The anthem booms in my ears, and then I hear Caesar Flickerman greeting the audience. Does he know how crucial it is to get every word right from now on? He must. He will want to help us. The crowd breaks into applause as the prep teams are presented. I imagine Flavius, Venia, and Octavia bouncing around and taking ridiculous, bobbing bows. It’s a safe bet they’re clueless. Then Effie’s introduced. How long she’s waited for this moment. I hope she’s able to enjoy it because as misguided as Effie can be, she has a very keen instinct about certain things and must at least suspect we’re in trouble. Portia and Cinna receive huge cheers, of course, they’ve been brilliant, had a dazzling debut. I now understand Cinna’s choice of dress for me for tonight. I’ll need to look as girlish and innocent as possible. Haymitch’s appearance brings a round of stomping that goes on at least five minutes. Well, he’s accomplished a first. Keeping not only one but two tributes alive. What if he hadn’t warned me in time? Would I have acted differently? Flaunted the moment with the berries in the Capitol’s face? No, I don’t think so. But I could easily have been a lot less convincing than I need to be now. Right now. Because I can feel the plate lifting me up to the stage.
Blinding lights. The deafening roar rattles the metal under my feet. Then there’s Peeta just a few yards away. He looks so clean and healthy and beautiful, I can hardly recognize him. But his smile is the same whether in mud or in the Capitol and when I see it, I take about three steps and fling myself into his arms. He staggers back, almost losing his balance, and that’s when I realize the slim, metal contraption in his hand is some kind of cane. He rights himself and we just cling to each other while the audience goes insane. He’s kissing me and all the time I’m thinking, Do you know? Do you know
how much danger we’re in? After about ten minutes of this, Caesar Flickerman taps on his shoulder to continue the show, and Peeta just pushes him aside without even glancing at him. The audience goes berserk. Whether he knows or not, Peeta is, as usual, playing the crowd exactly right.
Finally, Haymitch interrupts us and gives us a good-natured shove toward the victor’s chair. Usually, this is a single, ornate chair from which the winning tribute watches a film of the highlights of the Games, but since there are two of us, the Gamemakers have provided a plush red velvet couch. A small one, my mother would call it a love seat, I think. I sit so close to Peeta that I’m practically on his lap, but one look from Haymitch tells me it isn’t enough. Kicking off my sandals, I tuck my feet to the side and lean my head against Peeta’s shoulder. His arm goes around me automatically, and I feel like I’m back in the cave, curled up against him, trying to keep warm. His shirt is made of the same yellow material as my dress, but Portia’s put him in long black pants. No sandals, either, but a pair of sturdy black boots he keeps solidly planted on the stage. I wish Cinna had given me a similar outfit, I feel so vulnerable in this flimsy dress. But I guess that was the point.
Caesar Flickerman makes a few more jokes, and then it’s time for the show. This will last exactly three hours and is required viewing for all of Panem. As the lights dim and the seal appears on the screen, I realize I’m unprepared for this. I do not want to watch my twenty-two fellow tributes die. I saw enough of them die the first time.