don’t deserve it, but I still don’t want to hear it. “I’m not in the mood for a lecture,” I warn the clump of weeds by my shoes.

“I’ll try to keep it brief.” Peeta takes a seat beside me. “I thought you were Haymitch,” I say.

“No, he’s still working on that muffin.” I watch as Peeta positions his artificial leg. “Bad day, huh?”

“It’s nothing,” I say.

He takes a deep breath. “Look, Katniss, I’ve been wanting to talk to you about the way I acted on the train. I mean, the last train. The one that brought us home. I knew you had something with Gale. I was jealous of him before I even officially met you. And it wasn’t fair to hold you to anything that happened in the Games. I’m sorry.”

His apology takes me by surprise. It’s true that Peeta froze me out after I confessed that my love for him during the Games was something of an act. But I don’t hold that against him. In the arena, I’d played that romance angle for all it was worth. There had been times when I didn’t honestly know how I felt about him. I still don’t, really.

“I’m sorry, too,” I say. I’m not sure for what exactly. Maybe because there’s a real chance I’m about to destroy him.

“There’s nothing for you to be sorry about. You were just keeping us alive. But I don’t want us to go on like this, ignoring each other in real life and falling into the snow every time there’s a camera around. So I thought if I stopped being so, you know, wounded, we could take a shot at just being friends,” he says.

All my friends are probably going to end up dead, but refusing Peeta wouldn’t keep him safe. “Okay,” I say. His offer does make me feel better. Less duplicitous somehow. It would be nice if he’d come to me with this earlier, before I knew that President Snow had other plans and just being

friends was not an option for us anymore. But either way, I’m glad we’re speaking again.

“So what’s wrong?” he asks.

I can’t tell him. I pick at the clump of weeds.

“Let’s start with something more basic. Isn’t it strange that I know you’d risk your life to save mine . . . but I don’t know what your favorite color is?” he says.

A smile creeps onto my lips. “Green. What’s yours?” “Orange,” he says.

“Orange? Like Effie’s hair?” I say.

“A bit more muted,” he says. “More like . . . sunset.”

Sunset. I can see it immediately, the rim of the descending sun, the sky streaked with soft shades of orange. Beautiful. I remember the tiger lily cookie and, now that Peeta is talking to me again, it’s all I can do not to recount the whole story about President Snow. But I know Haymitch wouldn’t want me to. I’d better stick to small talk.

“You know, everyone’s always raving about your paintings. I feel bad I haven’t seen them,” I say.

“Well, I’ve got a whole train car full.” He rises and offers me his hand. “Come on.”

It’s good to feel his fingers entwined with mine again, not for show but in actual friendship. We walk back to the train hand in hand. At the door, I remember. “I’ve got to apologize to Effie first.”

“Don’t be afraid to lay it on thick,” Peeta tells me.

So when we go back to the dining car, where the others are still at lunch, I give Effie an apology that I think is overkill but in her mind probably just manages to compensate for my breach of etiquette. To her credit, Effie accepts gra-ciously. She says it’s clear I’m under a lot of pressure. And her comments about the necessity of someone attending to the schedule only last about five minutes. Really, I’ve gotten off easily.

When Effie finishes, Peeta leads me down a few cars to see his paintings. I don’t know what I expected. Larger versions of the flower cookies maybe. But this is something entirely different. Peeta has painted the Games.

Some you wouldn’t get right away, if you hadn’t been with him in the arena yourself. Water dripping through the cracks in our cave. The dry pond bed. A pair of hands, his own, digging for roots. Others any viewer would recognize. The golden horn called the Cornucopia. Clove arranging the knives inside her jacket. One of the mutts, unmistakably the blond, green-eyed one meant to be Glimmer, snarling as it makes its way toward us. And me. I am everywhere. High up in a tree. Beating a shirt against the stones in the stream. Lying unconscious in a pool of blood. And one I can’t place — perhaps this is how I looked when his fever was high — emerging from a silver gray mist

that matches my eyes exactly. “What do you think?” he asks.

“I hate them,” I say. I can almost smell the blood, the dirt, the unnatural breath of the mutt. “All I do is go around trying to forget the arena and you’ve brought it back to life. How do you remember these things so exactly?”

“I see them every night,” he says.

I know what he means. Nightmares — which I was no stranger to before the Games — now plague me whenever I sleep. But the old standby, the one of my father being blown to bits in the mines, is rare. Instead I relive versions of what happened in the arena. My worthless attempt to save Rue. Peeta bleeding to death. Glimmer’s bloated body disintegrating in my hands. Cato’s horrific end with the muttations. These are the most frequent visitors. “Me, too. Does it help? To paint them out?”

“I don’t know. I think I’m a little less afraid of going to sleep at night, or I tell myself I am,” he says. “But they haven’t gone anywhere.”

“Maybe they won’t. Haymitch’s haven’t.” Haymitch doesn’t say so, but I’m sure this is why he doesn’t like to sleep in the dark.

“No. But for me, it’s better to wake up with a paintbrush than a knife in my hand,” he says. “So you really hate them?”

“Yes. But they’re extraordinary. Really,” I say. And they are. But I don’t want to look at them anymore. “Want to see my talent? Cinna did a great job on it.”

Peeta laughs. “Later.” The train lurches forward, and I can see the land moving past us through the window. “Come on, we’re almost to District Eleven. Let’s go take a look at it.”

We go down to the last car on the train. There are chairs and couches to sit on, but what’s wonderful is that the back windows retract into the ceiling so you’re riding outside, in the fresh air, and you can see a wide sweep of the landscape. Huge open fields with herds of dairy cattle grazing in them. So unlike our own heavily wooded home. We slow slightly and I think we might be coming in for another stop, when a fence rises up before us. Towering at least thirty-five feet in the air and topped with wicked coils of barbed wire, it makes ours back in District 12 look childish. My eyes quickly inspect the base, which is lined with enormous metal plates. There would be no burrowing under those, no escaping to hunt. Then I see the watchtowers, placed evenly apart, manned with armed guards, so out of place among the fields of wildflowers around them.

“That’s something different,” says Peeta.

Rue did give me the impression that the rules in District 11 were more harshly enforced. But I never imagined something like this.

Now the crops begin, stretched out as far as the eye can see. Men, women, and children wearing straw hats to keep off the sun straighten up, turn our

way, take a moment to stretch their backs as they watch our train go by. I can see orchards in the distance, and I wonder if that’s where Rue would have worked, collecting the fruit from the slimmest branches at the tops of the trees. Small communities of shacks — by comparison the houses in the Seam are upscale — spring up here and there, but they’re all deserted. Every hand must be needed for the harvest.

On and on it goes. I can’t believe the size of District 11. “How many people do you think live here?” Peeta asks. I shake my head. In school they refer to it as a large district, that’s all. No actual figures on the population. But those kids we see on camera waiting for the reaping each year, they can’t be but a sampling of the ones who actually live here. What do they do? Have preliminary drawings? Pick the winners ahead of time and make sure they’re in the crowd? How exactly did Rue end up on that stage with nothing but the wind offering to take her place?

I begin to weary of the vastness, the endlessness of this place. When Effie comes to tell us to dress, I don’t object. I go to my compartment and let the prep team do my hair and makeup. Cinna comes in with a pretty orange frock patterned with autumn leaves. I think how much Peeta will like the color.

Effie gets Peeta and me together and goes through the day’s program one last time. In some districts the victors ride through the city while the residents cheer. But in 11 — maybe because there’s not much of a city to begin with, things being so spread out, or maybe because they don’t want to waste so many people while the harvest is on — the public appearance is confined to the square. It takes place before their Justice Building, a huge marble structure. Once, it must have been a thing of beauty, but time has taken its toll. Even on television you can see ivy overtaking the crumbling facade, the sag of the roof. The square itself is ringed with run-down storefronts, most of which are abandoned. Wherever the well-to-do live in District 11, it’s not here.

Our entire public performance will be staged outside on what Effie refers to as the verandah, the tiled expanse between the front doors and the stairs that’s shaded by a roof supported by columns. Peeta and I will be introduced, the mayor of 11 will read a speech in our honor, and we’ll respond with a scripted thank-you provided by the Capitol. If a victor had any special allies among the dead tributes, it is considered good form to add a few personal comments as well. I should say something about Rue, and Thresh, too, really, but every time I tried to write it at home, I ended up with a blank paper staring me in the face. It’s hard for me to talk about them without getting emotional. Fortunately, Peeta has a little something worked up, and with some slight alterations, it can count for both of us. At the end of the ceremony, we’ll be presented with some sort of plaque, and then we can withdraw to the Justice Building, where a special dinner will be served.

As the train is pulling into the District 11 station, Cinna puts the finishing touches on my outfit, switching my orange hairband for one of metallic gold and securing the mockingjay pin I wore in the arena to my dress. There’s no welcoming committee on the platform, just a squad of eight Peacekeepers who direct us into the back of an armored truck. Effie sniffs as the door clanks closed behind us. “Really, you’d think we were all criminals,” she says.

Not all of us, Effie. Just me, I think.

The truck lets us out at the back of the Justice Building. We’re hurried inside. I can smell an excellent meal being prepared, but it doesn’t block out the odors of mildew and rot. They’ve left us no time to look around. As we make a beeline for the front entrance, I can hear the anthem beginning outside in the square. Someone clips a microphone on me. Peeta takes my left hand. The mayor’s introducing us as the massive doors open with a groan.

“Big smiles!” Effie says, and gives us a nudge. Our feet start moving forward.

This is it. This is where I have to convince everybody how in love I am with Peeta, I think. The solemn ceremony is pretty tightly mapped out, so I’m not sure how to do it. It’s not a time for kissing, but maybe I can work one in.

There’s loud applause, but none of the other responses we got in the Capitol, the cheers and whoops and whistles. We walk across the shaded verandah until the roof runs out and we’re standing at the top of a big flight of marble stairs in the glaring sun. As my eyes adjust, I see the buildings on the square have been hung with banners that help cover up their neglected state. It’s packed with people, but again, just a fraction of the number who live here. As usual, a special platform has been constructed at the bottom of the stage for the families of the dead tributes. On Thresh’s side, there’s only an old woman with a hunched back and a tall, muscular girl I’m guessing is his sister. On Rue’s . . . I’m not prepared for Rue’s family. Her parents, whose faces are still fresh with sorrow. Her five younger siblings, who resemble her so closely. The slight builds, the luminous brown eyes. They form a flock of

small dark birds.

The applause dies out and the mayor gives the speech in our honor. Two little girls come up with tremendous bouquets of flowers. Peeta does his part of the scripted reply and then I find my lips moving to conclude it. Fortunately my mother and Prim have drilled me so I can do it in my sleep.

Peeta had his personal comments written on a card, but he doesn’t pull it out. Instead he speaks in his simple, winning style about Thresh and Rue making it to the final eight, about how they both kept me alive — thereby keeping him alive — and about how this is a debt we can never repay. And then he hesitates before adding something that wasn’t written on the card. Maybe because he thought Effie might make him remove it. “It can in no way replace your losses, but as a token of our thanks we’d like for each of the

tributes’ families from District Eleven to receive one month of our winnings every year for the duration of our lives.”

The crowd can’t help but respond with gasps and murmurs. There is no precedent for what Peeta has done. I don’t even know if it’s legal. He probably doesn’t know, either, so he didn’t ask in case it isn’t. As for the families, they just stare at us in shock. Their lives were changed forever when Thresh and Rue were lost, but this gift will change them again. A month of tribute winnings can easily provide for a family for a year. As long as we live, they will not hunger.

I look at Peeta and he gives me a sad smile. I hear Haymitch’s voice. “You could do a lot worse.” At this moment, it’s impossible to imagine how I could do any better. The gift . . . it is perfect. So when I rise up on tiptoe to kiss him, it doesn’t seem forced at all.

The mayor steps forward and presents us each with a plaque that’s so large I have to put down my bouquet to hold it. The ceremony’s about to end when I notice one of Rue’s sisters staring at me. She must be about nine and is almost an exact replica of Rue, down to the way she stands with her arms slightly extended. Despite the good news about the winnings, she’s not happy. In fact, her look is reproachful. Is it because I didn’t save Rue?

No. It’s because I still haven’t thanked her, I think.

A wave of shame rushes through me. The girl is right. How can I stand here, passive and mute, leaving all the words to Peeta? If she had won, Rue would never have let my death go unsung. I remember how I took care in the arena to cover her with flowers, to make sure her loss did not go unnoticed. But that gesture will mean nothing if I don’t support it now.

“Wait!” I stumble forward, pressing the plaque to my chest. My allotted time for speaking has come and gone, but I must say something. I owe too much. And even if I had pledged all my winnings to the families, it would not excuse my silence today. “Wait, please.” I don’t know how to start, but once I do, the words rush from my lips as if they’ve been forming in the back of my mind for a long time.

“I want to give my thanks to the tributes of District Eleven,” I say. I look at the pair of women on Thresh’s side. “I only ever spoke to Thresh one time. Just long enough for him to spare my life. I didn’t know him, but I always respected him. For his power. For his refusal to play the Games on anyone’s terms but his own. The Careers wanted him to team up with them from the beginning, but he wouldn’t do it. I respected him for that.”

For the first time the old hunched woman — is she Thresh’s grandmother?

— raises her head and the trace of a smile plays on her lips.

The crowd has fallen silent now, so silent that I wonder how they manage it. They must all be holding their breath.

I turn to Rue’s family. “But I feel as if I did know Rue, and she’ll always

be with me. Everything beautiful brings her to mind. I see her in the yellow flowers that grow in the Meadow by my house. I see her in the mockingjays that sing in the trees. But most of all, I see her in my sister, Prim.” My voice is undependable, but I am almost finished. “Thank you for your children.” I raise my chin to address the crowd. “And thank you all for the bread.”

I stand there, feeling broken and small, thousands of eyes trained on me. There’s a long pause. Then, from somewhere in the crowd, someone whistles Rue’s four-note mockingjay tune. The one that signaled the end of the workday in the orchards. The one that meant safety in the arena. By the end of the tune, I have found the whistler, a wizened old man in a faded red shirt and overalls. His eyes meet mine.

What happens next is not an accident. It is too well executed to be spontaneous, because it happens in complete unison. Every person in the crowd presses the three middle fingers of their left hand against their lips and extends them to me. It’s our sign from District 12, the last good-bye I gave Rue in the arena.

If I hadn’t spoken to President Snow, this gesture might move me to tears. But with his recent orders to calm the districts fresh in my ears, it fills me with dread. What will he think of this very public salute to the girl who defied the Capitol?

The full impact of what I’ve done hits me. It was not intentional — I only meant to express my thanks — but I have elicited something dangerous. An act of dissent from the people of District 11. This is exactly the kind of thing I am supposed to be defusing!

I try to think of something to say to undermine what has just happened, to negate it, but I can hear the slight burst of static indicating my microphone has been cut off and the mayor has taken over. Peeta and I acknowledge a final round of applause. He leads me back toward the doors, unaware that anything has gone wrong.

I feel funny and have to stop for a moment. Little bits of bright sunshine dance before my eyes. “Are you all right?” Peeta asks.

“Just dizzy. The sun was so bright,” I say. I see his bouquet. “I forgot my flowers,” I mumble.

“I’ll get them,” he says. “I can,” I answer.

We would be safe inside the Justice Building by now, if I hadn’t stopped, if I hadn’t left my flowers. Instead, from the deep shade of the verandah, we see the whole thing.

A pair of Peacekeepers dragging the old man who whistled to the top of the steps. Forcing him to his knees before the crowd. And putting a bullet through his head.

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