“Good morning everyone!” Effie Trinket trilled as she entered the dining cart. “It’s only four days until President Snow’s party!”
Katniss Everdeen pressed her lips together. Oh great. The occasion where I find out if the butt kissing I’ve done has panned out. That’ll be great fun, she thought sarcastically.Effie and the stylists had been chattering about the event since the Victory Tour started nine days ago. They were obnoxiously excited; they’d never been invited to a soiree of this caliber. Katniss, on the other hand, had dreaded the affair ever since President Snow’s ominous visit to her home in the Victor’s Village.
Octavia clapped her hands. “Ooo! I can’t stand the excitement! This will be so fun!”
Katniss glanced at fellow Victor Peeta Mellark, who was seated to her left. His trademark shy smile sent warmth through her. She cleared her throat as she turned her attention back to the prep team. “Don’t you go to parties all the time?”
“We party like it’s our job, honey. But this one is the coveted invitation of the Capitol,” Flavius replied. “Only the highest beings in our society get invited to this party; it’s the only one worth going to, in my opinion. Anybody who’s noteworthy is there, including stylists for the Career Districts. Let’s just say as a stylist for your district, I didn’t get much respect from my colleagues.”
Katniss bit her lip. My district? That’s my home you’re talking about! My people are more than just a means for your own gain.
Peeta squeezed her hand reassuringly under the table.
“Now, now we mustn’t have any tension.” Effie interjected. “The focal point of the party is the Pearl Room, a gigantic ballroom with white marble floors. The food will be set out in buffets all around the room. The entrance has a grand staircase, where you all will descend onto the dance floor.”
Katniss didn’t know much about dancing apart from the little jigs done at weddings in District 12. But those paled in comparison to the Capitol’s lavish ones. Still, she hadn’t gotten used to being Panem’s It Girl.
“And what will we do on said floor?” Peeta asked.
“Dance, of course!” Flavius exclaimed. “Effie and I have choreographed a simple waltz for you to perform at the dinner. It was a personal request from President Snow himself.”
Not only does he want to murder me, he wants to embarrass me for all eternity. Why didn’t she announce this at the beginning of the tour? Then I’d have half a chance to make this look decent. Katniss nodded. “I see.”
Peeta smirked. “That’s…quite the honor.”
Flavius was not impressed with the couple’s sarcasm. “You all should be grateful! The President has fine taste and entrusted us to deliver the finest entertainment the Capitol has ever seen.”
If you mean tasting dead tributes’ blood, Katniss grumbled to herself.
“ANYWAY,” Effie continued, “Flavius and I will teach you the routine. I promise, it’s not that hard. A few turns and twirls, not unlike what you did in the dress Cinna designed last year. Then you travel across the floor a few times and you’re done!”
Katniss turned to Cinna, who had been observing the exchange. “Can’t you help teach me, then?”
Her stylist shook his head. “I would, girl on fire, but it’s not my forte. I know you can handle this. You’re a natural at the twirls.”
“It’ll be fun. I’m not that bad to look at, am I?” Peeta winked.
“No, no… of course you aren’t!” she sputtered.
Effie laughed. “All the girls in the Capitol want to be you, Katniss. You have Panem’s most handsome man and they’d kill to be your position.”
I don’t know if they’d like the president threatening their life in their own home, though. Katniss attempted to smile. “I am lucky in that regard.”
That answer seemed to satisfy Effie for the time being. “Wonderful! This room will be transformed into a makeshift dance floor after breakfast. Both of you need nicer footwear; I want you to practice in what you’ll be wearing that night.”
“Can’t I just use one of the pairs I’m wearing on the tour?”
“No, Katniss,” Octavia scoffed. This is the occasion of the century. You must wear the finest garments in all of Panem.”
Okay, I’m shutting up from now on. We’re not on the same wavelength about this party; I need to do everything they tell me without compliant.
After breakfast, Octavia, Venia and Effie brought their enormous suitcases to Katniss’s room. She’d never seen such large bags in her life. She could probably fit all her belongings in one and have plenty of room to spare. “You all brought quite a bit, didn’t you?”
“Trust me Katniss, you have a lot of options to choose from.” Effie said while unzipping hers. “We each brought at least 50 pairs of shoes.”
The victor raised her eyebrows. “I could be here all day then. Are these just practice shoes?”
Effie nodded. “They can be. If you like them enough, you can wear them at the party.”
For the next 10 minutes Katniss was barraged with shoes of every color, heel height, and texture from the Capitol. Each one was more outrageous than the next: zebra-striped platforms to imported animal hair heels, and neon orange stilettos. “Did you bring something a little more… simple?” Katniss asked. “Maybe not so elaborate?”
“Simple doesn’t exist in the Capitol, honey,” Octavia said. “Everyone wears shoes like these every day. But we’ll see what we can find.”
“How about these?” Venia held up a black pair with multiple crisscross straps on the front and a rose detail at the ankle.
Katniss bit her lip. She has to be joking. Roses symbolize President Snow. He’s the reason why most of Panem is so impoverished. I suppose he would like me to wear them, though. “I guess.”
Octavia squealed. “Yay! We got her to try something!”
Katniss chuckled nervously as she strapped the shoes on. Her feet felt confined; the straps and ankle dug into the skin and her toes were mushed by the narrow angle of the toe. I don’t think I like these. But I’ll stand up in them anyway. She did and the straps burrowed further into her skin like thorny vines.
“You’re not happy. I can tell,” Effie said.
Gah, how do these ladies even stand in these things, let alone parade across a room with them on? “Yeah. These are way too tight. Do you have something a little wider?”
“Then try these. They are made with gold from District 1,” Effie picked up a gold sparkled closed-toe pump.
Katniss sat down. “Wow, those are nice. I think I can handle those.”
Effie smiled wanly. “I was hoping you’d like them. Sometimes I forget what different worlds we come from and how silly people like me look to you.”
“It’s all you know, just like District 12 is all I’ve known before now. Neither one of us have gotten the unedited truth,” Katniss started strapping the shoes on.
“Still, I need to be more sensitive to how hard this tour is on you. I can’t imagine how much stress you must be under.”
The younger woman sighed. “I don’t have a choice. There’s no easy fix to a situation like this.”
“Then let’s think about something fun. You’ll like doing this, I promise. You’ll be close to Peeta. You like that, don’t you?”
Katniss nodded and flushed slightly. Unbeknownst to her, we’re already getting pretty close in the bedroom. “Of course I do. He’s a sturdy guy.”
Obnoxiously loud laughter sprouted from Venia and Octavia. “Oh Katniss you are a riot,” Venia said, wiping her eyes.
She laughed nervously and stood up. Surprisingly, she maintained her balance quite easily. She took a few steps forward. “What do you all think?”
Effie smiled brightly. “They look lovely on you, darling. But the most important question is: do you like them?”
“I do. Thank you Effie.”
“You’re quite welcome. Ready to waltz?”
Katniss shrugged. “Ready as I’ll ever be.”
“Nice heels,” Peeta remarked back in the main room. “I wouldn’t want to stand in those.”
Katniss chuckled dryly. “Be glad you don’t have to. Yours have them, too.”
He was wearing black leather lace-up shoes with a small heel. “Eh, they aren’t any worse than dress shoes I’ve worn before.” “Heels definitely help you stand up straighter, which will help you in this dance,” Effie chimed in. “Shoulders should be relaxed, back, and down.”
Katniss straightened her posture and relaxed her shoulders. “Wow, I’ve never felt so tall!”
Effie smiled. “Good. You look like a confident young lady.”
I certainly don’t feel like one.
“Now that we’ve got the posture down, let’s work on the frame,” Flavius said. “The frame is everything in the waltz. The ultimate goal is to look like you’re gliding across the floor and moving together in a simultaneous motion. Peeta, we’ll start with you. Raise your arms so they are parallel to the floor with your left arm pointing upwards.”
He did as instructed.
“Now you curve your right arm around, as if you were holding someone.”
“Okay,” Peeta replied, while positioning his arm.
“No, it’s not high enough. Your hand should rest under your partner’s shoulder blade. You’re the frame work, the support behind this dance.” “Here, I’ll help you,” Effie stood in front of him. “Take my hand in your own and place the other where he told you.”
Peeta squeezed her hand and positioned himself. “Let me know if I’m too close.”
Effie giggled. “Oh, you are just fine, darling. I’ve been touched there many times.”
The other stylists cackled as a flush showed through Effie’s bright blush. “Okay, time to learn the steps.”
“While she’s teaching him, I’ll show you the same thing,” Flavius said.
I’d rather learn with Peeta, but okay. As long as you don’t rub up against me. “What do I need to do?”
“Katniss, sweetie, I don’t bite. Your left hand should rest on my shoulder and your right should be laced with mine. It needs to be firm but not like you’re crushing your partner to death.”
She followed his instructions. Haymitch would be laughing his ass off if he saw me right now. Cameras are abundant on this train. Shit, what if the Capitol is broadcasting this live? Great, I get to make a fool of myself on national television. Not that I haven’t done that already. “How’s this?”
“A little farther down on the shoulder. It should look at rest, like it’s supposed to be there and this is the easiest thing in the world.”
Maybe for you it is. You’ve done this before. She slid her hand a little further down his arm. “How about now?”
“Good. Now we can move on to the steps. A waltz is in ¾ time, 3 beats to a measure. You’ll be moving on each beat. I’m going to take a step forward with my right leg. You take a step back with that same leg in response.”
“Just a normal step.” Flavius stepped forward and Katniss took a step back. “Good job! Now we’ll do the same thing with the other side.”
They did so. “Okay, now take a side step with me.”
She did. “How do you know this dance?”
“My parents put me in ballroom dance lessons when I was a kid. To be quite honest, I hated it at first. But it grew on me over time. Now I want you to do the lead step.”
“How does Effie know?” Katniss asked as she stepped.
Flavius smiled. “We were partnered together in our teens. She hated me at first, didn’t you Effie?”
Effie looked over as Peeta was turning her. “You were the most insufferable moron I’d ever met.”
“But you love me anyway, right?” He teased, as he and Katniss kept stepping.
Effie stuck her tongue out as Peeta turned her again. “That I do, young man.”
Katniss inwardly rolled her eyes and frowned. I want to hate you right now Peeta, but your earnest nature makes it impossible. You can pick up anything with little to no training.
“Don’t compare yourself to him, darling. You’ll get there, I promise.”
The training session continued until the group arrived in District 5. Katniss stepped on Flavius’s feet several times, apologizing profusely after each occurrence. He was patient and explained each element in terms she could understand. Still, she wished she could learn with Peeta, since they were the performers. The Victory Tour appearance went according to script. Both read Effie’s pre-written speeches, even though they were dreadfully boring.
“May I start doing the steps with Peeta?” Katniss asked after dinner.
“Of course” Effie replied. “I think you two know enough.”
“You can do this,” Peeta said. “I saw you practicing with Flavius. You’re underestimating yourself.”
She chuckled. “I don’t know about that.”
He offered his hand. “May I, my lady?”
“Yes.” She clasped it and they walked to the middle of the room. They positioned themselves in hold. He’s holding me in a completely different way than how he does at night. Still, I like this feeling. He won’t let me fall, not in this dance or in life.
Peeta took a step forward with his right foot. Katniss also stepped forward onto on his foot.
“Ah!” he grunted. “That hurt!”
She gasped. “I’m so sorry!”
“That’s okay,” he replied with a wan smile. “It’s a part of the process. Now, together?”
She smiled back. “Together.”
The couple went through part of the routine successfully. It was the best Katniss had done all day. The world disappeared when she danced with him. At least for a moment, the pressures from the Capitol didn’t exist. They were two teenagers who liked spending time together. I wish I could feel like this all the time.
After some more practice, everyone else went to bed. Katniss and Peeta remained at the chairs by the window, watching the scenery flash by.
“You enjoying this tour?” she asked.
He snorted. “What is there to enjoy? I hate it as much as you do. It’s hard to look at these families and say they made an honorable sacrifice when it’s actually meaningless murder.”
“What about the dance?”
“That I have enjoyed. It has reminded me why I liked you in the first place.”
“Really? Did you hate me after the games?”
Peeta didn’t answer for a minute. “Yes and no. Look at it from my perspective: the girl I’ve adored for years pays attention to me. Not only that, she acts like she feels the same. I’m ecstatic; I wished so badly you would give me the time of day. But I figured, no, she probably thinks I’m just some rich merchant boy who doesn’t care about those below him. Anyway, I’m led to believe this is real and true, then told it was all for show business.” He snorted. “I’m not going to lie Katniss, that hurt. That hurt a lot.”
He’s been holding this back for a long time, maybe he hasn’t even talked about it with anyone else. The lines in his dimples were visible and his lips were pressed together in a straight line. “I’m sorry doesn’t begin to describe the regret I feel about hurting you Peeta. I’ve beaten myself up to a bloody pulp mentally just thinking about it. You give so freely and that deserves to be respected.”
He sighed. “I’m trying to make peace with it. Otherwise I wouldn’t have offered to try being friends.”
“I really am sorry. But I’m not in a place where I can fully sort out what’s public and what’s real. There’s no time for that right now. The Capitol forced us into the Games and now this tour. Then we have to mentor two others and probably watch them die in the next Games. Not to mention all the unrest in the Districts we’ve heard bits and pieces of.”
He nodded. “We have to indulge in their charade so those we love can’t get hurt.”
She responded with a sigh.
Peeta frowned. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to guilt trip you. I know you’re well aware of what’s at…”
Katniss stopped his sentence with a kiss. “You’re right. It’s expected of us. I just wish we didn’t have to.”
He smiled knowingly. “I agree. However, we both know the consequences of not following their script all too well.”
“You don’t need to remind me,” she replied as images of the old man from District 11 being shot crept into her mind.
“You certainly don’t want to adhere to Effie’s plans most of the time.” He said
She smirked. “I actually find it a little funny to see her squirm.”
“That’s the face I like seeing. That smile’s creeping out, I know it!”
“Get out of here, Mellark!” She replied jokingly as her smiled revealed itself.
“Told you so.”
“You’re one of the few people that can get me to do that, you know.”
He shrugged. “I wish you would do it more often, Kat. You can capture a million hearts just with that one flash of pearls.”
Her face turned tomato red. She liked when he called her that. It felt like a term of endearment and brought a sense of normalcy into their relationship. “Now you’re just embarrassing me!”
“Isn’t that part of my job as your Victory Tour companion?”
Katniss chuckled again. “What am I going to do with you, Mellark?”
He grinned. “I could say the same thing about you, Everdeen.”
“Are you coming to bed tonight?”
“I thought that was the plan. Unless you don’t want me there anymore.”
Oh, I don’t think I could sleep without you again, now that I know how safe I feel in your arms. “If I didn’t, I would have told you already. So yes, you’re invited.”
“Invitation accepted. I’m going to take a shower and put on some pajamas. Meet you there in a little bit?”
She nodded. “Sounds like a plan. I’ll see you soon.”
Later, Katniss and Peeta were entangled in each other’s arms. Even in the soft moonlight she could see the innocence of his sleeping state: the clear and glowing skin, relaxed lips and hidden blue eyes. The circumstances make me forget we are only 16 years old. We’re supposed to have our whole lives ahead of us. Sadly, we’ve seen more tragedy than some do in a lifetime. The Capitol doesn’t care what trauma they inflict on the so-called ‘Victors’ and the families Tributes leave behind. Speaking to those families has been the hardest part of this process. They’re probably thinking “You’re here because my child is dead. I don’t care what you say.” It’s more than understandable, though. I’d feel the same if something had happened to Prim.
We both know the consequences of not following their script all too well, Peeta’s words repeated in her mind. So what if life hadn’t followed this script, if neither of us had been reaped into the Games? Would we have gotten the guts to talk to one another? It’s hard to say; we only saw each other during school for the most part. Why am I even wondering about this? This is our situation and we have to navigate through it the best we can. And I must admit, being in his arms is heavenly. She sighed contentedly, hearing his heart beat through his chest.That rhythm, paired with his steady breathing lulled her to sleep.
The tour went on as planned, with appearances in District 4, 3, 2 and 1. The Victors continued reading the speeches prepared for them, even though neither really believed in what they were saying. District 3’s crowd was particularly hostile towards Katniss, hurling insults like “Capital whore” and “President Snow’s bitch.” District 1 was also unnerving for Katniss, since she killed both of their tributes, Glimmer and Marvel.
In the meantime, Effie and Flavius continued working with the couple on the waltz routine. Katniss gradually got more comfortable as she went through the motions with Peeta. Whenever she was unsure of the steps, she would look at him and remember he would never steer her wrong. Peeta would smile back and encourage her. He’s so loving and giving. I wish I could give back even an ounce of what he’s given me. Katniss and Peeta continued practicing when everyone else had gone to bed. By the third night, Katniss felt pretty confident in regards to the dance.
The train arrived at the Capitol the day before the party. Katniss was immediately whisked away for a wardrobe and makeup prep day. First, the team remade her into Beauty Base Zero; she’d been through the process so many times that it didn’t bother her anymore. Even slightly liked it if she was being honest with herself. Dresses came next. Cinna had designed five different elegant garments that hung on a rack for her consideration. Each had an understated glamour, unlike many of the outrageous designs Capitol citizens favored. Katniss chose a one shoulder royal purple ball gown with a tulle skirt that swirled around effortlessly. Octavia added a gold beaded belt for some added pizazz. Last stop was makeup and hair. Octavia and Venia had a hay day playing with Katniss’s hair and painting her face with makeup. By the third removal and application, she tired of the process and tried her best to conceal her frustration.
Dinner that night consisted of Effie running down the next day’s itinerary. She had it planned down to the millisecond. No one does this back home; it’s ridiculous. We’re trying to survive from one minute to the next so we can’t think like that. I wish I could run into the woods to clear my head. I could take a walk on the Capitol streets but everyone would recognize me and want to talk continuously. That’s the last thing I want right now.
Finally everyone left the dining room, leaving Peeta and Katniss to their own devices. He motioned towards the floor to ceiling window. “Hey, look outside.”
She did and noticed a radiant muted orange sunset over the Capitol skyline. “That’s beautiful. Is that the kind of color you were talking about on the train?”
He smiled. “It is, in fact. You want to take a closer look at it?”
“Where would we?”
“There’s a patio on the roof. I found it as I was exploring this place last year.”
She nodded. “Okay. Let’s go.”
The duo arrived on the patio a few minutes later. The sun was shining still, although a little lower in the sky now. They found a seat swing for two people in the middle and sat down.
“What’s wrong?” Peeta asked after a few minutes of silence. “You’re awfully quiet tonight.”
She groaned. “I feel smothered by all the nonsense. Octavia redid my eye makeup three times today. It was only a practice run for the party! I wanted to strangle her after the third time.”
He grasped her hand. “Kat, this isn’t our life. It’s pageantry to distract everyone from the important issues. We represent District 12, not the Capitol. We’re here to give a voice to those who don’t have one here. For the miners who risk their lives daily to supply these luxuries, for the families like yours who are barely scraping by. We give them hope, Kat. Our district hasn’t had anything to root for since Panem’s inception. Since we’re in the so called ‘inner circle’ now, they think maybe we can bring about positive change for our constituents.”
I hate you, Peeta Mellark. You give such thoughtful and eloquent answers that I can’t fathom a worthy response. “How do you do that?”
“You have such an admirable command of language. You floor me with your words, whether it’s towards me or the nation.”
Peeta shrugged. “It’s as natural to me as hunting is to you. Certain skills get ingrained into your being and are impossible to forget.”
“Still, it’s amazing. You could tell the Capitol to stage an uprising and they’d probably follow you.”
“You’re venturing into dangerous territory now, Kat. People might get ideas.”
“It’s not like they haven’t already.” Katniss replied sardonically.
“Right. But you get the point, don’t you?”
She smiled. “Yes. I’m happy you’re here with me, Peeta. You put this madness in perspective.”
Peeta kissed her hand. “Happy to be here with you. You make this process more bearable for me, too. I’m just as aghast at the tomfoolery as you are.”
“You’re simply more skilled at hiding your feelings.”
He nodded. “Unfortunately, I’ve had to for much of my life. But I feel like I can be me around you, Kat. You don’t hold my shortcomings against me or intentionally use me for your own gain. I’m not counting the first Games because we were trying to stay alive.”
“We all have shortcomings and make mistakes, Peeta. The key is learning how to deal with the aftermath. Can’t say I have learned, considering the mess I’ve got us in.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. Most of Panem’s circumstances aren’t exactly conducive to success. I’ve heard rumblings from people in the bakery over the years but no one had the guts to act. Well, we gave them a reason to.”
“Now you sound like Gale,” she said. “He’s talked about an uprising for years.”
Peeta flinched. “I’d like to believe it could be solved diplomatically. But war is the only way anything will change. Besides, President Snow doesn’t seem like the reasoning type.”
Katniss chuckled. “You nailed him right on the head, Peeta.
He clutched her hand a little tighter. “But I can promise you this: no matter what happens after this tour, I will always care for you. Whether we don’t find lasting love with one another or if one of us dies in an act of defiance against the Capitol…I have a special place reserved for you, Katniss Everdeen.”
Tears brimmed Katniss’s eyes. “And I for you Peeta Mellark. You’re my safe haven amongst the chaos. I feel so supported by you, both in the dance and overall. I hope you feel the same. You give me hope that something good can come from this mess.”
“Hopefully we’ll live to see those developments. And I do feel the same. You’re a hidden gem, Katniss. You’re rough on the edges at first, but once someone gets into the depths of your being, there’s a love that can give like no other. Whoever has your affections has a priceless gift.”
You certainly do, Peeta Mellark. You root yourself in my heart with each passing day. She simply smiled and laid her head on his shoulder.
After some time had passed, he stretched and yawned. “Don’t you think we should get to bed? We have a big show tomorrow.”
Katniss sighed. “I suppose. Although no amount of sleep will prepare me for President Snow.”
“I’ll make sure you’re safe, Kat.” He extended his hand. “Shall we retire to our chamber?”
She stood up. “I hope the second part of that statement was sarcastic.”
Peeta smirked as their hands interlocked. “Of course it was. I had to take a jab at the Capitol. If we couldn’t find any humor in this situation, we’d go mad.”
She chuckled as well. “True enough.”
The next day was a whirlwind. The Victors Interview with Caesar Flickerman was first on the agenda. The couple mainly recapped where they had gone on the Victory Tour and what the reception was like. Katniss left out District 3’s remarks to keep the peace. Then they had to change clothes and attend a luncheon with Capitol dignitaries. President Snow was notably absent. Effie said they would see him at the dinner. The afternoon consisted of more schmoozing and a final rehearsal of the waltz routine. Effie and Flavius were impressed with their progress and thought it would make a fine performance.
Back at the Training Center, the style team prepped Katniss’s hair and makeup. She slipped into the dress she picked out the previous day; it was even more comfortable that she remembered. Effie was thrilled with the finished look. “You’ll be the belle of the ball!” she had exclaimed.
The party started around 7 p.m. Effie escorted them around Snow’s mansion while describing the décor and pointing out every notable socialite and dignitary. The food was laid out in buffets all around the ballroom. Katniss and Peeta vowed to try everything in sight, but got full after five tables. Flavius offered them a pink liquid designed to regurgitate what had been consumed, but Peeta politely refused. He led her to the top of the staircase where they would make their entrance.
“Just so you know, you look lovely tonight,” Peeta whispered in her ear.
Katniss smiled earnestly. “Oh, thank you. You look good, too.” He was wearing a black suit coat with gold trimming to match her shoes and beading paired with leather pants. “We’re the best dressed tonight, don’t you think?”
Peeta nodded. “By a landslide. Gosh, some of these outfits make my inner designer cringe.”
“They aren’t even a fraction of how good your cakes look.” “I’ll have to make you one when we get back home. People say I’m the best baker in the country.”
“I’d vouch for that, but I’d have to taste it first!”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Caesar Flickerman’s booming voice interrupted them. “Introducing Panem’s beloved star-crossed lovers, Peeta Mellark and Katniss Everdeen!”
Two Avox servants opened the gates. Roars of applause greeted the couple as they descended down the stairs. Guests were dressed in their most garish finery and a few lightly touched both her and Peeta to get a piece of the Panem’s It Couple.
The couple walked to the middle of the floor. “Look at me the entire time. Don’t worry about them. This moment is for us,” Peeta whispered.
“I hope you enjoy this, too.” She replied.
Peeta grinned and kissed her forehead. “Of course I will. I have the finest woman in all of Panem in my arms. What’s not to love about that?”
Katniss blushed. “And I have the most handsome one leading me in this dance.”
The opening notes of a soothing song started playing. Peeta posed in the beginning stance. “Together?”
Her hand met his. “Together.”