R-i-i-i-p! I grit my teeth as Venia, a woman with aqua hair and gold tattoos above her eyebrows, yanks a strip of Fabric from my leg tearing out the hair beneath it. "Sorry!" she pipes in her silly Capitol accent. "You're just so hairy!"
Why do these people speak in such a high pitch? Why do their jaws barely open when they talk? Why do the ends of their sentences go up as if they're asking a question? Odd vowels, clipped words, and always a hiss on the letter s. no wonder it's impossible not to mimic them.
Venia makes what's supposed to be a sympathetic face. "Good news, though. This is the last one. Ready?" I get a grip on the edges of the table I'm seated on and nod. The final swathe of my leg hair is uprooted in a painful jerk.
I've been in the Remake Center for more than three hours and I still haven't met my stylist. Apparently he has no interest in seeing me until Venia and the other members of my prep team have addressed some obvious problems. This has included scrubbing down my body with a gritty loam that has removed not only dirt but at least three layers of skin, turning my nails into uniform shapes, and primarily, ridding my body of hair. My legs, arms, torso, underarms, and parts of my eyebrows have been stripped of the Muff, leaving me like a plucked bird, ready for roasting. I don't like it. My skin feels sore and tingling and intensely vulnerable. But I have kept my side of the bargain with Haymitch, and no objection has crossed my lips.
"You're doing very well," says some guy named Flavius. He gives his orange corkscrew locks a shake and applies a fresh coat of purple lipstick to his mouth. "If there's one thing we can't stand, it's a whiner. Grease her down!"
Venia and Octavia, a plump woman whose entire body has been dyed a pale shade of pea green, rub me down with a lotion that first stings but then soothes my raw skin. Then they pull me from the table, removing the thin robe I've been allowed to wear off and on. I stand there, completely naked, as the three circle me, wielding tweezers to remove any last bits of hair. I know I should be embarrassed, but they're so unlike people that I'm no more self-conscious than if a trio of oddly colored birds were pecking around my feet.
The three step back and admire their work. "Excellent! You almost look like a human being now!" says Flavius, and they all laugh.
I force my lips up into a smile to show how grateful I am. "Thank you," I say sweetly. "We don't have much cause to look nice in District Twelve."
This wins them over completely. "Of course, you don't, you poor darling!" says Octavia clasping her hands together in distress for me.
"But don't worry," says Venia. "By the time Cinna is through with you, you're going to be absolutely gorgeous!"
"We promise! You know, now that we've gotten rid of all the hair and filth, you're not horrible at all!" says Flavius encouragingly. "Let's call Cinna!"
They dart out of the room. It's hard to hate my prep team. They're such total idiots. And yet, in an odd way, I know they're sincerely trying to help me.
I look at the cold white walls and floor and resist the impulse to retrieve my robe. But this Cinna, my stylist, will surely make me remove it at once. Instead my hands go to my hairdo, the one area of my body my prep team had been told to leave alone. My fingers stroke the silky braids my mother so carefully arranged. My mother. I left her blue dress and shoes on the floor of my train car, never thinking about retrieving them, of trying to hold on to a piece of her, of home. Now I wish I had.
The door opens and a young man who must be Cinna enters. I'm taken aback by how normal he looks. Most of the stylists they interview on television are so dyed, stenciled, and surgically altered they're grotesque. But Cinna's close-cropped hair appears to be its natural shade of brown. He's in a simple black shirt and pants. The only concession to self-alteration seems to be metallic gold eyeliner that has been applied with a light hand. It brings out the flecks of gold in his green eyes. And, despite my disgust with the Capitol and their hideous fashions, I can't help thinking how attractive it looks.
"Hello, Katniss. I'm Cinna, your stylist," he says in a quiet voice somewhat lacking in the Capitol's affectations.
"Hello," I venture cautiously.
"Just give me a moment, all right?" he asks. He walks around my naked body, not touching me, but taking in every inch of it with his eyes. I resist the impulse to cross my arms over my chest. "Who did your hair?"
"My mother," I say.
"It's beautiful. Classic really. And in almost perfect balance with your profile. She has very clever fingers," he says.
I had expected someone flamboyant, someone older trying desperately to look young, someone who viewed me as a piece of meat to be prepared for a platter. Cinna has met none of these expectations.
"You're new, aren't you? I don't think I've seen you before," I say. Most of the stylists are familiar, constants in the ever-changing pool of tributes. Some have been around my whole life.
"Yes, this is my first year in the Games," says Cinna.
"So they gave you District Twelve," I say. Newcomers generally end up with us, the least desirable district.
"I asked for District Twelve," he says without further explanation. "Why don't you put on your robe and we'll have a chat."
Pulling on my robe, I follow him through a door into a sitting room. Two red couches face off over a low table. Three walls are blank, the fourth is entirely glass, providing a window to the city. I can see by the light that it must be around noon, although the sunny sky has turned overcast. Cinna invites me to sit on one of the couches and takes his place across from me. He presses a button on the side of the table. The top splits and from below rises a second tabletop that holds our lunch. Chicken and chunks of oranges cooked in a creamy sauce laid on a bed of pearly white grain, tiny green peas and onions, rolls shaped like flowers, and for dessert, a pudding the color of honey.
I try to imagine assembling this meal myself back home. Chickens are too expensive, but I could make do with a wild turkey. I'd need to shoot a second turkey to trade for an orange. Goat's milk would have to substitute for cream. We can grow peas in the garden. I'd have to get wild onions from the woods. I don't recognize the grain, our own tessera ration cooks down to an unattractive brown mush. Fancy rolls would mean another trade with the baker, perhaps for two or three squirrels. As for the pudding, I can't even guess what's in it. Days of hunting and gathering for this one meal and even then it would be a poor substitution for the Capitol version.
What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button? How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by? What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol, besides decorating their bodies and waiting around for a new shipment of tributes to roll in and die for their entertainment?
I look up and find Cinna's eyes trained on mine. "How despicable we must seem to you," he says.
Has he seen this in my face or somehow read my thoughts? He's right, though. The whole rotten lot of them is despicable.
"No matter," says Cinna. "So, Katniss, about your costume for the opening ceremonies. My partner, Portia, is the stylist for your fellow tribute, Peeta. And our current thought is to dress you in complementary costumes," says Cinna. "As you know, it's customary to reflect the flavor of the district."
For the opening ceremonies, you're supposed to wear something that suggests your district's principal industry. District 11, agriculture. District 4, fishing. District 3, factories. This means that coming from District 12, Peeta and I will be in some kind of coal miner's getup. Since the baggy miner's jumpsuits are not particularly becoming, our tributes usually end up in skimpy outfits and hats with headlamps. One year, our tributes were stark naked and covered in black powder to represent coal dust. It's always dreadful and does nothing to win favor with the crowd. I prepare myself for the worst.
"So, I'll be in a coal miner outfit?" I ask, hoping it won't be indecent.
"Not exactly. You see, Portia and I think that coal miner thing's very overdone. No one will remember you in that. And we both see it as our job to make the District Twelve tributes unforgettable," says Cinna.
I'll be naked for sure, I think.
"So rather than focus on the coal mining itself, we're going to focus on the coal," says Cinna. Naked and covered in black dust, I think. "And what do we do with coal? We burn it," says Cinna.
"You're not afraid of fire, are you, Katniss?" He sees my expression and grins.
A few hours later, I am dressed in what will either be the most sensational or the deadliest costume in the opening ceremonies. I'm in a simple black unitard that covers me from ankle to neck. Shiny leather boots lace up to my knees. But it's the fluttering cape made of streams of orange, yellow, and red and the matching headpiece that define this costume. Cinna plans to light them on fire just before our chariot rolls into the streets.
"It's not real flame, of course, just a little synthetic fire Portia and I came up with. You'll be perfectly safe," he says. But I'm not convinced I won't be perfectly barbecued by the time we reach the city's center.
My face is relatively clear of makeup, just a bit of highlighting here and there. My hair has been brushed out and then braided down my back in my usual style. "I want the audience to recognize you when you're in the arena," says Cinna dreamily. "Katniss, the girl who was on fire."
It crosses my mind that Cinna's calm and normal demeanor masks a complete madman.
Despite this morning's revelation about Peeta's character, I'm actually relieved when he shows up, dressed in an identical costume. He should know about fire, being a baker's son and all. His stylist, Portia, and her team accompany him in, and everyone is absolutely giddy with excitement over what a splash we'll make. Except Cinna. He just seems a bit weary as he accepts congratulations.
We're whisked down to the bottom level of the Remake Center, which is essentially a gigantic stable. The opening ceremonies are about to start. Pairs of tributes are being loaded into chariots pulled by teams of four horses. Ours are coal black. The animals are so well trained, no one even needs to guide their reins. Cinna and Portia direct us into the chariot and carefully arrange our body positions, the drape of our capes, before moving off to consult with each other.
"What do you think?" I whisper to Peeta. "About the fire?"
"I'll rip off your cape if you'll rip off mine," he says through gritted teeth.
"Deal," I say. Maybe, if we can get them off soon enough, we'll avoid the worst burns. It's bad though. They'll throw us into the arena no matter what condition we're in. "I know we promised Haymitch we'd do exactly what they said, but I don't think he considered this angle."
"Where is Haymitch, anyway? Isn't he supposed to protect us from this sort of thing?" says Peeta.
"With all that alcohol in him, it's probably not advisable to have him around an open flame," I say.
And suddenly we're both laughing. I guess we're both so nervous about the Games and more pressingly, petrified of being turned into human torches, we're not acting sensibly.
The opening music begins. It's easy to hear, blasted around the Capitol. Massive doors slide open revealing the crowd-lined streets. The ride lasts about twenty minutes and ends up at the City Circle, where they will welcome us, play the anthem, and escort us into the Training Center, which will be our home/prison until the Games begin.
The tributes from District 1 ride out in a chariot pulled by snow-white horses. They look so beautiful, spray-painted silver, in tasteful tunics glittering with jewels. District 1 makes luxury items for the Capitol. You can hear the roar of the crowd. They are always favorites.
District 2 gets into position to follow them. In no time at all, we are approaching the door and I can see that between the overcast sky and evening hour the light is turning gray. The tributes from District 11 are just rolling out when Cinna appears with a lighted torch. "Here we go then," he says, and before we can react he sets our capes on fire. I gasp, waiting for the heat, but there is only a faint tickling sensation. Cinna climbs up before us and ignites our headdresses. He lets out a sign of relief. "It works." Then he gently tucks a hand under my chin. "Remember, heads high. Smiles. They're going to love you!"
Cinna jumps off the chariot and has one last idea. He shouts something up at us, but the music drowns him out. He shouts again and gestures.
"What's he saying?" I ask Peeta. For the first time, I look at him and realize that ablaze with the fake flames, he is dazzling. And I must be, too.
"I think he said for us to hold hands," says Peeta. He grabs my right hand in his left, and we look to Cinna for confirmation. He nods and gives a thumbs-up, and that's the last thing I see before we enter the city.
The crowd's initial alarm at our appearance quickly changes to cheers and shouts of "District Twelve!" Every head is turned our way, pulling the focus from the three chariots ahead of us. At first, I'm frozen, but then I catch sight of us on a large television screen and am floored by how breathtaking we look. In the deepening twilight, the firelight illuminates our faces. We seem to be leaving a trail of fire off the flowing capes. Cinna was right about the minimal makeup, we both look more attractive but utterly recognizable.
Remember, heads high. Smiles. They're going to love you! I hear Cinna's voice in my head. I lift my chin a bit higher, put on my most winning smile, and wave with my free hand. I'm glad now I have Peeta to clutch for balance, he is so steady, solid as a rock. As I gain confidence, I actually blow a few kisses to the crowd. The people of the Capitol are going nuts, showering us with flowers, shouting our names, our first names, which they have bothered to find on the program.
The pounding music, the cheers, the admiration work their way into my blood, and I can't suppress my excitement. Cinna has given me a great advantage. No one will forget me. Not my look, not my name. Katniss. The girl who was on fire.
For the first time, I feel a flicker of hope rising up in me. Surely, there must be one sponsor willing to take me on! And with a little extra help, some food, the right weapon, why should I count myself out of the Games?
Someone throws me a red rose. I catch it, give it a delicate sniff, and blow a kiss back in the general direction of the giver. A hundred hands reach up to catch my kiss, as if it were a real and tangible thing.
"Katniss! Katniss!" I can hear my name being called from all sides. Everyone wants my kisses.
It's not until we enter the City Circle that I realize I must have completely stopped the circulation in Peeta's hand. That's how tightly I've been holding it. I look down at our linked fingers as I loosen my grasp, but he regains his grip on me. "No, don't let go of me," he says. The firelight flickers off his blue eyes. "Please. I might fall out of this thing."
"Okay," I say. So I keep holding on, but I can't help feeling strange about the way Cinna has linked us together. It's not really fair to present us as a team and then lock us into the arena to kill each other.
The twelve chariots fill the loop of the City Circle. On the buildings that surround the Circle, every window is packed with the most prestigious citizens of the Capitol. Our horses pull our chariot right up to President Snow's mansion, and we come to a halt. The music ends with a flourish.
The president, a small, thin man with paper-white hair, gives the official welcome from a balcony above us. It is traditional to cut away to the faces of the tributes during the speech. But I can see on the screen that we are getting way more than our share of airtime. The darker it becomes, the more difficult it is to take your eyes off our flickering. When the national anthem plays, they do make an effort to do a quick cut around to each pair of tributes, but the camera holds on the District 12 chariot as it parades around the circle one final time and disappears into the Training Center.
The doors have only just shut behind us when we're engulfed by the prep teams, who are nearly unintelligible as they babble out praise. As I glance around, I notice a lot of the other tributes are shooting us dirty looks, which confirms what I've suspected, we've literally outshone them all. Then Cinna and Portia are there, helping us down from the chariot, carefully removing our flaming capes and headdresses. Portia extinguishes them with some kind of spray from a canister.
I realize I'm still glued to Peeta and force my stiff fingers to open. We both massage our hands.
"Thanks for keeping hold of me. I was getting a little shaky there," says Peeta.
"It didn't show," I tell him. "I'm sure no one noticed."
"I'm sure they didn't notice anything but you. You should wear flames more often," he says. "They suit you." And then he gives me a smile that seems so genuinely sweet with just the right touch of shyness that unexpected warmth rushes through me.
A warning bell goes off in my head. Don't be so stupid. Peeta is planning how to kill you, I remind myself. He is luring you in to make you easy prey. The more likable he is, the more deadly he is.
But because two can play at this game, I stand on tiptoe and kiss his cheek. Right on his bruise.